“God is a concept by which we measure our pain” – John Lennon

Through the ages mankind has defined and redefined its concept of God. Mine has its roots in western Christianity, and through this site I'd like to examine it and other world religions - past and present. By studying the history and roots of religious beliefs I hope to gain a better understanding of their place in my world today – and what life and the concept of God means to me.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Death of God

“God is dead” is a widely quoted phrase that became very popular in the mid 1960s. It was the rallying call of a movement known as Radical Theology, and although it never attracted a large following and disappeared as quickly as it had arisen, it got a lot of press coverage. It was a statement that was tailor-made for journalistic exploitation, and in the uproar it created, the actual meaning of the phrase and the movement’s goals were misunderstood.

The origins of this ‘60’s cultural phenomenon can be traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche, who originated the concept in the late 1800s. This is what he wrote:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? - Nietzsche, The Gay Science

What he was saying wasn’t that God was physically dead, but that he had stopped being a reckoning force in people’s lives, even if they didn't recognize it. Even then, the phrase was misunderstood. People thought he was exulting the concept, when in fact he was lamenting it. Nietzsche was saying that humans were drifting away from a believe in a cosmic order, and that without it universal values and moral laws would also slip away. To solve this eventual problem, a re-evaluation of the foundations of human values was needed. For Nietzsche, these foundations were deeper than the Christian values that most people refused to look beyond.

This is what the founders of Radical Theology picked up on. In the 1960’s, Nietzsche’s concept on the relationship between modern man's loss of the sacred and eroding universal values had become manifisted in society. People were no longer flocking to church, and they no longer accepted ‘divinely revealed truths’ without question. It seemed to some that the moral decay evident in society was directly traceable to this. Their response was a quest for a radical revision of Christianity in a secular age. Basically, they sought to reconstruct Christian beliefs for the modern world.

The problem with this new theology was that every spokesperson for it had a different solution. There was Jesus as the model human being who acted out of love and whose faith would be celebrated in an open church-community. In this view, God no longer stood apart from Man, challenging him to follow a divine path - he simply represented self-giving love. A ‘Sea of Faith” group attempted to work out the practice of their faith within the context of their new religious understanding while still seeking to retain the accepted 'structures' of the Christian faith (prayer, worship, God, salvation, grace, etc.). Others reflected Eastern views and saw God as something within us, but the emphasis was on this world and not anything beyond. What each group was attempting was to answer the question, 'What place does God have in my life (or in society) today?'

In retrospect, too many ideas with too little a following quickly led to the demise of this movement. The real significance was that these modern theologies, by giving up the essential elements of Christian belief in God, had logically led to what were really antitheologies. The Christian masses misunderstood and/or dismissed the concepts presented. When the death of God theologies passed off the scene, the commitment of some to secularism remained, and manifested itself in other forms of secular theology in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Although taken out of context here, it would seem that the general public of the 20th century was more inclined to accept a different widely quoted phrase from the late 1800’s. It was Mark Twain who said “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Jesus and Mary Magdalane

For several years now, ever since Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” became a bestseller, there has been much speculation concerning the marital status of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Now, with the movie about to come out, the topic is again popular. So what is the evidence for and against? And why is it so hot a topic?

Part of the problem is that nowhere in the New Testament is it stated that Jesus was celibate or married. If one looks at the context of the times in which Jesus lived, an unmarried man was considered incomplete. Typically, all Jewish holy men – teachers and prophets alike – were married. It would have been highly unusual for a recognized rabbi (teacher) to be single. Originally, Christianity was a Jewish spiritual movement, and Jesus primarily taught Jewish individuals. Bearing that in mind, it would have been easier for students to accept that Jesus was married than to accept a rabbi unwilling or unable to sustain a marriage.

On the other hand, Jesus was not technically a rabbi, nor did he portray himself as one. The apostles addressed him as such to say he was their teacher, not because he held any kind of official Jewish office. The Jews asked Jesus 'by what authority' he did certain things because he did not hold any kind of formal office within Judaism. He did not have an official position that would have permitted him to do things like act within the temple (Mark 11:28). As far as the Jewish leaders were concerned, Jesus had no recognized role within Judaism.

