Tag Archives: Islam

False Certainty and Dogma: The Downside of Monotheism

Let’s start with a deceptively complex question that looks simple. What exactly is monotheism? It lies at the core of all the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith). All four of these insist that God is One, although with slightly different emphasis. No religion outside that lineage holds this belief, although one finds a unity underlying the surface diversity in many approaches to spirituality that are otherwise polytheistic, from the Greek philosophers to Hinduism to some versions of Neopaganism.

To complicate matters more, many people who are theoretical monotheists are polytheists in practice. This includes Christians who pray to Mary or to the Saints, Muslims who also sometimes pray to Mary, and those who invoke different aspects or Names of God for different purposes. Monotheism, therefore, isn’t the worship of only one deity. That generally doesn’t happen; our minds are too limited to do that, and can’t wrap themselves around something as cosmic as Everything. Instead, monotheism is the theoretical belief that there is only one God, and this is made compatible with polytheistic practice by demoting deities in the plural to saints, angels, prophets, or a prophet’s mother.

Monotheism has one advantage over polytheism, and that is its inherent recognition of the unity of the cosmos. Monotheists avoid the fragmentation that can afflict polytheists (as discussed last week), but conflict arises of a different kind, and it emerges precisely from that limitation of the human mind that cannot grasp the All either by reason or by imagining. When one recognizes the unity of All, and at the same time can only imagine or grasp mentally a fragment or aspect of the All, it is easy to make the mistake of supposing that fragment or aspect to be the whole. The reality of God is too vast to be apprehended or conceived, and so something that the mind can apprehend and conceive is promoted to the role of Sole God.

Just as the mind cannot grasp the ultimate Reality, so (and perhaps even more so) human language cannot describe it or present rules or rituals or doctrines appropriate to it. This is a limitation that applies to scripture of any kind for that reason. And yet, because of the confusion that arises between what the mind can grasp and what is ultimately Real, it is very easy and common for monotheists to imbue their imaginings and limited visions and limited scriptures with an authority far beyond what they could ever merit. This gives rise to the biggest downside of monotheism: false certainty and dogma. It afflicts at least some of the believers in all four monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic lineage.

The ultimate expression of this false certainty is condemnation of those who believe differently, at times (especially when religion has been allied with the state) going so far as criminal persecution for heresy or religious war. Unlike the conflicts between polytheists discussed last week, this is not conflict caused by different Gods, but rather about different conceptions of what is supposed to be only one and the same God.

Historically, Christians have condemned Jews and Muslims for not recognizing the divinity of Christ, while Muslims have condemned Christians for seeing Christ as more than a prophet, and Jews for failing to see either Christ or Muhammad as even that much. Christians have condemned one another over points of doctrine that could matter only to those who take such things literally (which is a mistake in itself), and Muslims have condemned one another over who was the true successor of the Prophet and over teachings that went along with that. That’s all in addition to the ferocious conflict between monotheisms and polytheistic religion, from the slaughter of the prophets of Baal by Elijah described in the Bible, to the banning and condemnation of pagan religion by the Christian Roman Empire, to the bloody struggles between Islam and Hinduism in India.

The problem here is not so much disagreement (to disagree and argue is human, after all), but rather the idea that God supports one and only one doctrine, and that those who believe differently are not merely disagreeing with one another but each sees the other as going against the divine will. This is possible to believe only if one takes a limited idea — which is the only kind that the human mind can hold — and inflates that idea into identity with the All. That is the root of dogma and the origin of false certainty.

Is there anything monotheists can do to avoid this trap? Certainly, and many of them do. One can remind oneself often that God is beyond human knowledge and that we must all be humble before the Mystery. If you can wrap your mind around it and understand it, then it is not God. At best, it’s a particular viewpoint or perspective on God, the best that you can do with a finite brain. Someone else may come up with a different vision that is equally valid, even where it appears to disagree with yours.

Some monotheists have shown themselves capable of that degree of enlightenment and humility. Alas, many have shown to the contrary as well, and that is why separation of church and state is so important to the maintenance of peace and liberty. The error of false certainty and dogma is potentially deadly, and the only way to prevent that potential from becoming actual is to deny it any temporal power.

