2/27/2013 4:38:58 PM
As Pope Benedict steps down, speculation stirs that the next pontiff could be a man of color or from outside Europe.
While many qualifications trump nationality when it comes picking the leader of 1.1 billion Catholics, an end to the European dominance of the Holy See is still an enticing suggestion. On his Sirius XM radio show last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan mused that it was “highly possible” there might be a pope from the Americas or Asia or Africa. The former cardinal of Washington told the National Catholic Reporter that he thought the church was ready for a pope outside the West. The Pew Research Center found that most American Catholics (60 percent) think it would be good for the next pope to come from the developing world, hailing from South America, Africa, or Asia.
For some, a pope from the Global South would offer a new perspective, energizing a church faced with the challenges of the modern world. The move could signal an overcoming of past injustice, a herald that all parts of the church hold equal weight within the body. “I think it would send the message to the global church that they recognize the present and future of the church, and that they want to give voice and authority to what’s increasingly becoming the majority,” says Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, a professor of religion at the University of Miami who specializes in theologies of the Americas. “It says you are really a part of the authentic church, not just the colonized church.”
Like many global religious bodies, the Catholic Church now sees its most fertile reach outside historical power centers in Europe. Vibrant religious growth in the Global South means the largest share of Catholics now live in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the fastest church growth happening in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, as recorded in a new Pew study. Just 24 percent of Catholics reside in Europe, a marked decline from a century ago, when the continent was home to 65 percent of the world’s Catholics. Today Brazil boasts the largest number of Catholics—more than 126 million—with Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States following in the rankings. Even in the United States, the face of the church has changed: just 20 years ago, white Catholics outnumbered Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. 5-to-1; now that gap is just 2-to-1, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
The church’s shifting demographics are, in some ways, the remains of colonialism, the product of churches following empires and globalization, bringing the Christian faith with them. Yet such subjugation has a way of being thwarted; religious doctrines are not delivered by rote, but rather evolve and transform, creating new forms of religiosity. Out of this problematic legacy some of the most dynamic theologies have emerged—making another argument for a theological leader from the church’s more recent provinces.
I cannot help but think of Latin American liberation theology, which emerged out of this ethos in the late 1960s, a seeming fulfillment of Vatican II’s call to update and “throw open the windows of the Church” to meet modernity. After Latin American bishops met in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, the Rev. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest considered to be the movement’s founder, later wrote, “Liberation theology is closely bound up with this new presence of those who in the past were always absent from our history. They have gradually been turning into active agents of their own destiny … changing the condition of the poor and oppressed.”
Liberation theology grappled with social justice, poverty, and the gap between rich and poor—not the spiritually poor, but the materially poor so often found in the Global South. It was a daring edge of theology, beginning on the margins for those on the margins, one that talked back to power and hierarchy. Arising alongside feminist theology and black liberation theology, this Latin American school multiplied, conversing with theologies and postcolonial thought around the globe. Today we speak of liberation theologies in the plural, with words from womanist and mujerista thinkers, from the theology of the minjung in South Korea and the Dalit in India, and from a growing cadre of perspectives.
Despite its influence, liberation theology has struggled as a movement. Its Marxist communitarianism looked a lot like communism, an anathema to the Polish-born Pope John Paul II who worked to fell the Iron Curtain. His contemporary and successor Joseph Ratzinger criticized elements of the movement and censured well-known liberation theologians in his role as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Even Gutiérrez, when asked about the movement’s reputed decline in a 2003 interview with America magazine, acknowledged that “liberation theology is linked to a particular historical moment.” “Any new insight within a particular field of knowledge initially receives a lot of attention, but then it slowly gets incorporated or assimilated into the normal ways of doing things,” he said.
Its assimilation could be taken as a sign of success. The “preferential option for the poor”—language from Latin American liberation theology—is now a repeated refrain of Catholic social teaching. The newest head of the CDF, German Archbishop Gerhard Müller, is said to be sympathetic to liberation theology and even co-authored a book with Gutiérrez. Benedict, like many Catholic theologians, has been a staunch defender of the poor and a loud critic of economic oppression in his teachings and encyclicals.
The Global South could be considered an important source of innovative theologies and the place where the Catholic Church is most alive. But would a pope from the region be able to bring that vitality to Vatican City? “Representation by a member of the Global South in the papal office need not necessarily mean a true representation of the concerns of the Global South,” says Susan Abraham, a postcolonial theologian at Harvard Divinity School. As she explains, “The cardinals have been appointed to toe a particular stance in regards to the Vatican.” Regardless of nation of origin, the next pope will have been made a cardinal by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. He will be one of their guys. He will not be so much a dramatic change as a continuation of their leadership.
The next pope’s election is also still a political process, and the odds heavily favor a European papabile. While there are contenders for the papacy from the likes of Brazil, the Philippines and Ghana, journalists like CNN’s Eric Marrapodi and Dan Merica, along with Religion News Service’s David Gibson, have demonstrated why some of these candidacies are longshots. Often that reasoning results from sheer numbers: Of the likely 115 cardinals who will choose the next pope, 61 come from Europe, 28 from Italy alone.