One reason the question of marriage with regards to Jesus is a taboo subject among modern day Christians because it implies sexuality. In the 2nd Century, however, the theological reasons were different. There was a tradition among various heretical sects back then that Jesus was married. It was taught that Jesus Christ symbolically entered every critical stage of human existence and sanctified it. Since family life, including sexuality, is central to our lives, it seems logically consistent with the mission of a Savior to redeem and sanctify this aspect of our experience, as well.

In response, Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria believed that a married Jesus was inconsistent with His role as the Savior of the world, not that marriage would have Him sinful, but rather, that His mission was too demanding and heavenly to allow Him the opportunity for marriage.

It was only later when the Catholic Church’s dogma became more established that the ideas of the marriage and offspring of Jesus became taboo topics due to their inconsistency with church doctrines (a celibate priesthood, ritual defilement of seminal emissions, etc.).

The true answers here cannot be known. If you know where to look, you can find biblical ‘evidence’ supporting both views. What is truly interesting here is the fact that as time has gone by our ides of Jesus have changed. In the early church there was much discussion as to the very nature of Jesus. Was he a man, or the son of God? In the Islamic tradition he was a great prophet – but definitely not God on Earth. Traditions grow and change with the times. So how important is it to know the facts? Are they threatening? Would they change what you believe? Would they change your belief in God itself?

Friday, February 17, 2006


“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is the world’s oldest heroic saga. The actual writings of the earliest portions of this epic can be traced to 2000 BCE and were found on twelve stone tablets. The eleventh tablet is particularly interesting in that it tells a story very similar to one found in the Old Testament. This is a story that we now know has been told in many different forms by ancient cultures around the world – but this, the oldest known telling, is so similar to the biblical story we are familiar with that it created quite a stir when it was first discovered.

The original translation was done by George Smith, an assistant in The British Museum in 1872. It’s said that when he first read it he “…jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.”

Here, then, is the eleventh tablet of “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. See if you can recognize it.

Uta-Napishtim said unto him, to Gilgamish: I will reveal unto thee, O Gilgamish, a hidden mystery, And a secret matter of the gods I will declare unto thee. Shurippak, a city which thou thyself knowest, On the bank of the river Puratti (Euphrates) is situated, That city is old; and the gods dwelling within it Their hearts induced the great gods to make a windstorm, There was their father Anu, Their counsellor, the warrior Enlil, Their messenger En-urta andTheir prince Ennugi. Nin-igi-ku, Ea, was with them in council and reported their word to a house of reeds.

Ea Speaks to Uta-Napishtim

"O House of reeds, O House of reeds! O Wall! O Wall! O House of reeds, hear! O Wall, understand! O man of Shurippak, son of Ubar-Tutu [= Uta-Napishtim], Throw down the house, build a ship, Forsake wealth, seek after life, Hate possessions, save thy life, Bring all seed of life into the ship. The ship which thou shalt build, The dimensions thereof shall be measured, The breadth and the length thereof shall be the same. Then launch it upon the ocean."

[Uta-Napishtim's Answer]

I understood and I said unto Ea, my lord: "See, my lord, that which thou hast ordered, I regard with reverence, and will perform it, But what shall I say to the town, to the multitude, and to the elders?"

[Ea Speaks Again]

Ea opened his mouth and spake And said unto his servant, myself, "Thus, man, shalt thou say unto them: Ill-will hath the god Enlil formed against me, Therefore I can no longer dwell in your city, And never more will I turn my countenance upon the soil of Enlil. I will descend into the ocean to dwell with my lord Ea. But upon you he will rain riches A catch of birds, a catch of fish . . . an [abundant] harvest, . . . the sender of . . . . . . shall make hail [to fall upon you]." The Building of the Ship As soon as dawn broke . . .
[Lines 49-54 broken away.]
The child . . . brought bitumen, The strong man . . . brought what was needed. On the fifth day I laid down its shape. According to the plan its walls were 10 gar, (i.e. 120 cubits) high, And the width of its deck was equally 10 gar. I laid down the shape of its forepart and marked it out. I covered it six times. . . . I divided into seven, Its interior I divided into nine, Caulking I drove into the middle of it. I provided a steering pole, and cast in all that was needful. Six sar of bitumen I poured over the hull, Three sar of pitch I poured into the inside. The men who bear loads brought three sar of oil, Besides a sar of oil which the tackling consumed, And two sar of oil which the boatman hid. I slaughtered oxen for the workpeople, I slew sheep every day. Beer, sesame wine, oil and wine I made the people drink as if they were water from the river. I celebrated a feast as if it had been New Year's Day. I opened a box of ointment, I laid my hands in unguent. Before the sunset the ship was finished. . . . was difficult. The shipbuilders brought the . . . of the ship, above and below, . . . two-thirds of it.

