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Pantheism – Is my God bigger than your God?

Benedict de Spinoza: moral problems and our em...

Benedict de Spinoza (Photo: Wikipedia)

Pantheism (Greek: pan [all] + theos [God] = All is God) is the belief that God and creation are one.

Subtle differences and schools can be found within pantheism. Naturalistic pantheism sees nature and the cosmos as God, a cosmology found New Age theories advancing the idea that “We are the Universe.”

Others say that God exists in but is also greater than the universe. That is, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This view is sometimes called panentheism. Panentheism is evident in Taoism and aspects of Hinduism, as well as the philosophical works of Spinoza¹ and Hegel.

Both pantheism and panentheism differ from Theism and Deism. But these belief systems, themselves, are not the same. Theism and Deism both understand God as transcendent to creation but they differ on the degree to which God interacts with creation—from a great deal to not at all, respectively.

The religion scholar R. C. Zaehner suggests another term, panenhenism, for the belief that the universe is a unified whole without reference to any kind of ‘God.’

Zaehner’s term anticipates semiotic and postmodern agendas that deconstruct words like ‘God’ and the meaning these words connote to different individuals and groups—such as feminists, as well as visible, invisible, outspoken and silent minorities.

Talking about idea of pantheism can be fruitless because terms like “the universe” or “nature” mean different things to different people. For some, these are limiting terms because they do not include heaven and hell, as well as the spiritual powers and beings believed to reside in these places.

Others, however, claim that the words “universe” or “nature” simply point to “All That Is,” which would include heaven, hell and everything else in between.

Wikipedia sums up the general meaning of pantheism as follows:

In the mid-eighteenth century, the English theologian Daniel Waterland defined pantheism this way: “It supposes God and nature, or God and the whole universe, to be one and the same substance—one universal being; insomuch that men’s souls are only modifications of the divine substance.” In the early nineteenth century, the German theologian Julius Wegscheider  defined pantheism as the belief that God and the world established by God are one and the same.²

The Catholic Church has always opposed pantheism as an ultimate worldview.³ For Catholics, the Holy Spirit is incomparably higher and yet more personal than some force (or forces) of the created universe. For those who have experienced the difference, this seems obvious.

For those who haven’t experienced any difference, Catholics (and others) who say God is transcendent yet immanent probably seem brainwashed by their tradition. Reductionism isn’t only about cretins in white lab coats. It’s about anyone who tries to drag others down to their level of experience and understanding.

Image via Wikipedia

Related » Akhenaton, Connotation, Denotation, Monotheism, Polytheism

¹ Wikipedia’s entry on Pantheism seems almost devotional in its praise of Spinoza’s great intellectual achievement. True, he anticipates the enlightenment and Biblical criticism. But in my opinion, he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about when it comes to cosmology. A simple street person could be far wiser but some of us tend to exalt those who craft elaborate intellectual systems, even if they are built, layer by layer, on flawed or limited assumptions about the nature of reality.

² Ibid.

³ This opposition has not always been loving, to say the least. Giordano Bruno, essentially a pantheist, was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno


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Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) – Great unifier or opinionated reductionist?

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was an Indian scholar of religion and philosophy who taught at the University of Calcutta and Oxford. He became the first Vice President (1952) and the second President of India (1962).

More interesting to me, he was an influential interpreter of Hinduism. His translation of the Bhagavad-Gita was a standard for students of Comparative Religion back in the mid-1980s. But this wasn’t the copy I kept in my coat pocket while traveling throughout India. Instead, I preferred a small, cheap Indian paperback that lacked the intellectual varnish of the Radhakrishnan publication.

For Radhakrishnan, diverse world religions are different aspects of the same Source. So religions can be unified through a universal interpretation of Vedanta, particularly, Advaita Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta argues that the soul (atman) and ultimate reality (brahman) eventually merge as one. There is no ultimate individuality.

Radhakrishnan’s intentions were noble. I have no doubt that he wanted to sow worldwide peace and promote mutual advantage. But what we want to believe and what’s really happening are often quite different.

