Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Religion and authenticity

posted by Rod Dreher

As I’ve said before, if you are an intellectually serious and culturally engaged Christian, you really should subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. There is nothing else like it. I have been a subscriber for a few years now, and I keep all the episodes archived on my iPod. They’re so deep and rich that I find myself listening again and again to old interviews, drawing new insights from them. This morning on the way to work I heard again a 2005 interview Ken Myers did with Catherine Edwards Sanders about her (then new) book, “Wicca’s Charms,” which is about the spiritual hunger and cultural realities driving the growing popularity of neopaganism.
Introducing the interview, Myers observed that many people attracted to Wicca report that they’ve been drawn by its “authenticity,” meaning it feels more real to them than traditional, established religions. In the interview, Myers and Sanders discuss this, and how our age of do-it-yourself religion has quite naturally made space for a new, DIY faith like Wicca. In his preliminary remarks, Myers dwells on the use of the word “authenticity,” and how it used to refer to something that was “authenticatable” — this, with reference to its history, its provenance, or some set of standards. This rug is an authentic Afghan rug, for example, because we can prove it was made in Afghanistan, by Afghan artisans; this rug that looks just like it is not authentic, because we can prove it was made in a factory in Schenectady. The point is, we have a way of testing the authenticity of the thing — and this has long been true for religion.
This is why it matters who gets to say what Catholicism (for example) is, and is not; if there is no way to authenticate Catholicism, then there’s no way to determine which is the truthful, authentic version from the counterfeits. This is also why the “Catholicism is whatever I say it is, and nobody can tell me otherwise” people are so dangerous, at least to those who take Catholicism seriously, and who would like to preserve its integrity to pass on to their children. Imagine saying that “money is whatever I say it is, and nobody can tell me any different.” If enough people believed that, commerce would cease, because nobody could tell what was authentic and what was fake — this, because the idea of authenticity would have been radically subjectivized, which is to say, completely denied.
Here’s Myers, from the interview, talking about how modernity has turned the word “authentic,” and the concept of authenticity, inside-out, at least when it comes to religion:

[In] the 1985 book “Habits of the Heart” … sociologist Robert Bellah memorably described a woman named Sheilah, who described her religious beliefs and practices as “Sheilah-ism”. … Today, authentic means something much more subjective. The individual self and its distinctive desires are the only proper source of authentication. So people can say that Christianity doesn’t seem authentic to them, that it feels phony or counterfeit, not because its origins are dubious, but because it feels foreign. It’s curious that ‘authentic’ used to imply some external authority, but today, “authenticity” is used to justify the infallibility of the self.

The question of authenticity depends on authority. A friend and I last night were talking about authority and the Catholic Church, and he made the important point that authority only has meaning if it has been accepted by the people. What we see among many, many Catholics today is a rejection of traditional Catholic teaching about authority, and the installment of the subjective individual as one’s own Magisterium. These are the times we live in: the essence of modernity, or at least one essence of modernity, is the radical exaltation of the Self. Yet my friend is certainly correct: authority, even external authority, means nothing if it is not inwardly appropriated, and furthermore, if that inward appropriation is not shared by others. A revealed, dogmatic religion like Roman Catholicism will have a very difficult time in conditions of modernity, precisely because we are all conditioned to think in terms of the Self as the final arbiter of truth. To exist in proper relationship with the Truth, I believe, requires passionate inward appropriation of external, objective realities. The key point is faith that there is a such thing as religious truth independent of my own subjective judgment. If people don’t believe that, I don’t see how a religion like Christianity is sustainable over the long term, at least not in any meaningful sense.



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Peter

posted July 20, 2010 at 1:43 pm


What we see among many, many Catholics today is a rejection of traditional Catholic teaching about authority, and the installment of the subjective individual as one’s own Magisterium. These are the times we live in: the essence of modernity, or at least one essence of modernity, is the radical exaltation of the Self.
Or an utter failure of the Magisterium. While it’s fine to say, “if you don’t accept authority, get out,” that does nothing to encourage the authority to change or reform. The problems Catholics have with the Vatican have less to do with accepting the authority of the historic and spiritual ideal, but with the reality they are dealt. Corruption unabated and unchallenged because one must accept authority.
Authority survives in the Orthodox church largely because it’s power is among people who tolerate totalitarianism in their governments and therefore accept authority unchallenged. This is why the Catholic church flourishes in the Third World.
But when people are willing to challenge corruption and question power, that’s when authority-based faith traditions begin to crumble. It’s why Orthodox Judaism is so tiny, why the Orthodox church in the West is so small and struggling outside of the “neoOrthodox” converts. It’s why the Catholic church struggles.
Modernism gives people the ability to question authority and hold it accountable. That’s why the Vatican is so concerned, because it may finally be held accountable.



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Rombald

posted July 20, 2010 at 1:43 pm


Religions that have magisteria generally have a history of close entanglement with temporal power; Catholicism is the obvious example. Once the magisterium loses the backing of temporal sanctions, it gets taken less seriously.
If I were to claim to be Muslim, without any change in belief or lifestyle, I would run the risk of being murdered. If I were to claim to be Catholic, I would be mocked and reviled. If I were to claim to be Christian, Buddhist or Hindu, nobody would care.
If you want a serious magisterium, you have to argue for it having fists and guns at command.



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Romulus

posted July 20, 2010 at 1:43 pm


The question of authenticity depends on authority.
And the question of authority depends on authorship.



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Richard M

posted July 20, 2010 at 1:59 pm


Hello Rod,
Well said.
I had the same reaction to the Pierce piece as well. Solipsism indeed.
Hello Rombold,
“Religions that have magisteria generally have a history of close entanglement with temporal power; Catholicism is the obvious example.”
Actually, Orthodoxy is the obvious example; but I recognize that for most Americans, there is much greater familiarity with the Catholic Church.
The Church certainly still favors confessional states, at least in theory; and it is also true that this has not always been as beneficial to the Church as expected. But it is also true that the Church has managed to flourish in some places where it has not had state protection, the United States being the most obvious example. Likewise Poland for much of its modern history. And well, the Roman Empire pre-Constantine.
Otherwise, I expect lots of traditionalists would agree with you.



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SolInvictus

posted July 20, 2010 at 2:06 pm


Wicca is in the same position as Christianity when it comes to authenticity – you have some dubious traditions, some books written long after the “facts” and a variety of salesman for different interpretations of those books. Given how much Christianity has quietly pilfered from older religions, it’s quite ridiculous to hear Christians accusing others of inauthenticity. Face it – Christianity is simply a Jewish heresy with some Mithraism, some symbolic cannibalism, and a whole bunch of power cult priests thrown in.



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Richard M

posted July 20, 2010 at 2:09 pm


Hello Peter,
“Modernism gives people the ability to question authority and hold it accountable.” I think you mean “modernity.” Or maybe not: “Modernism,” at least to this Catholic, brings to mind what Pope St. Pius X condemned as “the synthesis of all heresies” in 1908.
I am not sure I accept your theory, since there are too many counter-examples in Church history that require explanation – I mentioned a couple just now to Rombold, namely the Church in the U.S. and Poland, where it flourished despite being under regimes that were at best indifferent or at worst hostile to the Catholicism, and where the Catholic population was not exactly reticent about challenging or questioning those secular authorities. Perhaps the real question is whether it is possible to have an informed, mature receptivity to the teaching of authority but not its abuses.
There is also a rich irony when I consider the lot of Catholic traditionalists, who arguably have, over the last four decades, the most adversarial relationship with episcopal authority in the U.S. and Europe of any group I can think of – all this while being the most dogmatic.
We live in interesting times.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 2:10 pm


Some sources for clarification. I leave the reader to do searches and find citations. They are plentiful and varied.
Wicca currently is diverse (in large part to the DIY aspect, which I’ll address later), but in general it all harkens back to Gerald Gardner, a member of The Golden Dawn (see also Aleister Crowley). His first putsch came shortly after England repealed the last of the witchcraft laws remaining on its books.
Modern Paganism in general can be characterized as “experiential”. It is validly open to the epithetical criticism of “do it yourself”, but not for the reasons implied in Rod’s post. It doesn’t stand in opposition to “revealed” faith (referring to the authoritative aspects, especially a holy text), but as a path on which the individual can find and apply those symbol sets that make the most sense. It should be noted, too, that while Wicca and Druidism are the most high-profile of the modern Paganisms, they remain in a minority compared to the majority who are (esoteric reference) “solitary” in their spirituality. Solitaries prefer to not affiliate with an authoritative traditions. With this comparison, one may logically conclude that Wicca is more in the Abrahamic traditions’ authoritative camp than in the DIY camp.
Excellent general references:
Historical contexts — A Pagan History of Europe, Prudence Jones and Nigel Pennick (Barnes & Noble).
Overview of modern Paganisms: — Drawing Down the Moon, Margot Adler (the NPR journalist).