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One or Many: Further Musings

oneThis post delves further into the interaction between polytheism and monotheism. The subject rose in my mind partly because of the discussion with the anonymous Muslim who commented on The Myths of Jesus below, and partly by a briefer discussion on the creation of religion in fantasy fiction, in which the other person preferred a polytheistic faith for her fantasy worlds.

I’ve been both a monotheistic Christian and a polytheistic Neopagan in the past, and now call myself a spiritual person without a label, so perhaps I’m well positioned to discuss this subject. Whether that’s true or not, I’m going to.

Polytheism lends itself better to the creation of colorful and varied myths. A god or goddess who isn’t everything, but the divine embodiment of something, can be the subject of delightful stories. Even in the Bible, the earliest myths are apparently polytheistic; the Lord of the Book of Genesis is not the One God of later Judaism but one god among many, particularly involved with the nurturing of humanity in the Garden of Eden, but acting in concert with other gods when need arose. The stories about the Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Vedic pantheons are wonderful tales. How else could the story be told of Time (Chronos) eating his children, and his youngest son stopping his cannibalistic ways? How better could the essential dichotomy of Cunning and Strength be presented than in the stories of Thor and Loki? (I especially love the tale of how Loki disguised Thor as a woman and fooled a giant into falling in love with him, in order to infiltrate the giant’s stronghold. One can sense the thunder god’s diminishing patience with the whole scheme, and see the trickster struggling to contain his laughter.) When there are many gods, one can indulge in a sense of play and story-crafting that is lost, somehow, when the gods combine into One.

Polytheism also generates deities that are more accessible, more easily visualized and connected to the human mind, than monotheism. This is probably its biggest virtue. A god among many, part of a pantheon, does not pretend to be universal, and so we cannot make the mistake of thinking that this conception of the divine which we can imagine and get our minds around is the All. That’s a fairly common mistake among monotheists, leading to religious intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

On the other hand, polytheism also tends to locality and is not so easily adapted to universality. A good example of this effect is the crisis that the Roman Empire went through in the Third-Fourth Centuries CE. Under the Republic, the Roman empire (we don’t capitalize it yet) was a true and classic empire: one very strong nation, the city-state of Rome, dominating many others, all the lands around the Mediterranean. The pagan religion of the ancient Romans sufficed just fine when the Romans were the only ones who mattered. But this governing structure became cumbersome and unmanageable, and Augustus added a layer of governance on top of it strictly for the provinces, leaving the Republic in charge of the city of Rome and its citizens. This new layer of governance, the Empire (now we capitalize it), was detached from Rome and the Romans from the beginning, and over the centuries became less and less Roman and more an entity in itself providing government for the Mediterranean world. But the religion of the Romans was of no appeal outside Italy. It was fine as a religion for the Romans, but not for the Empire. A number of disasters in the Third Century caused a breakdown of government. It was restored under Diocletian, but his successor, Constantine, saw a need for spiritual underpinning and support for his government, something more broad-reaching and universal, and of the two main contenders, Christianity and Mithraism, he chose Christianity, with enormous historical consequences.

A comparable crisis on a smaller scale struck the Israelites when they were forcibly removed from their country and resettled elsewhere in the Middle East by the Assyrians and Babylonians. We think of Judaism as a monotheistic faith and of course that’s the case today, but in ancient times it was not. The Torah does not claim that the God of the Jews is a sole god, only that he is the one the Jews are supposed to worship above all others. Implicit in this is that other gods exist, making ancient Judaism a polytheistic religion. The Israelites obviously saw no compelling reason to abide by the First Commandment, but often wandered in their allegiance, worshiping the local deities, the Baals and Astartes of the Phoenicians. Their god was a local god, a tribal god, the god of their people in particular but not of the cosmos as a whole, and as such he commanded only limited allegiance.

This ended during the captivity. Denied access to the land where, in their prior understanding, their god lived, they could not go on as his devotees in the same way they had conceived of him. The inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom, transported by the Assyrians, seem to have simply abandoned their Jewishness and assimilated to local customs. There is every reason to believe their descendants still live in modern-day Iraq and are today Muslims for the most part (which means they came to a form of monotheism just like their southern cousins, although it took longer).

