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Revelation and revealed knowledge – Can we separate the wheat from the chaff?

Divine Revelation (album)

Divine Revelation (album) via Wikipedia

That was a revelation!

When we hear someone say this in daily life, we usually take it to mean that they are inspired, see an issue in a new light or learn something that deepens their understanding.

Revelation has become a secular term but the idea of ‘revealed knowledge’ is found in most spiritual traditions. In the religious sense, revelation has several different meanings.

One meaning points to knowledge disclosed or uncovered about God’s plan of Salvation or the Divine essence. This knowledge could influence the interpretation of observed events. And general revelation is differentiated from special revelation.

  • General revelation means that God’s existence and attributes can be partly understood through observation of God’s creation
  • Specific revelation points to the belief that individuals receive divine communications

In Catholicism revelation is a truth communicated to a person by God. Revealed knowledge initially bypasses but does not contradict the intellect and differs from inspiration. But after a revelation, a person may think about and be inspired by their otherworldly experience.

From a comparative study of mysticism it seems that revealed knowledge is usually misunderstood by mystics, themselves—at least, at the outset. Over time the true meaning may become more clear.

Mystics make mistakes because they tend to interpret revelation according to their limited, human perspectives. Again, revelations from God should eventually make more sense. But those not from God would eventually prove to be a sham, provided the persons assessing a revelation are mentally healthy.

This idea is linked to the notion of true and false prophets, as found in the New Testament:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them

That’s a lovely story and great for laying guilt trips on people if we don’t like what they’re doing or simply because we don’t like them in the first place! But in reality, it’s a bit problematic for us mere mortals.

Why?

Photo - Tim Evanson via Flickr

Photo – Tim Evanson via Flickr

Well, because some genuine prophets could appear ‘false’ if not enough time had passed to test a true revelation.² By the same token, some false prophets could be seen as ‘true’ by fanatics claiming that more time is needed to verify a false revelation.

One thing seems clear: This is not an easy area and many mistakes could be made by overly zealous, wish fulfilling individuals and groups. For those preferring to think for themselves, it’s sometimes hard to determine who’s misguided and who’s in tune with God.

¹ Matthew 15-20, New International Version, emphasis added.

² An example Christians often give here is http://biblehub.com/john/2-19.htm.

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Evil: Natural, Moral and Intrinsic

English: John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November ...

John Duns Scotus (c. 1266 – November 8, 1308) was a theologian and philosopher. Some say that during his tenure at Oxford, the differentiation of theology, philosophy and science began in earnest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How we define evil is influenced by our core beliefs. Materialists and some scientists dismiss the idea of evil as if it were culturally inherited from a world once peopled by believers in magic and outdated superstitions.

Today, violent criminals are usually depicted in psychiatric terms. Murderers are reported as having a mental illness instead of being possessed by Satan. However, callous murderers are sometimes called “monsters,” so the idea of evil still creeps into our predominantly scientific worldview.

Evil in Christian theology

In Christianity a theological distinction exists between natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil includes “acts of God” (for example, tsunamis, earthquakes and avalanches. Moral evil is a conscious human choice to turn away from God’s will thereby participating in some action harmful to self and possibly others (for example, spying on a friend for political gain or career advancement).

The Scottish theologian Duns Scotus said intrinsic evil  involves acts that are inherently evil and accordingly prohibited. Intrinsically evil acts are not evil because they are prohibited. They’re just bad in themselves.

For Christians, evil is often taken as a necessary component of God’s plan of salvation. Christians accept as an article of faith that God permits evil for some greater good. However, this greater good is usually beyond the comprehension of mere mortals (see Isaiah 55:8-9). So Christians must believe. They may have reason to believe. But still, their faith comes down to belief above knowledge.

A Christian school of thought, initiated by St. Irenaeus and popularized by John Hick, emphasizes that evil is permitted, but not caused, by God.

Space Evil or Mars Demon

Space Evil or Mars Demon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why would an all-powerful God permit evil to happen? According to the Irenian school, the answer is found in the concept of soul-making. Soul making refers to the notion that a soul freely choosing to abstain from evil is of greater value than a soul that would automatically avoid evil like a programmed robot. The free, good soul apparently better glorifies God than a sinless automaton would.