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 2:17 pm


The counterpoint to SolInvictus’ critique: Syncretism and assimilation are better explanations than theft in the vast majority of cases. Some Pagan states converted only after their leader(s) found it more profitable than economic or military conquest. Many stories of oppression and forced conversion had those ex-Pagan leaders as the culprits, not the Christian missionaries they invited in after their conversion. Indeed, local syncretism was routinely opposed by Christian clerics, for all the good it did them. ;-)



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Cannoneo

posted July 20, 2010 at 2:37 pm


Conservatives always want to blame the hippies for individualistic religion. Actually it was the evangelicals all along, going back at least to the Second Great Awakening and Charles G. Finney’s “doctrine of faith as a present experience,” i.e. an involuntary emotional surge. The 19th century, not the 60s, was the era when “authenticity” became about “what the heart knows.”
But more to the point, I don’t see how you can equate dogma, no matter how many centuries of tradition lie behind it, with “objective reality.” E.g., I don’t see how one can experience transubstantiation as reality; to “believe” in it is an affectation, an attempt to project (even to yourself) an aspect of your identity you feel is very important. It is inauthentic, compared to the beliefs about “objective reality” (oncoming traffic, e.g.) that we cannot but act upon.



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Rod Dreher

posted July 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm


Conservatives always want to blame the hippies for individualistic religion.
Not me. I blame the Enlightenment, and before that, the Reformation.
For Catholics who actually believe what the Church teaches, dogma is reality. It’s a statement about metaphysical reality, not an expression of what the Church thinks might be true. You may believe this is nonsense, but that’s the way the Church understands itself.



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JS

posted July 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm


“What we see among many, many Catholics today is a rejection of traditional Catholic teaching about authority, and the installment of the subjective individual as one’s own Magisterium.”
Who was it that said “In America even the Catholics are Protestants”?



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CAP

posted July 20, 2010 at 3:02 pm


i once had a conservative pastor tell me once that he didn’t need or want to hear people telling him ‘god says you should ..’ or ‘god has told me to tell you ..’. “i don’t need people telling me what god wants me to do. he can tell me himself. he knows where to find me” he said.
and this was said in reference to tv preachers and evangelical protestants, not some institutional church hierarchy. so the rejection of ‘authority’ is not some new-age mushiness or god-lite. it is one of foundational tenets of protestantism. and to push the idea that a reasoned skepticism of a worldly authority over our relationship with god is somehow dangerous, or some kind of wishy-washy moral hedge, is an attack on protestantism itself.



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the stupid Chris

posted July 20, 2010 at 3:25 pm


You seem to be rehashing is the western conflict between the Protestant reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. But both sides in that one fundamentally misunderstand the nature of authority within the Church, often confusing it with temporal authority which is coerced, sometimes by force-of-arms.
Within the Church authority exists only to the extent that one reflects the presence of God. It does not reside in any office or seat. We give deference to those to whom we have previously declared “Axios” but also withdraw that deference when they stray. And authority is submitted to voluntarily, we “bend our necks” not because we are being forced, but because we recognize the presence of the Holy One. We cry “Axios” not out of coercion but out of revelation.
The Church has had many Councils, attended by great numbers of Bishops, Metropolitans, Patriarchs and even Emperors, yet only 7 have been granted the authority of being called “Ecumenical” by the whole Church. That is, only 7 were deemed to properly reflect the presence of God in the Church.
But many Councils have been rejected by the Church, some quite famously and totally rejected.
So Authority is not a matter of “who’s in charge” so much as “who is properly reflecting God.” And that reflection is not self-declared by any officer or group of officers, but by the assent of the entire Church.
When it comes to the state of the Catholic Church today, many of the faithful have determined that their hierarchs don’t reflect God. That’s true from left-to-right, from old-to-new. In such a milieu, that the faithful resist being kicked out of the church by their hierarchs seems appropriate. The day will come when the faithful of that Church will again be led by good and faithful hierarchs, but if they all leave where will those leaders come from?



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the stupid Chris

posted July 20, 2010 at 3:27 pm


By the way, all that bloviating above was simply to give background for where I come from on this issue.
Authority comes from God, we assent to it when we recognize Him, and don’t when we don’t.



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Randy G.

posted July 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm


I find an interesting aspect of Christian authenticity in my use of THE CELTIC BOOK OF DAILY PRAYER, published by the Northumbria Community in Britain.
I fit Celtic Christianity into the Reformed faith I grew up in and still inhabit. But I find that Celtic expressions of faith seem more “authentic” than many in that they are both thoroughly Trinitarian and are aware of the significance of “place”. By that I mean that Celtic Christian expressions as I have known them are resistant to the high-flying rationalism, gnosticism or other ways of turning theology into mere ideas or beliefs.
I know all of this needs to be carefully qualified and that of late Celtic expressions of all sorts have become far too fadish. But this has been my experience using this book for individual devotions and group expressions of faith. I picked some of this up from reading Madeliene L’Engle for thirty years.
Peace,
Randy G.



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Charles Cosimano

posted July 20, 2010 at 3:36 pm


JS, it was Andrew Greeley who said it sometime in the early 1970s I believe.
As far as authenticity is concerned, the notion that the teachings of the Catholic Church are as authentic as the manufacturer of a rug is nonsensical on its face and a truly bizarre argument. The manufacturer is an objective, physical reality. Belief does not enter into the matter. The teachings of Catholicism, or any other religion for that matter, are totally subjective in that they cannot be objectively, physically proven (do a chemical analysis on the Host after it is blessed and see if it changes). At some level, belief is required, even if it is the belief of the promulgators accepted by the faithful. Therefore the dogma of the Catholic Church may very well be regarded as truth by those who accept it, but they should not be so foolish as to think that it matters to anyone else.
The genius of our age is that the knowledge that everyone is his own ultimate authority on spiritual matters, and that the postman may very well know more about God than any Pope could ever hope to learn (and that probably is the way to bet). We do not think we are the ultimate authority, we KNOW we are.



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Pat

posted July 20, 2010 at 3:53 pm


I can’t access that podcast, but I’ve read other boks on the appeal of wicca and paganism. One big part of it that is always mentioned is that wicca takes the holiness of nature seriously. In contrast, many people who are attracted by wicca percieve christianity as being concerned only about human beings.
Imagine someone who feels strongly that nature is holy and that god speaks through it. To stick with a religion that largely ignores the holiness of nature, that person would have to lie to others, if not also to themself, about what they thought was holy and where they found god. That would be inauthentic. And no authority can tell people what they truly feel is holy. To think it can is to make a big mistake about our ability to control our own beliefs and values, and to privilege the abstract propositions of dogma over the lived experience of the individual.
It is hard to run an institutional religion based on dogma when your members demand fidelity to their lived experience, that is true. But I think religion, like everything else, is more likely to survive if it is based on real experiences rather than stories nobody dares (or cares) to question. What you see as a dismantling of authority-based church, I see as a new broom sweeping out the dogmas that do not adequately describe peoples’ experiences of god – and good riddance to them!



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Douglas Bilodeau

posted July 20, 2010 at 4:27 pm


God acts in the world. That is the Judeo-Christian presumption since Moses on Sinai. God-confronting-us is an inescapable reality — portrayed as literally inescapable in the story of Jonah. Also of Saul on the Damascus road. In a sense, Christian authority is ultimately subjective, but it is not a whimsical, playful subjectivity. Conviction is the conscious inner knowledge of a soul which has been convicted by Spirit. It is (at first) not set free but constrained by this knowledge. An ecclesiastical authority may derive itself from a tradition which sums up the subjective experience and objective actions of countless individuals and small communities which have been touched by God’s self-revelation. But an Ecclesia as hierarchy can lose touch with that core tradition and put in its place a mere organizational fiat. In that case, the Spirit has to break through elsewhere – hence the Reformation and more recently various Great Awakenings and the Charismatic movement, inevitable for all their faults.