The people of the Southern Kingdom, transported by the Babylonians, changed their conception of their god instead. He became a spirit, worshiped in spirit regardless of location, and he became a universal God, rather than a local or tribal god. At this point in time, their religion took on characteristics that we can properly associate with Judaism as it exists today.

This story of the transformation of JHVH from tribal god to universal God illustrates one of the two main ways that monotheistic or monistic ideas can arise from a polytheistic background. In this process, one of the gods is promoted to One God, and all others are either demoted to the servants or messengers of the One God, or else suppressed entirely.

The other path is illustrated by the emergence in Hinduism of the concept of Brahman. Brahman is not, properly speaking, a god; it is all-that-is, the Universal Soul, and the Oneness that is found at the root of the diversity of the universe. Hindus continue worshiping their many gods and goddesses, but believe that this diversity exists only at a superficial level of reality and at a deeper level the gods are all One. In this transformation — because there is good reason to believe that the ancient Vedic religion that preceded Hinduism was straightforwardly polytheistic, without the monistic concepts that exist in Hinduism today, so this represents a transformation — no one of the gods emerged to dominate all the others. Instead, a concept was advanced of a unity underlying apparent diversity.

My own understanding of deities is in their symbolic or metaphorical power, given a life of their own through the magic of the imagination, and so their nature reflects that of nature itself. The universe is both one and many — and so the same should be true of our conception of the divine. (To the extent we even make use of one, personifying the cosmos — that is not a requirement of spirituality.) There is a tendency in both monotheistic and polytheistic faiths to reach towards the other side of the spectrum. From the monotheistic end, we find Christians, theoretically monotheists, worshiping less lofty deities created from angels and saints, or conceiving of Jesus or of Mary as someone distinct from the lofty and inaccessible God, for all that Christian doctrine insists that Jesus is an aspect of the One God, not a separate deity, and that Mary and the saints are not divine. A good many Muslims, too, seem inclined to call upon the Virgin Mary as an intercessor with God, and one finds them and Christians praying to her together in certain parts of the Middle East, despite even stricter injunctions against polytheism in the Quran.

From the polytheistic end one finds a tendency to seek an understanding of the cosmos as one rather than (or in addition to) many, a search for a binding unity and universality rather than a splintering. In addition to the Indians, the ancient Greek philosophers thought along similar lines, and there are lines of monistic thought among today’s Neopagans, too, although they are not universally agreed upon.

It seems that the spiritual instinct is to recognize both the unity and the diversity of the cosmos. And to my thinking, that’s as it should be.

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The Myths of Jesus

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Two religions, Christianity and Islam, have a particular focus on the life, supposed teachings, and significance of a preacher who (may have) lived in the Roman province of Judea during the early Roman Empire. Because both of those religions are based on myths that take the form of history, and that many of their followers believe to actually be history, the myths of Jesus get bound together with historical questions about his life and its effects, and it becomes difficult to extract the one from the other. For that reason, before plunging into a discussion of the myths of Jesus themselves, I’m going to take a paragraph to say something about the history of Jesus.

We don’t know for certain whether Jesus even existed. We don’t know how much of the Gospel accounts accurately describe his career. We know some things are inherently very unlikely (the miraculous darkness, earthquake, and tearing of the Temple veil when he died, for example) because there should be independent evidence of them if they happened, and there isn’t. Other things seem historically unlikely, such as the use of nails at his crucifixion, because that isn’t how it was usually done. (Crucifixion victims were normally roped to the cross, not nailed, as they lived and suffered longer that way.) Some of the miracles attributed to him seem plausible to me, knowing what I do of magic, while others seem ridiculously over the top (but of course I have no direct evidence against their occurrence, and my knowledge of magic is not absolute and infallible.) The historical Jesus is a big question mark. Most of the questions about him are simply unanswerable, including the question of whether there ever was such a person.

However, none of that matters for purposes of spirituality or religion, or anyway none of it should. Religion isn’t founded on history, but on myth. Jesus is an image of the divine impacting the world through a man. Connected with him are other images speaking of human potential, redemption, the universality of God, and the illusory nature of death. It is these images that matter, not any connection they may or may not have to history.

