Friday, May 27, 2011

Religion Friday: Hinduism

Hinduism is the polytheistic religion of India. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world, with around 900 million followers. Out of shear statistics, one would think I know some, but I live in the Bible Belt, so no. When I think of Hinduism, I think of gods with multiple arms, bright colors, body paint, reincarnation, mystical meditation, and all the magical things imperial Britain made India out to be. And that’s because the religion is so old, much of Indian culture stems from Hinduism. Worship consists of devotion/sacrifice to the gods, family duties, and meditation. The sacred writings are the Vedas and later, the Upanishads.

The symbol I have posted is the most important to Hinduism, the Om. In Sanskrit, the Om symbol is comprised of three sounds. The Om sounds is the essential sound of creation; it is believed that first the sound Om was created, and the world arose from that. The Om continues to hold everything together and is important in some meditations.

Hinduism is full of gods, and like the Greeks, individuals or local groups will usually have focus on one or two local, specific gods. The three main gods are Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. While worship to the gods is part of the religion, the purpose of life is not to receive reward from the gods. Rather, the goal for Hindus is to attain a higher spiritual level, eventually ending the cycle of reincarnation. Hinduism states that dharma, or the path of ethics and duties, guides all of one’s actions. Karma is the right action that can lead to freedom from reincarnation. They believe that when a soul dies, it is reborn with a new chance to be break the cycle. And while I don’t agree, I do like the idea that those who aren’t of the faith aren’t evil and aren’t punished: they are simply less enlightened and will have the chance to be in the next life.

Maybe because there are so many gods to honor, there are lots of holidays. My favorite (purely because of the pictures) is Holi, the spring festival of merrymaking. There is not a lot of religious depth to it that I could find; it’s primarily just a spring celebration that includes a bonfire and tossing brightly colored paint. On the other end of the spectrum is Mahashivaratri (Festival of Shiva), a time of fasting and meditation. The temples to Shiva are filled with people praying and making offerings.

Besides the various gods, Hindus also believe in the existence of Brahman, the one force behind all that is. The many gods each characterize an aspect of the Brahman. It was actually this tenet of Hindi faith (and the world created from a sound) that made me start to see the universality of many religions. Before, I couldn’t understand how humans have such varying views of the world, but when I learned about the Brahman, I felt that, “When a Hindi feels the Brahman, it must feel very similar to when I feel God.” I’m not a relativist, so I won’t say that since the feelings are the same, the religions are equal. But I do think any person sincerely seeking God can feel Him. Even a polytheistic faith can acknowledge the oneness of the universe. Religions that seem so different can both feel His presence; it’s just the interpretations that are different.

Next Friday: Buddhism

[The picture of Holi only shows the bright colors used in the festivities. People will be covered head to toe in these colors, which makes for some beautiful pictures if you have the time to look them up. Photo credit to REUTERS/Amit Dave]

Friday, May 20, 2011

Religion Friday: Greco-Roman

It’s hard to find the origins and specifics of the Greek religion because the gods who were worshiped and their stories would vary in each local area. There were twelve pantheon gods, the top of the tier who resided on Mount Olympus, as well and many local demi-gods and heroes. Different towns would worship or focus on different gods. One of the most well-known would be the city of Athens, named after its patron god, Athena, the female goddess of wisdom. The gods and goddesses of Greek culture had very human traits. They were prone to anger, jealousy, loneliness, lust, and pride. They were mostly concerned with their own affairs, not that of humans. Each had his/her specialty: god of wine, god of the sea, goddess of fertility, goddess of grain, etc. Though I’m of a faith that says God created us in His image, I think we tend to create God (or gods) in our image. It’s hard to wrap our little minds around God, so we put Him in a mold we understand, be it a male with a long white beard, or a group of gods that have very human family trees and family interactions. I think it’s alright to personify God in such a way in our attempts to understand Him, as long we understand that He is greater than some supernatural human; that image is only a step in our growth of learning and understanding of Him.

