Category Archives: religions

Quote for the Week

When you come down to it, has there ever been a genuine polytheism? Even Homer supposes a sort of fundamental unity of the divine that permits the gods to identify themselves as gods, even when they dwell far from one another (Odyssey 5.79ff). What the [monotheistic] revelations bring is, rather, the end of a “cosmotheism” that makes no radical distinction between the divine and the physical.

–Rémi Brague, interviewed by Christophe Cervellon and Kristell Trego, from Rémi Brague, The Legend of the Middle Ages, University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 1–22; courtesy of Wikiquote.

Sex and Religion! (Now that I have your attention…)

19th Century conception of a Roman orgy

Title and image aside, I have no intention whatsoever of prurience in this post.  Rather, I want to discuss an issue that has been bouncing around my mind in thinking about certain common themes in Gnosticism, early Christianity, and modern “new religions”.  It occurred to me that a certain framework of viewing these themes might be particularly useful.  I’ll get to that framework in just a bit.  As to the themes themselves, the main one is indeed sex, or rather accusations of sex.  What do I mean by that?  Read on!

Very early in Christian history–perhaps during the lifetime of the Apostles, but certainly within less than a century–divisions arose in the early Church.  These divisions principally centered around the interpretation of the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth, the things he taught, and authority in the Church.  One group claimed to hold to authority passed down in an unbroken chain from the Apostles themselves through their successors, the bishops.  This group later codified its beliefs in the Nicene Creed.  The vast majority of modern Christian Churches–Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, most Protestants, and some others–descend from this group.  In speaking of the early Church, scholars sometimes refer to this group as the “proto-orthodox”.  The proto-orthodox group of Christians stood in opposition to various other groups of “sectarians”, “partisans”, or to use the Greek term, “heretics“.

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A Bizarre but Interesting Parallel

Consider the following two quotations:

I.

And suddenly all was changed. I saw a great assembly of gigantic forms all motionless, all in deepest silence, standing forever about a little silver table and looking upon it. And on the table there were little figures like chessmen who went to and fro doing this and that. And I knew that each chessman was the idolum or puppet representative of some one of the great presences that stood by. And the acts and motions of each chessman were a moving portrait, a mimicry or pantomime, which delineated the inmost nature of his giant master. And these chessmen are men and women as they appear to themselves and to one another in this world. And the silver table is Time. And those who stand and watch are the immortal souls of those same men and women.

II.

Consider for an Example the Game and Play of the Chess, which is a Pastime of Man, and worthy to exercise him in Thought, yet by no means necessary to his Life, so that he sweepeth away Board and Pieces at the least Summons of that which is truly dear to him. Thus unto him this Game is as it were an Illusion. But insofar as he entereth into the Game he abideth by the Rules thereof, though they be artificial and in no wise proper to his Nature; for in this Restriction is all this Pleasure. Therefore, though he hath All-Power to move the Pieces at his own Will, he doth it not, enduring Loss, Indignity, and Defeat rather than destroy that Artifice of Illusion. Think then that thou hast thyself created this Shadow-world the Universe, and that it pleasureth thee to watch or to actuate its Play according to the Law that thou hast made, which yet bindeth thee not save only by Virtue of thine own Will to do thine own Pleasure therein.

The similarities are striking.  Both are written in pseudo-Biblical English and both compare human life to the game of chess.  The similarity is deeper, though.  Both see the true nature of human souls as transcendent, existing beyond time and space.  The chess pieces are humans as they perceive themselves and are perceived by others.  In reality, though, the pieces are mere reflections or puppets of humans as they really are.  To put it another way, life as we experience it is “real” only insofar as we have forgotten our true nature.  Our actions express that nature to a degree, but only imperfectly.  For the most part, we’ve forgotten that it’s “just a game”, and take our worldly successes and failures more seriously than we otherwise might.

This is not unlike the Hindu concept of līlā, which is generally translated as “play”.  Līlā is not any play, however, but the play of Brahman, that is, God.  The cosmos is seen as the arena created by God in which He can express Himself through manifestation.  There is no “reason” that He creates the world beyond Divine play.  All of us are tiny facets of God, the great Ātman (soul or self) of which our own minuscule ātmans are as drops in the sea.  We’ve forgotten who we are, and liberation comes from the insight that there is no ultimate separation between ourselves and the Absolute.  This is expressed in the classic aphorism “Tat tvam asi,” that is, “Thou art That,” the “That” being Brahman.

