Meaningful, Foundational Stories: Religious Myths

An old, popular story among orthodox Christians in present day Palestine states that, before Jesus ascended up to heaven, he left his footprint engraved in this stone located at the Ascension Chapel on the Mount of Olives.  Because of their faith in Jesus as the Christ, countless pilgrims from many parts of world visit this sacred site to remember and celebrate this important event as narrated in the Gospels

 

In their oral and written expressions, stories are fundamental in all societies but more so in world religions because of what they mean, the place they have, and the roles they play in the lives of believers.  Allow me to provide a few examples.

In antiquity there were many explanations for the causes of changes in the firmament.   In an universe interpreted as the realm of deities and spirits, good and bad, in pre-historic and primeval cultures, what we call “eclipses” were interpreted according to some foundational stories.  Some ancient Chinese believed that a heavenly dragon consumed the sun and, as a result, humans needed it to scare it away by banging pans and pots.  Vietnamese cultures blamed a giant frog instead, while Norse cultures made hungry wolves responsible for it; however, a Viking version affirmed that a wolf stole the sun but only temporarily.  Old Hindus claimed that Rahu, accused of stealing the nectar of the gods, devoured the sun causing darkness to occur.  In some African ethnic groups eclipses happen when the moon and the sun fight with each other.

In hunting and collecting societies, shamans are closely associated with animals, trees, and mountains because, in their traditional stories, they have a special relationship with the spirits, and these spirits are in charge of nature.  Rituals are typically consistent with this worldview.  Oral accounts reinforce this understanding by helping these groups how to interact with the cosmos.

In the Shivaist Hindu literature, there are many texts that affirm that Shiva, lord and sovereign over the entire universe, is the dancing god who takes pride in presenting himself as the creating and destroying deity of everything there is the cosmos.  In communicating these intrinsic attributes of his persona, this popular deity dances in joy in the story, but equally inspires dances in the hearts of mortals who, in accepting Shiva says about himself and truing to emulate the example of Shiva, join in the celebration as well.  Dancing is part of an integrated cosmos.

In a branch of Gnosticism, an ancient combination of religious and philosophical values, there was a tradition that stated that the world was a replica of the aeons and an incarnation of evil.  More specifically, it was the creation of the demiurge, a divine impersonal being who has nothing to do with a Supreme Being that is seen as absolutely good and to whom humans might have access through esoteric knowledge cultivated by reason.

In Islam, it is believed that Mohammed and angel Gabriel went on a mystical journey (or ascension) to Jerusalem and later to the 7 heavens, where Allah showed the prophet the characteristics of heaven and hell.  After this experience, Mohammed returned to Mecca with a much better understanding of the afterlife.

Among the Cherokees there is a story about how herbal medicine began.   Hunters were getting sick and dying because of spells that animals cast on them.  As soon as the plants and the herbs of the forest knew about the predicament the hunters found themselves in, they offered themselves to be used as medicine to heal the hunters.   The story explains and legitimates the beginning and use of natural medicine.

On the island of Marajo, in northern Brazil, there is a folk, old story circulating among the population that says that the many buffalos they have are not originally from there.  They came swimming across the ocean from west Africa many centuries ago.  Although hard to believe from a more rationalistic perspective, this way of explaining reality provided meaning and structured the lives of indigenous communities.  Their truth was understood from a different vantage point.

Inspired by the popular stories about the pre-Hispanic figure Quetzalcoalt, the feathered serpent, moved many ancient Toltects to build pyramids, altars, and temples in its honor.  In the city of Teotihucán, we find the remains of a temple with many images as a ritualistic act of worship to honor this animal-divine figure who is responsible for the creation of human activities on the land, the giver of goods, and calendar divisions.  This temple might have been a tribute to the creation of time.  Myths and rituals work together.

If rituals are the body of world religions, as some scholars have argued, stories like the ones I have briefly mentioned above are the soul of their respective religions.  Because of the truths they contain, they are powerful and meaningful for their creators, recipients, and preservers.  In the classical study of religion, the examples we have summarized are popularly known by the name of myths.   Without them, religions would not exist.

But how should we define myths more formally?  In their written and oral forms, myths are powerful narrations that contain, program, and develop collective patterns of understanding, evaluation, organization, and actions among religious communities.  Of different forms, character, popularity, age, dominance, and intentionality, myths have a very special place and role to play in the formulation of the worldviews and praxis of religious communities.  They help believers encounter and connect with realities that are the most important ones in life for them.  Through the lens of faith, myths enable religious communities to articulate their beliefs, values, and choices.  Through myths, religions believe to encounter themselves with the Unknown and seek to develop their relationship with it.  Myths carry in themselves and with them the potential for life and death, and many times come across to us as being legendary.  They are not worth the same or equal, though.  But the decisive function they have in articulating the identity and mission of religious communities is undeniable. Many definitions may be given, but rather than delving into the complexities of this issue, we believe that our definition is a good starting point, at least to initiate our conversation.

