Category Archives: religion
Another post in honor of Orthodox Easter: the entire Easter liturgy at St. Gregory Russian Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh PA.
Having looked at the Abrahamic faiths, let us turn our attention to the Dharmic religions.
The Dharmic Religions–Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, as well as a few other minor ones, originated in India, as the Abrahamic faiths originated in the Middle East. Dharma, the central concept in these faiths, is a Sanskrit term notoriously difficult to translate. Most English speakers can’t even pronounce it right. The Sanskrit letter अ, typically tranliterated “a” is pronounced like the “u” in the English word “but”. The letter आ, transliterated “ā”, is pronounced like the “a” in “father” (or better, like the “a” in the Spanish “padre”). The diacritical marks of scholarly Sanskrit transcriptions are not often used in popular works; but in any case, “dharma” is the correct spelling and transcription. Each “a” represents अ, the short form of the vowel. Thus, “dharma” is correctly pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “fur”, thus: DUHR-muh (there is also a puff of air after the “d”, which is why it is spelled “dh”; but few English speakers can get that correctly, and I can’t always do it right myself). English speakers almost universally rhyme the first syllable with “car”: DAHR-muh. This, quite simply, is wrong. Actually, the best known Sanskrit word borrowed into English, “karma”, should rhyme with “dharma”–the first syllable should sound like “cur”, not like “car”, thus: KUHR-muh. However, I learned the standard English pronunciation (KAHR-muh) before I learned Sanskrit phonology; and the word has become thoroughly naturalized in English with the “wrong” pronunciation. Therefore, I follow the masses in saying KAHR-muh. I do insist on holding the line on DUHR-muh, however, notwithstanding popular pronunciation or sitcoms!
If we can’t even pronounce the word, small wonder we have trouble translating it! Depending on context, “dharma” could mean any of the following: natural characteristic, moral law, path, doctrine, religion, property, sign, doctrine, or duty, among others. Etymologically, it comes from a Sanskrit (and ultimately Indo-European) root meaning “firm” or “solid”. At its root, “dharma” means “natural law” or the natural principle that is characteristic of a particular thing. A rock’s dharma is to be hard; water’s is to flow; an animal’s is to follow the lifestyle of its species. Only for humans is it more complicated. A person’s dharma is the whole set of morals, ethics, obligations, and responsibilities for humans in general and for that individual in particular, according to his age, class, occupation, and state in life. For example, truthfulness, honesty, cleanliness, etc. are the dharma–appropriate behavior and way of living–for all people. A child’s dharma is to obey his or her parents, and a parent’s dharma is to provide for his or her children and raise them well. The dharma of a married person is to be a good spouse, and of a sannyasi (renunciate) to be celibate. The dharmas of a teacher, an engineer, a laborer, and a priest would all be different, according to the occupation of each.
Having talked about ways to understand and categorize religions, let’s now do so. There are various ways to do so: by geographic region (Asian religions, African religions, European religions, etc.); by founding (revealed religions vs. folk religions, etc.); and so on. I want to look at what might be called “genetic” or “family” relationships. That is, members of a particular faith might modify, develop, or alter doctrines, worldviews, and such, until what initially is a sort of heresy of the original religion becomes a brand new religion in its own right. That process is a topic for the future. Right now, I want to look at the “family” of religions that claims the most adherents worldwide, the Abrahamic family of religions.
In the early days of the United States, though the Founders strongly emphasized freedom of religion and did not, themselves, think of America as founded on Christianity or any other religion, the general feeling was that the U. S. was, in a sense a “Christian” nation. In the 20th Century, as the nation became more diverse, there was some effort to expand the definitions of U. S. religious culture. Particularly after World War II, in light of the Holocaust, and in an attempt at reparation for the Antisemitism that had been all too common previously, it became common, and later expected, to use the term “Judeo-Christian”. The idea was to emphasize commonalities–ethics, the Ten Commandments, etc.–as an attempt at a more irenic way of speaking about religions. It has been objected–and in my mind, rightly so, to some extent–that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a bit of a weasel word that improperly conflates vastly different faiths. Nevertheless, it has been thought of as a better-than-nothing term. However, as Islam has become more noticeable in our society, there has been a casting about for a new term. ”Judeo-Christian-Islamic” and similar locutions have been tried, but are cumbersome. Finally, the term “Abrahamic” has been coined as a way of embracing the commonalities of all three religions. In this case, I think the term is good and useful. It is this which I wish to discuss.
Previously, we looked at some possible ways that the universe could have been brought into being (if, indeed, it needed to be brought into being–but that’s for another post). Here I want to look at the two ways that are commonest in Western religious thought, that is, creation and emanation.
As I said last time, we humans never actually “create” anything–we take already existing material and shape it into other things. For example, I might use wood to build a picnic table, or silver to fashion a ring, or stone to build a building. ”Creation”, in the strict theological and philosophical sense, always means making something ex nihilo (“out of nothingness”). In short, when God is said to create the world, He literally conjures it up from nothing. As the Qur’an puts it, “When [God] decrees a thing, He need only say, “Be,” and it is.” (2:116, Dawood translation). Or, as in Genesis, He merely says, “Let there be…” and light, the sky, and so forth instantly are. The term that philosopher Mortimer Adler, in his book How to Think About God, uses for this is a word of his coinage (but a very felicitous one, at that), exnihilation. According to him, this is formed on the analogy of “annihilation”, which literally means to put into (ad-) nothingness (nihil). Of course, nothing is truly annihilated–even if I drop an atomic bomb on something, it is merely blown into its constituent atoms, not into nothingness. However, exnihilation–taking something out of (ex-) nothingness is, indeed, exactly what God does in His act of creation. As Adler also points out, this can be conceived of whether or not the universe is thought of as being temporally infinite (i.e. in terms of infinite linear time) or not.
