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Acadia University

A brief Arrangement and Description

Of the Mainstreams

In Ancient Greek and Other Religions


Frederick Christopher Bouter

Classics 3213. Ancient Greek Religion, Mon./Wed. 4:00-5:30 p.m.

Peter Booth, Ph.D.

November 1982

It is the ancient Greeks who said "Know yourself." But their quest for knowledge and wisdom was so extensive that they might just as well have said "Know everything." Their philosophical enquiries were concerned with almost anything in the universe. In this paper we want to take a look at their theology, and how they arrived at it. Also we will consider briefly what the consequences of somebody's theology were in daily life. We will do this however in the background off all religions from all over the world. The advantage of such a broad comparative study is that one can make an attempt to know the various psychological needs that motivates religious, a-religious, and anti-religious people all over the globe. The last two are included because one could term the attitudes of atheists and agnostics as theological as well, but then with the broad meaning of "having to do with God." Another windfall of such an investigation may be to find out in what respects different religions have proved wanting, and in how far the anti-, or a-religious have been wrong or right to denounce the beliefs of the religious. Of course we cannot even hope to do this satisfactorily in such a little term paper as the present one. But what we do claim to have done is to come up with a way to divide all religions adequately into categories. The basic premises of such a conclusive categorizing are the roles of God and matter. On basis of the relationship between these two we have given every major (ancient) belief a place in the chart on page 2.

Of course it is far from complete, and only serves to give a quick sweep of religions all over this planet. Most of the time there is much interaction between persuasions. It is therefore not always clear what the salient features are. Of course it must be realized as well that only a few dimensions have been worked into the chart. For instance the problem of good and evil is not dealt with directly. Yet, many other aspects of people's beliefs are closely connected to the ones of the above given schema. We want to stress the point that the idea for the schema is entirely our own, although it is certainly possible that others have come up with similar attempts. Here follows a brief illumination of the nomenclature.

Extreme idealism is the view that reality is illusory. Everything exists as spirit, consciousness, or mind.

Panpsychism can be equated with this.

Acosmic (without world) pantheism is an extremely idealistic pantheism.

Relativistic monistic pantheism stresses the absoluteness of God as the one principle permeating the relative world.

Absolutistic monistic pantheism however makes the world absolute, and identifies God with it.

Immanentistic pantheism sees God as a part of the material world, yet his mind-power as penetrating the whole of it.

Hylozoistic pantheism is pluralistic in that it envisages God as a divine basic element actuating the pluralistic totality of all separate elements.

Dualism holds that reality consists of two independent principles, idealism and materialism, mind and matter, good and evil.

Identity of opposites pantheism holds that the reality of God and world can only be intuitively approached with concepts that are contradictory, that is transcendence/ immanence, absoluteness/ relativity, etc. Reality is beyond our rational understanding.

Panentheism is the vision that the world lies in God, and that God is more than just the material world. It sees him as dipolar, running the gamut of all shades between the opposite principles of cause and effect, eternal and temporal, etc. Neoplatonic or emanationistic pantheism is theology that sees an absolute God that in changeless perfection co-exists with a perfectly divine but relative and changing World-Soul.

The world is an emanation of God. These concepts were a dualistic attempt to bridge the gaps between the opposing concepts. Plato, the forerunner of Neoplatonism, later on, in the tenth book of the laws, revises this view, and combines the absolute God and the World-Soul, saying, by analogy, that a circular motion changes around a fixed center. In that view he may be called a quasi-panentheist. In some ways however does Plato come quite close to theism.

Classical Theism, which is difficult to distinguish from the Neoplatonic view, differs from it in that it does not have the World-Soul. God is absolute, eternal, first cause (rather than emanationistic), pure actuality, omniscient, omnipotent, and perfect. Aristotle, who anticipated Classical Theism, shifted towards a dualistic deistic view, in which matter is eternal.

Theism is the belief in God as an absolute, transcendent, almighty, morally good Being, who created the whole universe, and whose finite creatures are dependent on Him, and have a moral obligation towards His person, which is revealed.

Henotheism is the belief in one supreme God without denying the importance of other deities, for example Zeus among the other Olympians.

