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A Pagan Place?

The perception of Paganism has changed over the years. Pagans remain a religious minority in most places, and we find different opinions about Paganism as a spiritual path. In advanced countries it is rare and probably illegal to publicly disrespect or, especially, harass someone because they are Pagans or NeoPagans.

But it wasn’t always this way.

The term pagan has roots in 4th century early Christianity. The early Christians took a dim view of Pagans. At best, believers in many gods or those outside the Christian fold were stock to be converted to the Christian understanding of the One True God. At worst, they were victims of harsh insults and cruel persecution.

This disturbing trend came to a fever pitch in the Middle Ages. Many so-called heretics and witches suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of their Christian “saviors” (irony intended).

The Latin term paganismus was first used in the 4th century, by early Christian community, in reference to populations of the Roman world who worshipped many deities, either because they were increasingly rural and provincial relative to the Christian population or else because they were not milites Christi (soldiers of Christ).¹

In Medieval and early modern times the Christian Church sanctioned successive waves of barbaric torture and killing under the guise of purifying individual souls – and the Earth – of Satan’s demons, which included Pagan deities. Catholics weren’t the only sadistic psychopaths doing this. Protestants burnt people alive too—something many Catholic-detractors downplay or simply don’t know about.

But it didn’t begin in the Middle Ages. The mistrust of Paganism stems back to Biblical times. Competing with the term pagan is polytheism, which the Hellenistic Jew Philo had been using since the 1st century to denote those who didn’t believe in Jewish monotheism. And if we browse through the Christian Old Testament, it’s not too hard to see what unspeakable violence and plunder took place in the name of God before the coming of Christ.

Today the Catholic Church has softened its stand on Paganism, along with most non-Christian religions. Not accepting all aspects of non-Catholic faiths, Catholics do profess to accept all that is from God within non-Catholic belief and practice. There is some truth among the ‘shadows’ of error, is how the Catholic Catechism tends to put it.

Sounds good to some. However, Catholics remain cautious when dealing with Pagan religions. They claim that Pagan beliefs contain elements of error.

Funnily enough, many Protestants – especially Fundamentalists – believe that Catholicism has lapsed into Paganism. After all, Catholics believe in intercession and venerate the saints (to include the Virgin Mary, the Queen of all saints). And not only Catholics. Orthodox believers too.

Panagia Church Virgin Mary Iconography, Orthodox via MaxPixel

Most contemporary scholars cleverly conceal or make ambiguous any negative connotations around the word Paganism. For better or for worse, universities are bastions of political correctness. And to not fall in line can cost you your job. Nevertheless, some scholars still denounce Pagan belief, especially those on the payroll of Christian fundamentalist publishers. They see it as their holy duty to “set the record straight.”

Like most, perhaps, all aspects of life, scholarship, does not enjoy a magical banner of objectivity. The misguided belief in objectivity arguably is a kind of religious folly. But the folly is not about religion, as in Erasmus‘ day.  The folly is the belief that human research and analysis should be elevated to a lofty position that, in reality, is often undeserved.²

Peter Gay traces the development of contemporary Paganism to the European Enlightenment and Renaissance, where new ideas and fresh ways of seeing things apparently enabled mankind to deconstruct its dogmatic Christian heritage.³ By way of contrast, Dinesh D’Souza argues that Christianity, itself, is the core of all that is good in contemporary culture (for him, American society).4

Wikipedia outlines what the term Paganism means today:

Modern Paganism, or Neopaganism, can include reconstructed religions such as the Cultus Deorum Romanorum, Hellenic polytheism, Slavic neopaganism (Rodnovery), Celtic reconstructionist paganism, or Germanic neopaganism, as well as modern eclectic traditions such as Wicca and its many offshoots, Druidry, Heathenry, and Discordianism.

However, there often exists a distinction or separation between some… [groups] over numerous issues such as; the importance of accurate orthopraxy according to ancient sources available, the use and concept of magic, which calendar to use and which holidays to observe, as well as the use of the term pagan itself.

Many of the “revivals”, Wicca and Neo-druidism in particular, have their roots in 19th century Romanticism and retain noticeable elements of occultism or theosophy that were current then, setting them apart from historical rural (paganus) folk religion. Most modern pagans, however, believe in the divine character of the natural world and paganism is often described as an “Earth religion.”5

Some scholars point out similarities between aspects of Christianity and Paganism. What matters is how we interpret these similarities.

Here are three examples in Catholicism:

  • With the Eucharistic Celebration, Catholicism claims to have finalized and transformed the previously barbaric acts of sacrifice and atonement
  • Many Catholic (and Christian) feast days fall on the dates of older Pagan festivals—for example, Saturnalia and Christmas
  • Catholics say their religion transforms and ennobles all that is good in the annals of mankind. So the Vatican collects priceless Pagan statues because these represent artistic ‘greatness.’ God must have been present, they argue, because the statues were so superbly conceived and executed.

