STANZAS AND THE UNKNOWN

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Our walk back Home is breathtaking, mysterious, and promising!

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RUINS OF TAZUMAL: Where the Victims Are Burned

Located at the heart of the town of Chalchuapa, in El Salvador, this site used to be a Mayan settlement that existed ca. A.D. 100-1200, and whose inhabitants had cultural similarities with the people from Teotihuacán, Copán and the Toltecas. A temple and an area for playing ball are the most important remains of this important, religious site of some of our ancestors.

 

 

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RUINS OF LA JOYA DE CERÉN: The Pompey of America

Declared as a patrimony of humanity by the UNESCO in 1993, at this location we find the telling remains of an old, under ground city, which show what a typical, Mayan agricultural village looked like 1,400 years ago. About A.D. 600 the inhabitants of this city were forced to abandon it due to eruptions of volcano Laguna Caldera.

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RUINS OF CASA BLANCA: More Treasures Yet to be Discovered

Located in Chalchuapa, along with Tazumal, this site is a pre-Columbian worship Mayan place in which we find a series of pyramids raging from 500 B.C. until A.D. 900. Only two of them have been uncovered and partially restored. More history is waiting to be unveiled to amaze the minds of those who look for mysteries to solve!

 

 

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RUINS OF SAN ANDRÉS: The Mystery of Life and Death and the Deities

This is a pre-Columbian archaeological site that Mayan groups populated and rebuilt since 900 B.C. Because of a nearby volcano activity in A.D. 250 at Ilopango Lake, the settlement was abandoned only to become an important center of Mayan lordship between A.D. 600 and 900. Notorious therein are the Acropolis and the Bell Pyramid, perhaps used as burial places for the elite.

 

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In Our Image and Likeness? How Does Religion Facilitate a Relationship with The Mystery?

 

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If religion is to create minimum conditions for a connection with the Unknown Mystery to develop a relationship with it, that is viable, meaningful, and somewhat real,[1] religion must necessarily be conceived and implemented in particular settings where such a relationship may be experienced or contextualized.  For obvious reasons, such a goal cannot be achieved in a vacuum otherwise it would be an obscure abstraction, a bunch of peculiar ideas floating up in the air, or a delusional aspiration no one would be able to understand, relate to, or live up to.  Thus, to be relevant, communicable, operational, and understood, religions require mediations.

  1. The Frames of History and CultureTo be workable, religious communities need natural scenarios where they can begin, develop, and spread out as well as human environments with which to interact, assimilate, and reprocess.  They are what they are because of existing connections to a distant or recent past that involves key individuals and communities, dates, events, circumstances, and geographical areas.  Religions have been molded by stories of old and have been part of chronological trajectories that explain their present.  But religions are what they are because of dynamic and complex relations with the views, values, and practices of larger, influencing communities of which they are incomplete but real replicas.  To illustrate this point, we may say that time, people, and space have created them in “their own image and likeness.”[2]  The outside influence is such that, in their characterization of the Unknown, religions tend to project unto the Unknown the activities they do to physically survive as human beings.  Said differently, their conceptualization of Higher Beings is directly tied to whether religious communities are gatherers, farmers and/or hunters.  Like all of us, religions are “children of history and culture.”
  1. Sensorial Filters. In order to assimilate, adapt, and reprocess what their social environment offers, religions routinely and inevitably resort to and appeal to all human senses.   These in-born gifts are the media through which they interact with the world, internalize information, generate meaning, acquire knowledge, learn, and live.  Thanks to the sense we all share, religions can respond to outside stimuli and discern their place, function, and existence in life.   What the members of world religions value, believe in, symbolize, and do is always articulated and carried out based on what their followers can see, hear, touch, smell, and touch in their daily lives.[3]  This important, transcultural traits make religions subject to monitoring and scrutiny.
  1. The Unstoppable Power of Faith.  The sensorial makeup of religions has a gearing, integrating force that may be taken as a sixth sense, namely, faith.  As a gift, virtue or ability, faith is that element that creates its own world of meaning and that shapes and reshapes religions and their manifold, cultural expressions.   Presuming that there is a superior or more profound reality out there that humans cannot perfectly fathom but still can have access to, religions interpret social reality believing in what is absolutely special, miraculous, or way out of the ordinary.   Relying on its own legitimating evidence,[4] religious faith determines the existence of religious reality and such a reality, in turn, validates, nourishes and keeps that faith alive.
  1. The Sacralization of Social Reality.  Permeated and nurtured by faith, religions proceed to conceptualize life and organize it accordingly: they sacralize it.   As a result, nature, people, events, places, times, animals, activities, and objects are set apart and regarded as extremely out of the ordinary, as entities with intrinsic, mystical nature and/or power.   Colored by this assumption of which its members are absolutely persuaded, religions pay their highest respect and wholeheartedly believe in selected individuals, groups or communities; buildings, houses, cities, temples, shrines, and altars;[5]; valleys, seas, lakes, rivers, islands, mountains, trees, rocks, animals, parks, ecological reservoirs, the sun, the moon, the stars, the clouds, the wind, the fire, the rain, the storm,[6] and other elements of nature and the cosmos.[7] For religions, texts, oral traditions, beliefs, and principles are sacrosanct, and so are special times during the year. Even faith itself is assigned ultimacy, transformative energy, and mystery, to a point of becoming almost like “blind faith.”  To reinterpret Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval Christian theologian and philosopher, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
  1. Contextualized, Repetitive Vehicles.   As context-bound-sensorial phenomena shaped by faith, how do religions initiate, maintain, and develop a significant relationship with the Invisible Mystery?  They simply have and take advantage of   a series of recurring elements present in all religions.