It is important at this juncture to point out that something created–exnihilated–by God is separate from Him. That is, the thing or being created by God literally comes into being out of nothingness. It is not formed from, fashioned from, or derived from anything else. It is called into existence by God, but it is not part of Him. It is ontologically distinct. There are some nuances in this that we’ll return to later, but for now we’ll leave it at that and move on.
Emanation is the other mode which has been postulated as the means by which God brought the cosmos into being. ”Emanate” comes from Latin roots meaning “to flow out from”, and this is a good description of the theological concept of emanation. Just as water flows out of the mountains into a river, or light “flows out” of a fire, the cosmos is thought of as “flowing out” of God. That is to say, that God does not create the world (including sapient beings such as us) from pre-existing material, nor does he call it out of nothing. Rather, he “draws” them from His own substance; or to put it another way, we all “flow” out of God.
This post is a sort of prelude to several I’m planning to put up over the next few days. I want to look at certain aspects of “families” of religions, and types of religions in general, and to preface all that, I want to explore a few concepts here. More specifically, I’m going to look at classifications of religions and I’m going to discuss perspectives on how certain tendencies or views of religions tend to play out, affect their believers, and so on. In this regard, people often take one of two different and opposite perspectives, each of which, in my mind, is problematic.
First, the believer in a given faith may have objections to the attempts to study that faith in a sociological manner. He may think that this denigrates the faith, reduces it to mere human affairs, and fails to see the action of the Divine within this faith. For example, a historian might make the argument that the alienation and social changes felt by the populace during the early days of the Roman Empire were a large factor in the rise and rapid spread of Christianity. A Christian might object to such a characterization on the grounds that it does not make allowance for God’s providence and action in revealing Himself and in ensuring the spread of His word according to His will.
On the other hand, a skeptic might balk at religious motivations in explaining the actions of people and the shape of cultures across the ages. He might insist that religion is just a mask of the things that really motivate people; that is to say, greed, power, economics, politics, and so on. Thus, such a skeptic might insist that the “real” reason for the missionary impulse in the Age of Exploration wasn’t to save souls but to gain control over the inhabitants of newly discovered areas that harbored vast riches which the European powers wished to exploit.
Today is his feast day. Prayer courtesy of here.
NOVENA PRAYER TO ST GEORGE
ST GEORGE – FEAST DAY: APRIL 23rd
We all know St George as patron of England, and tamer of dragons. St George seems to have been a Roman soldier, probably of the late third century, who was martyred at Lydda in Palestine during the great persecution by the Emperor Diocletian, probably for refusing to renounce Christ and worship the Emperor as a god.
His cult was very widespread in the east from that time on; when English soldiers went to the Holy Land on Crusade, they were inspired by this warrior saint; Richard the Lionheart put himself and his army under St George’s protection. From then on his popularity in England only grew: Edward III founded the Order of the Garter, with St George as patron, in 1348; Henry V called on St George for aid before the great victory of Agincourt in 1415. Thereafter he was secure as patron of England (although the patronage of two Anglo-Saxon Saint-Kings, Edward the Confessor and Edmund of East Anglia, was not neglected), and his popularity survived the spoliation and wreckage of the Reformation.
This prayer to St George can be said for nine days as a novena:
“Faithful servant of God and invincible martyr, St George, inflamed with a burning love of Christ, you fought against the dragon of pride, falsehood, and deceit.
Neither pain nor torture, nor the sword nor death could part you from the love of Christ. Pray for us, glorious St George, that through your intercession and example, we may work with all our strength for God’s greater glory, and continue unto death in imitation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
(Our Father…, Hail Mary…, Glory be…)
Eternal rest grant them, O Lord. Also be mindful of the survivors.
I suggest that the men and women who have given up religion because of the impact on their minds of modern science and philosophy were never truly religious in the first place, but only superstitious. The prevalence and predominance of science in our culture has cured a great many of the superstitious beliefs that constituted their false religiosity. The increase of secularism and irreligion in our society does not reflect a decrease in the number of persons who are truly religious, but a decrease in the number of those who are falsely religious; that is, merely superstitious. There is no question but that science is the cure for superstition, and, if given half the chance with education, it will reduce the amount that exists. The truths of religion must be compatible with the truths of science and the truths of philosophy. As scientific knowledge advances, and as philosophical analysis improves, religion is progressively purified of the superstitions that accidentally attach themselves to it as parasites. That being so, it is easier in fact to be more truly religious today than ever before, precisely because of the advances that have been made in science and philosophy. That is to say, it is easier for those who will make the effort to think clearly in and about religion, not for those whose addiction to religion is nothing more than a slavish adherence to inherited superstition. Throughout the whole of the past, only a small number of men were ever truly religious. The vast majority who gave their epochs and their societies the appearance of being religious were primarily and essentially superstitious.
–Mortimer Adler, “Concerning God, Modern Man, and Religion”, Part 2
The vast majority of the religion-oriented essays I’ve written here have been parts of various series: Legends of the Fall, The Pretty Good Book, and so on. However, there have been a few random essays that didn’t fit specifically within any of my series. Moreover, I have some ideas for non-series related essays on various religious topics that I will be writing and posting in the near future, as time permits. I thought it might not be a bad idea to have a central location from which these essays may be found; therefore this: another index page! I hope the essays here will be of interest to all, and there will be more to come.