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tscott

posted July 20, 2010 at 4:35 pm


I totally agree with the stupid Chris.
Now Rod is placing authority within the church. So am I. However, “I do tell you that in what place soever, by what means soever….two or three faithful people do arise, separating themselves from the world into the fellowship of the Gospel and the covenant of Abraham, they are a church, truly gathered, though never so weak.” John Robinson to James I, 1616.
And the Protestant principle stands- stated philosophically it warns against absolutizing the relative. Stated theologically it warns against idolatry. The human tendency to absolutize the relative is universal. Many, many Protestants have idolized through bibliolatry.
As many a bible study, class, Wednesday night gathering, summer camp- fire group, parachurch coffeehouse, et. al., can attest, this “presence of the Holy One” can be highly experiential( it is so true, Franklin Evans).
But you must agree, “for where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am in their midst”. And as Chris says, authority comes from Him.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 20, 2010 at 4:45 pm


I come from a perspective which is much more Vedantic than probably anyone else here, even in the way I understand Christianity, and so for me the matter of authenticity and self is much more complex and interesting than what Rod’s put out here. The Vedantic concept of God is that the true, real God is the “Self” of all beings. This is not the same as the egoic individuated self or the mind thereof, so in one sense we can both agree that the ego’s desire to have the world, or even God, conform to the ego’s conception of things is a delusional one. But in the greater sense, it’s also a point of view that says that true authenticity comes from the Self, from the true and deepest heart of us all, and that to find an authentic religious path, we must look deeply into our own heart. This does not go against tradition, this actually is the tradition of Vedanta. That is why Hinduism is such a multi-facted and complex set of paths and teachings. There is no one single “authentic path”. All paths are considered authentic if they come from the heart.
The problem is that many people might think they are coming from the heart, but in fact are coming from the mind or the ego or some delusional bit of desiring personal tendencies. On the other hand, it’s also true that everyone’s path is at least slightly different, and this has to do with our own particular qualities, karmas, inclinations, character, and of course born circumstance and culture. Finding what makes these things authentic, and rejecting what is inauthentic, is a high art form, and no one quite knows precisely how it’s done, we all just have to feel into it.
This is certainly true of Rod, who has clearly wandered about quite a bit trying to find a religious view and path that suits his own need for authenticity. I’m not sure how someone how lives in a glass house can throw so many stones, but that’s his business, literally, I guess. We can always laugh at the guy who centers his religion around himself, but in the end, that’s what we all do anyway. The real question is, what is our real and authentic Self?
An orthodox Christian may claim that they are merely submitting to the authenticity of the Church, but they are clearly making a determination in their own heart that the authenticity of the Church is genuine, and if they felt it wasn’t, they’d probably look elsewhere. In the end, all claims of authenticity get resolved in our own self-space, and we are all a lot more like a Wiccan or a “Sheilah-ist” than we’d like to think. We just tend not to be quite so idiosyncratic as that. But nothing really prevents idiosyncratic religious views from being authentic. It really depends on how deeply they are rooted in the heart. Even a recently invented new-age religion like Wicca can be authentic, and it’s claims of past tradition are no different from the Jewish claims of authenticity, much of which was actually just invented by literary writers of the OT to create a false history that could justify Jewish claims to land in the Middle East during periods in which they were dominated by stronger empires and wished to create a powerful national myth to rally around.
Most claims of historical or traditional authenticity should be regarded with deep suspicion. Even more so than the idiosyncretic claims of individualists.



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the stupid Chris

posted July 20, 2010 at 5:08 pm


I totally agree with the stupid Chris.
Not to be contrarian, but maybe not so much as you think. “Two or three” are sufficient for worship, but to be Church you need the entire community of believers, and all the various functioning members therein.
1 Corinthians 12 speaks clearly to this…and that some are given great authority over the Church.
We are unfortunate to live at a time when the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has been terribly compromised by its own acts. One prays that new leadership may rise up from the faithful who refuse assent to the authority of such miscreants.



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Cecelia

posted July 20, 2010 at 5:09 pm


Interesting comments – I very much agree that the emphasis on the experience of the individual as being the ultimate test or reality does date back to the reformation and the modern era. And yeah – it was Greeley – I heard him speak once and he used the phrase Irish Catholic Protestants. The point being that even Catholics have adapted the worldview of their times. Greeley will state that this happened because adapting the “protestant” norms was the only way for Catholics to succeed but they lost their culture in so gaining this success.
I think a lot of our notions about individualism are delusions – in that they are dependent upon peace and plenty. Or at least a powerful state apparatus that can assure relative safety and the energy to distribute goods. If we had to struggle harder to meet the basic necessities – food, shelter etc. and if we faced daily threats from beasts and wandering hordes there would be a lot less room for individualism and people would return to more communal ways of understanding their world. In that sense individualism is no more authentic or real than any other worldview – like any worldview or philosophy it is highly dependent on the context in which people live.
The irony I think with all this insistence on rejecting authority and placing the individual as the primary and authentic interpreter of reality is that we live in a society full of sheep – bleating away about their individualism while they follow the herd right off the cliff.



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Dan O.

posted July 20, 2010 at 5:27 pm


What of Armstrong’s argument, that commitment (and not belief) was what was required of the faithful before the enlightenment?
It range true to me. It’s pretty clear that belief is not under one’s direct control. One does not decide to believe. James says we can do so by making other commitments (i.e. indirectly). So the concept of allowing authority to distribute one’s credence doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t make sense to say that we are our own Magisteriums, either. But it seems necessarily true that, in a way, we *have* our own magisteriums. It’s not up to us what we believe, but what we believe is up to something within ourselves. To say otherwise is really to mix up beliefs and maxims. One decides on the latter, not the former.
It seems to me that really submitting to authority in a way that may reliably effect beliefs requires a far more radical sacrifice to autonomy than most of us are willing to make.



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Richard M

posted July 20, 2010 at 5:47 pm


Pat said: “I see as a new broom sweeping out the dogmas that do not adequately describe peoples’ experiences of god – and good riddance to them!”
I might suggest that what many of them are experiencing is not, in fact, God.



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kenneth

posted July 20, 2010 at 5:56 pm


There’s a valid point in here about the dilemma of reconciling Catholic authority and Western ideals about the self. That said, using Sanders’ book as a launching point is roughly as valid as quoting Jack Chick on the true nature of Catholicism. It’s about that authoritative and accurate.
It is true that we act in a sense as our own Magisterium in Wicca, and more than that, our own priesthood. There is no laity and no spectators in our rituals. We have no use for popes and bishops and theologians because we can confer with out deities directly once a month, or pretty much at any time. I certainly don’t need any intermediary or translator in that process, particularly one who has a vested financial and power interest in me.
Sanders, like all modern witch hunters, concludes that our lack of dogmatic authority means we’re really just donning ren-faire garb to justify indulging our every whim. Yes, there are fools who come to us thinking “do what ye will” is a license for libertine excess. Those folks are invariably Christians who are just looking to have a bit of rebellion against their parents. Those of us who have been on the path for any amount of time accept a much greater sense of accountability for our own actions, and even our intentions. We know that we will reap the consequences of our choices both in this life and many more. No do-overs or indulgences or “giving the wheel to Jesus.”
I find my own revelations rarely, if ever tell me what I want to hear. They usually guide me toward the challenges I need, sometimes in rather harsh and unsubtle ways. If I wanted a “religion” that justified my every foolish whim, I wouldn’t waste my time with Wicca. I’d have stuck with secular humanism and the mindless consumerism that defines our society.



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Pat

posted July 20, 2010 at 6:25 pm


“I think a lot of our notions about individualism are delusions – in that they are dependent upon peace and plenty.”
Why would notions dependent on peace and plenty be any more delusions than notions dependent on misery and hardship?
In buddhism I have often come upon the notion that only when incarnated as a human can a person do the mental work required to attain enlightenment, and therefore one should not waste the precious opportunity. Perhaps peace and plenty represent similar opportunities to seek spiritual enlightenment. Ignoring what we can achieve during such times would make no more sense than refusing to eat during good times because there is no food during famines.
I do agree with you, though, that impoverished and miserable people are more prone to accept the authority of the church. They are less uppity.