Although evil may ravage, test and torment good souls alive and embodied on Earth, the ultimate goal of our finite, earthly life is to be made worthy of everlasting, heavenly life. From this perspective the evils of the world act as a crucible. Souls not succumbing to but resisting evil are purified and strengthened toward the good. Evil, then, is necessary. It acts as a kind of hammer, constantly pounding out the soul’s impurities.

St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that he should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.¹

Aquinas also says, in keeping with the notion of a final winnowing of the Apocalypse (Luke 3:17, Matthew 3:12):

God permits some evils lest the good things should be obstructed.²

This quote has to do with the belief, often heard in Catholic homilies, that it’s easier to separate the good from the bad (wheat from the chaff) after each has fully developed. Essentially, the New Testament uses familiar parables to try to explain things that human beings are too limited to understand.

Another Christian view, influenced by Plato‘s idea of the Forms, comes from St. Augustine. Augustine sees evil as a privatio boni, which in Latin means the absence of good. According to this idea, God is good, therefore evil must exist where God is not present. God does not create evil. Rather, it is a choice. At this point the theological debates can get complicated, and some ask whether Augustine’s theodicy (defence of God’s goodness with the reality of evil) holds up for both natural and moral evil.

Different branches of Christianity hold different views about what happens to evil souls in the afterlife. Some Churches damn sinners eternally. Martin Luther, for instance, believed that some souls are predestined for hell. Some contemporary Christians pray for the liberation of souls in hell while others do not.³ And the Catholic concept of Purgatory is neither a heaven nor hell, but a difficult preparation for heaven.

Evil in non-Christian religion

Hindu devotees watch an effigy of the Hindu demon king Ravana, stuffed with fire-crackers, burn at the grounds in Amritsar on October 22, 2015

Evil in Islam is similar to the Christian idea. But for Muslims, it is evil to suggest that Christ is one with God (John 10:30). And the prohibitions in the Koran differ from those of the New Testament. Notably, killing is permitted in the Koran in some circumstances4, whereas the very thought of killing is denounced in the New Testament. Many branches of Christianity do, however, support the idea of the Just War (just as in justice).

Hinduism presents a different view of evil. Evil is permitted to maintain the right balance of sacred heat or power (tapas) within the universe. Aspects of Hinduism speak to the reality of hell for evildoers. But evil in Hinduism is mostly viewed in terms of personal ignorance and spiritual development. So hellish punishments are temporary instead of eternal.

According to this belief, the evil soul reincarnates on earth until it is cleansed of the ignorance that influenced it to do bad things. This differs from the Catholic teaching that souls in hell are eternally damned and, some say, would never want to leave. Unlike the Christian, the Hindu aspires to transcend ideas about good and evil through an experiential knowledge of universal truth. This is a big Good beyond smaller goods and evils.

Accordingly, the ultimate goal of Hinduism differs from both the Christian and Islamic goals. For the Hindu, heaven is a halfway house on the road to ultimate realization. The reincarnating soul may enjoy periodic visits to different heavens but, though the round of rebirth, it eventually transcends all heavens to ultimately achieve the greatest good of the Brahman. A similar but in some ways different view of evil is found in Taoism.

An interesting but routinely overlooked question is whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu heavens and hells are identical in character. The Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade notes that heavens and hells are described differently among world religions. But do they all feel the same? The answer to this question I think depends on the person and where they’re at in their journey.

Most global cultures at some point in history have seen evil as a cause of mental or physical illness. This belief is prevalent in Shamanism. And some religious writers, such as the Catholic, Michael Brown, say they feel the presence of evil almost anywhere.

For W. H. Auden, evil is inferior to good because

Good can imagine Evil; but Evil cannot imagine Good.5

And that’s why I believe good will always overcome evil in the long run. It’s smarter, more insightful and has access to a wider vista of knowledge and experience.

¹ http://www.aquinasonline.com/Topics/probevil.html

² See » Google Books

³ See this excellent discussion: http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=329730

4 See http://www.yoel.info/koranwarpassages.htm

W. H. Auden, A Certain World

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Othello – remembering Iago, a captivating psychopath

From the Library of Congress: TITLE: Thos. W. ...