Monolatry is its worship.

Kathenotheism is the belief in one god at a time.

Animism is the belief in many spirits. It can go hand in hand with pantheism, and seems to be an intermediate group.

Extreme Materialism is the opposite of extreme Idealism.

Deism is the belief in God, theistic or pantheistic, as not occupied with the problems of evil, or as incapable to deal with these. Three subdivisions result.

These in short are the religious streams that water earthly man. One may well wonder whence such a diversity is. At any rate it is because people have taken rationalistic or emotional stances at different aspects of reality, and got bogged down in them.

Our second chart pretends to a rough idea of the various possible interactions between religious ideas, coupled with chronology. The strange paradox we see is that today humanists and ecumenicalists are trying hard to unite the world, whereas at the same time more and more cults arise.

Our third chart gives a closer look at the Greek world.

After Hesiod, who had given the genealogy of the gods, it became the general trend to attempt to explain reality rationally. The philosophers were occupied with many things, but by and large a main characteristic comes to the foreground. The first important direction is to explain the world as having developed upon the basis of a single element. The notion behind it is virtually identical with modern evolutionistic theories, which, along with the primeval soup and generating lightning as of Hesiod and Anaximander, claim that life after autobiogenesis (spontaneous generation of life) has evolved from a single cell. The element of the Greek philosophers only was simpler, namely Water, then Air, Earth, and finally Fire. Empedocles combined them all. In the meantime however a problem had originated. Heraclitus had described the world as constantly changing, but Parmenides contended that that was an illusion. According to him change and motion can be equated with 'being' becoming 'non-being'. Motion requires empty space, but since empty is non-being, and since non-being does and cannot exist, movement is an impossibility. He and particularly his disciple Zeno presented their case so well that other philosophers could not ignore the issue. In fact even up till today a universally accepted refutation does not exist. That is why Democritus came up with his Atomic Theory, according to which matter consists of very small indivisible particles moving through void. This caused an other difficulty however. Although he claimed that the mind, or soul consists of the finest particles, the consequence that the consciousness of matter is then also matter, was not generally accepted. Other concepts had to be found.

Pythagoras now had come up with the concept that reality was governed by a law of numbers, as distinguished from an element. Heraclitus and Empedocles built upon that idea with their ruling principles of Logos, and Love/Hate. Anaxagoras improved upon this with his concept of NOUS, an administering mind that permeates the world. Plato, in a strong reaction to Democritus, came up with his theory of Ideas. Life is just a changing picture of the real reality of the Ideas. Aristotle improved upon that with his concept of a transcendent, absolute God, and the concept of an atomic substratum, for instance evaporating water is still water, it is only in another state.

The Stoics were basically materialists. Their World-Soul was a sublime form of fine matter. The Epicureans were a kind of polydeistic materialists, 'The gods don't meddle.' The Skeptics were a school of agnostics. This in short is the development of Greek philosophy. In fact however the study is far more complicated. So far we have dealt with only two dimensions, God(s) and/or matter. About the latter we only want to say that it has proven to be so complex in structure that it is a contradictio in terminis to say that matter is eternal, and that life evolved out of it. On basis of that we pose the concept of a Creatio ex Illo Ipsissimo, which is revealed in His Logos (John1)! Unfortunately we cannot enter upon that here.

Other dimensions connected to the two above mentioned are the opposite concepts of freedom/determinism, temporal/eternal, relativity/absoluteness, finiteness/infinity. The latter pair is related to Zeno's problem of the arrow that never reaches its goal, and Achilles who cannot win the race with the tortoise. The simple solution is to accept that the finite exists on basis of the infinite small and the infinite big. The world could be a billion times bigger, or smaller. It's all relative to the two infinitudes of big and small. The concepts of finiteness and infinity are inseparably connected.

This does not mean that God is dipolar as in Panentheism .No, we are just on the one end and God on the other. In this context the problem of freedom and determinism must be discussed, and of freewill. Actually the only problem is that so-called philosophers throughout time have made it a problem. The Lord said that if we remain in His Word, it will make us free (John 8:31-2). Now, what better freedom is there but to do exactly what the omniscient God wants us to do? For He knows best what will make us happy!