Several characteristics help further define these great, divine-like or extraordinary stories[1]

Since they are by-products of their own cultures and historical moments, religious meaningful stories not only reveal important insights about the cultures of the religions but also about who they are what they do to survive in their respective environments.  In other words, myths reveal what kind of productive activities religious, ethnic groups did in the land in order preserve their lives and families.  There is, then, a very close connection between communities that are hunting-collectors, agricultural, or a combination of both, and how they view their cosmos and the divine powers.  In these kinds of society, the mythology portrays the gods, goddesses and/or spirits as responsible or as the sources of all the activities that cultures do to support themselves.  From this perspective, when myths are analyzed the emphasis should be, not just on what they tells us about the other worlds and their powers, but primarily what they reveal about the people who believe in those stories. The focus must be on is absolute or independent.

Since myths are rooted in space, culture, and time, the focus in contemporary analysis should not be on what the future holds, but on the past and how that past is up-dated in every generation.  There is, then, a very important historical component upon which to fix our eyes.

Critical reflection enables us to make that call and challenges destructive myths as well.  This led to rise of contemporary prophets in the history of many religions. Take for instance, Gandhi’s rejection of the Caste System because that system, in his prophetic analysis, legitimated socio-economic differences in the Hindu population and would keep the members of the lower stratum there because of something bad they did in their previous, reincarnated lives.

Upon this basic understanding of myths, we can now explore other important aspects of meaningful religious stories.

In terms of their functionality, religious myths play important roles in society.  Taking into consideration different angles of interpretations and areas of human knowledge and experience, let us simply identify a few of them.[2]

(1)  Myths are references to some kind of primeval condition, outside of time and place, some sort of paradise or special realm we all yearn for and need (Eliade).

(2)  As social creations, stories of this kind are a reflection of a community’s present social organization (Smith).   Through myths, religious communities how they are structured.

(3)  Existentially, one may think of myths as answers to our place and role in the universe, as a way of relieving fear of misfortune and death (Malinowski).  They help religions deal with issues they cannot control and the finitude of life.

(4) Psychologically, myths may be taken as expressions of collective unconscious in the form of theme-images (for example, heroes, mother earth, sin, reconciliation, etc.) (Jung).  They do embody ideas of the larger culture of which they are not fully aware but still shape their understanding.

(5)  Broadly speaking myths may be taken as cultural attitudes towards death, life, and the universe (Campbell).  Myths do embody popular ideas from the environment in which they developed.

(6) They also facilitate psychosocial development.  There is something so powerful about these stories that facilitate healthy transitions though the life-cycle stages.

(6)  Foundational stories of this kind evoke feelings of awe, gratitude, respect, fascination, fear, guilt, and concern while creating, eliciting and reinforcing experiences of mystery.  These feelings are believed to be innate.

(7)  Myths present an ordered universe, provide meaning, and reduce fear.  Without them life would be shapeless, chaotic and nonsense.  Thus, they serve a purpose.

(8)  These stories create a strong sense of community facilitating integration and participation and providing appropriate patterns of conduct to reach these goals.

Religious myths have some shared characteristics that make their classification possible.  As confirmed by first-hand observations and reasonable analyses, there are at least three main kinds: myths of Beginning, Separation, and Destination.

(1)  Beginning.  This type normally describes or explains the origin of the universe, humanity, the earth, all the elements of nature, superior beings,  beliefs, rituals, taboos, or moral rules of importance for the religious communities.  These myths, naturally, serve as the justification for what believers do and hold on to. This is a very popular type. Take, for example, the creation of stories among the Mayans and the Babylonians.

(2)  Separation.  This kind focuses on events that describe or explain what has started a rift between the divinity and humans, and among humans themselves.  Stories of this sort, although setting some kind of beginning, put the emphasis more on alienation.  The Garden of Eden story in the OT, for example, narrates how Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their disobedience to God’s commandment, and how that transgression triggered a series of problems at different levels in the entire created order.

(3)  Destination.  These myths typically talk about the end or goal of human existence.  They are futuristic in nature and purpose.  Reaching the Brahman (or going back to a particular deity to become one with him or her and breaking the karma cycle) or Nirvana (as the cessation of suffering and full illumination), as explained in texts or oral tradition, are good example of myths of destination.  Stories that highlight punishments also fall under this category.

Religious myths may simple and straight forward in the message they convey and what their function is in a religious tradition or group.  But when they are too elaborate or have too many details, religious stories could easily complicate our interpretations and make their classification hard to do.  Since any narration could have different meanings, sometimes the above types might overlap.  When this happens, in addition to being aware how multidimensional myths could be and how imperfect our rubrics are, it is important we focus on what seems to be the main purpose or emphasis of the story.  We should be open to other systems of classifications or rubrics since our classifications never exhaust what is out there.

