Mesocosm

"Segne den Becher, welcher überfließen will, daß das Wasser golden aus ihm fließe und überallhin den Abglanz deiner Wonne trage!" – Nietzsche

Archive for the ‘Comparative Religion and Mythology’ Category

Totem Poles of the Pacific Northwest

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Sun and Raven Pole

Note about Pictures: In order to make room for so many photographs, I’ve had to use thumbnails – I hope readers will click on some of them to see them full-sized.

The coastal region of the Pacific Northwest, stretching from the Alaskan panhandle in the north to Vancouver Island in the south, has been home to indigenous peoples for thousands of years, including the Tlingit (pronounced kling-KIT), Haida, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl.

These are different groups with distinct histories and languages, but they share deep similarities of culture, religion and art, which combine to constitute what the great anthropologist Franz Boas has called “one of the best defined cultural groups on our continent.” (Social Organization and Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl, 317) I will speak most frequently of the Tlingit, but draw upon other groups participating in this common cultural heritage as well.

One of the most striking features of this cultural zone is what we will call totem poles for lack of a better term. The word “totem” comes from the Ojibwe word for “kinship group,” and does not properly belong to the region. The Tlingit term is kootéeyaa, but several natives I have spoken with used the term “totem pole,” so I will follow their lead.

Tlingit Beaver Clan House

Originally, most totem poles were probably carved into the pillars of clan houses, like the great totems flanking the magnificent Beaver screen in the Tlingit Beaver Clan House of Saxman, Alaska (shown to the right). Short, free-standing totem poles were also placed in the woods, used to house the cremated remains of venerated persons.

When Russian and European fur traders arrived in the nineteenth century and metal tools became widely available, it became possible to carve much larger poles. These massive poles, sometimes dozens of feet high, were commonly erected along waterways, as the people inhabited narrow strips of land between the coastal mountains and the sea, or in densely-forested river valleys, and traveled by water.

The oldest surviving poles date to the mid-nineteenth century, and those are relatively few in number. Poles are usually carved of cedar, which does not preserve well. However, my understanding is that the demise of a pole is regarded as the completion of its life cycle, not a tragic loss.

Totem poles are emblazoned with figures called crests, which are usually animals, mythological beasts or legendary ancestors. Crests form an integral part of the social and symbolic economy of the Pacific Northwest and are core features of social identity. A crest may only be displayed by a family that owns the right to the crest, and those rights are passed down.

One interesting exception to that rule is the owl crest, shown to the right, which is not inherited and may only be displayed by a shaman.

Crests often signify historical or legendary episodes that help define the identity, status and privileges of a family. The world of songs, legends and myths is intimately bound up with crests, which may explain where the clan came from, why they have the right to fish in a particular stream, and so forth.

Let’s take a look at the striking Eagle Halibut pole of Laay, currently on display at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to get a sense of how the symbolism works. The interested reader will find the full account of this complex pole here, but I will only focus on part of it.

Tlingit Laay Pole – base

To the right you will see two crests that combine to form a single composite image at the base of the pole. The smaller crest depicts a hero named Gunas being devoured by a large halibut, and that image is set onto the chest of a larger figure, an intense-looking figure called Hagwil̓ooḵ’ who carries a bent-wood box on his head.

This is a memorial pole for the Tlingit Chief Laay, who led his people out of their original home in Alaska to the village of Gwinwoḵ on the Nass River in Canada. While they were traveling to their new home, Gunas went swimming in the clear waters near Cape Fox, when he was suddenly attacked and swallowed whole by a giant halibut.

Richard Morgan tells the story:

Everybody got excited, you know, when they saw the huge halibut. They called for Supernatural Halibut and they called for Supernatural Eagle to help them. And the eagle [was] sitting right at the point, and the next thing you know, the eagle managed to get the halibut ashore and capture the halibut. And they cut the halibut open, but the body of Gunas, the remains of the body, [were] already decayed, so they sing a dirge song, funeral song about Gunas being captured alive by a halibut.

Gunas – Detail

This account is typical of crest legends in several ways. It links an episode of the legendary past with a story and a song, and establishes the debt owed by the halibut to the clan. The Gunas crest connects the Nisg̱a’a Tlingit to halibut fishing – Gunas paid for the crest with his life. Crest stories frequently involve someone owing a debt, or violating a taboo or getting into a disagreement with an animal power or deity, and being killed. This death creates a new debt in the symbolic economy, and and the family earns the right to a story, or song, or place, or the right to hunt a particular animal, et cetera.

The concepts of debt and exchange are extremely important in the Pacific Northwest, as we saw previously when we looked at shame poles, which are erected to commemorate unpaid debts. The flip side of this is that if you want to fish, your family needs to have the moral right to fish, and it often seems to be established in stories of this kind.

There is a deeper mythological sense to this pair of images as well. Gunas and his halibut are engraved on the chest of this scary-looking Hagwil̓ooḵ’ fellow. Morgan explains this figure thusly:

And as they [were] traveling, they encountered a huge man from under water. It has a tail of a salmon. It came up with huge spring salmons, huge seafood, a lot of seafood. They call it Hagwil̓ooḵ’. That’s a symbol you will see on the bent boxes. Anybody who is really aggressive, get a lot of food for families, they call them Hagwil̓ooḵ’.

The paired crests of this pole combine the two aspects of the Great Hunt in a single image – we see both predator and prey. The Nisg̱a’a has paid for the right to catch fish with their own flesh and blood; that is, they belong to the cycle.

We’ve looked at this basic tragic image several times in this blog, most recently in the Grimm Brothers story “The Juniper Tree” here. We’ve also looked at the symbol as it was expressed in Iron Age Greece here.

The Eagle Halibut Pole of Laay illustrates the whole symbolic economy of the Pacific Northwest. Clans are characterized by the of symbols that encode their history and establish their rights and powers. These crests are not only displayed on house pillars and totem poles, but found on ceremonial chilkat robes or button blankets worn during ceremonial dances. A Tlingit can tell at a glance where someone is from and what their lineage is, simply be looking at their regalia.

Despite various historical challenges and setbacks, the symbolic culture of the Pacific Northwest remains vital and active to this day. While indigenous populations were decimated by exposure to Old World diseases such as small pox, the numbers have now stabilized. The United States abandoned its disgraceful campaign to eliminate native languages and cultures in the region decades ago, and since the 1960s there has been a great revival of interest in native art and culture. So the old arts are carried on – to the right you can see Tlingit Master Carver Nathan Jackson at work on a new pole in his studio. He was the lead artist of the spectacular Beaver Clan House screen shown above.

Many new artists appear to be interested in incorporating new sources of inspiration and ideas. For example, the superb Kwakwaka’wakw artist Doug Cranmer spent several years in the 1960s using traditional compositional elements of the Pacific Northwest to create entirely abstract work without story or reference. I also enjoyed the work of Averyl Veliz that I saw at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, such as her wonderful “Wolf in the Moon” (right).

A great example of the harmonious blend of old and new is The Raven and the First Men by Haida artist Bill Reid, currently on display at the University of Anthropology in Vancouver. This magnificent carving depicts a Haida myth of Raven acting as a kind of midwife for the creation of humankind.

Raven is a powerful shamanic trickster figure and is the culture hero of the entire vast region from the Kwakwaka’wakw of Vancouver to the Inuit of Alaska. His stories are especially connected with acts of creation and naming, and the story of how Raven stole the sun from heaven and ended the long darkness is an extremely popular subject. In my next post on the Tlingit and other traditions of the Pacific Northwest, I’ll have a closer look at the mythology of the region, with particular attention to Raven.

The traditions of the Northwest remain with us. Bertha Sleid Guan of the Kaagwaantaan Tlingit told me that in her village, public schools offer classes in the Tlingit language every day, and once a week, the entire school day is conducted in Tlingit. She described her sense of wonder at seeing a young Tlingit girl speaking in her own language with her schoolmate, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl of Norwegian descent.

I told Bertha that I had read many wonderful stories of the old days, like the story of how the Tlingit came to move out of their ancient home in Glacier Bay, which I read in the superb book Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors by Norma Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer.

As Susie James told those authors, the Tlingit used to live in peace and abundance in Glacier Bay. At that time, there was a young girl who was kept in seclusion behind her house. We learn from many ethnographers such as Kalvero Oberg that this was a common practice when Tlingit girls approached adolescence. They were sequestered for months or a year in a private little hut behind the family dwelling until they were presented as adults at a great feast or potlatch.

Glacier Bay

But this girl was kept there for three years, which is a very long time. One day she saw a glacier very far away, and perhaps because she was unhappy with her seclusion, she called to it like a dog, saying “Glacier, here, here.”

To everyone’s alarm, the glacier started to grow, started to advance on the Tlingit, fast, faster than a dog could run. Everyone saw it charging toward them and they got into their boats to flee, to leave Glacier Bay and find a new place to dwell — everyone except for grandmother who didn’t want to go. She said “I will stay here. Whatever happens to my mother’s maternal uncles’ house will happen to me.” So she stayed and gave her life to the glacier, and there is our debt.

When I spoke to Bertha, I told her I had read this story, and I wanted to know, how do the Tlingit hold these stories today? Are they valued as legends, or are they believed, the way history is believed?

Eagle

She told me that it may be hard for you to accept that a glacier would run as fast as a dog, but we’ve researched the area and we know that the Tlingit of her village came down from Glacier Bay, and they regard it as their sacred home. The archaeological evidence indicates that the area was inhabited around 2000 years ago by a people evidencing cultural continuities with the Tlingit of today, until they were driven out by a long period of ice. When the glaciers receded after the end of the Little Ice Age in the Middle Ages, the Tlingit appear to have moved (back?) into the area.

