Thursday, April 2, 2009

"Ancestral traditions, coeval with time" (Prisca Theologia, Part Two)

All religions change over time, and new religions do in fact appear and take hold. Cases like that of the cult of Pan in Athens after the Battle of Marathon, the cult of Magna Mater in Rome, and that of the modern day cult of Santoshi Maa, all show how "new" religious traditions can arise in a way that is consistent with (and can even reinforce) already existing traditions. But why is it that this deference to tradition is insisted upon - especially in the face of the fact that "tradition" is itself far from static and unchanging?

The idea of Religion as inherently and necessarily old is a compelling one. Religions, after all, presuppose a relationship between the human and the Divine. The idea that this relationship has begun only recently makes little sense. If the Gods are interested in communicating with and helping human beings, then They should have been doing so all along. It also makes no sense to think of this relationship as going through abrupt changes, much less reversals. The idea that the Gods teach human beings first one thing, and then change Their minds and teach something else is internally incoherent - it would be (and consistently has been) rejected out of hand by anyone who accepts the premise that the Gods are interested in and capable of teaching us in the first place.

So the notion of any completely and utterly new religion is unreasonable. It would, at least implicitly, assert that the Gods have been either wrong or silent up to a certain point, and then either changed their minds and finally got it right, or went through a change of heart and finally decided to let humans in on what the deal is. All religions at least tacitly accept this constraint - they all seek to locate themselves in the broad sweep of the history of humanity and the cosmos. The most common strategy, to speak crudely, is like that seen with Pan, Cybele, and Santoshi Maa: to defer to tradition and to assert that the "new" teaching being proposed/revealed is confluent with already existing tradition.

But isn't there a possible alternative strategy for the introduction of a new religion? Namely, to proclaim that currently existing religions are wrong and must now be abandoned in favor of the proposed new religion? The error, naturally, is not that of the Gods, but of humanity, who have taken a wrong turn (through no fault of the Divine!) somewhere along the line, but are now being set straight thanks to Divine benevolence. Many people might assume that this is the strategy of, for example, Christianity. The problem, though, is that Jesus, at least so far as we can tell, never proposed any such thing. He was born, lived and died an observant Jew - and he certainly never, ever, intimated anything along the lines of abandoning Judaism.

But even though Jesus obviously, and emphatically, did not preach a radical break with the past, this is precisely what his followers, if that is what they were, eventually proposed. Somewhere between Jesus and Constantine a dramatic shift took place: a reform movement within Judaism morphed into a completely new religion, opposed both to Judaism and to all other religions.

By the mid-fourth century, Christianity had not only made the transition to presenting itself to the world as a "new" religion distinct from Judaism, but it was also being aggressively "promoted" (putting it nicely) by the Roman State. Christianity still claimed validity based on Jewish prophecies (and many Christians continue to make such claims to the present day), but as it "spread" (again, this is a very nice way of putting it), it was found that reliance on Jewish scripture alone was not sufficient. Gradually a new theory was put forward by Eusebius, Augustine, Orosius and others - a theory that sought historical validation of Christianity based on the dominant Hellenistic culture of the Roman Empire, and especially the most intellectually prestigious aspect of that culture, Greek philosophy.

The Christians (predictably) faced accusations that they were making precisely the kind of nonsensical claims that we have already talked about: that if in fact their religion was true while all others are false, then their "God" had been inexplicably negligent in waiting so long to reveal the truth! To counter this the Christians put forward the idea that came to be associated with the Latin phrase: Preparatio Evangelica ("Preparation for the Gospel). According to this theory all of human history, leading up to the birth of Jesus, had been "all part of God's plan" for preparing the way, so to speak, for (finally!) revealing the truth (that is, the truth according to the Christian religion).

Eusebius of Caesarea (c.263 - c.339) wrote the first real history of the Christian religion, a biography of the Emperor Constantine, books of Biblical exegesis, a universal history of humanity, and many other works, including a whole book devoted to the subject of Preparatio Evangelica. A good idea of what Eusebius was up to can be gleaned from some of the titles for sections of his book:

Character of the cosmogony of the Greeks
Philosophers' opinions concerning the system of the universe
Why we rejected the opinions of the Greeks concerning the gods
What Plato thought of the theology of the ancients
On the Ideas in Plato
On the first successors of Plato
On the philosophy of Aristotle, and his personal history
On the Stoic philosophy, and the account of First Principles as rendered by Zeno
Numenius the Pythagorean philosopher concerning the Jews

Whew! In fact, there is much, much more. Eusebius drags in the Egyptians, Phoenicians and other "barbarians" as well as, naturally, the Hebrews.