[1] When we qualified myths this was, we are adopting a Western perspective according to which the natural and supernatural can be divided because these realms are substantially different.  However, in more traditional or pre-historic religions such a distinction cannot be made because for them the cosmos is an integrated system of which its elements cannot and must not be neatly separated.  They do not even have a word for the word “myth.”

[2] Please remember that the functions of myths are determined by the points of view adopted and the methods used to communicate those views.

 

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Rituals: Their Overwhelming Nature and Power

Discovered in Tel Beersheba, Palestine/Israel, this four-horned altar was probably used for animal sacrifices.  Fugitives or asylum seekers in biblical times, as part of their ritualistic practices, would grab its horns for personal protection.

We Know Them When We See Them

With a serene demeanor, an old man, inside a nearby Hindu Temple, sits down on a colorful mat with his legs crossed and eyes closed, while incense impregnates the silent sanctuary.  In front of an altar with a small statue, fruits, flowers, and candles, he meditates and seems to be transposed to another world hoping that his gods receive his sincere acts of praise and gratitude.  Meanwhile, in the American Northern Great Plains, an Oglala Sioux Navajo girl returns to her family and members of her tribe and is received with a traditional celebration.  There are powerful reasons to welcome her with a festive spirit.  With only a blanket and a pipe, she has just spent a few days by herself on a special hill, fasting, talking to the spirits and nature, as well as finding herself.  After been enlightened by this mystical experience, she has come back not as a girl, but now as a woman.  Her Vision Quest, as many before her had done it, has successfully ended.

Across to ocean from these mystical scenarios, after a long journey, two parents, after doing the sign of the cross, enter a church in Jerusalem erected to remember Jesus’ suffering and death, and rub their daughter’s clothes on an old rock convinced that, through this symbolic action, the Christian God will protect their baby against the forces of evil and help her to grow to be a faithful disciple of the risen Christ one day.   In response to a loud invitation to celebrate Allah’s uniqueness and greatness, a devoted crowd of men and women in the city of Istanbul proceed to wash their necks, feet and hands, and slowly walk towards the Blue Mosque to pray to their Creator, all facing the city of Mecca as the sun sets in the horizon once again.

To many of us these are familiar images.  We know what they are and have some words to name them.  In our minds, like many others we have seen, they are samples of religious rituals. But the term “ritual” is not restricted to religious contexts.  In our daily lives we have applied this term to habits or behaviors that are repeated.

However, naming what rituals are or providing examples of out of our daily lives is not enough.   What else is there for us to know about rituals that might take us beyond a causal, anecdotal, or informal understanding?  What should we say about their seemingly magical and powerful nature and function, especially in religious contexts?  What are some of their main characteristics regardless of what world religions they represent?  Are they all the same or are there different types?    What criteria and methodology should we use to identify and describe them more accurately?

To answer these and similar questions, a much more formal approach to the understanding of rituals is more than welcome in order to improve our knowledge and interaction with people who use them.

A Practical Understanding

Taken from the Latin word ritus through its adjectival form ritualis, the word ritual(s)is a word that has been used in many languages since the 16thcentury.  This word, oftentimes associated with the term “ceremonial(s)” among average people, usually refers to a series of cultural, repetitive activities and actions that individuals and groups create, utilize, and engage in to make deep connections with what they believe to be the most significant aspects of their lives.  To simplify it, rituals are symbolic-reoccuring-routine-act forms whereby order, meaning, and direction, are established in any given social group to meet its ideological, psychological, spiritual, moral, and physical needs.

Since we all live in relation to others and experiencing different levels of influence, rituals may be secular or religious.  They both share all the same characteristics.  What makes the difference between the two, however, is that religious rituals make explicit, intentional, significant, symbolic contacts with realities that, through the eyes of faith, are regarded as absolute, definitive or perfect.  Unlike secular rituals, religious rituals presuppose the existence of and directly appeal to what religious people call God, the Unknown, the Sacred Mystery, Deities, the Spiritual world, and other esoteric realities captured by other terminology.

Common Traits

Rituals, being human creations done in space and time, have their unique or distinctive features no one can deny or by-pass.  Contextualized interpretations can unearth them for us.  However, there are some consistent characteristics they all have in common, which constitute criteria of analysis.  The following are the most important ones:

  1. Faith-Driven.  Rituals, in general, always presuppose strong beliefs as their generating force.  In the case of religions, they are the result, embodiment, and serving instrument of a strong trust in the existence and involvement of the Divine Unknown in people’s lives.  As we have indicated, everything that religions believe in, feel, and do is filtered through this lens.  Technically, faith is the heart of religious epistemology or philosophy of life.
  1. Universal.  Religious or not, rituals are essential parts of all cultures.  Regardless as to whether they are named with this word or not, or whether people fully understand what rituals are and the purpose they serve, rituals have been used in all societies throughout history.  They are pervasive and will continue to be so since they help objectify people’s feelings, beliefs, values, and other relational aspects of what it means to be human connected to esoteric realities.
  1. Communal.  Although rituals can and should be employed by individuals, it is only in the context of the larger community that they truly come to life, are shared, and validated.  For the sake of academic analysis, it is when believers come together that rituals lend themselves for a better appreciation of what they are, do, take for granted, and expect.  Rituals are part of a complex network of spiritual, psychological, physical, and behavioral realities that hold humans as the major agents and recipients.
  1. Social Mediations.  Rituals enables people to connect them with what they think is important, bringing them together and making sure that such a connection is culturally accessible, tangible, and, above all, relevant.  They are, in fact, social mediations, and/or human objectivations.  Without rituals, what people believe, feel, and value in life would be mere abstractions and their beliefs would be almost impossible to digest, understand, communicate, and manage.  They are, in fact, tangible existential outlets or life-vehicles with many goals or objectives.  Thanks to rituals, individuals and communities can express themselves.
  1. Sensorial.  As concrete act-forms, by definition, rituals engage all our five senses and are typically dramatic and life-giving. With a “sixth-sense” as a presupposition and guiding force, rituals are performative symbols we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch.  They involve the entire person in the context of multiple relationships.  It is impossible to think about the examples given in the introduction to the present post without feeling all our senses stimulated.
  1. Forms of Communication. When we think of rituals as concrete media that facilitate a mystical relationship between the divine and humans and among believers themselves, it is obvious we must take them as channels of communication, limited and with possibilities as well.  They are part of broader notion of language that believers use to understand the deity, themselves, each other, the world around them and the rest of the cosmos.  By looking at them closely, we can obtain a better idea of who the religious communities are and what they stand for.
  1. Ontological.  Being sources of authority, rituals provide individuals and communities with powerful, concrete structures that help guide their lives in an orderly, meaningful, and goal-oriented way.  They help believers realize where they came from, who they are, what they must do, and where they are headed.  Acting as identity boundaries, rituals smooth out life’s existence and transitions, allowing believers to move from what they know to what they do not know with confidence.  They provide a more hopeful, trusting, and loving journey as they go through good and bad times.  Rituals bring people together, give visibility, and reinforce their common ground. 
  1. Multifunctional.  Life-experience has taught us that rituals are usually used as tools or instruments to please the divine mystery and meet the needs of individuals and groups.  They may embody and convey praises and gratitude and elicit the same feelings in others.  Rituals may be used to request favors, strengthen people’s faith, help them deal with uncertainty, bring them together, provide comfort, and celebrate victories.  In touch with the past, rituals may also serve as reminders of important community events closely associated with its identity and history.  Contrary to these goals, at times some rituals may be used to hurt people.  Some actions or activities in religious groups that practice black-magic or witchcraft, for example, are known for services provided to victims of someone else’s bad wishes and aggressive behavior.  Subject to different interpretations, the roles rituals play are concrete, changing, and diverse, not always with ethical goals in mind.
  1. Ends in Themselves. In their most radical forms, especially among orthodox religious communities, rituals are not simple tools, symbols, or vehicles.  As act-forms, sometimes believed to have been ordered by the deity,  in many conservative traditions, rituals  have intrinsic meaning and seem to be ends in themselves.  Rituals are not mere symbols or mediations; they have the power to change reality.  For this reason, sometimes it is very difficult, if not impossible, to separate the faith of believers from the religious actions themselves.  In this type of worldview, content and form are inseparable. Take, for instance, certain oracles that must be memorized and recited, or taking a bath in a designated river (for example, in the Jordan or Ganges Rivers) for the sick person to be healed.  
  1. Proper Names.  Rituals are identified by words or phrases that, in the original languages of the religions that created them, communicate specific ideas that usually get lost in translation.  Because of their technical character, many times it is better to reproduce the sounds of those words in the receiving languages, instead of translating them.  For example, the Greek term “Eucharist” (which means “thanksgiving”) in Christianity conveys the notion that eating the bread and drinking the wine allow Christians, not just to identify with Jesus’ sacrifice and have spiritual communion with him, but also to express gratitude for God’s gifts.   Muslims are required to participate in acts of physical, mental, and spiritual adoration five times a day.  These acts are called “Salaah”, a loaded term that means “communication.”  A “Limpia,” in Afro-Caribbean and indigenous religions, refers to an act of powerful cleansing whereby negative energy, evil and/or unwanted burdens are cast out to generate peace, harmony, and balance.
