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Quiddity – What is?

Quiddity (Latin: quidditas = whatness) is a medieval scholastic term referring a thing’s essence (primary substance) in contrast to its observable form (secondary substance).

This kind of distinction goes back to Plato and plays an important role in understanding the Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist, said to transform in essence but not in observable form.

Catholics and several other Christian churches believe that Holy Communion is not just a memorial but a sacrament in which one partakes of the living body and blood of Christ. Each Christian Church has subtle variations in trying to explain this mystery. For Catholics, by taking the transformed host one goes further into becoming a part of the mystical body of Christ.

For most Christian believers, partaking in the Eucharist is the opposite of natural eating. With the Eucharistic meal, the eater becomes part of the eaten, whereas in natural eating the reverse is true: the eaten becomes part of the eater.¹

Concerning the Catholic theological distinction between essence and form, essence is not to be taken as mere mattery/energy—that is, the fabric of the observable universe.  For Catholics, essence is a spiritual term that means something qualitatively different from matter/energy.

This important point is often misunderstood or entirely overlooked by New Age / Quantum Physics enthusiasts who recast the old myth of naturalistic pantheism into the latest scientific language, which arguably is just another myth.

David Hume

David Hume (Photo: Wikipedia)

Clearly, not everyone accepts the idea of primary substance. Non-believers tend to think of it as mumbo jumbo. And Catholics are sometimes called derogatory terms like “wafer biters.”

The philosopher David Hume and others who probably never felt the glory of the Eucharist argued that since primary substance cannot be perceived, it should not be assumed to exist.

However, many who do experience tangible effects from the Eucharist would likely see Hume’s perspective as limited, one coming from a mind constrained by worldliness, materialism and an over-reliance on conceptual reasoning.  As Wikipedia notes

The claim that substance cannot be perceived is neither clear nor obvious, and neither is the implication obvious.²

¹ Some New Age and Shamanistic believers might dispute this, saying that when we eat an animal we temporarily merge with its soul, which continues into an afterlife.

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

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The Quakers, past and present

Pete Birkenshaw via Flickr

The Quakers (a.k.a. The Religious Society of Friends) are a religious movement founded in England by George Fox (1624-1691). Wikipedia outlines the interesting origins of the appellation, Quakers.

In 1650, Fox was brought before the magistrates Gervase Bennet and Nathaniel Barton, on a charge of religious blasphemy. According to George Fox’s autobiography, Bennet “was the first that called us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord”. It is thought that George Fox was referring to Isaiah 66:2 or Ezra 9:4. Thus, the name Quaker began as a way of ridiculing George Fox’s admonition, but became widely accepted and is used by some Quakers

The Quakers were pacifists who rejected the Christian Sacraments, seeing themselves as  true Christians, Saints, Children of the Light, and Friends of the Truth.² They advocated plain speech and clothing, and were persecuted for their nonconformity. Four Quakers, including Mary Dyer, were executed in Boston in 1660.

In the 20th century Quakers made a name for themselves in the world of business, with names like Cadbury and Rowntree leading the pack. BBC points out that not all Quaker businesses succeeded. But we remember the success stories.³

English: The Religious Society of Friends (Qua...

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Mosedale Meeting House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, pockets of Quakers exist around the globe, often in economically disadvantaged locales where they engage in charitable works.

Quakers emphasize an Inner Light and personal revelation. Liberal Quaker “Friends” recognize different manifestations of what they understand as “The Holy Spirit.” This means that non-Christian religions are seen as valid approaches to God.

The Catholic Church has generally regarded the Quakers as a well-meaning but misguided sect.4

Title page from a book protesting the persecut...

Title page from a book protesting the persecution of Quakers in New England (1660-1661) (Photo Wikipedia)

My only direct experience with a Quaker came through a university professor. While most other professors had PhDs, he was still working on his.

Despite this apparent drawback, he was by far one of my best undergrad professors. Intelligent, witty, kind and encouraging. He brought historical and biographical depth to what otherwise could have been a pretty dry topic—sociological theory.

So if he is any indication of what the rest are like, Quakers have made a pretty good impression on me.

George Fox. This image shows part of an engrav...

George Fox. This image shows part of an engraving by “S. Allen” (published 1838) of a painting by “S. Chinn” – Wikipedia

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

² Ibid.

³ http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-17112572

4 For instance » http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=9765

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image – Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related » Wendy Doniger, Visistadvaita

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The Rosary – Aid or distraction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crucifijos de los Rosarios

Crucifijos de los Rosarios by Nathan Gibbs via Flickr

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

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

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

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

¹ See these links.

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

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


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Romeo and Juliet – Not my fav but respected

Photo - Wikipedia

Photo – Wikipedia

Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy by William Shakespeare (1595-6). It portrays the brief lives of two “star crossed lovers” who come from feuding families, the Capulets and the Montagues.

In Shakespeare’s time it was one of his most popular plays, as it remains today.

Myself, I never really liked Romeo and Juliet too much. It seems small and dark. Romantic love is fine. But when it gets all messed up and doesn’t work out right, it doesn’t really capture my imagination.

I find it sort of silly and dramatically frustrating that someone would commit suicide because he thought his true love was dead. And guess what? She wasn’t even dead after all. So what happens? She wakes up and kills herself.

Maybe I just like happy endings. I realize life doesn’t always turn out that way but still, Romeo and Juliet for me is a bit of downer.

Like many of his plays, Shakespeare didn’t come up with the idea out of the blue. There were precedents, some very clear.

Romeo and Juliet borrows from a tradition of tragic love stories dating back to antiquity. One of these is Pyramus and Thisbe, from Ovid‘s Metamorphoses, which contains parallels to Shakespeare’s story: the lovers’ parents despise each other, and Pyramus falsely believes his lover Thisbe is dead. The Ephesiaca of Xenophon of Ephesus, written in the 3rd century, also contains several similarities to the play, including the separation of the lovers, and a potion that induces a deathlike sleep.

One of the earliest references to the names Montague and Capulet is from Dante‘s Divine Comedy, who mentions the Montecchi (Montagues) and the Cappelletti (Capulets) in canto six of Purgatorio:

Come and see, you who are negligent,
Montagues and Capulets, Monaldi and Filippeschi
One lot already grieving, the other in fear

Image - Wikipedia

Romeo and Juliet (detail) by Frank Dicksee – Wikipedia

In 1938 the Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev wrote a ballet after the story. And Berlioz (1839) and Tchaikovsky (1869) also wrote classical pieces on the theme.

There have been several screen adaptations. One of my favorites is Franco Zeffirelli‘s 1968 Romeo and Juliet. I remember marveling at Olivia Hussey as a kid when I saw the film in junior high. For me, she was the epitome of womanly beauty back then.

¹ See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romeo_and_Juliet

In India, the Mahabharata epic tells of a family feud that leads to total war between the Pandavas and the Karavas. This war is also central to The Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata (some believe a later addition because it differs stylistically). I don’t think the Capulets and Montagues were related but the Pandavas and Karavas were. Of course, Shakespeare most likely did not have access to Hindu myth (in this case, the Puranas) because it hadn’t been translated into European languages yet. But for thinkers like Adolf Bastien, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung (who believe that certain psychological “patterns” or “structures” arise independently around the world) this wouldn’t have been a huge problem.

Related » Projection, Radha


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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