Uta-Napishtim Loads the Ship

With everything that I possessed I loaded it. With everything that I possessed of silver I loaded it. With everything that I possessed of gold I loaded it. With all that I possessed of all the seed of life I loaded it. I made to go up into the ship all my family and kinsfolk, The cattle of the field, the beasts of the field,All handicraftsmen I made them go up into it. The god Shamash had appointed me a time, saying "The sender of . . . . . will at eventide make a hail to fall; Then enter into the ship and shut thy door." The appointed time drew nigh; The sender of . . . . . made a hail to fall at eventide. I watched the aspect of the storm, Terror possessed me to look upon it, I went into the ship and shut my door. To the pilot of the ship, Puzur-Enlil the sailor I committed the great house, together with the contents thereof.

The Flood

As soon as dawn shone in the sky A black cloud from the foundation of heaven came up. Inside it the god Adad thundered, The gods Nab and Sharru went before, Marching as messengers over high land and plain, Irragal tore out the post of the ship, En-urta went on, he made the storm to descend. The Anunnaki brandished their torches, With their glare they lighted up the land. The whirlwind of Adad swept up to heaven. Every gleam of light was turned into darkness. . . . . . the land . . . . . as if had laid it waste. A whole day long the flood descended . . . Swiftly it mounted up . . . . . the water reached to the mountains The water attacked the people like a battle. Brother saw not brother. Men could not be recognized in heaven. The gods were terrified at the cyclone. They shrank back and went up into the heaven of Anu. The gods crouched like a dog and cowered by the wall.

The Lament of Ishtar

The goddess Ishtar cried out like a woman in travail. The Lady of the Gods lamented with a sweet voice, saying:"May that former day be turned into mud, Because I commanded evil among the company of the gods. How could I command evil among the company of the gods, Command battle for the destruction of my people? Did I of myself bring forth my people That they might fill the sea like little fishes?"

The Flood Dies Down

The gods, the Anunnaki, wailed with her. The gods bowed themselves, and sat down weeping. Their lips were shut tight in distress . . . For six days and nights The wind, the storm raged, and the cyclone overwhelmed the land.When the seventh day came the cyclone ceased,the storm and battle which had fought like an army. The sea became quiet, the grievous wind went down, the cyclone ceased. I looked on the day and voices were stilled, And all mankind were turned into mud, The land had been laid flat like a terrace. I opened the air-hole and the light fell upon my cheek, I bowed myself, I sat down, I cried, My tears poured down over my cheeks. I looked over the quarters of the world, to the limits of ocean. At twelve points islands appeared. The ship grounded on the mountain of Nisir. The mountain of Nisir held the ship, it let it not move.
The first day, the second day, the mountain of Nisir held the ship and let it not move. The third day, the fourth day, the mountain of Nisir held the ship and let it not move. The fifth day, the sixth day, the mountain of Nisir held the ship and let it not move. When the seventh day had come I brought out a dove and let her go free. The dove flew away and then came back; Because she had no place to alight on she came back. I brought out a swallow and let her go free. The swallow flew away and then came back; Because she had no place to alight on she came back. I brought out a raven and let her go free. The raven flew away, she saw the sinking waters. She ate, she waded, she rose, she came not back.