  1. Patterned Usage. With respect to the implementation of certain rituals, one may find room for flexibility, freedom, and individuality.  For example, in Santería, an Afro-Cuban-pantheistic form of spirituality, the Santeros are allowed to create their own rituals to help the people who seek their spiritual services.  However,  in other religions many times one will find clear, guiding expectations regarding how rituals must be performed or implemented.  A set of guidelines or procedures is at their disposal.  As mechanisms of social control for the benefit of worshippers and to create order, there are rules to be followed in order to facilitate connections with the Unknown Mystery.  Life-Cycle, Life-Crisis and Periodical Rituals, as we will explain later, have norms they follow. 
  1. Worship Setting.  Rituals are normally used in ceremonies and important occasions of communal and religious significance.  Many of them happen periodically in contexts of adoration or worship.  Only then we will find a series of actions filled with sacred significance and symbolism.  They normally take place in places like temples, altars, synagogues, mosques and churches or by designated trees, rivers, or hills. 
  1. Contextual.  Rituals are context-bound and, from that point of view, they should be understood as historical artifacts that tells us something about the matrixes, time periods or cultures where they originated.  They do not come directly from heaven.  Not only did they rise in response to concrete historical circumstances of which they are reflections, but they are normally re-interpreted through the prism of new historical challenges and possibilities.  They are not abstractions created and used in a vacuum.  As human inventions with unique features, rituals maintain some continuity with the past in conversation with the present.  Although at times they disappear with the extinction of the religions that served as their matrix leaving for us almost no information (as in the case of Canaanite religions), rituals that continue to exist and develop put believers in touch with their own selves, heritage, and history.
  1. Significant Referents.  As context-bound entities, rituals are associated with important stories, events, people, places, times, and circumstances in life (good or bad).  Although rituals are created and used for ordinary life events as well, only the ones that are out of the ordinary or very special occasions are worthy of scrutiny.   As expected, many of them have great myths as their originating background, which believers tend to reenact ceremonially.  Take, for instance, the legendary belief that Adam and Eve lived in Mecca, and Abraham and Isaac made the first altar in that holy city, which gives legitimacy to religious pilgrimages to that place and to participate in other symbolic ceremonies.  The practice of circumcision among Orthodox Jews emulates Abraham’s circumcision in his old age to make sure that boys are made part of God’s covenantal community like he was.
  1. Polysemic.   As cultural media of communication, rituals are versatile, complex, and multi-faceted.  Regardless of the original intent of their creators and users, they can and should be interpreted differently and to meet different needs.  Meaning is socially constructed and is subject to many influencing factors.  Because they are human creations interpreted by human beings, rituals have no fixed or definitive meaning and implications.  There might even be a historical core, but this core is reinterpreted as time goes by.  The ritual of baptism, despite its original meaning, has been interpreted differently by Christians throughout history.
  1. Artistic Aura. Rituals have an artistic or aesthetic aspect to them, which must not be easily overlooked.  In fact, they may be taken as imaginative, dramatic, and performative symbols that take place for an audience in the stage of life.  It takes talent, experience, and skills to design and implement their use in a way that grabs the believers’ attention to facilitate a relationship with the sacred mystery.  And since no religion exhausts all life-circumstances, it is obvious that more rituals will appear thanks to the vocation and gifts that some individuals have.
  1. Unperceived Benefits.  Whether we agree with the use of ritual or not, there is no doubt that rituals provide participants with a series of social, spiritual, and psychological benefits hard to discern or fully understand by a scientific, agnostic, or atheistic mindset. Through the perspective of members of the worshiping communities, rituals have different, positive functions that must be acknowledged.  If this were not the case, why it that rituals are still used?  There is something very powerful about them, which is difficult to account for in words. 
  1. Morally Paradoxical.  Despite all the positive traits they have, rituals sometimes fail to achieve what they seek to achieve, for they are perceived differently by different people and could well be part of the sending of mixed signals.  Some times they fail to facilitate a connection with the deity; participants may also go through the motions without grasping the depths of the ritualistic activities or be critical of them.  In their extreme forms and situations when human beliefs and values are not backed up by their actions, rituals could well be expressions and reinforcing media of alienation.   If not used properly, they can easily turn our attention away from important earthly challenges (for example, issues pertaining to peace, justice, equality, diversity, inclusion, etc.) affairs that could make our faith irrelevant.  When religion focuses on just ritualistic, external behaviors, ceremonies and symbols and does little or nothing to participate in efforts to create a better world, rituals become part of the problem to be prophetically denounced.

