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[Chalice] On World Religion [Chalice]

Presented September 21, 1997, by Michael Flanagan

To Open our service, I will quote the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desire-less, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.

A children's story:

An old Hindu story tells of a holy man who tried to count the gods. Although he was the son of a Brahmin priest and could have enjoyed a life of wealth and ease, he decided at the age of 20 to travel across India for a year or two to ask people which gods and goddesses they worshiped. In great cities and humble villages he wrote down the name of every god in a large book. When he filled the book, he started another. From the furthest Himalayas to the burning plains of the south, he saw magnificent temples filled with beautiful statues, as well as crude stone idols. He discovered thousands upon thousands of different deities and finally, at the age of 93, he began adding up all the names he had written. The task alone took another seven years, and finally, on his deathbed, the holy man wrote on the last page of the last book the grand total of all the gods in India. He wrote: "One."

A Meditation:

The American Indian prophet Smohalla, when told that his people should become farmers said:

You ask me to plough the ground.
Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's breast?
Then when I die she will not take my bosom to rest.
You ask me to dig for stone.
Shall I dig under her skin for her bones?
Then when I die I cannot enter her body to be born again.
You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it and be rich like white men.
But how dare I cut off my mother's hair?

Reading from Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian text, as adapted by David Ferry:

The father Utnapishtim spoke and said: "I will tell Gilgamesh the king the story; a secret of the gods I will disclose. There was an ancient city, Shuruppak -- you know of it -- most fortunate of cities, god-favored, on the banks of the Euphrates. The gods in heaven decided in their council to bring the flood down on the fortunate city. They sat in secret council together, deciding. Anu was there, the councilor Enlil, Ninurta of the Silence, and there also was the god Ennugi, monitor of canals. And there was Ea, cleverest of the gods. The voice of Ea telling me the secret came whispering through the reed walls of my house: "You reed house walls, listen and hear me whisper; listen and be attentive to what I tell you. Utnapishtim, son of Ubartutu, abandon your house, abandon what you possess, abandon your house and build a boat instead. Seek life instead of riches, save yourself. Take with you on the boat you build, an instance of each thing living so that they may be safe from obliteration in the flood. Perform the construction of the boat with care. Let the length of the boat and the width of the boat be equal. Roof over the boat as the abyss is roofed." The whispering voice spoke through the rustling walls: "You reed house walls, listen and hear what I say."

This story does go on, of course, but if you found this beginning to be a little bit familiar, I want to assure you that the remainder of the story would hold many more familiarities for you, though some differences, as well. The writing down of this story as a part of the text of Gilgamesh happened about a thousand years before the story of Noah was written down in the Biblical book of Genesis.

Reading from The Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis:

"According to Irish sources, the Druids had a form of baptism. Baptism is now popularly associated with the Christian faith, symbolizing purification from sin. The word is, of course, of Greek origin -- baptizien -- meaning 'to dip'. But the religious rite of initiation by symbolic purification through the use of water is to be found in a wide variety of religions throughout the world. The Vedas indicate that water is the symbol of Hindu purity and the texts include detailed purity rituals. Ritual bathing in the Ganges at Benares, Shiva's city, is an example. Joseph Campbell observed:

. . . the people bathe in the Ganges. It's a constant baptism rite; going in and absorbing the virtue of this miraculous gift of the universe, the waters of the Ganges. The Ganges actually is a goddess, Ganga, and this flowing water is the grace that comes to us from the power of the female power.

But water initiation is to be found in religions from as far afield as Manchu Japan and Meso-America. It also appears in the Koran of Islam, in Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist texts as well as in Christianity. In pagan Rome we find that the religions of Isis, Dionysus and Mithras all had a water baptism in which it was believed that the rite of confessing sins followed by symbolic purification by sanctified water would wash away all the misdeeds of the believer and change his or her life for the better."