In 2005, during his first general audience in St. Peter’s Square, the new bishop of Rome explained why he had chosen the name Pope Benedict XVI. It referenced Pope Benedict XV who led the church during World War I, as well as St. Benedict who helped spread Christianity across Europe. “St Benedict is therefore deeply venerated, also in Germany and particularly in Bavaria, my birthplace,” he said. “He is a fundamental reference point for European unity and a powerful reminder of the indispensable Christian roots of his culture and civilization.” A son of Europe, Benedict felt called to rebuild the declining church in Europe. Perhaps the next pope will feel the same. Or perhaps he will be called to champion the church elsewhere, maybe even in his own place of origin in the Global South. Only time and the College of Cardinals will tell. Until then, we wait.
Tiffany Stanley is managing editor of
Religion & Politics
, where this article first appeared.
Image courtesy Sergey Gabdurakhmanov, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/5/2013 4:30:30 PM
This article originally appeared at Reality Sandwich.
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, drone, time for this one to come home
Razzle, dazzle, drazzle, die, time for this one to come alive
And hold my life until I'm ready to use it
Hold my life because I just might lose it
Because I just might lose it
--from Paul Westerberg's Hold My Life
An essay I've recently published in Reality Sandwich, "An
Esoteric Take on The Big Lebowski," has been very well received. There
are a few works out there, be they novels, movies or even pieces of music, that
manage to make the esoteric, exoteric. Such works rarely surface, though,
because the shallow machinery of the publishing, movie and music industry is
mostly allergic to them. As I was re-reading Lin Yutang's masterwork, The
Importance of Living, I found so many passages that seem custom-made for
the Dude that I thought it might be fun to explore the points of departure and
arrival of both works, in tandem. To do that, I need to start from the
not-so-distant premises that prompted Lin Yutang himself, back in 1937, to
write his book.
Even today, despite the West having gone through an unprecedented process of
secularization, the numbers are staggering: there are 2.1 billion Christians
worldwide; 1.6 billion Muslims; about 900 million Hinduists; and 350 million
Buddhists. Therefore, almost 5 billion people follow the four largest
religions, which have one common trait -- they are life-renouncing.
In a nutshell, the Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- see
life as a period of probation in which man, by acting virtuously according to
the doctrine set out by each religion, will earn for himself a place in heaven.
The focus, therefore, is on the afterlife. Life on earth is a series of tests
that must be passed and temptations that must be resisted. Again in a nutshell,
Hinduism and Buddhism, the two major Indian religions, are similar in that both
hold that life is suffering and the only way out is freedom from the endless chain
of reincarnations. The ultimate goal of life, referred to as moksha
and nirvana respectively, consists of liberating oneself from samsara,
thus ending the cycle of rebirth. Union with
God can then be attained.
Recently an old friend of mine, for years a convert to Buddhism, suffered an
aortic dissection, a life-threatening tear in the aorta that I am familiar with
because my father died of it. When he began to feel sick a friend who was with
him, a medical doctor, rushed him to a hospital, where he was operated on
within minutes. For days his life hanged by a thread in the ICU. His anguished
wife, back at home, organized reunions with fellow Buddhists who would pray and
chant together for him to be spared and then recover. As I followed from a
continent away, my heart went out to him and his family and friends, but in the
back of mind I couldn't stop hearing a nagging voice. It asked: "What
business do Buddhists have in asking to prolong one's life?" It was
incongruous. The followers of the most life-renouncing religion known to
mankind were fervently praying for this one man to cling to life. Mercifully,
the surgery was successful and my friend pulled through, but I still wonder if
his Buddhist wife and friends behaved consistently with Buddhism?
Of course they didn't, and this incident is meant to make a point: almost five
billion people living on this drinkable, edible, and breathable planet of ours
follow religions that, I fear, go against our nature. Normally, we want to
live, not to let go of life. It is only natural, so natural, in fact, that it
seems very strange that this would need to be stated in the first place.
Lin Yutang's world was less populous than ours, but in proportion more
religious yet, especially in the West. Back in his day some pioneers were
exploring the "occult", that more than vague definition that has been
since subdivided into many fields: the Royal Art, Alchemy, parapsychology,
extrasensory perception, dream interpretation, lucid dreaming, out-of-body and
near-death experiences, not to mention humanity's penchant for the most varied
psychoactive substances in the hope that altered states will lead in the
exploration of parallel or otherworldly realities. From all this and the four
major life-renouncing religions I'm bound to infer that by and large we don't
like our lot on earth. Lin Yutang started from the same premise.
Like early man, do we envy the birds for being able to fly? The fish for being
able to breathe under water? Cats for seeing in semidarkness? The list goes on and
on: from a physical standpoint, we're inferior to so many species. But not to
worry, modern man has come up with a number of flying contraptions, scuba
diving equipment, night vision goggles, and many other gadgets that mimic the
abilities of more physically gifted species. And yet the premise stands: either
our adherence to a life-renouncing religion, or, more recently on a large
scale, our multifarious attempts at transcending our very nature and
That we feel distinctly uncomfortable in our own skin is not a supposition but
a statement of fact. Do we feel so chokingly uncomfortable because the first
time we realize that, sooner or later, we are doomed to die, our natural
impulse is to cry? My wife and I have witnessed this reaction in two of our
three boys. When, around five years of age, they understood that life doesn't
last forever, they cried inconsolably, out of disbelief, then anger, finally
fear. This tragic cognizance we carry inside ourselves for our whole life. It's
our congenital memento mori, which kicks in the moment the concept of
time ceases to be a present-tense continuum, as it is during early childhood,
and becomes one of duration, with a precise beginning and end.