She told me that there are many stories that can be told to outsiders, like the ones I read in my book, and many songs that are sung for anyone. But then there are stories and songs that are private, known to the families and houses, and those stories have a lot to say about the world, and who we are.

 
All photos are (c) Barnaby Thieme, except “Wolf in the Moon,” which is my photograph of a work by Averyl Veliz, who retains all rights.

Written by Mesocosm

July 22, 2012 at 11:00 am

Child-Sized Mythology: The Brothers Grimm

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This morning I chanced upon Joan Acocella’s article on the Brothers Grimm, “The Lure of the Fairy Tale,” in The New Yorker. It will surprise no reader of this blog to hear that I’m a huge fan of the Brothers Grimm – you can see a translation I did of “Mary’s Child” here. I was interested to read Acocella’s piece and think through some of the questions that she raises.

She lays out a brief biographical and historical sketch of the folklorists and their work, and puzzles through some of the interpretive dilemmas posed by the fairy tales. They are childish in their brevity and narrative simplicity, but often include gruesome acts of violence, with starving parents abandoning children to die in the woods with startling frequency.

Acocella singles out “The Juniper Tree” as an especially shocking tale. I’ll give the gist of the story, but interested readers can read the whole thing here (in English) or here (auf Deutsch).

Once upon a time, the story begins, a young bride prayed and prayed for a child, but to no avail.

One fine winter’s day, while peeling an apple beneath the juniper tree in the courtyard, she cut her hand, and when she saw the drops of blood on the snow, she sighed, “If only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow.”

Well, time went by and the snows began to fade, and the world returned to flower, and as it did, the woman also became fruitful, and when the new growth of the woods came to surround them, she became great with child. And when the juniper tree bore fruit, she ate of it ravenously, and becomes sickened.

In the ninth month following her wistful prayer, she bore a beautiful little boy, and told her husband that when she dies, she is to be buried beneath the tree. And so she did pass away, brought to her death by the life-giving tree.

Time passed, and the boy grew with lips as red as blood, and skin as white as snow. His father took a new wife, and had with her a daughter, called Marlene.

Unfortunately, his new wife hated the beautiful little boy, and one day, moved by the spirit of evil, she invited him to take an apple from the bin. When he reached inside, she clapped it shut and knocked his head clean off!

The evil stepmother then covered the boy’s head with a white scarf and fastened it back to his body. Marlene found him an uncooperative playmate, though, and complained to her mother that the boy would not speak. The stepmother told her “Then go box his ears!”

The daughter soon did, and immediately raced back in terror, crying “His head has come off!”

The evil stepmother told her they must keep it a secret. To dispose of the body, she said, she will cook the boy into a stew. She served it to his father to eat, and he found it so delicious that he insisted he should eat it all, as he was filled with the sense that it was somehow intended just for him.

Well, the daughter was horrified by all this, naturally, and she gathered her half-brother’s bones in her silk scarf and buried them beneath the juniper tree. It was only once they were interred that her anguish subsided.

Then the juniper tree began to move. The branches moved apart, then moved together again, just as if someone were rejoicing and clapping his hands. At the same time a mist seemed to rise from the tree, and in the center of this mist it burned like a fire, and a beautiful bird flew out of the fire singing magnificently, and it flew high into the air, and when it was gone, the juniper tree was just as it had been before, and the cloth with the bones was no longer there. Marlene, however, was as happy and contented as if her brother were still alive.

And so the boy was reborn as a glorious bird with a beautiful song, and he set about making matters right.

Kinder- und Hausmärchen, First Edition

It’s really quite a spectacular story – I highly recommend having a look at the whole thing. But what is significant for our purposes here is that Acocella found it to be very disturbing, saying “Parents should simply not read it to children. If they give the child the book, they should get an X-Acto knife and slice the story out first.”

So we have a dilemma, posed by the co-occurrence of a childish narrative style with dark and shocking material. To make sense of this problem, Acocella reviews several scholarly interpretations of fairy tales, ranging from the Freudian readings of Bruno Bettelheim to the comparative approach of Jack Zipes.

Unfortunately, she neglects to consult the author who represents, in my opinion, the strongest interpretation of the Grimm Brothers stories, Joseph Campbell. His approach makes short work of the apparent dilemma.

Campbell articulated his general approach to the Grimm Brothers’ stories in his magisterial essay “The Works of the Brothers Grimm,” written as an introduction to a translation of the tales, and also published in his book Flight of the Wild Gander. In this essay, Campbell interprets many fairy tales as reductions or remnants of very old myths. They contain the same content and quality as the great narratives of the world’s religions. Time and wear, for a variety of reasons, have pared the stories down to their bare bones, and as such, they appear child-like at a glance.

If we evaluate “The Juniper Tree” not as a didactic fable for children but as a myth, we immediately recognize all of the principle elements of the story: the miraculous birth, the association of death and rebirth with a tree or evergreen, the murder of an innocent, and the ritual consumption of the body. This is a myth of immense geographical distribution, as we’ve known since Frazer first published The Golden Bough.

It amuses me greatly to see Acocella recoil from this story, since every one of its basic elements can be found in the Gospels.

We can also see a link between the apple and the pains of childbirth, which echoes the story of the Fall. And there exists, of course, a very old allegorical tradition that links the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden to the Tree of Eternal Life, i.e., the cross. The former is seen as the beginning of history, and the latter is seen as its completion.

We are not dealing with a pedagogical morality tale here, we have a myth – a story which renders an image of basic facts of life. We have a narrative image of the cycle of life and death in which we all must participate, and to which, ultimately, we must all surrender ourselves, for the cycle of killing and being eaten in turn both gives life and brings us back to the root. And the fairy tale, like the myth, presents this problem without judgment or advice.

People preserve these stories for millennia because they disclose something that the audience recognizes to be true. The best place to start, then, is to ask what that might be.

Written by Mesocosm

July 17, 2012 at 11:49 am

The Mythology of Star Wars

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Part of the greatness of the first Star Wars film lies in its sense of scope. Through a variety of storytelling devices, the film creates the constant sense that you’re seeing only one story in a galaxy of lives and adventures.

Like the Iliad, the movie dives into the story in medias res, in the middle of the action. The very first lines of the crawl text announce that the Rebels have just “won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire,” telling us in a single line who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and that the fight is already underway. It’s geniusy.

The shadow of the past looms over the action. When her ship is seized in the first scenes, Princess Leia offhandedly tells Darth Vader that the Imperial Senate will never stand for this assault, suggesting that the audience already knows about the governance of the galaxy. And, she tells us in sideways fashion, of course we already know the notorious Lord Vader – only he could be so bold.

Most of the history that we need to know is conveyed through indirect exposition of this kind. We learn along with Luke Skywalker about his father’s heroic career, and his tragic death at the hands of Lord Vader. The legendary sense of lineage informs Luke’s destiny, even as it implies the dangers that lie on the heroic path.

In The Empire Strikes Back, we learn the truth about Luke’s father, and that whole sense of past is upended. Luke has modeled his life on what he knows of his father. When he learns the truth, he also learns that greatest danger he faces is not physical death, but death of the soul – that he, like his father, will be swallowed by the machine.

This revelation carries all the more emotional power because over the last hour, we have watched him struggle with his training, tested by impatience and anger, failing one test after another in the swamps of Dagobah.

The original Star Wars trilogy – especially the first two truly great films – created a rich sense of world by holding back enough of the details to suggest that a lot more was happening just past the edge of the screen. What we don’t see invites the audience to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations, and we actively participate in the storytelling.

I saw the first Star Wars when I was only five or six, but even at that age I formed a clear image in my mind of what Luke’s father was like, back when he was the best pilot in the galaxy, and how it went down with Darth Vader. Those impressions are as vivid for me now as my recollection of the films themselves. And, I daresay, considerably more impactful than the way that past was depicted in the prequel trilogy.

The tension that drives the story of the original Star Wars trilogy is that mixture of what we know and what we don’t know. Like a yin yang, the light is complemented by the dark, and the pervasive mystery enriches the story with the sense that hidden dimensions are at work. This tension comes to climax in the first film when Obi Wan Kenobi’s voice comes to Luke at a crucial moment, telling him to trust himself to the unknown, and turn off his targeting computer.

When I was a boy watching this film for the first time, my heart surged with ecstasy at that moment. I didn’t understand it, but somehow I knew old Ben was right – that was exactly what he should do. Then we get the big fireworks kerblooey, and the menacing death machine explodes, like the tight little circle of the ego erupting in a shower of light, and that terrifying threat evaporates.

One aspect of the story that fuels the imagination is the Jedi and the Force that they serve. We learn very little about the Jedi in the first trilogy, except that they are the guardians of justice and goodness. They utilize the Force, a mystical energy field that is somehow related to life itself, and they fight against the forces of destruction and domination in the universe.

The Jedi mythology Lucas suggests is conveyed through a handful of lines reflecting influences ranging from the Tao Te Ching to the Bhagavad Gita to Arthurian legend. Lucas was famously influenced by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it’s worth noting that Campbell was not interested in theology, but mythology – that is, the stories that reflect and activate the spirit.

We learn nothing but fragments of the Force as a philosophy. It comes to life because it operates in a story that we recognize, the struggle of idealistic young underdogs against what Hunter Thompson called “the forces of Old and Evil.” It’s a story we can get excited about.

We know that the struggle between the Rebel forces and the Empire, for example, is a struggle between two visions of the world. We can either honor life and its mysteries, or we can try to control life with technology.

The battle of Star Wars is a choice between these visions. Although it’s set in the realm of the stars, it’s a battle of the soul, and it is ultimately decided in the field of the soul. The great victory of Return of the Jedi is not a military victory, but Luke’s decision not to fight, and what that decision means to his father, who had given up on himself long ago.

