One of my favorite religious symbols – the Shiva Nataraja

A symbol of creation and destruction and the struggle to overcome ego through #spiritual #contemplation, the Shiva Nataraja, or Dancing Shiva is one of my favorite religious symbols. This explanation of the symbol by Aldous Huxley isn’t very thorough, but it’s clear and easy to understand.

I think what I appreciate so much about it is that it’s so comprehensive that you can meditate on the meaning of all reality just through the symbolism in this image. Birth, death, the infinite vastness of time and space, the insignificance of our place in it all, and the need to struggle to be better people anyway.

I wonder, were it not for the Jewish restrictions on creating images of the divine (which was more literally expressed in Islam), would we have a richer and more complex tradition of religious symbolism in the West. Something as complex as this image to describe the Abrahamic God or the Trinity and the Christian worldview.

Dune sequel books contain really complex themes and ideas

I’m surprised by how well the story has held up, considering that it was written in the 70s.

I need to reread the part about the transformation in the desert, because I’m not sure how or if that really fit into the story’s world. It felt more like magic than science or evolution.

The author describes patterns of human activity that repeat over eons. He approaches the idea that people need to stay connected to the immediacy of life and human nature. Somehow, the story strikes me as being anti-technology and a call for people to be spiritual but not religious. There are also constant criticisms of the role of religion in creating excuses for, and a need for, violence.

The end of the story gave me some ideas about Shai-Hulud. Unless I really misread things, the goal of the Dune story is to describe replacing the big worm or driving force below the desert, which makes me wonder if this is a repeating cycle that has happened before.

Herbert draws heavily on various religions in the creation of his universe, so a circular conception of time and the embodiment of “divinity” in an actual character whose existence becomes the literal and spiritual foundation for galactic civilization would be right up his alley. It would also make for a really epic story.

The scale and complexity of the ideas the author is tackling grows in each new Dune book. Some people may not like it or understand a lot of it. I know I didn’t when I tried to read these books at 13, but they are thought-provoking and fascinating to me now, 27 years later and being much more well-read. There are obvious, like really obvious, references to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, but also hints of Hinduism and Buddhism as well.

For someone like me that has been interested in religions for their entire life, this series is exceptional.

The True Self

Photo by Jay Castor on Unsplash

…the True Self is the self that existed before the division of heaven and earth and before one’s father and mother were born. This self is the self within me, the birds and the beasts, the grasses and the trees and all phenomena. It is exactly what is called the Buddha-nature. This self has no shape or form, has no birth, and has no death. It is not a self that can be seen with the aid of your present physical eye. Only the man who has received enlightenment is able to see this. The man who does see this is said to have seen into his own nature and become a Buddha.

The Unfettered Mind: Writings from a Zen Master to a Master Swordsman by Takuan Soho

Hidden Catholic prayer beads in Walmart products

“Pray for Us St. Peregrine” prayer beads that were hidden in a heavy-duty drain snake box purchased at Walmart.

A few weeks ago, I picked up a drain snake from Walmart. We prefer using them to dumping harsh chemicals down the drain. We’re trying to be more environmentally conscious, and we figure it’s probably better for our health and the health of our pets than Drano fumes.

Yesterday, I finally opened the box. I had some trouble getting the cardboard slide that the snakes were attached to out because they were hung up on something. Turns out it was a set of Catholic prayer beads that had been tucked into the back of the box.

A close-up of the Pray for Us St. Peregrine prayer beads.

I imagine some enterprising individual went around Walmart and stashed these prayer beads in random products to get them into people’s homes and hands. It’s a clever idea. They reach people that otherwise would never think to take one when offered. It was thoughtful, and their heart was in the right place.

However, it’s also a little annoying, because now I have the burden of trying to figure out what to do with them in a way that’s respectful. We’re not Catholic, but I don’t want to dump them in the trash either. I figure I’ll check with coworkers and neighbors and if that’s a bust, then I’ll drop them off at the nearest Catholic Church.

But, maybe that’s part of the plan too! To create opportunities for dialogue between non-Catholics and Catholics.

Coronavirus Journal: Day 28 – Cooking, Jazz, and Corona-chan

So, I stayed up too late last night, I think, because I feel really tired and I have a headache. Coronavirus symptoms, I know, but this is pretty normal for me when I stay up past 2:30 AM.

