Saturday, February 28, 2009

Axis mundi: Part 3- Eutopia or Utopia

"Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all." Mircea Eliade

The axis mundi is a ubiquitous symbol found in just about every religion and civilization throughout history. It is the navel, the center of the world and the universe, a sacred space set aside that has been represented in a variety of shapes be it natural or man-made. They represent man's attempt at unifying around a common deity, concept, or belief. Although the axis mundi is represented by various symbols it is what the symbol represents that unifies Man.

[Left panel (The Earthly Paradise, Garden of Eden), from Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. This is one part of a three panel triptych. It is a wildly vivid and imaginative painting. Click on the above link to read the full description.]

Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

Utopia. This is the the place that Man desperately seeks to build but struggles against himself to grab the hammer. The word comes from Greek: οὐ, "not", and τόπος, "place". Utopia written in 1516 by Sir Thomas More describes a "fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean, possessing a seemingly perfect socio-politico-legal system." Sir Thomas More used the Greek word Utopia as an allegory and did not consider the place to be realistically possible. Yet, we continue to use this word in our literature and film as a place of perfection, peace, and harmony. Sadly the hope in building our earthly Utopia seems to be fading into non-existence every day.

So what is keeping us from building our own Eutopia ( "perfect" but not "fictional")? I guess we can't stand our neighbor being as happy as us. Or maybe we realize we don't deserve to live in Paradise. If I remember correctly there was a line in the Matrix: Reloaded where the architect built the first matrix as a Utopia; "it failed miserably and many human lives were lost when the inhabitants refused to accept it." So I guess we as a species can't accept living in harmony and peace with each other. We may yearn for it, but deep down inside we can't accept it and even completely hate the idea.

Is it because we find more excitement in conflict? Name one movie, or book you read that is either a box office hit or has been on the New York Times Best Seller list that HAS NO conflict whatsoever. Can you name five more? Ten more? Without conflict, there is no action, no drama, no excitement. If we as a nation can't find another country to start a war with we create an enemy or poke at one with a big stick until they fight back.

Were we like this before Sin? I personally don't believe there was ever a literal Garden of Eden, but the fact that there are over 6 billion of us now means we aren't blood thirsty animals although I can't say the same for some of our extinct gods. (Can gods go extinct?) There may have been a period of time where humans coexisted peacefully before pre-recorded history. Some may call this Atlantis, Shangri-La, or the Garden of Eden. So how do we return to this idealistic society? How do we move forward? Some propose that there will be a global Utopia at the end of history. A few say that a cosmic battle (Kralizec, The Apocalypse, The Last Hour) will be fought and bajillions will be slaughtered. Bajillions. So can we skip over the worldwide slaughter directly into Paradise? I sure hope so, not because I'm an unbeliever (which doesn't help) but because I don't think I could enjoy Paradise if billions of people had to die first. Certain religions shrug this off as "weeding out" those that don't deserve it (i.e. sinners and unbelievers). I believe everyone deserves to be happy, and any personal action, or attitude, that attempts to take that happiness away is exactly what has splintered humanity and caused us to lose paradise in the first place.

Pride. It has served as our downfall and continues to this day. I am willing (although my wife might say differently) to swallow my pride and work towards a better world. We might not have a Utopian society in the next 1000 years but it has to start sometime and with someone (Barack Hussein Jesus Obama?). I just hope we start before we nuke ourselves. Then it will be the apes turn to take over. Good luck Dr. Zaius.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Axis mundi: Part 2-The Tree of Life

"Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all." ~Mircea Eliade
The axis mundi is a ubiquitous symbol found in just about every religion and civilization throughout history. It is the navel, the center of the world and the universe, a sacred space set aside that has been represented in a variety of shapes be it natural or man-made. They represent man's attempt at unifying around a common deity, concept, or belief. Although the axis mundi is represented by various symbols it is what the symbol represents that unifies Man.

[From Northern Antiquities, an English translation of the Prose Edda from 1847. Yggdrasil painted by Oluf Olufsen Bagge]

Click here to go for Part 1 and Part 3.

