I am continuing with my use of older essays, written in a different context, as new blog posts. Longtime readers know I’m Catholic, but that I became so only after an extended period of studying the various world religions. This was originally written to a friend to give a brief explanation of my thinking on why, for me, at any rate, Catholicism was the right choice. I might not phrase everything quite the same way if I wrote this today; and the format is of an explanation to another person; but I am editing it but lightly, leaving it substantially as originally written. I should also point out that this is strictly personal–others of other faiths will have their own reasons for why they joined the traditions to which they adhere. This post is intended to be descriptive of myself, not evangelistic of others.
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.
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!
Last time we looked at ancient religion and noted that the so-called “Three C’s” of religion–that is, Cult (worship), Creed (belief), and Conduct (behavior)–were generally separate. The great exception to this was Judaism. To lay the background, it’s important to note what Judaism is not. Judaism is typically contrasted with the other religions of antiquity in that it is said to be the first monotheistic religion. In fact, the evidence is that Judaism in its inception was henotheistic, not monotheistic. That is to say, while only one god, YHWH, was worshiped, the existence of other gods was not denied. Traces of this can be found in places in the Bible such as Genesis 1:26, Exodus 15:11, and Psalm 95:3, among others. Full monotheism–the belief that only one god exists–developed gradually, becoming more or less set by the prophetic era (7th to 6th Centuries BC).
Judaism was also not the first monotheistic religion. Atenism, the religion of the so-called “heretic Pharaoh” Akhenaten, as well as Zoroastrianism, were both arguably monotheistic (although there is debate on this; but that’s a can of worms I don’t want to open now) before Judaism. The uniqueness of Judaism lay not in its monotheism or in its being the first religion to be monotheistic. Rather, it was the first religion that could be characterized as “ethical monotheism“.
In American diocese, the Catholic Church has moved the feat of Epiphany (the traditional Twelfth Day of Christmas) from its correct location on 6 January to the nearest preceding weekend. Thus, it was celebrated yesterday in Catholic parishes across the country. I’ve always been an opponent of moving Holy Days of Obligation to Sundays in the (almost always vain) hope that it will get people more engaged. In any case, these chants (one for each of the Magi!) are going up on the real date for Epiphany. Enjoy!
A righteous government is of all the most to be wished for,
Bearing of blessing and good fortune in the highest.
Guided by the law of Truth, supported by dedication and zeal,
It blossoms into the Best of Order, a Kingdom of Heaven!
To effect this I shall work now and ever more.
–Vohu-Khshathra Gatha; Yasna 51, 1 (Zoroastrian scripture; courtesy of Wikiquotes)
This is about some issues I’ve thought about for some time, but have never written up, for whatever reason. The thing that inspired me to write now was a comment on a recent thread over at the Ocholophobist’s current blog [no longer available in this iteration as of April 2016, alas] (my emphasis):
There’s certainly a Protestantized/pop Catholicism for converts which seems to “stick” and yet only does so by watering down and trivializing what I would consider to be central elements of the Catholic faith. Granted, certain segments of American Orthodoxy do this as well (“We don’t pray to Saints; we just ask them to pray for us, like friends!”), but I’m not sure they pull it off as easily.
Well said, I thought upon reading it; and after mulling it over for a few days, have decided to write this post.
Simplistically, people typically take “polytheism” to mean “worshiping many gods” and “monotheism” to mean “worshiping but one god”. Even atheists and agnostics tend to accept these definitions. Such definitions aren’t exactly wrong; but they do little justice to the complex reality of religious belief. Furthermore, they do not exhaust all the options. Read the rest of this entry