Uta-Napishtim's Sacrifice to the Gods

Then I brought out everything to the four winds and made a sacrifice; I set out an offering on the peak of the mountain. Seven by seven I set out the vessels, Under them I piled reeds, cedarwood and myrtle. The gods smelt the savour, The gods smelt the sweet savour. The gods gathered together like flies over him that sacrificed.
Now when the Lady of the Gods came nigh, She lifted up the priceless jewels which Anu had made according to her desire, saying"O ye gods here present, as I shall never forget the sapphire jewels of my neck So shall I ever think about these days, and shall forget them nevermore! Let the gods come to the offering, But let not Enlil come to the offering, Because he took not thought and made the cyclone, And delivered my people over to destruction."

The Anger of Enlil

Now when Enlil came nigh He saw the ship; then was Enlil wroth And he was filled with anger against the gods, the Igigi, saying: "Hath any being escaped with his life? He shall not remain alive, a man among the destruction."Then En-urta opened his mouth and spake And said unto the warrior Enlil: Who besides the god Ea can make a plan? The god Ea knoweth everything that is done."

Ea's Speech to Enlil

The god Ea opened his mouth and spake And said unto the warrior Enlil, "O Prince among the gods, thou warrior, How, how couldst thou, not taking thought, make a cyclone? He who is sinful, on him lay his sin, He who transgresseth, on him lay his transgression. But be merciful that everything be not destroyed;be long-suffering that man be not blotted out. Instead of thy making a cyclone, Would that the lion had come and diminished mankind. Instead of thy making a cyclone Would that the wolf had come and diminished mankind. Instead of thy making a cyclone Would that a famine had arisen and laid waste the land. Instead of thy making a cyclone Would that Irra (the Plague god) had risen up and laid waste the land. As for me I have not revealed the secret of the great gods. I made Atra-hasis to see a vision, and thus he heard the secret of the gods. Now therefore take counsel concerning him."

The Blessing of Uta-Napishtim

Then the god Enlil went up into the ship, He seized me by the hand and brought me forth. He brought forth my wife and made her to kneel by my side. He touched our brows, he stood between us, he blessed us, saying,"Formerly Uta-Napishtim was a man merely, But now let Uta-Napishtim and his wife be like unto us gods. Uta-Napishtim shall dwell afar off, at the mouth of the rivers. And they took me away to a place afar off, and made me to dwell at the mouth of the rivers."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Reaching the state of nirvana, in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, is the ultimate goal of existence. But what is nirvana? According to teachings, it is impossible to define directly. It’s easier to say what it is not. It is not the clinging to existence that is our daily life. It is not something that you become. It is not something that has a beginning or end. It is not a subjective state of consciousness. It is not something that can be described in words.

A literal translation of the word nirvana is “extinction” and/or “extinguishing” – and that is what reaching it does to the cycle of life. In the eastern religious teachings, life is experienced through the concept of reincarnation. All living beings, from plants to gods, live in a cycle of death and rebirth. The life you live today is determined by the moral behavior of your previous life, and the ultimate challenge is to liberate oneself from this cycle. In traditional Hinduism, a soul reaches this state after living many lives in which it climbs up through the varna, or caste system. Buddhism arose out of Siddhartha's alternate understanding of the transcendence of earthly life. In the Buddhist philosophy, anybody might achieve higher enlightenment and escape rebirth if he followed the right path, completely rejecting the caste structure that defined traditional Hinduism.

In either case, the basic premise is that our bondage to the cycle of rebirth is caused by ignorance. According to the predominant view among those committed to this way, our ignorance consists of the mistaken belief that we are individual selves, and not one with the ultimate divine reality – Brahman. It is this same ignorance that gives rise to our bad actions, which result in bad karma. Salvation is achieved through attaining a state of consciousness in which we realize our identity with Brahman.

So God, in this view, is not a being to pray to or spend eternity with – but an ultimate reality that one becomes a part of during their final lifetime in this world. What happens to a person after the cycle of life ends is not known. The Buddha himself discouraged speculation on the state of an enlightened being after death, as it was outside of all conceivable experience.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sacrifice in Religion

Sacrifice has been defined as a religious rite in which an object or atonement is offered to a divinity in order to establish, maintain, or restore a right relationship of a human being to the sacred order. It probably originated as a practice simultaneously with religion. Sacrifices have been given as either a gift to the gods or to atone for a wrongdoing. Offerings have consisted of human life, animals, fruit and crops – and of abstinence. There have been sacrifices as far back as we can trace, in all corners of the Earth.