The World Tree is present in several religions and mythologies, particularly Indo-European religions. The world tree is a colossal tree which supports and connects three planes of existence: the heavens (sky), the earth (terrestrial plane), and underground (underworld/Hell). The World Tree acts as a symbol that ties and interconnects all planes of reality. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil (represented as an ash tree), the world tree, is central and considered very holy where the Æsir, gods of the Norse pantheon, go to hold their courts.

Among pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures the world tree embodied the four cardinal directions, and to the Maya the world tree was represented by a ceiba tree.

In Hindu mythology, the ashvastha ( the sacred Fig) is a sacred tree mentioned extensively in their texts. Buddhist call it the The Bodhi Tree, a tree where Siddhārtha Gautama, the supreme Buddha, sat under until gaining enlightenment.

There are two trees that carry strong symbolism throughout Christianity: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. In Genesis the Tree of Life is a tree planted by God whose fruit gives everlasting life. The Eastern Orthodox Church has understood the Tree of Life as a foreshadowing, a prefiguration, of Christ's sacrifice in which the Cross came to be called the Tree of Life.

In Galatians, Paul speaks of two paths that the church could take: the path of (Jewish/Old Testament) Law, and the path of (Christ/New Testament) Faith. Those who follow the Law are under a curse (Gal. 3:10) whereas in Galatians 3:13

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." Galatians 3:13 (NIV)

At the end of the verse Paul is quoting Deuteronomy where the Law instructs the Israelites to treat the body of a dead person with enormous respect even the bodies of an executed prisoners and military opponents. This might have something to do with the body being ritually unclean after death occurs which might desecrate the land.

22 If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, 23 you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22- 23 (NIV)

There is another allusion to Christ being 'lifted up' in John.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. John 3:14-15 (NIV)

John was referring to the story of the Nehushtan where the Israelities were once again complaining ("Oy, G_d, where's the meat!") about lack of water and the miserable food. So the Lord sent poisonous serpents into their camp for speaking against Him. The people begged and pleaded with Moses to speak to the Lord, and The Lord told Moses to fashion a serpent onto a pole. Anyone bitten by the serpents may look upon the bronze serpent and live.

Here is how all of this ties together. Jesus compared himself to the Nehushtan, the bronze snake on a pole, that through him all may receive eternal life. He is hung on a cross (historically some people were crucified on a single vertical stake) which later comes to also represent a "tree of Life". The Nehushtan bears a striking resemblance to the rod of Asclepius , which also consists of a serpent on a staff, "is an ancient Greek symbol associated with astrology and with healing the sick through medicine." The serpent wrapped around the staff (axis) is portrayed as a guardian of knowledge. In Shamanism, Shamans, healers and communicators with the Spirit Realm, "gain knowledge and power by traversing the axis mundi and bringing back knowledge from the heavens." The shaman's staff is the physical representation of the axis where the two realms (earthly and spirit) the shaman walks in join.

The Cross then become a nexus of the three realms of existence: the heavens, earth, and underground. "Anyone or anything suspended on the axis between heaven and earth becomes a repository of potential knowledge." Jesus, suspended on the staff/cross/pole is a symbol of spiritual healing brought to humanity. We too can connect with the Divine realm by following Jesus' teachings of Love, Compassion, and Justice. Jesus and the Cross became a gateway, a bridge to the heavenly realms for the world too receive heavenly knowledge. It is with Jesus' teachings (heavenly knowledge), brought back to the earthly realm, that we can begin to heal the wounds of humanity caused by man's hatred, ignorance, cruelty, and injustice.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Axis mundi: Part 1- The Tower of Babel

"Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all." Mircea Eliade

The axis mundi (cosmic axis, world pillar, center of the world) is a ubiquitous symbol found in just about every religion and civilization throughout history. It is the navel, the center of the world and the universe, a sacred space set aside that has been represented in a variety of shapes be it natural or man-made. They represent man's attempt at unifying around a common deity, concept, and belief.

[Tower of Babel by M. C. Escher. Woodcut, 1928. He later commented, "Some of the builders are white and others black. The work is at a standstill because they are no longer able to understand one another. Seeing as the climax of the drama takes place at the summit of the tower which is under construction, the building has been shown from above though from a birds eye view."]

Click here to continue to Part 2 and Part 3.