For the materialists, those not interested in religions or attempts at
transcending human nature, there are the following bits of ancient wisdom:
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius's "Live each day as if it were your
last;" the ancient Roman poet Horace's Carpe diem, seize the day,
which was reprised during the Renaissance by Lorenzo De' Medici in his famous
poem Canzona di Bacco, Bacchus Song, which begins: "Youth is
sweet and well / But does speed away! / Let who will be gay, / Tomorrow, no one
can tell;" even the ancient Chinese proverb: "Enjoy yourself;
it's later than you think." Many agnostics, atheists, and skeptics have no
better guideline than this to live by, and accordingly try to feast on life,
which, they perceive, is "here today, gone tomorrow."
Lin Yutang offers an approach that goes beyond life-renouncing religions,
daring transcendental explorations, and clichés such as enjoy yourself, it's
later than you think. One thing was clear to him as it must be to so many of
us: being alive, living, matters. The Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests
why in the ninth of his Duino Elegies, written between 1912 and 1922,
and excerpted here in the translation of A. Poulin, Jr. To the question,
"Why, then, do we have to be human and, avoiding fate, long for
fate?" the poet replies: "Because being here means so much, and
because all / that's here, vanishing so quickly, seems to need us / and
strangely concerns us." And a few lines down: "To have been on earth
just once -- that's irrevocable."
How are we to celebrate, then, the plain yet miraculous reality of being alive?
The poet surprises with "Praise the world to the angel, not what can't be
talked about. / You can't impress him with your grand emotions. In the cosmos /
where he so intensely feels, you're just a novice. So show / him some simple
thing shaped for generation after generation / until it lives in our hands and
in our eyes, and it's ours. Tell him about things. He'll stand amazed
So there it is, straight from the pen of one of the most mystical poets in
western literature: an exhortation to speak to the angel not about grand
emotions but about the world, about things. Some years after Rilke
finished his elegies, Lin Yutang wrote in The Importance of Living:
"As for philosophy, which is the exercise of the spirit par excellence,
the danger is even greater that we lose the feeling of life itself. I can
understand that such mental delights include the solution of a long
mathematical equation, or the perception of a grand order in the universe. This
perception of order is probably the purest of all our mental pleasures and yet
I would exchange it for a well prepared meal." Years ago, when I first
read this passage, I laughed out loud. It was liberating. But where is Lin
Yutang coming from? In another book of his, The Wisdom of China, he
remarks: "The Chinese philosopher is like a swimmer who dives but must
soon come up to the surface again; the Western philosopher is like a swimmer
who dives into the water and is proud that he never comes up to the surface
I'd tend to agree, but there probably is a linguistic reason for this. The
Chinese never developed a proper alphabet, but rather ideograms, or Sinograms,
or better yet, Han characters. The Kangxi Dictionary contains the astonishing
number of 47,035 characters. Compared to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet,
the 23 of Classical Latin and the 30 of the German alphabet, it's evident that
writing and reading in Mandarin is an effort in itself, which explains the
emphasis placed by Chinese on calligraphy.
Ancient Greek, Latin and German have been used by most of the greatest
philosophers of the western tradition, with Latin being the lingua franca of
European scholars for centuries. Inevitably, intellectuals would be tempted to
play around with words -- and they did! Western philosophy is immensely more
voluminous than its Chinese counterpart, but its value should always have been
considered from an historical perspective. No one in his right mind should have
argued over, say, St. Thomas Aquinas's five proofs of the existence of God --
but that went on for centuries. The history of Western (theoretical/discursive)
philosophy ought to have been read like the history of architecture:
philosopher so-and-so built that castle in the air, while his opponent built
this other castle. Western philosophy should be appreciated aesthetically
rather than intrinsically.
Again in The Wisdom of China, Lin Yutang writes: "The Chinese can
ask . . ., ‘Does the West have a philosophy?' The answer is also clearly ‘No.'
. . . The Western man has tons of philosophy written by French, German,
English, and American professors, but still he hasn't got a philosophy when he
wants it. In fact, he seldom wants it. There are professors of philosophy, but
there are no philosophers."
So, what exactly does Lin Yutang prescribe as a philosophy of life? And how
does the Dude, our hero (I haven't forgotten him), happen to behave in
accordance with so many of the philosopher's ideas?
Read the rest of this article at Reality
Sleeper Cell, licensed under
10/31/2012 9:26:22 AM
Editor’s Note: A reader's recent tip reminded us
about a collection of articles from the October/November 1986 issue of Utne
Halloween, contemporary witchcraft, and feminist spirituality. In celebration
of the holiday, we’ll be posting a few of our favorites online through the 31st.
When I left the Catholic Church at 20, I was certain of two
things. One was that God the Father, with his heaven and hell, was pretty
ridiculous. The other was that there were forces in the universe larger than
our lives. While there was plenty of support for the former belief in the left
of the 1960s, there was little for the latter. I didn’t know where to look for
a structure to accommodate my deep, but vague, spiritual beliefs.