The bottom line here is that even though Christians proposed to do nothing less than replace all existing religions with their own, they nevertheless were still forced to try to justify and validate themselves in the usual way - to show that what they were doing, if only looked at from the proper perspective, could be seen as a natural progression from all that had come before!

Early in the fifth century (410 AD - about 70 years after Eusebius died) the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. One of the central tenets of the whole Preparatio Evangelica idea had been that God had, in fact, created the Roman Empire for the express purpose of spreading the Gospel. But now the very capital of the Empire had not only been overrun - but the people who did it were .... Christians! Rome was also a center of Pagan resistance to Christianization, and the Church now faced a chorus of rancor from those who "began to blaspheme against the true God more ferociously and bitterly than before," - or at least that's how it looked to Augustine of Hippo, who, in response, composed his most famous work, The City of God: Against the Pagans.

City of God was a massive literary effort aimed to establish the intellectual credentials, indeed, superiority, of Christendom in the face of a culturally entrenched Paganism composed of people "who were not isolated die-hards," but who were, rather, "the center of a wide intelligentsia," according to Peter Brown, a leading scholar of late antiquity who further states (in his biography Augusine of Hippo): "Quite bluntly, the Pagans were the 'wise' men, the 'experts', prudentes, and Christians were 'stupid'." And so Augustine churned out a Juggernaut of literary allusions and "cumulus clouds of erudition." He paid special attention to aligning Christianity with Greek philosophy and Platonism in particular (with Christianity, naturally, portrayed as building on and far surpassing what had come before). In terms of impact, Augustine succeeded so well that his distorted Christianizing "analysis" of Pagan philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Plotinus and Porphyry is still strangely influential among scholars of late antique philosophy.

Augustine's City of God, then, is yet another example of the need for Christianity to explain itself in the same basic way that religions had always explained themselves. Christians sought to claim a continuity with the past, in the same way that previously introduced religious innovations had claimed such continuity. The rather obvious difference being that where all previous examples of this phenomenon had merely added a new wrinkle to the richly textured fabric of religious diversity, the Christians undertook the extirpation of all other (that is, all previous) religious traditions whatsoever, while still claiming continuity with the past.

A question of attitude (Prisca Theologia, Part One)

What is it that all religions have in common? It should be noted that this is not a new question at all. In the ancient "known world" of the oikoumene (Europe, North Africa, the Middle East - and even India), there were hundreds if not thousands of religions existing more or less peacefully side by side. Religious tolerance wasn't really given much thought back then, it was just a basic fact of life - an absolute necessity in a world with such a rich diversity of religious traditions. Two excellent scholarly books that give a broad overview of this diversity and tolerance are Ramsay MacMullen's Paganism in the Roman Empire, and James B. Rives' Religion in the Roman Empire.

Human nature being what it is, though, there were going to be people who weren't satisfied with just choosing from what was already available. What was the attitude to those who sought to proclaim some "new" revelation from the Gods? Was this to be tolerated as well? The answer, it turns out, was a qualified "no".

A simple criterion was used to distinguish between those religions which were genuine - that is, genuinely of Divine origin - as opposed to those false "religions" (not properly so called) which were simply the result of vain human imaginings. This criterion was age. The only true religions were the old ones - and the older the better.

The fact is, however, that what was really at issue was not the objective historical age of a given religious cult, practice, or belief. The real issue was one of attitude. New ideas, even new religions, could, and were, introduced and accepted - but this required the right attitude. The introduction of a new religion to replace the old ones was not welcomed - but if a new religion sought to take it's place, respectfully, among the already existing traditions, well, that could be arranged.

