Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction


February 15th, 2017 by Patrick Henry

Romans were notoriously superstitious.  They sought for auguries and omens.  By our lights, the result should have been poverty and failure.  On the contrary–they rolled.

We shouldn’t discount supernatural explanations.   We don’t know that we know everything there is to know about the supernatural world.  But even in what we do know, there are devils and angels.  There is no particular reason to think that God or his messengers couldn’t answer sincere petitions for guidance in the form of omens or superstitions.  The Old Testament is full of them.  It may be something in the mindset of the time.

There are also secular reasons for it.  It’s well known that the rational thing to do in a game of chicken is to flinch.  So the winning strategy–the even more rational strategy–is to act so irrationally that your opponent is convinced that you will not flinch.  The easiest way to do that is to actually be irrational.  “Throw your steering wheel out the door.”

Games are something like simulations of warfare.  So are politics and business.  Is it a coincidence that politics, business, and warfare were what the superstitious Romans were good at?

In competition, predictability is bad.  If the only way to know for sure when and by what route a legion will march is to know for sure what particular birds will be flying in what directions–or how the entrails of a ram will be shaped–the no one knows for sure.

Is God unpredictable to us merely because His mind is higher than ours, or is it partly deliberate?

Perhaps our natural man believes it is in a competition with Him.

Comments (14)
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February 15th, 2017 22:14:40

Bruce Charlton
February 16, 2017

I think the first explanation – that divination really worked – is the only one that holds-up overall.

Jeremy Naydler has written deeply on this theme – especially in The Future of the Ancient World.

He relates it to the evolution of consciousness – in a nutshell divination worked then and was right for that time – a time in which the gods were still accessible to human perception but only by specific persons using specific techniques – but divination does not work so well now; and anyway is not right for our time.

(e.g. We are now meant to make a personal moral judgment on actions – and nowadays we are not permitted, indeed it would be wrong, for us to assign moral responsibility for our actions to the necessity to obey the results of divination processes.)

The idea of a rational irrationality is unconvincing, and requires to specific an application and a lot of modern assumptions. After all the other thing that the Romans excelled at was engineering, including building – which is all about predictability.

They were very ordered – in general; armed and trained all their legionaries the same, their forts always had the same design etc. They weren’t strategically irrational – I assume they used divination because they believed it was proper and expedient to consult the gods – and (done properly, usually) it worked.

Andrew M.
February 16, 2017

It’s bad luck to be superstitious.

February 16, 2017

In practice, I suspect most superstition is benign. I have noticed people looking at astrology or tarot, for instance, if what they see is something they know they need to worry about, then it reinforces it, and if it is just out in left field, then they just shrug it off and move on. So, while you might expect random mix of good and bad, in practice people get more out of it than that. So, I am not convinced it is as irrational in practice as it is in theory.

Also, magic and superstition are really loaded words. Anciently, they didn’t have the same concept of magic. If you wanted to do Jewish Magic, then you studied the scriptures and Jewish books like the Sepher Yetzirah. It was inseparable from religion. Likewise, if you wanted ‘magic’, you had to get power from dieties like Hectate. In other words, the witches of the Old Testament were indistinguishable from idolaters.

Casting lots was used to make important decisions, such as calling an apostle in the NT. And the decision in the beginning of the Book of Mormon for Laman to talk to Laban. That decision was clearly inspired.

The Lord is all things to all people and he works in diverse ways.

Likewise, Nero had a dream three days before he died, where he stood at the throne of Jupiter and Jupiter kicked him with his little toe down to the earth. I believe that that dream was inspired, and the Lord appeared as Jupiter, because that is how Nero would have understood it.

There is nothing wrong with a useful approximation, as long as you don’t mistake it for reality. 3.14159 works good for pi, but I know it isn’t the real thing.

Ivan Wolfe
February 16, 2017

In an interview, science fiction/fantasy author Gene Wolfe stated that the ancient gods were real.

Since he is a devout and quite orthodox Catholic believer (also, he converted as an adult), this seemed odd to me. I did a lot of research to figure out what he meant, since he didn’t elaborate.

I found another interview where he was talking about his fiction and he stated “I’m assuming that the gods actually exist and are there, although from a Christian perspective they should not be worshipped. But on the other hand it’s foolish to think that they’re not there, because they are.” Now, technically, that statement was referring to the world of the book he was discussing, but lining it up with other hints he gave, it seems clear he believes the ancient gods really did exist. What manner of beings he thinks they were is a bit unclear, but my best guess is he saw them as demons/fallen angels messing with humans for their own amusement.

