Book in Focus
Zeus, Jupiter, Jesus and the Catholic Church"/>

04th January 2022

Book in Focus
Zeus, Jupiter, Jesus and the Catholic Church

What Good Is a God?

By Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy

Virgil’s Aeneid, the 9/11 disasters, and the Catholic Church

Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy learned Latin and Greek at school and continued with Classics at Oxford. He gave that up, however, for an academic career in linguistics. However, early in the third millennium, to his surprise, Andrew developed a new enthusiasm for Homer and Virgil, especially for Virgil’s Aeneid. This led him to write the book Zeus, Jupiter, Jesus and the Catholic Church: What Good Is a God?

Andrew converted to Catholicism in 2018—despite being a gay man in a monogamous relationship for more than 30 years. Curious, you may think! The contradiction did trouble him, but it was resolved after a thought came to him, as if out of nowhere: ‘What do Christians, and Catholics in particular, say about slavery?’

Slave-ownership is condemned today by Protestants and Catholics alike. However, Jesus did not condemn it, and the apostles (notably Paul) took it for granted as a social institution that was intrinsically neither good nor bad. Indeed, the Catholic Church did not take a clear position against it until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Why was this? The answer (according to Andrew) is that God does not change anyone’s opinions by force—not even the opinions of an apostle or a pope! If Jesus had condemned slave-ownership, he would have been dismissed as a lunatic. This goes for homosexuality too. The view that all same-sex relationships are wrong has prevailed in the Church for centuries. However, that may merely reflect God’s refusal to correct erroneous beliefs by force. Indeed, there are other areas too where the Catholic Church on earth is wrong, so as to benefit no one except the Devil—such as in the ill-motivated refusal to ordain women as priests.

Even before Andrew’s Catholic conversion, he had pondered the inscription at the World Trade Center memorial, commemorating the disasters of 11th September 2001: ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time’. Is this appropriate, given that in its original context in Virgil’s Aeneid, it refers to two warriors (Nisus and Euryalus) who fail in their mission and get themselves killed through their own stupidity and greed? Andrew’s answer is yes, for reasons that reflect Virgil’s twofold message: one for the world of the Emperor Augustus’s success (our actual world), and the other for the world of Augustus’s failure.

Virgil died in 19 BCE, when the young Augustus had clung to power for twelve years. Virgil did not know what we know: that he would remain in power until his death in 14 CE, and establish a pattern of rule that would dominate Europe for centuries. As such, today we readily recognise Virgil’s first message while hardly noticing the second. However, this second message yields a fascinating reading of the Aeneid that is consistent with the medieval notion that Virgil was a Christian in spirit, even though he died before Christ was born.

Aeneas’s famous ‘piety’ (according to Andrew) goes beyond the conventional Roman notion: respect for gods, fatherland and family. It has characteristics of pius amor (‘pious love’)—the outstanding characteristic (we are told) of Nisus and Euryalus. So, in saying that those two will never be forgotten, Virgil is saying that Aeneas also deserves never to be forgotten—even if it should turn out that Jupiter (like the Devil) is a liar, and his promise of ‘an empire without end’ for Rome is empty.

Homer and Virgil are not the only secular writers that Andrew discusses in his book. In the first chapter, he quotes poets as various as Stevie Smith, Fernando Pessoa, and Giacomo Leopardi. In the final chapter, it is the turn of the prose writers W.H. Hudson and Henry David Thoreau. In addition, in relation to the perils of praising a dictator, Andrew compares Virgil with the composer Serge Prokofiev. Prokofiev’s beautiful cantata Zdravitsa is hardly performed today, because of its association with the dictator Joseph Stalin. What if the Aeneid had suffered the same fate, supposing Augustus’s seizure of power had ended in ignominious failure? The poem that Virgil wrote as an insurance policy against that possibility is far more interesting (Andrew suggests) than the poem as it has usually been read for over two thousand years!

Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy holds a BA in Classics and Philosophy from Oxford and a PhD in Linguistics from London University. From 1981 until his retirement in 2008, he taught Linguistics at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, having previously worked in the British Civil Service. He has published five previous books, including The Origins of Complex Language (1999).

Zeus, Jupiter, Jesus and the Catholic Church: What Good Is a God? is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. eBook and further sample pages available from Google Play.

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