Human sacrifice was practiced in many ancient cultures, and they were performed for a variety of reasons. Upon the death of a leader, many cultures sacrificed people to accompany him to the afterlife. Some Egyptian Pharaohs, ancient Chinese emperors, Mongols, and Mesoamerican Kings have been found buried with slaves and family members. In other cultures priests would sacrifice prisoners in order to predict the future from their body parts. The Celts were said to stab enemies and read the future from their death spasms. Natural disasters brought frantic attempts to appease the gods. The Cretans tried to save their island in this way. Human sacrifice was also practiced on a regular basis to help preserve the status quo. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed infants to their gods, and the Mayan and Aztec religions routinely sacrificed friend and foe on a large scale.

Animal and plant sacrifice was normally done for two reasons – payment to the gods, and as a form of communion between gods and their followers. Plant and animal sacrifices typically were performed to express homage and veneration. The sacrifice of the fruits of man’s labors were ways of giving thanks for good fortune and/or receiving future good fortune.

The five major religions today have a historic record of sacrifice. In ancient Vedic Hinduism ritualistic animal sacrifice was common. Although uncommon today and looked down by many Hindus, it is estimated that tens of thousands of goats, pigs, waterbuffalo, ducks and chickens are still sacrificed to Kali each year. Buddhism has never condoned the sacrifice of life, but self-sacrifice plays an important role in self-discipline and growth. Animal sacrifice was a vital part of Judaism up to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. After this time prayer took its place. Islamic faith promotes self-sacrifice through yearly rituals of fasting, and Christianity is based on the idea that Jesus was sacrificed for the sins of mankind.

Sacrifice to God and religion take on many forms today, from self atonement to terrorist suicide. To many it is an obsolete and meaningless practice, but for those who practice it the goals are the same - establishing, maintaining, or restoring a right relationship with God. Is sacrifice still meaningful in today’s world?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Mayan Creation Myth

There were four gods in heaven and each of them sat on his chair, observing the world below. Then the yellow lord suggested that they make a man to enjoy the earth and offer praise to the gods. The other three agreed.

So the yellow god took a lump of yellow clay and made a man from it. But his creation was weak; it dissolved in water and could not stand upright.

Then the red god suggested that they make a man out of wood, and the others agreed. So the red god took a branch from a tree and carved it into a human shape. When they tested it in water, it floated; it stood upright without any problem whatsoever. However, when they tested it with fire, it burned.

The four lords decided to try again. This time the black god suggested making a man out of gold. The gold man was beautiful and shone like the sun. He survived the tests of fire and water, looking even more handsome after these tests. However, the gold man was cold to the touch; he was unable to speak, feel, move, or worship the gods. But they left him on earth anyway.

The fourth god, the colorless lord, decided to make humans out of his own flesh. He cut the fingers off his left hand and they jumped and fell to earth. The four gods could hardly see what the men of flesh looked like as they were so far away. From the seat of the four lords, they looked like busy little ants.

But the men of flesh worshipped the gods and made offerings to them. They filled the hearts of the four lords with joy. One day the men of flesh found the man of gold. When they touched him, he was as cold as a stone. When they spoke to him, he was silent. But the kindness of the men of flesh warmed the heart of the man of gold and he came to life, offering praise to the gods for the kindness of the men of flesh.

The word of praise from the previously silent creature woke the four gods from their sleep and they looked down on earth in delight. They called the man of gold "rich" and the men of flesh "poor," ordaining that the rich should look after the poor. The rich man will be judged at his death on the basis of how he cared for the poor. From that day onward, no rich man can enter heaven unless he is brought there by a poor man.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Native American Traditions

When Europeans began their incursions into North America they reported encounters with a savage, god-less native population that practiced no formal religion. In point of fact, Native American cultures embraced a religious philosophy as rich and deep as the Christian religion the European missionaries brought with them.