On this last point, some non-Catholics take this as rank idolatry, greed and hypocrisy masked as piety. For the critics, it is false to see God working through non-Christian pathways. The Catholic replies that the heavenly Jesus exists in all of time so can influence historical periods that took place – or some might say that are taking place – before his earthly manifestation.

This is interesting. So many perceive Catholics as narrow-minded, brainwashed traditionalists. But considering Einstein’s empirically supported ideas about the relativity of space and time, we can safely say that Catholic theology was centuries ahead on this one.6

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

² Academics often use special words and speech patterns to try, arguably in part, to legitimize their brand of thinking. But when we look closer or just think for ourselves, we often see how arrogant, small and uninspiring this can be. (The overuse of the word “magisterial” comes to mind). Recently reading one sociological piece, I had to wade through miles of gobbledygook to get to the main points. And these were so obvious and pedantic, it made me wonder why the author was such a big shot in the first place.

³ See Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (1966).

4 D’Souza is a great writer. He reminds me of some hip Indian intellectuals and artists whom I met in India. But he simplifies and misrepresents Canada so terribly, I can only wonder what blunders and omissions he commits in other areas. Reading his stuff and watching his films makes me feel like I’m looking at a very bright 15-year-old’s connect the dots picture. The artwork is well above average for a 15-year-old. But an adult gets the sense that too many dots are left out. In short, entertaining but be sure to fact check. See https://www.amazon.ca/Whats-So-Great-about-Christianity/dp/1414326017

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paganism

6 Plato too, one could argue.

† Entry title: https://youtu.be/tfXGt2MtSs8

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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

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What is a Saint?

The word saint (Latin sanctus = sacred or having been made sacred)  has several meanings. In everyday usage, saints are unusually kind, ethical people who perform good works on a local or grand scale which almost everyone can understand and appreciate. Examples would be, “That lady at the charity drive is a real saint” or “Bob’s wife is a real saint to put up with such a grouchy old man!”

The term also denotes the faithful Jews of the Bible and the body of Christian believers. A priest at a parish I attend says in homily that the main point of being a Christian is to become saints in heaven. So going to Mass isn’t only about the social aspects. That’s a part of it, for sure, but the main point is to become a saint worthy of heaven.

For some, saints are Buddhist arhats (monks having achieved Nirvana) and bodhisattvas (monks forgoing entry into Nirvana in order to help others reach that threshold). However, it seems dubious that the realms these saints achieve are the same, qualitatively speaking, as realms created by God. Recall that, no matter which way you slice it, Buddhists don’t believe in God, which is a huge theological difference from religions that do believe in God. And no political correctness will change that difference, not even well-intentioned political correctness.

English: Image of Saint Adalgott. Source Cropp...

Image of Saint Adalgott. Cropped from an image at http://www.unikk.ch/barock/pages/carlen2_1_text.htm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The term saints also refers to Taoist, Confucian and Hindu sages and gurus (Skt. guru = teacher), African and Amerindian elders, as well as the Shamans of Central and Southeast Asia, Oceania, North America and the Arctic.

In Islam the righteous departed are said to mediate between heaven and Earth.

Robert Ellsberg regards great figures like Galileo Galilei, Leo Tolstoy, Stephen Biko and Dante Alighieri as saints in his book, All Saints.

Some believe that all public figures called “saints” are equally holy but this view is probably more about human preconceptions than God’s assessment of individual holiness.

In Catholicism, the canonized saint leads an exceedingly humble and holy life serving God, is often persecuted, may be martyred and performs by the power of God at least two verified miracles. Some critics of the Catholic process of canonization say that the alleged miracles are, for the most part, cooked up by the Vatican when they want to make someone a saint, mostly for political reasons.

Catholic sainthood often involves the idea of intercession. Intercession is the belief that God’s divine power and grace is mediated by souls in heaven to souls on Earth, purgatory and hell.

Catholics also believe in the communion of saints, the idea that all souls, except for the damned, are united in a “mystical body” with Christ as the head. So the idea of interconnected souls is not necessarily something of the occult (unless one views Catholicism as a Satanic cult, as some do).

Another aspect of the Catholic faith is the belief that individuals cooperate with God’s plan of salvation through vocal and mental prayer (interior contemplation). Prayerful saints cooperate with the divine plan but do not effect salvation through their own power.

Catholics may pray for one another but again, they request God’s help. They don’t play the role of spiritual “big shot” or “guru” like some in other religious paths do. At least, they shouldn’t. This unsavory element arguably creeps in with hot shot charismatic preachers who make the rounds in Catholic circles, charging considerable fees for inspirational speaking or guided retreats (some retreats seeming more like middle class getaways, social events or fundraisers than serious spiritual sanctuaries).