Not to drag out the suspense, but neither of the authors of the above passages was Hindu.  They were both British and rough contemporaries, both producing most of their best-known work in the mid-20th Century; but aside from that, not only did they have little in common, but they would be perceived by most as almost polar opposites.  The first quotation is by C. S. Lewis, from last chapter of his book The Great Divorce.  The second is by Aleister Crowley, from Liber Aleph vel CXI:  The Book of Wisdom or Folly, Chapter Beta-eta.  Lewis was an Anglican and an apologist for Christianity in general.  Crowley was an occultist and founder of the magickal (his spelling) and occult religion known as Thelema.  One can hardly imagine two less similar men; and yet their thinking was clearly and strikingly convergent, at least in this instance.

What to make of this?  I have no particularly profound insights.  What I would say is that certain notions tend to crop up repeatedly in philosophy, theology, psychology, and mythology.  It is said that “great minds think alike”; but even great minds can agree and still be wrong.  At one time, the greatest minds all believed in a geocentric cosmos, after all.  Still, convergence, especially between thinkers with very different beliefs and perspectives and who were unlikely to have influenced each other (Crowley might just possibly have read Lewis, but I can hardly imagine the opposite!), often indicates ideas worth pursuing.  Here, both men are saying that in one sense, this world and our perceptions of it and ourselves are not fully real, at least not in the deepest sense.  Not only are Lewis and Crowley aligned on this, but as I noted, they align also with Hindu thought.  For that matter, the idea that the cosmos as constituted is unreal or hides a deeper reality is very much a Gnostic notion, as well.

Make of all this what you will.  I think there’s something to it, though I’m not at a point where I’m willing–or able–to write a detailed treatise on the matter (though I may in the future).  Still, it’s interesting, and definitely food for thought.

Update 18 August 2021: I did a bit of research on the timeline of publication of the books containing these two quotes.  Crowley wrote Liber Aleph in 1918, at which time Lewis was a young man serving at the front in World War I.  Thus, Crowley was certainly not influenced by Lewis.  It was originally published in Equinox, the magazine of Crowley’s occult order, the A∴A∴ (Argentum Astrum), and not in book form until 1962.  Equinox would not have been publicly available until after Crowley’s death in 1947; and the reprints were likely not widely circulated even then.  The book form of Liber Aleph came out the year before Lewis’s death, so he could hypothetically have read it.  However, The Great Divorce was written in 1945, at which time Lewis would have had no access to Equinox, and at which time the book format was yet to be published; thus, Crowley could not have been an influence on Lewis in this passage.  There was enough overlap in their lives that they could possibly have read some of each other’s books (though that seems unlikely); but any such reading could not account for the parallel here.  It therefore is a coincidence, or perhaps convergence, and a striking one at that.

Why “Pagan” Is Not a Dirty Word

An excellent post from Agostino Taumaturgo at the Thavma Press blog. Some themes tie in with my last post. Enjoy!

THAVMA: Catholic Occultism and Magic in General

crucifixion

Reflecting on this for almost a decade, I’ve come to realize one of the problems with post-Vatican II Catholicism is a sort of Insistence on a Jewish identity.

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Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world.  In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.

In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol.  Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors.  These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted.  Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it).  By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths.  To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).

In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are).  I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.

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Universalism in Various Religions: Miscellany

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths.  There are other important religious traditions to consider, but the remaining ones, by and large, cannot be grouped together as we’ve done in the last two posts.  Therefore, this post will be a bit of a grab bag.  The order in which I consider the various religions with which I’m dealing here will be broadly by type or cultural zone (e.g. I’ll look at the Chinese religions together); but once more, there will be no formal grouping of religions by category as before.  Therefore, go below the cut tag and we’ll begin!

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Quote for the Week

imgrkshp

At sea on a ship in a thunderstorm
on the very night the Christ was born
a sailor heard from overhead
a mighty voice cry “Pan is Dead!”
So follow Christ as best you can
Pan is dead — Long live Pan!

Mike Scott, “The Return Of Pan”, from Dream Harder; courtesy of Wikiquote

The Tao Te Ching: My “Go-To” Translation

LaoTzu(310x398)

Having discussed which “translations” of the Tao Te Ching I would not recommend, I’ll begin my discussion of other versions with what I’d consider my “go-to” translation–that of D. C. Lau.

Lau was an expert in Classical Chinese and translated many Confucian and Taoist works for the Penguin Classics series.  He also helped develop London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies into a world-renowned center for studies of Chinese culture and philosophy.  His translation of the Tao Te Ching, originally made in 1963 and revised periodically (I think he did a revision in the 1980’s taking into account the Mawangdui manuscripts) is still in print, and can be read online here.  I have to say upfront that this is not actually my favorite translation.  The literary style isn’t bad, but Lau can be a bit stilted at times, and he is definitely less poetic in style than many translators.  Why, then, is his my go-to translation?  The answer in brief is that I trust him more; but that will require some unpacking.

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A Little Spiritual Levity

Click on the image to expand the view.  Makes more sense than some theology I’ve read….