Saturday, July 11, 2009

Religiousless Christianity

Two books bring a raw Jesus, devoid of myth and legend to the Christian who has been wondering where Jesus is in his or her church. This Jesus is a fully-functioning and caring human who did not zoom down from the sky and who did not zip back 'home' after his 33-year visit. He was not from God, but of God. No miracles, no voodoo, no rising from the dead. Rather, a most perfect example of how a person ought to 'do' life.

The Future of Christianity: Can It Survive? by biblical scholar Arthur J. Bellinzoni is an assessment of the state of Christianity in which he advocates a radical rethinking of the
Christian message.

In the Amazon review of the book, it says: "Addressing four issues of central concern, Bellinzoni advocates a radical rethinking of the Christian message. First, he suggests that the God concept must move beyond obsolete notions of a personal God and take its inspiration from such diverse sources as science, Taoism, Moses, Thomas Jefferson, and Martin Buber. Second, Bellinzoni urges a more sophisticated approach to the Bible, one that values its timeless elements but is not afraid to discard its many antiquated features. Third, he recommends a new emphasis on Jesus’ social ethic, arguing that this could lead to a dramatic redistribution of the world’s wealth and greater respect for the planet. Fourth, Bellinzoni criticizes the persistence of obsolete myth in Christianity, demonstrating that, without its mythical embellishments, Christianity still offers a relevant understanding of the meaning of human existence."

Surely the fundamentalist christian's underpants became knotted at those 4 statements, but then, who really cares about those believer-heads? Trimming the 'obsolete myth' ought to reveal a more genuine human being capable of much greater credulity. His ex-hocus-pocus image will no doubt be much more appealing and believable.

"Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus" by Robin Meyers is another book that wishes to strip the divinity myth from Jesus and look at Jesus as Teacher, not Savior. The Library Review says of the book and author, "in strong contrast to much of Far Right Protestantism, pastor/NPR commentator Meyers (philosophy, Oklahoma City Univ.) suggests with typical elegance that a recovery of true Christianity emphasizes compassion over condemnation, blessing over sin, and equity over individual prosperity. Highly recommended."

How will Christian churches survive this purge? Will they hold fast and blast these new authors with their canons of excommunication? Will they, like the Grand and Glorious Wizard of Oz try to scare literal Hell out of [or into] reformers such as these? Like Toto, the curtain on the shysters of the church has been pulled open for all to see. The scheme has been exposed and a new and refreshing light now is exposing those dark and stuffy dungeons where 'the truth' has been hidden for thousands of years. Jesus, the man, is being freed from his tomb deep in the vaults of the church.

Will we recognize him without all of the cinematographic effects? Without the razzle-dazzle? Void of tricks and miracles? Will we be able to embrace him as a man, hug him as a human just like us?

Comfortable in the Mergingue

I presented the idea that the Christian churches ought to delete much of the dogma, statements of creed, and other fluff that they have foisted on the faithful all of these centuries, but the assembled group balked. They were not ready to pull off their churchy masks and admit that they have been hoodwinked by 'their' church for two thousand years. Apparently, it is too comfortable staying with the present program.

As my wife and I are the youngest couple in the group, I wonder if these older folks are not willing to risk gambling with their beliefs at this time in their life. Better not to question too much or one's ticket to Heaven might be invalidated.

Rather, we will discuss the book, The Tents of Abraham, a look at the three Abrahamic religions through the lens of a Jew, a Muslim and and Christian. I suspect that it will be a boring and fairly useless exercise because the premise of it all is based on a tribal deity who is the subject of a midrash. It has as much credibility as Rumpelstiltskin. Susa, the Elamite god of the 2nd millenneum BCE, pictured above, may have more 'substance' than Abraham.

And so, the rest of the summer will find me yawning and dozing while purportedly enjoying the fairy tale adventures of that wandering nomad and epic hero of Judaism. Ulysses, either by Virgil or Joyce, would clearly be a more interesting read.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Pulling the Meringue Out From Under Their Feet

I love a good meringue, especially on a tart lemon pie. Fluffy whipped egg whites, air and sugar. Like cotton candy, lots of fluff, no substance. Just a tongue treat leading to a sugar crash.

Such is the stuff of religion.

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about the topic of religiosity. On Friday, I must present a topic for discussion in our book club. As a neophyte in the group, I am cautious about stomping on feet, especially of those who I do not know too well.