Accordingly, Radhakrishnan believes that the Christian message, which clearly glorifies individuality and sainthood in the service of God, fits within his non-individualistic take on Hinduism.¹

Image – Wikipedia

Radhakrishnan’s work is widely respected in India and around the world. This isn’t surprising because Hinduism, like most religious perspectives, tends to incorporate or, depending on how you look at it, reduce different world religions to agree with its own understanding of the godhead. Some find this an attractive approach while others believe it overlooks or, perhaps, trivializes important theological differences.

Consider, for instance, a fairly standard Hindu view of Christianity. For many Hindus, Jesus Christ is just another messenger—some might say avatar. Christ is one among many wise historical figures, and certainly not the most evolved messenger or avatar. For some, Christ is a well-meaning cosmic schoolboy because he doesn’t teach about the supposed “truth” of reincarnation. He’s not evolved enough to “know.”

So for many Hindu believers in reincarnation, Christ the cosmic schoolboy is not the only Son and incarnation of God as traditional Christians, themselves, believe.²

One could argue that this approach, even if well-intentioned, contributes to a condescending and divisive “we know better than them” attitude that runs through most faith groups around the world.

When individuals rigidly believe that their particular religious beliefs represent absolute or the best available truth, there’s arguably little room left for meaningful dialogue.

The agenda to ‘convince and convert’ is found among most religious people. Sometimes this agenda is masked with an agreeable persona of trying to understand. Whether or not this facade of trying to understand represents unethical deception or a wise kind of “fishing” for souls remains open to debate.³

¹ This might be due to his never having an unadulterated Christian experience. Some think he was, in part, reacting to a negative experience with Christian missionaries in India. See http://ojs.globalmissiology.org/index.php/english/article/view/244/684 . There are some schools of Indian thought that conceptually fit better with Christian cosmology.

² For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life – John 3:16. Hinduism is not the only non-Christian belief system that modifies traditional Christianity to fit within its own framework. Almost all non-Christian religions do this, old and new. Likewise, many Christians reinterpret non-Christian beliefs to fit with their own cosmology.

³ “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” http://biblehub.com/matthew/4-19.htm

Related » Wendy Doniger, Visistadvaita

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The Rosary – Aid or distraction?

The word rosary refers to any planned prayer recited on a string of beads. Rosaries in this sense have been prayed all over the world in different religious traditions for centuries.

Before the introduction of beads, prayers were counted on pebbles or fingers.

Some believe that the Catholic holy rosary was adapted from earlier Muslim prayer beads, introduced through the Crusades. Others say the holy rosary existed prior to the Crusades.

Probably no one really knows just how or when the Catholic rosary came into being.

According to Catholic legend, which many Catholics accept as fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary mystically appeared to St. Dominic in 1214. The story goes that Mary gave Dominic the holy rosary saying,”One day through the rosary and the Scapular I will save the world.”¹

Many other Catholic saints reportedly had subsequent visions, from the Middle Ages to modern times. These visions usually conveyed an urgency in spreading devotion through the rosary.

In October 2002 Pope John Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries to the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries.

The Catholic mysteries of the rosary are based on key moments in the life, death and afterlife of both Jesus and Mary as portrayed in the New Testament.

Crucifijos de los Rosarios

Crucifijos de los Rosarios by Nathan Gibbs via Flickr

To me, the rosary is a useful tool for quieting one’s thoughts, providing one needs that kind of help. When I first became interested in Catholicism in the early 1990s, I prayed the rosary fairly often for a while. Sometimes I would receive tangible graces that I associated with the Virgin Mary, sometimes I had slightly different types of experiences.

But over time, the rosary began to feel like so many rattling words. It became more of a distraction than a devotional aid. That’s probably because as I grew older, contemplation came more easily, and the repetitive words seemed like superficial chatter over the calm I’d already found.

However, I may still sit in church for a while if parishioners are praying a rosary. I may even join in for part of the prayer. Like other preset prayers, the holy rosary is a good backup for those stressful days when one is more distracted (from God) than usual or when, perhaps, one just feels called to pray that way.

Some Lutherans and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans pray variations of the rosary, but it remains a predominantly Catholic practice.²

¹ See these links.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosary#In_non-Catholic_Christianity | For more about the Catholic holy rosary, see this.

Related » Goddess vs. goddess, Hail Mary Prayer, Virgin Mary


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The Runes – Another window into beliefs about the sacred and profane

Mosaic runes - the futhark and some runic messages with ribbons and symbols.