Types of Rituals

Based on detailed analyses that focus on differences as well as similarities that rituals have in many cultures, scholars of religions have been able to identify at least three kinds of rituals.  To close our present reflection, let us briefly describe them.

  1. Life-Cycle Rituals.  These kinds of rituals are symbolic forms that deal with key, natural stages that, as intrinsic parts of their life-journeys, individuals, groups, and cultures experience.  As markers of positive life-experiences, and contrary to what life-crisis rituals represent, life-cycle rituals are connected to important thresholds which people typically go through, and which constitute milestones.  With this background in mind, there are rituals specifically designated for births, the coming of age, graduations, initiations, and marriage, just to name a few examples.  Many of the events associated with these types of rituals are marked by ceremonies that contain rites of passage, a symbolic movement from an older status to a newer one with the roles, expectations and/or responsibilities connected to each status.  In this kind of ritual there is usually a preparation phase, an in-between or transition phase (which some people called “liminality”), and the actual final phase incorporation into the new condition.
  1. Life-Crisis Rituals.  But as we all know, life is not a garden of roses.  Oftentimes our faith and character are put to the test to show what we are made of, because of our own poor choices or because of situations that are no fault of our own.  To help individuals get through tough times or move to the next phases of their journeys, religious communities have created life-crisis rituals in response to accidents, illnesses, droughts, death, war, and other trying situations in life.  What is their ultimate objective?  To restore harmony or balance in that person’s life, and his or her relationship with the divine and their neighbors.  When someone is sick, for example, the following actions might be helpful: acts of divination, oracles, mantras, prayers and fasting, mentioning the names of the sick, anointing with oil, sacred dances, ceremonial ablutions, and the reading of the last rights.
  1. Periodical Rituals.  Very much rooted in history and closely linked to significant events taken place in the ever-changing lives of individuals, groups, religions, and nations, these types of rituals are used to celebrate special seasons and dates in the religious calendars of communities.   The occasions and the events periodical rituals commemorate are many and vary from culture to culture; many times they are associated with central religious myths.  Although the time factor binds them with Life-Cycle rituals, they differ in that they are not intrinsic to all people’s normal or fixed stages of life.  Take, for example, the timely rituals that take place during the liturgical seasons of the Christian calendar and the month of Ramadan.  The activities and actions of Labor Day and Memorial Day fall under this category as well.
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Knowing More to Live Better: What is the Purpose of Studying Religion?

The formal study of religion and its various, cultural manifestations is as justifiable an undertaking as any other attempt  to comprehend other experiences or practices in our societies. Why? Ideally and for all practical purposes, it gives us the privilege of grasping what religion is, how its practitioners view the world and relate to it, what they believe in and do, and what motivates them. This knowledge allows us to appreciate our diversity and interact with it responsibly.

Given the significant place that religion has had in history and the decisive role it has played in shaping our global identity, it is not enough to simply “know” or “talk about” religion.  It is way more than bare facts or data.  Rather than being content with scratching the surface or pretend that it is not important, we should invest the time and energy to be familiar with the depths and complexities of religion with several, interconnected objectives in mind as well as through different viewpoints.  But in order to do that, we need to identify some basic facts.  Why should we, then, study religion and its endless examples around the world?

1. To Obtain First-Hand Information about Religion.  Without ruling out other possible goals to achieve, we must study religion to simply gain information about how other people view the world and act in that light. This is the first step of several.  It is about tuning in our hearts and minds to listen to their life-stories, sets of beliefs and values, and efforts to interact with what they see as their “Ultimate Reality,” namely, God, superior beings, an absolute energy integrating the universe or simply a perfect, esoteric unknown. Because religious phenomena are part of the world we live in and because the majority of its inhabitants practice a religion or believe in some form of spirituality, religion must be seen and understood as an important part of us. Therefore, we have to be proactive in grasping some basic facts about different ways of interacting with that dimension of life that transcends our five senses, a closed-minded notion of history or scientific, digital mindsets. The ultimate goal is not agree or disagree, much less to judge or put religious practices down, but to educate ourselves on this type of experience so we can interact with their practitioners in meaningful, life-giving ways.  Assuming that we do not know everything and that every experience adds something new to our notion of “the truth,” the study of religion will improve ourselves and enable us to make better choices.

2. To Determine the Place and Role of Religion in Society.   After obtaining some basic information we are ready to go deeper.  An open-minded, welcoming, critical, and solid approach to religion will provide us with the insights to know in what ways religion and its manifold cultural manifestations interact with secular experiences, groups, and social institutions, either to impact them or being impacted by these social components.  All sectors of society are interconnected and modify each other.  They have important places and roles to play.  With this in mind, a strict separation between “what is religious” and “what is secular,” for example, is neither possible nor desirable.  They relate to each other.  The institutions of church and state influence each other.  The people who brought Christianity to the Americas were not able to separate themselves from the European, colonialist worldviews that brought them to new lands to subjugate and wipe out entire, indigenous populations. Again, whether we like it or not, religious experiences, views, and practices are part of the society we live in; as such, they deserve a careful scrutiny of their place and function.