Some Protestants object to the idea of the Catholic saint, saying that the saints are nothing but manmade gods or goddesses—that is, pagan. Catholics reply to this misguided charge that saints are friends and servants of God, not a god nor God. Many Protestants pray for others but object to the Catholic idea of interceding saints. To this the Catholic replies: If someone on Earth can pray for another person on Earth, why cannot a soul in heaven pray for someone on Earth?

According to Catholic teaching there are innumerable unrecognized saints. These unsung heroes of the spirit are said to achieve a great degree of spiritual purity without ever having set foot in a monastery or abbey.

This is good to remember. Otherwise we might misunderstand or judge harshly some individuals in contemporary society not primarily concerned with sex, wealth, status or raising a family. In fact, there seems to be a recent trend to call people “mentally ill” if they don’t conform to prevailing norms which, perhaps, are not always in line with trying to follow God’s will.

In a nutshell, the true individual is often misunderstood and sometimes persecuted by the crowd. Considering the tremendous diversity of individuals and spiritual paths throughout our ever changing world, to insist on rigid criteria for sainthood seems both arbitrary and unwise.


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Purgatory – an old concept in need of an update?

Divine Comedy by Dante – illustration to Purgatory by A. Baruffi. 14th canto: ‘ ‘Io sono Aglauro che divenni sasso!’/ Ed allor, per istrignermi al poeta,/ Indietro feci e non innanzi il passo.’

In Catholicism, purgatory is an afterlife place or state in which souls undergo temporary punishments due to their venial and (forgiven) mortal sins. These punishments may be quite unpleasant but, according to the tradition, are not as frightful as the eternal torment of hell.

This shows The Virgin and The Child being pres...

This shows The Virgin and The Child being present while souls awaiting purification are brought out of Purgatory and into Heaven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While enduring purgatory, the soul apparently goes through a process of purification in preparation for heaven and a Beatific Vision.

Catholics often uphold 2 Mac. 12:46 as scriptural support for Purgatory.

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.¹

Scholars suggest that the idea of purgatory has deep roots in world religions and mythologies.

The same practice appears in other traditions, such as the medieval Chinese Buddhist practice of making offerings on behalf of the dead, who are said to suffer numerous trials… [And] In Judaism, Gehenna is a place of purification where, according to some traditions, most sinners spend up to a year before release.²

El Purgatorio (1890). Óleo sobre tela 339 x 25...

El Purgatorio (1890). Óleo sobre tela 339 x 256 cm. GAN.Cararas – Venezuela. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To me, some of the standard beliefs about purgatory seem pretty rigid,  probably based more on what people suppose things should be instead of any kind of genuine interior perception.

It seems far more probable that departed souls would experience an alternation and intermingling³ of heaven and less-than-heaven, according to the condition of their souls and other exigencies.

Just as we undergo good and not-so-good days on Earth, it is likely similar in the afterlife, with these experiences occurring within a meaningful, multidimensional dynamic. Conservative Catholics probably wouldn’t approve of this model. It’s too free-flowing and doesn’t fit into preexisting categories stemming from ancient and medieval worldviews. But I think it’s probably more accurate.

¹ https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Maccabees+12%3A43-46&version=DRA

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Purgatory

³ Intermingling when trying to help earthbound souls through intercession.

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Shinto (The way of the kami)

Chang’r Shinto

This Japanese folk religion has seen many changes since its inception in the 8th century BCE and it still thrives in Japan and beyond.

Shinto shrines can be seen dotting Japanese hillsides and groves as pilgrims make their way to pay their respects or ask a favor from a venerated ancestor.

Shinto ancestor veneration may be directed towards imperial dignitaries or, on a smaller scale, deceased family members. Although internal beliefs vary, as with most religions, there is external conformity.¹

Practitioners express their diverse beliefs through a standard language and practice, adopting a similar style in dress and ritual, dating from around the time of the Nara and Heian periods.²

English: Shinsen offerings - Tsubaki Grand Shr...

Shinsen offerings – Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America – A Branch Shrine of Tsubaki Jinja Japan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All objects of devotion are believed to share varying degrees of spiritual power called kami. But Kami is not only present in the spirits of the dead. It may exist in a mountainside or any natural object that evokes wonder and awe.

Some say Shinto is not a religion, per se, because it is based more on ancestor worship than devotion to a deity (or deities). It does, however, adhere to the idea of transcendence, which most agree is crucial to the definition of religion.

As with Greek, Roman, Indian and Chinese thought, the line between revering a deceased culture hero and a full-fledged god is a very fine one.

Today, small Shinto shrines are found in many private homes, not unlike the private Hindu puja.