Having said that, I want now to explore the Christian and Muslim myths of Jesus (these are similar, but not identical) and then some cross-observations from the Gospels and from my own quirky understanding. For the remainder of this article, I’ll be speaking only of the myths of Jesus, and completely ignoring any historical questions for the irrelevance that they are.

The Christian Myths of Jesus

In Christian belief, the ancient Jewish prophecies of the Messiah to come foretold a time when God would be incarnate in human form, and would offer himself in sacrifice to himself to pay for humanity’s burden of sin. Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy. He was both God incarnate and the “son of God.” The latter, which seems to contradict the former at first glance, is resolved by a philosophical understanding of “the Son” as an aspect of the one God, as He is manifest in the world (where the Father is God in His transcendent aspect, and the Holy Spirit is God as He is manifest in the human heart). When he was crucified, the demand of the Law for blood sacrifice in atonement for sins was met and fulfilled for all time, rendering that demand null and void; he was both the working-out and the overcoming of the Fall of Man. When he rose from the dead, that was a sign that the power of death to destroy us is broken, and we are heirs to life eternal.

The Muslim Myths of Jesus

In Islam, as in Christianity, the Jewish prophecies of the Messiah foretold the coming of Jesus, but for Muslims the significance is different and a little less cosmic. The prophecies foretold a time when God would expand His covenant with the Children of Israel by entering into a new covenant with all of mankind. Jesus was God’s Messenger who brought the word of that new, expanded covenant. He brought the Word of God initially to the Jews, but the Jewish religious authorities rejected his message, as had been foretold, and by turning against God’s Messenger lost their special status as the chosen people of God. They arrested Jesus and condemned him to death, but God in His compassion and justice took the Prophet into Paradise and the traitor  Apostle, Judas Iscariot, was crucified in his place. Thereafter, Jesus’ disciples spread his message and the truth of the One God throughout all the world, but in time that message became corrupted with false ideas and the influence of power-hungry institutions, requiring that God send the Prophet Muhammad with a correction.

The Gospel Accounts

The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) present a picture of a very holy and powerful man, but they also present some problems for the standard Christian view of Jesus (although perhaps not insuperable ones). They might also present some difficulties for the Muslim myths of Jesus except that Muslims don’t have the same reverence for the Gospels that Christians do and simply consider the accounts flawed and only partly true.

To begin, the Gospels have many passages which point to limitations of Jesus’ power and knowledge. He is depicted as neither omniscient nor omnipotent. For example, in Mark Chapter Six, Jesus returns to his hometown, and finds that the people there, who know him, are reluctant to accept him as a prophet. “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” (6:5) The people’s lack of belief in him limited his power, which was much greater in other contexts. In Mark 8:22-25, Jesus’ first attempt to heal a blind man works imperfectly (“I see people; they look like trees walking around”), and he is required to make a second attempt, which works better. Another passage of this kind is Luke 8:40-48. In this passage, Jesus is walking in a crowd of people and a woman plagued with a vaginal hemorrhage touches him, and his power heals her. Jesus knows that power has gone out of him, but doesn’t know the particulars, and asks, “Who touched me?” His knowledge, like his power, is depicted as having limits.

There are also a number of passages in which Jesus expresses opinions which he then changes as a result of others’ arguments or persuasion. For example, in Mark 7:24-30, a Greek woman asks Jesus to “drive a demon” from her daughter. Jesus’ haughty reply is that he is come to the Children of Israel, and “it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She replies that “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps,” and Jesus changes his mind and heals her daughter.

There is also at least one passage in which Jesus implicitly denies being God. That is found in Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19, where someone has referred to him as “good master” or “good teacher,” and Jesus responds, “Why do you call me good? No one is good — except God alone.”

On the surface, these passages might seem to uphold the Muslim myth of Jesus over the Christian one, in that Muslims see Jesus as a great and holy Prophet but not God incarnate. However, there are other passages in which Jesus seems to imply that God dwells within him, and also within others, and that is not in accord with Muslim beliefs.