The Force, like the history of the galaxy, is given in fragments, and we’re invited to fill in the blanks with our own beliefs and commitments. It should therefore come as no surprise that some people have taken up the invitation, and attempted to formulate an active spiritual tradition based on the Star Wars mythology.

In the 2001 census, 0.8% of respondents of England and Wales reported their religious affiliation to be Jedi – more than Sikhism, Judaism, or Buddhism. While many of these reports were doubtlessly intended to be tongue-in-cheek, there are clearly some people who take “Jediism” very seriously.

Take, for example, the Church of Jediism, co-founded by Daniel Morgan Jones, a Welsh Star Wars fan born in 1986, after Return of the Jedi left the theaters. He has helped put together what appears to be a serious attempt to formulate a spiritual discipline based on the Star Wars model.

Browsing through Jones’s website, one comes upon the training manual for Jedi. For the most part, it comes across like a hybrid between personal spiritual musings and fan fiction. Its stylistic debt to role playing game manuals is reflected in suggestions like “For a person to operate coherently, an equal balance of the three should be 20% Good Energy (MC), 20% Bad Energy, and 60% Neutral Energy.”

I admit to a certain cynicism that keeps me at arm’s-length from the manual. My opinion is that the Star Wars films, powerful as they are, lack a coherent vision of the Jedi and their ways.

Beyond the general insights that the world is interconnected and alive, Lucas struggled to formulate a coherent vision for his Jedi. His failure to do so became distressingly evident in the prequel trilogy. In addition to its severe deficits on the story level, the morality tale depicting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker becomes increasingly incoherent and bizarre. Anakin’s terrible transgression was that he fell in love? His desire to save his wife drove him to murder very young children at the drop of a hat? The Force is caused by microscopic organisms?

The incoherence of Lucas’s vision suggests that the Force works best as a vaguely-defined device in a well-told story. There is not enough there to support a philosophy of any depth on its own. And what could Jedi training mean, assuming that we discount the possibility of telekinesis, levitation, or light saber training?

To answer that question I read further in Jones’s manual, and I was pleased to discover that the initial stages of Jedi training, at least, have a disarming good-heartedness. Whatever may or may not be found in the Force and its mythology, who can argue with practices such as these?

Day 1 – Make it your goal to learn something new today.
Day 3 – Today try a New food.
Day 4 – Make it your goal to shake some ones hand today.
Day 14 – Make it your goal not to have any conflict today think of something that makes you smile and keep out of any conflict or argument.
Day 16 – Do something that makes you laugh and do it more than once.
Day 21 – Make it your goal to help some one today.

Written by Mesocosm

May 4, 2012 at 10:54 am

Lord of the Starry Heavens: Three Islamic Stories

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The sage as astronomer. – As long as you still experience the stars as something “above you,” you lack the eye of knowledge. – F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §71

For a time, I lived in a Zen monastery in the Ventana Wilderness of California, a mountainous and sparsely-inhabited region several miles inland from Big Sur. The first night I was there, I went into the Zendo for evening meditation, and when I emerged and looked up, my first thought was literally that there must be some mistake. There couldn’t be that many stars.

Stellar Nursery in the Tarantula Nebula (Click for Full Image)

I think the desert and its enormous night sky are essential to understanding the poetic mode of Muhammad’s revelation. The Persian poet Farid Ud-Din Attar described its impact on the soul in this brief story:

One moonlit night
Sheikh Bayazid, attracted by the sight
Of such refulgent brilliance, clear as day,
Across the sleeping city took his way
And thence into the desert, where he saw
Unnumbered stars adorning heaven’s floor.
He walked a little and became aware
That not a sound disturbed the desert air,
That no one moved in that immensity
Save him. His heart grew numb and gradually
Pure terror touched him. “O great God,” he cried,
“Your dazzling palace beckons far and wide –
Where are the courtiers who should throng this court?”
A voice said: “Wanderer, you are distraught;
Be calm. Our glorious King cannot admit
All comers to His court; it is not fit
That every rascal who sleeps out the night
Should be allowed to glimpse its radiant light.
Most are turned back, and few perceive the throne;
Among a hundred thousand there is one.” (1)

Certainly, Muhammad was such a one. According to an account of the Prophet (Hadith) preserved by his beloved wife Aisha, he began to travel alone to the wilderness to meditate and pray, in the middle of his life’s journey, and there he began receiving holy visions. The tradition records her account:

The commencement of the Divine Inspiration to Allah’s Apostle was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hira where he used to worship (Allah alone) continuously for many days before his desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food like-wise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira.

The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read. The Prophet added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists) has created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.” (96.1, 96.2, 96.3)

Then Allah’s Apostle returned with the Inspiration and with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadija bint Khuwailid and said, “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, “I fear that something may happen to me.” Khadija replied, “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your Kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones.” (2)

Paradiso Canto 31, Gustave Doré
(click to enlarge)

According to Ibn Ishaq, the most illustrious of Muhammad’s biographers, when Muhammad first emerged from the cave in the episode described above, he traveled to a nearby mountain. When he arrived at the summit he heard a voice from heaven say “O Muhammad, thou art Allah’s Apostle, and I am Gabriel!”

The Prophet continues: “I looked up and saw Gabriel in the form of a man with crossed legs at the horizon of heaven. I remained standing and observed him, and moved neither backwards nor forwards. And when I turned my gaze from him, I continued to see him on the horizon, no matter where I turned.” (3)

I love the humanity of this story, and its feverish, visionary intensity. If Buddha speaks to the divinity of persons, to awaken them to their own Buddha Nature, and if Christ speaks of his own divinity, then Muhammad speaks as a human being to other human beings; not as archetypes, or bearers of perfection, but as imperfect, and imperfectible, except through relationship to what is holy and true.

Like so many religious heroes, Muhammad took up his vocation reluctantly. He would have preferred to remain silent without teaching, like Buddha, or for the cup to pass before him, like Christ. But teach he did, and recounted his visions, which were written down by his followers and redacted into the Qu’ran. Surah LIII is entitled “The Star;” here is an excerpt:

To God belongs whatsoever is in the heavens
and whatsoever is in the earth, that He may
recompense those who do evil for what they
have done, and recompense those who have done
   good with the reward most fair.

   Those who avoid the heinous sins and
   indecencies, save lesser offenses –
surely the Lord is wide in His forgiveness.

Very well He knows you, when He produced you
from the earth, and when you were yet unborn
in your mothers’ wombs; therefore hold not
yourselves purified; God knows very well
   him who is godfearing.

Has thou considered him who turns his back
and gives a little, and then grudgingly?
Does he possess the knowledge of the Unseen,
   and therefore he sees?

Or has he not been told of what is in the
   scrolls of Moses,
and Abraham, he who paid his debts in full?
That no soul laden bears the load of another,
and that a man shall have to his account only
   as he has laboured,
and that his labouring shall surely be seen,
that he shall be recompensed for it with the
   fullest recompense,
and that the final end is unto thy Lord,
and that it is He who makes to laugh, and
   that he makes to weep,
and that it is He who makes to die,
   and makes to live,
and that He Himself created the two kinds,
   male and female,
of a sperm-drop, when it was cast forth,
and that upon Him rests the second growth,
and that it is He who gives wealth and riches,
and that it is He who is the Lord of Sirius,
and that He destroyed Ad, the ancient,
and Thamood, and He did not spare them,
and the people of Noah before – certainly
they did exceeding evil, and were insolent –
and the Subverted City He also overthrew,
so that there covered it that which covered.
Then which of thy Lord’s bounties diputest thou?

  This is a warner, of the warners of old.
  The Imminent is imminent, apart from God
    none can disclose it.
  Do you then marvel at this discourse,
  and do you laugh, and do you not weep,
    while you make merry?

So bow yourselves before God, and serve Him! (4)

 
References
1) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 77.
2) Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 1:3. The Hadith Library. Retrieved April 20, 2012. http://ahadith.co.uk/chapter.php?cid=1.
3) Andrae T. Mohammad, the Man and His Faith. The Cloister Library. 1960. pp. 43-4. Quoted in Eliade M. A History of Religious Ideas; Vol. 3. The University of Chicago Press. 1985. pp. 65-6.
4) Qu’ran LIII:31-60; from Arberry AJ (trans.). The Koran Interpreted; Vol. 2. Touchstone Books. 1955. pp. 31-60.

Written by Mesocosm

April 20, 2012 at 10:16 am

More Fitting to be Friends: Islam and Europe

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One of the greatest works of European literature to come down to us from the Middle Ages, or indeed from any age, is Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Arthurian Romance Parzifal, written early in the thirteenth century.

We don’t know much about von Eschenbach, though he identifies himself as “something of a Minnesinger” in his book. Minnesingers are the German equivalent of the troubadours of Provence, those famous composers of verse and rhyme who filled Europe’s coffers with splendid poetry celebrating love and its virtues.

Here is a bit of verse written by the Occitan troubadour Arnaut Daniel, whom Dante referred to as “the better craftsman.” In this translation of L’Arua Amara, Ezra Pound rendered his Provençal into English:

Shield of Parade, c. 1500
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

The bitter air
Strips panoply
From trees
Where softer winds set leaves,
And glad
Beaks
Now in brakes are coy,
Scarce peep the wee
Mates
And un-mates,
   What gaud’s the work?
   What good the glees?
What curse
I strive to shake!
Me hath she cast from high,
In fell disease
I lie, and deathly fearing. (1)

 
This excerpt exemplifies the themes of nature and the open road that properly belong to the troubadour’s heart, along with mortal concern for his idealized beloved, whose lack of favor is worse than icy death.