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Pat

posted July 20, 2010 at 6:28 pm


“I might suggest that what many of them are experiencing is not, in fact, God”
I might suggest that about many of the people who created the dogmas, but where would it get us?



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Jon

posted July 20, 2010 at 7:13 pm


Re: Authority survives in the Orthodox church largely because it’s power is among people who tolerate totalitarianism in their governments and therefore accept authority unchallenged.
Actually the Orthodox Church has a rather different view of its own authority: to the extent it possesses such authority, it inheres in the whole Church, including the laity, not just in any one office or council. Should the bishops teach something the people do not accept (iconoclasm, acceptance of Roman doctrines, monothelitism are all historical examples) their teaching is not authoritative at all. This does not mean that the Church holds referrenda on God’s will, but it does create a check on any tendency toward episcopal autocracy.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 7:48 pm


In my experience, people who see Wicca (or most of the modern Paganisms, with notable exception) as libertine got their impression from Chick, a movie like “The Craft”, or a clerical sermon claiming that all non-Christian belief systems were (or are!) invented by Satan.
If anyone would like to learn about what Wiccans believe, read Margot Adler’s book’s chapter about Wicca (you can do so for free at most large bookstores), or better yet respectfully engage a Wiccan in conversation. Kenneth would be an excellent choice, for my money. In case there might be a reader not clear on this yet, I am not a Wiccan.
Broken Yogi, while it is true that Wicca is a modern innovation (early 1950s), I’m going to be only slightly paranoid about your (lowercase) usage of “new-age” as a descriptor. New Age (uppercase, no hyphen) is an entirely separate entity in every major respect (and quite a few minor ones), not the least of which is a very common rejection of dualism (everything is Light and Love). Wicca is as balanced as they come, and I include all of recorded human history in my bald assertion there. ;-)



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Broken Yogi

posted July 20, 2010 at 8:17 pm


“For Catholics who actually believe what the Church teaches, dogma is reality. It’s a statement about metaphysical reality, not an expression of what the Church thinks might be true. You may believe this is nonsense, but that’s the way the Church understands itself.”
But isn’t that the problem with it’s claim to authenticity? Church dogma once claimed the sun revolved around the earth. When this was found to be false, it created an obvious conflict between dogma and reality that the Church fought for centuries. Hence, the enlightenment view that one must use reason and observation to discover the nature of the universe, and not dogma. I don’t think that you, Rod, will argue that Church dogma supercedes reason and observation when it comes to the natural world. And since that is the case, it calls into serious doubt the whole project of dogma, and the authenticity of its views.
You are right that the enlightenment is to “blame” for this new view, which favors not individualism per se as much as the right (and even the necessity) of the individual to test dogma (or any ideas about how the universe works) against reason and observation. When dogma fails the test, the individual has not choice but to reject dogma and go with what is observably true.
This has had implication not merely in the realm of nature, but in the realm of spirit also. It has encouraged people to examine the spiritual dogmas of the Church, and test them against reason, experience, and observation, and see if they hold up. The problem of course is that such matters are relatively subjective, so each individual comes up with their own answers, based on their own experience and observation. The result is a spirituality which tries to ground itself in experience rather than dogma, and while this is fraught with difficulties, it can hardly be otherwise. Many people fail to find the spiritual results promised by dogma, and they do find results from other sources and paths, which they then either join up with or incorporate into their own spiritual epistemology of what is true and authentic, and what is not.



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Turmarion

posted July 20, 2010 at 8:37 pm


the stupid chris, excellent posts.
Broken Yogi, I’d add the following caveats:
1. Vedanta, which means “the end (in the sense of “goal”) of the Vedas” by its very name indicates the one thing traditionally considered non-negotiable in Hinduism–the authority (that “A” word!) of the Vedas. Hinduism may have a broader view of orthodoxy than Abrahamic religions have tended to, but it does indeed have a concept of orthodoxy and heresy which defined schools such as Buddhism, Jainism, and others out. Thus to say that there is no “authentic path” is not quite accurate.
2. You say, [Hinduism/Vedanta is] also a point of view that says that true authenticity comes from the Self, from the true and deepest heart of us all, and that to find an authentic religious path, we must look deeply into our own heart. (emphasis added)
Left as stated, this is obviously problematic, so to your credit you nuance it:
The problem is that many people might think they are coming from the heart, but in fact are coming from the mind or the ego or some delusional bit of desiring…. (emphasis added)
There is a saying in Hinduism (I think Huston Smith quoted it once, but I’m not sure) that if you’re unsure about a matter of religion, first you check with the family tradition; if that doesn’t answer it, you check with the scriptures; if that doesn’t work, you check the commentaries; if that doesn’t work you consult your guru; and only then, if none of these have satisfactorily spoken to the matter, do you “look within” to find your own solution.
The point is that contrary to Western conceptions of “the way of the heart” or “following one’s bliss”, Hinduism has a definite structure of checks and balances. A person has greater freedom to pursue his spiritual path than most Westerners in the sense that doing so has long been an accepted part of Hindu culture; but the majority of such seekers are not freelancers–they almost always find a guru to whom they become a disciple, and after many years of intense practice as sannyasins sometimes become gurus themselves.
But nothing really prevents idiosyncratic religious views from being authentic.
Even, say, Scientology or abusive cults? I’m sure you’d say that “bad” religions aren’t “coming from the heart”; but the practitioners thereof might beg to differ.
I think some of the themes here are similar to those on the Rowan Willams thread. How much is transcendent/objective, and how much is a human construct?
I think it’s a balance. Orthodoxy and institutionalism of any sort, without a lived, experiential faith is dead formalism; but religious experience with no framework runs the risk of becoming eccentric, bizarre, or dangerous. Think of doctrine and theology as the cup that holds the tea. It’s the tea that’s important, not the cup; but then again, you have to hold the tea in something!
In this regard, I’m sympathetic (in a carefully qualified way) to the Traditionalist School. While Traditionalists promote the concept of the Perennial Philosophy and thus see Divine truth in various religions, they see this truth as being more (or less) fully manifested in different situations, and tend to see the normative framework of traditional faiths as vital. To put it another way, they’d say that the esoteric heart of all religions is the same, but for all except perhaps a few spiritual geniuses this esoteric heart of spirituality must come in the vehicle of the exoteric framework of religion. To try to dispense with the vehicle is viewed as usually very dangerous.
Anyway, you make some valid points, but I’d tend to be much less sanguine about individualism in spirituality/religion.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 20, 2010 at 8:37 pm


FE,
I’m not trying to denigrate Wicca by describing it as “new age: (small case), which I think is a fair description of it. New age generally describes any modern spiritual path that is created by a modification and combination of traditional spiritual paths with modern sensibilities and freedoms. Wicca is certainly not a traditional path, being the creative fusion of both modernism and a number of pagan paths from around the world, mostly European, without much regard for its original cultural context. Modern druids, for example, have next to nothing to do with historical druids, in that we know next to nothing about what actual druids were like. Wicca merely takes certain appealing (to modernists) aspects of Pagan or nature religions from around the world, and melds them together into a coherent path and tradition that can still lay claim of a spiritual connection to these ancient traditions, without being bound by their cultural history and attitudes.
The result, I think, is certainly defensible as a legitimate, even authentic spiritual path, even if the claim that it represents a practicing linkage to these old traditions is a false one. And this is one of the problems with the notion of “authenticity”. For much of the world, a practicing linkage is the only genuine guarantee of authenticity, much like the Afghan rug analogy. We find this in Christianity of course with its claims about the Gospels and apostolic succession from Christ, in Buddhism with the supreme importance attached to lineages that can be traced to Buddha, and in Hinduism with its emphasis on a genuine linkage to the Vedas. However, the truth is that all religious traditions are inventive and evolutionary and there are sudden modifications and changes that are every bit as authentic as the original path.
In Buddhism for example we have the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, often attributed to some celestial being bringing new teachings into the world that Buddha had kept secret until a latter date (Vajradhatu), and in Hinduism we have examples of new Gods appearing even in the last few decades, such as Santosha, who Hindus in India began having visions of and creating images and icons for worship, and a whole path created around her. On a larger scale, the whole of modern Hinduism is in some sense a “new age” creation of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi and others, who are often called “neo-Vedantins” and “neo-Advaitists”, to distinquish them from the traditional path. The thing is, most Hindus are now pretty much neo-Vedantins, and the old school traditionalists are pretty marginal. So I see nothing wrong in principle with creating a new spiritual path out of some old traditions and giving them a modern sensibility, such as Wicca.
But most people use the term “new age” disparagingly, so I understand your suspicions. Very little of the new age, in my view, is actually non-dual, however, or only about “love and light”. Most recognize the dualistic nature of earthly life, just as Wicca does.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 20, 2010 at 10:16 pm