Sermon: On World Religion

I can't tell you what a terrible time I've had trying to find something worthwhile to say about World Religion. I picked those readings to show that there is some convergence among the divergent religions of the world. What I really wanted to accomplish more than anything else was to cut through all of religion and find a core, a central kernel of commonality that would unify the whole of the world of religions. Instead, I'm going to tell you about all the amorphous walls that I've been banging my head against in the attempt.

In a broad outline, there are five major religions in the world and another batch of minor ones. The five major religions can be divided into two branches, the Hindu-Buddhist branch, and the Judeo-Christian-Islamic branch. In coming months, our church will be visited first, by a man named Silaratma, of the Western Buddhist Order, and later, by three local medical doctors; four separate talks on four separate Sundays: Dr. Ali will speak to us on Islam; Dr. Neetin Patel will speak on Hinduism; and Dr. Monty Koroll will speak on Judaism. I have been assigned the task of making some sort of an introduction to this series this morning.

At this point, I feel very closely attuned with a pair of obscure religious sects, one among the Islamic Shia in Iran, and another located in the mountains of New Mexico. In Iran, the members of this flagellant sect make pilgrimages while beating themselves on their backs with switches. In New Mexico, the Flagellantes have been known to go so far as to require one of their number to carry a cross through the mountains on Good Friday, and then they nail him up on it.

My flagellation has not been physical. There are no physical bruises or welts or scars. But my head hurts! We are called Unitarians? And we are called Universalists? And I know perfectly well that those terms are left-over terms from our Christian heritage. By Unitarians, it traditionally means that we are not Trinitarians. God is a one for us, not a three. In Universalism, the tradition is that we cannot suppose that a just God would deny a human being entry into heaven. "All God's Chillins goin' to heabum" -- universal salvation!

I know all that. You know all that. But wouldn't it really be neat if we Unitarian-Universalists could manage to formulate a vision of religion that was broad enough, or specific enough, or strong enough, or sound enough, or profound enough, or just RIGHT enough, that this vision could become universal; could unify religion for all the world. As America has done a reasonable job of becoming the melting pot of ethnic diversity, couldn't we find some way to be a melting pot of the world's religions? Well, if the size of my headache has anything to do with the size of such a project, then my answer is: "I doubt it."

I wanted to find out what religion is, so I started where I often start, I went to the dictionary. I wanted a good answer, so I went to a good dictionary, and I chose the best definition. Here it is: "Religion: Belief in or sensing of some superhuman controlling power or powers, entitled to obedience, reverence, and worship -- or in a system defining a code of living -- especially as a means to achieve spiritual or material improvement." That's The Oxford English Dictionary. Can I get along with that? Well, that idea of a higher power isn't bad, sounds a bit too much like AA for my taste, but I can live with it. That superhuman part though, that part bothers me. It is an emotional response, not a rational one. It is more a reaction against a word than against a concept, but my mind associates the word superhuman with the word ubermensch. When I hear that term, someplace down near the base of my spine, a particularly insidious sensation begins crawling up my back. And that other part, the part about a code of living, "as a means to achieve spiritual or material improvement." That's good, that's really good. The whole idea of improvement or transformation; perhaps you'd prefer to call it enlightenment, or maybe conversion and redemption; take that whole concept and keep it right up there in front of you. Every good religion should have a concept like that one.

I once took a college course in world religions. At least at one point in my life, I crammed pretty hard on all that irrelevant stuff that college professors insist is the absolute minimum that an educated person should know about such subjects as these. I learned all the names of the literary works that each religion treasures. I learned some history of which ethnic groups founded which religions, and then what other ethnic groups appropriated those religions and how they changed them. I learned which individuals should be thought of as milestones in the history of religious thought. I learned lots of stuff like that. And I do remember that the professor made a short presentation about how to study religions. When I started working towards this talk, I had forgotten what that professor had said. So I dragged out that old text-book. I checked out the copyright, 1984; it was still fairly current; and I found a section that is called Studying Religion. It is short, less than two pages long. Typical of text-books, it states that the subject that we are studying here is more demanding than most other subjects. I don't know why text-book writers do that. Why do they just dive right in and tell you that this is a very hard course of study, and we aren't going to cut you any slack? If you don't assume a certain, special state of mind, you simply won't understand what is being presented here. Why do they do that? Surely, text-book writers have been teachers. Evidently, text-book writers are not very good teachers. But then good teachers are indeed rare, and they spend enough time at it that they probably don't have much time left over for writing text-books.