Mosaic runes – the futhark and some runic messages with ribbons and symbols – xjy via Flickr

Runes are the characters of different Germanic languages dating from 150 CE.¹

The characters gradually took on divinatory and mystical significance as they spread from southern Europe to Britain and Scandinavia. They were replaced by the Latin alphabet when runic cultures converted to Christianity between 700 CE and 1100 CE. Still used for decoration, some New Age enthusiasts see the runes as tools for depth psychology, divination and mysticism.

Not unlike modern interpretations of the I Ching, which adapt ancient Chinese commentaries, New Age runes are said to be based on runic inscriptions found on swords, stones and bronze pendants. Also like the I Ching, Tarot and other forms of divination, the runes have been commercialized.

Some believe the commercialization of the runes invalidates their divinatory and mystical significance; others don’t make a sharp distinction between God and commercialism.² This latter group believes that God’s ways are greater than any human thought or construction. So God can work through anything, be it a traditionally sacred vehicle or another branded as a sellout.³

evolution of the j-rune.

evolution of the j-rune. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the language of Religious Studies, the debate over commercialization involves beliefs about the sacred and profane, cosmology, and how everything does or does not connect within a given belief system.4

Wikipedia, although claiming to be as objective as possible, displays a secular, slightly sarcastic bias when addressing modern forms of Runic mysticism.

The lack of extensive knowledge on historical use of the runes has not stopped modern authors from extrapolating entire systems of divination from what few specifics exist, usually loosely based on the reconstructed names of the runes and additional outside influence.

A recent study of runic magic suggests that runes were used to create magical objects such as amulets, but not in a way that would indicate that runic writing was any more inherently magical, than were other writing systems such as Latin or Greek.5

An inscription using both cipher runes, the El...

An inscription using both cipher runes, the Elder Futhark and the Younger Futhark, on the 9th century Rök Runestone in Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Paula Byerly Croxon claims they can be traced to 1300 BC via archaeology. See PDMB&S (2003), p. 245.

² Next time you’re in a Catholic Church, take a look at the back page of the parish bulletin. Even though Jesus was enraged by ancient merchants peddling their wares and money-changing in the temple, Catholics are doing a similar thing today: Ads over the whole back page of the bulletin, sometimes really smarmy ones.

³ I tend to fall into this camp. So when some clergy preach against the horrors of TV, the internet or “secular” ways, I usually reflect on how regimented and ignorant they really are. I also smile inwardly when, moments later, they reverentially scoop up the “secular” money with an offertory hymn. Sometimes more than once in a given Mass. Does this somehow make the profane sacred? Some say it does. Others see it as rank hypocrisy and a general lack of psychological integration.

Picture of Runes used in Fortune Telling

Runes used in Fortune Telling (Wikipedia)

4 One of the leading scholars to address this issue is the Romanian, Mircea Eliade.

5 That’s why, as staggering as it is, Wikipedia often isn’t enough. We need books, articles, independent blogs and websites to unpack assumptions and to provide alternative perspectives. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Runes

Related » Odin

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Paul’s Letter to the Romans – Ancient innovation to overcome legalism

Rembrandt - St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Rembrandt – St. Paul in Prison (Wikipedia)

Paul’s Letter To The Romans is an important book of the Christian New Testament.

Most Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that it was written by the apostle Paul c. 56 CE., probably in the Greek city of Corinth.

Paul’s writings have a certain depth because he was not only traditionally ‘educated’ but also a former persecutor of Christians. His dramatic conversion while riding to Damascus gives him a unique credibility among contemporary believers.

In Letter To The Romans Paul writes to a specific community he is planning to visit. His message is clear. The Old Testament laws are holy but strict, legalistic adherence to them does not guarantee spiritual salvation.

Early Christians have metaphorically died to the old Jewish law and are reborn in the faith of Christ. With a pure heart set on Jesus, good thoughts and actions arise through God’s grace.

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.¹

For Catholics, this means one is not saved through faith alone. Believers also must do the right thing before God.

Paul arrested - Wikipedia

Paul arrested – Wikipedia

The difference between Paul’s vision and the early, Old Testament approach is that good works are “alive” and adaptive in contrast to just doing what we’re told through a given set of rules and regulations.²

Put another way, Christians ideally live well from the inside, responding appropriately to a variety of complicated life situations. They do not simply obey from the outside, responding in a fixed way for every circumstance.