3.  To Understand Religion Contextually.  Since everything humans do is the result and a reflection of its own culture and history, religion must always be examined taking into account its own generating milieu and influencing surroundings.  Although they have a lot in common (which allows for them to be studied comparatively), all world religions have traits that make them unique, precisely because of their close ties to unique histories and contexts. As expressions and socializing agents of their own cultures, religions always embody and make their own values and ways of looking at the world that only an curious, unveiling approach can make apparent. It is not simply what religions do on the surface, but rather what they take for granted. There is always something underneath the surface that explains religious views and actions, which we normally know nothing or very little about.  Trees have roots, icebergs have larger structures under water, and there is more going own behind the scenes of the stages of theaters.  Taking into consideration the original, historical context of Islam, for instance, allows us to comprehend its strictness or top-down regulations; in fact, the word “islam” literally means “submission.” There is a very close connection between Siddhartha Gautama’s struggles with “desires” and Buddhism’s notion that the root of evil in the world is “selfish, uncontrolled passions.”

4.  To Identify and Classify  Similarities and Differences Among Religions.  We must study religion in order to have a wider or even universal understanding of this phenomenon.  To achieve this goal, it is crucial we identify what makes religions unique but also what binds them together, as part of a life-long process seeking to be as inclusive as possible.  A close look at what cultures do in relation to a higher power or being clearly shows that each religion has its own distinctive traits, but also that there are undeniable similarities among all of them that facilitate a process of sorting them out and classification; they all follow transcultural, patterns of behavior.  A more formal approach to religion will definitely help us identify those elements that are repetitive and, as a result, predictable and manageable. These similarities, in turn, serve as rough material to develop a methodology of analysis that can and should be applied to the examination of all religions.

5. To Know Ourselves Better.  Our understanding of the world we share and that influences us should never be one-sided or unidirectional. Thus, we must approach religion in order to obtain a new self-awareness for self-development at different levels: religiously, psychologically, politically, socially, culturally, etc.  It is really about knowing ourselves, which is the starting and ending point and main framework of reference in interacting with others, especially with those whose convictions and actions differ from ours.  On the basis of this  principle, by knowing more about other religions in their present contexts, we will also know more about our own religious convictions or the lack thereof.  It is like learning a new language, which is process of using our own to learn a new one and vice versa.  Comparing and contrasting ourselves with others will hopefully bring to the fore aspects of human identity we never deemed possible. At the end of the day, what would the trade-off be? Discerning who we are at deeper levels so we can better ourselves to help others.

6.  To Improve Our World.  Last but not least, we should also embrace the academic study of religion in order to transform or develop our society for the better. By looking at this phenomenon and/or experience with an abstract, higher power or reality, we can certainly gain moral insights to transform society. Although not always successful, world religions seek to create a world of love, justice, and peace and prepare us for the next life. Their connections with the spiritual world, their emphasis on meditation and wisdom, and clear ties to mother nature can certainly make significant contributions to a world that is oftentimes driven by money, power, and intellectual forms of reasoning. Consistent with their outlook, there are moral lessons to be learned from world religions

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Justifying what Needs no Justification: Why is the Study of Religion So Important?

As a human experience with very specific cultural characteristics or in its more institutionalized faces throughout the history of humankind, religion has caught the attention of the inquisitive, restless minds of an increasing number of people, especially among men and women who have dedicated themselves to the scientific, academic or scholarly study of religion or world religions. What are some of the reasons that have moved so many people to do so?

Knowing that the answers are as varied as people are, there are few reasons that justify the study of religion, but some preliminary observations are in order.

Some people think that religion is simply a personal matter or something up to the choice of the individual. Others affirm that religion is only for religious people, and some simply do not care either way. There are also those that go as far as to criticize, reject, or even condemn any religion due to their belief that religion is a product of ignorance, fanaticism or a primitive mentality. These critics would argue that professing allegiance to any religion tradition is no longer relevant (especially in this scientific, contemporary, digital era) and that, in the worse case scenarios, ends up alienating and hurting people, especially when religious beliefs are taken to an extreme. This viewpoint is not worthy of our attention for now, although we admit that, in many cases, as Carl Marx used to say, religion continues to be “the opiate of the masses.”

Moving away from the above initial responses but without neglecting their value, the study of religion (or even the experience of being part of any religion) is a big deal for several reasons.

1. Everywhere and Anywhere. To begin with, religion is a universal phenomenon or experience.  In every nation or ethnic group around globe we find evidence of its presence, no matter its numbers of followers or level of influence.  This characteristic speaks volumes about the importance of religion. Despite the strong influence of secularism, scientific discoveries, and the post-modern values prevailing in the I-phone generation, the majority of people in the world practices or identifies itself with some sort of religion or spiritual philosophy and/or movement. In fact, religious communities still are the most powerful human networks on the globe. How could we then look the other way or repress this factual reality?

2. Multiple Ideas about the Mystery. The study of religion, in any of its cultural concrete manifestations, is significant because religion connects people with diverse, cultural understandings of God or equivalent concepts. Close to this effort, religion creates and follows theological and moral principles that help its believers transform societies for good and prepare their followers for another life after death. The idea is to facilitate encounters with the Holy Mystery that would develop a lasting, meaningful relationship with it.