I've digressed. Denise and John Carmody are scholars of religion. They are probably teachers, somewhere, too. They wrote the text-book. I have read from other text-books that were certainly worse. This text-book has a couple of claims to goodness -- maybe not greatness -- but goodness, at the least.

In the first place, It is comprehensive. It covers each of the world's five major religions and their histories. Additionally, it spends introductory time discussing the religions of prehistoric people and the religions of non-literate peoples in our modern world. These extremely thoughtful people have chosen very carefully the categories that they use for the structural analysis of each of these religions. They have chosen to discuss each religion's views of 1) nature, 2) society, 3) self, and 4) ultimate reality. It is a comprehensive treatment.

And secondly, this text is far less biased than many others that I have seen. It might be as difficult for a Christian mystic to enter into the viewpoint of a Sufi ecstatic as it might be for an Eskimo shaman to walk the path of an Hindu beggar monk. The writers of this text have done awfully well at finding a perspective, a point of view that contains both an objective, dispassionate, scholarly remoteness, and an enthusiastic, understanding, and connected involvement, in each of these religions.

Part of the difficulty with studying the religions of the world is that religion is so intimately involved with culture. Rob Manning, our Minister, was describing something of the nature of Culture Shock to us last Sunday when he spoke of being in Lithuania for several days with no guide, and no translator, and no knowledge of the Lithuanian language. I am told by those who have experienced it that true Culture Shock might require several weeks, probably more than a month, before it settles over you from the tip of your nose, clear to the tips of your toes. True Culture Shock sets in when it finally dawns upon someone the level of depth at which the people in another culture think differently than you do. No teacher can teach this to you. If you want to gain that particular knowledge, you will have to go to another part of the world. A part of the world which speaks another language; which experienced a different historical background; and a different political background. Go to a part of the world which experienced a different cultural background; and a different religious background. Go there and fit in. Plan to stay for a year or two. Go to Rome and become a Roman. Go to a Canton in Switzerland, or go to Canton in China. I don't expect the Canton in Missouri is quite far enough away.

Join in as they celebrate their holidays. Allow the fourth of July to pass unnoticed. Join in the local commerce, learn to haggle like a local. It will be easier for you to find a Coca-Cola in China than it will be to find a glass of milk or a piece of cheese. If you are a Christian, feel free, go to a Christian church. Begin to understand the differences between their Christianity, and yours. Live it. Be it. My friends tell me that it takes at least a month. They say that there will come a point when an existential reality will shake your innermost constitution. You are only beginning to understand the import of this phenomenon when you figure out that these people don't think like people at home do. It is only part of the experience when you realize that the way that you have learned that the world is, is not the same as the way that these people have learned to think about the world. It is one thing to be taught that in the Hindu vision of reality, the world of the senses, is an illusion. It is quite another to actually understand that there is a living, breathing, human being standing right in front of you who not only believes that to be true, but who has never had a moment in her life when she didn't believe that to be true. She has never been confronted with someone who didn't believe it to be true. And this person is standing in front of you with an expression on her face that is asking you what planet you just flew in from. You look around you searching for someone who will understand you when you try to explain your way of dealing with sensory information, and all you find are foreign faces! Well, like I said, I've never experienced it. I've only been told about it. I can't claim to know what it is about. I can only imagine.

