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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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Reason, Revelation, Inspiration and Illumination – A Matter of Character or Degree?

In both philosophy and theology a distinction is often made between

  • knowledge obtained through reason

and

  • knowledge obtained through revelation

Many learned and pious discussions follow from this way of looking at things. But I believe the distinction, itself, should be examined. It is conceivable that ideas and their arrangement in a coherent argument could be revealed or, at least, partially revealed to a person from God.

Traditional Catholic theologians usually call this inspiration as a result of illumination, suggesting that the process somehow differs from receiving divine revelations.

But where do we draw the line?

In dream psychology, Carl Jung talks about big dreams and little dreams. Big dreams, according to Jung’s theory, involve the collective unconscious. Little dreams involve the personal unconscious. But the scope of dreams rarely, if ever, involve just me or everyone.

Dreams usually involve some mixture of the personal and the collective unconscious. So the dream type rests upon a continuum. Some dreams do seem bigger than others. But it’s still you dreaming them. Likewise, some dreams seem more personal than others. But they’re still coming from a mysterious source.

Could we not make a similar case with the distinction between revelation vs. inspiration and illumination? Instead of this or that, it seems more prudent to speak of a continuum.¹


¹ One of the great weakness of some aspects of Catholic theology, as I see it, is that its truth claims must fit – or appear to fit – with everything that came before. This makes some aspects of Catholic teaching a bit too close to politics and power, which is probably one of the main reasons why the Church is desparate for new priests and also, turning away many good, conscientious lay persons.

Related » St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Revealed Knowledge


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Sri Ramakrishna – Hindu spiritual figure claiming to have practiced different religions

English: Ramakrishna Paramhansacommons:Image:R...

Ramakrishna (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) began life as an obscure, unschooled village boy, Gadhadhar Chatterji. His first major religoius experience came at age six.

Ramakrishna describes his first spiritual ecstasy…while walking along the paddy fields, a flock of white cranes flying against a backdrop of dark thunder clouds caught his vision. He reportedly became so absorbed by this scene that he lost outward consciousness and experienced indescribable joy in that state.¹

In the years to come, he became a prominent Hindu holy man, emphasizing unity among all religions.

Ramakrishna says he practiced all faiths and discovered that they all lead to the same spiritual place. Just how thoroughly, however, one can effectively rid oneself of one’s cultural and religious biases remains open to debate. My sense is that he viewed other religions through the lense of his own biases, even though he claims all thoughts of Hinduism vanished while, for instance, someone read the Bible to him or while he recited the name of Allah.²

To me his exploration of non-Hindu religions seems superficial and, perhaps, even delusional. He bases his analysis on visions had while practicing some of the outward measures of different religious faiths, including Chritianity. But for most mystically inclined Christians, religious visions only strenghthen and reassure. They are not the measure of faith. Faith is about putting your religion into practice, day in and day out. It’s about finding God through selfless serving, while sweeping the floor or maybe cleaning a toilet. It’s not about a brief and, I would suggest, questionable vision that comes after a few days of external practice. Anyone on drugs or with a hepped up brain can have that. Moreover, it is not about wanting to be exalted as a holy man that everyone should liken to God.³

This issue aside, biographers say Ramakrishna often fell into extended ecstatic raptures. These trances were extreme to the point that even Ramakrishna himself sometimes wondered if he’d gone mad. At such moments the Hindu Blessed Mother, Kali, apparently would appear in a mystical vision and console him with her graces.

English: This is a pencil sketch of the holy m...

Sketch of the holy mother Sri Sarada Devi (Photo: Wikipedia)

Before marrying Sri Devi, Ramakrishna prayed that Kali would “root out” all of her sexual tendencies. Not surprisingly, their marriage was never consummated. While this may seem strange to many who can’t see beyond our materialistic, techno-sexual culture, the two reportedly were united in a purely spiritual sense, making sexual union redundant, perhaps even distasteful. Considering she was much younger than him, this is surprising. But most Hindu accounts don’t talk too much about female sexuality, focussing on the male gurus’ ‘great victories’ over their male sexual urges.4

To help overcome his male sexual urges, Ramakrishna often dressed and behaved as a woman. Again, to me this seems quite crude, not in the sense that I am against cross-dressing (I’m not) but in the sense that it is such a materialistic, clunky approach. I would think that a deeply spiritual person, someone revered as holy, would be able to inwardly experience a “subtle body,” as the Hindus put it, of the opposite sex without having to go through all the laborious externals of cross-dressing.

The Gospel of Ramakrishna, based on the writings of his direct disciples, is widely available in the West. Essentially a wisdom book, it is full of pithy sayings and examples. In one analogy Ramakrishna notes, for instance, that bad tomatoes rot faster when bashed up and thrown into a garbage heap. This alludes to the idea that the soul may be purified of ungodly attitudes (bad tomatoes) through holy suffering (for more on this dynamic, see » Bhagavad Gita, Alchemy).