Turmarion,
Good points regarding Hinduism, but I don’t think you are acknowledging just how wide and liberal the Hindu path is. Buddhism, of example, is considered by most Hindus to be a form of Hinduism, regardless of how Buddhists might object. They consider Buddha (and Mahavira of Jainism) to be Avatars, enlightened beings, who taught a true and authentic version of the Vedantic path, even if in seeming opposition to aspects of it. It’s certainly not considered heresy, but is highly respected by Hindus. In fact, Hindus even consider Christianity to be a true and authentic path, and see Christ as an Avatar as well, and Christian teachings, even though not derived from the Vedas, to represent enough of a parallel path to be considered within the overall umbrella of the Vedantic tradition.
You make a good point that within Hinduism one doesn’t literally “do one’s own thing” generally – although that happens and is often sanctioned as well – but one choose a Guru and a learns from the scriptures, etc. But the choices available are simply immense. One can choose a bhakti guru, a yogi, a jnani, a karma yogi, a Saivite, a Vishnuvite, a dualist, a non-dualist, a Samkya, a tantric, any number of hundreds and thousands of deities or paths and subpaths and so on, virtually endlessly. There’s far more to choose from than there are options even in the western new age movement. And one can combine these things and have multiple gurus and multiple teachers and use some scriptures and not others and so on without even exhausting but a tiny portion of the possibilities.
Now, the difference between that and your typical westerner is that within Hinduism there’s actually long tradition even for this kind of spiritual seeking, and thus all kinds of disciplines and as you say, checks and balances that in the west aren’t well established. Westerners are just trying to figure this stuff out and don’t have thousands of years of liberal tradition to fall back on, and that makes for a lot of trouble sometimes. This is due to the monotheistism that dominates the West, and which tends to anathemitize even the slightest deviations from orthodoxy, creating conflict and even warfare over the kinds of things that in Hinduism are not only no big deal, but actually encouraged.
One of the checks and balances of Hinduism is, indeed, the scriptures, but here too there is no single orthodoxy, no scripture that has authority over all others, but a huge array of thousands of scriptures and teachings in all its traditions that can guide a person down any number of paths. Personal experience and the heart are indeed pointed to by most of these scriptures as a central aspect of the path, but they also provide a map, so to speak, to help one see when one is on the right track and when one goes off the track. People don’t even have to follow the map, but it’s used by others to authenticate individuals and their paths.
An example would be Ramakrishna, a young ecstatic mystic in the mid-19th century dumped by his family at a temple complex to live as a priestly assistant, who displayed what could only be called crazy and even heretical behavior in his worship of Kali. Expert gurus were brought in to evaluate the boy, and after much study they declared that he was an Avatar, an incarnation, and that his variations were divinely inspired and completely authentic. They proceeded to give him instruction in the traditional paths and scriptures, but they essentially bowed to his own inspired spiritual prowess and learned more from him than he did from them. The point is that they were able to use the scriptures, which are very liberal guides and not catechisms, to identify his spiritual realization as authentic, even though he was not himself trained in the scriptures or even much aware of what they taught.
Now, most people are not of that caliber, but any sincere spiritual seeker is expected to practice from the heart, and not merely from scripture, because that is what the scriptures instruct. So it’s a tradition that recognizes the limits of tradition, and points instead to the living process of religion rather than merely to tradition itself, for its own sake.
When I look at westerners struggling to find their own spiritual path, and often rejecting traditional Christianity, I don’t see a superficial impulse, but something that most Hindus would recognize and respect and try to help guide and empower, and link to the tradition to give it strength, rather than reject it and disrespect it and disparage it. The unfortunate thing about traditional Christianity is that it never was able to create the kind of open, liberal and yet traditionally grounded path for serious spiritual seekers that is found in Hinduism, and I regard this as its most serious limitation. My own personal vision for a future, reformed Christianity is something along the lines of the Vedantic model, rather than the monolithic structure of traditional orthodoxy. Protestantism is perhaps a step in that direction, but not much of one, in that it is still obsessed with finding the one, true interpretation of the Bible, and of Jesus, and quick to reject anything else as heretical, including Catholicism say.
As for Scientology or abusive cults, yes, they could become authentic, but whether they are or not is open to debate. Just because one follows one’s inclinations, doesn’t mean one is following the true heart. Not every idiosyncracy is Divinely inspired. Most are only partially so. A lot of them are just the ego trying to create a safe zone to play out its tendencies. But the same is true of traditional orthodoxy. Some of it is Divinely inspired, and much of it is just a tradition based on egoic idiosyncracies of long ago that have been made into standardized dogma. There is much nonsense in these traditions, and yet much that is Divine, and discriminating between the two is generally not allowed, when it ought to be encouraged.
The general point being that individualism shouldn’t be treated as hostile to tradition. It should be a big part of tradition to encourage and yet also guide individualism into an authentic expression of the Divine in the case of each person. It’s important to recognize just how diverse we as human beings actually are, and how diverse our responses to the Divine need to be. Authenticity doesn’t come from conforming to a single idealized path, but from connecting one’s individual path to the core truths of the tradition. In Hinduism there’s at least a lot of mechanisms for doing this. Not so many in the Abrahamic traditions.



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Franklin Evans

posted July 20, 2010 at 11:28 pm


Well said, BY. :-)
You and Turmarion are pursuing an important point: At what point in its development does a belief system obtain legitimacy?
I know, I freely subtituted “legitimacy” with “authenticity”. I submit that the two are interchangeable rather than synonymous.
It is also a subtle distinction, and maybe too much so for our discussion. The core of Pagan belief systems, one which gets lost under the veneer of “Nature worship”, is that immanence is defined by both spirit and place. Ancient Pagans found their gods in specific places, often with some physical characteristic that tied their experience of deity to their perception of deity. An interesting term I picked up during my academic travels is “omphalos”. You might find the literature about it worth browsing.
Modern Pagans can be as hidebound as anyone else. I see that as a symptom of the human condition, a deep need for stability in the face of uncertainty. Most Wiccans of my acquaintance are very conscious of that, and the excerpt from the “Wiccan Rede” can be better understood in that light:
An it harm none, do what thou wilt.
The spiritual underpinnings of that are closely parallel to The Golden Rule and other such statements of the value of empathy. It states two basic things at once: That the will is paramount, and that we are — no caveats or qualifiers — accountable now for our actions.
As a possible insight, I draw your attention to a spiritual ethic the is nearly ubiquitous with modern Pagans: Unlike the general (and generous) offerings of prayer and good will for specific outcomes, like healing, a Pagan does not offer healing unless the recipient asks for it, nor does a Pagan expect it unless asked for. This may seem like an awkward formality, but it stems for that interface between will and accountability.
Not being a Wiccan, I’ll stop there. I join them in a close and ongoing examination of such things, but while I sling their lingo, only Wiccans can expand on that.