A recent example from Hinduism, the cult of the Goddess Santoshi Maa, shows how this works in practice. The precise origins of this Goddess are obscure. She appears to have been a "minor" Goddess worshipped only in remote, backwards rural areas of India. But in 1975 a film celebrating this humble village Goddess became a spiritual blockbuster. All across India, theaters showing the film Jai Santoshi Maa were turned into impromptu Hindu Temples - audience members would leave their shoes outside the theater, burn incense, toss flowers at the screen and bow reverently every time the Goddess appeared.

In a sense, Santoshi Maa was a "new" Goddess, and her cult a "new" phenomenon. But Santoshi Maa fit in with the previously existing Hindu Deities and practices. The Goddess' father is Ganesha, one of the most beloved (and ancient) of the Hindu Gods. A key role is played, in the movie plot, by Narada, a legendary Hindu sage and devotee of the God Vishnu. Many other important, and ancient, Gods and Goddesses are also prominent in the film, as are traditional Hindu devotional practices such as aarti. And so the worship of Santoshi Maa was able to take it's place alongside the already dizzying variety of religious traditions in the Hindu family. More than three decades after the film first came out, Santoshi Maa continues to be widely revered by Hindus, and even non-Hindus.

Robert Parker, devotes chapter 5 of his book Athenian Religion: A History, to discussing both "new" and "foriegn" Gods and how they took their place in the hearts and minds of pious Athenian Pagans, alongside the Olympian Goddesses and Gods. One interesting case that Parker discusses is that of the God Pan, who, not unlike Santoshi Maa, had been only a "minor" God prior to the Battle of Marathon, in 490 BC. But the Athenians attributed their famous triumph over the Persians (who had vastly outnumbered the Greeks) in that battle to Pan's intervention on their behalf, and his cult subsequently underwent a significant upgrade, so to speak. The Athenians even sought out and found an already existing natural cave under the Acropolis, and dedicated this cave to Him - for no Temple made by human hands was suitable for this most wild of Nature Gods.

Herodotus is the source for the story of Pan's role in the Battle of Marathon. In his Inquiries he tells the story of the runner, Pheidipiddes, whom the Athenians had sent out, in vain, to ask the Spartans to send reinforcements. While running back from Sparta with the bad news, through Pan's ancestral homeland, the sparsely populated land of Arcadia that lies between Athens and Sparta:

"According to the account he gave the Athenians on his return, Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mount Parthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides's story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection." [Inquiries, 105-106]

Let's look at one final case - if for no other reason than to show that those of Pan and Santoshi Maa are not isolated anomalies. When the Romans found themselves in something of a bind during their wars with Carthage in the year 204 BC, they looked to the Sybilline Books for Divine guidance. These books contained ancient enigmatic prophecies as well as various recommendations for religious observances. On this occassion the recommended action was to bring an image of the Asian (Phrygian) Goddess Cybele to Rome, and establish Her cult in that city, where She was honored as Magna Mater, "Great Mother". The foreign Goddess' cult took firm root and flourished in Rome for centuries to come. For example, Cybele was praised by the Emperor Julian in 362 AD in his "Oration to the Mother of the Gods". The story of the introduction of the cult of Cybele to Rome is recounted at some length in Lynn Roller's book In Search of God the Mother.

The important thing about the cult of Magna Mater in Rome is that it was introduced in accordance with ancient tradition. In fact Her presence in the city was demanded by the hoariest of ancient authorities: The Sibylline Books. These sacred books were already centuries old in 204 BC, and they were viewed as a direct connection to the mythical past of Rome. It was believed that they had been brought to the city by the seventh and last of the legendary Kings of Rome, the first of whom had been Romulus himself. This was a case in which the introduction of a new, foreign Goddess actually reinforced the centrality and authority of ancient religious traditions!

OM: Restarting this old blog

OK, I'm restarting this old blog. We'll see how long it lasts. Mostly it will be a place for rambling diatribes concerning Buddhism, Paganism, philosophy, and Gods know what else.

The logo for this blog is the Tamil version of "OM" - in addition to the usual associations with that sacred syllable the Tamil version is especially associated with Shiva's other son (besides Ganesh), Karttikeya. One version of His story is that Karttikeya's mother is the River Ganges, another is that He has six mothers - the Krittikas (stars of the Pleiades).

Here's a short and simple version of Karttikeya's story.

Here's a more involved version, showing Murugan's (Karttikeya's) Yantra featuring the Tamil OM in the center.

The cool pic is from