Category Archives: Origins

Evidence is for Silly Nannies

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1602

I would like to post an expanded version of a short article that I originally shared in November 2013. It fits well with the Easter season. The original title is My Very Own Historical Jesus and can also be found in the archives in its original form. Please feel free to comment. Continue reading

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Introducing Hinduism

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Indian Sadhus

It was especially difficult to introduce Hinduism to the students of the World Religion class. The many religious traditions of India are intertwined throughout a long and complex history; and maybe we are wrong in our attempt to discern a single religion that we can call Hinduism.

Until the diverse traditions of Indian religion are properly separated by their history, practice, origin or language, we are left with the modern habit of introducing Hinduism as a single, multifaceted religion with dozens of important texts, and practices, spanning over three thousand years.

The following post presents an easy-to-follow orientation to studying Hinduism. Please feel free to comment.

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Mundus, caro, et diabolus

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Hieronymus Bosch, late 15th century, “Garden of Earthly Delights” detail

Anyone studying the religions of the world will encounter from time to time the notion that all religion is somehow fundamentally anti-human; all religion seems to denounce and find fault with life-on-planet-Earth.

Are there any religions that do not reject our earthly existence?

The translation of the title (above) is: “The World, the Flesh and the Devil”

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Religion’s Roots in Indigenous Religion

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Aboriginal tribesmen of Australia

The student who is truly attracted to the study of religion will benefit from the enormous number of sacred stories of indigenous religions collected by anthropologists. The roots of religion pass backward from ancient religion through indigenous religion into prehistoric religion. There are hundreds of living indigenous religions and thousands that have faded into extinction. Continue reading

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Exegesis and other big words

The rediscovery in the late nineteenth century of the Assyrian Empire in the north of present-day Iraq and, soon after, the rediscovery of the Sumerian civilization in the south, all began with an archaeology intending to find the civilizations mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.

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Ethiopian Ge’ez Bible

Although archaeology has gone its own way, the science of archaeology began with biblical archaeology. The exegesis – the critical explanation or analysis – of ancient sacred texts began with the religious exegesis of scripture. Religious exegesis is the intense religious study of sacred scripture.

 

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In the Mayan Jungle

The Maya1 jungle, as far as the eye can see, has swallowed up the ancient Maya cities and along with them, their ancient religion.

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Nohoch Mul Temple at Coba Mayan archeological site

We explored four Maya archaeological sites in two days! Not to mention, swimming with sea turtles, exploring underground lakes and burning up in the oppressive Mexican sun. When we got to the top of the highest of the Maya temples that have been cleared of trees, our guide, of Maya descent, could point out the vast 80 km2 territory that was once the enormous Maya stone city of Coba.

1  see comment by Finkus Bellum below
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Maya Jungle from top of Nohoch Mul Temple, Coba archaeological site

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Ancient Concepts of Life After Death

When Socrates refers to ‘Hades’ in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, he describes it as the afterlife reserved for the good; and he describes the good man as the ‘philosopher.’

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Bust of Socrates, Vatican Collection

Throughout Antiquity, there were many variations on the theme of life after death, all of which predate Christianity and Islam. The insistance on a “final judgement” in both Christianity and Islam comes directly from the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, and the Levant.

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The Neverending Story : Sunni and Shi’ite

It is standard these days to describe Shi’ah Islam as a splinter group that formed very early in the history of Islam as a result of disagreement over the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. But the student of religion should consider this explanation as part of the sacred history (traditional narrative) of Islam and not as historical fact.

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The newly restored (Shi’ah) Al Askari Shrine, north of Baghdad: originally built in the tenth century, destroyed in Sunni – Shi’ah conflict in 2006-7.

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Transcendental Meditation

I recently went to a screening of a film entitled Meditation, Creativity, Peace for the promotion of the David Lynch Foundation For Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. The film was put together by film students and featured David Lynch as he toured and talked about Transcendental Meditation.