Genesis 11:1-9(NIV)
The Tower of Babel

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

As a boy I remember being told this story how Man united to build a tower as a gesture of human progress and pride in the face of the Divine. The Lord then taught humanity a harsh lesson: progress ceases when we can't communicate, when we let our differences define us. If you take this story as historical, instead of symbolic, the story illustrates how humanity's prideful nature led us to the differences that continue to divide us today. I also remember being told that after the Lord confused their tongue and scattered them God also destroyed their tower. To my surprise I can not find it's destruction anywhere in my Protestant Bible. [The tower's destruction is found in other sources like the Book of Jubilees.] This sounds a bit out of place for a God who as the author of Order to cause such chaos, but as Christians would explain it "humanity was punished for their disobedience".

The one line that really caught my attention was when God came down (twice in a row for some reason) and said "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them." Forget God's subtle jealousy for a moment and think about that line. Even God acknowledges that when we surpass our differences and reach a level of complete unity nothing will be impossible for us. NOTHING. So why do we fail to unite? What is keeping us from coming together and accomplishing the impossible when we act alone?

This story is an attempt to explain the origins of the various differences that divide us: language, religion, race, etc. There are thousands of axis mundis all across the globe and throughout history. After the Tower of Babel each culture, civilization, nation, country, people, and religion has established their own navel of the world: Mount Fuji (Japan), Jambudweep in Hinduism and Jainism, Garden of Eden in Genesis, the Ka'aba in Mecca, Mount Olympus in Greece, Black Hills (Sioux), etc, etc. Since we are so focused on our individual axis mundis we can not yet unite behind a common cause, a common flag. Some religions would say that when we (global 'we') follow God's commandments/Law/Word we will once again be a united people behind a common cause. But we bicker and peck at each other over how that axis mundi should be represented. All of us yearn for Love, Compassion, and Justice but first we must transcend and unchain ourselves from the symbols that bind us to "one spot" before we can realize that we are all after the same thing. Unchaining ourselves from our personal axis mundis doesn't mean that we are floating in chaos; these chains were fashioned by Man and can be broken by Man. By liberating ourselves from one fixed point we can take on a bird's eye view,begin to feel the interconnectedness of all centers, and once again accomplish the impossible.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"I Wish You had Believed Me..."

I am a HUGE fan of ABC's tv series Lost. It is a complicated show that operates on so many levels that you have to be an avid watcher to keep up. I will keep the outline to the show as brief as possible or else we will be here all day long. I just want to touch on a subject that was brought up in last week's episode entitled "316". I will though (as best as possible) explain the context of the episode but be forewarned that there are spoilers.

[The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio. Thomas seen here actually sticking his finger into the wounds of resurrected Christ.]

Lost revolves around the survivors of Oceanic flight 815 that crashed on a mysterious island. Six of the survivors managed to get off the island return home, but because they left bad things started to happen to those that were left behind. The only way to save everyone on the island is for everyone that left to return by recreating the circumstances that first brought them to the island. For this to happen one of the survivors of Flight 815, John Locke, must leave the island and bring them back, by sacrificing himself. There is a scene where Ben Linus, "native" of the island, and Jack Shepard, leader of the survivors, are at a church awaiting to return to the island. Ben begins talking about Thomas the Apostle. He quotes Thomas' response to Jesus returning to Judea knowing that he would probably be murdered there.
John 11:16 (NIV)
16Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

Ben Linus-"But Thomas was not remembered for this bravery. His claim to fame came later when he refused to acknowledge the Resurrection. He just couldn't wrap his mind around it. The story goes that he needed to touch Jesus' wounds to be convinced."

Jack Shepard- "So was he?"

Ben Linus-"Of course he was. We're all convinced sooner or later, Jack."

Jack Shepard is known as the Man of Science throughout the show and John Locke is known as the Man of Faith. This is the first time in the show that Jack begins to believe that he is part of something greater. Jack is told that Locke had to die to bring them back and to serve as a proxy for Jack's father, Christian. [On the original flight 815 Jack was bringing his father's body back to LA to give him a proper burial. And, if you remember, to get back they must replicate the conditions of their trip as close as possible.] During the flight Jack is hesitant in reading a letter addressed to him before Locke's death. The letter reads, "I wish you had believed me." Jack now feels that if he had just believed in Locke (and about not leaving the island) in the first place, Locke might not have had to sacrifice himself.

