Category Archives: religion

The Mysteries

Remains of Mithraeum in Ostia, Italy

The genesis of this post is an odd one.  I was talking to a friend about mythology the other day, and he asked what my favorite ancient Greek deity was.  Without hesitation I answered that it was Athena.  I went on to say that my favorite figure from Norse mythology was Odin, and from Egyptian, Isis.  Thus, if I’d been an ancient Greek, I’d have worshiped Athena, and so on.  I got to thinking about this a little later, and with the usual flow of stream of consciousness, where one topic leads to another that is sometimes only marginally related, I ended up with something I decided was worth blogging about–hence, the current post.

The title of this post does not refer to Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or any such thing, but to a specific type of religion prevalent in the Mediterranean cultural zone from about the middle of the first millennium BC to the fifth century or so AD.  These religions were referred to as “mysteries”, usually with a qualifier (“Mysteries of Eleusis”, “Mysteries of Isis”, “Orphic Mysteries”, and so on), by the people of the time.  Scholars of religion in modern times refer to them as “mystery religions”.  In order to examine them, we need to back up a bit and look at the broader picture.

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I Ain’t Got No Body, Yet Again: David Bentley Hart, Spirit, Matter, and Bodies

Way back here I looked at the distinction between embodied minds–that is to say, creatures like ourselves, which have both bodies and souls–on the one hand, and  bodiless creatures–pure minds lacking any kind of body composed of either matter or energy, that is to say, the beings we have traditionally referred to as angels and demons.  Later on, I reconsidered the matter, looking at the difficulties in the notion of completely disembodied minds, and speculating on the possibility that angels and demons might have bodies of a sort after all.  Recently, I have come across an interesting essay by David Bentley Hart, one of my favorite theologians and men of letters, which throws further light on this subject.

In setting the scene for the essay, Hart very forcibly argues that the Hellenization of Christianity is a feature, not a bug, that it goes back to the very beginning of the faith, and that modern attempts to remove said Hellenization in order to recover a “pure” Christianity are both doomed and missing the point altogether:

Naturally, this [picture of early Christianity drawn by N. T. Wright] also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy—and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.

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Wright’s anxiety is quite in keeping with a certain traditional Protestant picture of the pagan and Jewish worlds of late antiquity, one that involves an impermeable cultural partition between them—between, that is, the “philosophy” of the Greeks and the “pure” covenantal piety of the Jews.

These are points I’ve made before in various contexts, and I strongly agree with Hart here.

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Līlā; or, It’s Just a Ride

One of the perennial questions of religion is raised by the existence of evil.  The world, as is apparent to  anyone with eyes to see, is a rough-and-tumble place, a place where huge amounts of extremely nasty things occur.  In and of itself, this obvious fact is, while unpleasant, also unremarkable.  For a non-believer, the evil in the cosmos just is.  There’s  no particular reason for it, any more than there is for any other observed phenomenon.  The universe is a quirk of random chance, and it is as it is, a mixture of good and bad.  Much of the badness, in fact, is a function not of any cosmic principle, but of our perspective as humans.  Disease, suffering, and death are very much meaningful–and unpleasant–to us, since they affect us in ways we don’t at all like.  For the disease-causing pathogens that live on us, though, we’re a veritable smorgasbord, a means by which they prosper, albeit at our expense.  Things like earthquakes, hurricanes, and such are impersonal phenomena that just happen with no motivations at all, either good or bad.  They occur merely because of natural processes, and the fact that we are sometimes in their way is our problem, not theirs. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Even for believers of various stripes, not all religions give any particular answer to the “problem of evil”.  Buddhism famously begins with the assertion that the cosmos is irremediably screwed up, to wit, the First Noble Truth, which declares that “all existence is suffering”.  In short, the world is a cesspit of misery that will never be any better than it is.  We may have better or worse experiences in the course of manifold reincarnations, but in the end, it all boils down to suffering, even if it’s deferred for a bit.  Thus the goal of Buddhism is to leave the wheel of birth and rebirth–samsara–for good by attaining nirvana.  At that point, one is no longer reborn into this universe of misery.  Jainism takes a similar viewpoint, in which the ultimate goal is the cessation of rebirth through moksha (liberation) at which point one’s jīva (soul) leaves the phenomenal cosmos for the Siddhashila, a place of perfection in which the now-purified and omniscient jīva dwells eternally in perfect bliss.  As with Buddhism, the idea is that evil, suffering, and nastiness are baked into the cake of the universe, so that the idea is to escape the universe.