3. The Heart of Cultures. Religion is at the core of many cultures, as well as globalization. We have many cultures in our own backyard, and the world is becoming more interdependent and interconnected than ever before, which means that it is crucial that we understand religion as expressions of cultures that allow people to live more structured lives. We cannot talk about globalization while leaving out the religious experiences of the cultures they represent, the contributions they make, and the challenges they bring along the way.

4. A Socializing Force. In a variety of ways, religion is still a very powerful socializing factor in our societies. Thus, we need to know more about it. Just as it did in antiquity, religion continues to play a major role in influencing the way people feel, believe, and act. Here in America, no matter how hard we try, we cannot always neatly separate “the Church” from “the State.” Religious values influence political choices, legislations, and policies.

5.  Social  Identity. Psychologically or existentially, religion gives people social identity, structure and meaning, as it provides some answers to many fundamental questions about life and death, happiness, character, hope, love, and faith. With its focus on what is ultimately important in life and human-in-born instincts linked to God, through the eyes of faith, it helps form questions as it guides people’s journeys.  If the majority of the population of world follows different religions or forms of spirituality, wouldn’t this be an important phenomenon to examine and learn more about?

6.  Moral Guidance. As religion helps people live with meaning and purpose, it also provides them with diverse moral compasses. Having concrete notions of right and wrong and developing criteria and principles to differentiate between the two, religion seeks to develop peoples’ moral character as a reflection of God’s or the universe’s absolute goodness, so that we can love and serve each other in practical terms and with intentionality. Although not always achieved, the emphasis on right living is an imperfect preparation for a much better life somewhere in the universe after our earthly pilgrimages are over.

7.   Determining Life Choices. Religion is helpful in giving us criteria to understand people’s individual health or medical choices. This is exemplified in the Jehovah witnesses’ refusal to receive or give blood to patients fighting for their lives because, in their literal readings of the Old Testament, receiving or giving blood “violates” Moses’ laws regarding the nature and function of blood. For good or ill, life-and-death choices heavily depend on religious, pre-conceived concepts.

Knowing some basics about religion helps us understand job-related challenges as well. Some employees might take certain days off or not do certain activities because of religious convictions. For instance, praying five stipulated times for Muslims might have an impact on certain responsibilities at job sites. These traits should not be ignored by employers and employees.

8. A Social Conflict Trigger. The study of religion is important because it allows us to understand why some social conflicts take place. In fact, religion lies at the core of clashes between nations and/or ethnic groups. Take, for example, the numerous riots among clans or tribes in Africa, terrorism, and religiously-motivated attacks to abortion clinics and the doctors and nurses who perform abortions.

9.  More Pervasive than Politics.  Thinking of the universality of religious experiences and trying to be more specific, we need to point out that religion in many parts of the world is so popular and plays an even more important role in society than what politics does.  If we pay any attention to the ways in which our government uses its power and resources to serve the population, shouldn’t we also spend time trying to understand the place religions have in society and the role they play in our world given their effective appeal to the masses?

10. Coping in the Face of Adversity.   In the aftermath of  misfortune, tragedy, pain, disease or death, or even when individuals or groups find themselves in the midst of negative experiences,  they can be spiritually revived, to the surprise of many.  Although many  people may withdraw from religion or reject the idea of God,  others are paradoxically drawn to the Spiritual Unknown to strengthen their faith.  Surprisingly, the terrorists attacks on September 11 drove some many people to get closer to God or think about the meaning of life in more spiritual terms.  This type of response needs to be understood and explained.

11. Morally Ambiguous.  In closing, and moving beyond all the positive reasons that justify the study of religion,  religion is and will continue to be , at times,  as a source and agent of alienation, exploitation, and oppression. Because religion is not always that good or glowing, it is important we set some time apart to figure out why and how religions lend themselves to what is morally wrong. With its popular emphasis on the other world and spiritual, abstract realities, and lack of focus on earthly, urgent issues, religion oftentimes neglects very important areas of human development. With the institutionalization of its ideas and its hunger for control and power, religion has also hurt many people. Knowing more about the causes, influencing factors, and repercussions behind these types of situations, is a powerful reason inviting us to deepen our understanding of religion and world religions. A neglect or a superficial approach to this reality would be counterproductive.

 

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God dwells in the gallery of  memorable moments

and answered prayers!

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Religion through the Eyes of Poetry

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FOTORACIONES

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FOTORACIONES

Dios no está aquí. Está en la calle buscándote.
God is not here. God is out on the street looking for you!

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FOTORACIONES

Dios vive en el santuario de un corazón confiado y agradecido
God dwells in the sanctuary of a trusting and grateful heart

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FOTORACIONES

Dios está en medio de la comunidad que se reúne en su nombre

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