Religious-symbols 2

Religion Symbols




Long before the Bosnian- Croatian- and Kosovo conflicts, before September Eleven happened to New York and before the long war began in Afghanistan—also long before the present conflagration between Israel and Palestine—it has become obvious that religion all too frequently is being invoked by combatants on both sides of a battle, to justify violence. And by “violence” I mean “anti-human terror.” War seldom is a clear confrontation of good versus evil, or is merely a matter of someone being anti-This or anti-That. Collateral violence kills “innocents” (pardon me for using this cliché—I do not regard conscripted males automatically “guilty”) at both sides of a battle front. Nor is the alignment always clear. For instance, in the last aforementioned conflict it is not a question of anti-Semitism versus Semitism. Both sides are Semites—and many rational people, “innocently” born at either side, are honestly bewildered about what their ethnic and religious affiliation is all supposed to mean in the larger scheme of modern nation states. The two World Wars, and the Cold War that followed, have here and there created the illusion of war being essentially a secular affair. Many religious minds in the West have been misled to see war as an apocalyptic confrontation between religious and non-religious adversaries. I say “misled” because the apparent non-godly powers, such as the National Socialist Workers regime in Germany and imperial Japan during World War II, as well as the Soviet Union thereafter, were fanatically devout entities. They were all wrapped up in their own ideological iridescent soap bubbles. Of course, the greater-than-human ideals to which these power configurations paid homage were antitheses to those of the fragmented monotheisms that were being called upon to invigorate some of the Western allies. On both sides divine providence (goettliche Vorsehung) was invoked. In addition, in Europe, the concrete Natural Process was believed to “select” a superior race, in harmony with the scientific Darwinian principles of “natural selection.” On the opposite side of the globe, these principles were pragmatically fused with State Shinto, a “Son of Heaven” imperialism engendered in early days by Confucianism. In Eastern Europe “Natural Process” posed as Historical Process that was to usher in the Socialist Utopia. But such notions, of greater-than-human processes unfolding, were all remnant phantoms of deities that had appeared in earlier religions. The biblical God who once upon a time “elected” a Semitic chosen race—and whose story in America resonated for a time as Manifest Destiny, to enslave Africans and subdue Indians—was upstaged for a while, in Europe, by a faith in all-encompassing Nature that “selected” her own antithesis vis-à-vis those that had been “elected” earlier. For a while Mother Nature was said to favor blue eyes and blond locks to other hues of color. Thereby in Europe the Great Mother Nature’s racist inconsistencies measured up, in full, to those that had been attributed to the Great Father in the Middle East, in America and elsewhere. Staunch religiously oriented societies do defend their territories, as well as do expand them, in the name of some deity. Defense and aggression do both require the same violent methods. Secularized societies who are at war with one another prefer to ignore personal gods. They clash over impersonal “values” or “ideals” instead. But whether one side or the other is of the more secular or more religiously tinted variety, it will nevertheless proceed to denigrate any “religion” that is practiced by the other side. Yes, in times of crisis, and in moments that threaten to exceed the limits of rational endurance, even secularized societies have recourse to remnants of archaic piety. In the final analysis, and by hindsight, all conquered lands are justified as having been divinely given. And all lands, defended with the help of some greater-than-ordinary ego, tend to be declared holy lands. Blood-soaked earth is sanctified in two ways—first, when a conqueror sacrifices victims from among the defenders, and second, when he sacrifices heroes from his own ranks. However the outcome, survivors from either side can afterward dwell in a land made sacred by violence. One need not be surprised when bewildered and undiscerning people then blame religions for everything that is bad, for all wars and violence in the world—after the manner in which some Homines sapientes shun hospitals because a great number of people happen to die there. The definition of religion: [for more on the definition of religion click here—and scroll down five paragraphs]. In a world where all kinds of creatures hope to survive, where all of them must gather their nourishment by more or less aggressive tricks, there naturally are being displayed three distinct modes of behavior. There is, first, the aggressive mode of behavior that results in conquest and in the acquisition of certain conquerable and apparently “lesser” realities. Second, there is the submissive mode of behavior that results in religious surrender or death. And third, at the balance point between these two extremes there are some accommodating patterns of behavior that engender and nourish life. Ontologically stated, these three modes are responses to so-conceived less-than-human, to greater-than-human, or to potentially equal realities. Scientific manipulation and warfare tend to define the world in terms of less-than-human conquerable entities. Religious reverence acknowledges the presence of greater-than-human realities or beings that temporarily might bless and eventually might take or do one in. Finally, at the balance point between these two dimensions, social coexistence aspires to the survival of potential equals in accordance with the Golden Rule of egalitarianism.