Old World religions were typically built around a formally-structured spiritual life conducted alongside, but distinct from, everyday life. In Native American societies everyday life and spiritual life were one and the same. The world was their temple, and even simple everyday acts had spiritual meaning.

It’s hard to generalize about a land where there were said to be as many tribes as there were stars in the sky. The sacred life of each Indian Nation was uniquely linked to its own environment. Local climates, landscapes, and the perceived spirits and beings that dwelt there shaped a community’s beliefs. But like European religions, there were some similar concepts.

Most traditions believed in a Creator and a Mother Earth. Everything the Creator made, animate or inanimate, had a spirit – therefore all things were sacred and related. Mother Earth provided for people and all other things put on it by the Creator, and their relationships were well-defined. Respect for the Earth and all on it was expected. Respect for past ancestors, who dwelt in spirit realms, was also required.

Some Nations saw the powers of the world as entities in the form of natural phenomena. The wind, rivers, and certain plants and animals, were viewed as relatives. Life was built around the rights and obligations due them. For others the powers were formless energies. There were also unique ways designed to conduct and control relationships with these mystic spirits. But everyone was obligated to respect and heed the spirits everyday just for being alive.

Good and evil were viewed in the light of whether or not obligations to the spirits were met. Failure was disrespect, and balance and harmony in the world suffered. A community’s survival was dependant on virtues that brought or restored the proper respect due to all things on the Earth and in the spirit world.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Quotes About God

As a post script to yesterday’s article, I thought it would be interesting to read what others have said about God and religion.

When I do good, I feel good, when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), attributed

Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; Unbelief, in denying them.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Live among men as if God beheld you; speak to God as if men were listening.
Seneca (5 BC-65 AD)

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Every day, people are straying away from the church and going back to God.
Lenny Bruce (1925-1966)

Small amounts of philosophy lead to atheism, but larger amounts bring us back to God.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

The best way to know God is to love many things.
Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God.
Thomas Edison (1847-1931)

We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.
Stephen R. Covey (1932- )

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.
The Dalai Lama (1935- )

If I were personally to define religion I would say that it is a bandage that man has invented to protect a soul made bloody by circumstance.
Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) attributed

Religion is comparable to a childhood neurosis.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.
Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God.
Mary Daly (1928- )

Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.
William James (1842-1910)

Religion is the human response to being alive and having to die.
F. Forrester Church

Unless you believe, you will not understand.
Saint Augustine (354 AD-430 AD)

I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959)

Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart.
Mother Theresa (1910-1997)

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

A myth is a religion in which no one any longer believes.
James Feibleman (1904- )

I could prove God statistically.
George Gallop (1901-1984)

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Voltaire (1694-1778)

Monday, January 16, 2006

What is God?

What is God? What is religion? These are big questions - and they are questions we will come back to again and again, directly and indirectly. Looking at the second question first, it can be said that religion is a human manifestation. It is man made. Whether or not there is a God or some type of supernatural beings, there would be no religion related to them if mankind did not exist and feel a need for it.

And mankind, as far as we can tell, has always felt a need for religion in some form. A primitive society without some form of religion has never been found. Why? Because life was hard. And what separated man from all the other animals on this planet was the ability to think about it and communicate those thoughts. Primitive people worried, and they were able to share those worries. What problems they couldn’t solve by their own efforts they needed to look elsewhere to solve. They needed to access the powers that seemed to control their destiny and convince those powers to be friendly to them.

As cultures grew, they expressed their beliefs differently. But all peoples had in them a religious tendency, an instinct if you will, to reach out to something they couldn’t see. Something that could hopefully change their condition – physical and spiritual. And this, I believe, is religion. What God is is another question entirely. If there were no religions before man, was there a God? That question reminds me about the tree in the forest. If it falls and no one is around, does it make a sound? I believe it does.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Sun Gods of Ancient Egypt

The sun was always a source of wonder and awe with ancient peoples. Some of the first gods mankind worshipped were associated with the sun, and as civilizations grew, many cultures embraced the sun as part of their mythology.

