On today's show we talked to Joseph Loconte, Author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt. His book focuses on our never-ending search for answers, and that our inconsolable secret is that we all yearn to be part of a place in a just society.
Check out today's segment and an excerpt from his book The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt. below.
This is one of the most striking facts for those of us who study the history of civilizations. Every civilization is shaped by what philosopher Huston Smith calls its “God-seekers,” those
individuals who try to make contact with the divine. Every civilization, without fail, develops an elaborate system of religious beliefs that help to hold human societies together. “What a strange fellowship this is,” Smith writes, “the God-seekers in every land, lifting their voices in the most disparate way imaginable to the God of all life.”
The Jews in Jesus’ day were especially earnest in their quest to know God. They built a massive and ornate temple in Jerusalem, where they employed priests who offered sacrifices to purify their hearts before Jehovah. Their sacred text, the Torah, records dramatic encounters between God and his people. Although God is never visualized by the Jews—never represented in art in any form—he is nonetheless described, tenaciously, as a Person. King, Redeemer, Defender, Judge, Father, Shepherd—all these images are applied to him.
The entire history of Judaism can be read as a long, tortuous tale of a nation’s attempt to know God and to be blessed by him. Does this explain what is happening on the road to Emmaus? “Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.” We are informed, without any grandiosity and with no explanation, that Jesus has somehow returned to life and appeared among these disciples.
Were these fervent believers being carried away by their desire for an encounter with the supernatural? They wouldn’t be the first. We marvel at the architectural achievements of the ancient Egyptians, for example, whose massive stone pyramids still baffle modern engineers. The Great Pyramid at Giza reaches 480 feet into the sky—taller than a forty-story skyscraper—and is composed of over two million blocks of limestone. Think of it: thousands of workers hauled tens of thousands of tons of stone across vast stretches of desert over many decades to build these wonders.
And for what purpose? A hieroglyphic text, addressed to the Egyptian god Atum, explains the reason: “O Atum, put your arms around King Neferkare Pepy II, around this construction work, around this pyramid . . . . May you guard lest anything happen to him evilly [sic] throughout the course of eternity.” In other words, the pyramids served as burial chambers to help Egyptian kings make a successful journey from death to the afterlife. In this case, King Pepy II wanted to arrive safely in paradise—and mobilized an army of slaves and civil engineers to make it happen.
Likewise, we admire the political and military accomplishments
of ancient Rome—its republican ideals, territorial conquests, and the “Pax Romana” that brought stability to much of the known world. We know the Romans had a panoply of “gods” and “goddesses,” many of them borrowed from the Greeks. But their deities seem so much like human projections—they could be as devious and corruptible as a Nero or a Caligula—that we suspect no one really took them seriously.
Here it’s worth remembering that the most important myth for the Romans was Virgil’s The Aeneid, an epic poem about sacrifice, suffering, loyalty, and obedience to the gods. The hero of the story, Aeneas is described as “a man outstanding in his piety.” Aeneas achieves true greatness, in fact, only when he submits fully to the will of the gods and devotes himself with absolute purity to his mission, the establishment of a new political society in Rome. Thus, when Aeneas allows his lover Dido to distract him from his task, it requires a stern visitation from the gods to get him back on course. “But Aeneas is driven by duty now,” Virgil writes. “Strongly as he longs to ease and allay her sorrow, speak to her, turn away her anguish with reassurance, still, moaning deeply, heart shattered by his great love, in spite of all he obeys the gods’ commands and back he goes to his ships.”
This is what the Romans meant by piety. The story of Aeneas—a man mindful of the gods as he pursues his calling— was adopted throughout the empire as the pattern of the Roman hero.