Posts Tagged ‘India’

I have been giving some thought to theology as of late. I know I think about and talk about religion all the time; that’s not what I mean. What I mean is giving thought to my own theology in a constructive way. Something more than “ZOMG I just don’t know what I believe.” The thing is, I am starting to actually figure out what I do believe, and I am starting to think about how to put all of the pieces together. So here goes:

My philosophical foundation is essentially Advaita Vedanta. I have read the Baghavad Gita and the Upanishads and I am blown away by them. When I read from those texts, I feel like I am hearing the voice of God–not “god’ as in a divine being, but GOD, the entire universe, the ultimate divine reality that is all things and is beyond all things. I believe that everything is a part of this ultimate reality, but that in total it is something entirely beyond out conception. Nothing is like God, and so no analogy or metaphor could possibly do God justice. The differences we perceive, the identities we imagine ourselves as having, are all ultimately illusions. The world of sense objects and empirical data is basically an illusion, called maya. On one level, the creation of the universe as we know it was the creation of this illusion of separateness. Maya is practically necessary for us to function, but it is nevertheless illusory, and it can mislead us powerfully.

In the deepest parts of our own consciousness, we are one with everything, even the gods. But we spend most of our time identifying ourselves as the tips of the fingers, as entirely bound in the world of the five senses. When we dream we withdraw into our own consciousness, which is further back but still a world of deceptive distinction. In dreamless sleep we come closer to our essential oneness, which the Hindus call Atman, the Self that is all-self, the ultimate divine reality of Brahman.

From a practical standpoint, however, this knowledge or philosophy doesn’t do much. Maya is powerful, and it is difficult to even be sure of the Atman, much less to be able to fully identify with it. Because we are out on the branches, functioning in the practical maya-divided world of sense and identity, we need to be able to thing in those terms, even when we think about divinity. The Hindu Vedanta thinkers do this, but their gods are culturally alien to me. Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, and Shiva are extremely interesting, sure, but they are not compelling to me the same way that Zeus, Aphrodite, and Odin are. And furthermore, the gods I have had personal contact with are decidedly Western.

So instead of thinking about divinity in terms of Indian myth, I choose to think about it in terms of the mythology that is compelling and accessible to me, and as an American of Western European descent, that basically points the way to three clusters of myth-tradition: the Celtic/Arthurian, the Norse/Germanic, and the Greek/Classical. The former two are the mythologies of my genealogical ancestors, and the latter is the mythology of my cultural ancestors. These three mythologies are extremely powerful to me. Their gods have spoken to me. I believe that their stories point to the ultimate divine truth that unifies and unites all of reality and that fundamentally explains and gives meaning to my existence.

In these mythologies, I find inspiration, wisdom, a guide to behavior, and a tangible connection to divinity. These are the gods that speak to me, and so when I try to connect to the Ultimate, these gods are my mediators. Why do I need mythology and mediator gods? I guess I could theoretically do without them, but practically, that’s not what my brain is hard-wired to do. And I need something practical that can serve as a kind of stepping stone towards the ultimate.

Even so, belief in these mythologies doesn’t fully carve out a path of action, at least spiritually speaking. I need a set of spiritual practices to serve as a vehicle to take me through the triple-lens of these mythologies and ultimately back to the Divine Self that lies behind everything. For that, I think I have chosen Revival Druidry. Revival Druidry is flexible enough to accommodate the theology I have constructed, and it gives me practices that take me places spiritually that I want to go. I intend to start with the AODA’s first-year curriculum, which includes meditation, regular celebration of the seasons and the position of the sun, and care for the environment leading to an increased awareness of my place in the natural world. In addition, I will probably do some extensive work on poetry.

Vedanta is the philosophy, my three chosen mythologies are together the conceptual lens that I use to construct meaning, and Revival Druidry is the way I will put it all into action. At least… that’s the idea.

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Mary Lefkowitz wrote an excellent article for the LA Times a little more than a year ago about the Greek gods that’s well worth reading.

Bring back the Greek gods

Mere mortals had a better life when more than one ruler presided from on high.

By Mary Lefkowitz
October 23, 2007 in print edition A-27

Prominent secular and atheist commentators have argued lately that religion “poisons” human life and causes endless violence and suffering. But the poison isn’t religion; it’s monotheism. The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view.

There is much we still can learn from these ancient notions of divinity, even if we can agree that the practices of animal sacrifice, deification of leaders and divining the future through animal entrails and bird flights are well lost.

My Hindu students could always see something many scholars miss: The Greek gods weren’t mere representations of forces in nature but independent beings with transcendent powers who controlled the world and everything in it. Some of the gods were strictly local, such as the deities of rivers and forests. Others were universal, such as Zeus, his siblings and his children.

