Friday, September 28, 2012

What is a Christian?

Unitarian Christians (and others) have been trying to broaden the definition of Christianity since the 1830s, when the publication of Rammohun Roy's The Precepts of Jesus caused a furore among conventional Christians of the day. Rammohun Roy could not accept the doctrines of mainstream Christianity. He also called into question what is meant by Christianity in his writings, which were published in England by the Unitarian Society. Roy's story also raises the issue of what religion is – is it the original form or impulse, or the "accretions" which subsequently accumulate, or a combination of these? Is it about values, beliefs, or practices, or a combination of these? All of these issues were raised by Roy and his contemporaries over his views and those of the Unitarians, and the issues are still being debated today in many contexts. There was considerable dispute (between the Baptist missionaries of Serampore and the Unitarian Thomas Aspland) over whether Unitarians were Christians, and whether Roy himself was one; this depended on whether Christianity was defined according to values and monotheism, or by belief in the divinity of Christ. In declaring Roy to be a Christian, early nineteenth century Unitarians perhaps sought to broaden the definition of Christianity to include themselves. Roy used the same techniques and sources as the Unitarians to answer his critics: German biblical criticism, the history of the Arian controversy, the discourse of radical dissenters, and rational scepticism.

In the 1950s, apparently, it looked for a while as if Christianity was going to be defined as a broad movement of people who subscribe to the values of Jesus - but then two things happened: an upsurge of secularism, and an upsurge of evangelicalism. After that, it became increasingly difficult to define Christianity as anything other than conservative evangelical fundamentalism, belief in Jeeesus as your Personal SaviorTM, and belief in penal substitution theology (the idea that he died for your sins).

James Martineau once famously wrote that he didn't want to describe himself as a Unitarian, because that was the name of a doctrine; instead, he wanted to be called a Free Christian.

This is at the root of the reason why the full name of the Unitarian tradition in the UK is the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. A bit of a mouthful, isn't it?

But what is a Free Christian, or a liberal Christian? They are usually people who are working out their theology for themselves, and consider Jesus' moral example, and his teachings, to be more important than doctrines about him as a Saviour who died for people's sins. (I am sure there are more complicated explanations than that, but that will suffice.) They are also usually inclusive of LGBT people and tolerant of other religions, seeing them as equally valid paths to God / the Divine.

A Unitarian Christian is a slightly different critter, as this is someone who is both Unitarian and Christian. Again, they are working out their own theology, inclusive towards LGBTs and consider other religions equally valid; but they are also likely to hold Unitarian views of God, meaning that Jesus is not viewed as the second person of the Trinity.

But the name "Christian" does encapsulate a doctrine: it expresses the view that Jesus was Christ.

But it depends what you think a "Christ" is, and whether you think he was the only Christ, or whether there are more of them. The word Christ just means "Anointed One" and is a Greek translation of the Jewish word Messiah, also meaning "Anointed One". Some Jewish thinkers have suggested that there may be a messiah in every generation.

James Martineau also famously said:
“The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there; and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine”
 Buddhism is a project to make more Buddhas. Buddhism does not claim that Buddha was the incarnation of a deity.

What if Christianity was a project to make more Christs? Well, funnily enough, there is a very ancient form of Christianity that is exactly that. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the rite of baptism is called chrismation (anointing), and the aim of the Christian life is theosis (becoming divine).

Many, if not most, liberal Christians, Unitarian Christians, and Free Christians reject the notion that Jesus was "Very God of very God" and emphasise the human Jesus, his moral example, and his teachings.

But what if, as Martineau said, the Incarnation was true of humans universally? In Judaism, Isaac Luria taught that we all contain a divine spark; and Judaism has always taught that people are made in the image of God.

If the Incarnation is true of humans universally, then we must all develop our inner Christ (or Buddha, or Aradia).

If Christianity was a project to make more Christs, that might be interesting.