Ancient Egypt was no exception. Re (or Ra) was the sun god. The early Egyptians believed that he created the world, and the rising sun for them was the symbol of creation. The daily cycle of sunrise and sunset symbolized renewal, and so Re was seen as the paramount force of creation and the master of life. From the fifth dynasty onward (2494-2345 BCE) he became a national god and was combined with the supreme god Amon, who was also a god of creation. From that point on he was referred to Amon-Re.

Although Amon-Re was the supreme god, he was certainly not alone. The Egyptian religion had as many as 2000 gods and goddesses. Many, like Amon-Re, Osiris and Horus were worshipped throughout the whole country – while others only had local followings. They permeated and guided every aspect of Egyptian life for over 2000 years, until one man changed everything.

The pharaoh Akhenaten (1369-1322 BCE) also believed in the power and majesty of the sun, but for him the sun god was called Aten. In the sixth year of his reign he rejected all the other gods and declared that there was only one. Overnight, the Egyptian religion was turned upside down. He left the capital of Thebes, where thousands of priests had devoted their lives to (and gotten power from) the worship of the pantheon of gods, and built a new capital, Amana, dedicated to Aten.

At its height the city grew to more than 10,000 people - bureaucrats, artisans, boatmen, priests, traders and their families. Akhenaten wanted everyone to be happy. He created a beautiful, idealistic religion and Utopia for his people but many just didn't understand it. Akhenaten was not living in the reality of his worshippers. The people wondered why the other gods were not represented.

In 1332 BCE Akhenaten died under unknown circumstances. Soon after his death the followers at Amana, unable to understand what their Pharaoh had been preaching, abandoned the city, and returned to Thebes and the familiar gods. The priests branded the name Akhenaten, as a heretic, and it was erased from the monuments of Egypt. His memory and all that he had created soon disappeared from history - not to be found until centuries later.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Origins of Yahweh

In the Old Testament of the Bible, Yahweh is the one God of the Israelites. From the time (around 1900 BCE) Abraham left Ur for Canaan, the nomadic Hebrew tribes are described as a monotheistic people. And when Moses made a covenant with Yahweh at Mt. Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt in the 13th century BCE, the tribes became united under their one God and the laws he gave to them. Historical evidence, however, suggests the Israelites didn’t completely adopt their monotheistic religion until 538-515 BCE - when they returned to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylonia.

Ugaritic texts, discovered in the ruins of the ancient city of Ugarit in 1928, have shed new light on the origins and development of the early Jewish religion. The chief god was El, and his wife was Asherah. They had seventy divine children, characterized as the stars of El. Among them was Baal, Astarte, Anat, the sun-goddess Shapshu, the moon god Yerak, and Yahweh. The servants of the divine household of the gods were messenger-gods. These appear to be what the Old Testament later refer to as angels.

In this early stage of the Israelite religion El divided the nations of the Earth among his divine family and they became the patron deities of the seventy nations. Yahweh was given Israel. After some time the god El became identified with Yahweh, and the result was that Yahweh-El was the husband of Asherah. In this form Yahweh was the Divine King ruling over all the other gods. Between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE the other gods were relegated as mere expressions of the power of Yahweh, and his divine messengers became minor divine beings subservient to him.

Why did these changes take place? It has been suggested that the Israelites original view of the world was that each patron god was as powerful as its nation. This sat well when Israel was on a par with its neighbors. The rise of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, however, implied that the Hebrew god was not as powerful as had been traditionally thought. This forced the Israelites to alter the religious way they looked at the world, and the new thinking separated heavenly power from earthly kingdoms. Although Israel was weak, its god was not. Yahweh came to be divine power, and the Mesopotamian gods were nothing. Israel had been conquered not by Assyrian and Babylonian power or the power of their divine patrons, but because Yahweh, the one true God, was guiding all the events of the one nation he had chosen. They were being punished and purified.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Lao-Tse and Taoism

Lao-Tse, also called Lao-Tzu, (604-531 BCE), is believed by many to be the founder of Taoism. An enigmatic figure of history, he preached a way of life that was part psychology and part philosophy. It was only after his passing that it evolved into a religious faith, and he was eventually venerated as a deity.