I spent most of the day cooking. Not that I’m complaining. This is a good time to work on perfecting cooking skills after all. I think I’ve got biscuits down to a T:

A 9″ round pan filled with biscuits about to go in the oven

I’m still having issues with cooking bacon in our cast iron skillet, though. The pan is seasoned well. It’s not that the bacon sticks. It’s just that the skillet doesn’t seem to heat evenly on a gas burner.

The bacon overcooks in the middle while the ends are still near raw
I had to squish the bacon up over the part of the pan directly over the heat. I know the skillet is off-center. I had too much bacon in the skillet to cook it all at once so I had the rest of the slab over on the left side.

I haven’t quite worked out what temperature to cook the bacon at or where on the skillet to position it so that it cooks in the way I imagine it’s supposed to work. But maybe it just doesn’t work like a regular pan and you just have to do this way? Scrunched up over the part of the pan that’s directly above the heat?

Cornbread for tonight’s dinner

I also made cornbread. I finally figured out how to do that without burning it. Later, I’ll fry some chicken. Also in that cast iron skillet. I love that thing. It’s so fun to use even if it’s a little difficult.

I’m taking a break right now. I found this nice jazz livestream to listen to while I put my feet up for a bit. It’s really relaxing. I feel like I’m in a cafe somewhere, like things are normal and I don’t hear sirens outside the window constantly.

I haven’t even been outside in over a week I think. We just go to the grocery and then come home. The statistics for New York City are really bad and I don’t want us to wind up sick. Who would take care of all of our cats? And besides, I have too many books to read and video games to finish to die now! I haven’t even finished “Breath of the Wild” yet. Or The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

Anyway, I’m starting to burn out on trolling Twitter for coronavirus information. The conversation has gotten bogged down by trolls and morons that are peddling conspiracy theories about everything from secret magic treatments for COVID-19 to an upcoming war between Trump’s forces of righteousness and the “Deep State”. Apparently, all of the coverage about the coronavirus from around the world is a hoax made up by “the Libs” to destroy America.

I did find this gem last night, though:

Corona-chan’s campaign for world domination

It’s brilliant. It really catches the popular mood in the US. All of the memes and conspiracy theories are in there. It epitomizes the idgaf attitude towards the pandemic many Americans have shown both visually and through the choice of music.

America loves end of the world scenarios. I think it’s baked into our culture, a leftover from the religious fundamentalism that played a large role in the colonization of the continent. Not that religious fundamentalism is in our rear view mirror, of course. There are plenty of Protestant evangelical/fundamentalist churches out there.

This is sort of a different topic, but I think Christian fundamentalism is dangerous because it encourages decision making based on feelings rather than logic and reasoning.

Don’t think. Just have faith.

Don’t ask questions. Just believe.

Don’t do any research. Just listen to what I tell you.

And that’s how you wind up with groups of people that are ready to believe in “deep state” conspiracies, that COVID-19 is a hoax, and that we’re about to go to war with someone. Not sure who, but someone. Either the Deep State, or China, or maybe us against the rest of the world.

It’s nuts, but it’s fascinating. Trump being elected somehow brought all of this insanity to the surface. I think it’s a good thing. We needed to know it was there. Of course, we could guess that this kind of crazy exists in American society, but now we know for sure. Hopefully, as a result the politicians will take notice and shift some of the national budget away from funding the military-industrial complex and instead boost education, regardless of who wins the November election.

Museum Challenge: The Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park

A sitting area in The Cloisters

Some photos from my trip to The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in January:

The Cloisters//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsThe Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The building houses a collection of art from Medieval Europe. Because of that, most of the art depicts Christian religious stories and figures. It’s a pretty interesting collection that can be viewed in about 3 hours if you’re not stopping to read every information plaque in detail.

What stuck with me was the collection of reliquaries. It’s fascinating to think that people believed, and still believe, that being close to or touching the body part of a deceased person can confer some spiritual power or good fortune. I suppose it’s not too different from people buying souvenirs in Jerusalem today to bring back with them, or bringing dirt from Jerusalem, because people who were holy may have walked on it.I’m reminded of something I saw in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Like The Cloisters, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a conglomeration of chapels that were joined together. They building covers the supposed sites of Jesus’s crucifixion and the tomb where his body was placed. There is also a stone at the foot of the hill where Jesus was supposedly crucified. Jesus’s body is said to have been brought down off the cross and placed on this stone.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (March 2014)
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (March 2014)

I’m reminded of something I saw in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Like The Cloisters, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a conglomeration of chapels that were joined together. They building covers the supposed sites of Jesus’s crucifixion and the tomb where his body was placed. There is also a stone at the foot of the hill where Jesus was supposedly crucified. Jesus’s body is said to have been brought down off the cross and placed on that stone. While I was there, women came in and poured oil onto the stone and then used a number of scarves to soak it back up. I assume they took those scarves home and distributed them to people who couldn’t make the trip and that they believed there had been some sort of transference of holiness from the stone to the scarves through the oil.