Inasmuch as all living beings are caught up, constantly, in both directions along that Teeter-Totter scale, as well as around the middle, humankind is seen to forage aggressively in order to eat, it wages war in order to win, and it survives in groups that manage to hold on to some equilibrium for continued existence. Survival happens ideally in a state of optimal balance, in conformity with the Golden Rule. However, inasmuch as complete balance in human society is impossible to maintain without superimposing some kind of administrative rules—and inasmuch as such a superimposition by others does immediately abolish the principles of ideal equality and freedom—the usual democratic compromises tend to settle for something less. On a more or less level playing field, free competition is sustained for periods of time among fellow contestants and survivors. Whether in peaceful competition, in the course of which living-space may be taken for granted, or in warring competition for more living-space, all human achievements will be religiously justified in the end. And such justification can take a variety of forms. Traditionally religious folk have thanked their deity by way of giving share offerings, that is, sacrifices from among the “lesser things” that had gotten under their control. Or by utilizing the law of inflation they would substitute more or less empty words of flattery and praise. The logic is simple. At the moment when some greater-than-human reality configuration accepts a sacrificial gift or compliment, the life style of the supplicant is justified. Horrendous orgies of human sacrifice, of anti-human violence, have by this method of pious supplication been justified and religiously sanctioned. As a young boy, during World War II, I have seen many public gatherings in memoriam of fallen soldiers who were being honored as heroes. They died in defense of the holy Fatherland. The fact that they were killed while being on a campaign as killers was far outweighed by the more immediate evidence of their extreme patriotic piety—of sacrificing their own lives on behalf of the Fatherland and for its survivors. All of this called for ever greater sacrifices from us who, by this memorial rite, stood there guilty of the crime of cowardly survival. Eleven years later I myself wore the uniform of World War II victors. That was the time when I became aware, first hand, of the strong messianic strain of mythology that inspired American expansion. Blossoming in the endless variety of free-church denominations, patriotism in America came easily to Christians during the Fifties. The great fight of Good versus Evil, of self-congratulating liberators against people who perpetrated the holocaust—a fate inflicted mostly on people whom in antiquity God had chosen—was revealed to any superficial reader of Christian or Hebrew bibles. On the other hand, those burdened by God with a broader view on human history had to watch with discomfort how the Christian gospel was being twisted to support politicized patriotism—of the “my country right or wrong” variety—regarding one-sided foreign policies toward Asia and the Middle East. Popular bible-reading piety in America became, and still today remains, the blind accomplice that indirectly agitates Semitic anti-Semitism. This confusion of ancient propaganda with divine revelation has confounded American “democracy” and foreign policy for decades. Idolatry toward ancient bundles of texts, deemed far holier than their writers ever intended, along with fallout clouds from guilt of having become smudged by the nastiness of two World Wars, have twisted America’s Middle East policy into a pretzel. No American president, with literalistic bible-reading voters behind him, has ever been a free agent to negotiate a fair peace for the Middle East. It need not remain a case of hopeless ignorance forever. For example, most Bible scholars and fellows in academia, whom I have met, have long since realized that the story of Joshua’s conquest, of the Promised Land, could never have been more than pious propaganda of the 7th Century faltering Israelite monarchy that had, in actuality, been functioning only during the reigns of two kings, more than three centuries earlier. With real estate claims as mushy as these, warranted only by three or two millennia worth of wishful thinking and acclaimed divine promises—if everyone on this planet would want to champion such validity, then the whole world should be ablaze right now. Everyone could be fighting for the land of some mythical father’s dreams. What provides spiritual solace to pious individuals is not necessarily a wholesome ingredient for mutual survival on Planet Earth. While I and millions of other people are devoutly reading our Bible, our