In Christian theology Adam and Eve failed to believe (and obey) God by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil which condemned all of humanity to death. God then sent his Son to redeem Humanity and bring them back. In Lost, Jacob (God?), the mysterious voice that gives instructions to the protectors of the island, sends Locke (Christ) to bring back the Oceanic Six (Humanity) back to the island. Jack (Doubting Thomas) as a Man of Science needs to "touch" in order to believe. This was such a powerful episode full of symbolism, but at the core is the concept of Faith vs. Science, Belief vs. Reason. The Dharma Initiative, a group of scientists that ran experiments on the island, used science to find and get to the island. Science is not enough to return Jack to the island, he must also take "a leap of faith".

So are you a Man of Science or a Man of Faith? Does it matter? I see myself as both. I believe yet doubt, but my doubting does not hinder my spirituality, it increases it. By doubting I find new avenues and streams of thought. I am not tied to one stream but I flow freely guided by Reason and Spirit. I doubt so that I may believe, and I believe so that I may doubt. The two compliment each other and answers questions that the other cannot. Somewhere in between I slowly find my way back to our Creator, to our Source, by belief and doubt.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

John 13:19-27 (NIV)

19"I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He. 20I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me."

21After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, "I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me."

22His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. 23One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. 24Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, "Ask him which one he means."

25Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?"26Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. 27As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.

The Disciple whom Jesus loved has always been a mysterious character within canonical and non-canonical scripture. The traditional view is that it is a self-reference to John the Evangelist himself. Within the last century alternative identifications have been proposed including Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, Mark the Evangelist, and even the unnamed youth in Mark 14:51-52. Whoever it was we will never know, unless we uncover a manuscript that identifies him. Maybe we were never meant to know.

John 21:16-25 (NIV)

16Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?"
He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep."

17 The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." 19Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!"

20Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, "Lord, who is going to betray you?") 21When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?"

22Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." 23Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?"

24This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

25Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

It is barely noticeable but you can almost see a hint of jealousy coming from Peter concerning the unnamed Beloved Disciple, and how can you blame Peter. Jesus just stated that Peter might have to die for following Him, while Jesus has something else in store for the unnamed Beloved Disciple. Follow me to death and do not worry what I have in store for your fellow followers. This does not mean that the unnamed Beloved Disciple would not face persecution and death for following Him but that it does not matter what Jesus has in store for him. The focus is on the Shepard and not the flock.

One of the more interesting ideas as to the identity of the unnamed Beloved Disciple, stated by Martin L. Smith, is that it is a literary device meant for the gospel readers to better identify with the relationship the disciples had with Jesus. In a sense You become one of the disciples which brings you in closer to the gospel and Jesus. You now so close and so loved by Jesus that even Peter, the rock of the church, comes to You with questions about what he is truly saying.

The unnamed Beloved Disciple works wonders for me as a literary device than it ever did as an actual character in the gospel. Instead of just reading the gospel I become a part of it and begin to feel God's love through Jesus Christ. As I become a part of the gospel I become a part of the powerful love that radiates from it. I then become a "living gospel" as I live in Jesus and Jesus lives in me. This Unconditional Love radiates throughout my being and out towards my fellow man so that all may see, learn, and love. We are then no longer tied to the literal teachings, rituals, and beliefs created by man that help to guide us to this state of Unconditional Love because we are already there. We are all the unnamed Beloved Disciple, and we are all beloved by God.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Peace Be Upon You

As-Salāmu `Alaykum (السلام عليكم) is an Arabic greeting meaning "Peace be upon you". The traditional response is wa `Alaykum As-Salaam, meaning "and upon you be peace." I came across this while reading Peace Be Upon You by Zachary Karabell, a study into fourteen centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish conflict and cooperation. In it he states that each of these three traditions has a core of peace.