Further reading on liberal Christianity:
I am not a Christian and I never will be one (Wicca is my dharma, my sangha, and my tribe), but I am delighted that there is a strong liberal movement within Christianity. It provides an alternative to those who don't embrace exclusivism, homophobia, and intolerance of other faiths, and shows that another way is possible.

it would make a lot more sense if people talked about Christianities instead of Christianity. (And what about all those Christian churches that dissented at the Council of Chalcedon?)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Science fiction religions

There have been several new religious movements based on science fictional religions. Wikipedia has a list of fictional religions, not all of which come from science fiction. The most famous example of a real-world recreation of a science fiction religion is the Jedi from Star Wars, but there is also the Church of All Worlds from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Cullenism, based on Twilight. Recently I came across a recreation of the Bene Gesserit from Dune with its own training manual (PDF). I have no idea how serious this actually is but it looks as if it is an attempt to create a serious BG order. I think what all these new religious movements have in common (apart from the Church of All Worlds) is that they try to be too prescriptive about what people should practice and/or believe. On the other hand, the Bene Gesserit manual admonishes its readers:
“Beware of manuals! Manuals create habits!”

Except for the preliminary teachings tailored to the acolytes and postulants, we try to avoid admonitory sayings, but since this is our first edition and we must break the virgin soil, you will forgive the many errors inherent in this work. Someone had to do the plowing. Do not argue over the possible meanings of the contents of this manual. Words are dead things. Truth changes. Facts are fragile. Be Warned. Understand nothing. All comprehension is temporary. We realize, however, that a foundation is necessary, no matter how impermanent it may be. This is a real manual for real Bene Gesserit. It is not a guide book for children and their role-playing games. This is a guidebook for strong women to do great things.

Why do we have manuals? Answer: To disprove them.
Yes indeed - but then why write a manual at all?

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Some thoughts on Islam

Islam, like all religions, is a highly complex cultural phenomenon. People try to lump all Muslims together and assume they all think the same thing, as if they were some vast lumpen mass. If they actually took the trouble to get to know some Muslims, and get to know a bit about Muslim culture, it would help.

There are lots of things to admire about Islam. The 99 names of Allah reflect different aspects of the Divine, such as compassion, peace, forgiveness, and subtlety. Muslims recognise other religions of the book as worshipping the same deity. The coming of Islam brought peace and stability and prosperity to the warring Arabian peninsula.

The Muslim world (Dar al-Islam) has traditionally been much more tolerant towards religious minorities within it than was true of Christendom (which either expelled or forcibly converted Jews and Muslims, and then tortured them and burnt them if they reverted to their previous religions). Under the Ottoman Empire, and in al-Andalus (Muslim Spain before the reconquista), religious minorities were tolerated - they may have had certain restrictions, but they could practice their religions. When the Crusaders took over Jerusalem, they slaughtered most of the inhabitants, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, so that the streets were running knee-deep in blood. When Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb) took over Jerusalem, anyone who wished to leave was allowed to do so without let or hindrance. Saladin's noble and chivalrous behavior was noted by Christian chroniclers, and he became a celebrated exponent of the principles of chivalry.

The Renaissance in Europe happened because of the art, culture and science that came from the Muslim world. Muslim scholars had been gathered together in a group called the House of Wisdom under the Abbasid Empire to translate classical texts into Arabic. Muslim scholars not only translated texts but also wrote treatises on science, astronomy, astrology, medicine, mathematics, the arts, and so on. The names of many scientific instruments and areas of knowledge come from Arabic. Alchemy, chemistry, algorithm, alcohol, almagest, and so on. Many star-names are Arabic, or come from Arabic, and very beautiful they are too. The poetry and literature of the Arabs was also outstanding. There are still many Muslim scientists today. And also, Ibn Battutah, a medieval Muslim traveller from Morocco went all the way to China and wrote down what he saw on the way - he travelled much further and more widely than Marco Polo, and stayed longer in the places he visited.

The Arab world also had very advanced ceramic techniques - probably because of the emphasis on geometric designs in mosques, because of the ban on graven images.