Talmud, our Qur’an and Hadith—for spiritual balance, we suppose—give thereby also the impression that we are endorsing ancient claims—claims that are historically relevant only because they are found written on very old sheep skin and paper. With such idolatry toward scribbled words, is there still hope that a semblance of rational humanity can survive? Yes, I believe there is. But this hope will come at the price of honest historical reconsiderations. And such honest reasoning comes as a severe challenge. As surely as there are no people holier than others, or more beloved by God than others, so also are there no holier-than-other lands. The idea of there being any such things is defensive propaganda at best, and is aggressive hypocrisy at its worst. Nevertheless, one must strive to view things realistically. At critical moments in history the need to defend a sacred “nest,” one that is coveted by others, appears exceedingly necessary and real. Regardless of how mild and how beautiful the ethic of a religion is formulated, real people caught up in a real crisis do tend to bond together by the pressure of such an ordeal. The same deity that has given them strength to survive, while they were being pushed together into a corner, will also give them strength and courage to storm forth during desperate attempts at liberation. People naturally will fight under the sponsorship of the same God with whose help they have retreated and become united. From an outsider’s perspective this happenstance—of the “peaceful God” of silenced people who suddenly becomes a deity of war—may therefore appear like a contradiction. Yet, a desperate insider’s perspective is understandably quite different. The first step in a more honest direction, in the study of religions, I have already outlined in my Teeter-Totter diagram, above, by way of placing “religious responses to reality” in a broader context. Religions are not systems of thought that have some sort of monopoly on truth, regardless of how true the tenets of a faith momentarily may seem to devout practitioners. Devotion is not necessarily a friend of truth, and religions are not classifiable, at least not by human minds, into “true” and “false” religions. Rather, within a dynamic process of historical change, religions have come into being as flashes of divine grace—as glimpses of greater-than-human symbols that have helped, here and there, to weigh down human aggressors to a semblance of balanced behavior. When in the course of human history too many peoples were classified as disposable less-than-human commodities, it often has come to pass that, from the greater-than-human ontological dimension, there has been shining an occasional glimmer of hope—to the effect that human beings could be regarded as divinely created, as being born of a heavenly Father, of a Mother, or as being adopted, or as simply living under “Heaven” that sees matters after the manner in which the greater number of people do. Whenever such balancing visions from the greater-than-human dimension have spilled across the national boundaries of potential equals, they could function as worldwide checks and balances for a variety of socio-political systems, for a time. Such worldwide checks and balances are our major universal salvation religions that presently still give hope to our world. The virtues of “monotheism” are tremendously overvalued. In fact, most sophisticated polytheists, in older religions, could as well be classified as emanational monotheists. Moreover, a logically consistent monotheism never has been practiced by an analytically gifted human mind. And then, to the extent that some monotheistic religion is called upon to justify or to favor a special tribe, a nation, or a linguistic grouping, it ipso facto divides and reduces the magnitude of its One God. Wherever in the world we see two sides battling one another in the name of some greater than human entity, there we can be assured that the “deity”—even though it may be acclaimed as “one and only” or as “greatest”—is being used for lesser human ends than the deity’s description implies. It is logically impossible to wage war in the name of a true monotheism. A deity appealed to in conflicts of war immediately has to be thought of as some lesser being—as one among a number of contenders. Thus, a God who is being invoked to function as a war deity ceases to be the One Almighty God. The world’s monotheistic religions, and the atheistic ideologies that have arisen as mirror-refractions to them, have, by not recognizing this contradiction, evolved into the world’s greatest nuisances. A monotheism, or other “universalism,” that is satisfied with balancing only the interests of one tribe or nation, willy-nilly is transformed into its own opposite. It becomes an instrument for international imbalance. A monotheistic divine promise is either valid for all of humankind, or it is valid for none. It either blossoms to become a universal gospel, and functions as balancing agent for the world, or it becomes encapsulated in its own antithesis as a justification of violence and aggression. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, together with all other organized universalisms that we know of—they all have spotty historical records regarding their success in balancing. Historically, monotheistic religion has already in ancient Egypt been a concomitant of “theocratic” imperialism—thus of imperialism proper. Theologians who embellished those grand imperial cults have succeeded with loading ceremonial restrictions—checks and balances—onto otherwise absolute rulers who would have liked nothing better than to rule as straight gods, or at least as sons of God. Ancient Hebrew, later Jewish, and Christian monotheisms were provoked by ancient Near Eastern sons of God whose autocratic ambitions, over time, have goaded their victims into redefining the one-and-only deity. The collective human awareness frequently has opted for a “check and balance” solution (sometimes named God, Heaven, Holy Spirit, Nature, History)—a religion that promised universal balance and salvation. Such choices were extremely rational and practical, because to constrain an emperor who paraded as God or as Son of God, it was necessary to describe the supreme “One God” as far surpassing the limits of the earthly ruler and his realm. This is the process by which monotheistic terminology became inflated along the way, and why frequently, upon the wings of poetry, it ventured beyond conditions in the physical world. Egyptian high priests at Heliopolis, while still utilizing the inherited language of polytheism, began delineating a dynamic emanational monotheism that was unencumbered by temporal changes. Their efforts can be found inscribed on chamber walls of Old Kingdom pyramids. Their emanational monotheism preceded that of Akhenaton by much. The monotheisms with which most of us are familiar are of a later reactionary variety. Moses as fugitive from imperial Egypt, Abraham as patriarch of roaming nomads, the habiru rebel king David, a variety of prophetic protesters whose voices were collected in the Bible, Jesus as a commoner Son of God and his apostles, Muhammad the Prophet or Allah and his companions, they all have in succession reacted against, and have redefined some version of imperial monotheism. Their own cults introduced a variety of trans-imperial, universalistic reforms. They introduced ideas that by and large became increasingly more democratic. Abraham symbolizes the abolition of grand-domesticator human sacrifice. Moses is honored as liberator of people from imperial slavery, whereas David and Solomon thoroughly reorganized the legacy of Moses—no matter how their monarchy might have accommodated Yahwism—to approximate more and more the Egyptian imperial legacy—only to evoke unrest from prophetic habiru protesters. Then Jesus of Nazareth called the bluff of three thousand years of monotheistic imperialism. He usurped the three-millennia-old imperial title “Son of God” for himself, a commoner, and thereby rendered it useless for governing an empire. The church he founded became a universalistic trans-imperial movement. Six centuries later Muhammad of Mecca, seeing himself in the line of biblical prophets and protesters—and unaware of the “Son of God” dialectic by which Jesus lived and died—mediated monotheism in Arabic to whoever was ready by then to reject the re-imperialized monotheism of Byzantium, along with that of Zoroastrian Persia in the east. These, in a nutshell, are the later monotheisms that were evoked by the monotheistic imperialism of ancient Near Eastern civilization. All of these counter-theologies aspired to universal ideals, and none of them succeeded completely. The Israelite and Judaic traditions, venturing only slightly into missionary universalism, remained stuck in their anti-Egyptian Torah celebration. And while they remained religiously anti-Egyptian, their defensive stance of being a special and chosen people has doomed them to a history of wandering as outsiders. To the extent that their ritualism, and occasional advantages, kept them fixed upon the faith and lifestyle of nomadic patriarchs, they defined themselves in opposition to other humankind that became collectively committed to being more sedentary. Their ethos has doomed them to a roller-coaster existence between exhilarating heights of self-awareness and abysmal depths of sometimes self-fulfilling—though remarkably hopeful—suffering and persecution. Their scripted monotheism, which