a)   Worldviews.  The taken-for-granted understanding that there is something higher  and more powerful than ourselves in the universe, is the center of very concrete ways of looking at the world, in its inhabitants, and the cosmos. Rooted in culture and history, religions are characterized by diverse and profound worldviews that embody and justify what religions are and do.  These worldviews, for the most part implicit, may be inferred from everything religions believe and do.  They may also be evaluated on the basis of what they give birth to: texts, doctrines, stories, symbols, ceremonies, rituals, behaviors, etc.  These worldviews, in turn, influence, legitimate, and strengthen the believers’ ideology, and their place and role in the world.

b) Sets of Official Beliefs. Indebted to the past and very much influenced by tradition, in every religion we find bodies of formal, mandatory values and beliefs that embody and shape the identity of insiders. With logical variations and unique characteristics, they usually come in the form of creeds, confessions, doctrinesor resolutionsin order to meet the spiritual, intellectual, and moral life-and-death needs of the believing communities.  These are not simple teachings or lessons, but non-negotiable precepts that frame peoples’ journeys and require obedience.

c) Binding Moral Norms.  Oftentimes articulated as beliefs, religions around the world have been historically known for having diverse, concrete, and complex understandings of what is right and what is wrong.   Anchored in tradition and the practicality of life, they all have sets of ideas that structure peoples’ lives and provide them with criteria to evaluate what they believe and how they act.  They all have moral systems to which they hold themselves accountable.  To facilitate their relationship with the Unknown, develop their character, and create a better society, religions rely on rules and regulations.  As mechanisms of social control, this element gives them the possibility to determine, in an orderly fashion, who complies and who deviates from the established, ethical standards.

d) Authoritative Texts and Oral Traditions. Beliefs and moral choices come from somewhere. In the case of religions, there are powerful and meaningful storiestransmitted by word of mouth (i.e., “Holy” or “Sacred Stories”) and committed to writing (i.e. “Holy” or “Sacred Texts”) that serve as sources of authority upon which to base their ideologies and ways of living.   Seen as inspired and authoritative, normally these sources give religions a sense of belonging, identity, and purpose.  At the heart of these sacred texts and oral traditions, we normally stand powerful and extraordinary stories that contain, program, and develop the collective patterns of understanding, evaluation, organization, and course of actions of religious communities.  In other words, we find what scholar normally call myths.

e) Rituals and Symbols.  A series of dramatic, repetitive actions and activities, identified as “rituals,” enable religious communities to make meaningful and practical connections with what they believe are the most important dimensions of life. Resorting to the use of symbols and images are also reoccurring media whereby humans, through faith, reconnect with the Unknown and cultivate their mystical relationships.  Thanks to these routine vehicles, typically used in the context of worshipor adoration, the psychological, intellectual, spiritual, moral, and physical needs of religious individuals and communities are met.