In churches throughout the world, worshipers turn to one another and say, "Peace be upon you." Walk into any store, home, or mosque anywhere in the Muslim world, and you will be greeted with salaam alaykum, Peace be upon you." And the response is always the same: "And upon you, peace." Jews in Israel will begin and end a conversation with the simple salutation shalom, "peace." Each of the faiths teaches its followers to greet friends and strangers with the warm open arms of acceptance. Peace comes first and last. [Peace Be Upon You, p.5]
I use this greeting in my closing valediction whenever I dialog with others on religious blogs and forums through emails and comments. It can get pretty frightening whenever navigating the Internet as religious dialog devolves into disagreements, heated battles, and fierce digital wars that may end up in legal disputes. Try and visit a forum, chat room, even a Youtube video and I guarantee you that after the first few comments colorful language will appear out of nowhere. People like to argue and Religion is rich with topics to bicker and peck at each other over. This is why I close with "Peace Be Upon You", meaning that if any of my statements offend you or that you disagree with I hope that we may part ways and return in peace. Arguing and debate is still fair game because this allows us to explore new areas of thought and expression, as long as we leave each other peacefully.

May peace and blessing be upon you,


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Fallibility of Mortality

These are MY words that begin and end at the brain, be it yours or mine. They start off as an electrical impulse in the brain that travels down towards my finger tips. My fingertips strike the keys and the information on the screen is then received by my eyes, travels down the optic nerves, and makes its way back to the brain. If the information on the screen is incorrect my brain begins the process of correcting it. This all takes place in fractions of a second but the choices all take place within the Human Mind.

[Note: I usually give credit for any pictures I use but I can't seem to find the artist for this one.]

The Human Mind is an intricate and complex organ and we are millenniums, maybe even centuries, from completely unlocking its full potential. Until then we are susceptible to errors and mistakes because of our fallible Mind. We may have a vast amount of information in making decisions but without COMPLETE and UNIVERSAL knowledge one can never make an error free decision. There is always a slight possibility of error with any decision made by the Human Mind including decisions of the heart. We may not be able to choose the correct belief concerning the Divine by using reason and logic because even decisions of the heart are susceptible to errors chosen by fallible Man.

So how can the Immortal hold the Mortal responsible for choosing the belief system? It is impossible! Some say that when you make the right choice you can feel it in Mind, Body, and Spirit. But if this were true why are practitioners of competing religious traditions stating that they feel there view is correct? The emotional "life changing" test can not be the ultimate way of testing our competing views. A snowboarder can have their life changed by snowboarding as much as a Christian or a Buddhist can have their lives changed by their religious and philosophical traditions. Some would argue that this is not the case, that only a spiritual transformation can truly change and guide ones life. Yet even the spiritual transformation is processed and experienced by the Human Mind. A personal experience is no less significant than any other experienced in a religious or secular context. When we say "The Spirit is truly felt here, not there" this is a perception that is projected by the Human Mind.

Our best attempt will always fall short of the expectations laid out in the perpetual revelations streamed down by the Divine. I do not think (again, this is fallible I thinking) that God expects us to pick the right set of beliefs, it is impossible! There are hundreds and thousands of belief systems and religious doctrines, and to choose the right combination is Humanly impossible. Even the scriptures that codify the original revelations are riddled with Human error. This does not mean that God's Word (God's revelation and interaction with Humanity) is erroneous but that Man's involvement and interpretation is fallible. As soon as we understand our own fallibility we can begin relying on that which is Infinite, even if we can't define It.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Happy Death Day!

Today is the day I was brought into the world. 25 years ago I was unable to properly focus my eyes or understand the sounds that were bombarding my newly fashioned ears. I was born without any prejudice, hatred, or misconceptions. In fact, the only things I was born with were genetic instincts and a strong attachment to my mother. My wife, the Super Nurse, would be able to explain that I'm drawn to my mother based on a chemical or hormonal reaction. Most of her medical explanations fly right over my head despite all attempts, nonetheless the birth of another soul into our world is always a time for rejoice. So much so that we celebrate it every year until the day of our death when the celebration stops and we mourn the soul that leaves us. Wherever the soul departs to (if the soul even exists) we do not know, but it should also be a time for celebration.

We should celebrate our Death Day as much as we do our Birth Day. Before birth we were part of the cosmos, we had no individual consciousness, but during birth (or should I say conception) we are ripped from that unity with the universe and enter into the Human Experience. That unity splinters into smaller and smaller pieces with each new soul that joins us. Humans try to regain that lost unified feeling so we interact with each other and form families, communities, tribes, and nations. Whenever we create bonds with other souls we feel a faint echo of that Prebirth unity until that bond is broken by death. Some of us hope to reunite with each other, one day returning to our original state. Some call this the Afterlife, I call it a return to our Prelife. Whatever the return has in store for us nobody knows, but I believe the transition from this life into the next is just as important, and should be just as joyful, to the soul as on the day of our birth. So whenever I do pass on I wish my future self a very happy Death Day!