We can see in this poem an unambiguous shift in emphasis from Europe’s tradition of poetry praising God and king. Daniel holds nation and piety to be of less import than a glance from his beloved:

Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert
    Who doth burn my heart and frost it,
Yet if she mend not her paces,
Kiss me ere New Year and melt
For my death to hell she’s fleeting. (2)

The poetic imagination of the troubadours, combined with the rich heritage of Celtic imagination, swept through Europe in the High Middle Ages, transforming its art and literature forever. In Arthurian romance we can see these two influences blend, with the troubadour lending Guinevere and Isolde to the idiom, and the Celt supplying fairydom, imperiled queens in enchanted castles, dragons, elves, and dwarves.

This genre of Arthurian romance reached its apex in the hands of two German masters, Gottfried von Strassburg (died c. 1210), who left us the story of Tristan and Isolde, and Wolfram von Eschenbach (died c. 1220), who supplied Europe’s greatest account of the quest for the Holy Grail in Parzifal.

Early thirteenth-century Europe was a lively place. In 1210, the Franciscan Order was established, and in 1216, Saint Dominic founded his order of Friars. Frederick II Hohenstaufen, called by Nietzsche the “first European,” was king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. He was a powerful force for the secularization of European polity, and a generous patron of the arts. He would briefly recapture Jerusalem for Christendom, after its knights had been driven out in 1189, by Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, known to Europe as Saladin.

Kneeling Knight
London, c. 1350

This was the landscape in which Parzifal was composed. Its story is primarily concerned with its hero’s spritual transformation, as he seeks for the Holy Grail to bring renewal to the land. It is a wonderful and profound story, but here, I’d like to focus a bit on Parzifal’s family.

His father Gahmuret, the story goes, was king of Anjou in France. After establishing himself as a great knight, he traveled east as far as Baghdad, where he came into the service of the Baruch, or ruler, and distinguished himself greatly during the siege of Alexandria.

After leaving Iraq, Gahmuret wandered the Middle East until he came to the fictional land of Zazamanc, which was encircled by a hostile army. In true courtly fashion, Gahmuret came to the aid of Belacane, the Moorish queen of Zazamanc.

Gahmuret and Belacane fell in love and married, and their son, Feirefiz, combined his mother’s dark hue with his father’s whiteness. Von Eschenbach describes him as a blend of dark skin and light, mottled, like a magpie.

Now, through the course of many adventures, Gahmuret eventually returned to France, where he would marry his second wife Condwiramurs, and father Parzifal. He died, leaving Parzifal in his mother’s care, and the boy grew up ignorant of his heritage.

In time, Parzifal became a knight like his father, and served in the court of King Arthur, where he became involved in the quest for the Holy Grail. And much later, near the end of our tale, Parzifal came to face the army of his brother Feirefiz in battle, with each unknown to the other.

They met in solo combat on the field. Their battle raged and raged, and for the first time, each had met his equal. At length, Feirefiz threw his sword into the forest and called for parley, and they learned that they were brothers. At the discovery of their common heritage, “Parzival found treasure trove, the most precious he had ever lit on.” (3)

Recall that Feirefiz is the son of a Moorish queen. In von Eschenbach’s time, the Islamic Moors still ruled Spain, as they had centuries. The tide turned against the Muslims in Europe only at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, around the time Parzifal was written. And here we have a great European hero, whose father served the ruler of Baghdad, around the time the Crusading Knights were expelled from Palestine, and his beloved brother is a Muslim. This is really quite extraordinary.

Conference of the Birds (detail)
Manuscript Cover, painted by Habib Allah
(click to enlarge)

If we take a closer look at the tradition from which von Eschenbach sprang, we will see that he is himself, in a sense, a half-brother of a Muslim tradition.

In the early thirteenth century, far from Germany, another great poet was setting down his own masterwork. The Perisan Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar was then composing The Conference of the Birds, in which a collection of fowl travel together to a far-off valley, in search of the King of Birds, the mythical Simorgh – a kind of phoenix, if you will. This wonderful allegory describes the Sufi path to union with God, with each valley along the way representing a stage of the contemplative path.

Like the troubadours and Minnesingers, Attar had little use for piety. In a long anecdote related in Conference, Attar tells the story of the Sheikh Sam’an, who lived a good Muslim life until he fell in love with a Christian girl in his travels. In many ways, the story is a mirror image of the story of Gahmuret in Parzifal.

In one shocking turn, the Sheikh’s friends and students urge him to return to his religious life, and he replies “Where is her face / That I may pray toward that blessèd place?” (4) He is actually suggesting that instead of praying toward Mecca and the Kab’aa, he will pray toward the face of his beloved.

In Europe, we find a close parallel to this episode in von Strassburg’s Tristan. The young lovers Tristan and Isolde bravely face death and damnation in the name of their love. In one episode, the two flee into the woods, and make their conjugal bed into an altar, substituting their erotic union for the sacrament of communion.

Now, I do not want to overstate the degree of toleration shown in the thirteenth century. The tale of Sheikh Sam’an is a cautionary tale, and he not only ends up returning to Islam, but converts his Christian love as well. Likewise, Feirefiz converts to Christianity before taking a bride in Parzifal.

Nevertheless, the sense of these episodes is unmistakeable. Parzival’s reconciliation with Feirefiz plays a decisive roll in the climax of the work, and much is made of his dual coloration, converging in a single man like a yin yang. In Attar’s Conference, the love of Sam’an for the Infidel is described at far greater length, and with far greater vitality and attention, than his perfunctory return to religious norms at the end.

In both cases, there is a sense of passing through your opposite and returning to yourself at a higher stage, and it involves the heart’s recognition that something is different, and something is the same.

Attar holds that the true love of God leads the aspirant past piety, through the gates of blasphemy, and into actual communion with the holy source. Piety is rooted in our socially-constructed idea of what God must be like, and it leads to the socially-consecrated image of God. True love for God, like the love of Tristan and Isolde, dares all, even damnation, in its ravenous hunger for the divine. He writes:

Islam and blasphemy have both been passed
By those who set out on love’s path at last;
Love will direct you to Dame Poverty,
And she will show the way to Blasphemy.
When neither Blasphemy nor Faith remain,
The body and the Self have both been slain;
Then the fierce fortitude the Way will ask
Is yours, and you are worthy of our task.
Begin the journey without fear; be calm;
Forget what is and what is not Islam;
Put childish dread aside – like heroes meet
The hundred problems which you must defeat. (5)

Compare this to Arnaut Daniel’s verse, which we saw above:

“Pope and Emp’ror I count asses;
Let See and Domain combine them;
From them to her I’d revert.”

This dramatic similarity is not a coincidence. The points of contact between the Muslim world and the world of Christendom were many and varied, and the encounter with the Sufi Dervishes left a deep mark on the European imagination. The celebration of love by the troubadours and Minnesingers may well carry the stamp of the Sufi poets. Anyone who has encountered Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi knows him to be the very voice of love’s song:

You are my life, you are my life, my life; you are my own, you are my own, my own.
You are my king, worthy of my passion; you are my candy, worthy of my teeth.
You are my light; dwell within these eyes of mine, O my eyes and fountain of life!
When the rose beheld you, it said to the lily, “My cypress tree came to my rose garden.”
Say, how are you in respect to two scattered things! your hair, and my distracted state?
The rope of your hair is my shackle, the well of your chin is my prison.
Where are you going, drunk, shaking your hands? Come to me, my laughing rose! (6)

Compare to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan:

When the two lovers perceived that they had one mind, one heart, and but a single will between them, this knowledge began to assuage their pain and yet bring it to the surface. Each looked at the other and spoke with ever greater daring, the man to the maid, the maid to the man. Their shy reserve was over. He kissed her and she kissed him, lovingly and tenderly. Here was a blissful beginning for Love’s remedy: each poured and quaffed the sweetness that welled up from their hearts. (7)

The links between the courtly tradition of the troubadours and the Sufis have long been remarked, and it is in fact possible that the word “troubadour” itself is derived from an Arabic root tarab, meaning “to sing.” The thirteenth century appears to have been a time of love’s glory in much of the world, for it was then that Jayadeva wrote his sumptuous Gītagovinda in India, which we considered in an earlier post.

Not only were the crusading knights in frequent contact with Islamic ideas – a historical reality visible in mythopoetic guise in Gahmuret’s trip to Baghdad – but many of the greatest Sufi masters lived in Andalusian Spain. Ibn ‘Arabi (1165-1240), widely regarded as the greatest Sufi philosopher, lived in Spain while von Eschenbach was writing. His work would come to exert a tremendous influence on Dante. In his comparative study The Legacy of Islam, R. A. Nicholson catalogs some of the features of the Divine Comedy that correspond to Ibn ‘Arabi’s descriptions, including “The infernal regions, the astronomical heavens, the circles of the mystic rose, the choirs of angels around the focus of the divine light, the three circles symbolizing the Trinity – all are described by Dante exactly as Ibnu’l-‘Arabi described them.” (8)

The knowledge of classical antiquity was alive in Arabic translation when it had been forgotten by Europe, and it was largely through contact with the Muslim world that the intellectual worlds of Greece and Rome were rediscovered in the West, triggering the Renaissance. For example, Thomas Aquinas (died 1274), one of the most important theologians in the history of Christianity, relied heavily on the Muslim philosopher Ibn Roschd (Averroes) for his interpretation of Aristotle.