Again, though, questions of who or what Jesus “really was” are not the point here. We can’t answer such questions. The point, rather, should be about the power of myth to prevail even over contradictions from what is supposedly holy writ. The Gospels (particularly the synoptic Gospels) were composed a long time before the Imperial Church was formed in 325, or the Nicene Creed articulated. The most logical interpretation of these passages is simply that their authors had a different idea of Jesus than the Church later taught. They did not try to depict him as God incarnate because the idea simply hadn’t occurred to them. Yet this idea is central to the practice of Christian religion, which involves the worship of Jesus as an image of God. And so, passages in the Gospels which are troubling for the idea are simply glossed over and ignored.

Jesus as an Image of God

Devotion to Jesus as God incarnate is similar to the Hindu practice of Bakhti Yoga, in which some image of God (perhaps a mythical God such as Vishnu or Shiva, but often an Avatar of Vishnu, which bears even greater resemblance to the Christian practice) is the focus of love and prayer. This brings the devotee closer to the divine. It creates an association, and so a magical link, between the devotee and a large part of the cosmos, ultimately the cosmos as a whole, seen through a mythic lens.

The important thing here is not Jesus’ divinity but that of his worshipers. Through love and devotion to Jesus as an image of God, the Christian worshiper makes a connection with his or her own inner divinity, and allows that divinity to manifest in his or her life and heart.

This is a powerful method of spiritual magic. There is nothing wrong with it as far as it goes. The potential problem arises when the devotion to Jesus as an image of God gives rise to a factual belief that Jesus was God in any historical sense — the usual claims of standard Christian theology. When that belief is self-focused, it acts benignly, opening the worshiper’s heart to the divine and facilitating the raising of consciousness. When it becomes other-focused, however, it turns diabolical, giving rise to claims that non-Christians are worshiping false gods, and, when conjoined with political power, to witch-hunts, inquisitions, and crusades.

Can Christianity in some form survive to form a part of the spirituality of the advanced civilization we are evolving into? If so, it will be through recognizing the value of myth, and the fact that myth is precisely what Jesus is. As myth, he is a part of our spiritual heritage and should be a treasured part. The problems only arise when the myth is falsely — and irrelevantly — asserted to be history.

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Musings on Various Things

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A fantasy story is about strength: about the potential we all have to rise above normal human limits, to confront realities that are beyond the norm, to wield power and knowledge denied to ordinary mortals.

At the same time, though, any story at all is about weakness: about the flaws in our nature, our capacity for self-destruction or the destruction of what we love.

Put the two of these together and you have a whole message. We have the capacity to become greater than we are. We also have the capacity to ruin all of this potential and turn our abilities to cruelty, vengeance, pettiness, greed, power-lust, vanity, and shame.

***

Religious people get into quarrels when they focus on peripherals rather than essentials. They become sidetracked; if they did not, no quarrel would ensue. For example, consider the conflict between Muslims and Baha’is. The main point of dispute involves whether Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, was a prophet in the same sense as Muhammad or Jesus. He claimed to be and Baha’is believe he was; Muslims insist that Muhammad was the last prophet and there can be no more. This disagreement has resulted in the persecution and official murder of many Baha’is by Muslims and the governments of Muslim countries (especially Iran), but the correct answer is that it doesn’t matter. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh as recorded in his writings must be judged for themselves, neither accepted nor rejected unquestioningly. If one is not able to make that judgment, neither is one able to understand a prophet’s words, which makes following those words useless. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings (or those of Muhammad or Jesus or the Buddha or any other such person) are the proper subject of study. Focusing on his credentials is getting sidetracked.

The Baha’is themselves are often not much better. The Universal House of Justice engaged in, of all things, a copyright lawsuit alleging that a Baha’i sect that broke away from the main organizational line represented by the UHJ had no right to use the name or religious symbols of the faith. Is that petty or is that petty?

Organized religion is the bane of spirituality. It creates a structure for the exertion of power, and inevitably elevates people interested in power and status to positions of respect. One may ask, paraphrasing the words of Jesus, whether it is harder for a rich man or a powerful one to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The Baha’i Faith isn’t even supposed to have clergy! Obviously, that change in nomenclature is not proof against corruption.