I didn’t take many photos on this trip because I’d been there before. The last time I visited The Cloisters was during the summer. I would definitely recommend visiting in warm weather. The open courtyards are much more enjoyable when there’s warm sunlight, cool breezes, and running fountains. I saw quite a few people sitting on benches and reading. There is also no herb garden during the winter, for obvious reasons.

Because The Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, admission is donation based. There are suggested donations, but you can give a nickel and still be admitted to the museum.

Here are some photos from a previous trip:

The Cloisters, Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsThis post is the start of my Museum Challenge series.

Bible in Pop Culture Week 6: Cartmanland and Job

“Cartmanland,” the sixth episode of season five of South Park, contains a specific reference to the Book of Job. In the story, Cartman’s grandmother dies and leaves her entire life savings to Cartman, because she believes the rest of her family would just spend the money on crack. Cartman decides to use the money to fulfill his dream of having a theme park all to himself. So, he purchases a theme park that was on the verge of going out of business and renames it Cartmanland. Cartman uses the park solely for his own fun and makes it a point to advertise on television that no one else may enter the park or ride the rides.

Kyle is horrified that a person as despicable as Cartman is experiencing such good fortune and questions his faith in God. Kyle’s faith is further damaged by the discovery that he has a hemorrhoid. Kyle and Stan decide to try to break into the park by climbing the fence, but this only makes Kyle’s situation worse: his hemorrhoid breaks and becomes infected, leaving him hospitalized. Kyle’s parents try to cheer him up by reading him the Book of Job, but they forget to mention the ending, where Job receives more material wealth than he previously had. Kyle is horrified and his health begins to fade as the hemorrhoid infection spreads to his lungs.

Kyle’s health only improves when he discovers that Cartman’s plan to have Cartmanland all to himself fails and he ends up worse off than he was before inheriting the million dollars. Cartman had to allow in guests to defray operating expenses, was fined by the IRS for not keeping tax records, was sued by Kenny’s parents because Kenny died in the park, and ends the show by losing the park and being $13,000 in debt to the IRS, sprayed with mace and crying, restoring Kyle’s faith in God.

“Europe’s Angry Muslims” (2005), by Robert S. Leiken – Response Essay

Europe's Angry Muslims Book Cover

In “Europe’s Angry Muslims” (2005), Robert S. Leiken analyzes the presence of Muslims in European countries from the perspective of international security, or specifically the security of the United States, which has visa-waiver agreements with the European Union. According to his article, Muslims are able to easily enter the European Union due to lax rules regarding who is allowed in. Islamic radicals are allowed to enter one European country and, because of the lack of border controls between European Union members, they are then able to travel to all European countries in the EU. Besides the risk to the European Union member states, Leiken sees this as a problem because these radicals are recruiting jihadis who are second generation immigrants and have European citizenship, allowing them to freely travel to the United States.

Leiken’s article emphasizes the role that being a minority in Europe plays in enabling the radicalization of Muslims. Across different contexts, Leiken finds a common thread of estrangement from the dominant culture that turns into disillusionment and anger in Muslims who are born in Europe and have European citizenship, but are socially excluded based on their ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Leiken’s use of statistics to demonstrate the threat of Europe-born Muslim jihadis is flawed. He states that the number of mujahideen who identified as European nationals in North America and Europe in a 1993-2004 survey was roughly 25% of the total, representing the largest demographic within the group. What does that prove, really? It would stand to reason that there would be more local-born Muslims than immigrants in a given time period. This does not, however, call into question the seriousness of the problem of radicalization of domestic Muslims.

Another problem with Leiken’s analysis is his Mecca vs. Medina analogy which, while illustrative, is historically incorrect and misrepresents the foundational period of Islamic history which is significant in terms of his topic: conflict between Muslims and Westerners. In his analogy, he states that Mohammed “pronounced an anathema on [Mecca’s] leaders and took his followers to Medina … [where] he built an army that conquered Mecca in AD 630…” (127). Mohammed fled Mecca in the face of persecution, and by all accounts was among the last to leave, having first sent a group of followers to Ethiopia and then having sent the remainder to Medina ahead of himself. In Medina, he did not “[build] and army” (127), he built a community and engaged in the common raiding practices of the Arabian Peninsula. He also built political alliances which were useful when hostilities did break out. Leiken’s misrepresentation of the situation and glossing over of the long hostilities, political treaties and eventual surrender of Mecca to Mohammed’s men paints Muslims as naturally violent from the beginning of their history, leading to the teleological conclusion that they must be dealt with in some way to make Europe and the United States safe from their barbarism.