There are two contrasting stories about the life of Lao-Tse. One says he was a native of Ch’u-jen, which is today the Honan Provence in China. Originally named Li Erh, he became the Imperial Archives Keeper of the court of Chou. Some legends say the young Confucius was a pupil of his, others that they were merely contemporaries. In either case, he was searching for a way to avoid the constant feudal warfare that disrupted the life and society of his people. The culmination of his thoughts and teachings was a book – the ‘Dao De Jing’ (Tao Te Ching).

The other story is that he never existed. There is very little evidence today that a man named Lao-Tse actually lived, let alone wrote the Tao Te Ching. It is possible that he was a composite of many old philosophers of that period.

Tao (pronounced “Dow”) is roughly translated as the path, or the way. It is basically indefinable. It has to be experienced. It refers to a power that envelopes, surrounds and flows through all things – living and non-living. God is viewed as a manifestation of the one Dao. The concept of a personified deity is foreign in Taoism, as is the concept of the creation of the universe. There is no prayer, because there is no God to hear and act on them. Answers to life’s problems are found in inner meditation and outer observation. The Tao regulates natural processes, nourishes the balance in the universe, and embodies the harmony of opposites.

Alongside the development of this philosophical Taoism, a different, more religious interpretation of Taoism also evolved. This “religious” Taoism had temples, priests, rites and symbolic images. Lao Tse was venerated as a saint and sacrifices were made to him. There also developed a pantheon of Taoist deities that were often venerated as gods. Alchemy, astrology and divination became so prominent as to verge on occultism. This movement came to be known as Huang-Lao, after the legendary Yellow Emperor Huang-ti.

Whether in history or legend, the man Lao-Tse had passed long before these developments occurred. Disillusioned with Chinese society, he mounted a horse and rode west into the desert regions of China. When the guardian of the last pass to the province of Ch’in requested he write down his thoughts so they could be passed on, Lao-Tse sat down for two days and wrote the Tao Te Ching. He turned the work over to the last guardian of the west and rode into the desert, never to be seen from again.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Zarathustra the Prophet

Zarathustra, a legendary Persian prophet, was an early believer of monotheism – and many of his teachings have striking resemblances to modern Christian beliefs. Hardly anything is known about his life, especially when he lived. Ancient Greeks thought he lived 6000 years before Plato. Modern scholars think he lived in the fourteenth century BCE.

In a vision, Zarathustra was ordered by a spirit named Good Thought to preach against the bloody sacrifices of his people, and to give aid to the poor. Gradually he came to believe that Good Thought had been sent by the supreme god Ahuramazda, which can be translated as ‘Wise Lord’. Zarathustra preached that the Wise Lord had created ‘the world, mankind and all good things in it’ through his holy spirit, Spenta Mainyu.

The rest of the universe was created by six other spirits, the Amesha Spentas – or Holy Immortals. The order of this sevenfold creation, however, was threatened by The Lie. Good and evil spirits were fighting and mankind had to support the good spirits by avoiding lies, supporting the poor, and following other cult practices in order to speed up the inevitable victory of the good.

Zarathustra also warned of a Last Judgment. At the end of times, angels would lead all men and women across a narrow bridge, where they would be judged by Spenta Manyu ( a spirit described as a beautiful maiden). The friends of The Lie would fall into a large chasm of fire called Worst Existence. The followers of Zarathustra were to reach paradise, a place called House of Best Purpose.

The Avesta is the holy book of followers of Zarathustra, and the oldest material in it is called the Gatha’s. These hymns are believed to have been written by Zarathustra himself. Here is a sample:

Thee I conceived as holy, O Ahuramazda, when thy Good Thought appeared to me and asked me: 'Who art thou? And whose is thine allegiance?' [...] Then I answered: 'Zarathustra am I; to the false believers a forthright enemy, but to the righteous a mighty help and joy. [...] Thee I conceived as holy, O Ahuramazda, when thy Good Thought appeared to me. [...] A difficult thing it seemed to me, to spread thy faith among men, to do that which Thou didst say was best.
[Yasna 43.4]