was generated in reaction to the greatest of ancient imperialisms, has turned out to be a few sizes too large for the small ethnic communalism that it was called upon to balance afterward. Trans-imperial monotheistic theology, for a people who are still entangled in tribal values and mythology, however mentally or poetically stimulating such religious contrast and isolation might prove to be, is doomed to remain a mismatch in any modern democratic nation-state. The Christian religion began fully wrapped up in Judaism. Christians inherited from the Judaic community their poetic and wonderfully bloated ethos of pastoralists, kings, priests, prophets, and other savants. All the while, their primary “New Testament” canon was assembled in the liquid linguistic environment of Hellenistic and Roman imperialism. Its formulation of monotheistic theology has accomplished a reasonably smooth transition from ancient Egyptian to Hellenistic philosophized monotheism—broad and universalistic enough to suit an adjusting empire. Christianity recognized no geographical or ethnic boundary and thereby formulated a religious faith that came as close to universal monotheism as was possible at the time. Of course, alongside its universalism Christianity also has cultivated some Judaic strains of defensive isolationism and elitism. On the other end of the spectrum, Christianity has succumbed to ancient imperialistic undercurrents and obligations that originally it had set out to undercut. What began as a parody on the Egyptian and Greco-Roman divine son-ship of emperors became serious play again—as soon as the Church found itself saddled with the need of stabilizing the Empire and when it recognized its responsibility for balancing a large chunk of Western civilization. Schisms and reformations have kept Christianity’s prophetic and universalistic spirit alive—even while today it continues to blend into the broader stream of secular democracy. The problem of compromising universalistic ideals, in exchange for regional political advantages, does haunt modern democracies as much as it has haunted the early and medieval Christian Church when it still tried to stabilize some semblance of a “Holy Roman Empire.” The adventure of Muslims, to become a universal monotheistic faith, was from the outset patterned by their reactions to the presence of Christian Byzantium and Zoroastrian Persia. Both were “monotheistic” empires and stood there, waiting to be challenged by the less-structured monotheism of Muhammad—by words and sounds perceived in arid Arabia, directly and fresh from the Arabic-speaking mouth of God. While divine revelation in Arabic was a tremendous inspiration to people who theretofore felt inferior to peoples that already had The Book, it also set a communicational boundary to the universalism of Muhammad’s religion. In the final analysis, the universalism of Islam could not be spread very well without glorifying the Arabic language. In turn, knowledge of Arabic could not be sufficiently spread without military, mercenary, administrative, educational, and other imperial pressures. Thus, the universalism of Islam, while it was fiercely against the trappings of ancient imperialisms, drifted into the pattern of a new imperialism even during the Prophet’s own life time. All imperialisms tend to become abusive sooner or later. Moreover, constitutional finality being determined by scriptural dogma, the task of bringing the secular leaders as well as powerful spiritual leaders under the checks and balances of the Sunna turns out to be never ending. Over a number of centuries the Islamic vision of the world has proven invigorating, even for the west of Western Civilization. But with the evolution of industrialism and Western democracy the tide has slowly turned. Contemporary leading minds in Islam are being challenged by the secularized humanism that in the West has resulted from the melee when Christendom overcame its Egyptian-Greco-Roman imperial legacy. The avalanche of ancient imperial structures is now melting, and the melt-waters that resulted have produced secular democratic civilization in the West. All the while to the north and east of the Mediterranean World, other types of imperial monotheisms have evolved. Zoroaster’s protest, in Persia, against the sacrificial cult of an established abusive priesthood—similar to the Fifth Century BCE situation in India, a little later—has turned into an admirable system of emanational universalistic monotheism. Nonetheless, Zoroastrian religion, having been defeated by Islamic imperialism, is surviving today only in small enclaves of believers, in India and other tolerant surroundings. The Zoroastrians today are too few in number to express the full universalism that once was