Zeus did not communicate directly with humankind. But his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — played active roles in human life. Athena was the closest to Zeus of all the gods; without her aid, none of the great heroes could accomplish anything extraordinary. Apollo could tell mortals what the future had in store for them. Dionysus could alter human perception to make people see what’s not really there. He was worshiped in antiquity as the god of the theater and of wine. Today, he would be the god of psychology.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, retained his power by using his intelligence along with superior force. Unlike his father (whom he deposed), he did not keep all the power for himself but granted rights and privileges to other gods. He was not an autocratic ruler but listened to, and was often persuaded by, the other gods.

Openness to discussion and inquiry is a distinguishing feature of Greek theology. It suggests that collective decisions often lead to a better outcome. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system of government the Athenians called democracy.

Unlike the monotheistic traditions, Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural. The Greeks and Romans did not share the narrow view of the ancient Hebrews that a divinity could only be masculine. Like many other ancient peoples in the eastern Mediterranean, the Greeks recognized female divinities, and they attributed to goddesses almost all of the powers held by the male gods.

The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of the nature of divinity allowed the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation, they gave the foreign gods names of their own gods: the Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter, Horus was Apollo, and so on. Thus they incorporated other people’s gods into their pantheon.

What they did not approve of was atheism, by which they meant refusal to believe in the existence of any gods at all. One reason many Athenians resented Socrates was that he claimed a divinity spoke with him privately, but he could not name it. Similarly, when Christians denied the existence of any gods other than their own, the Romans suspected political or seditious motives and persecuted them as enemies of the state.

The existence of many different gods also offers a more plausible account than monotheism of the presence of evil and confusion in the world. A mortal may have had the support of one god but incur the enmity of another, who could attack when the patron god was away. The goddess Hera hated the hero Heracles and sent the goddess Madness to make him kill his wife and children. Heracles’ father, Zeus, did nothing to stop her, although he did in the end make Heracles immortal.

But in the monotheistic traditions, in which God is omnipresent and always good, mortals must take the blame for whatever goes wrong, even though God permits evil to exist in the world he created. In the Old Testament, God takes away Job’s family and his wealth but restores him to prosperity after Job acknowledges God’s power.

The god of the Hebrews created the Earth for the benefit of humankind. But as the Greeks saw it, the gods made life hard for humans, didn’t seek to improve the human condition and allowed people to suffer and die. As a palliative, the gods could offer only to see that great achievement was memorialized. There was no hope of redemption, no promise of a happy life or rewards after death. If things did go wrong, as they inevitably did, humans had to seek comfort not from the gods but from other humans.

The separation between humankind and the gods made it possible for humans to complain to the gods without the guilt or fear of reprisal the deity of the Old Testament inspired. Mortals were free to speculate about the character and intentions of the gods. By allowing mortals to ask hard questions, Greek theology encouraged them to learn, to seek all the possible causes of events. Philosophy — that characteristically Greek invention — had its roots in such theological inquiry. As did science.

Paradoxically, the main advantage of ancient Greek religion lies in this ability to recognize and accept human fallibility. Mortals cannot suppose that they have all the answers. The people most likely to know what to do are prophets directly inspired by a god. Yet prophets inevitably meet resistance, because people hear only what they wish to hear, whether or not it is true. Mortals are particularly prone to error at the moments when they think they know what they are doing. The gods are fully aware of this human weakness. If they choose to communicate with mortals, they tend to do so only indirectly, by signs and portents, which mortals often misinterpret.

Ancient Greek religion gives an account of the world that in many respects is more plausible than that offered by the monotheistic traditions. Greek theology openly discourages blind confidence based on unrealistic hopes that everything will work out in the end. Such healthy skepticism about human intelligence and achievements has never been needed more than it is today.

I’m not going to claim that the article is flawless: a quick Google search for “Hindu nationalist violence” will demonstrate pretty easily that polytheists are just as capable of violence in the name of their gods as monotheists are. However, I think you can make the case that Hindu religious violence is a primarily cultural rather than specifically religious affair–they’re not lashing out because people refuse to accept the truth of Vishnu, but because they perceive their culture as one that is under siege by a long history of encroachment by Muslims and Christians into India.

At the same time, I think editorials like Lefkowitz’s are important, if for nothing else than to make us think about the plausibility and, well, the utility of polytheism. In modern civilization, polytheism gets a bad rap, honestly. Most people would discard it as completely implausible, even ridiculous, but the only reason they think that is because monotheistic religions–religions that have had a privileged place in western culture and society for over a thousand years–ridicule them.

