2,400 Years of Theology

Photo by Jon Martel

Dr. Jessica Wolfe from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, transported the students in the Gooding auditorium to a land more than 2,400 years before their time. In an effort to prove that the classics still matter, Wolfe compared works of Homer and Milton and translated them to current times as part of the humanities division speaker series on Feb. 8.

“Milton’s distance from Homer is over four times our distance from Milton,” Wolfe said. “Here’s Milton, a Christian poet, and a very devout one, saying if we too want to justify God and make sure we don’t blame God for the stupid things we do on earth, we can look to a Pagan poet, an ancient Greek poet, to do that. It’s a remarkable move because a lot of Christian writers of Milton’s time don’t think there’s much value in reading poems from classical antiquity, from Greece and Rome. But here’s Milton saying, no, we can learn from Homer and learn about how to have a better relationship with God from Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. And we get an echo of this idea in ‘Paradise Lost.’”

Wolfe argued that the strongest connection between Homer and Milton is their interest in the source of evil on earth.

“Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world if God doesn’t make that evil and suffering happen? It’s a theological question,” Wolfe said. “It’s also a question about humans and how humans don’t understand the world that they live in. We see evil and suffering everywhere but we can’t quite explain it or come to terms of why it’s there.”

Freshman Allison McClain enjoyed the speaker’s “textual support” for her ideas, but would have liked for her to have “elaborated on the differences in Adam and Eve as told in Genesis and Milton’s story of them in ‘Paradise Lost.’”

In Wolfe’s discussion of Adam and Eve, the Fall is at the focal point, especially what was “lost” during the Fall.

“When they were born they get these two gifts; one is happiness and the other is immortality,” Wolfe said. “But they have ruined both these gifts. So in the Fall, they lose their gift of happiness. They’re no longer capable of the kind of happiness they once had and God decides to take away the gift of immortality because it’s no longer a gift. It would only be nice to be immortal if you could be happy forever, but if you’re miserable, if you’re put in Milton’s Eden after the Fall, you probably don’t want to be immortal anymore because you’re going to suffer all sorts of pains and passions and unpleasantness.”

The Fall ruined the “intimacy” between gods and human beings, Wolfe said.

“One thing that is lost when paradise is lost is the direct contact between God and human kind.”

Though God punishes Adam and Eve, he does so with remorse in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, Wolfe said. Milton argued his epic was better because “his God doesn’t get angry for no reason. When Milton’s God gets angry, it is always just because there is always reason.” Still, Milton’s God does have “unattractive qualities” that discredit his statements.

“Some of the most interesting passages of ‘Paradise Lost’ deal with these rather problematic, unattractive qualities that Milton gives his God. Milton’s God has kind of a cruel sense of humor. There’s this amazing scene where right before the war in heaven, Milton’s God and the son, he and Christ, are kind of sitting around the night before the war in heaven jokingly saying to each other ‘hey, do you think they’re going to beat us? Do you think they’re actually going to overthrow heaven?’ It’s one of the most written about passages in all of ‘Paradise Lost’ because it’s so disturbing for a God to joke about how stupid all his creatures are that we think we can outwit or overpower God.”

Whether it was through analogies and interpretation or similes and parallels, students were able to learn about the connection between works of Homer and Milton regardless of the 2,400 year gap.

“I was very interested in the speaker’s point that Milton and Homer lived 2,400 years apart, but their works truly are in conversation,” McClain said. “As I love literature and its analysis, I would love to have more speakers like this.”

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