I digressed again. Back to the text-book writers; it seems to me that they did a pretty good job of getting inside of each of the religions of the world and of explaining them in meaningful terms. I have a high appreciation for that trick. They seem to have an intimate understanding of each of the world's religions from the inside out. And they have a little bit of a knack for explaining the world view of peoples from far-away places to heartland, middle-Americans. I want to get back now, to how they go about talking about religion in the broadest sense. I want to know if they find anything in religion that is truly universal, some sort of a commonality among all religions. How do the text-book writers define religion? They say:

"Religion is the issue of ultimate meaning. . . It is the part of culture that we study when we ask about a people's deepest convictions. . . .Religion is what you get when you investigate striking human phenomena to find the ultimate vision or set of convictions that gives them their sense."

Meaty stuff, that is; good stuff, too. Lots of stuff to think about there. "Ultimate meaning," "people's deepest convictions." Yes, that's religion, all right. But it's not the kind of a universal statement that we were hunting for. We wanted something different. We wanted to find not that religion is about ultimate meaning; but that the ultimate meaning of all religions is . . . something. I want to tell you, they didn't set a silver platter in front of me. We need to try one more thing with the text-book. Let's look in the back of the book. Let's look at the part of the book that the professor always assigns, but never discusses, because he always runs out of time. The text-book writers' conclusion or summary, or whatever. They call that chapter, "Summary Reflections," in this book. And yes, they do talk about it, they say:

"The word religion refers to the inmost human vocation. By empirical fact as well as theoretical interpretation, religion pertains to all life that is reflective, that heads into mystery. . . .

And, further on:

. . . To suffer, lose, rejoice, or trust--such acts know no religious, ethnic, or national bounds. We all walk a way that we cannot name. We all seek (if only covertly) a path that is straight, a path that mystery blesses. If some of our predecessors have been Nordic berserks, who heated up to feel mystery boil, others have been Eastern yogis, who so slowed themselves that they could be buried alive. If some of our predecessors have been erotics, convinced that the force of the way is sexual shakti, others have been lonely ascetics, convinced that meat clouds the spirit. There are few roads that no one has taken, few options that no one has tried. "

Now we're getting somewhere! Hearing statements like that makes me wish that I had studied world religions all of my life. I'm jealous, I envy. Aren't they eloquent? There is more:

"Indeed, that is a major reason why we study the humanities. There would be no basis for studying the humanities were there no unity called human nature. Likewise, there would be no religious studies were there no unity called religion"

Did we find it? Is that the unity we've been hunting for? There is a unity called human-nature, and there is a unity called religion. Is that the key? Religion is a human thing. Best we can tell, animals don't do religion. Is that a fair statement? I think so. The Hindus invest a religious significance in their cows, but it isn't really anything that the cows are doing that makes us think they are being religious like we think of ourselves being religious. The Egyptians had a thing about cats and the Aztecs about jaguars; again though, don't you think that it was the humans investing the animals with a religious significance rather than the animals themselves doing something we would recognize as religious?

Human beings do religion. What about the beginnings of human beings, some(?) 40,000 years ago? Were the very first human beings religious? Who knows? The archaeologists have found prehistoric human artifacts that they think might have been used for religious purposes. For instance, they look at the way that human beings were buried, "planted", in the ground, and wonder if maybe the people who "planted" them were hoping that they would grow into something new.

Certainly, at the beginning of the historical era, human beings were religious. Some of the very earliest writings should be characterized as religious. The bible began to be written down during the reign of King Rehoboam of Judah, after the death of his father Solomon in 922 B.C.E. Long before then, the Hindu Vedas began recording songs and religious wisdom that had been handed down orally. Some of the ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs dealt with religious subjects. And the Sumerians, who invented writing, gave us stories of creation, and the story of Gilgamesh the king who went searching for immortality. We quoted that ancient text earlier, and I will be quoting it once again when close this service.