Leiken discusses the ways that European countries have engaged with their Muslim populations, noting that all attempts to integrate them have failed, from Belgium’s active attempts to socially support and integrate all comers to Germany’s separation to Britain’s multiculturalism. He then herald’s the United States’ as being the most successful with a policy of toleration while allowing the maintenance of social distinctions. He does not describe how the policy in the US is really that different from the policies of Britain. What Leiken does do, however, is discuss boundaries created by geography that prevent the type of radicalism spreading throughout Europe from reaching the United States. He notes that Muslims in Europe can see radical speeches on satellite and the Internet, but fails to note that those same mediums are available in the United States. By claiming logistical difficulties, Leiken gives too little credit to terrorist organizations and too much credit to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in preventing terrorism.

The conflict between Muslims and Westerners is sometimes framed as a battle of civilizations, with the implication being that one must wipe out the other to survive. Leiken’s analysis posits Muslim minorities as unassimilable, even in the best case scenario of the United States, where they are “tolerated” but socially distinct (133). This, combined with Leiken’s presentation of Muslims as historically and uniquely violent through a distorted retelling of the religion’s foundational history perpetuates the notion that they are outside of Europe and cannot be brought inside; they must be contained because they cannot be European.

Jesus in Modern Scholarship

This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate course about a year ago called “Jesus the Jew”.


 

In The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders presents a very detailed examination of the evidence available for Jesus’ life. Of the three sources used for this paper, it is the most complete and the most scholarly in nature. F. E. Peters’ unpublished chapters on Jesus are very similar to Sanders’ work, though written in a more conversational way and with more emphasis on Jesus as the Gospels portray him, and on how Jesus viewed himself. Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is written for a mainstream audience and relegates complex arguments about sources to the endnotes, but it also presents a scholarly view of Jesus with an emphasis on social unrest.

Sanders is very clear about the evidence relating to Jesus. He writes that “the more or less contemporary documents, apart from those in the New Testament, shed virtually no light on Jesus’ life or death, though they reveal a lot about the social and political climate.”[1] He is probably referring to Philo, who did not mention Jesus, and Josephus, who was born after Jesus was crucified. Sanders explains that using the New Testament as a source is problematic because it was not written as a history; it was intended to be a theological document and though historians can glean information from it, as Sanders, Peters and Aslan all do, it is impossible to know whether the information is accurate or not.

A good example of this is the contradictory reasons given to explain why Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee rather than in Bethlehem.[2] The device used to reconcile this apparent scriptural contradiction is a census that required people to travel to the hometown of their ancestor of forty-two generations. Sanders describes this method as being the result of a difference between how history is thought of today and salvation history, which required Jesus to be placed in a narrative that met traditional models or types based on scriptural precedents. Aslan also points out the obvious inaccuracy of the census but explains it as the inability of writers at the time to think of history scientifically because they were attempting to reveal truths, rather than facts.[3] Regardless, the point is that the New Testament is not a document that is meant to convey factual history; it is a theological document.

Sanders relies heavily on Josephus and also references Philo as a source of information to describe the historic and social setting that Jesus acted in. Sanders writes in detail about the problems of using the New Testament and explains how it was formed, starting out orally and evolving into pericopes that could be rearranged into stories depending on the author’s needs. Because of these issues, he believes that understanding Jesus can best be done by understanding the social and historical setting of first century Palestine. Aslan is also heavily invested in exploring the social setting of Palestine to try to understand how it may have influenced Jesus as a man. He also uses Philo as source for information about Judaism and Palestine, but does not mention him within the text of the book itself. Rather, he uses extensive endnotes to mention his sources. He seems to rely more heavily on Josephus and does not engage in the sort of literary critique of the New Testament that Sanders does, perhaps because his book was written for a less scholarly audience. Peters uses the same sources, but also references post-Biblical literature like the Book of Enoch.