Cowl worn by St. Francis
Santa Croce, Florence

Saint Francis of Assisi (died 1226) was a troubadour before he became a renunciate and founded a new monastic order. The Sheikh Idries Shah has made a persuasive argument that Francis used Sufi poetic imagery in many of his writings, including his famous “Canticle of the Sun,” written in 1224. Francis tried three times to travel to the East – first to Syria, then to Morocco, and last to Damietta in Egypt, where he met with and greatly impressed the Sultan Malik el-Kamil. (9)

Our cursory review here could be dramatically extended, but I trust the point has been made. Many of the masterworks of the European tradition were written in dialog with the world of Islam. The poetical, narrative, and religious imagination of the High Middle Ages, which established a legacy that continues to underlie European culture to this day, is of mixed heritage.

It is more important than ever to keep this in mind, when so many forces are at work in the United States and Europe that dehumanize Muslims in the cultural imagination. The image of Islam evokes for many Europeans and Americans the shadow of the West, appearing as the embodiment of the irrational, the totalitarian, the fanatic, the Terrorist – the barbarians at the gates.

But as von Eschenbach saw and sang 800 years ago, Muslims are not evil, or good, but a blend of the dark and the light, like everyone else.

There is always the possibility that if we throw off the sword, and take off our respective masks, we may find that we are brothers and sisters of the same father. We may find, as Parzifal and Feirefiz saw at once, “It was more fitting for them to be friends than bitter enemies.”

References
1) Pound E. “L’aura Amara,” from Pound; Poems and Translations. The Library of America. 2003. pg. 489.
2) ibid., pg. 493.
3) von Eschenbach W. Parzival. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1980. pg. 372.
4) Attar FUD. The Conference of the Birds. trans. by Darbandi A, and Davis D. Penguin Classics. 1984. pg. 61.
5) Attar FUD., pg. 57.
6) Rumi JAD. Mystical Poems of Rumi 2. trans. by Arberry AJ. The University of Chicago Press. 1979. pg. 50.
7) von Strassburg G. Tristan. trans. by Hatto, AT. Penguin Classics. 1960. pg. 200.
8) Nicholson RA. op. cit. Campbell J. Creative Mythology; The Masks of God. Penguin Books. 1968. pg. 129-30.
9) Shah I. “The Sufis and Francis of Assisi.” http://www.reformation.org/franciscan-sufis.html. Retrieved April 16, 2012.

Written by Mesocosm

April 16, 2012 at 10:59 am

Do Buddhist teachings of selflessness contradict the doctrine of reincarnation?

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Sleeping Muse, Constantin Brâncuşi, 1910
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

In the years that I’ve been involved with various Buddhist communities, I’ve heard versions of this question many times. The Buddha taught that all things are without a permanent, abiding self. But many Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. How can both be true? Does reincarnation not imply the existence of something like a soul, or an eternally-abiding essence of the person?

I do not subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation. However, from the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, I don’t believe this is an actual contradiction, because the self that reincarnates is a phenomenon like any other, persisting for as long as the causes and conditions that keep it going continue.

Most Buddhist schools teach that everything lacks a self. There is no permanently-abiding table any more than there is an eternally-abiding blogger writing these words. But that does not mean there is no table there – it simply means that the table doesn’t have the kind of persistence that it appears to have, at first glance.

We don’t need to appeal to metaphysical speculation to establish the selflessness of the table, we simply have to look closely at it and try to find its essence. By a process of reasoning and analysis, we can determine that it has none.

There is no invisible line around the table that separates it from the floor and the air, there is only a semi-stable lattice of particles interacting with its environment. If you crank up the electron microscope and really look hard at the thing, you’ll find that what we think of as the bits that make it up are themselves almost entirely empty space – atoms are simply tiny flashes of energy orbiting an equally-tiny nucleus in a vast gulf. If an average atom’s nucleus were the size of a basketball, an orbiting electron would be nearly 8 miles away.

So where is the solid table that we imagine? The table that we experience is a collection of perceptions and ideas all mixed together, and by the time we have an image of it in our consciousness, the concept of what things are like has gotten so mixed up with the perception of the table that there’s no disentangling them. In the language of one epistemological tradition within Buddhism, the conceptual image, or meaning-generality, of the table, is fused with the sense impression of the table itself.

The table exists from one moment to the next as long as the causes and conditions that go into arranging that particular configuration of matter and energy into something we can call a table persist. Once the causes and conditions cease, the table will cease. If, for example, we turn the heat up a few thousand degrees, poof! No more table.

No Abiding Self
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiter, Pablo Picasso, 1910
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, the self that reincarnates is like the table. The fact that it continues after the time of death is immaterial (no pun intended). Minds continue to exist in basically the same sense that tables still exist. They are conventional phenomena that abide for as long as the causes and conditions that sustain them abide.

One can ask other questions of reincarnation, though, and I think they should be asked. Let’s take the issue of mind/body dualism.

The term “dualism” in philosophy is used in different ways, but it frequently refers to the mind/body distinction posited by René Descartes. Descartes believed that the mind and the body are two different kinds of things, which fundamentally distinct in their character. I think his model basically affirmed what most people assumed to be true, based largely on the Christian belief in the persistence of a personal soul after the time of death.

You will often hear it claimed that Buddhism is a nondualistic tradition that rejects the mind/body split. It seems to me that nothing could be further from the truth. Buddhist philosophy traditionally makes a sharp distinction between the mind and physical matter. In the language of early Buddhist ontology, for example, the world is divided into different constituent elements, called aggregates, which include mind, perceptions, and perceptible objects or forms. These aggregates are of different ontological types, much as in Descartes’ distinction between res cogitans and res extensa.

One contemporary Tibetan scholar-yogi put it thusly:

Mind and body, though associated, are not inseparably linked; they have different substantial causes. That this is so means that the increase and development of the mind is not limited to that of the body; though the continuum of the body ceases at death, that of the mind does not. This difference stems from the fact that whereas the body is composed of matter and as such is anatomically established, mind is not. It is an impermanent phenomenon … changing in each moment, and having the nature of clear light. (1)

One could not ask for a clearer statement of mind/body dualism.

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy, generally speaking, the mind does not have intrinsic existence, and so it has no eternally-abiding self. However, it does have a different substantial basis from material phenomena, and as such, it does not depend on the body for its continued existence. In the Gelukpa tradition, represented in the quote above, the substantial cause of each moment of the mind’s existence is the preceding moment of the mind’s existence, and nothing further is needed to sustain it.

I do not have a problem reconciling an eternally-abiding mind with the doctrine of emptiness, but I do have a problem with mind/body dualism, and with the idea that the mind is constituted of a mysterious, self-perpetuating stream of some sort. After all, we have learned a little about the mind in the last 2500 years, and I do not see how the existence of the mind can be differentiated from the behavior of the brain at this late date.

References
1) Lati Rinbochay and Napper E. Mind in Tibetan Buddhism. Snow Lion Press. 1980. pg. 11.

Written by Mesocosm

April 3, 2012 at 12:31 pm

The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life

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Mary (detail), circa 14th Century, Greece
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

On Christian Doctrine, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series on Christian theology, we took a brief look at some of the competing ideas alive in the early Christian church concerning the life and ministry of Jesus, and the nature of his relationship to God. We briefly compared the interpretations of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas.

While John taught that Christ’s life and relationship to God was a unique historical event, Thomas believed that Jesus was a paradigmatic example of the relationship that all persons have to the divine. These imply radically different concepts of salvation: for John, salvation consists in affirming Christ’s death and resurrection, while for Thomas it consisted of coming into accord with your personal relationship to God.

For those who have studied Indian philosophy, the resonances between Thomas’ soteriology and Indian models of liberation, such as those taught by the Buddhist, Jaina, and Advaita Vedanta schools, is immediately apparent. It is interesting to note that Thomas is believed by some traditions to have traveled to India, and an extant community of South Indian Christians traces their own lineage back to Thomas.

The extra-canonical Acts of Thomas describes his ministry and martyrdom in India. It begins with an episode in which Christ, after his resurrection, instructs Thomas to go to India to teach, and Thomas replies “How can I, who am a Hebrew, go forth and preach among the Indians?” (1) When he refuses to go, Christ sells Thomas into slavery to an Indian trader, who brings him home, and there his adventures begin.

I am not certain to account for the apparent significance of this Indian tradition claiming a lineage back to Thomas and the affinities the Gospel of Thomas shows with Indian philosophy. Thomas’ gospel is quite early – earlier than the Gospel of John – and if extraneous religious ideas were interpolated onto the gospel, one would expect that to occur at a relatively late date. The Acts of Thomas dates to the third century, for example. It’s a mystery to me, what is going on there.

In Part 1 of this series, we also looked at the doctrine of the Trinity and the unsuccessful attempt by the church to exclude female representations of divinity, which has everywhere been challenged by the Cult of Mary. It is worth noting that the early churches in the Arabian peninsula and in Egypt may have glorified or even deified the Virgin. The religious historian Jonathan P. Berkey notes that in the centuries before Muhammad, many Arabs appear to have interpreted the Trinity as consisting of God, Jesus, and Mary. In support of this reading, Berkey cites a Koranic verse in which Jesus denies being the Son of God (2):

And when God said, ‘O
Jesus son of Mary,
didst thou say unto men,
“Take me and my mother
as gods, apart from God”?
[Jesus] said, “To Thee be
glory! It is not mine to
say what I have no right
to.” (3)

Berkey notes the proximity of Arabia to the Ionian colony of Ephesus, which, as we noted in Part One of this series, was a prominent center of goddess worship, and the site of a great temple dedicated to Artemis Ephesia. It was at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE that Mary was affirmed to be “God-Bearer” (Theotokos).

It is also worth noting that the Christian church assimilated the iconography of Mary with the infant Christ from an ancient tradition in Egypt, depicting the goddess Isis and the baby Horus.