Thos. W. Keene. Othello  1884 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Othello, The Moor of Venice (1604) is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The plot is quite straightforward¹ but the emotions are complex: The good but overly trusting man, Othello, is tricked into murdering his wife, Desdemona, and is eventually brought down by the devilish and scheming Iago.

I must admit that I find Iago the most memorable character in the play. I watched the BBC TV production several years ago, and can still remember being captivated by Iago’s psychopathy. Iago is so crazy that he even laughs when carried off to receive his punishment.²

LODOVICO

[To IAGO] O Spartan dog,
More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea!
Look on the tragic loading of this bed;
This is thy work: the object poisons sight;
Let it be hid. Gratiano, keep the house,
And seize upon the fortunes of the Moor,
For they succeed on you. To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture: O, enforce it!
Myself will straight aboard: and to the state
This heavy act with heavy heart relate.³

I’m not sure if Shakespeare added that laugh in brackets in the original script. But it was a nice touch in the BBC production. And if anyone has the cred to modify Shakespeare, it’s the BBC. In the following clip, we see how easily Iago shifts from being false-friendly to genuinely hateful.

¹ http://www.sparknotes.com/shakespeare/othello/summary.html

² For more, see the entry Iago and interesting comments there. The power of Shakespeare, I think, it not only in his beautiful economy of expression, but also in his open-ended meaning.

³ Thanks to http://shakespeare.mit.edu/othello/full.html for making this easier to reproduce.

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The Shadow

Keira Knightley at the presser for A Dangerous Method, a movie that explores the intense relationship between Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud at TiFF in Toronto. September 10, 2011

In the psychology of C. G. Jung, the shadow is the unconscious, evil side of human nature.

The shadow apparently is one of the first aspects of the unconscious psyche encountered in Jungian analysis.

Jung says its positive side is expressed through creativity and humor. According to this view, the representation of the shadow’s darkness in non-violent, socially acceptable channels (e.g. art, music, literature, photography or controlled “acting out”) facilitates mastering it. Otherwise, the shadow could conceivably control the ego.

Marina del Castell Shadow puppetry

If merely repressed, Jung says the shadow might find an opening through the cracks of the psyche and momentarily express itself in disturbing ways. This view depends on a model of the psyche where psychic energy is always seeking expression. If overly contained, psychic energy might boil over and “flip its lid” like a covered pot on a stove with no steam vents.

This might account for the cruel actions toward children by Sister Francesca at the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa.

Another version of the shadow appears as a comic strip, pop culture figure, “Only the shadow knows…” And more recently, the science fiction TV program, Lexx, features His Divine Shadow as the archdeacon of darkness.

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jung and other figures like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell argued that the shadow carries or evokes some degree of numinosity. So if we go to a movie and become fascinated say, with the Joker (Batman) or Darth Vader (Star Wars), we’re almost having a kind of “religious” experience in that we’re going beyond our everyday consciousness into something different and captivating.

Debates continue in religion, the humanities and social sciences as to whether this kind of practice is a healthy venting (or possibly redirection) of unavoidable negative impulses or something that simply fans the flames of evil.

Earthpages.org:

Related » Archetype, Darth Vader, Demons, Dracula, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Self, Steppenwolf, Trickster, Vampires, Witch, Yoni

 


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Sin

Seven Sins by Hartwig HKD

Seven Sins by Hartwig HKD via Flickr

In early religion, Sin was a Mesopotamian moon god, also called Nanna. His cult was most prominent at the Sumerian cities of Ur and Harran. Bestowing light in the dark, Sin maintained justice through the night hours.

In Catholic theology sin is any thought, speech or action that transgresses the law of God, where one chooses to enact personal will that conflicts with God will. St. Augustine is often quoted by Catholic writers:

Something said, done or desired that is contrary to the eternal law.¹

The Catholic Church breaks the idea of sin up into several categories, the most important being:

The general idea of sin is widespread but understood differently among world religions. There are three main emphases:

Saint Augustin et Sainte Monique

Saint Augustin et Sainte Monique (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, believers in God concerned with ethical action are faced with a dizzying array of prescriptions on how to do the right thing and avoid sin. When all is said and done, it seems the most sensible approach to living right and avoiding sin is to follow one’s own conscience, lived experience and personal reflection.