The Greeks believed that those who pleased the gods would be blessed. Also a god of a city-state would watch over and protect that community in particular. Animal sacrifices and smaller sacrifices at temples and shrines were common to please the gods. They believed in being blessed in this life, but they also had a concept of an afterlife. The Romans later adopted and renamed the Greek gods. Because the faith was rather flexible in allowing worship of many demi-gods, it was easy for the Romans to allow occupied territories worship in their traditional ways (providing they paid their taxes and included worship of the emperor into their religion).

When I was little, I had a cassette of Shari Lewis reading Greek myths. Why the creator of Lamb Chop was reading Greek myths, I never questioned. I just knew it was good bedtime listening. That, and four semesters of Latin through high school and college has made quite familiar with stories of the Greco-Roman tradition. Nonetheless, I never really considered the stories part of a religion. I don’t know when (probably spacing out in Latin II), but one day I realized that these weren’t just hokey stories about people sleeping around and turning into animals; they were the remnants of a dead religion. A religion deader than the language they were written in. I know it seems so obvious, but for me, the idea that a religion that once spread from northern England to the Persian Sea was now seen as a bunch of old, simple stories shook me.

Can a religion last forever? In short, no. In long, sometimes the faith just disappears as believers die out; sometimes it transforms into something unrecognizable from its origin. As cultures peak and wane, their concepts of God, faith, worship change with them. Christianity today does not resemble Christianity of 200 A.D. It’s now the establishment, not the radical. And Islam on one side and secularism on the other are trying to push it off its “king of the rock” position. I wouldn’t say that Christianity isn’t Christianity anymore (though I would say that about some of its fringe sects), but I don’t think that it can be assumed that something large will last forever. Empires fall. Others rise. It takes work to preserve what you believe must remain for all time for all history.

Since I can’t fit the specifics of Greco-Roman religion/rituals in a summery post, I’ll compensate by sharing one of my favorite Greek myths, the Greek creation story:

In the beginning there was an empty darkness called Chaos. Then out of the void arose Eros, the god of love. Eros created the sky Uranus and the Earth Gaia. Then Eros made them fall in love. Together they produced the three Cyclopes, three Hectaoncheires, and twelve Titans. Uranus hated the Hecatoncheires and pushed them into the hidden places of the earth, Gaea's womb. This angered Gaea and she plotted against Uranus. She convinced the youngest Titan, Cronus, to attack and castrate his father.

Cronus becomes the next ruler. He imprisons Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires and marries his sister Rhea. He feared he too would be overthrown by his children, so swallowed his children when they were still infants. However, his wife Rhea hid their youngest child. She gave Cronus a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he swallowed, thinking it was his son. This was Zeus, who when he reached adulthood, returned to Mount Olympus and fed Cronus a drink that caused him to vomit up the children he had swallowed. The children were so grateful that they made Zeus their leader and fought their father for control. After much fighting the children won, and they began to furnish Gaia with life and Uranus with stars.

There are much more details about the battles of the Titans and such, but as a kid, I just really liked the swallowing the rock part.

Next Friday: Hinduism

[The image is of the Athena in the Nashville Parthenon. Yep, Nashville has a pretty sweet Parthenon that's in better condition than its Greek counterpart.]

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jesus was not an American politican

I came across this article yesterday which addresses something that always bothers me when it comes up. Partisan politics has no place in the pulpit. A good Christian can be libertarian or progressive or apolitical and still be a good Christian.

My home church is made up of people all over the political spectrum, and maybe that's why I know whatever party you believe in politically does not shape what you believe spiritually. I've heard of pastors that preach in the pulpit which political candidates to vote for, and I can tell you, if that happened in my church, I'd feel very very uncomfortable. The church should not alienate those with different political point of views. People chose politicians for lots of reasons. They pick parties hoping it will make the country better. Voting Republican doesn't always mean a person wants to burden the poor. Voting Democrat doesn't always mean a person is pro-abortion. Both parties have good and bad qualities. Neither has a monopoly on being right.