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Turmarion

posted July 21, 2010 at 12:31 am


Broken Yogi: Re Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s more complicated. I don’t have the time or space to do citations (and CAPTCHA wouldn’t be happy), but bear with me and be willing to Google. The Bhagavad Gita, according to most scholars, was written to compete with Buddhism. Yes, the Buddha is considered an avatar, but in a backhanded way: Vishnu is said to have become the Buddha in order to teach false doctrine so he could thereby outwit some demonic foes. I don’t think I’d be flattered if I were a Buddhist!
I’d also point out that huge controversy erupted in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when Buddhists, returning to India, petitioned for the return of management of Bodh Gaya to the Buddhists from the Hindus who at that time had control of it. It got a bit ugly for awhile. Finally, there is still much controversy of the conversion of Dalits (Untouchables) to Buddhism as a way of protest of the caste system.
Yes, Hindus consider Christianity etc. to be valid, but by subsuming them. I.e., Christ, Muhammad, Mahavira, etc. are just other avatars of Vishnu. It’s like the tendency of some Christians to say that members of other religions are “really” some sort of “anonymous Christians”. This view has been rightly criticized as patronizing and trying to co-opt other faiths; and IMO, the Hindu view here is very similar.
By the way, you have heard of some of the violent incidents in Tamil Nadu by Hindus against Christians over the last several years, haven’t you? And some of the mosque burnings? Google it in the news.
It’s true that there are many options in Hinduism, and it is indeed more “seeker friendly”, if you will, than many other faiths, since the sannyasin was considered to be one of the phases of life. However, I doubt that the vast majority of Hindus actually make use of this great diversity, most choosing to maintain the household shrine and to visit the family Brahmins. Conventionality isn’t limited to Westerners! Also, I’d point out that the options tend to fall into a relatively small number of patterns–e.g. there may be thousands of gods, but whomever you worship, bhakti is pretty much bhakti, etc.
BTW, diversity in and of itself isn’t necessarily a good thing. It’s been shown by recent research that too many choices tend to paralyze people’s decision-making processes.
Westerners are just trying to figure this stuff out and don’t have thousands of years of liberal tradition to fall back on….
!!!
I think you might want to qualify “liberal” when referring to a religion with one of the most immobile caste systems on earth, with untouchables who, when given the opportunity, left it in droves, and which practiced suttee, and justified these all by “fulfilling one’s dharma”! If he’s around here, I’m sure Hector would have something to say about this!
Also, if you read some of the blog of the Gnostic priest Jordan Stratford, he makes a very effective argument that there is a mystic tradition descending from Egypt, through Pythagoreanism and late neo-Platonism, into Christianity (many of the Greek Fathers and most of the Renaissance humanists were neo-Platonists, and many of the latter were Hermetists, as well) into the great mystics such as Dionysus the Pseudo-Areopagite, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, the great Hesychasts, and St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Ávila. For various reasons mysticism fell out of favor in the late Renaissance, but it never totally vanished from Christianity. Thus, I think it fair to point out that there are thousands of years of mystic tradition (relatively liberal, too–many proponents kept getting in trouble with the institutional Church) in Christianity, too, if you know where to look.
Thus, Christianity is more mystical and less monolithic than many think.
Reading list: The Cloud of Unknowing, The Book of Privy Counsel, the works of Pseudo-Dionysus, the Philokalia, the works of St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Ávila, particularly The Dark Night of the Soul, by the former, and The Interior Castle, by the latter, the works of Hildegard of Bingen, the works of Julian of Norwich (who in the 14th Century is using feminine imagery for God!), the excellent Inner Explorations website, the works of Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Evagrius Ponticus, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Climacus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa; just to make the point that I’m not making this up. It’s not that we don’t have as many mystics as Hindus or Buddhists–they’re just less well-publicized, and as with most areas of life, the grass always seems greener elsewhere.
Just because one follows one’s inclinations, doesn’t mean one is following the true heart. Not every idiosyncracy is Divinely inspired.
I’m glad you agree. This is why Jack Kornfield, the esteemed Buddhist teacher (and one who is by no means a proponent of heavy-handed orthodoxy, having left Judaism to become a Theravada monk at one point and being a bit of a hippie at another) consistently recommends for most believers joining one of the major, or as he says, “brand name” religions. His argument is that for all the flaws of institutions, the great religions contain the results of millennia of trial and error by millions of believers and great souls and saints, and thus give one supports that a freelancer lacks, preventing one from having to re-invent the wheel. I assume you’d be less sanguine about the “brand-name” option that Kornfield, but the point is that advocating “tried-and-true” religions isn’t just something dyed-in-the-wool, stick-in-the-mud, conservative traditionalists do!
In conclusion, while there is diversity, there are different philosophies, based on temperament, social climate, etc. on how to deal with it. I’d tend to err on the side of caution and the establishment; others would prefer to err on the side of individualism. Both could argue their case, I’m sure. I think the important thing is to avoid stereotypes. Individualists aren’t necessarily irresponsible, woolly-thinking, shallow hippies; but traditionalists aren’t necessarily power-mad authoritarian killjoys who want to boss people around. Each side needs to cut the other slack.



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kenneth

posted July 21, 2010 at 1:10 am


In rough terms, legitimacy is obtained once you have the numbers and the juice to make it clear that you’re not going anywhere and you’re not going to be bullied out of existence. That can happen anywhere between the second generation of followers and a a couple centuries, I guess. There’s some old maxim, and maybe it was Gandhi’s, which said something to the effect that “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” or somesuch.
Legitimacy also has to do with your relative credibility. Does the movement seem to answer some real spiritual need for people or is it clearly a scheme to supply the head guru with nubile young partners, fast cars and a river of tax-free cash? Not always a clear-cut either/or proposition, I grant you.
Longevity is an element in legitimacy, but not in the way that the Judeo-Christians would have you believe. Longevity is not sufficient to establish legitimacy by itself. A lot of miserable ideas lasted thousands of years: slavery, the “miasma” theory of infection (long after the microscope was invented), and so on. Some of our best rituals date back to the morning of the same day they were performed.
Sanders and various other Christian apologists like to think they’ve pulled of a clever “check mate” by pointing out that Wicca isn’t really a witch cult of unbroken lineage dating back to the “druids” or whoever. That’s been widely accepted by us since at least the early 90s. It’s also neither here nor there to us. We have a modern rebirth via Gardner in the 50s, who had been working in the 40s, drawing on traditions dating variously to pre-WW I pagan(ish) groups, and Masonic and occult traditions dating back to the mid-19th century, the 17th century and the high middle ages. We don’t know exactly what the druids or builders of stonehenge were doing, but I don’t lose any sleep over that. I’m not an Iron-Age Celt. On the other hand, my religion taps into the same forces and thought forms which have been with us since the dawn of human awareness and earliest hunter gatherer cultures. That’s provenance enough for me.
And yes, there are hidebound pagans aplenty. Even as a non-hierarchy religion, we have no shortage of “high priestesses” who fancy themselves archbishops and place great stock in the “apostolic succession” obsession which defined their birth religions. Some fool, usually in England, proclaims himself “King of all Witches” at regular intervals.
The Rede is a very deep subject which I’ll save for another rant….



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Charles Curtis

posted July 21, 2010 at 1:36 am


The Church didn’t assert geocentrism as religious dogma. It was the then current scientific dogma, one embraced by the universities and renaissance men in the curia that opposed Galileo and Copernicus. They were – like most educated men at the time – disciples of Ptolemy and Aristotle, who taught geocentrism. The condemnation of Galileo’s theories was due to an academic squabble that included the curia. See Thomas Kuhn’s discussion of scientific paradigm shifts.
The curial court shouldn’t have been involved in the debate, that’s true. But the condemnation and house arrest of Galileo doesn’t mean what many modern people think it did.



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the stupid Chris

posted July 21, 2010 at 2:12 am


@ Jon July 20, 2010 7:13 PM
You are so much more succinct than I. Great post.