The religious imagination will not tolerate suppression of the divine feminine for long, and institutional attempts to eliminate it are constantly challenged by forceful, spontaneous attempts of the psyche to formulate symbols of this kind. Mary the God-Bearer lies within easy reach of Mary the Goddess-Mother, as the Koran and other evidence from the Middle Ages will corroborate. As a caveat, however, it should be borne in mind that the Western Church values Mary’s status as God-Bearer primarily in the light of what it says about Christ’s divinity, not for what it says about Mary.
 

The Problem of Christ’s Dual Nature, Both Human and Divine

Christ Enters Jerusalem (detail)
c. 14th century
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Continuing our evaluation of Christian doctrine, I would like to look at the relationship between Christ’s human and divine natures, as it was formulated in 451 CE at the Council of Chalcedon. It is my belief that this Council painted the church into an unenviable corner, insisting upon the literal truth of a doctrine that cannot be accepted as such.

By the time of this council, it had already been established at Nicea that Jesus Christ was the third persona of the Trinity. In addition to being the Logos, co-eterntal with the God the Father and with the Holy Spirit, he was also believed to be the human son of Mary.

According to church doctrine, Christ was incarnated, lived as a man, suffered death, and rose again, and this human death was vital for the atonement of human sins. The conceptual vocabulary of atonement in early theology was closely modeled on contemporaneous legal doctrines of atonement for transgression. Based on a tradition dating back to the Code of Hammurabi, which famously called for “an eye for an eye,” atonement for transgression required a penalty of the same type as the transgression. Only by dying a human death could Christ’s atonement redeem human life.

We are therefore left with a logical problem. The Nicene Creed proclaimed Christ to be of one essence with the Father; he is eternal, unchanging, and beyond suffering. But as Jesus, he was incarnate in the field of time, suffered, and died.

How does this work? Is the immortal Christ different from the human Jesus? Did Christ have two distinct natures that somehow coexisted in the person of Jesus?

These doctrinal questions may seem trivial, but in their own clumsy way they get at very deep questions about what Christians mean when they talk about salvation, and what they mean by their cardinal doctrines. I am not myself a Christian, but as a person who takes spiritual problems seriously, I think it is important to understand what is going on here. It is not only historically important, but it is necessary if one wishes to come to terms with the rich and ancient tradition of Christianity, and to see what it may have to offer to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Back to our two natures problem, then. Different people tried to respond to it in different ways. Nestorius, for example, argued that in Jesus there were two persons and two natures. And a school called the Monophysites believed that there was only one nature within Jesus – a single, unique nature.

Both of these positions were rejected by the orthodox church as heretical, and, as you might expect, these kinds of disagreements led quickly to political violence, arrests, depositions, and threats of war. So goes the history of the church.

The Council of Chalcedon was called to settle this dispute, and they arrived at the following definition of faith:

Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it is to be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, perfect in divinity, and perfect in humanity, true God and true human, with a rational soul and a body, of one substance with the Father in his divinity, and of one substance with us in his humanity, in every way like us, with the only exception of sin, begotten of the Father before all time in his divinity, and also begotten in the latter days, in his humanity, of Mary the Virgin bearer of God.

This is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, manifested in two natures without any confusion, change, division or separation. The union does not destroy the difference of the two natures, but on the contrary the properties of each are kept, and both are joined in one person and hypostasis. They are not divided into two persons, but belong to the one Only-begotten Son, the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. (4)

They are of one substance but two natures? Joined in one person, without any division or separation? This is no answer to the question; it merely restates the problem.

Regular readers may recall that we recently looked at the nature of mysticism on Mesocosm, and we found that mystical symbols refer to a domain that lies beyond language and thought. Mystical symbols frequently invoke contradictory or paradoxical language to evoke a domain that lies beyond the reach of logic. Can we not simply accept the Council’s solution as a statement along these lines?

We cannot, for the mystical symbol is a symbol, that refers to a reality outside of itself. The Council’s formulation, on the other hand, insists on a literal reading of the symbol. It does not only assert a paradoxical formulation of Christ’s nature, but also insists that we take it as a factual description.

In my opinion, this represents the worst tendency in western theology: it takes itself too seriously, too literally. A study of Buddhist logic, by contrast, offers a deeply refreshing alternative – problems of this type are built in from the ground up. I may return to this topic in a later post.

For now, suffice to say that the language of spiritual symbols is the language of poetry, not science or history. You cannot pin down what religious symbols “really mean,” certainly not by applying metaphysical distinctions such as substance versus nature. One is reminded of Molière’s doctor, who, when asked how it was the medicine puts people to sleep, replied “by virtue of its dormative faculty.” As Nietzsche remarked, such answers belong in comedy.

I will suggest a alternative reading that distinguishes between Jesus the person, and Christ the symbol.

With respect to the literal, historical truth, the evidence strongly indicates that a man named Jesus taught in Galilee during the time of Pontius Pilate, and he was executed for sedition. His ministry was probably something along the lines of the teaching we get in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – an eschatological teaching of the Essene variety.

That is, his primary message was probably something along the lines of “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” (Matthew 3:2). Like many Jewish teachers in Judea in his day, he appears to have believed that a literal end of history was coming soon, and that the dead would experience bodily resurrection right here on earth, similar to the teaching of the Zoroaster.

In the meantime, before the end of days, Jesus appears to have affirmed the Old Testament injunctions to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” (Deut 6:5) and to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” (Lev 19:18).

White Crucifixion (detail)
Marc Chagall
Image (c) Barnaby Thieme

Now, sometime after the death of Jesus, certain of his followers began to hold the story of his death and resurrection as primary. John and Paul taught that Christ’s resurrection signified atonement for all who would choose to believe in him. This is a completely different teaching that is virtually undetectable in the earlier gospels.

The message of redemption through belief in the resurrection of a God was by no means new. Countless regional variations of this mystery had existed throughout the Mediterranean for centuries, including the cults of Tammuz, Osiris, Attis, and Dionysus. Important elements of this aspect of Christianity are demonstrably drawn from the Demeter rites at Eleusis as well, along with the cults of Isis, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.

When we evoke the possibility of redemption through the spiritual affirmation of the resurrection of a dying God, we are talking about a religious symbol of great antiquity and wide distribution. As rational people, we simply must look at the abundance of cognate symbols in the region, and make some kind of sense of what that implies for the nature of the story of the Gospels.

This is not to say that the religious symbol of Christ is not important or powerful – on the contrary, its wide distribution is testimony to the degree to which it is valued by those to whom it speaks. But the fact of the matter is that Christ, taken as the third persona of a triune Deity, is a symbol. The person Jesus is not the same as thing as the Son of Man, attendant upon the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:13-14), and he is not the same kind of thing. To try to interpret the symbol as a fact is to miss its meaning.

What, then, is its meaning?

I would personally submit that the ultimate meaning of the Christ symbol, as with any religious symbol, consists in the living response that it evokes in the human heart, whatever that might be.

In the next post in this series, we will look at Christ as a religious symbol in the context of another place where orthodox doctrine in the Western Christian Church really missed the boat – the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius over the doctrine of Original Sin.

References
1) “The Acts of Thomas.” fr Barnstone W. The Other Bible. HarperCollins. 1984. p. 465
2) Berkey JP. The Formation of Islam. Cambridge University Press. 2033. pp. 45-6
3) Arberry AJ. (trans.) The Koran Interpreted; A Translation. Touchstone Books. 1955. 5.115. pg. 147
4) Gonzalez JL. The Story of Christianity; Volume I. HarperCollins. 2010. pg. 301

Written by Mesocosm

March 25, 2012 at 11:13 am

Religion and Mysticism

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Shiva Dakshinamurti
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

There exist, generally speaking, two basic postures with respect to spiritual phenomena. The religious attitude is oriented toward collective ritual participation in a shared set of symbols, with the primary aim of assimilating individuals into a system of sentiments, values, and prohibitions. The mystical attitude is concerned with the direct experience of a domain that lies beyond the ordinary realm of thoughts, values, and judgments. It does not pertain to particular things, but to being itself.

It is an empirical fact that religious symbols vary widely from culture to culture. Their transmission can be tracked historically, and in each society in which they appear, they are interpreted in the light of that society’s priorities and values.

To take one example, compare the goddess Inanna in Sumer, Ishtar in Babylon, Isis in Egypt, Venus in Rome, and the Blessed Virgin in the Christian church. These figures are variations on the same motif, sharing associations with the morning star, the lion, the dove, love, and war. Each is the mother or consort of a lunar god who dies and lives again; Inanna is paired with Damuzi, Ishtar with Tammuz, Isis with Osiris, Venus with Adonis, the Virgin with Christ. (In what sense is Christ a moon god? one might ask. But note how long he rested under the earth before returning to life.)

The historical transmission of this goddess is well-known – she spread with the technologies of the city, including writing, mathematics, astronomy, and large-scale irrigation agriculture, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and then throughout the Mediterranean. The basic structure of the symbol remained intact, but the personality of the goddesses changed substantially, reflecting the values of each societies into which she passed. For the earthy and prelapsarian Sumerians, Inanna is sexually voracious, associated with ritual prostitution and the seduction of heroes, while the Virgin Mary embodies the opposite tendency.

This example illustrates a general principle found in the comparative study of religions, that religious symbols have a particular valence and belong to the sphere of moral valuation represented by the local group. They represent specific attributes, which are determinate – they are either this, or that. An affirmation of the religious symbol therefore become an affirmation of the group and its collective values, and participation in religious rituals brings one into alignment with the group. This social function of religious symbols may shed light on why this goddess spread with the newly-developed city and its new requirements for social adjustment.

Now, it is also an empirical fact that mystical experiences are universal in character, resembling one another throughout the world and lacking local inflection. The mystical attitude is not oriented to any particular things, but to the fact of Being in itself.