Politically, I moved from the left into the women’s
movement. By this time I’d separated my spiritual beliefs from my political
ones, and there was nothing at first in the women’s movement to suggest I
should do otherwise. I took a class in parapsychology and read a bit about
Easter religions, but nothing seemed to offer any framework for my spiritual
hunger. Recently, however, I’ve discovered a spiritual tradition which, if it
hasn’t given me all the answers I’m looking for, has at least helped shape my
The feminist spirituality movement began to emerge in the
mid-1970s and has become one of the largest submovements within feminism. It’s
amorphous, blending radical feminism, pacifism, witchcraft, Eastern mysticism,
goddess worship, animism, psychic healing and a variety of practices normally
associated with the occult.
Witchcraft especially seems to appeal to feminists on a
spiritual quest. It is a women’s religion, a religion of the earth, vilified by
patriarchal Christianity and now, finally, reclaimed. Witches seem to embody
all that men fear and hate in women—strength and potentially destructive (to
men) forces. Feminist historians have added another more poignant dimension to
our understanding of witchcraft: Witch burnings have been revealed as a form of
genocide whose victims were old women, odd women, influential women, sexual
women and healers.
When I first discovered the feminist spirituality movement,
I was both intrigued and put off. Political activists I know expressed disdain
for women who, they felt, were substituting new versions of old religious mumbo
jumbo for useful actions. I couldn’t blame them. When Susan Saxe, a former
member of Weather Underground and a self-proclaimed feminist, was arrested and
sent to Boston
for trial, the feminist community there rallied to her support. Spiritual
feminists formed “energy circles”—sitting in a circle, holding hands,
projecting empowering thoughts her way.
“That’s all fine,” one of Saxe’s harried defense committee
members told me bitterly, “but why don’t they use their ‘energy’ to help raise
money for her defense?”
I sympathized with my friend on the committee, but I also
felt there was more to what these women were doing than we understood. So I set
out to explore feminist spirituality. I took a class from a Boston spiritualist, Diane Mariechild, and
learned how to meditate, to look for people’s auras, to discover my past lives
and to invoke the goddess.
The goddess, I learned, is central to feminist spirituality.
But few see her as the literal equivalent of the Judeo-Christian god. Starhawk,
currently one of the movement’s prime figures, describes the goddess in her
books The Spiral Dance (Harper &
Row) and Dreaming the Dark (Beacon
Press) as “immanence”: all living creatures—male and female, human, animal and
plant—have the goddess within them. Others see the goddess as being both within
living creatures and outside us. Karen Vogel, co-creator of the magnificent
Motherpeace tarot deck, told me recently, “I feel there’s something in us, but
some outside creator too—some force that’s inexplicable. We all come from
something and it starts out female, the Mother.”
Feminist scholars examining early history introduced the
images of goddesses we now use. Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman (Harcourt Brace Jobanovich) and similar works
have provided a historical and an anthropological basis for assuming that God
the Father was a relative newcomer to theology. The assumption that goddess
worship went hand in hand with matriarchal female-dominated societies has been
debated among feminist scholars, but feminist spirituality seems to accept it
as a given—at least metaphorically.
Feminist spirituality rejects the traditional Christian
notion of living this life in anticipation of the afterlife, but most of it
adherents talk in terms of cycles of life, death, and rebirth. “I always
believed in reincarnation,” says Starhawk, “long before I’d even heard of it.”
Years later, when she started studying witchcraft (“witchcraft has a far more
complex theology than most people know”), she was pleased to learn that witches
believe in reincarnation. “It’s a very different version of reincarnation than
Hindus believe in,” she says. “It’s not about working through till you can get
off the wheel [of life]. It’s about being reborn among those you know and loved
before; it’s about your connection with the planet. This world is the domain of the spirit; this world is paradise, or
at least its potential.”
A large part of feminist spirituality involves the use of
“tools” to reach the psychic/spiritual depths. Many of these are also used in
the occult arts; astrology, palmistry, Tarot cards and gems and crystals. Along
with the tools for psychic journey go rituals. Hallie Iglehart, author of Womanspirit: A Guide to Women’s Wisdom
(Harper & Row), says, “Human beings need ritual; we need practices that
stimulate our senses, help us move into that spiritual place. Ritual helps us
transcend our egos. For Starhawk, ritual provides “a very powerful means to
communicate, to come together to make changes and transformation. It’s not that
ritual is wonderful per se—it’s what you use it for.”
Perhaps the strongest criticism of feminist spirituality is
that it takes energy away from political work and puts it into forming energy
circles or praying to the goddess. It’s an accusation that draws equally strong
reactions in the spirituality movement. They acknowledge that religion can be
used as an opiate of the people but deny that it usually functions that way.
Starhawk notes that the notion of a spiritual/political
dichotomy is a middle-class Western notion. “If you look into the cultures of
people of color, you find that magic, spirituality, and politics aren’t
separate from each other.” She discovered on a recent trip to Nicaragua that
the Christianity of the workers was different from that of the church. “The
Christ they invoke is an immanent Christ. The Missa Campesino [Peasants’ Mass]
says, ‘Jesus is the truck driver changing his tire; Jesus is the man in the
park buying a snow cone and complaining that he didn’t get enough ice.’”