However, many seem unable to grow into mature adults and prefer to defer to some perceived authority, distant or near, for guidance on how to live.²

This arguably schoolboy or schoolgirl approach to ethics may afford psychological comfort. After all, when you let some organized leader or group tell you what to do, you gain a ready-made personal identity and sense of community (even if the latter is, perhaps, largely imaginary). But for those willing and able to embrace the degree of freedom and responsibility required to make up one’s own mind, off-the-rack ethics just isn’t an option. Prefabricated ethics often seem immature, hypocritical, and arguably fall short of our true human potential.²

¹ St. Augustine, Con. Faust 22.27 cited in Catholic Bible Dictionary, ed. Scott Hahn, 2009, p. 850.

² Many Christians use the word Sin with pretty clear connotations. But the original Hebrew and Greek terms (that actually occur in the earliest versions of the Bible) are not quite so simple). See Greek and Hebrew words for Sin.

³ See comments on this complex issue.

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The Sirens of Ancient Greece

Odysseus and the Sirens. An 1891 painting by J...

Odysseus and the Sirens. An 1891 painting by John William Waterhouse. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Greek mythology, the Sirens are usually depicted as bird-like creatures with women’s heads who lure sailors to their doom through their haunting song. They can also tame the wind.

In Homer, Odysseus heeded Circe’s warning to avoid the Sirens’ disastrous call by plugging his crew’s ears with beeswax. Curious to hear their strange song, himself, Odysseus ordered his shipmates to fasten him to the mast so he, himself, would not be entranced.

In another version of the myth, Orpheus overpowers their haunting voices with the power of his lyre.¹

In later accounts, the Sirens drown themselves after failing to destroy Odysseus and his crew. Again they commit suicide in another variant, after losing to the Muses in a music competition. The Sirens have also been depicted in Greek myth as mermaids.

The Greek philosopher, Plato depicted eight Sirens in the myth of Er (toward the end of the Republic) as makers of the music of the spheres.

The Siren, by John William Waterhouse (circa 1...

The Siren, by John William Waterhouse (circa 1900), depicted as a fish-chimera. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Sirens were also with Persephone during her rape. According to Ovid, they were originally humanoid but were transformed into birds with human faces while searching for her.²

So we see, as in most ancient myth, a jumble of stories. This makes it hard, I think, to simplify the story of the Sirens to one archetypal idea.

Along these lines, Gilbert Thurlow, following the lead of Mircea Eliade, C. G. Jung and others, tends to emphasize the universal nature of myth:

What is a myth? In the narrowest sense it is a tale about the supernatural. But in a deeper sense it is also a revelation of the divine in terms of this life, a method of revealing ultimate truth.³

The sirens are found on bronze vases from about 600 BCE.

In early Christian times actual belief in the Sirens was discouraged but they remained as symbols of evil, temptation and womanly seduction. In some instances they were likened to heavenly music.

The Sirens were allegorized by both classical and Christian writers as representing the lusts of the flesh, the insatiable desire for knowledge, the dangers of flattery, or as celestial music drawing souls upwards to heaven. Odysseus bound to the mast even came to be seen as an allegory of Christ on the cross.4

Apparently the Roman Emperor Tiberius teased his court scholars by asking them the impossible question: What song did the Sirens sing? Tiberius is generally understood to be the somewhat moody Emperor who ruled during the life and preaching of Jesus.5

Wikipedia provides a convenient list of the Sirens:

  • Aglaope (Αγλαόπη) or Aglaophonos (Αγλαόφωνος) or Aglaopheme (Αγλαοφήμη)(“with lambent voice”). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Leucosia (Λευκοσία). Her name was given to the island opposite to the Sirenuss cape. Her body was found on the shore of Poseidonia.
  • Ligeia (Λιγεία). She was found ashore of Terine in Bruttium.
  • Molpe (Μολπή). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Parthenope (Παρθενόπη). Her tomb was presented in Naples and called “constraction of sirens”.
  • Peisinoe (Πεισινόη) or Peisithoe (Πεισιθόη). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
  • Thelxiope (Θελξιόπη) or Thelxiepeia (Θελξιέπεια) (“eye pleasing”). A daughter of Achelous and Melpomene.
Ulysses and the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ “Sirens” in Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd Ed. (2000, CD ROM edition).