With regard to the idea of karma transfer, which for most people sounds alien and difficult to grasp, an Indian biographer writes that Ramakrishna:

had a vision of his subtle body…[with] a number of sores on the back. He was puzzled by the sight, but it was made clear…profane people had caused the sores on his body. They themselves had been purified, but they had left the suffering arising from their own sins with him.5

English: Photograph of Ramakrishna, taken on 1...

Photograph of Ramakrishna, taken on 10 December 1881 at the studio of The Bengal Photographers in Radhabazar, Calcutta, India. (Photo Wikipedia)

This illlustrates some core beliefs about the dynamics of Hindu mysticism. Similar but not identical beliefs can be found in Christian mysticism, In Catholicism souls closer to God suffer for the salvation of less pure souls (see » Faustina Kowalska). Further to this point, the worldly critique that “prayer does nothing” might, from the perspective of a bona fide saint, be seen as an unfortunate misunderstanding perpetuated by ignorance or sin.

Having said that, the idea that we can pick up bad vibes from other people is nothing new. And I think some religious people sensitive to this dynamic make a kind of grandiose career out of being “special” and “holy” when really, they are just sensitive—probably at least partly due to some physiological predisposition. The grandiosity, I think, comes from an underlying inferiority complex or from some other complication.

On the social level, Ramakrishna’s disciples founded the international charity organization known as the Ramakrishna Mission. And his most beloved disciple, Swami Vivekananda, became another pivotal Hindu religious figure.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramakrishna

² Ibid.

³ Non-Christians, of course, accuse Jesus of this. But it’s pretty clear that Jesus didn’t personally want to go on the cross, a symbol which has lasted through the centuries.

4 We also see this with Gandhi, who apparently in the platonic sense slept naked with his grand-neice and married women to overcome his sexual urges, which seems a little weird from a Western perspective. See >> http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/ghandi-slept-grandniece-historian-tells-uk-government-1460499

5 Swami Tejasananda, A Short Life of Sri Ramakrishna, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama [Publication Department], 1990, p. 92. PDF (downloadable) version: https://advaitaashrama.org/downloads/A%20Short%20Life%20of%20Sri%20Ramakrishna.pdf, p. 105.

Related » Brahman, Contemplation, Hinduism, Mental Prayer, Spirit, Vocal Prayer


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Suttee – A violent and cruel remnant of Hinduism that continues today (without any attempt to legitimize it spiritually)

Sati handprint on the entrance to Junagarh Fort. Sati was the practice where a woman burned herself on the her husband’s funeral pyre or when her husband died in battle defending the fort.

Suttee or Sati (Skt. “good woman”) has two meanings, both related to wife-burning.

In the ancient and medieval Hindu tradition, suttee occurs when a husband dies, is cremated and his wife enters the flames to be consumed along with him.

Although usually seen as horrendous by non-Hindu standards, the practice was formerly legitimized with an alleged spiritual significance.

The wife entering into the flames was once seen by Hindus as an act of sacred devotion to the husband—a devotion that continued into the afterlife. At least, this was the official take on things. It’s hard to know if women were simply forced or if they voluntarily entered the fire.

17th century Muslim rulers showed some opposition to suttee¹ and British colonialists outlawed it in 1829 while occupying India.

"Ceremony of Burning a Hindu Widow with t...

“Ceremony of Burning a Hindu Widow with the Body of her Late Husband”, from Pictorial History of China and India, 1851. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Suttee also refers to the contemporary and illegal practice of wife-burning in apparently accidental kitchen fires.

As mentioned in the Indian media and elsewhere,² unscrupulous husbands murder their wives by faking kitchen fires. That is, some Indian men apparently marry and murder women merely to obtain dowries.

This may sound incredible but one must remember the considerable geographic size and massive population of India, along with developmental issues which can make the enforcement of social justice difficult.

1 The complexity of the situation is outlined here:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sati_(practice)#Attitudes_of_Muslim_rulers

² See http://www.kashgar.com.au/articles/life-in-india-the-practice-of-sati-or-widow-burning and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bride_burning

Related » Yoga


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Joni Mitchell – Not one of my personal favs but respected

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joni Mitchell  (born 1943) is a Canadian folk, pop and jazz singer-songwriter whose hippie era lyrics speak volumes about the current situation:

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

–Big Yellow Taxi

We are stardust, we are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden

–Woodstock

Mitchell has played, collaborated and recorded with many top pop, rock and jazz stars, to include James Taylor, Carole King, CSNY, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, and the list goes on. Some believe she is the most important female pop artist of the 20th century.¹

Some of my female friends were really into her back in the day. But she never really turned my crank, for whatever reasons. As a kid and young adult I found the likes of Patsy Cline, Carole King and Annie Lennox far more appealing when it came to woman composers/vocalists.

