“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.

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]