Moreover the word freewill is made up of two contradictory concepts. We are free to choose between either good or evil; our will is the determination to do either. People however use the word in a sense independent of God. But it is impossible to separate the finite creature from the infinite God. Without Him we are absolutely nothing. And here we get at the root of the problem, man's will has become to do that which God does not want, and which is in fact detrimental to himself. Man is not free any more because of that inclination to disobey God. The real problem is a moral one, one of sin; not of freedom versus determinism. To choose to listen to God's advise is real freedom, to reject Him is bondage. There is no such thing as a freedom to do good or evil as we please. But that is what we as sinners want, and therefore have we not solved the dilemma. To hang on to our freedom, to be gods unto ourselves, there was only one solution, and that is to drag God down from His throne, to make Him finite to our wishes.

That is the whole problem, which was solved by God through the offering of His son, whom we have to accept as our Saviour. Then all things fall in their proper place. His determinism is our freedom, His eternality is our now, His absoluteness is our relativity, His infinity is our finiteness. No better union is conceivable, but in such a way to grow in, for, with, and up to Him.

As to other mistakes of the main religions. Their failure lies in here that they have overaccentuated specific sides of God's reality, to the detriment of other aspects. However we are aware that we are enjoying God's revelation. The Greeks, who lived in the times of ignorance (Acts 17.30), deserve our respect for the educated guesses they came up with. Because of this overemphasizing, more by the one less by the other; in a way they are all right, yet they are all wrong. God's power sustains all things (Hebr. 1.3), and all things subsist together because of His power (Col. 1.16b, 17). In this respect Pantheism is right, but wrong in restricting God too much. God is spirit, and so are we. Thus far reality is idealistic, but it is more than that. We find matter everywhere in the universe, and our own bodies are made of the 'dust' of this earth. Yes indeed we are materialistic, but more than that. There is good and evil all around us. In that way reality is dualistic. But the phrase as it is used is too absolute. And in this way we can keep going on. We personally would like to call the little drawing on page 2 the Diamond of Knowledge. Let's just erase all these overly pregnant names with which it has been deprived of its luster, and forget the emotions with which different people have handled it. And a jewel of extreme brilliance is left, which God had handed us so long ago…

As we said earlier, other dimensions are related to the basic ones of schema 1. Here follow five of them. Good/Evil, Eternal/Temporal, Communal/Individual, Determinism/Freedom and Sacred/ Secular. Persons' ethics in daily behavior are directly tied in to these. For example, the more materialistic one's outlook is, the more the temporal will be stressed, good and evil becomes a hollow phrase, sacramental is a laughing matter, the individual pleasures are pursued as the highest good. Glory to man in the highest! Epicureanism has the seeds for such an egocentricism. Although it must be said that because of some more sophisticated influence this philosophy was meant to be ascetic.

On the other hand the Idealist tends to despise the temporal, and the individual body. Socrates and Plato can serve as examples. Some other strange things happen at the two extreme ends. A Materialist sometimes considers himself a freethinker. If he uses his brains at all, however, he becomes a fatalist or believes in an extreme form of determinism. Something similar can happen to the Idealist. The true balance between the two is at the top.

To remember these five dimensions we invented the following mnemonic.

Good/Evil: thumb; strong worker with other 4 concepts.

Eternal/Temporal: index finger; pointing to eternity.

Communal/Individual: middle finger; one among others.

Determinism/Freedom: ring finger; sense of weakness, humbleness, underdeveloped, needs training.

Sacred/Secular: little finger; keep it little, do not exaggerate it either way. Nothing in excess!

"For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the Love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord!" (Rom. 8.38,9).


Darby, John Nelson. "Freewill". The Bible Treasury, Vol. N5, pp. 123ff.

Encyclopedia Britannica.

Hartneck, Justus. History of Philosophy. Odense: University Press, 1976.

Kirk, G. S., and J. E. Raven. The presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge: University Press, 1980

Storig, Hans Joachim. Geschiedenis van de Filosofie, Utrecht: Het Spectrum, 1979.

The apostle Paul: "Let nobody deceive himself, if somebody thinks he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise (1 Cor. 3.18)!"


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