Mystical symbols differ fundamentally from religious symbols in that they refer to a domain that lies beyond the values of the social group in which they are expressed. They refer to an experience beyond language, beyond thought, beyond speech, and beyond belief. In opposition to the particularity of religious symbols, we can evoke the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, which says that the sacred ground of Being is “not this, not that”.

The Kena Upanishad evokes the transcendent mystery in its contemplation of the holy Brahman:

If you think that you know well the truth of Brahman, know that you know little. What you think to be Brahman in your self, or what you think to be Brahman in the gods – that is not Brahman. What is indeed the truth of Brahman you must therefore learn.

I cannot say that I know Brahman fully. Nor can I say that I know him not. He among us knows him best who understands the spirit of the words: “Nor do I know that I know him not.”

He truly knows Brahman who knows him as beyond knowledge, he who thinks that he knows, knows not. The ignorant think that Brahman is known, but the wise know him to be beyond language. (1)

The symbols of mysticism either transcend dualities, or bring them together. Compare our Virgins and libidinous goddesses above with the goddess who speaks in the Gnostic poem Thunder, Perfect Mind, recently discovered in a manuscript dating to the fourth century CE in Nag Hammadi:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored and the scorned.
I am the whore and the holy.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am (the mother) and the daughter.
I am the limbs of my mother.
I am a barren woman
who has many children…. (2)

Song of the Lark (detail)
Jules-Adolphe Breton

The mystical goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind transcends the local variations of the goddess we discussed above – she encompasses the reality to which these local variants refer, through their particular frame of reference. She is the universal, not the particular, and like all deities in mystical traditions, she is evoked by uniting signs, such as the coincidentia oppositorum, or union of opposites. I took a look at the union of opposites motif in early Indo-European religious poetry in an earlier post.

In the mystical experience, the sense of an individual self or ego drops away, leaving an experience of union with an Absolute that is uncreated, eternal, peaceful, indescribable, and ultimately meaningful. The features of these experiences have been cataloged by many authors, such as William James in the “Mysticism” chapter of his marvelous The Varieties of Religious Experience.

People who report experiences of this sort are often transformed by them, and they may begin to act and think in reference to a mode of reality that is difficult for us ordinary monkeys to understand. There are many delightful iconoclasts in the mystical traditions of the world, who scoff at merely-religious symbols. Take this prayer by the Tibetan Tantric master Drukpa Kunley, which I have long prized:

I bow to the fornicators discontented with their wives;
I bow to crooked speech and lying talk;
I bow to ungrateful children;
I bow to professors attached to their words;
I bow to gluttonous gomchens;
I bow to philanthropists with self-seeking motives;
I bow to traders who exchange wisdom with wealth;
I bow to renunciates who gather wealth secretly;
I bow to prattlers who never listen;
I bow to tramps who reject a home;
I bow to the bums of insatiate whores.

An interesting example that may be closer to home for some readers is Job of the Old Testament. Through his trials, he comes to know a God who is beyond the sphere of human understanding and judgment in every sense. And note that the majority of the book contrasts Job’s experience of God’s unveiling with the religious perspective represented by his friends, who have come to comfort him. They remain convinced that Job must have done something to deserve the terrible things that befell him. That is, they can only interpret Job’s problems with respect to their own provincial ideas of justice and fairness. They represent the conventional religious wisdom as it is embodied by the group, and as is so often the case with the conventional wisdom, they are totally wrong.

The great poet Rumi speaks in the Sufi symbolic language of being “drunk on the divine,” and in this poem he ultimately refers to his beloved companion and mentor, Shams:

I know nothing of that wine – I’m annihilated.
  I’ve gone too far into No-place to know where I am.
Sometimes I fall to the depths of an ocean,
  then I rise up again like the sun.
Sometimes I make a world pregnant,
  sometimes I give birth to a world of creation.
Like a parrot, my soul nibbles on sugar,
  then I become drunk and nibble the parrot.
I can’t be held by any place in the world,
  I know nothing but that placeless Friend.
I’m a drunken rascal, totally mad –
  among all the rascals, I make the most noise.
You say to me, “why don’t you come to yourself?”
  You show me myself, I’ll come to it.
The shadow of the Phoenix has caressed me so much
  that you’d say I’m the Phoenix, he’s the shadow.
I saw beauty drunk, and it kept saying,
  “I’m affliction, I’m affliction, I’m affliction.”
A hundred souls answered it from every direction –
  “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours!
You are the light that kept on saying to Moses,
  “I’m God, I’m God, I’m God.”
I said: “Shams of Tabriz, who are you?”
  He said: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.” (3)

The words of many masters are echoed in this poem. “You show me myself, I’ll come to it,” reminds me of Bodhidharma’s admonition to his student Hui-k’o “Bring me your mind, and I will put it to rest.”

Or you might think of the great Sufi master Mansur al-Hallaj, who executed before Rumi’s time for saying “There is nothing wrapped in my turban but God.”

Or you might hear echoes of the goddess of Thunder, Perfect Mind, speaking in Rumi’s voice, telling him, and you, and everyone: “I’m you, I’m you, I’m you.”

Not the you that you cherish and protect, but the you that you truly are.

References
(1) Swami Prabhavananda, and Manchester F, trans. and ed. The Upanishads; Breath of the Eternal. New American Library. 1957. p. 31.
(2) Meyer M, ed. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne. 2007. p. 372
(3) Chittick WC. Sufism; A Beginner’s Guide. Oneword Publications. 2000. p. 117

Written by Mesocosm

March 16, 2012 at 9:11 am

Rādhā and Krishna: Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda

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Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa

 
As saffron-bright bodies
Of women rushing to meet lovers
Streak the night
With clusters of light,
Night spreads darkness as dense
As tamāla leaves,
Making a touchstone
To test the gold of love.
– Jayadeva
 

Once upon a time, the great god Vishnu took human form to walk the earth, and he was called Krishna. There has never been a more beautiful child beneath the stars, with skin the blue of the midnight sky, and eyes that flash like lightening. His voice could be as melodious as a flute, or as terrible as thunder rolling over the hills.

The Purānas tells us that in his youth, Krishna was a simple cowherd. Because of his vitality and great beauty, he drew all the lovely cowherd women to him, as bees are drawn to mango flowers in spring.

One day as Krishna sat beside the waters in a rain that drenched both heaven and earth, a vision appeared before him, more beautiful than the rising sun. It was Rādhā, whose face, the stories say, robbed the harvest moon of splendor.

Krishna loved her with the fierce passion of his immortal heart, and when they joined together, flowers rained from the sky, and all the celestial Apsara nymphs danced like stars turning in great wheels.

Krishna said to his beloved “You are dearer to me than my love, comely Rādhā. As I am, so are you, there is no difference between us. Just as there is whiteness in milk, and heat in fire, and fragrance in the earth, so am I in you always. A potter cannot make a pot without clay, nor a goldsmith an earring without gold. Likewise, I cannot create without you, for you are the soil of creation, and I, invincible, the seed. Come and lie with me, good woman, take me to your breast; you are my beauty, as an ornament is to my body.” (1)

So Rādhā and Krishna are one, and in the act of creation, Vishnu creates through her, and as a complementary pair they complete the totality of the sacred whole.

This is the stuff of the spectacular Hindu Purānas, written in the early first millennium CE during the golden age of Sanskrit poetics, the time of the Mahābhārata, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the great poet Kālidāsa, whose play “The Recognition of Shakuntala” is a masterpiece worthy of Shakespeare or Goethe.

From this rich legacy of story, the twelfth century poet Jayadeva composed his Gītagovinda, or Song of the Cowherd, which presents scenes from the courtship of Rādhā and Krishna in a series of songs. Given as we are in the Judeo-Christian tradition to associate divine love with the spiritual agape, and never with eros, it can be startling to contemplate consummating love’s ardor with God. Jayadeva’s verse gives flight to the imagination:

When he quickens all things
To create bliss in the world,
His soft black sinuous lotus limbs
Begin the festival of love
And beautiful cowherd girls wildly
Wind him in their bodies.
Friend, in spring young Hari plays
Like erotic mood incarnate. (2)

A major theme of Jayadeva’s work is Rādhā’s intense jealousy as Krishna’s eye strays to the other girls. She is irresistibly drawn to him, even as his philandering ways drive her to fury and despair:

Her house becomes a wild jungle,
Her band of loving friends a snare.
Sighs fan her burning pain
To flames that rage like forest fire.
Suffering your desertion,
She takes form as a whining doe
And turns Love into Death
Disguised as a tiger hunting prey. (3)

It is interesting to note that just as Jayadeva was composing his testimony to a sacred if unfaithful love, the Minnesingers and Troubadours were praising adultery throughout Europe, and Gottfried von Strassbourg (died c. 1210) was conceiving his great romance Tristan, which would exalt transgressive love as the heart’s highest sacrament. And, at this time, a the praise of love was resounding through the Islamic world, in the verse and philosophy of the Sufi masters Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī (1207-1273) and Ibn ʿArabī (1165-1240).

The prevailing moods of the Gītagovinda are union, love, passion, and delight, and its popularity is attested by the ubiquitous statuettes found of the holy couple across India to this day.

Jayadeva’s masterpiece has inspired countless performances of song and dance. It was only after I was well-acquainted with the Gita as a literary document that it occurred to me that they are intended to be sung. If you have a minute, I very much recommend listening to Gayathri Girish’s sumptuous recording of Song 21 of Gītagovinda in the YouTube video to the right.