f) Social Organization.  To make sure that religions survive and grow, religions need to come together and organized themselves and their resources.  To this end and faithful to their belief systems, they will create and implement structures to make their religion stable, viable and satisfying.   At its front end, we identify gifted individuals playing mediating, teaching, and leadership roles.  Priests, priestesses, mediums, rabbis, gurus,inmans, and pastors are some examples.  But religions are complex and diverse social phenomena whose tenets are interpreted and applied differently.  That is why, with varying degrees of popularity and following and still within the bounds of official institutional structuresthat provide order and meaning, religions are comprised of sub-groups, denominationsor sects.  Internally speaking, world religions are not compact, univocal or uniform. What we find is different, and sometimes conflicting, understandings of what it means to be a faithful follower of the Holy.

g) Maintenance and Growth Mechanisms. In order for religious movements to survive, especially after the death of their founders and charismatic leaders, they must strengthen themselves and resort to initiatives to grow and formalize or even institutionalize their movements.  Unless they have disappeared and become part of the so-called “dead religions,”[8] there are involuntary factors that help religions spread out and exist if not to move up to the next stages.[9] But there are also some strategies and tactics religions, by design and intent, depend on to perpetuate themselves and deliver their messages of love, faith, and love.  The effective use of resources and organization, the presence of charismatic leadership, proselytizing and instructing outsiders, and helping people in need,are some of the most popular ones.

All the above concrete vehicles are common ground; they define a large number of religions in the world and, therefore, constitute relative criteriawe should use in our analysis to better understand them at deeper levels.[10]  But let us not forget that, because every religion is a social construct seeking to facilitate a faith-encounter with a Supreme Reality in context, they will all develop their own unique personalityin their understandings the Holy and the applications of such understandings. This means that we can only understand world religions when we take into account the particular settings, circumstances, and histories where they all emerged from and live their faiths.  It is imperative we are aware of this crucial issue.  For this very reason, religions must always be studied in terms of similarities and differences.  And this is what the field of Comparative Religionsdoes to our benefit.

 

[1]For a more formal definition of religion, please see my post “What is Religion? Naming a Faith-Driven Experience,” http://blogs.reinhardt.edu/ich/2017/01/25/what-is-religion-naming-a-faith-driven-experience/.

[2]To put our discussion in more dramatic terms, it is like saying that religion, in a sense, does not reveal the mystery as it absolutely is.  Though its characterization of the Unknown, it rather “hides” it as it shows us more who we truly are and what we would like to be.

[3]One implication of this statement is that we cannot fully understand religion without understanding its culture and vice versa.

[4]For example, internal peace, harmony, and happiness; prayers or favors granted; miracles; prophecies fulfilled, body possessed by spirits; trances, visions and dreams; mental powers; and the extraordinary revelation of texts and traditions.

[5]Take, for example, areas, building or houses where holy prophets were born, raised, lived, received revelations, performed or experienced miracles, suffered, and died. Think also of places where important an important events took place, the ones that changed history.

[6]Places or geographical areas where important religious events happened or where religions originated, are oftentimes set apart, put on a pedestal, and become the locus of periodical ceremonies and rituals such as festivals and pilgrimages.

[7]In world religions, mother nature is held in the highest esteem as a source or agent of revelation.  For many of them, it is a context in which worshippers may experience the divine and this understanding help them make an effort to preserve some of the most beautiful places around the world

[8]Because of the lack of effective organization, leadership, and missionary activities. But also due to geographical isolation, war, natural disasters, and power struggles.

[9]Take, for instance, commerce, trade and labor in other countries, imperial agency, forced migration, colonial expansionism, in-growth based on kinship, and internal divisions.

[10]This means that all religions may and should be studied focusing on these seven areas.

 

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FOTORACIONES

Los sagrados reflejos de una sagrada vida 

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The sacred reflections of a sacred life

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FOTORACIONES

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“Yo soy la puerta”

“I am the gate”

Jesús

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FOTORACIONES

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God… a sacred, absent presence waiting for and giving companionship… and you?