English: "Seen a strage ritual at Yasaka ...

“Seen a strage ritual at Yasaka shrine, when olderly people,dressed as Shinto priests, chanted songs, whilst younger priestesses performed a very slow dance.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinto We find a similar thing in Catholicism but differences are far more downplayed. A first time visitor to the Catholic Mass might suppose that the external conformity of parishioners mirrors their internal conformity. But from my direct experience, talking with Catholics, there are many points of debate and real differences in practice. For example, some

  • skip confession and other obligations
  • don’t give any monetary offering
  • believe women should be priests
  • believe in universal salvation
  • use birth control
  • cohabitate instead of marrying
  • the list goes on…

And all this difference is just from talking to a relative handful in the North Toronto area. Some of the more traditional priests may not like to hear this. Some may even try to clamp down on the rules and regulations as a kind of authoritarian reaction to it. But it’s reality. And as long as the Catholic Church ignores the reality of what’s going on around and within it (which I haven’t touched on here), less people will be open to experiencing all that is good in Christ.

² https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinto

 

WLA haa Shinto Deity Heian period 12th century 2

WLA haa Shinto Deity Heian period 12th century 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Suffering

Thank you for your suffering: Locace / Lena

Thank you for your suffering: Locace / Lena via Flickr

Life usually involves some degree of suffering but human beings have interpreted the experience in diverse ways.

For instance, Buddhists believe that suffering is meaningless and something to be avoided. An important technique for Buddhists is meditation, which is said to eradicate the worldly desire that leads to suffering.

For many Hindus, suffering is a necessary teacher. As we work through our personal karma, the unpleasant aspects of life can teach us to avoid unethical thoughts and actions that, so Hindus believe, cause suffering in the first place.

Epicureanism attempts to minimize suffering through a life of prudence and temperance.

John Stuart Mill‘s utilitarianism attempts to minimize suffering through a cost-benefit analysis of all actions, a position which Mill felt was ethically equivalent to Kant‘s categorical imperative.

Sigmund Freud saw suffering as an inevitable aspect of the human condition. He wrote that “Psychoanalysis can cure neurotic suffering but not normal human unhappiness.” For Freud individuals are, in effect, the walking wounded.

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220)

St. Francis of Assisi (circa 1182-1220) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Catholicism recognizes the value of unavoidable suffering permitted by God, but does not condone persecution nor advocate the neurotic role playing of “victim” or “martyr.” For Catholics, suffering may be redemptive and lead to increased purity and wisdom. This notion of redemptive suffering differs from sheer depair or destitution because the grace of God enables one to embrace one’s particular ‘cross of suffering’ with dignity and, with some exceptional persons like St. Francis of Assisi, gladness and joy.

Along these lines, Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, a prayer accepted by Catholics, asks God for a reasonably happy life here and a supremely happy one in the afterlife.

The idea of redemptive suffering has been further institutionalized by an organization called Knights at the Foot of the Cross (KFC). KFC is very much influenced by the life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, who died by lethal injection of carbolic acid in a Nazi death camp after willingly accepting the torture of a starvation bunker in place of another prisoner. KFC is an offshoot of The Militia of the Immaculata, an international evangelical movement founded by St. Kolbe in 1917 (http://www.consecration.com/).

Apart from traditional religions, we also have those positively-minded people who simply believe that wisdom can come from suffering.

 


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Transubstantiation

O Sacrament Most Holy by Br Lawrence Lew, O.P.

O Sacrament Most Holy by Br Lawrence Lew, O.P. via Flickr

Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic dogma that the substance of bread and wine transforms into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ during the Eucharistic celebration of Holy Mass.

To make sense of the fact that the communion wafer doesn’t change in outward appearance, Catholic theologians rely on the Aristotelian distinction between a thing’s form and its substance.

According to this belief, the form (what we see) does not change but the substance (sometimes called the essence) does.

This opposes the popular view that the Eucharist is only a symbol of remembrance or, as some New Age believers say, a sign of human or cosmic unity. From a Catholic perspective, both of these views are inadequate.

3rd quarter of 16th century

3rd quarter of 16th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the sacrament of the Eucharist includes symbolic and unifying aspects, its heavenly mystical quality supersedes these shortsighted interpretations about its meaning and character.

In some New Age circles, there is a trend to equate the cosmic and/or astral realms with the heavenly. But for Catholics the cosmic (planets, stars, galaxies, energy), the astral (spirits, gods, goddesses), and the heavenly (sometimes revealed audio-visually but usually experienced as grace) are each different.

So for Catholics, any attempt to homogenize these realms falls short.

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On the Web:

  • While Catholics believe that the Eucharist need not change in physical appearance to be an effective sacrament, claims are sometimes made as to its miraculous transformation