The Republican Party as done really well in marketing itself as the moral, Christian party. But it's just marketing. Christians are all over the spectrum, and it's damaging for churches to demand members follow one party and condemn another. Churches argue enough within the church already; do we really need to include political campaigns into the mix?

Stop the inner-fighting and start the Christian loving.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Paraskevidekatriaphobia Day

It’s Friday the 13th, one of the most widespread superstitions. It’s supposedly a day of bad luck and occasional body-switching. But odds are unless you’re a Knights Templar, you’ll get through the day like any other Friday, eagerly awaiting the end of the workweek.

I don’t believe in many superstitions, though I do like reading my horoscope in the evening and seeing how my day lined up with the prediction. But there is something comforting in superstitions. Perhaps it’s their old and oral nature; advice passed down from your grandmother’s grandmother. It feels familiar, traditional, rooted (though clearly not rooted in logic). And there is also the comfort that bad things happened for a reason. It’s Friday the 13th = of course Blogger was down for a few hours! It also takes away responsibility if something bad happens. You didn’t get an F because you didn’t study; you got it because a black cat crossed your pass on the way to an exam. Superstitions fall into some magical realm that is beyond our control and understanding, but is still of earth and able to be manipulated. It’s not of God, but it’s not quite of man either, which makes it useful for horror flicks and not much else.

Every time the thirteenth of the month falls on a Friday, there will be news articles asking, why? What makes Friday the 13th so scary? (I’ve even written one.) People look at how cultures interpret the numbers 6 and 13, and they look back on historical events that happened on that day that may have scarred society (i.e. why few people want to get married on September 11th). But with superstitions, there isn’t a one true origin and you can’t logically work out why people are superstitious. They just are. Or like most people I know, they say they aren’t superstitious at all, but they still follow the superstitions, “just in case.”

According to some, my horoscope for today reads: “The cosmos may be offering a master-class in the Laws of Attraction and you could be bowled over by someone who 'ticks off all the boxes'. True, you might also be repelled by someone who does the opposite! But you could fall head over heels. A working relationship could become something more: which covers everything from a love tangle to a business partnership.

Not too shabby for Friday the 13th. But I wouldn’t want to start a romance on a Friday the 13th…not that I’m superstitious, just…just in case.

Religion Friday: Judaism

Judaism is as much an ethnicity as a religion. The Old Testament follows “the children of Israel” and “God’s chosen” through their history. And their history reaches over 3,000 years, making it another old monotheistic faith. It originated in the Middle East, rooted in various writings (primarily the Tanakh and Talmud) that reveal God’s laws to His people. Abraham is the father of both the Hebrew people and the Jewish faith. The symbol for the faith is the Star of David, which has no religious meaning but has been used as a symbol for the Hebrew people for a long time.

There are variations on how strictly to adhere to certain laws, but observance of the law is always important. And because the religion is so tightly intertwined with an ethnicity, there is a cultural importance of community and cultural ritual that goes along with the faith. Some laws deal with how to prepare food and what foods are allowed, or are kosher. Boys are circumcised at eight-days-old and given their Jewish name. Boys and girls both celebrate their mitzvah at 13. It is a coming of age ceremony where the boy or girl publicly lead prayer and read from the Torah.

Jews celebrate the weekly Shabbat from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown, which acknowledges the day of rest God took after the six days of creating the world. There are special rules for Shabbat that pertain to avoiding work (including the use of money, lighting a fire, extended travel).

While Hanukkah and Passover are probably the best known Jewish holidays (mainly due to their calendar relation to Christmas and Easter), the most important holiday to the faith is Yom Kippur a.k.a. Day of Atonement. It is a day full of fasting and prayer, usually spent entirely in synagogue (house of worship). Many people wear white that day. Another high holiday is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Jews still follow the lunar Hebrew calendar. Christians follow this calendar to determine the annual date of Easter.

