Finite Gods

Just how many gods are there, anyway? Well, that’s not really a fair question. For one thing, do I mean “real gods” or gods that people believe in? Do I mean “believe in” or made up? Do I mean “made up” or intentionally fabricated? And the nesting questions could go on and on. Over the years in my professional capacity as an erstwhile teacher, I accumulated books listing the deities of various cultures with brief descriptions. I once even argued that using “god/goddess of” (the divine-genitival construct) as a phrase distorted ancient concepts of divinity. The fact is people have believed in many gods in many different ways. As modern scholars of religion we’ve only begun to reach the heavens (or underworld, or anywhere in between, for deities may be found anywhere). This issue comes to mind because a friend recently shared a story from IFL Science about a new Etruscan goddess. The piece by Ben Taub mentions a stone recovered from Poggio Colla, a site in Italy, written in Etruscan. The stone seems to mention a new “fertility cult” goddess. And once again religion and science have met, but not quite kissed each other.

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the Etruscans. Before the Romans, Etruscans lived in Italy, giving Tuscany its name. We know very little about them, as their language (Etruscan) is rarely found and imperfectly understood. Some of the classical gods may go back to Etruscan originals, and the Etruscans seem to have known of at least some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, or ancient West Asia. We have no idea how many deities the Etruscans recognized. Polytheism, for all its heathenish exuberance, never had a problem with adding more gods. Interestingly, the “new” goddess mentioned here, Uni, is someone I used to talk about in my Rutgers classes on ancient Near Eastern religion some five-plus years ago. Pardon my crowing—I seldom get to suggest I was ahead of my time.

What really interests me here is that websites that advocate science still take an interest in religion. Although belief is relegated to inferior minds (generally) science does admit, from time to time, that it’s interesting. The study of religion, in at least some schools, is a scientific enterprise. No, we don’t put gods under microscopes (telescopes might be more useful) but we use the same techniques as empirical studies of nature use in order to try to draw some conclusions about religion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on the planet are believers, higher education has consistently under-funded or disbanded departments who apply rational thought to religion. We suppose that someone else can pick it up and study it, coming to useful conclusions without putting in all the homework. Don’t mind me, though. I’m just basking in the light of having known about Uni years before she was discovered.

4 responses to “Finite Gods

  1. “Please, sir. Why must we believe this?”

    “Because some patriarch who lived hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years ago in a highly insular culture was given divine authority. We have a translation of a translation of an oral history of exactly what he said.”

    “I see, sir. Sir?”

    “Yes…?”

    “If I were God, I would edit Wikipedia so that everyone knew what to believe.”

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  2. I’ve always thought historians and archaeologists and religious scholars like you all used scientific methods of empiricism and logic. E.g., textual critics take so much care that their theories remain coherent and consistent with the evidence. Other sciences can use mathematics and experiments as checks to tell them when they made a mistake—no such recourse for the historian (in this way, they resemble computer scientists before analog computers were invented: even short programs written in the old papers have bugs in them, since there were no computers to run them on).

    But this blog post was the first that made me think that religious scholars (or at least, the Steve Wiggins’s 🤗) might not see themselves as engaging in scientific endeavors?

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    • That’s true–the method that biblical scholars use is based on the same principles as the scientific method. In fact, some biblical journals are titled (in German) with the word “Wissenschaft” (“science”). What this means is the method is scientific, even if the contents are not. This is beginning to change as postmodernism becomes more normative, but without some kind of empirical grounding, biblical scholarship is little more than people giving their opinions.

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