Genesis 3:19 (NIV)

19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Give Us Barabbas!

Mark 15:6-15 (NIV)

6Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9"Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, 10knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. 12"What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?" Pilate asked them.

13"Crucify him!" they shouted.

14"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"

15Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

"Give Us Barabbas!" They yelled. The crowd wanted justice for the crimes committed. Take away the criminal and give us our Savior. Barabbas is portrayed as an insurrectionists, a Zealot. Israel was being choked by the chains held by the Sadducees and the Romans. They were bleeding the land and its citizens dry of wealth, pride, dignity, and honor. The Jewish people were uniquely blessed that Rome allowed them to keep their religious traditions instead of adopting Roman ways. Religion is by far the best control in keeping the populace docile, so Rome allowed them keep their One god, for now. Those that felt Rome's iron grip tightening felt it was time to take actions into their own hands instead waiting for the Messiah.

The Zealots were a Jewish political movement in the 1st century which sought to incite the people of Iudaea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the country by force of arms, most notably during the Great Jewish Revolt (AD 66-70).

This is the group that historians originally thought that Barabbas was apart of (or even led) but there is no record of this group until after Jesus' execution. Still, as the story goes, he was arrested for inciting an insurrection.

Jesus and Barabbas are two sides of the same coin. Both resisted the establishment but took two different methods: Barabbas took on the sword while Jesus took the path of non-violent resistance (a.k.a. turn the other cheek). Some historians say that Jesus taught ways to resist Rome non-violently and that some verses like "turn the other cheek" have been interpreted without taking 1st century Palestine custom's into considerations. You can read a brief summary of it here.

Now the heart of the story between Barabbas and Jesus has to do with shifting blame of Jesus' death from the Romans onto the Jews.

Matthew 27:25 All the people answered, "His blood is on us and on our children!"

This verse is only found in Matthew and has been used by Christians to demonize the Jewish people throughout history. The Sadducees, the political Jewish group in power, worked with Rome to remove Jesus, the non-violent resistor, who was drawing in massive crowds. Because of guerrilla fighters like Barabbas, Rome does not like huge crowds of people where the Zealots can hide and attack the Romans unnoticed.

So now we have two freedom fighters, one uses violence, the other non-violence. So which one do the crowds ask Pilate to release as by tradition (no record of this tradition is found outside of the Gospels) during Passover? The crowds yell for Barabbas, but when you look closer at Barabbas' name things begin to get really interesting.

In Aramaic "Barabbas" translates to "son of the father".

(Aramaic: בר-אבא, Bar-abbâ, "son of the father")

One of Jesus' titles may have been "Son of the Father" because of his custom of addressing God as Father in prayer. In a handful of our 5000 surviving Greek manuscripts Barabbas also is referred to as Jesus Barabbas. So now we have two prisoners of Rome BOTH called Jesus Barabbas (Jesus 'Son of the Father'). So which one does the crowd call to be released? Jesus Barabbas!

The theory is that the people truly wanted Jesus of Nazareth released and that Barabbas was just a fictional character used as literary tool to place the blame of Jesus' death on the Jews. Did Barabbas the criminal ever exist? We may never know but at least Jesus, our model of humility, love, and compassion forgave the world during his last moments on Earth.

Luke 23:34 (NIV) "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Who Asked You God?

I recently heard an interesting tale found in the Talmud, a Jewish rabbinic commentary on Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history. The tale is called the Oven of Akhnai (or Akhni) and it centers around the "kosherness" of a recently purchased oven.
[I am retelling most of this story from memory as I heard it so I apologize if I get any of it wrong. You can find the original tale here in the Talmud, P.140]

The local rabbis were debating whether or not a recently purchased oven was kosher for use. They debated on what the Law says and finally voted that it was not kosher, except for Rabbi Eliezer who voted that it was. He brought all the evidence he had before the other rabbis and they still kept to their vote. So Rabbi Eliezer pointed towards a carob tree and said "If I'm right, let this carob tree prove it!" And sure enough the carob tree uprooted itself and moved 100 cubits away agreeing with Rabbi Eliezer's argument. The rabbis were not impressed and responded "what does a carob tree know of the Law."