Even atheists who discard polytheism out of hand do so not because they have dealt with polytheism on its own terms. Instead they’re rejecting a monotheist caricature of polytheism. Polytheism is frankly not treated fairly.

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On the one hand, I’m sure it looks like I’m going ’round and ’round in circles with God and religion, retreading the same ground and getting nowhere. Sometimes I wonder if that is in fact what is going on, and if I can ever be satisfied and happy. Most of the time, though, I am pretty sure that I am slowly, carefully refining the issues, figuring out really what is at stake and what I think, and what decisions I really have to make.

At the moment, I think I have my religious question basically boiled down to the following ideas:

I’m inclined to think that there is a god, even though I have my doubts. I do not think that god is completely knowable by human beings. I also do not necessarily think that getting some (or even a lot of) things wrong about god is as big of a deal as human beings historically tend to. I’m not sure if god is personal or impersonal, or if god is maybe impersonal but with facets that can be personal-ish. Maybe. In any case, atheism does not suit me. I want both a religious identity and a path for spiritual development. Thus, I want a religion.

I really like a lot of things about Christianity. I find Christian theology appealing. I like the liturgy, the hymns, the architecture, the ritual, the idea of church, the liturgical year, the resurrection. I like C. S. Lewis, a lot. When I read C. S. Lewis, I want to be a Christian. Theoretically, I like the Bible, even though my attempts at reading it over the last two years have been most unsatisfactory.  I’m attached to Christianity as a religion, and am extremely bothered by the idea of giving it up entirely.  I even sometimes entertain the notion of going to seminary and becoming an Episcopal priest someday.

Unfortunately, despite everything I’ve just said, I don’t think I actually believe (in) Christianity. I like the idea of Jesus Christ as God incarnate quite a bit, but I don’t seem to actually believe that it it is so. I like the idea of salvation from sin through Jesus Christ’s supreme sacrifice, but I’m not sure I’m really all that worried about my sins, I find the idea of hell implausible, I don’t necessarily feel like I am in need of salvation (I feel plenty of wretched, just not necessarily wretched because of my sins or sinful nature) and I’m not convinced that this supreme sacrifice in fact happened. I think that the resurrection is plausible, but I don’t necessarily think that it means the whole package of Christianity is true.

I think I actually believe something a whole lot more like Vedanta, like the ideas expressed in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita about Brahman and everything, the world and people and you and me and God, all being really the same thing. I’m not culturally Indian, so Hinduism as a religion has no appeal to me whatsoever, and all of the New Religious Movements that have spun off from Hinduism in the west are, well, New Religious Movements. Pretty much they are to Hinduism what Mormonism is to Christianity (and Soka Gakkai is to Buddhism), and I am not interested in that at all. I’ve already done aa quasi-cult, thanks. I’m not really in the market for another one.

So I would prefer to read the Bible because I prefer the idea of reading the Bible, but in reality I find the Gita and the Upanishads so much more meaningful.

Also, I find various flavors of Paganism (neo and otherwise) extremely appealing: Asatru, Druidry, the Greek Gods, etc. I feel like all of that would dovetail a whole lot better with the Bhagavad Gita than it would the Bible. I’m European, not Indian, so actually becoming a Hindu is not interesting at all to me, but I think that the philosophy underlying Hinduism and tying it together can easily be applied to any Indo-European mythology.  I think that AODA Druidry as spiritual practice, Vedanta as philosophy, and European myth as a corpus of spiritual literature is an extremely reasonable combination, and probably a hell of a lot closer to what I actually believe than Chistianity ever will be.

But, Christianity is more appealing for some reason.  And for a lot of reasons, Vedanta+Druidry+Mythology, although it might actually be what I believe, is extremely unappealing.  There’s a lack of clear religious identity, for one.  There’s no Christmas.  Druidry as spiritual practice sometimes seems shallow and empty to me–it is missing the millennia of tradition that Christianity has.  There are the social and cultural problems with identifying as an odd religion.  Treading a new path means missing out on the guidance of people who have gone before.  There’s the worry that I’m really just cherry-picking the things I like.  There are issues about the source of morality and the source of values (that I am exploring in another series of posts).  And in my head, Vedanta+Druidry+Mythology just doesn’t have the same, I don’t know, pow! that Christianity has.  And it doesn’t have C. S. Lewis.

So I know what I probably believe, but it doesn’t happen to be the same thing as what I would like to believe.  But my desire to believe Christianity is subtly undermined by the things I actually do believe.  I’m not sure how to resolve this painlessly–there may simply be no painless resolution–but I think it is extremely important that I have arrived at (or at least I’m getting closer to) the central question in my search for God.

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