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A Prayer for Memorial Day

With Gratitude and Honor

Gracious God, on this Memorial Day weekend,
we remember and give thanks
for those who have given their lives
in the service of our country.
When the need was greatest,
they stepped forward and did their duty
to defend the freedoms that we enjoy,
and to win the same for others.

O God, you yourself have taught us
that no love is greater than that
which gives itself for another.
These honored dead gave the most precious gift they had,
life itself,
for loved ones and neighbors,
for comrades and country – and for us.

Help us to honor their memory
by caring for the family members
they have left behind,
by ensuring that their wounded comrades
are properly cared for,
by being watchful caretakers of the freedoms
for which they gave their lives,
and by demanding that no other young men and women
follow them to a soldier’s grave
unless the reason is worthy and the cause is just.

Holy One, help us to remember that freedom is not free.
There are times when its cost is, indeed, dear.
Never let us forget those who paid so terrible a price
to ensure that freedom would be our legacy.

Though their names may fade with the passing of generations,
may we never forget what they have done.
Help us to be worthy of their sacrifice,

O God, help us to be worthy.

– J. Veltri, S.J.; courtesy of here.

A Prayer for Divine Mercy Sunday

You expired, Jesus, but the source of life gushed forth for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world. O Fount of Life, unfathomable Divine Mercy, envelop the whole world and empty Yourself out upon us.

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter.

Quote for the Week

Mercy is a sweet gracious working in love, mingled with plenteous pity: for mercy worketh in keeping us, and mercy worketh turning to us all things to good. Mercy, by love, suffereth us to fail in measure and in as much as we fail, in so much we fall; and in as much as we fall, in so much we die: for it needs must be that we die in so much as we fail of the sight and feeling of God that is our life. Our failing is dreadful, our falling is shameful, and our dying is sorrowful: but in all this the sweet eye of pity and love is lifted never off us, nor the working of mercy ceaseth. For I beheld the property of mercy, and I beheld the property of grace: which have two manners of working in one love.

–Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (c. 1393), Ch. 48; courtesy of Wikiquote.

The Gnostic Mythos

I’ve been thinking about looking at how the Gnostic mythos is expressed in many contemporary movies.  Upon reflection, I realized that despite having written an entire series on Gnosticism, I have never written a post specifically outlining the Gnostic mythos.  Some have touched on parts of it; but I’ve never discussed it as a whole.  Therefore, I decided to remedy this oversight–hence, the current post.

Of course an expression such as “Gnostic mythos” assumes that there is such a thing as a standardized, “official” Gnostic mythos in the first place.  In fact, it has been argued that the term “Gnosticism” itself is problematic at best, and useless at worst.  I wouldn’t go as far as that.  Nevertheless, it is true that there were a lot of very different groups which are often in modern times lumped together as “Gnostic”, with varying degrees of justification.  For the purposes of what I’m going to discuss here, I will specifically look at mythos of the best-known and most famous Gnostic group, the Sethians.  The side benefit of this is that there is evidence, according to scholar David Brakke (which I discussed here) that the Sethians actually used the term “Gnostic” of themselves.  I tend to agree with Brakke on this.  Thus, by discussing the Sethian mythos, it’s perfectly accurate to describe what I’m doing as discussing the Gnostic mythos.

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For Easter Sunday

See the land, her Easter keeping,
Rises as her Maker rose.
Seeds, so long in darkness sleeping,
Burst at last from winter snows.
Earth with heaven above rejoices.
Field and gardens rejoices the spring;
Shaughs and woodlands ring with voices,
While the wild birds build and sing.

–Charles Kingsley (1882), in Poems: Including The Saint’s Tragedy, Andromeda, Songs, Ballads, Etc, p. 289.; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Pope Benedict XVI on Holy Saturday

To be sure, it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: we are still awaiting Easter; we are not yet standing in the full light but walking toward it full of trust.

Pope Benedict XVI, Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 ; courtesy of Good Reads.

St. Matthew’s Passion for Good Friday