Fairly early on in the history of Islam, there developed a difference in emphasis between two groups: the Sufis, whose emphasis was more mystical; and those who preferred the more legalistic side of Islam. Indeed, Islamic jurisprudence is complex and subtle. There are several different forms of Islamic law - so it would actually be very difficult to impose sharia on Muslim communities in the UK, because they all come from different places where Islamic law has developed differently.

Two major groups in Islam are the Sunni and the Shia. The Sunni derive all authority from the Prophet Mohammed; the Shia recognise a line of holy men who are descended from the Prophet.

The word "Sunni" comes from the term Sunnah, which refers to the sayings and actions of Muhammad that are recorded in hadiths (collections of oral testimony regarding Muhammad, collected not long after his death).

"Shia" is the short form of the historic phrase Shīʻatu ʻAlī, meaning "followers", "faction", or "party" of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali, whom the Shia believe to be Muhammad's successor.

Sufism or taṣawwuf is defined by its adherents as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam. A practitioner of this tradition is generally known as a ṣūfī. Sufis believe they are practicing Ihsan (perfection of worship) as revealed by Gabriel to Muhammad. The Sufis have produced a lot of really amazing mystic poetry, such as the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz; and many inspiring saints, such as Al Hallaj and Rabia. Their worship services (zikr or dikr, meaning remembering the name of Allah) are very beautiful.

Wahhabism is a conservative and fundamentalism form of Sunni Islam. It is particularly strong in Saudi Arabia. It has gained influence for various reasons over the rest of the Muslim world, partly because its adherents are very wealthy, and partly because of the rising hostility between the West and Islam, which creates a vicious downward spiral.  Wahhabis also distribute a version of the Holy Qu'ran annotated with their interpretations of it.

There are aspects of Islamic practice which don't appeal to me. I believe the body is sacred, and sexuality is sacred, so the idea of modesty does not appeal to me. I support the right of Muslims to wear hijab (modest dress for both men and women; although in many Islamic countries it has been the modesty of women that has been the most policed and commented on). I disagree with extra emphasis being placed on hijab for women, which is the case in some Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia; but there are hijab codes for both men and women. If people want to indicate their devotion to their deity, good for them. I don't think it qualifies them for extra respect, but they should be accorded as much respect as anyone else, and I absolutely and unequivocally condemn violence against people observing hijab codes.

I also dislike the anti-gay rhetoric coming from some Muslims - but I also dislike the anti-gay rhetoric coming from senior figures in Christianity, which is currently considerably louder, or at least getting more media attention. I abhor the fact that in many Islamic countries, being gay carries the death penalty, and sincerely hope that this will change.

[Update: There are also advocacy groups for LGBT Muslims, and a prominent Muslim spokesperson who stands up for LGBT rights.]

As a vegetarian, I can't say I particularly like the slaughter of animals for festivals in some Islamic countries; but that's not really a core part of Islam. If you insist on eating meat, then I think  dhabihah (the correct method of slaughtering meat so that it conforms with halal) is more humane. It says that you should bless the animal with the name of God before killing it, and the killing should be swift and humane. Muslims are taught throughout the Qur'an that all animals should be treated with respect and well cared for.

One of the interesting things about Islam is that it is all about the consensus of the ummah (the community); there is no Pope and no Archbishops. There is more than one imam. If you don't like the interpretation of the Qu'ran (a fatwa is an interpretation of the Qu'ran) that you get from one imam, you can go to a different one.

Just like any other holy book, the Qu'ran contains contradictory passages and bits that are confusing. There are many passages advocating peace, compassion and tolerance; there are also exhortations to violence. The same is true of the Bible. That is why exegesis is a delicate art and these books should be taken as a whole, not just quoted in bits taken out of context, and above all they should not be taken literally.

Like all other religions, there are fundamentalists in Islam. I don't like fundamentalism in any religion; but I have to say that Christian fundamentalists are just as dangerous as Islamic fundamentalists, if not more dangerous, because they have access to power and influence and money in one of the most powerful countries in the world, i.e. America.

Most Muslims just want to live in peace with their neighbours. They are mostly peace-loving and compassionate people - something that news programmes consistently ignore.