Other women point to Gandhi, to the black Christianity of
the U.S. civil rights
movement, to the Quakers in the suffrage and peace movements and to the
Maryknoll nuns killed in El
Salvador. Many feminists view spirituality
as the force that can make continued political struggle possible—a counter to
the growing problem of burnout. Iglehart describes the rituals she has
participated in at the end of violence-against-women conferences, when
participants were dealing with and the enormity of the task of fighting it.
“People who were drained would be energized and focused through the ritual,
with a very clear idea of what they were going to do.”
Reva Siebolt, who is active in feminist electoral politics,
says she needs spirituality to enable her to continue her work. “The energy of Washington is so brutal
I go numb. I’m learning to listen to my inner voice, to get ideas from deep
inside me, not just from some logical structure outside.” Iglehart warns: “If
there isn’t a back and forth between political activists and women in
spirituality, the political women are going to get burned out, and the
spiritual women are going to be out in spaceland.”
Other problems in feminist spirituality reflect those in the
larger feminist movement. Spirituality has been accused, with some validity, of
being a white woman’s concern, centering on white pagan traditions and
goddesses. But as more women of color have become involved, their traditions
have changed feminist spirituality.
Pat Camarena, a Mexican-American feminist involved in
witchcraft, sees that involvement as an extension of her heritage. “The
difference between Mexican and pagan witchcraft is that Mexican witchcraft
isn’t in opposition to Christianity—it takes the Virgin as its central figure.
When you do a spell, you invoke Mary.” She sees the Virgin as a manifestation
of the goddess, and feels a strong connection to the spells and rituals her
grandmother used when Pat was a child and those she herself now uses.
Women in feminist spirituality are often involved in
political work other than feminism, especially anti-nuclear and environmental
issues. They see this as an extension of feminism—men own Mother Earth as they
own women. This parallels a complex phenomenon in the women’s movement as a
whole: The feminist newspaper New Women’s Times suspended publication last
year, attributing its difficulties in part to the “large-scale movement of
women from feminist activism to peace and antinuclear work.” Whether this is a hopeful
or alarming phenomenon, it’s clearly not limited to feminist spirituality.
I’m not sure what place feminist spirituality has or will
have in my life. I’m not wholly comfortable with the goddess. The image has
power for me, but I don’t see it justified by any superior female goodness
operating in the world. Female nonviolence seems to me chiefly a function of
being deprived of the tools of violence, and I’m not sure the Mother would end
up being any less abusive than the Father has been. Whatever the creative force
is, it’s too large to be encompassed in human imagery.
Nonetheless, the existence of the movement is important in
my life—and I suspect it’s important to the survival of feminism itself. More
and more, I see in women and men around me, as I’ve seen for so long in myself,
a spiritual hunger. When political movements are new, or when they’re making
obvious or dramatic changes, that need can become submerged in the thrill of
discovery or accomplishment. When the struggle is long and old and riddled with
defeat, the strength to continue must come from deeper places. Feminist
spirituality offers one way of reaching for those places. Even for women who
may not choose it for their path, it offers the assurance that there are paths, and nonpatriarchal images to
bring to other existing spiritual modes.
Last spring, I went to a daylong workshop Hallie Iglehart
ran in Boston.
There were about 30 women, ranging from their early 20s to their early 50s and
from lesbian separatists to suburban homemakers. The rituals and meditations
were fairly familiar to me. But this day gave me a taste of transcendence. Why
that happened in this particular group I’m not sure. But some of it was the
extraordinary combination of women who seemed to know, at that moment at least,
that differences of lifestyle, needs, personality had nothing to do with who we
were or what we were creating there.
I know now that if I can’t accept the goddess as my image of
the creative spirit, I can at least accept her as a wise and valued friend—a useful
companion who has opened doors to places I might never have seen without her.
Excerpted from Ms. (Dec. 1985)
and reprinted in Utne Reader (Oct./Nov.
Image: Rigel, M-42 (Orion Nebula), Horsehead and Witch Head Nebulas by Darron Birgenheier, licensed under Creative Commons.
10/30/2012 10:22:57 AM
Editor’s Note: A reader's recent tip reminded us
about a collection of articles from the October/November 1986 issue of Utne
Halloween, contemporary witchcraft, and feminist spirituality. In celebration
of the holiday, we’ll be posting a few of our favorites online through the 31st.
On every full moon, pagan
rituals take place on hilltops, on beaches, in open fields and in ordinary
houses. Writers, teachers, nurses, computer programmers, artists, lawyers,
poets, plumbers, and auto mechanics—women and men from many backgrounds—come
together to celebrate the mysteries of the Triple Goddess of birth, love, and
death, and of her Consort, the Hunter, who is Lord of the Dance of Life. The
religion they practice is called Witchcraft.
is a word that frightens many people and confuses many others. In the popular
imagination, Witches are ugly old hags riding broomsticks, or evil Satanists
performing obscene rites. Modern witches are thought to be members of a kooky
cult, which lacks the depth, dignity, and seriousness of purpose of a true
But Witchcraft is a
religion, perhaps the oldest religion in the West. Its origins go back before
Christianity, Judaism, Islam, before Buddhism and Hinduism. The Old Religion,
as we call it, is closer in spirit to Native American traditions or to the
shamanism of the Inuit people of the Arctic.
