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The Glory and, sadly, the Gory of Rome

young woman taking pictures at the Pantheon, Rome

Rome is the vibrant capital of Italy, with a long and complicated history, dating back to the 8th century BCE.

The founding of Rome is understood in terms of two mythic tales. One about Romulus and Remus. The other about Aeneas. The Romulus and Remus myth seems to have mostly won out. Any popular videos I’ve seen about Rome tell about their being suckled by a she-wolf but ignore the tale of Aeneas. Such is life… and history.

I’m not a Roman historian so, rather than spend days rewriting something I’m only mildly interested in, I have highlighted some main points here. Readers wanting more could also check out the lively podcast at Spotify: The History of Rome (mobile).

The Capitoline she-wolf with the boys Romulus ...

The Capitoline she-wolf with the boys Romulus and Remus. Museo Nuovo in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Roman Religion before the time of Christ is quite engaging. It overlaps with Greek myth. The strong-armed Romans borrowed much from Greek culture, which they admired for its sublimity.

But Roman Religion also has its own quirks—including the belief in personal deities for almost every occasion, divination, and from a contemporary perspective, irrational superstitions.

I strongly recommend John Ferguson’s The Religions of the Roman Empire.¹  Also, Sir J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough² offers some intriguing theories about pagan priestly succession in ancient Rome.

According to Frazer, a potentially new priest challenges and ultimately slays an old priest. So being a priest is not exactly a cushy job in some corners of ancient Rome. This didn’t apply to all pagan priests. I’ve highlighted the story here.

Pre-Christian Rome fell in the 5th century to Germanic invaders. In the 6th century Rome became an important center for the Christian Church, with Vatican City on the West bank of the Tiber river.

When the Roman Empire was at its peak, the city of Rome symbolized worldly power and also of the cruel persecution of the early Christians. Ironically, the geographic focal point for the persecution of Christians eventually became the worldwide center for Christianity and later, with the East-West Schism and Protestantism, for Catholicism.

The “Hammer or Witches” was a disturbed and irrational ‘manual’ supported by leading theological universities. It told how to identify and torture witches. It was a bestseller, second only to the Bible for almost 200 years.

The historian Arnold Toynbee and others observe that soon after the Christian Romans gained power, they began persecuting individuals (heretics and witches) just as the pagan Romans had previously persecuted Christians.

Toynbee believes it is mostly power – and the greed and arrogance that goes with it – that is responsible for this barbarous behavior among human beings. Religious justifications are just window dressing. The real cause of persecution is human brutishness and misery.

How many people like this do we know today? Is it any wonder we usually don’t want to have anything to do with them!

In 1871 Rome became the capital of modern Italy.

¹ Chances are you don’t have to pay $40 for this book. It’s in most major libraries. And secondhand and remaindered booksellers tend to sell it for under $10. I once saw it in used paperback for a dollar.

²  This is a huge, multi-volume work but there are several abridged versions.

Related » Acts of the Apostles, Aeneas, Aeneid, Julius Caesar, Church FathersMythic Inflation, Romulus and Remus, Vestal Virgin


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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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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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Radha – From milkmaid to goddess

Radha Krishna by Balaji Photography via Flickr Radha Krishna by Balaji Photography via Flickr

In Hinduism Radha (Sanskrit = fortunate or successful) is an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. She appears on Earth as the female ghopi (cowherdess and milkmaid) who leaves her husband to become the playmate of the Hindu god Krishna.

Her loving and playful relationship with Krishna has become an integral part of the Indian popular imagination, comparable to Romeo and Juliet had Shakespeare not written a tragedy.

Radha is also interpreted on a higher, mystical level, symbolizing the soul‘s loving surrender to God. Contemporary Vaishnava religion in W. Bengal regards Radha as the ultimate female principle, the Goddess or Shakti.

While writing this I couldn’t help but note a loose parallel to Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to the Bible story, Mary was a humble teenager soon to be married to a carpenter (Joseph). Like Radha, she got a divine call. But she didn’t leave her husband nor humanity immediately to dance in the ethereal realms with God. Instead, she stayed on Earth and lived a real, difficult life, to the extent of watching her human/divine son die at the hands of some of the Jews and occupying Romans. Only after that terrible ordeal do both ascend to be with God.