Because some Jews are Jews only in ethnicity and some only in faith, it’s hard to calculate an exact number of Jews, but most put the number around 14 million. About 42% of the world’s Jews live in Israel, which was created in 1948. Another 42% live in the U.S. with the rest scattered out over the rest of the world.

Jews are known for their history of struggle. They’ve been enslaved, killed, kicked out of their homeland, dispersed, killed again, discriminated against, killed again, and ostracized. They didn’t get along with other early faiths because the surrounding peoples were polytheistic (and claimed the land the Hebrews happened to live in). After that, Jews have had a complicated relationship with Christians. Christians tend to look at Jews in dual yet opposing ways. First, Judaism is the root of Christianity. Both faiths share the beliefs and history of the Old Testament/Torah. But second, Christians see the Jews as ignoring the Messiah. Some Christians have blamed Jews for killing Jesus and working with the devil. Some want to use a support for Israel as a means to bring about the end times. But support/non-support for a country is not the same as support/non-support of Jews. It’s a complicated international political issue. If I had to sum up Judaism, it’s that it’s complicated. It has a long, rich history of struggles and victories and a long set of laws to obey. I don’t envy those trying to navigate how to live the old law in the modern world.

Jews usually welcome religious debate. In fact, questioning God can be healthy. And by debating with one another over various laws, they better learn the laws and find deeper meaning. I think this aspect of studying one’s religion is missing in many forms of Christianity. If God wanted us to follow blindly, he wouldn’t have given us free will. If your faith is in the right place, then questioning and friendly debating will lead to a deeper understanding.

While I acknowledge that Christianity has Jewish roots, I feel a strong disconnect from that religion. Many passages of the Old Testament feel like family histories to people with whom I don’t share genes. They may (or may not) have once been God’s chosen people. God at least chose to send His son through them, I’ll give them that. But what’s important now is that everyone is God’s. Salvation is open to everyone, even the Gentiles.

Next Friday: Greco-Roman gods

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

No Faking Faith

Back on Palm Sunday I wrote about Thomas and his doubt. I since then read this quote (which was attributed to Ray Hollenbach)and immediately thought, "Yes, that's what I enjoy about Thomas' story!"

"Thomas taught me that there are worse things than doubt. He taught me it’s OK to be the downer in the group, and if the group doesn’t like it, that’s mostly their problem. Thomas taught me that my doubts belonged to me, and I had no business trying to sell other people my doubt any more than I should try to sell people my favorite doctrines. Thomas taught me it’s OK to be myself, as long I as I wasn’t a jerk. Most of all Thomas taught me you can be unflinchingly honest and still get face-time with Jesus."

It's natural to doubt at times. And it's alright to be honest with God about it (I mean, He's going to know anyway). Deal with the doubt. Talk to God about it, talk with a mentor or close friend about it, but don't talk to everyone about it. It's not your place to poke holes in other people's faith. I've found a peace in embracing that I have some doubt and some unresolved questions. It doesn't shatter my whole belief system. And it gives me something to talk to God about. I ask Him lots of questions, mainly for the sake of asking more than expecting resolutions. I think He approves that I care enough to ask, even if He's also thinking, "Geez, Emily, stop questioning so much and put more into faith." Yes, I know I should do that, but God knows I'm imperfect and working on it. No sense hiding the work in progress from Him.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Religion Friday: Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism was founded by the prophet Zoroaster around 1400 BC in Persia. It’s the father of monotheistic religions. Followers believe the world is in battle of the good Ahura Mazda and the evil Aura Mainyu. The concept of “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds” is central. One’s place in the afterlife is determined by good deeds vs. evil deeds. Confession and repentance helps the scale weigh toward good. Zoroaster wrote poetic verses on his conversations with Ahura Mazda that are known as the Gathas; they are the core scripture of the religion.