It is not based on dogma or a set of beliefs, nor on scriptures or a sacred
book revealed by a great man. Witchcraft takes its teachings from nature and
reads inspiration in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, in the flight
of birds, in the slow growth of trees, and in the cycles of the seasons.
The worship of the Great
Goddess, which is at the heart of Witchcraft, underlies the beginnings of all
civilizations. Mother Goddess was carved on the walls of Paleolithic caves and
sculpted in stone as early as 25,000 B.C. In 7000 B.C., cities arose in Asia Minor that developed a rich, Goddess-centered
culture, combining agriculture, hunting, and early crafts, in which women were
leaders. From excavations done in the 1960s, we get a picture of an
egalitarian, decentralized, inventive, and peaceful society, without evidence
of human or animal sacrifice or weapons of war.
flourished in the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece,
India, Central America,
South America, and China.
For the Mother, giant stone circles, the henges of the British
Isles, were raised. For Her the great passage graves of Iceland were
dug. In Her honor sacred dancers leaped the bulls in Crete.
Grandmother Earth sustained the soil of the North American prairies, and Great Mother
Ocean washed the coasts of Africa. Her priestesses discovered and tested the healing
herbs and learned the secrets of the human mind and body that allowed them to
ease the pain of childbirth, to heal wounds and cure diseases and to practice
magic, which I like to define as the “art of changing consciousness at will.”
In the great urban
centers, as society became more centralized, a new type of power developed: the
ability of one group of human beings to control another. War became common. And
as warfare came to shape culture, women were driven from power, and the rule of
men over women ensued. This rule brought with it the system of inheritance
through the father. This made the sexual control of women necessary to ensure
that a father’s children were truly his. In Europe, the Middle East, and India,
this move toward patriarchy was intensified by invasions from the warlike
Indo-Europeans, who venerated male sky-gods and glorified battle.
The change to patriarchy
was not an instant process. The old cultures resisted, and the transition
lasted thousands of years (from approximately 4000 to 1500 B.C.) in Europe and
the Middle East. The written myths and legends
of the Old Religion that have come down to us all date from the transitional
Yet the concept of Mother
never completely died. In India,
She survived (and still does to today) in village celebrations and in the goddesses
of Hindu worship. In Greece,
She became the goddesses of Olympus. Her
worship lived in mystery cults and folk traditions as well as in the healing
practices and rituals of the “pagans” (from the Latin, meaning “country
dweller”). The Great Mother was also Christianized as the Virgin Mary, whose
worship is especially strong to this day in Latin America.
Those who held to the Old
Religion of the Goddess were called Witches, from the Anglo-Saxon root wic (wicca
is another name some use for witchcraft)—meaning “to bend or shape.” They were
shamans, healers, benders and shapers of reality, strongly tied to village and
peasant culture, linked to the land and the round of seasonal celebrations.
As the culture of Europe
changed in the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholics and
later Protestants persecuted Witches as a way of breaking down the peasants’
cultures in order to open the land to more profitable exploitation; to increase
the power of the male medical profession by driving women out of healing; and
to consolidate social control by attacking sensuality, the erotic, and the
mysterious. Torture, terror, burning, and outright lies were their tools, and
the deaths of hundreds of thousands of victims (some estimate as many as nine
million), primarily women, established the aura of fear that still surrounds
the “Witch” and the Western view of suprarational powers and abilities.
After the persecutions
ended in the 18th century came the age of unbelief. Memory of the
Craft had faded, and the hideous stereotypes that remained seemed ludicrous,
laughable, or tragic. Only in this century have Witches been able to “come out
of the broom closest,” so to speak, and counter the imagery of evil with truth.
Excerpted from Yoga Journal(May/June
1986) and reprinted in Utne Reader (Oct./Nov. 1986).
, licensed under
8/17/2012 9:41:04 AM
This post originally
appeared at Chronicle.com.
a moth flies at night, it uses the moon and the stars to steer a straight path.
Those light sources are fixed and distant, so the rays always strike the moth's
multilensed eyes at the same angle, making them reliable for nocturnal
navigation. But introduce something else bright—a candle, say, or a
campfire—and there will be trouble. The light radiates outward, confusing the
moth and causing it to spiral ever closer to the blaze until the insect meets a
years Richard Dawkins has used the self-immolation of moths to explain
religion. The example can be found in his 2006 best seller, The God Delusion,
and it's been repeated in speeches and debates, interviews and blog posts.
Moths didn't evolve to commit suicide; that's an unfortunate byproduct of other
adaptations. In much the same way, the thinking goes, human beings embrace
religion for unrelated cognitive reasons. We evolved to search for patterns in
nature, so perhaps that's why we imagine patterns in religious texts. Instead
of being guided by the light, we fly into the flames.
implication—that religion is basically malevolent, that it "poisons
everything," in the words of the late Christopher Hitchens—is a standard
assertion of the New Atheists. Their argument isn't just that there probably is
no God, or that intelligent design is laughable bunk, or that the Bible is far
from inerrant. It's that religion is obviously bad for human beings, condemning
them to ignorance, subservience, and endless conflict, and we would be better
off without it.