envisioned by their founding Prophet. One can also mention in this context the efforts of Daoists and Confucians in China, who produced ceremonial and educational counterweights to the ambitions of the imperial “Sons of Heaven.” Ancient Chinese social common-sense has dictated that their ambitious arch-Dragons, imperial Sons of Heaven, needed to be kept in check by reforming their reasoning and will. Reforms could be hoped for by ritualized redefinition of Gods, heavenly Emperors, heavenly Generals, and ancestral Sage Kings. Their combined guidance needed to be deciphered by a method of diligent deductive historical reasoning, from the Will and Ways of no lesser entities than “Heaven,” the “The Way of Heaven,” or simply “The Way” itself. By contrast, the notion of a single God and Creator, or the notion of a human Son of God, were not the most readily available concepts by which wise men in China could start persuasive reform arguments. Checks and balances for the Chinese imperial system had to be derived—as everywhere in the world—from intelligible homespun concepts. The anti-cultic position that Gautama the Buddha adopted, in India, was aimed against the same problems that already Zoroaster had faced in Persia—against a sacrificial cult that had bankrupted its theology and become indistinguishable from autocratic duplicity. Gautama boycotted and walked away from monarchy and cult all together. God and Son of God, in Fifth Century BCE India, were not meaningful concepts that the Buddha could redefine and from which he could wring some leverage for reform. Gautama abandoned Vedic traditions without trying to save even a strain of inherent theology. He based his Enlightenment religion on complete psychological nudity—of a no-soul (anatman) existing under a no-God (cf. atheism) meditating along the Middle Path toward a negatively defined destination, the nirvana-condition or -place. Without some compromises, the radical abandonment of Gautama’s grand-domesticator heritage could not forever guarantee the continuation of Buddhist Community. [for more about “grand domestication” click here and scroll down four-fifth of the way] As David and Solomon had done for the Hebrew, Constantine for Christendom, and the caliphs for Islam, King Asoka has sponsored the Buddhist religion strategically and publicly. He found a way to balance, and to legitimize, an empire that he previously had established with considerable bloodshed. Redeeming bloody campaigns by way of sponsoring Buddhist temples has also been a method used later by Chinese emperors who brought Buddhism to ascendancy in China. Even after this detour into Asian history, my point for this essay is still the same. Religious movements in the past have come into existence as counter-weights to deteriorating conditions generated by grand domestication systems and empires. Monotheistic religion has been a primary feature for five thousand years when Near Eastern and Western empires required legitimization. In the early stages of Western Civilization monotheistic concepts were necessary for governance and communication. For subsequent reactionary prophetic universalisms they were essential for confrontation. However, as we come to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century revolutions, we find that Euro-American cosmology and political theory had become sufficiently secularized. The French revolutionaries needed no references to God, and the fathers of the American Revolution preferred to pay lip service to monotheism in genitive case, such as to “Nature’s God.” Soviet Communism has stripped down the ancient “God of History,” who formerly sided with favorite nations, to a mere process of “History”—to allude to a cosmic process that supposedly had sided with the fortunes of Communist ideology. It may not be necessary to remind my readers, that according to that last-mentioned ideology all religion—and therefore also all need for the discussion of religion—should by now have withered and faded away. Atheistic ideologies of this sort were dreamt up during an age when great minds cultivated heroic dreams and composed heroic music; when thinkers wearing factory-made shirts were doubtful whether something, or someone, greater than they would dare to exist anywhere in the universe. All the while, millions of Homines sapientes have continued warring with one another, justifying their victories, and occasionally accepting their defeats from hands that seem to belong to some greater-than-human Fate. How can a mortal creature, with or without intelligence quota, ever hope, rationally, to purge the greater-than-human ontological dimension from its reasoning process?

Pages in category "History of religion"

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