An image like Radha dancing with Krishna in astral realms might be appealing to some wanting to sugarcoat or, perhaps, escape the world as quickly and easily as possible. But for those who believe that salvation comes from going through not only the joys but also the grind of life, the Christian story, as lamentable as it can be, may seem a bit more real.


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Emanuel Swedenborg – Mystic or Misguided?

Emanuel Swedenborg  (1688-1772) was a Swedish scientist who, after recovering from a psychological crisis, became a mystic claiming to speak on a regular basis with angelic, alien and demonic beings.

Although thought-provoking and laid out in an orderly manner, some of Swedenborg’s writings seem questionable.

Emanuel Swedenborg at age of 75, holding the manuscript of Apocalypsis Revelata (1766)

He writes, for instance, that spirits told him people lived in wooden buildings and tents on the planet Jupiter:

Their dwellings were also shown me. They are lowly dwellings constructed of wood; but within they are lined with bark or cork of a pale blue colour, and the walls and ceiling are spotted as with stars, to represent the heaven; for they are fond of picturing the visible heaven with its constellations in the interiors of their houses, the reason being that they believe the constellations to be the abodes of the angels. They have tents also, which are rounded off above and extended in length, spotted likewise within with stars on a blue ground. They retire into these in the day-time, to prevent their faces suffering from the heat of the sun. They bestow much care on the fashioning of these tents of theirs, and on keeping them clean. In them they also take their repasts.¹

Similarly, a spirit from the moon apparently told Swedenborg that the voices of that satellite’s inhabitants “made a loud thundering sound.”

With no atmosphere on the moon’s surface, necessary for sound waves and hence hearing, one wonders how this could be possible.

It’s easy to assume that Swedenborg’s accounts simply reflect the popular imagination of his day, suggesting that he was a quack, charlatan or, as some might put it today, mentally ill. But one could argue that some of the problems with his far-fetched claims arise from translation and interpretation, along with his human limitations inherent to living in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Swedenborgs Flying Machine (via Thomas Roche)

Swedenborg’s Flying Machine (via Thomas Roche)

Swedenborgians could argue, for instance, that the beings on the moon weren’t physical but composed of energy or spirit—likewise with regard to the apparent “sound” they made.

Whatever the truth may be, the psychiatrist Carl Jung notes that Swedenborg did have an accurate precognition of a great fire in Stockholm.

With regard to Christianity, Swedenborg’s work presents a novel and creative interpretation of that religion. He suggests that everything occurring in this life corresponds to a cosmic body, which he calls “The Universal Human.” And the different races of mankind apparently correspond to different regions of The Universal Human.

Likewise, Swedenborg says individual merits during Earthly life correspond to favorable afterlife regions in the cosmic body, such as the brain or the eye. But those who lead evil lives end up in undesirable, filth-ridden regions, such as the liver or intestines.

Swedenborg wrote copiously about demonic beings whose sole intent is to drain energy from the living, causing severe pain and distress.

With regard to the idea of the Trinity, Rev. Glenn “Mac” at GlennFrazier.com adds:

Since you mention Swedenborg, it might be worth pointing out that he explicitly spoke up against the idea of a trinity of persons. According to his theology (in, e.g., his book, True Christian Religion), Jehovah the Father and Jesus the Son were not only one God, but also the one and only one person of God. Likewise, the Holy Spirit is the activity of that person, and not a seperate person in its own right. This is somewhat similar to Michael Servetus’ ideas expressed a good deal earlier in his “Errors of the Trinity”. Swedenborg’s idea of a trinity of essentials, rather than of persons, should not be confused with modalism—the idea of there being one God that at various times takes on different functions or modes in sequence. To Swedenborg, the Father was literally God’s soul, the Son his body, and the Spirit his influence/activity, not by analogy, but actually. » See in context

Swedenborg was not only interested in the inner life. Like other historical innovators, he tried to devise technological contraptions that would, in due time, appear in some other form, such as a flying machine (pictured 2nd image above).

Swedenborg’s work has been compiled, edited and commented on by the Swedenborg Foundation.