It is a 'church' group but not all attend the same one. From the first two meetings I've gleaned that the people are on the liberal side of Christianity yet that is not an invitation to pull the meringue out from under their feet. Not yet, at least. They are good people and are generally 5 years my superior. I was taught to respect my elders. I also know when not to pull a mask off of one's face lest they be left mortally exposed.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, executed by the Nazis during the Resistance, suggested that perhaps it was time for a 'religionless Christianity.' Swell idea. I conjure up the idea of a simple painting by an artistic master to which layers of 'additions' have been added by pseudo-artisans, rendering the original unrecognizable. Two thousand years of 'stuff' and 'fluff' has been heaped upon The Christ as manifested in Jesus of Nazareth such that his image, his words and ideas are nearly obliterated.

How a religionless Christianity would be manifested is a difficult concept to muse upon as one immediately conjures 'churchy' thoughts. Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong ran with Bonhoeffer's idea when, in 2007, he wrote "Jesus for the Non-Religious." Spong laments [mild word indeed] the doctrines of conservative Christianity which have given rise to the religious anger that fuels the hatred of women, homosexuals, and non-believers in the inerrancy of the Bible. "I submit," he writes, "that this constant onslaught of ecclesiastical negativity comes directly from our theistic portrait of God, who has been traditionally understood as a punishing parent figure." The themes of guilt and degradation have been hammered home to believers in millions of sermons and Bible tracts and is instilled [brainwashed] early in life as children of evangelicals are sent off to summer Bible camp each year.

Spong sees Jesus as the breaker of tribal boundaries. He presented to his disciples and others "a new and inclusive kind of life" outside of tradition and in solidarity with all people. Spong also sees Jesus as the breaker of prejudices and stereotypes, and this makes him really relevant to our times when race, gender, and sexual orientation are the major areas where hatred divides people from each other. And, finally, there is Jesus as the breaker of religious boundaries, which was, of course, the thing that got Jesus into so much trouble.

Today's world is so interconnected and intertwined that the old version of Christianity, with its boundaries, creeds, and hierarchical structure, fraught with cultural bias, and tied in knots by countless religious wars, Inquisitions, excommunications, and bigotry cannot serve this modern world. That religion ought to die an unnatural death.

Rather, says Spong, "Jesus was not divine because he was a human life into whom the external God had entered, as traditional Christology has claimed; he was and is divine because his humanity and his consciousness were so whole and so complete that the meaning of God could flow through him. He was thus able to open people to that transcendent dimension of life, love and being that we call God."

Solid stuff. And a difficult concept to accept if one has been mired in the meringue of religiosity all of their lives. I'm in a conundrum as to wheter to unload this topic on the gathering this Friday evening. Wouldn't it be a hoot if the hosts seve lemon meringue pie for dessert!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In Search of Dignity- David Brooks

A friend recommended that I read David Brooks Op Ed today in the NYT. It was grand! He titled it, In Search of Dignity, and don't we all. Brooks quotes the historian Gordon Wood who wrote, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”

Brooks writes, "Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems have to be created to balance and restrain their desires.The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested — to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent — to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public. It also commanded its followers to be dispassionate — to distrust rashness, zealotry, fury and political enthusiasm."

He says, "But the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone."

Sadly, true.

Of course, the stories of politicians who trampled that dignity code in the past few years are endless. 'Dignity' and 'politician' seem quite oxymoronical. Right here in Toledo, our 70-year-old mayor was caught on camera calling youngsters in a park, 'fatso' 'tubby' and 'fat ass!'

Perhaps the dignified men and women who seek political office are too, well, dignified to get elected. Maybe Americans want their politicians to be hard-asses who knock heads around and commit a little adultery on the side.

Is that why this nation is on a slippery slope downward?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Interesting ad on my Gmail

I found this advertisement on my Gmail yesterday. No, I did not click to see the "proof." Apparently Gmail sniffs the content or titles of one's email and sends corresponding advertising.

"Six reasons that God exists." Advertising? Perhaps the selling a book? Just a gimmick to raise funds for some church? National Evangelical Christian Association annual membership drive?

Damned! I wish that I would have clicked so that I could have found out the source.

Six reasons. Hmm. Anybody game?.

OK, I'll start.

#1 because the Bible says so.







Sunday, July 5, 2009

Theos ek Petras

Shush! That's the password. Theos ek Petras, or "God from the Rock." Of course, if you were living in Rome or in a cosmopolitan city within the empire you might use the Latin, Deus ex Silicis. After uttering the password, you would be permitted to participate in the rites of honoring the god, Mithras. After entering the cave or cave-like structure, you would be seated on one of the raised benches along the side walls for the ritual meal. At the far end was the sanctuary, often in a recess, before which the pedestal-like altar stood. Early Christian Churches used these 'mithraeum' for their services, especially after the year 391 when emperor Flavius Theodosius banned all pagan rites in the empire.

