The opportunity to explore Nashville is not something I often have time to do, but I was recently able to attend a lecture at the Parthenon that was spectacular. I had never gone to the Parthenon before since I am such a new resident. The beauty of what I saw quickly made me feel that I would need to return again soon. Though, as I listened to the lecture, its content reminded me of my observations about the religious diversity I have seen in Nashville.
As far as the Parthenon is concerned, the outside of the building was mesmerizing. It was impressive to see such a work of architectural mastery, but it was even more mind-blowing that ancient people were able to construct something just like it. The Nashville Parthenon is, of course, a copy of the original Greek one. Inside the Parthenon I saw a large statue of Athena. It’s big. Athena shines with a distinct golden brilliance and it is at the foot of that statue that we had the lecture. The topic of the lecture was concerning the religious diversity of a city in Asia Minor near Corinth.
There are a few points from the lecture that really pushed me to think about this ancient city and my contemporary experience. One of the points of the lecture was to illustrate how the city was intensely polytheistic. You could expect to see a statue of Poseidon on the docks as well as one of Isis on the south end of the bay. A Greek city had its traditional deities, but this Egyptian goddess was a surprise to me at first. Syncretism was occurring in a big way between Isis and Aphrodite. It was amazing to see how connected the world was even then. There was also an interesting point about a memorial building that had collapsed centuries ago. The speaker thought that it was potentially built to be a place of honor for Phoebe, the great benefactor of the Apostle Paul. He kept it tentative because there is no direct evidence, but it is possible. Then, the most wondrous aspect of the lecture was an archaeological finding of a blue stone that had Aphrodite on the front, Osiris on the back, and a prayer to “Yaw” on the sides. So, this object has deities from Greek, Egyptian, and Hebrew religion on it.
Now, we know that Christianity eventually displaced the other belief systems as more and more people converted over the decades following the initial spread of the religion. In some cases, Christianity was able to retain some of their systems, but for many people following Jesus in a monotheistic fashion was where they needed to be. The pagans still lived on, but they lost the societal influence they once held over these areas.
Religious diversity is not something I expected to see in Nashville. Even as I study at the Divinity School of Vanderbilt, I meet people that have much different theologies from my own. The campus I live on is also very diverse spiritually with Pagans, Muslims, etc. I hope to have more conversations over the next few years, but I know the stereotype of Nashville that I had before moving here did not account for this. Moreover, there is a statue of Athena that would have been looked upon by early Christians as an idol here in the Parthenon, but for me, it is so drained of its spiritual power that it is simply a monument. I think that’s something that I need to think about as Christianity heads into unknown territory in the West. Nashville is diverse in an analogous way to that ancient Greek city, but are their destinies the same? I don’t know. Christians have a lot of work to do and I hope to have a place in that work.