So, for goodness' sake, people, get educated about Islam. I have only skimmed the surface here, but it is a very complicated topic, just like all other religions.

Friday, September 07, 2012

What's wrong with the Incarnation?

Many Christians think that other religions don't like the idea of the Incarnation because they're offended by the idea of God becoming human.

The thing that is specifically offensive about the idea that Jesus is the only way to God is the idea that stems from it that all other religions are wrong, and that unless you have "accepted Jesus as your personal Saviour" you will go to hell. So according to this insane and offensive theology, that means Gandhi and other great luminaries are in hell.  (Then there's penal substitution theology, which is also offensive, but that is a separate issue.)

I don't have a problem with the idea of Jesus being divine. I do have a problem with the idea of his being the one and only incarnation of the godhead. As far as I'm concerned, we are all divine.

In polytheist religions, the idea of humans becoming divine, or the divine becoming human, crops up frequently. There's Krishna, who is an incarnation of Vishnu. There's Oðinn, who is either a deified human or a god who became human. There's Aradia, who was Diana's daughter and came to earth to teach Tuscan witches their craft, and how to resist oppression. There are many, many deities who became human, and humans who became deities. So the idea that other religions have a problem with the Incarnation because they don't like the idea of God becoming human is laughably ignorant.

In Judaism, the soul has three components - the nefesh (the animal soul, which disperses at death), the neshamah (the divine part, which returns to God at death), and the ruach (the breath of God, which gives life). The more spiritually developed you are, the greater the neshamah becomes. When Jesus told his disciples that he would send his ruach (his Holy Spirit) to be with the disciples at death, he meant he would send that component of his soul to be with them. This insight must have got lost in the early centuries of Christianity when the Judaic elements were eradicated from Christianity by opponents of "Judaizing".  Anyway, the point here is, that in Judaism, everyone is a child of God, and has God within them. (For more on this, see my earlier post, The Trinity and Jewish theology).

In the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), they say that everyone has "that of God" within them, and refer to the Inner Christ or the Inner Light. The idea is to uncover that light (not hiding it under a bushel) and let it shine.

In Unitarianism, which rejected the doctrine of the Trinity back in the 16th century, the view is usually that everyone has the Divine within them, too. James Martineau, a great 19th century member of the tradition (who actually identified as a Free Christian), said:
The incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly. He bends into the human to dwell there; and humanity is the susceptible organ of the divine.
What a truly great concept - the incarnation is true of all humans. Or as Shakespeare (religious beliefs unknown) so memorably put it:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals

Hamlet, Act II, Scene II
In Buddhism, we all contain the potential to become enlightened, to become a Buddha, to become divine. We are all Future Buddhas.

In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, although they believe that Jesus is the one and only divine incarnation, they also have the concept of theosis, which means that because Jesus opened the way between the human and the divine, we can all become divine. Indeed, Jesus himself said, "I have said, ye are gods."

So, no, the thing that annoys people about the Incarnation is not the idea that God became human - it's the idea that it only happened once.

Everyone has "that of God" within them - the neshamah, the ruach, the seed of a Future Buddha, the potential for theosis.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Belief-O-Matic update

I noticed that I haven't done the Belief-O-Matic questionnaire since 2010 - so here's an update. It's a pity they don't have a category for Wicca.

Unitarian Universalism 100%
Secular Humanism 98%
Liberal Quakerism 84%
Atheism 67%
Taoism 66%
Liberal Christian Protestantism 64%
New Age 62%
Theravada Buddhism 59%
Mahayana Buddhism 58%
Neo-Paganism 58%
Reformed Judaism 53%
Scientology 50%
Sikhism 48%
Jainism 47%
New Thought 47%
Church of Christ, Scientist 41%
Orthodox Quakerism 34%
Bahá'í Faith 28%
Hinduism 26%
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints 15%
Conservative Christian Protestant 14%
Islam 12%
Seventh-day Adventists 8%
Jehovah's Witnesses 5%
Orthodox Judaism 3%
Roman Catholicism 0%
Eastern Orthodox Christianity 0%