² Ibid. and Jenny March, Cassell’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology 2001, p. 705.

³ Gilbert Thurlow, Biblical Myths and Mysteries, Octopus Books, 1974, p. 4. Myself, I think it’s highly debatable that myth necessarily tells us about ultimate truth. Apart from variations in content, context, cultural influence and style, myth may, indeed, point to different kinds of transcendence. But these are many. And, as most responsible scholars and seasoned religious mystics point out, a simple glow or buzz is not necessarily the highest, true light of heaven.

4 OCD, op. cit.

5 M. C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers, The Concise Companion to Classical Literature, Oxford, 1996, p. 497.

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Spiritual Attack (or warfare)

Spiritual Warfare: Chris and Laura

Spiritual Warfare: Chris and Laura via Flickr

The idea of spiritual attack (also spiritual warfare) is found in most religious and spiritual traditions sharing the belief that a normally invisible attack is caused by evil or lower beings wishing to cause misfortune, distress and physical or psychological illness. I say “normally invisible” because certain mystics, saints and seers claim to actually see the process through visions, revelations or inward, intuitive seeing.

Alleged remedies for spiritual attack vary somewhat, according to the beliefs and practices of a given tradition. Perhaps the biggest difference among traditions is between those that overcome spiritual attack through

  • humble prayer to God and interceding angels and saints
  • one’s own effort, such as the of casting spells or identifying with some kind of spiritual warrior that slays or contains negative spiritual influences¹

In Roman Catholicism, we find a lengthy exorcism prayer aimed to “repulse the attacks and deceits of the devil.” A shorter prayer to St. Michael illustrates this well:

St. Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into Hell Satan and all the evil spirits that wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.³

Tuwinische Schamanin, Ai-Churek (Moon Heart, g...

Tuwinische Schamanin, Ai-Churek (Moon Heart, gestorben 22.11.2010) während einer Zeremonie am Feuer bei Kyzyl, Tuva, Russland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also in Catholic theology we find the term obsession, which means not possessed but significantly disturbed by an evil spirit, spiritual power or influence. Most religions and individuals probably interpret the idea of spiritual attack through their own cultural filters, arriving at beliefs that are just as man-made as actual. And some people go to great lengths to convince us that we’d do well to purchase certain beads or charms to ward off evil.

However, the overall idea of spiritual attack remains important, especially when viewed thoughtfully instead of dogmatically. Spiritual attack presents an alternative to the reductive belief, forwarded by the likes of Richard Dawkins,² that living beings are nothing more than an assemblage of electrically charged chemicals.

By way of analogy, ancient and medieval astronomers made mistakes while viewing the night skies, but those errors didn’t dissuade others from improving observational techniques, leading to better categorizations and explanations of astronomical phenomena. And so it is, one could argue, with observing and understanding the spiritual realm. Some claim to sense, discern or perhaps see its reality. However, we still have a long way to go in decreasing the interpretive biases and influences that can arise from preexisting religious beliefs and worldviews.³

Mircea Eliade

Mircea Eliade (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ (a) In some cultures a professional shaman is enlisted or even paid to overcome evil for another person believed to be under its spell. Mircea Eliade notes that sometimes if the shaman can’t make a living out this, they choose another profession. See http://www.amazon.com/Shamanism-Archaic-Techniques-Ecstasy-Bollingen/dp/0691119422

(b) I should add that these two categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. A modern witch, for example, might cast a spell but also pray to God or spirits for guidance. Likewise, a contemporary shaman might talk about the reality of one God among all traditions.

² See The Selfish Gene, 1976; The God Delusion, 2006.

³ See https://www.tumblr.com/tagged/spiritual-warfare and https://goo.gl/ymEjvW

Related Posts » Obsession, Occam’s Razor, Possession, Alien Possession Theory, Shamanism, Spirit