I’m not sure how Mormonism would deal with the ancient gods being “real” in some sense (including a physical sense, since they could manipulate the physical world), but I’m sure there’s more to the universe than is imagined in our metaphysics.

JRR Tolkien
February 16, 2017

God is the Lord, of angels, and of men — and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

February 16, 2017

For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,)

But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.

Ivan Wolfe
February 16, 2017

Found the original quote from Wolfe that set me off:
“I think that the gods of paganism were real . . . If we read modern historians we are reading a very rationalistic viewpoint of this which says that all of these people were absolutely wasting their time by building temples to Ares or Apollo or you name it. And by offering sacrifices in worship and all that it was nothing there. Nothing at all there and that whether it is true or not that certainly is not the way the people who were doing it felt. They were convinced that there was something there and they had all sorts of legends and so forth about the appearances of the god and in fact there is one place in the Acts where Paul and another one of the apostles are mistaken for Zeus and Mercury. Zeus and Hermes, we are mixing the Latin and the Greek which is what I was trying to get away from. They are mistaken for Zeus and Hermes in human form because people in those days expected that you could see Zeus and Hermes in human form. I am not so sure they were wrong. I am not convinced that they were wrong. We love to think how much smarter we are than people of ancient times or biblical times or so forth but I am very dubious about that.”


Ivan Wolfe
February 16, 2017

As for that quote from “Paul” – here’s some more:

“What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.”

From NT Wright:
“As a result, also, Paul found himself analyzing pagan worship partly in terms of its nonsensical character and partly in terms of something much darker. 95 As we noticed a moment ago when discussing the redefined ‘battle’, Paul was anxious both to say that idols had no real existence and that idol-temples were the sort of place where daimons were effectively invoked, creatures that could wield real, if limited, power. These two views should not be played off against one another, as though they were obviously inconsistent and Paul was oscillating between two conflicting positions. 96 He was clear about Zeus, Athene, Mars, Aphrodite and the rest: they didn’t exist. But people who worshipped these ‘gods many and lords many’ were in fact, he claimed, summoning up spiritual forces, agents of the dark power he calls ‘the satan’. These beings, though not themselves anything like the great and lofty Olympians imagined by mainstream paganism, were none the less potent and dangerous. This world of petty but dangerous daimons was an altogether murkier place than the outwardly noble vision of the classical divinities (not that Olympus itself was exactly straightforward or clean-living): the daimons were, so to speak, grubby backstreet swindlers hiding out in the grand, empty palaces vacated by their imaginary superiors, and reliant on humans to give them such power as they still possess against the day when their abolition, already announced in the gospel, would be made complete.”

Wright, N. T.. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4) (Kindle Locations 11284-11295). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

February 16, 2017

It’s pretty clear the ancient Christians thought the pagan gods were real and devilish. C.S. Lewis seems to be trying to talk himself into believing that they were real and quasi-angelic.

Joseph Smith, jr
February 16, 2017

Paul, if Joseph Smith is a blasphemer, you are. I say there are Gods many and Lords many, but to us only one, and we are to be in subjection to that one, and no man can limit the bounds or the eternal existence of eternal time. Hath he beheld the eternal world, and is he authorized to say that there is only one God? He makes himself a fool if he thinks or says so, and there is an end of his career or progress in knowledge. He cannot obtain all knowledge, for he has sealed up the gate to it.

Some say I do not interpret the Scripture the same as they do. They say it means the heathen’s gods. Paul says there are Gods many and Lords many; and that makes a plurality of Gods, in spite of the whims of all men. Without a revelation, I am not going to give them the knowledge of the God of heaven. You know and I testify that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods. I have it from God, and get over it if you can. I have a witness of the Holy Ghost, and a testimony that Paul had no allusion to the heathen gods in the text.
TPJS 371

Hamlet the Dane
February 16, 2017

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

C.S. Lewis
February 16, 2017

It is not for you, son of Adam, to know what faults a star can commit.

February 16, 2017

I’ve always considered faith to have a power of its own, independent of righteousness.

As Joseph Smith taught in Lectures on Faith, faith must be centered in Christ to be “perfect”. But that doesn’t mean we can’t put our faith in inferior and lesser models and idols and not get results.

Blessings are not exclusive to the Celestial order, though its easy to make the mistake of thinking that way.

February 16, 2017

I imagine it would be quite possible to confuse an Angel with a god without the light of the Gospel, fallen or not, and mistakingly worship them.

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