Dios… una ausente y sagrada presencia esperando y dando compañía… ¿Y tú?

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What is Religion? Naming a Faith-Driven Experience

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Any formal study of religion or world religions must begin with a clear understanding of what religion is.  And yet this task is not as easy as it seems.  In any society, the meaning of words is not complete, absolute or fixed; they are as fluid as their interpretations.  The word religion is a good example of this rule.

At least two thirds of the population of the world in about 80 % of all the countries of the world follow or have very close connections to some religions.  Therefore, we should not be surprised that the majority of the population have their own definition of what religion means to them,[1] no matter how informal, simple or anecdotal these definitions might be.

However, over the years religious scholars have struggled with the definition of the term religion, or even with the essential, common traits that would lead them to classify individuals or groups under that label.

In trying to achieve this goal, we are confronted by a series of difficulties.  For example, our English word religion, was originally taken from the Latin term religio (a noun that originally meant and could be translated as a “reconnection” or “bond”), and is a created, Western word.  The problem is that in many cultures around the world there are no linguistic equivalents to this term or its usual meanings in our cultures.  In the Western world, religion is separate from what is secular or non-religious; in fact, they are even irreconcilable opposites.  And that is why there are words that have been created to communicate this separation (sacred vs profane, holy vs unholy, transcendence vs immanence, this world vs the other world, etc.).   Not so in Eastern societies and among more pristine, traditional, minority religions, where the cosmos is an integrated whole, a reality that may be specified but never compartmentalized.  What we define as religious, in many cases, would be alien to these communities’ understanding or even inappropriate.  In the Amazon, the cosmos is a well-connected reality for the natives.  Religion impregnates all aspects of their lives.  This type of worldview is what explains why for many Muslims the best state is the Islamic State.  Something very similar occurs in present day India and the influence of Hinduism.

Another reason is that any effort to define what religion is will largely determined by several variables, not always coinciding:  social location, perspective, experience, areas of knowledge or discipline, what themes one wants to zoom in, and methodology, just to name some of the most important ones.  For all these reasons, religion may be defined ethically, legally, ritualistically, psychologically, institutionally, doctrinally, politically, supernaturally, personally or in manners similar to all these.

  • Viewed negatively, for instance, religion has been seen as an effort to escape present-day responsibility, as a an illusion of some kind that isolate humans from the real issues of life. A virus or a drug of some kind that, instead of revealing the divine unknown, for example, they end up hiding his face.
  • As a subconscious reaction to lives that are oppressed by a careless, soulless society, some see religion as a revolutionary impulse or feeling to create a new humanity.
  • In addition to a cultural experience, many people regard religion as a universal phenomenon, a social institution, and even as a field of expertise that defined the work of capable, equipped individuals.
  • Because all humans are relational beings and have the need to feel useful, religion might be seen as the feeling of absolute dependence outside of themselves, which emerges as a response to real tragedies of life, not from reason or reflection. In part, is what people sub-consciously do with loneliness, guilt, fear, etc. The need of bring to mind people who have died is part of this (ancestor worship).
  • Taking for granted that there is a reality higher than humanity (and named as the holy, the transcendent, the supernatural, the absolute, higher powers, mystery, etc.), some individuals characterize understand religion as a disposition to apprehend the infinite or the absolute in concrete ways.
  • With this in mind and with an ethical twist, religion may be also be regarded as the acknowledgment that all duties are divine commands, as a means to ultimate transformation. Seeking the wellbeing of other people, it is a form of emotional morality.
  • Thinking of society as a whole and the corresponding interconnections therein, and solve daily problems, religion may be considered as an unified system of beliefs and practices. The operational conscience of society’s highest values.
  • In more esoteric terms, religion may be an appreciation for the invisible world and the effort to go back to it, either because of this innate instinct of living lives that matter or in response to that the absolute’s initiative of planting that instinct in humans hoping that they would response. In this sense, in its purest, spiritual form, religion is something created by God and acknowledged and made viable by humans.
  • By-passing the complexities and perspectives that normally scholars spend too time on, some see religions as a simple way of life for individuals that seek to meaningful lives.