A student of Swedenborg’s works, Judah, adds:

A final thought: while I enjoy pondering the existence of life on other planets, I find it more enjoyable – and meaningful – to explore the ideas in Swedenborg’s writings that have to do with wisely loving my fellow human beings and our creator – the Divine Human. » See in context

Related » Aliens, Angels, Demons, Vampires

On the Web:

  • Rock and roll song dealing with Swedenborg’s ideas:

¹ Earths in our Solar System which are called Planets and Earths in the Starry Heaven: Their Inhabitants, and the Spirits and Angels there from things Heard and Seen from the Latin of Emanuel Swedenborg, Swedenborg Society, London: 1962, par 59.


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Dhamma, Dharma and the lack of God

This was a spur of the moment thing. As mentioned in the audio, I was getting tired of writing and have been meaning to delve into sound. The original was over 8 minutes, full of anecdotes from my studies in India (1987-89), which I felt backed up my points. Realizing, however, that the stories were situation dependent and, not wanting to be guilty of generalizing, I made some edits. I also edited some minor verbal stumbling that detracted from the flow but left enough in to keep it “live.”

The scant notes for this were hastily prepared: Two or three dates, scribbled down on a piece of paper… quickly memorized before recording. The rest is from memory, so there is some imprecision. Here are a few clarifying points that you might want to look over while listening:

One of the things I’ve realized about talking is that you can’t get too complicated. What I’ve said here is both general and incomplete. I’d be happy to further discuss any of the points made here in the comments area. It’s easy to be a coward and insult people behind their backs. Much harder to engage them in a positive way and see if maybe there was a bit more to their thinking than initially presented. 🙂


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Elizabeth – The Mother of the Last Great Jewish Prophet?

Statue of the Visitation at Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel via Wikipedia

In the New Testament, Elizabeth a daughter of Aaron, wife of  Zechariah and the mother of John the Baptist.

Among Christian theologians and homilists, John is often spoken of as a link between the Old and New Testaments. He’s the last of a long line of Jewish prophets who announces the coming of someone so great that he, himself, is “not worthy to untie the strap on his sandals.”¹ That person, of course, turns out to be Jesus of Nazareth, who goes on to become the founder of the world’s largest and most international religion.²

A nice New Testament story is one that also becomes part of the Catholic Holy Rosary as “The Visitation” of the Joyful Catholic Mysteries.³ This is the tale, true or not, that the unborn John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when the pregnant Mary, bearing Jesus, comes to visit.4

This story reminds me of several studies, true or not, suggesting that the unborn get used to and turn out smarter if they hear classical music through their mother’s abdomen. 5

But in the case of John and Jesus, I would also think that these two babies, being who they were, would be especially spiritually sensitive. So quite possibly John leaped in the womb because he could sense the presence of Jesus. Not so much because he heard Mary’s voice. However, John’s reaction could have been prompted by both auditory and spiritual factors—if the story is true, that is, and not just a pleasant religious tale fabricated by early enthusiasts to advance their religious beliefs.

Most of us have heard the tale about the angel coming to visit the teenager, Mary, giving her the choice to be the mother of a miraculously conceived Jesus. But not quite so popular is a parallel story about an angel coming to visit Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah:

But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born (Luke 1:13–15).

Again, is this just good religious storytelling or did things really happen in parallel as written? While scholars and religious people argue this point back and forth, for me the answer, like most things in life, ultimately comes down to belief.

Sadly, the human story ends miserably for both John and Jesus. John is beheaded at the hands of Herod Antipas who grants the cruel request of his step-daughter Salome and her mother. And Jesus dies on a cross after willfully submitting to a complex political web involving the Jewish religious leaders in Israel, some of an assembled mob, and the occupying Roman authorities. I say the human story ends miserably because, according to the belief, both of these figures endure in unimaginably great heavenly places, beyond time and space as we know it.

¹ https://www.google.ca/search?q=i+am+not+worthy+to+untie+his+sandals…

² https://www.google.ca/search?q=largest+world+religion…

³ https://www.google.ca/search?q=roary+the+visitation…

4  https://www.google.ca/search?q=john+leaps+in+elizabeths+womb…

5 https://www.google.ca/search?q=the+unborn+like+music…

Related » Hail Mary Prayer