Dating from around the 15th century BC, Mithraism emerged in ancient Persia. 'Mihr' (the Persian form of Mithras) was the word not only for the Sun but also for a friend; and that seems to be how this pagan god was originally worshipped - as both supreme sun god and god of love.

Roman soldiers were especially enamored by Mithras and often carried small statues of this god with them to all the corners of the Roman Empire. Archaeologists have uncovered many of these statues especially along the ancient Roman roads that crisscrossed the empire. Beyond the soldiers, traders and slaves became interested in the cult as well. Mithraism first appealed to slaves and freedmen but with Mithras's title Invictus, the cult's emphasis on truth, honour and courage, and its demand for discipline soon led to Mithras becoming a god of soldiers and traders.

Artifacts of this cult have been found as far north as Hadrian's Wall in northern England as well as in recent excavations in London itself. Other discoveries have been along the Danube in Romania and the Rhine River valley, into present day Iran and as far south as North Africa. Naturally, most archaeological discoveries have been made in Rome, itself, including a well-preserved late second-century mithraeum, with its altar and built-in stone benches, originally built beneath a Roman house (as was a common practice, the religion being a "secret" one), survives in the crypt over which has been built the Basilica of San Clemente, Rome.

Mithraism may have survived in certain remote cantons of the Alps and Vosges of France into the fifth century after it was outlawed by the emperor, but the epicenter of Mithras worship was in the city of Tarsus.

In 128 B.C.E, the noted Greek astronomer Hipparchus discovered the precession of the equinoxes - a wobble in the axis of the earth's rotation which causes the celestial equator to intersect a new constellation of the Zodiac every 2,160 years. The discovery of "precession" by Hipparchus in 128 B.C. and the precessional displacement of the entire cosmos implied the existence of a powerful, unseen god who resided beyond the stars and moved the entire universe according to his own timetable. A very radical concept at that time, to be sure. This became the Age of Taurus, the bull.

The carving above, called Tauroctony, depicts this mythical 'savior' Mithras slaying that bull. The scene it depicts Mithra's control of the precession of the equinoxes, thus bestowing great power over the heavens and that 'unseen god' who resided there. Scholars have noted that the symbols in this carving all represent the signs of the zodiac: the dog, the bull, the scorpion, the lion. Mithra's power over the stars was set, especially as he slew taurus, the bull.

Christianity was attempting to get a foothold in the Roman Empire at this same time. Its most staunch opponent was the cult Mithra. If the Mithraism had had an earlier beginning among the Roman soldiers, it might have suffocated the early Christian movement. The contest was neck-and-neck until Constantine wagered that Christianity would be a better bet for his military ambitions than Mithraism. We might not have ever heard anything about a man named Jesus from Nazareth had Constantine decided differently.

In fact, up until this time, Christian apologists knew that they needed to make their man/god more attractive than Mithras. They needed to portray Jesus as a strong and powerful deity with 'powers and abilities far beyond mortal man,' to quote Superman. It was nothing short of a 3rd century advertising blitz. Whichever deity seemed more heroic, more powerful, more attractive would win the hearts and minds of the 'faithful.'
The competion was at full speed.

In the earliest and most original Gospel, Mark, he purposely included a reference to Mithras as he portrays Jesus, at the moment of his baptism, having a vision of 'the heavens torn open.' Just as Mithras is revealed as a being from beyond the universe capable of altering the cosmic spheres, so here we find Jesus linked with a rupture of the heavens, an opening into the numinous realms beyond the furthest cosmic boundaries. Mark wanted to level the playing field with this statement lest his Jesus possess less grand powers.

Author David Ulancy, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (Oxford University Press, 1991), said, "There, at the beginning of the foundation story of Christianity, we find Jesus, at the moment of his baptism, having a vision of "the heavens torn open." Just as Mithras is revealed as a being from beyond the universe capable of altering the cosmic spheres, so here we find Jesus linked with a rupture of the heavens, an opening into the numinous realms beyond the furthest cosmic boundaries. Perhaps, then, the figures of Jesus and Mithras are to some extent both manifestations of a single deep longing in the human spirit for a sense of contact with the ultimate mystery."

Paul [Saul] of Tarsus was not only aware of a christ-like figure who had lived and preached near Jerusalem, but of course of Mithras too as it was in his city of Tarsus that the Mysteries of Mithras had originated. It was in Tarsus where, according to Plutarch [46-125CE], the Mithraic Mysteries were being practiced as early as 67 BCE. Therefore, it would have been unthinkable that Paul would have been unaware of the remarkable similarities between Christian doctrines and the teachings of Mithraism. He must have often confused the two 'men' as well as their teachings and symbols.