Fire is an important symbol in Zoroastrianism. A sacred fire must be kept burning in Zoroastrian homes, and there are ceremonies for the creation of a new fire and purification of a fire. The faravahar (the symbol of the man in a disk with spread wings) is an ancient symbol first representative of sun-gods. Today, Zoroastrians have adopted it to represent one’s progression toward Ahura Mazda.

Though the faith is almost over 3,000 years old, there are only about 280,000 Zoroastrians in the world today. And while most still live where the faith was founded, in what is modern Iran, many adherents now live in India, where a group of Zoroastrians fled after Islamic invasion of Persia in the 10th century. I’ve never met one.

While I don’t really know much about this religion, it interests me because it seems to be the first religion that deviated from the polytheistic faiths that covered the western world at the time. The prayers, the prophet, the battle of good versus evil with good ultimately triumphing, the emphasis on good deeds are not completely foreign to me.

I’d guess that many Christians agree with Zoroastrians that good deeds outweighing bad deeds will secure you heaven. I agree that the idea is by far the most fair. But salvation isn’t fair, and that’s good, because otherwise I wouldn’t obtain it. It’s frustrating to think that a deathbed conversion of a murderer is just as good as someone who has strictly adhered to the Bible and done good deeds throughout his life, but it’s also reassuring that our evil actions and thoughts won’t keep us from salvation.

Next Friday: Judaism

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

World Religion Tour

Every Friday I'll post some basic facts and my thoughts on a religion other than Christianity. I've always been fascinated by different faiths, beliefs and rituals. And by looking at different faiths, I am often strengthened in my own. I'm a history buff, so the posts will probably include lots of history and cultural context of the religion. While I will try to make sure my information is as accurate as possible, understand that I'm only skimming the surface in looking at these different faiths and may misinterpret a fact or two. Corrections appreciated!

Kicking off the tour this Friday: Zoroastrianism.

Monday, May 2, 2011

My Tea Leaves Just Look Like Wet Tea Leaves

There's a small group roaming the U.S. in RVs warning us that the world is ending in 19 days. Others say we have til December 21, 2012, which would stink since I'll have already bought all those Christmas presents. My position on prophecy is shaky; I don't have much of an opinion because I've never really bothered to think about it. And here's why: it doesn't matter. If it is going to happen, it will. If not, it won't. Should the world end in 19 days or 19,000 years, I don't think my knowledge of it is going to affect the outcome. It's an area I'm alright with being hazy. It's my duty to be right with God now and always, and to share His love in the present.

I get irritated with Bible math that calculates a "beginning of the end" date (and then recalculates when the date passes). Do they not see that every generation thinks it's the end? There has always been the signs of the evil leader, the extreme weather, the moral decay, etc. What makes today's signs so special? And what's so important about knowing a date? I think it would really shake my faith if I thought the Bible laid out a precise date for the end, and then it passed with nothing significant happening. For "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Matthew 24:36 NIV)

But should some people think Bible math works and there is a key to calculating a particular date across the many translations, symbols, and varying calendars, I suppose there is no harm in it.

Unless they think they have to bring about the end times (especially through war), but that's another thing entirely.

Most of these ideas are in Revelation, which clearly some people take more literally than I do. Revelation to me is the red-headed step-child of the New Testament. While the other books are historical in nature, this one is full of visions and symbols. It's the odd book out, though it does provide that blockbuster ending. Even Christians in the 4th century debated about how tricky is was to interpret. Calvin ignored it, and I guess that's why my upbringing mentioned it as little as possible. I'm of the inclination that it was a message of strength to those early Christians in the Roman Empire (and therefore most symbols refer to Rome). The message that good overcomes evil despite tribulations. I do believe the overall prophecy that the end, whenever it is in whatever form, will be the result of good conquering evil forever. But that battle is not my concern. My concern is to be a foot soldier siding with good in the now.

I think prophecy for me comes down to what my grandfather said about the Left Behind series. "I don't need to know what happens after the rapture, because I won't be here for it."