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Hector

posted July 21, 2010 at 8:28 am


Turmarion,
Re: Yes, the Buddha is considered an avatar, but in a backhanded way: Vishnu is said to have become the Buddha in order to teach false doctrine so he could thereby outwit some demonic foes. I don’t think I’d be flattered if I were a Buddhist!
Good point. The classical Hindu understanding of the Buddha (backed up, a quick wiki search tells me, by _numerous_ citations in the Puranas, which are considered authoritative texts) is that he was an incarnation of Vishnu who was born on earth in order to tempt the demons into heresy, and thus to corrupt and destroy them. This is actually quite a brilliant and sophisticated way to respond to the threat of the new religion, and quite interesting, but you’re quite correct that Buddhists would not, to say the least, find it pleasant. Broken Yogi is probably correct that many Hindus in India today, to the extent that they think about Buddha at all (there aren’t many Buddhists around, to say the least) think of him as a nice guy who taught people to be nice to each other; that’s certainly what I’ve heard Hindus say, though my experience is limited to a small slice of contemporary Hindus. But that isn’t really the classical understanding of Buddhism. (And to the extent that Hinduism and Buddhism teach incompatible things, the classical interpretation would seem to make more sense on its own terms).
Re: This view has been rightly criticized as patronizing and trying to co-opt other faiths; and IMO, the Hindu view here is very similar.
I personally believe in the ‘anonymous Christian’ idea, and I don’t consider it patronising; I consider it true. As Isaiah said of King Cyrus, and Jesus said of the Samaritan woman at the well, and Paul said of the Athenians, it’s possible to implicitly follow the true God without consciously recognizieng Him.
Re: By the way, you have heard of some of the violent incidents in Tamil Nadu by Hindus against Christians over the last several years, haven’t you?
Hindus can certainly be as violent and intolerant as anyone else, but are you _sure_ it’s Tamil Nadu? Religious violence tends to be worse in the North (where there are fewer Christians around, where most of the Christians are fairly recent Protestant converts rather then Jacobites or Catholics, and where the Hindus tend to be more hard-core then in the South). Are you sure you don’t mean Orissa? There are a lot of Christians in Tamil Nadu (they tend to be more educated and literate then the populace as a whole) and I’ve never particularly heard of serious interreligious violence.
Re: I think you might want to qualify “liberal” when referring to a religion with one of the most immobile caste systems on earth, with untouchables who, when given the opportunity, left it in droves, and which practiced suttee, and justified these all by “fulfilling one’s dharma”!
Yup, lots of horrible things going on. Though my understanding is that suttee was _probably_ a (horrid) medieval innovation, and not intrinsic to the religion (many modern Hindus will tell you that the caste system isn’t truly intrinsic either, for what it’s worth.)
But yes, to call Hinduism a ‘liberal’ faith is absurd. It’s a faith like any other with beautiful things and ugly things to its credit. As Prime Minister Nehru once said (he was a pretty hard-core secularist and atheist, for what it’s worth), “Hinduism is the most tolerant faith in the world in the realm of ideas, and the least tolerant in the realm of social structures.)
Re: The thing is, most Hindus are now pretty much neo-Vedantins, and the old school traditionalists are pretty marginal.
You’ve got to be kidding. I’d venture to say that most of the 900,000,000 Hindus in the world are highly traditional, and their faith revolves largely around devotion to a particular God, visiting the shrines, pilgrimages, performing the daily rituals, trying to follow the traditional moral codes, and so forth. The ‘liberal’ Hinduism you’re talking about probably has very little to do with the faith as practiced by the average millet farmer in Tanjore.



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PDGM

posted July 21, 2010 at 11:14 am


Broken Yogi, Turmarion, the stupid Chris,
I’m coming to this late; good stuff going on in this thread.
Kenneth, at 1:10 am, on legitimacy: don’t you think that your definition of legitimacy is a thoroughly modern and secular one?
Mine would differ. First and foremost, if one believes the claims of the great religious traditions, they are truth (or Truth) embodied in specific forms suited to a people and time. Second, they descend from above, from God, from something beyond the mundane. Third (and here, I reveal my own eggheaded bias) in many cases they present a coherent, intelligible, and (in the case of Western Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism) a viable intellectual tradition (or traditions) that is/are coherent, well developed, consistent, and fit the contours of the known world in some useful way. I partially exclude Eastern Christianity here because it’s intrinsic dislike of systematization in its Western form; but as an earlier poster pointed out, there are certainly neoplatonist elements in Orthodox theology.
Turmarion, your point about Christianity being less than monolithic is a good one; in certain ways, it is like popular Hinduism, though probably less so now than it was 200 years ago before the media age and rapid communication. I’ve had Mexican Catholics from rural Oaxaca describe their faith practice, and it’s radically different from what the Vatican takes as the norm! And this of course leaves out the primitive (non pejorative sense there) religions that cling to life in remote areas and reservations in the US, based upon practices, beliefs, and rites that are from oral cultures: these clearly do not have an “intellectual” tradition in a literate or bookish way, but I’d argue they do have an intellectual tradition in the deepest sense, based upon group memory, deep understanding, and story telling in various forms–dance, poetry, cultic traditions; this intellectual tradition is not individualized in the way it is among bookish creeds, though.
Personally, I kind of shy away from the term “authentic” used about religion in the modern consumer Euro-Am defined world. It’s loaded in basically BS ways: Harleys and tattoos are “authentic”; distressed denim is “authentic,” and so on. Legitimate is better to my ear and mind; maybe “true” is better yet, though I can hear the howls of those who might think that only one path is true, which I do not believe.
Broken Yogi, I sound like a broken record here, having mentioned this book a lot in the past few months, but you really might enjoy “Christianity and Non Dualism” which came out about five or six years ago. I also agree with your point about people rejecting Christianity without really understanding what’s on offer, or the variety of approaches within Christianity.
Regards, all,
PDGM



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Turmarion

posted July 21, 2010 at 1:40 pm


Hector, thanks for the input. My knowledge of Hinduism is from reading, not personal experience, so I always welcome reality checks. The violent incidents may have been in the North–I’m not sure and will have to check it.
I agree with you regarding implicit Christians. What I was saying, and not as well as I’d have liked, was that many Christians come off as patronizing in projecting an attitude something along the lines of, “Hey, I don’t think you’re a Hell-bound heathen like my Evangelical friends do–I think that deep down you’re really a Christian just like me!” I wouldn’t imagine a non-Christian would take to this very well! It’s that mode of putting it across that often crops up and is patronizing; not the notion itself. The humorous example was the episode of The Simpsons where Apu got married and the preacher, asked if he’s actually going to perform a Hindu wedding, cluelessly drawls, “As long as they’re Christians!”
I think the Jesus-is-cool-because-he’s-another-avatar-of-Vishnu thing can come off the same way. I don’t think we have to define others into our own faiths to believe that they have a connection with the true God.
I think you’re right about suttee–I don’t think there’s evidence of it anciently, but I’m not sure.
As to the rest, excellent post, and once more, thank you!
PDGM, good post, and I agree that “authentic” ought to be retired. I hadn’t heard of the book you mention, but I’ll have a look at it. Thanks!