Here is a translation of the first few stanzas of the song Girish brings to life, as rendered by Barbara Stoller Miller:

Revel in wild luxury on the sweet thicket floor!
Your laughing face begs ardently for his love.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in a thick bed of red petals plucked as offerings!
Strings of pearls are quivering on your rounded breasts.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in bright retreat heaped with flowers!
Your tender body is flowering.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel in the fragrant chill of gusting sandal-forest winds!
Your sensual singing captures the mood.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world!

Revel where swarming bees drunk on honey buzz soft tones!
Your emotion is rich in the mood of love.
  Rādhā, enter Mādhava’s intimate world! (4)

References
(1) Dimmit C & van Buitenen J. A. Classical Hindu Mythology; A Reader in the Sanskrit Purānas. Temple University Press. 1978. p. 120
(2) Miller BS. Jayadeva’s Gītagovinda. Columbia University Press. 1977. p. 77
(3) Miller, p. 88
(4) Miller, p. 118

Written by Mesocosm

March 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm

The Letter Killeth, but the Spirit Giveth Life

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On Christian Doctrine, Part 1

Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and it is outside you. (1)

12th Century Byzantine Mosaic,
Bode Museum
(Click to Enlarge)

These words from the Gospel of Thomas, written several decades before the Gospel of John, give a sense of the diversity of beliefs available to early Christians. Where John would emphasize the absolute uniqueness of Christ’s relationship to God, calling Jesus “the only begotten of the Father,” (John 1:15), Thomas proclaims a Christ who teaches that God is everywhere and within, saying “Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up a stone and you will find me there.” (2)

From the perspective of the Gospel of Thomas, it is not the fact of Christ’s resurrection, but of each individual’s relationship to God, that leads to salvation. In this account, Christ is an exemplar of the relationship everyone has to divinity: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you dwell in poverty, and you are poverty.” (3)

By the late second century, Iraeneus of Lyon had determined that the three Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, along with the Gospel of John, were to be considered canonical, and all others were superfluous. The mainstream church has followed his lead on this matter ever since. The universalizing theology of Thomas was rejected in favor of John’s unique, cosmological Christ, the Word by which all things were made, co-eternal with God, and man’s relationship to God was determined to be through Jesus alone.

The process of consolidating a Christian orthodoxy continued for several centuries, throughout the Patristic Period, the late Roman Empire, and the early Middle Ages, and during this time countless alternative views were rejected and suppressed.

The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, describing the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, was established at the First Council of Nicea in 325 CE, the first great ecumenical council of the church. This council produced the Nicene Creed, which explains the Trinity as one unified Godhead consisting of three persons, each of whom is wholly and completely God.

The Latin word translated as person in the Creed is persona, which literally refers to a stage mask used in drama. The relationship between the three personae is described as follows:

Christogramic Lamp, 4th-5th Century, Athens

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. God from God, light from light, true God from true God. Begotten, not made, of one being (homoousios) with the Father, by whom all things were made. […]

And (we believe) in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who together with the Father and the Son is to be worshiped and glorified, as was spoken by the Prophets….

Not all Christians accepted the idea that Christ was of one being with the father. The Alexandrian bishop Arius (c. 250–336 CE), for example, argued that Christ, as the Son of God, was created by God and is apart from God. This view came to be called Arianism, and is now considered to be one of the cardinal heresies of the Christian church.

Mary with Child, Heidelberg

In the early first millennium, however, Arianism was widely accepted, especially among the Germanic peoples of Europe. The Visigothic king Alaric I, who sacked Rome in 410, was an Arian, as was Odoacer, the ruler of the foederati who deposed the last Roman emperor in 476.

In 451, the doctrine of Arianism was formally and explicitly rejected at the Council of Chalcedon, the last great ecumenical council. Chalcedon judged Christ to be “the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body….” In so doing, the orthodox church embraced the paradox (or mystery, if you prefer) that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine at the same time.

The church often describes the defeat of Arianism as a theological triumph, with the better, truer doctrine winning out over the lesser, but in reality it was a military and political victory, not a theological one. The Germanic peoples who subscribed to Arianism were defeated by the Franks, who were soon to become the next great power in Europe after the fall of Rome. The first ruler of the united Frankish tribes was Clovis I (481–511), who established the long-lived Merovingian dynasty. His affirmation of the Chalcedonian Creed was decisive.

The church would continue to use political and military force to suppress divergent beliefs for the next thousand years. Pope Innocent III, for example, went so far as to declare a crusade against the people of southern France in 1209, in an efforts to stamp out Catharism. His crusading warriors, in their zeal, put thousands of unarmed civilian inhabitants of Béziers to the sword, having famously decreed “Kill them all, God will know his own.”

Jan Hus

Jan Hus, Deutsches Historisches Museum

Any number of would-be reformers were condemned and their works destroyed. The English priest John Wycliffe was declared a heretic after his death in 1384. His body was exhumed and desecrated, and his books were burned.

Jan Hus, the controversial Czech reformer, was invited to the Council of Constance in 1414. When he arrived, having been promised safe conduct, he was seized and burned at the stake. The blood-letting based on control of Christian doctrine continued to the time of Martin Luther and beyond

There is no question that the history of Christianity is a proper mess, I think. But in what follows, I would like to express some criticisms of Christianity on a doctrinal basis, instead of on historical or social grounds.
 

The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the Exclusion of the Goddess

As described above, the Nicean doctrine of the Trinity describes one God with three personae, which the church reads as persons, but which I interpret as aspects. In my interpretation, transcendent God is known to human consciousness by way of different images or archetypes, each of which ultimately refers to the same mystery.

I cannot accept the doctrine that there are three and only three personae that properly refer to God. An important case-in-point is the orthodox rejection of female images of divinity, which the church has boldly asserted, but cannot sustain.

Gender is rooted in the cultural and biological facts of our species, and surely has nothing to do with a deity who is beyond all that. But in terms of religious psychology, our species has a common heritage extending back tens of thousands of years, and it everywhere embraces female representations of the divine. I cannot believe that it is spiritually or psychologically healthy, or even possible, to exclude female representations for long.

This accounts, I think, for the enormous popularity of the Virgin Mary, who rose from her humble origins as the mother of Jesus in the Gospels to herself immaculate, elevated up to heaven by the doctrine of the Ascension, and crowned as its queen.

At the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE, Mary was proclaimed not just “Christ-Bearer,” but “God-Bearer” (Theotokos). (4) By virtue of this promotion, she acquired the epithet “Mother of God,” which had long been associated throughout the Roman world with various goddesses, especially the Egyptian goddess Isis, mother of Horus. Early iconography of Mary and Jesus was heavily influenced by depictions of Isis with the infant Horus upon her lap.

Ephesian Artemis, Capitoline Museum, Rome


It is significant that this elevation of stature should occur in the Ionian city of Ephesus, which was renowned throughout antiquity as the center of a fertility-goddess cult dedicated to Artemis.

As Mary became increasingly identified as the Queen of Heaven, she took on the attributes of similar goddess mother/consort figures, who had long been paired with a god who suffers death and finds resurrected. This combined symbol has persisted since at least the eighth millennium BCE, when it was carved into the shrines of Çatal Höyük in Anatolia, or present-day Turkey.

The Virgin Mary elicits from the faithful that particular and ardent form of love that the Goddess always evokes. It is the same devotional love that Apuleius proclaims to the goddess Isis in his wonderful novel The Golden Ass. Apuleius declares to Isis in a voice choked with sobs:

Holiest of the Holy, perpetual comfort of mankind, you whose bountiful grace nourishes the whole world; whose heart turns towards all those in sorrow and tribulation as a mother’s to her children; you who take no rest by night, no rest by day, but are always at hand to succor the distressed by land and sea, dispersing the gales that beat upon them. (5)

How closely this resembles the Marian hymn Salve Regina, set to music by hundreds of Christian composers:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.

Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary. (6)

If we go back to the world’s earliest writings, at Sumer, we find this prayer to the goddess Inanna:

From heaven’s midst Milady
  looks kindly down,
before holy Inanna, before her eyes
  they walk –
August is the queen, the evening star in the sky,
  Inanna,
Fitly (therefore) they praise the maiden Inanna.
August is the queen, the evening star in the sky
  unto the border of heaven! (7)

Like Inanna, Ishtar, Isis, and Aphrodite, the Virgin Mary is paired with a God associated with the moon and with the animal sacrifice. Mary shares their cardinal attributes: the dove and the Morning Star.

Apuleius had the good sense to recognize what should be perfectly obvious, that the many congruent images of the Goddess refer to the same experience:

Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them bread raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind forever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine of Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below the earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites – you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays – I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be involved, have mercy upon me in my extreme distress…. (8)

The Blessed Queen of Heaven answers the innate need of the human psyche to cloak the divine in a woman’s form, and it cannot be suppressed for long.

***

In Part Two this series, I will have a look at the problem of Christ’s dual nature, and the solution proposed by the Council of Chalcedon.

Virgin and Child with an Angel (detail)
Sandro Botticelli
Art Institute of Chicago

References

1) “The Gospel of Thomas”, 3. from Myer M., et al. The Nag Hammadi Scriptures. HarperOne. 2007. p 139
2) Thomas, 77. from Myer, 2007. p 146
3) Thomas, 3. from Myer, 2007. p 139
4) Baring A, Cashford J. The Myth of the Goddess. Penguin Books. 1993. p 550
5) Apuleius, trans. Robert Graves. The Transformations of Lucius; Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Noonday Press. 1979. p 282
6) “Salve Regina.” from Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salve_Regina Accessed Feb 3, 2012.
7) “Hymn to Inanna.” from Jacobsen T. The Harps that Once…; Sumerian Poetry in Translation. Yale University Press. 1987. pp 118-9
8) Apuleius, pp 262-3

All images (c) Barnaby Thieme, all rights reserved.

Written by Mesocosm

February 3, 2012 at 1:04 pm