The goal of genuine spirituality is for the seeker to become a prophet (or avatar or enlightened one or whatever term you prefer). A seeker who proclaims himself a follower of a prophet has at best announced he has not found what he seeks, and at worst that he has abandoned the quest, especially if he thinks the prophet has some special divinely-granted status that can’t be achieved by other people.

The Kingdom of Heaven will be realized on Earth when everyone is a prophet and no prophet is honored in particular.

***

In my current work in progress, Refuge, some of the protagonists are centuries old. At the same time, however, they started life as part of an advanced alien species living in a far more progressive society than anything on Earth. They have the advantage of many years of experience and accumulated wisdom, but are protected from the ailment that too often accompanies the old: fossilization and inability to adapt to change. The combination of the two is fun to play with, and I also think it suggests something about our situation. We are confronted with material circumstances that change daily, driven by advances in technology. As our circumstances change, so must our moral values, religious conceptions, and laws and institutions.

In a world like that, greater wisdom (or at least greater insight) is sometimes shown by the young than the old, because the old have preconceptions and rutted thought-patterns that block their ability to adapt. At the same time, the young are still foolish in all of the ways that young people have always been foolish. What’s the solution?

The only solution I can see is for people to maintain open minds and retain flexibility of thought and behavior into advanced years. Abandon the idea of “growing up.” Growing is good, but growing up implies an end to the process and if that happens one has become a fossil. Anything that puts the mind into a cage should be resisted. Fixed doctrine is the death of progress and, in a rapidly-changing world, a death sentence for civilization itself. And so again, organized religion reveals itself as a great evil.

***

I was a Pagan when Paganism was a loose community of seekers. I abandoned it when it started to look like an organized religion.

All Words are sacred and all prophets are true, until they reach the ears of the unenlightened and then they become false — indeed, typically they become the opposite of themselves. A prophet’s words from his mouth are living water. The same words coming from an organized religion, with convenient interpretations, are a cage made of the prophet’s stripped bones.

A prophet’s words have the power to move the heart. That power remains when the prophet is no longer alive to wield it, and it is taken up by the power-hungry who use it to secure their own positions and influence.

Once a prophet is dead, read his words only in secret. Never take advice from anyone claiming to be his follower. These are not guides. They are carrion-fowl.

***

We (by which I mean the human race) face a challenge to our survival created by our own inability to evolve. But in a way, this is a good thing, because our survival as a species is only of value to the extent that we are a good people, a blessing for the Earth and not a bane, happy and enlightened.

If we survive, that is what we will become. If we don’t, we will destroy ourselves and the universe will try again. Eventually someone will get it right.

Optimism is always possible if one takes a long view.

Image credit: justdd / 123RF Stock Photo

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Religion, Spirituality and Politics

Religion and spirituality, though related, aren’t the same thing. We have a deep distrust in the West of mixing religion and politics, a distrust that has only been reinforced and confirmed of late by the example of Islamic fanatics exerting dangerous influence over governments in the Middle East. (Those who think this is a problem with Islam, as opposed to one with religion in general, display their need to learn more about the history of religions, especially their own.)

Religion is in a peculiar place. Initially it emerges as an expression of spirituality, a way of communally expressing faith and love of the cosmos, a way to reunifying the divided on a social level. But a religious organization also develops business and political interests, and these compete with its spiritual imperative, sometimes eclipsing it altogether. The more a religion gains worldly power, the less spiritual it becomes. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal,” said Jesus, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be.” And yet within a few centuries after his death, the faith supposedly founded on his teachings had become the state faith of the Roman Empire, rich and powerful, with treasures aplenty on Earth. Within a century after that, Christian authorities were putting “heretics” to death and forcibly converting pagans to Christianity (more Christians by far were murdered for their faith by the Christian Roman Empire than by its pagan predecessor).

It’s taken the modern separation of church and state in the West to restore Christianity to a semblance of the diversity and creativity that it had prior to the Council of Nicaea and the creation of the Imperial Church. Denied political power, the Christian denominations have also been denied the ability to suppress heresy, and good things have resulted.