So, are we on to something here? Well, yes. Religion is a human activity. Every human culture has a religion that is associated with it. Humans are the only species that we can identify as doing religious things. But, SO WHAT? Isn't that just a little bit like saying, "the sun is in the sky?" Whoop-de-do!

I feel like I found a one-ton onion; brushed away the dirt and peeled the papery skin from the outside; then I sharpened up Ockham's razor; and I started hacking away at it. First, I cut away how it is that religions look at the whole of reality. I hacked away at the fact that every religion has a concept about, "what happens when we die;" and "where do babies come from." Each of the world's religions places before us, ready made, a vision of an ultimate reality; a vision of the glue that holds it all together.

I sliced away at the layers of our attitudes towards nature and the earth and physical reality. From Smohalla's reverence for mother earth; the reverence of the hunter-gatherers whose ideal is so extreme that it proscribes against the technologies of agriculture and metallurgy -- to the opposite, the attitude that the earth and everything material is evil and is unworthy of reverence.

I peeled through the layers of ritual and ceremony and celebration. I scraped away the rites of passage, and the ritual remembrances of the historical milestones that have defined each system of belief. I dug into their ethics; the schemes of how it is right and how it is wrong that we human beings should treat each other. And I chopped up those parts of religion that bring its people into community with each other.

And still, my one-ton onion had remaining, layer after layer of concern with the spirit of each individual human being. I looked at techniques for individuals becoming holy that ranged from North-American Indian boys seeking their vision, the vision that should guide them throughout their adult lives -- to Brahman Hindu men spending their decline guiding their spirit toward moksha. I peeled away layers of compelling experiences and hours spent in meditation. Gently, I sliced into the definition given by Alfred North Whitehead, who said that, "Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness."

Finally, as Ockham's razor began growing dull, I found that I had cut all the way in to the core of my onion; and I found that little, tiny piece of green stuff at the very center, and I grabbed it. Now, I've climbed back out of that damn onion again, and all I've got left to do is sit and cry! The answer I got wasn't satisfying. The answer I found seems trite. I have not found a unifying, universal answer to the question, "What is Religion?" Though what I have found is certainly true, it is not profound.

While I was rummaging through one book after another trying find a satisfactory answer to my question, I ran into this statement in a reference that I have at home called A Dictionary of Philosophy. Under the heading: religion, philosophy of, I found this thought: "a satisfactory answer to the question 'What is religion?' would be more like an encyclopedia than a one-sentence definition." Now, why couldn't I have believed that the first time I read it?

I'm going to close this odd-essay today with some observations about an unusual book that I found at Quincy's Free Public Library. A rather remarkable lady named Marjorie Leach has undertaken the cataloging of all of the gods ever mentioned in all the world. Her book is titled Guide to the Gods, and it is arranged first by categories and sub-categories, and then alphabetically. Each entry is granted a concise, rather dictionary-like entry which tells something about the god and where the god is mentioned. Now, I didn't go through this rather heavy book and count, one by one, all its entries; but I did turn to the index and I made a quick calculation. There were 72 pages of index, with four columns of entries on each page, and 66 entries in each column. I multiplied it all out and came up with an approximation of nineteen thousand different and separate names of gods! I will assure you that Mrs. Leach's remarkable labors did not take the 100 years chronicled in the old Hindu fable, but I want to tell you how terribly tempted I was deface that book. I wanted so badly to turn to the fly-leaf at the back and pencil in the numeral, "One."

Closing words from Gilgamesh adapted by David Ferry:

"Who is the mortal who can live forever? The life of man is short. Only the gods can live forever. Therefore put on new clothes, a clean robe and a cloak tied with a sash, and wash the filth of the journey from your body. Eat and drink your fill of the food and drink. Men eat and drink. Let there be pleasure and dancing."

©1997 Michael Flanagan

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Flanagan, Michael. 1997. On World Religion, (accessed July 9, 2020).

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