you can know for sure, you have to figure out what religion does for us in the
first place. That's exactly what a loosely affiliated group of scholars in
fields including biology, anthropology, and psychology are working on. They're
applying evolutionary theory to the study of religion in order to discover
whether or not it strengthens societies, makes them more successful, more
cooperative, kinder. The scholars, many of them atheists themselves, generally
look askance at the rise of New Atheism, calling its proponents ignorant,
fundamentalist, and worst of all, unscientific. Dawkins and company have been
no more charitable in return.
the field is still young and fairly small—those involved haven't settled on a
name yet, though "evolutionary religious studies" gets thrown
around—its findings could reshape a very old debate. Maybe we should stop
asking whether God exists and start asking whether it's useful to believe that
say someone gives you $10. Not a king's ransom, but enough for lunch. You're
then told that you can share your modest wealth with a stranger, if you like,
or keep it. You're assured that your identity will be protected, so there's no
need to worry about being thought miserly. How much would you give?
you're like most people who play the so-called dictator game, which has been
used in numerous experiments, you will keep most of the money. In a recent
study from a paper with the ominous title "God Is Watching You," the
average subject gave $1.84. Meanwhile, another group of subjects was presented
with the same choice but was first asked to unscramble a sentence that
contained words like "divine," "spirit," and
second group of subjects gave an average of $4.22, with a solid majority (64
percent) giving more than five bucks. A heavenly reminder seemed to make
subjects significantly more magnanimous. In another study, researchers found
that prompting subjects with the same vocabulary made some more likely to
volunteer for community projects. Intriguingly, not all of them: Only those who
had a specific dopamine receptor variant volunteered more, raising the
possibility that religion doesn't work for everybody.
similar experiment was conducted on two Israeli kibbutzes. The scenario was
more complicated: Subjects were shown an envelope containing 100 shekels
(currently about $25). They were told that they could choose to keep as much of
the money as they wished, but that another member of the kibbutz was being
given the identical option. If the total requested by the participants (who
were kept separated) exceeded 100 shekels, they walked away with nothing. If
the total was less than or equal to 100, they were given the money plus a bonus
based on what was left over.
kicker is that one of the kibbutzes was secular and one was religious. Turns
out, the more-devout members of the religious kibbutz, as measured by synagogue
attendance, requested significantly fewer shekels and expected others to do the
same. The researchers, Richard Sosis and Bradley Ruffle, ventured that "collective
ritual has a significant impact on cooperative decisions."
also a study that found that religious people were, in some instances, more
likely to treat strangers fairly. Or the multiple studies suggesting that
people who were prompted to think about an all-seeing supernatural agent were
less likely to cheat. Or the study of 300 young adults in Belgium that found that those who
were religious were considered more empathetic by their friends.
results of other studies are less straightforward. A Harvard Business
discovered that religious people were more likely to give to charity, but only
on the days they worshiped, a phenomenon he dubbed the "Sunday
Effect." Then there's the survey of how belief in the afterlife affected
crime rates in 67 countries. Researchers determined that countries with high
rates of belief in hell had less crime, while in those where the belief in hell
was low and the belief in heaven high, there was more crime. A vengeful deity
is better for public safety than a merciful one.
of that research settles the value of belief, and much of it is based on
assuming that certain correlations are meaningful or that particular techniques
(like the one used in the dictator-game study) actually prime what researchers
think they prime. And questions remain: How effective is religious belief,
really, if it needs to be prompted with certain words? And is the only thing
stopping you from robbing a liquor store really the prospect of eternal
a growing body of research suggests that religion or religious ideas, in
certain circumstances, in some people, can elicit the kind of behavior that is
generally good for society: fairness, generosity, honesty. At the very least,
when you read the literature, it becomes difficult to confidently assert that
religion, despite the undeniable evil it has sometimes inspired, is entirely
to read the rest.
Image by Vinoth Chandar,
licensed under Creative
11/18/2011 5:15:40 PM
Perhaps you’ve heard about the goofy white underwear that Mormons conceal beneath their black slacks, white button-ups, and bike helmets? Or that they believe there was an ancient war fought between Israel and a ragtag alliance of Indians on the prairies and foothills of pre-modern America. Did you know that Mormons, upon death or apocalypse, inherit a planet of their own to populate with the children of fruitful polygamy? Had you heard that the leader of the Church of Scientology determines its leadership by competitive games of musical chairs set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Did you know it was founded by a tax-dodging science fiction author? Seriously, have you seen that Tom Cruise video?
Half-truths, gaffes, and oddities—such as those listed above—are like butter for the mainstream media and Internet culture’s bread, and they’ve spread it on thick, creamy, and caloric in their coverage of America’s newest major religions, Mormonism and Scientology. Trey Stone and Matt Parker, the impish creators of television crass-fest South Park, recently wrote an eye-poking Broadway musical called The Book of Mormon to critical acclaim sold-out seats. Hacktivist group Anonymous has waged an ongoing picket-a-thon of Scientology facilities across the country, armed with Guy Fawkes masks and clever placards. But for all of the perceived kooky antics of Mormonism and Scientology, they are both worthy of serious, detached academic study and rigorous scrutiny.