Paul’s letter also breaks new ground by saying that salvation through Christ is not just for a select few but for all—Gentiles, Jews and anyone who lives in Christ.

Salvation also includes women, who, in ancient times were not always too visible. About one-third of Romans’ greetings are to women. This may not be 50% but it is a significant step considering the ancient world mostly ignored women as equals.

¹ Romans 7:6

² (a) Historically, rabbis have debated the meaning of the Law coming up with different interpretations. I’m not sure if any interpretations have approximated Paul’s message. If any Jewish scholars know, please comment! I’d be interested to hear. (b) For some, it is ironic that the Catholic Church has adopted so many rules and regulations while, at the same time, upholding Paul’s position that the letter of the law “kills” while the spirit “lives” – 2 Corinthians 3:6.


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Rishis – Holy persons or good singers with too much time on their hands?

A Hermit (Rishi), India, 11th century AD, pink_sandstone - Chazen Museum of Art

A Hermit (Rishi), India, 11th century AD, pink sandstone – Chazen Museum of Art

In Hinduism rishis are primal seers or sages mentioned in the Vedas.

The rishis belonged to an elite class of male and female holy persons said to have received the Vedas through revelation. They “heard” and then passed on the sacred Vedas in the form of hymns.

Through song and oral repetition the Vedas were transmitted to disciples for centuries until the verses were eventually written down.

For this reason pinpointing the age of the Vedas is problematic because (most likely) no one really knows when the Vedic revelations were received and orally composed.

Also, from a contemporary skeptics eye, no one really knows if the rishis just had good imaginations, were repeating cultural biases, or whether their songs came from God (or partly from God).

This may seem politically incorrect or indelicate to say, but it’s so common for people to level this kind of critique against Jewish and Christian scripture, it only seems fair and right that all sacred scripture should be met with the same kind of critical scrutiny.


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Reversal – Beyond the clever machine

300-2In psychoanalytic theory, reversal is a Freudian defense mechanism.

A broader idea than turning against the self, reversal takes place when the ego converts an instinctual impulse into behavior appearing as its opposite. The miser becomes a philanthropist, the pervert a prude, the hater a lover.¹

Remember that Freud bases most everything on the instincts of life (eros) and death (thanatos). So reversal involves aspects and combinations of both waking and dreaming life:

The expression reversal into the opposite refers to the transformation of an idea, a representation, a logical figure, a dream image, a symptom, an affect, or the like into its opposite.²

Freud’s entire model is predicated on the belief that the psyche behaves like a clever machine or, in more contemporary terms, an adaptable computer program. For Freud, a variety of internal attempts are made to reduce anxiety and increase overall functioning. Sometimes the “program” works well. Other times it gets buggy (neurosis) or caught in a downward spiral where the machine crashes (psychosis), requiring a reboot.

Reversal is just another example of the clever machine trying to make things optimal, given its paradoxical life/death nature.

My main critique of this view is that all of the regulating is done within the machine. Even dreams that play with, combine or synthesize different moments in space-time are seen as originating from within the neurological system (mainly brain processes).

Compare this view to most religious and mystical traditions and it seems to fall short. A recent example, given the time of year, is how the three wise men in the New Testament are told in a dream to not return to King Herod³ after they find the Christ child. So the three wise men go home another way (Matt 2:12).

Granted, this is a religious story and we have no way of publicly demonstrating its truth. But it does suggest possibilities: Dreams could come from God or otherworldly agents beyond the clever machine. The brain could simply be reading a story, just like a media player plays a video or a radio plays a station. Not many would say a video player actually directs a movie or the radio writes the tune.4

Being a materialist atheist, Freud would not have seriously considered this perspective. And  I think that this, despite his obvious genius, was his greatest shortcoming.

¹ We see this with some religious people who talk about love but underneath harbor hateful, violent thoughts that sometimes erupt into deadly action.

² See http://www.encyclopedia.com/psychology/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/reversal-opposite

³ Beforehand, Herod lies to the wise men, saying he wants to honor instead of kill Jesus.

Freud’s student Carl Jung mentions the latter analogy, well before the idea of “channeling” becomes mainstream.