So Rabbi Eliezer pointed towards a stream and said "If I'm right, let this stream prove it!" and miraculously the stream began to run backwards. The unimpressed rabbis again responded with "what does a stream know of the Law."

So then Rabbi Eliezer pointed towards the walls of a school and said "If I'm right, let this wall prove it!" And sure enough the walls cracked and began to crumble. Rabbi Yehoshua chastised the walls saying "You keep out of this! This is a debate among scholars," and the wall did not fall out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua.

Rabbi Eliezer finally pointed towards the heavens and said "If I'm right, let it be proven from Heaven!" And sure enough the Heavens opened up and a voice (a female voice) proclaimed," Why do you quarrel with Rabbi Eliezer, who is always right in his decisions!"

Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said, "What does God know about the Law." [He actually said "It is not in heaven" but it sounds funnier the way I heard it.]

The whole point to the story is that the interpretation of the Law is in the hands of Man (or at least in this story specifically the Jews). God gave them the Law at Sinai and intended for them to never EVER forget it. When Rabbi Rami told us this Mishna in class he quoted the line, "It is better for man to remember my Law and forget Me than for them to remember Me and forget my Law."

What does this tell us about ourselves and how we view God? What does this tell us of our past and future interactions with the Divine? When God sent down a revelation, within the monotheistic traditions, it was for a purpose: to bring Humanity back to Him. But when that revelation was passed into our hands WE decided how to interpret it because God did not send an interpretation manual along with the revelation. So man gets to work, and we spit out interpretation after interpretation. We have so many that we begin to take sides and splinter into factions defending a certain view.

"We have the Light."
"NO! We have the Light!"

The first round of debating stagnates and new interpreters spring up to take their place, putting their spin on it. This repeats itself ad nauseum.

Now in the present we have thousands of interpretations on God's revelations. The Light has been splintered into thousands of pieces. Have we lost the original meaning or did WE give the first revelations meaning? I believe we (global we) can reclaim the Light God entrusted us with. I believe that we each have a splinter, a shard of truth, and if we share our pieces we can strengthen the Light. This may not happen in the next 50 years or the next 1000 years but as long as we consider ourselves brothers, despite whatever pieces we may have then there is hope the Light will regain its original splendor.

Then God will sit back and look at all the work we have done and say "that it was Good".

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A God-Sized Glacier

Rabbi Rami, my Religious Studies professor, introduces me to a lot of the ideas that I mention on this blog. Whenever he mentions a concept or an intriguing view on religion I jot it down so that I may research and digest it at a later time. One of my favorite concepts that he has mentioned in both of my Religious Studies classes thus far is on Perennial philosophy or the Perennial Religion. He explained it using this illustration I sketched into my notes.

One of the proponents of the Perennial Religion was Frithjof Schuon, "a Swiss philosopher, metaphysician and author of numerous books on religion and spirituality." Perennialism in a nutshell is the concept that at the core of our religions we share the same universal truths although we appear to differ on the surface. Professor Shapiro used Schuon's illustration of a glacier with three peaks coming out of the water representing Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Above the water represents the everyday religious beliefs, traditions, and rituals of the believers of their respected religions. Below the water is the esoteric traditions that all three attempt to use to gain an inwardly closeness with God through direct experience. Each of them have "technologies" and teachings that guide the spiritual traveler towards a closer communion with the Divine: Judaism with Kabbalah; in Christianity it's usually called Mysticism; and Sufism in Islam. These mystical disciplines use breathing, repetitive chanting, and other techniques to help them enter into a trance-like state. It is in this state that they experience God on a very personal level. I honestly don't know much about Mysticism and I can not say if any of this is even close to what they practice, but the results are their main focus; a communion or conscious awareness of an ultimate reality beyond that which is taught in mainstream religions. As you strip away layers of the ego you reach the soul level in which an awareness of the universal spiritual truths is revealed to the traveler.