Islam, for its part, suffered a mixture with politics almost from the beginning, but managed to head off the danger for the most part until modern times. The Prophet Muhammad was a political leader and a war leader as well as a spiritual leader. After his death, leadership of the community of believers, which had become coextensive with most of the Arab people, passed by election according to Arab tradition, as if Muhammad had been a king — which in effect he was. A lineage of Caliphs — successors to Muhammad’s political authority — followed. While it was never asserted that the Caliphs had inherited Muhammad’s full religious authority as well as his political authority (none of them was ever considered a Prophet), the early Caliphs nonetheless tended to assert religious authority in all ways that they could argue were consistent with the Quran. This brought them into conflict with the ulema — the community of Islamic scholars and religious lawyers — which the latter eventually won, confining the Caliphs thereafter to a strictly secular leadership role. This created a sort of “separation of mosque and state” which stood Islam well for a long while, but this tradition appears to have been forgotten by a lot of Muslims today.

As is the case with Christianity, Islam today appears to express its potential best in the West, where separation of religion and state is the norm and often the law.

Even gentle Buddhism has on at least one occasion succumbed to the lure of political power, when the great King Ashoka converted to it and made it the official religion of much of India. This situation didn’t last long beyond Ashoka’s death, however, and the potential corruption of Buddhism never went as far as it did with some other faiths.

More examples could be given, but these suffice to illustrate the rule: the more political power a religious organization seeks and obtains, the less spiritual it becomes, and the more prone to violence. Religious organizations seek political authority, as does everyone, for a mix of selfish and noble reasons; it’s argued that temporal power helps religious teachers to bring people into alignment with the divine — but the more political power the religion amasses, the less in tune with the divine it becomes. No one can be brought to communion with the holy — the god sense cannot be awakened — by force. (That includes the force asserted by threat of Hell.) There is no bond that can unite the divided but love.

It would seem from a quick assessment of all this that the spiritual and the political are inherently incompatible. And yet, at the same time, there are examples of spiritual leaders who have brought about great changes in the world and had a huge impact on politics for the better. Muhammad himself is one; in more modern times, so are Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. So it really isn’t the case that spirituality and politics can’t mix (though the spiritual political activist must always be aware of the danger of political causes becoming more important than spirituality itself, the tail wagging the dog, and prepared to retire to solitude from time to time to prevent that happening).

But while Muhammad and Gandhi and King mixed spirituality and politics, none of them asserted political authority based on religion. That is to say, King’s influence did not derive from his position as the pastor of a church, from the temporal power that he wielded through the church’s organization, and neither Muhammad nor Gandhi possessed such temporal religious power, Muhammad initially, Gandhi ever. They made a change in the world not through the force of arms and wealth controlled by a religious organization, but through the force of their personalities, the rightness of their causes, the subtle strength of their magic, and the power of God.

In alchemy, there is an image of the sacred marriage that involves the merging of opposites to produce the Philosopher’s Stone. The impact of spirituality on politics is one manifestation of this. If we were to insist that politics remain spirituality-free, we would in that stroke eliminate all of the good spirituality could do in the world and much of the point of its existence. (In fact, there are ways that religious organizations use to try to keep genuine spirituality powerless, such as the seclusion of Christian mystics in monasteries or the Hindu tradition of renouncing the world.)

What we require is not separation of God and state, but separation of church and state. When organizations devoted ostensibly to spiritual purposes achieve temporal power, the assertion of that power is not itself spiritual but merely another political force, another interest group — by this measure, we can usually tell those religious organizations that have lost their way.

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Prophecy, Blasphemy and Heresy

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been reading the Quran of late, and that plus the recent furor over the film Innocence of Muslims has me thinking about the subjects of prophecy, blasphemy and heresy.

I still haven’t found anything in the Quran to convince me that Muhammad was a genuine prophet, but let’s enter for a moment the mindset that says he was, and consider the Muslim tradition in regard to prophets, or messengers of God. According to the Quran there have been many such people who were sent by God to bring a message of hope or correction to humanity. Of these, six are recognized as being particularly important: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and of course Muhammad himself.