In that culture, the bull was seen as a symbol of Spring, of rebirth, and many carvings of Mithras cleansing himself in the blood of a bull have been found. The ritual killing of bulls and washing in its blood was believed to be necessary for cleansing, eternal life and salvation. This was followed by a meal of the bulls flesh. Life anew could be created from the flesh and blood of the sacrificed bull. If a bull was not available a substitute was used by poorer congregations, such as a ram, bread or fish. It is interesting to note that adherents of Mithras believed that by eating the bull's flesh and drinking its blood they would be born again, just as life itself has been created anew from the blood of the bull. Participation in this rite would give not only physical strength but lead to the immortality of the soul and to eternal light. The similarity between the Mithras ritual and the Eucharist could not be more obvious.

In one of the grandest schemes ever concocted and perhaps the most egregious lie ever told by a member of a church body was done by an early Father of the Church, Tertullian [160CE-240CE]. He stated that this ritual of the Mithras folowers was a 'devilish imitation of the Eucharist'. He claimed that those who worshipped Mithra copied the Jesus mythology into their own religious practices when, clearly, it was exactly the opposite. That grand spin of the truth is equal to that of many modern day politicians.

Other interesting plageristic maneuvers included the fact that in 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine declared December 25th to be the birthday of Jesus (December 25th was prescribed earlier as the birthday of Mithras, by emperor Aurelian). Sabbath day, which is literally Saturday (as the Jews still maintain), became Sunday as it was the day of the Sun, another element from the Mithra worship.

It is interesting, in this battle of the prevailing deities, just how much told of Jesus is that of Mithras. Jesus was the son of the Hebrew sky God, and Mithras was son of Ormuzd, the good deity of the Zoroastrian religion. They are both the same myth. The rituals of Christianity coincide with the earlier rituals of Mithraism, including the Eucharist and the Communion. The language used by Mithraism was the language used by Christians. St Paul as the first "Christian" bears much of the responsibility for merging the two in his preaching and teaching, and he also comes from Tarsus, a major Mithraist center.

Clearly our fundamentalist and/or evangelical christian apologists will want to 'set the record straight', but it is all-too clear that the christian myth and the mithras myth are permanently entangled with each other. The battle for the minds and hearts of the Roman Empire remained a virtual tie until Constantine, like the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, stepped in and declared 'the winner.'

Tea Party Chant: "USA! USA! USA!"

Those goofy tea parties were held across this nation yesterday with the usual right-wing attendees. The local gathering of white, middle-upper class people was staged in Perrysburg, a upscale, white suburb of Toledo. I surprised that Joe the Plumber was not there. It was his kind of crowd.

Note the sign above declaring, "Limited Govt. UNDER GOD." Apparently the person holding the sign would rather live under a theocracy than our democracy. Maybe they should take up residence in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

A story in The Blade reported: "Carol Greenberg, an area gun activist who was one of several featured speakers, repeated her message from the Tax Day Tea Party held April 15 in International Park in Toledo, triggering thunderous applause and cheering."You might as well send the [U.S.] Constitution to Iran or China or Russia, because the people in D.C. aren't using it." The Blade reported that the crowd responded to the message with cheering, "USA! USA! USA!

Dope slap! What a total idiot, but the 'crowd roared.' Mutual morons.

There was even the trite and artful reference to Hitler- the common tactic of those with speciously faulty passion. "Linda Bowyer of Perrysburg," The Blade reported, "who is an associate professor of finance at the University of Toledo, cautioned the protesters not to forget the history of the Weimar Republic." Had Ms Bowyer stopped there, I'm sure that the tea-drinking audience would not have understood her attempt to connect the Obama Administration with Hitler. Group-thinkers often lack basic historical facts.

One of the tea drinkers told the reporter, "I want my daughter to have an opportunity for success and freedom from government control and freedom of religion.." She went on, "I think the more the government has control, the more they can take away from you, including the freedom of religion."

What? Does this woman actually believe that the Obama Administration wants to void the First Amendment to the Constitution?

How easily some are propagandized. No doubt, she attends a fundamentalist christian church where weekly indoctrination is standard fare. Pardon this reference, but Hitler would have liked this lady.

One wonders where these tea-partiers were hiding during the obscene Bush years. I wonder if they were chanting, "USA! USA! USA!" at those Clear Channel parking lot rallies just before the preemptive invasion of Iraq.

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