As I said earlier Mysticism is an area of religion that, although interesting, is very foggy for me. What truly intrigues me is the graph itself. Even though these three bicker and peck at each other they do share a common belief, goal, and spiritual truth in the mystery that is found along the journey towards the Divine. If we can't descend below the deep waters of our shared spirituality then maybe we can work towards lighting lamps between the peaks above the surface so that we may see and understand each other. Instead of stripping away layers of the ego maybe we can begin by stripping away the layers of hatred and ignorance that divide us and let our inner soul/light/love shine out.

Luke 11:33-36
33"No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead he puts it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light. 34Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are good, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are bad, your body also is full of darkness. 35See to it, then, that the light within you is not darkness. 36Therefore, if your whole body is full of light, and no part of it dark, it will be completely lighted, as when the light of a lamp shines on you."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Which Way Again? or All Aboard Part 3

It is like a finger pointing toward the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory. ~Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon

[This wooden statue of Quan Âm Nghìn Mắt Nghìn Tay (Quan Am with 1000 eyes and 1000 hands) was fashioned in 1656 in Bac Ninh Province, northern Vietnam. It is now located in the History Museum in Hanoi.]

I have heard, and even used, the description of religion being the hand that points to something greater (i.e. God). When I gave this some thought it started to make sense to me. The religions that acknowledge a creator God each have beliefs, traditions, and rituals that helps guide them towards God. Some say their way is straighter, while others say theirs is the only way. If one does view religion as a hand pointing toward the Divine they are essentially saying that God is found in one direction only, but by saying He is best found one way negates all the others. God is found to the left, not the right; he is found up and not down. This is when the attribute of Omnipresence invaded my thoughts.

[Excerpt from Wikipedia]

"Omnipresence is the property of being present everywhere. According to eastern theism, God is present everywhere.

In western theism "Omnipresence" is explained in a bit unclear way with just the ability to be present in every place at any, and/or every, time..."

I believe this is one of the major differences between Western and Eastern religions. Although, in the West, God has the ability to be everywhere but He is only found in certain pockets, hymns, and prayers. God is not found amongst the unbelievers, the sinners nor in the secular and progressive world. God is only found in one direction, the direction that YOU believe in. But, He is not found in this direction just because you believe in it, he is found in this direction because your religion's scripture, traditions, and rituals instruct you into only looking into one direction. Any other direction will fail in leading you towards the Divine, but by limiting oneself, locking your eyes into place, you limit the growth of your spiritual journey. I'm not saying that you must believe in every belief known to Man, but I do not believe that God can be contained to a single interpretation (description). I am not trying to persuade anyone that their beliefs are false but you can enrich your spiritual life when you come to understand what your brother believes.

I've said before that this suffocation/entrapment of God is why I left Christianity, and now I take that statement back. I have not left Christianity but I've chosen to expand my spirituality beyond Christianity to grow and flourish among other religious and non-religious beliefs and practices. It will always be a part of me but I don't think I'll ever hold myself to exclusively one religious tradition. I expose myself to other beliefs so that I may experience and embrace the Spirit. Some may say I'm just "covering the bases" and praying to every god to firmly establish myself a place in Paradise/Afterlife/Heaven/Moksha. I am just opening my eyes so that I may "see in all directions at the same time" (Death Cab for Cutie reference. If you don't get it, don't worry.).

So, at least for me, the hand (representing religion) must point in all directions simultaneously because God can be found in all directions that follows in the spirit of love. Now, am I "limiting" God because I say that God can be found in all directions that promote love towards your fellow man? Some would say yes but I am describing a Creator God, and even that description is pointless! In fact all descriptions, theories (theology), titles, and names are ALL MAN MADE. When we open our mouths and even say the word "God", the word is just a title, a description based on a human language pronounced and spoken with human tongues. A chair is called a chair because WE NAMED IT a chair. It's function, name, and everything associated with the word "chair" have all been assigned by humans.

Religion is the vehicle, the language we use when we speak of the Divine. Religion does not need to be defended because it is just a series of symbols. What those symbols represent to those that use them is what should be sacred and NOT the symbol itself. Let us take care to understand what our brother's symbols represent and what it means to them. I'm not speaking about being politically correct but to try and learn from one another. Even if we argue as to which symbols best represents the Divine we can at least acknowledge the eternal truths that those symbols represent. Love, Compassion, and Justice.

Psalm 139:7-10 (New International Version)

7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,

10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.