Their music seemed less “involved” and more up front. For me, getting a good simple hook is the hardest thing to do. It’s less impressive to do long complicated pieces that never really fly. And I suppose I felt that Mitchell’s tunes, for the most part, were stuck on the ground or mired in drama. That’s an entirely subjective opinion, though, and it’s hard not to respect her for songs like those mentioned above, along with “Both Sides Now” and, I suppose,”California,” “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio,” and “Help Me.”

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joni_Mitchell

Related » Bruce Cockburn


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The Old Testament – Timeless wisdom or old, outdated operating system?

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps...

11th century Hebrew Bible with targum, perhaps from Tunisia, found in Iraq: part of the Schøyen Collection. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Old Testament is a Christian name for the books of the Hebrew Bible. This is a problematic term because Jewish people could easily find it disrespectful of their holy scripture.

The designation comes from a Christian perspective with the unabashed implication that the New Testament fulfils the Old Testament, rendering the latter imperfect and somewhat lacking. This way of viewing the so-called Old Testament is found within Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Fundamentalist forms of Christianity.

In Christianity, the relationship between the Old and New Testaments seems confusing. I had one professor who argued that Christianity’s biggest mistake was to try to incorporate the Old Testament into the new religion. They should have just started afresh, he felt. I think this perspective lacks appreciation of the Jesus story. The “new” religion gains a certain depth and continuity by including the Old Testament. However, problems do arise, which theologians and preachers try to resolve in various ways.

The most notable difference between the Old and New Testaments is God’s apparent encouragement of violence and animal sacrifice in the OT but not in the NT. Sometimes, that is. The OT God doesn’t approve of all sacrifices, as we see with Cain and Abel. And sometimes he punishes doers of violence, if that particular violence is not in keeping with his Holy Agenda.¹

Also, the NT says we should live by the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.² Living by the letter of the law “kills” it. The OT, by way of contrast, lays out strict and fairly detailed laws as to how the righteous should behave. This difference in rules and regulations also applies to what and when we eat. Somehow the Catholic Church forgot this, and started making new rules of regulations about eating. But many modern Catholics see this as unimportant.

As for adultery and sexual lust, Jesus of the NT raises the bar here. You can’t even think about it without being sinner; whereas in the OT actually doing it is the sin.²

A representation of Saint John the Evangelist in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue on July 31, 2010 in New York City.

Some Christians make no apology for calling the Old Testament the Old Testament. For them, it’s just another instance of unwarranted political correctness to pretend that all religions are of equal value. The New Testament, again for them, is better. So why, they argue, water things down by pretending otherwise? But again, their Holy Bibles contain the Old Testament. So there’s a lot of room for debate here.

¹ Both the OT and NT, however, are sexist and often simplistic—especially in the NT with regard to nutritional needs.

² These are just some of the differences that came to mind while revising this entry; this is not an exhaustive list. The NT also emphasizes forgiveness while the OT prescribes the famous, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” kind of reactive punishment for wrongdoings. Follow this link for more perspectives.

Related » Adam, Bible, Book of Isaiah, Book of Job, Burning Bush, Daniel, Dead Sea Scrolls, Divination, Elohim, Eve, God, the Father, Heaven, Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Jonah, Just War, Kabbala, Koran, Lilith, Lot, Lot’s Wife, Miracles, Moses, Pollution, Torah, Yahweh


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Yoko Ono – An even darker horse than George?

Image via Pinterest

Yoko Ono (1933 – ) was born into an aristocratic Japanese family and is an artist, activist and musician. She is also the ex-wife of slain Beatle John Lennon.

In a film made before his death Lennon recounts being impressed with one of Ono’s abstract art exhibits. After climbing up a ladder to the top of the installation, he saw the simple printed word “yes.”

Ono is often present in later Beatles recording studio photos, appearing calm and contemplative, almost like she’s the Buddha of the Beatles. But not all the Beatles felt that way.

Unfairly blamed by the press as the main cause of the Beatles‘ breakup, Ono made several albums after Lennon’s untimely death.

Interestingly, Wikipedia tells us that

Julian [Lennon] was left out of his father’s will, and he battled Ono in court for years, settling in 1996 for an unspecified amount which the papers reported was “believed to” be in the area of £20 million, which Julian has denied.¹

Ono and Julian Lennon’s relationship, however, reportedly has improved. And Ono promoted Lennon’s 2010 photo exhibit at her website.

John Lennon apparently once said Ono is “the world’s most famous unknown artist: everybody knows her name, but nobody knows what she does.”² More recently, her art continues to be displayed in major galleries around the world.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoko_Ono#Relationship_with_Julian_Lennon

² http://www.theguardian.com/global/2012/jun/08/yoko-ono-retrospective-serpentine-conceptual