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For anyone interested in understanding religion, in an attempt to start with clarity, I recommend a category of ‘Modern Religion.’ Any religion that has a founder or foundation after the beginning of the nineteenth century should be arranged for study in the category of Modern Religion.

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Religious Cult : No Such Thing

One of the best things you can do for yourself as an honest student of religion is to throw away the common concept of a ‘religious cult’.

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The porch of caryatids at the Erechtheum in Athens, the civic cult of Athena.

 

The student who has accepted my notion of  Modern Religion and has discarded the concept of religious cult (or ‘secte’ in French) as a rogue religion, will be able to explore these religions, whether or not these religions function within accepted laws or cultural norms and regardless of their modern expression, denomination, or relationship to the state.

The ‘cult of a god’ is a term that goes to the heart of all religion, both the living traditions and those that are extinct.

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Modern Religion

To help you remember the many and diverse religions of the world, my seven categories of all religions past and present offer you assistance and support.

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The Mahikari-no-Waza Temple at Takayama, Japan.

 

Modern Religion – the last of my categories – allows you to easily isolate the more recent religions from their ancient inspiration. A modern religion is any and all religion that has a founder or foundation after the beginning of the nineteenth century. Modern religion contains at least one, but most often several, of the following: Continue reading

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The Term ‘Abrahamic’

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image above: detail of Abraham and Isaac on the way to the Place of Sacrifice Marc Chagall, 1931

It is endlessly troublesome to create helpful categories for the myriad religions of the world.

The centuries of hostility between the so-called Abrahamic religions originate from their competitive claims to the Hebrew prophetic tradition and from their mutually exclusive claims to the revelations attributed to Abraham and the canon of Israelite prophets. I’m not sure why this category title ever felt right to anyone, religious or otherwise. Continue reading

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Your Angel, My Devil

One of the more popular topics of discussion in the World Religions class is the subject of angels and demons.

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Most ideas about angels, devils and demons do not come from sacred writings but more often come from stories, traditions and the arts adjacent to an adherent’s religion. Continue reading

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Recipe for Happiness

Most all religions have at one time or another described themselves as a path to truth and a recipe for happiness. As these recipes are believed to come from a spokesperson for the divine, it’s fair to say that some part of religion consists of a ‘how to’ set of instructions, like a recipe, revealed, as it were, from the Divine Chef.

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Too Many Religions! part II

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The objective of my categories is to orient the student once and for all into religion as a topic of study.

The seven categories are:

  • Prehistoric Religion
  • Indigenous Religion
  • Ancient Religion
  • The Hindi Religions
  • Religions of China
  • The Abrahamic (or Revealed Religions, if you like)
  • Modern Religion

It is very important to note that, in my system of categories, I ignore the claims made by any one religion. Many of the modern religions, for example, consider themselves to be a continuation of – or, often, a singularly orthodox expression of – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or one of the ancient religions. Continue reading

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All Scripture is Sibylline

The obscure nature of sacred writing, or any ancient text for that matter, can be surprisingly discouraging for the student of religion. So much of religious scripture is ambiguous and often unintelligible.

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Revelation in Buddhism

During my years of teaching, the thoughtful student often asked whether Buddhism could be excluded from the category of religion altogether as there are often no gods or concept of divinity to be found in many expressions of this rather elastic religion. buddha01In many books on religion the authors feel compelled to qualify Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion, or to single out Zen Buddhism and similar sects as expressions of Buddhism that are somehow separate from Buddhist religious practice. Continue reading

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My Very Own Historical Jesus

For the good Christian, the four Gospels of the New Testament are central to belief in Jesus. These gospels (the Christian revelation) are often referred to as the canonical gospels to distinguish them from the many other gospels and writings that belong to forms of Christianity that did not survive or, for other reasons were not included in the Bible. CaravaggioThomas01The canonical Gospel we know as The Gospel According to John contains over a dozen stories not found in the three earlier Gospels. The most startling of these stories is that of the apostle Thomas who would not believe his friends and peers who claimed that Jesus had come back from the grave and was alive. Continue reading

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