Of these, only the last is certainly historical and only the last two are even probably historical, but never mind; that’s not the point here. Let’s take the story of each prophet at face value and discuss it briefly.

Adam was the first man, a metaphor for the emergence of our species on the physical plane and the emergence of human consciousness from the depths. Before Adam, there was no such thing as religion. Adam invented the paradoxical relationship between ourselves and God.

Noah brought an unwelcome message to humanity that God was wrathful and intended their destruction if they would not turn from their wicked ways. His message was scorned and disregarded by the religious authorities of the time (and everyone else) and humanity was destroyed except for Noah and his family.

Abraham brought a message similar to Noah’s to Sodom, and he, his family, and his few followers departed from civilization to live in a wilderness and found a new people after Sodom was destroyed.

Moses summoned the descendants of Abraham, enslaved in Egypt, to turn against Egyptian ways, forced the Pharaoh to release the slaves, and found his message met great resistance from the Israelites in the wilderness.

Jesus brought a new interpretation of the Law of Moses to Israel, based on love of God and of one another, and the spirit given precedence over the letter. He was condemned as a blasphemer and executed.

Mohammed brought a message of monotheistic worship and a simple morality to the Arab polytheists and ultimately to the rest of the world, and his message was rejected by many as blasphemous and heretical.

The common thread here is a message that is rejected by those who consider themselves religious authorities — and always on good, solid doctrinal grounds. Each of these prophets (setting aside Adam as a special case) indeed did violate the teachings of the past. That’s what happens when a new message is brought: it conflicts in some way with what is currently believed, or else there would be no need for it.

Every prophet is a heretic. Every prophet is a blasphemer. What’s more, the word of every prophet, if it is accepted by the people, eventually becomes a rigid orthodoxy against which future prophets must struggle and on the basis of which the next prophet is declared heretical and blasphemous. The nineteenth century saw this played out in Iran, as a man appeared whose followers claimed he was a new messenger of God, with a word to fulfill, augment, and replace that of Muhammad. This was Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Baha’i faith, which is now the fourth religion in the Abrahamic lineage (along with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

In many respects the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh do seem like an updated, new and improved version of Muhammad’s. He expanded his spiritual vision beyond the Abrahamic traditions to embrace and designate as prophets great teachers from other religious families, such as the Buddha; he explicitly declared equality between the sexes which Muhammad, although his teachings improved the lot of women from what went before him, did not; and he called for world peace and the unification of all mankind, a teaching that seems prophetic in another sense of that word, given the ongoing cultural globalization and the need for world peace and unity that faces us.

But in doing this, Bahá’u’lláh preached heresy, because in Muslim belief Muhammad was not only a prophet but the seal of the prophets — the last prophet, whose word is the final dispensation of God before the Day of Judgment. His message was widely rejected and condemned, and he was imprisoned for years and died in prison.

The word of Muhammad in its day was a liberation from rigid, intolerant, doctrinaire beliefs, and Muslim society in the Middle Ages was more advanced and more humane and tolerant than Christian society by far. But by the nineteenth century, Islam, far from liberation, became a prison. It held people back both as individuals and as societies. Compared to the secular societies of the modern West, Islamic society had become a backwards, intolerant, ultra-conservative shackle on the collective brain, and when a new visionary came along it persecuted him and his followers and imprisoned him for life. This is the pattern. All prophets are condemned as heretics and blasphemers

Ultimately, I believe there is only one solution: the idea of orthodoxy must be abandoned, and along with it the idea of condemning anyone as a heretic. There is no reason why spirituality should not be like art or science in perpetually seeking new ideas and new metaphors for the divine. In the end, the visions of the prophets cannot be fulfilled unless everyone becomes a prophet, and that will never happen as long as we imprison our minds with rigid conceptions of the truth.

We will never have an entirely irreligious society, because, contrary to the hopes of atheists, the spiritual dimension of life and the fruits of spiritual experience are too real and compelling to permit that. But we can, I believe, have a society that is free of religious rigidity, intolerance, and the prison of dogma. We can have a society that no longer condemns its prophets as blasphemers and heretics, because it no longer recognizes the existence of heresy.

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