Because of all this rich variety and the complexities that go with it, scholars of religions have concluded that a single, definitive definition of religion is neither possible nor advisable.  Since it is a social construct that reflects diversity of perceptions and thoughts, it is up to any person or group to decide what it means and for others to try to understand these definitions in their corresponding contexts.   And yet a work-in-progress definition of religion is unavoidable and desirable.  After all, based on the experiences of more than two-thirds of the world and the experiences of millions of people who are non-religious, we know what a religion looks like when we see one, even when we might not find the right words to summarize what religion fully means.

Recognizing that there is no such a thing as value-free, absolute definitions of anything, how could we, then, define religion?

For us the word religion refers to a series of attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors of individuals and groups of people, which, being a larger system, describe, symbolize, and seek to meet the needs of the soul, the mind, the emotions, and the body of individuals and communities.  The term refers to a human effort to create a bond or union of some sort with a mysterious, metaphysical reality higher than ourselves (of which a supreme, controlling power, spirit or divine being or beings is central) that would result in a meaningful relationship closely associated with a spiritual-moral system that must translate into actions.  Simply put, and in response to the mystery and power of life, religion refers to a limited, cultural attempt to try to meet the deity, a natural or super natural being who is thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, or its equivalent. It is a human effort to have an encounter with the divine with the corresponding ethical implications.

Called by different names and understood in a variety of ways, this Higher Reality (in its personal and impersonal versions) is portrayed as transcendent, holy, and sacred, a mystery.  It is something we cannot fully grasp but whose glimpses, as a form of revelation wired up in every human, can still be experienced in this life in preparation for another life somewhere in the universe after our physical death.

Ideally, the goal of this finite effort is, through the eyes of faith, to develop a meaningful, immanent relationship with that invisible mystery through symbolic acts, primarily in the context of worship, and/or through good deeds. Explained in a different way, one could say that religion refers to a socially-constructed attempt to connect with God, either to go back and mend what had been broken or to create a relational bond that is both redemptive and transformative.  Although it may be seen as a system or networks of complex, changing relationships, metaphorically speaking, religion may also be seen as an earthly path to Heaven or a journey back home.[2]

Something else needs to be said about the word religion and the type of universal experience it names.  The imperfect attempt to find the Invisible Unknown in order to create a connection of some sort is not univocal or materializes the same way everywhere.  Like anything else in society, it is interpreted, mediated, and lived out differently by different faith communities in any place, time or generation.  Thus, the word religion may also be applied to particular cultural traditions that, as by-products and reflections of concrete settings, histories, and circumstances, focusing on what is ultimately life-giving through the implementation of unique worldviews.  From this vantage point, the term is used to define the followers of particular ways of contextualizing the faith in and commitment to a supreme power or being, in order to improve our lives in the here and now.  The word, then, applies to world religions.   Taking this type of context into account, the following groups are seen as religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, just to mention the ones with the largest following.[3]

With this rudimentary and perhaps a more structured understanding of religion that might reflect the views of so many people, as well as its diverse, cultural, interpretative expressions in the globe, we could now move to an in-depth conversation that would give room for additional insights that, in light of concrete experiences and knowledge, would reaffirm, fine-tune, diversify, or even challenge the present relative “truths.”  After this, we could then talk about themes such as how religions make a relationship with God concrete, viable, and achievable in any culture.  For our consideration and with a long history behind, there educated some contemporary speculations about the origin of religion, and the roles that religion plays in society.

[1] As demonstrated by a 2012 study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, which estimates that 84 % of the world’s population (or eight-in-ten people) are affiliated to a religion or see themselves as part of one or several of them. This represents about 5.8 billion of the world’s population (believed to be about 6.9 billion). http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/

[2] Or its semantic equivalents; namely, Nirvana, Brahman, Paradise, etc.

[3] With the above background in mind and moving the concept of God to a more secular context, the word religion is also used to talk about what is of most importance for individuals, groups and/or institutions, to a point in which an idea, value, or action could well  “worshiped.”   Due to the flexibility of the term and the different views of its interpreters, it is no wonder that materialism, patriotism, secularism, and climate change have been characterized as “religions.”

 

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