The limited number of resources available results in all three authors having very similar arguments and conclusions about Jesus. Sanders presents Jesus as a man who had very little impact in his own society based on Jesus’ lack of a major following and Rome’s inaction in terms of suppressing him and his movement. Aslan mentions that the authorities were highly sensitive to any hint of sedition, but Sanders points out that, despite Josephus’ narrative of steadily increasing social unrest, this was just a plot device he used to build up to the revolt in 66 CE. Aslan’s interpretation implies that Jesus’ activities were more notable than Sanders believes they were, though Aslan also acknowledges the routine nature of Jesus’ crucifixion. All three authors agree that Jesus was crucified for political ideas that undermined Rome’s position, though Peters seems to place more blame on the Jews than either Aslan or Sanders.

Both Aslan and Sanders express similar ideas about the purpose of Jesus’ mission. Aslan writes that Jesus was not interested in gentiles, at least not during his ministry. He was solely concerned with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).[4] Sanders is more specific and explains that Jesus was also concerned with Jews of a specific social class: poor, rural Jews like himself. He also examines the symbolism of Jesus’ use of terminology like “the Twelve” and “the kingdom” to try to discover what Jesus thought he was going to accomplish. We’re left with an image of a devout Jew that felt he was attempting to bring about a new Jewish kingdom of God on Earth that would appear soon after his death. According to Sanders and Aslan, Jesus was not trying to establish a heavenly kingdom and he did not anticipate the dissolution of the physical universe. He was attempting to recreate the golden age of Jewish sovereignty, which may be why he symbolically referred to his primary disciples as “the Twelve,” referencing the twelve tribes of Israel. Peters’ work seems to imply a more apocalyptic meaning (in the Christian sense) in Jesus’ message, but that may simply be due to the unfinished nature of his unpublished work.

Sanders spends the majority of his book whittling away at source material to try to find a believable middle-ground that describes who Jesus might have been and what he might have thought about his role in society. Aslan, on the other hand, spends more time focusing on the social conflict between the Jews and Rome and between different Jewish groups. Peters puts more emphasis on the content of the Synoptic Gospels and Jesus’ role as a messiah with a scriptural basis, but all provide similar images of a historical figure based on the limited sources available. Who Jesus was as a person is likely lost forever, buried in layers of theology, revision, addition, and interpretation by later writers. Most of what can be known about Jesus, barring a new discovery, is already available and all that is left to academia is creative interpretation.

 

 

Bibliography

Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Kindle Edition. New York: Random House, 2013.

Peters, F. E. “Chapters 1-5 concerning Jesus.” Unpublished Work. New York, 2012.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Kindle Edition. New York: Penguin, 1995.

 

[1] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1995), 3.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random house, 2013), Kindle Location 682-688.

[4] Quoted in Zealot…. The translation is the author’s own.

Holy Family Church’s Frozen Garden

On Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were by the United Nations to take advantage of a Groupon deal I got for the Indigo Indian Bistro on East 50th Street. We didn’t realize the place closed for a while after lunch and before dinner, so we found ourselves standing in the cold with an hour and a half to kill.

I thought about going to the United Nations for a tour, since we were right next to it, but it looked like it was closed too. There weren’t even flags up on the poles. So, we started walking around. First, we poked our heads in at the Japan Society to see if there was anything going on (and to warm up a bit), but they were just finishing up a New Year’s celebration for kids. Then we went next door to look in the Holy Family Church. The building is really weird looking from the outside.

Turns out it’s a Catholic church. It’s sort of nice inside. The giant Jesus on the wall above the priest leading the service was a little scary looking. It made me think about the conflict inherent in the concept of a trinity model of monotheism, and whether or not a distant and cold concept of God was being replaced by the warm and gentle spirit of a man, someone that people could understand and empathize with. That’s a subject for another post, though. I’ve been doing a lot of theological reading that I’ve been slowly digesting, mentally.

Sculpture of an angel (I think)
Sculpture of an angel (I think)

After warming up in the church foyer, we went back out to find our next opportunity for passing time. As we were walking away, I noticed a side path that led into a garden that was covered in snow and ice. We figured it was worth a few minutes to go in and look around.

Frozen waterfall in the Holy Family Church garden.
Frozen waterfall in the Holy Family Church garden.

What really peaked my interest was the fact that the garden pool was covered in a layer of ice and snow, and so was the artificial waterfall. I don’t suppose there’s anything unusual about a waterfall icing over in winter, but it’s not something I really expected to see in the middle of Manhattan; not even an artificial one. So, I think the unexpectedness of seeing what I didn’t expect to see made it more worth seeing, if that makes any sense. I’ve also always enjoyed religious settings and architecture, of a certain type. The more solemn and thoughtful type. I’ve always thought religion should be a solemn, thoughtful and meaningful thing.