Much ink has been spilled about Mormons of late for their growing influence in politics and foreign affairs. Of their two most recognizable public figures, one, Glenn Beck, for years harangued from the prime-time throne of the biggest cable network in the country, and the other, Mitt Romney, pontificates from the campaign trail bully pulpit. “[F]or all the attention now lavished on how Mormonism fits in with the American experience,” writes Chris Lehman for Harper’s, “remarkably little is known about a key feature of Mormon belief: the organization of economic life.” Through an exhaustive essay (sorry, subscribers only) covering how wealth figures into Mormon theology and politics, Lehman makes one thing exceedingly clear: The-Little-Church-from-Utah-that-Could is an important subject on which economics and business management professors should fix an unblinking eye.
Just look at the figures. Mormons are the fastest growing and richest religious group in the world—and their resources are being pooled more and more potently, such as the $14 million fundraised to ban gay in California in 2008. Although that figure alone is worthy of deep, deep investigation, there’s more. Allow me to quote from Lehman at length:
The church has its own welfare system, which distributes its own line of food and consumer products under the proprietary Deseret brand. It also holds extensive corporate investments, which are not fully disclosed—but in a 2007 study called Mormon America, Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling fix the church’s total assets at somewhere between $25 billion and $30 billion. (For the sake of comparison, the Ostlings note that a similarly sized U.S. denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, possesses $152 million in stock holdings, mainly to secure its employees’ pension plans.) The Mormon church owns a $16-billion insurance company, at least $6 billion in stocks, and a $172-million chain of radio stations, as well as more than 150 farms and ranches, which easily places the church among the largest landowners in the nation. (Emphasis mine.)
Heck, with the amount of influence the Mormon Church carries, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’m a Mormon already and just haven’t yet been notified.
Tight-lipped and loaded with celebrity converts, the Church of Scientology also occupies a unique place in American culture. The ideas of founder L. Ron Hubbard “contain fascinating religious content that demands serious study,” argues Seth Perry in Chronicle Review in a review of two new books about the institution’s history, public perception, and what can be gathered about its theology.
Perry admits that Scientology can be a slippery subject. “The unearthing of the church’s complicated, often ugly history is an essential part of the study of Scientology,” he writes, “but it does not need to be the sum total of that study.” Its members are at once cultish and beatific, both mystical and matter-of-fact. Perry recounts one pilloried anecdote that embodies many of those elements:
For much of his career, Hubbard gave orders through what he called his Messengers—mostly adolescent girls who were required not only to convey his words verbatim, but to imitate his voice while doing so.
Of the two books Perry reviews—Inside Scientology: The story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman and The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion by Hugh B. Urban—he concludes that the two scholars “have brought the study of Scientology to a crucial, long-delayed point” and will enable academia to “encompass the variety of ways in which individual Scientologists have lived their faith both within that institution and outside of it.”
Lehman and Perry’s stances are refreshingly curious for the current discourse around these two uniquely American religions.
Sources: Harper’s, Chronicle Review
Images: A still from The Book of Mormon Broadway production and the cover of Dianetics.
11/16/2011 1:59:44 PM
In some parts of the country you run into more ex-Catholics than stoplights. Heck, my family is a Black Friday parking lot of disgruntled former Catholics. Chalk the theological exodus up to the Church’s delayed, dismissive handling of the sex-abuse scandal or de-traditionalizing of American life. But the Catholic Church has one big scriptural challenge to filling the rank and file: the problem of evil. The hot glow of fire and the sulphur stink of brimstone. Or, more specifically, Hell.
For much of Christianity’s history, fear of hell has loomed large over the faithful. Tired of the constant threat of damnation, however, in the past 50-some years the Catholic Church has moved toward a more positive, salvation-based stance. The trend has spurred U.S. Catholic magazine to wonder, “Has hell actually, finally frozen over?”
“Over the last half-century,” writes J. Peter Nixon, “hell has moved from being a fixture of the Catholic landscape to something that exists far over the horizon.” Nixon cites polling stats from Pew Center on Religion and Public Life: “60 percent of Catholics believe in hell. While comparable to mainline Protestants (56 percent), that’s far below the 82 percent recorded by evangelical Protestant churches.”
Even though hell doesn’t seem to trouble the layperson like it used to, religious scholars, writers, and clergy continue to question its theological place. Evangelical pastor Rob Bell, in his book Love Wins, pinged the problem of evil in contemporary spiritual discourse, wondering, if we have a just and all-loving God, “Will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire Ministries says we can’t forget about hell completely, that, Nixon summarizes, “Catholic teaching affirms hell’s existence, but doesn’t tell us if anyone has ever been sent there.” Is there any reason, though, why it might be advantageous for hell to exist?
Nixon lays out a number of reasons why hell may be a crucial component of Christianity. Are contemporary Christians too optimistic about their own salvation? Do they live in a state of what German Protestant Dietrich Bonhoffer would call “cheap grace”? As Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, explained to U.S. Catholic, “[Hell] did communicate a depth to life. Life was to be lived for high stakes.” That sentiment, I’d argue, is something folks of all faiths can agree on.
Then again, maybe not. One final anecdote from Nixon:
A priest as well as a theologian, Randy Sachs has few regrets about the church’s change in tone. “In the confessional I’ve heard people talk about their understanding of God in ways that would turn your hair white. Some of our baggage is definitely worth losing.”
Source: U.S. Catholic
Image by matthewvenn, licensed under Creative Commons.
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