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Broken Yogi

posted July 21, 2010 at 2:58 pm


Turmarion,
The relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism is, indeed, immensely more complicated than we can cover here. And you are right that there are many Hindus who have adverse views of Buddhist dharma. But the serious actors on both sides are quite liberal in both their agreements and disagreements. Buddhism itself is rightly described by Hindus as being derived from various Vedic and Upanishadic teachings, and is a reaction to forms of Hinduism that deserved being reacted to. One has to recall that at the time the Buddha taught, even the Upanishads were a “secret teaching”, and that much of Hinduism was still a relatively crude shamanic religion with lots of elements that were not yet highly developed. The high teachings of Hinduism were not commonly understood by the laity, and aspects of them weren’t even understood by a lot of the priests, such as the concepts of Atman (the Self), which became one of the great sticking points between Hindus and Buddhists. It’s fair to say that Buddhism is really just an a-theistic offshoot of Upanishadic Vedanta, and that nothing it it is actually heretical, in that there are plenty of Hindu a-theistic views, including that of many of the Upanishads themselves. Buddha’s decision to depart from the Hindu fold was really a cultural and political matter, and had a lot to do with the caste system and the devotional approach of popular Hinduism – something that many in the jnana and yogic traditions had already made departures from.
Buddhist and Hindu scholars and yogis and saints often had heated public debates and rivalries over the years, and both learned and developed their own views in tandem with one another, and clearly benefiting from the generally respectful opposition. One doesn’t get to the Advaita Vedanta of Guadapada and Shankara, now considcred the highest dharma of Hinduism, without the influence of Buddhist teachers and critics of Hinduism. And one doesn’t get a lot of Buddhist teachings, such as Mahayana or the Vajrayana tantricism, without the influence of Hindu thought and practice. So regardless of the political rivalries between the two, there’s simply no question that each accepts the other as legitimate dharmas in virtually the same vein of spirituality, and that Hindus consider Buddhist teachings to fall under the general umbrella of Vedically derived and inspired dharma. It’s not much different than the distinctions between some of the various branches of the Hindu world, which are far more different from one another than Advaita is from Buddhism.
You are also right that Hinduism has a voracious appetite for consuming and incorporating other religions, and that it does so with both Buddhism and Christianity. It accepts them by seeing them as authentic expressions of the Self, the source of All. And that’s a really good and even brilliant viewpoint, in my opinion. It allows the Hindu world to be at peace with much of the rest of the world, unless there’s an invasion if India involved (such as the Muslims, and to some extent the British). Hinduism itself is an assimilation and conglomeration of what might look to outsiders like hundreds and thousands of different religions, all subsumed under the umbrella of the monistic Self, without requiring any of them to give up their own character and qualities and values in the process. And this is in part a function of the immense size of India itself, where to this day there are people who are unaware that a country called “India” even exists. Yes, these religions all point back to the Vedas in some respect, but most of what they actually do and believe is post-Vedic.
When I refer to Hinduism as “liberal” I don’t mean in the political sense, I mean in the literal sense of the word – there’s just a huge range of paths and teachings that are considcred “authentic”. That includes things that would be considered hugely conservative as well. Which I would argue is the real meaning of “liberal”, that it’s not actually an opposing viewpoint to conservatism, but one that must include and embrace even conservatism and traditionalism. And that’s the kind of liberalism one finds in the Hindu world. And yes, much of mainstream, popular Hinduism is of course very ordinary, and very familial, centered around local customs and habits, and not terribly interested in these more esoteric notions. But you’d also be surprised how much even those in such circumstances know and are interested in these things. India is just a very religious society, even now, and they like to preserve and respect all the various aspects of their diversity, not just some central authorized religious catechism. The Sanathana Dharma, often pointed to as the core teachings of Hinduism, itself allows for virtually any kind of variation within its general outline, and does not require that any particular matter be accepted by everyone. And that’s a genuinely liberal attitude.
You’re also right about how too many choices can be debilitating, which is why most Hindus probably just go with their own family or local tradition. But the option always exists for expanding beyond that, and while this may sometimes be discouraged by family or friends for the usual reasons of belonging to a group, it’s not an inherent part of the religion to discourage it. One is just expected to find guidance of some kind, somewhere.
I’m also very familiar with the Christian mystical traditions you speak of. I was reading The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhardt, Ruysbrook, St. John of the Cross, the Theologica Germanica, the Divine Names, the eastern sources like Maximus the Confessor and the Philokalia, and the whole Christian-Dionysian tradition as a teenager. In fact, I remember sitting in the unemployment office in Tucson as a seventeen year old reading The Cloud when a man sat down next to me to ask about it, and in the course of the conversation revealed that he was the Bishop of Tucson, not wearing his clerical garb because he didn’t like to draw attention to himself in public. He actually knew Johnston, the translater of that edition, and we had a great conversation about it all. I was very deeply immersed in Christian mysticism at that time, and even considered becoming a Catholic, but when I went to the Bishop’s church and saw the priests there performing their mass and rituals, I felt that they had no real, living connection to the Spirit – it was just a mental or emotional or ritual thing for them. That kind fo “faith” never appealed to me. But that didn’t stop me from appreciating the value of the mystical tradition within Christianity, even if much of it, as you point out, wasn’t actually of Christian origin.
Anyway, I wish that mystical tradition had more sway within Christianity, and that Christianity would become a far more “liberal” spiritual enterprise, but it just didn’t do that, and most of those people had to teach in secret and some of them were even hounded and murdered for what they taught (Meister Eckhardt, for example). But no use crying over spilt milk.
I like your mention of Jack Kornfield, and I’ve been to his retreat center, and know a number of students of his. I generally agree with the idea that it’s a good idea to align oneself with a particular tradition, but like all generalizations, it’s not universally true. Jack of course is a Theravadin Buddhist, but he’s quite open to virtually every other tradition as well. He lives in Marin County, fer chrissakes. The notion of authenticy, however, is quite different than the practical advantages of being related to a tradition. One doesn’t get one’s authenticity from the tradition, one gets it from one’s actual spiritual practice. People who look to a tradition for authenticity, in my view, are simply trying to make up for a lack in their own spiritual practice, and that’s not a good use of traditions. A tradition should not be a crutch, it should be a helping hand that leads you to walk on your own. Walking on your own doesn’t mean leaving the tradition behind, it’s the way to be an authentic part of the tradition. But it’s important to remember that learning to walk on one’s own is the whole point, not the tradition itself. The tradition is a helpful tool, not a substitute for one’s inability to stand on one’s own two feet.



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Broken Yogi

posted July 21, 2010 at 3:19 pm


As for the “anonymous Christian” idea, I’m not opposed to this. It’s actually a good attitude to take. I don’t literally believe it to be true, but in Spirit it’s very much the way I think God works. I just don’t think that God actually cares what religion we belong to, as long as we find a way to relate to him and love Spirit and one another. If someone does that as a Christian, then fine, if they do it as a Hindu, fine. If the Christian identifies “Christian” with “anyone who loves God and his fellow man” then it’s fine to consider people of other religions “secret Christians”. And likewise the converse. Vishishtadvaitins accept that there is only one monistic Self, but they see the Self as actually being “Krishna”, and they view all other Hindus as “secret Vishishtadvaitins”, regardless of what God they worship. And they include in that fold Christians, Muslims, Buddhist, and anyone else who makes any kind of gesture towards truth and reality, even atheists. It would be fun to get a Christian believer in “anonymous Christians” in the same room with a Vishshitadvaitin, and see what comes from it. A lot of laughs, I’d hope.



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Turmarion

posted July 21, 2010 at 4:47 pm


Broken Yogi, I am glad that you nuance and qualify your earlier statements. I’m also glad that you’re familiar with the Christian mystics, even if the faith doesn’t resonate with you. Too many people dismiss Western religions as sterile formalism and embrace Eastern mysticism in complete ignorance of the fact that there is a mystical tradition in the West that is just as old, if less well-known and that there is plenty of sterile formalism in the East as well.
My overall point is that while every religion has both “features” and “bugs” that will appeal to some and turn away others, it’s simplistic to paint any tradition in too rosy a light. The good and the bad, the sacred and the profane, hucksters, charlatans, sinners, saints, the zealously fervent and the lukewarm masses are things we find in all religious milieus.
The only specific critique I’d have is of your statement, “One doesn’t get one’s authenticity from the tradition, one gets it from one’s actual spiritual practice.” I think that’s a little simplistic–there are people in all traditions whose spiritual life was sparked by renewed engagement with the tradition. It’s kind of chicken-and-egg, or like a cup–the contents are the important part but they can’t be held without the vessel–and if you don’t have a vessel to get the water to your mouth, the water can’t slake your thirst, can it?
As I said before, different temperaments resonate differently and see different perils and advantages more (or less) clearly than others. I am much more skeptical of individualist spiritual quests, whereas you’re more skeptical of institutionalized faith. That’s fine–the world needs both types, and there’s nothing wrong with agreeing to disagree.
The metaphor I like is a ball game: while the game is on, nothing else matters, and you’re 100% for your team. After it’s over, you go about your business because it’s just a game, after all. I’m sure you must be familiar with lila–the play of Brahman, which is the world. While the world-game progresses, we have to be on our respective teams and play for all we’re worth–while realizing that there’s a purpose for the other teams, too, even if we don’t see or understand it. So, may you play your best, and I mine, and at the end, if we’ve played our parts well, we all win!



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Broken Yogi

posted July 21, 2010 at 7:10 pm


Turmarion,
I like a lot of what you say too, particularly about lila and ball games. However, it’s important to remember that spirituality is not actually a team sport. It’s a matter of individual responsibility, in our own relationship to God. We may play together as a team, and cooperate and be a part of a tradition, but the actual game is always an individual thing, even in our relationships with others. We don’t “win” by letting the team carry us to the goal. And that’s why, even though there’s certainly a balance between individuality and tradition, it’s individuality that determines our fate. Even Christianity would acknowledge that, in that our salvation depends on what we do, not what other Christians do.
So on this level I disagree with your notion that the tradition is like the vessel that holds the water in place. I would suggest that vessel that holds the water in place is our own heart and mind and life. No tradition can hold the water for you, you have to conform your body and mind and breath and heart into a vessel that holds the Spirit. The tradition can point the way, can help guide you in fashioning that vessel, can tell you when you’re off the mark and when you’re doing it right, but it can’t actually make your vessel authentic. And merely going through the rote behavioral precepts of the tradition won’t do that for you either. You actually have to engage the Spirit, and find a way to fashion that vessel in a manner that works for you. So I like your acknowledgment of the differences in temperament that have to be taken into account. Everyone is a bit different in that regard, and has different holes to plug in their vessel, and might have more success with different materials and a different design – and not all materials and designs actually work – but because we are all rather different as individuals, so will our vessel also be different. But the Spirit it holds will always be the same ultimately, even if we call the vessel by different names and construct it differently.
Anyway, great discussion, and I really appreciate the freedom to go past minor differences to get to the spiritual core of these matters.



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