Thursday, May 26, 2016

Thealogy Thursday: Big Tents and Concepts of God

As I mentioned last week, about a month ago Dr. Amy Jill Levine came to town for a series of lectures sponsored by an interfaith group of congregations.

On Friday evening, she spoke at Temple B'nai Sholom as part of their Shabbat services. One of the things she explained (for the Gentiles in the near-standing-room-only sanctuary), was that Judaism is a "big tent" religion. There are the different types of Jews (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, ethnic), with many different beliefs and many different interpretations of the texts & teachings - and they love to argue about their different perspectives and their different beliefs. But at the end of the day, they are all still Jews.

Christianity has not, historically, been like that. I think with last week's sermon, my minister places some of the blame on Emperor Constantine's efforts to make Christianity a State Religion. That fits with my recent readings from Bart Ehrmann ("How Jesus Became God", and "Misquoting Jesus"), who discussed the importance of having a united Christianity to Constantine. That led to the Nicene Creed.

Dr. Levine mentioned that Christianity essentially invented the idea of religion. Before Christianity, religion and ethnicity were largely the same. One tended to follow the gods of one's parents & ancestors, practice the rituals and traditions of one's parents and ancestors. And along with the concept of religion, Christianity then invented the idea of heresy.

That's what I learned in my readings about the Early Christian churches. That there was not one, singular way of understanding who Jesus was, or how one practiced Christianity, or even what it meant to be a Christian.

My Catholic education described at least two major groups of Christians in the early Church: Jewish followers of Jesus, and Gentiles who converted. As I refresh my memory, those descriptions seem simplistic. Ehrmann seemed to suggest that Marcionism came out of non-Jewish Christianity, and even Wikipedia points to it showing Greek influence. Meanwhile, Docetism may have come out of the Jewish Christian traditions.

Sometimes I think that interfaith work would be easier if we quit worrying about the dogma and concepts of God, and focused more on the Beloved Community and Right Relations with each other. Some Buddhist traditions do this, they worry much less about God or gods, and more about understanding the here and now, so that one can be both Buddhist and Shinto, Buddhist and atheist, or Buddhist and Christian. (Although I have known Christians who argue against the last.)

But I brought all of this up for a reason. The modern Pagan movements are large and disparate. There are multiple sources of belief, from various written traditions (the Greek and Roman writings, Egyptians, the Sagas and Eddas), to modern Pop-Culture Paganism (like the "Bill the Cat" ritual I heard about during my undergraduate years), to personal inspirations.

Each of these has different concepts of God.

It is perhaps easiest to begin at the beginning. I've already written some about different types of atheism.

There is also agnosticism, which simply states that one doesn't know whether God exists or not.

Monotheism says that there is just one God, and everything comes from God. Jews and Muslims are usually strict monotheists. Although one of my Jewish friends pointed to an atheistic-Jewish tradition, sometimes expressed as ethnic Judaism.

Monotheistic Christians are called Unitarians. In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America had become similar enough, that they united to form Unitarian Universalism. Sometimes in UU congregations, there are those who argue that UUs believe in one God at most, reflecting the strong Humanist influence.

Dualism can happen in a variety of ways, including Zoroastrian divisions between Order and Chaos, and Wiccan belief in two divine principles, God and Goddess. Some Wiccans teach that all gods are one God, and all goddesses are one Goddess.

Trinitarianism is Orthodox Christian belief, that there are three Persons in one God, typically called the Father, the Son (Jesus the Christ), and the Holy Spirit.

Trinitarian doctrine owes at least a little to the Pythagorean concepts of the Monad, which remind me of my understanding of the Tao te Ching, 42:
Tao produces one
One produces two
Two produce three
Three produce myriad things

Translation by Derek and Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained, published by SkyLight Paths in 2006.

Wicca and feminist Paganism can also have a Trinitarian perspective, when the Goddess is considered to have three aspects: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Sometimes this is matched by images of the God as Youth, Father, and Sage.

Some modern pagans also draw on the Pythagorean concept of the Monad above or behind all the separateness. For the most part, I do. I tend to believe that somewhere behind all of this, there does exist a Oneness.

Other modern pagans are strict polytheists. These believe that there are multiple gods and goddesses. They reject the Wiccan concept of "all gods are one God, and all goddesses are one Goddess," and instead believe that the various gods and goddesses are separate beings.

I am not clear on how strict polytheists perceive the existence of the different pantheons in the world; whether they are each viewed as completely separate beings (thousands of gods and goddesses), or if there is some concept of Jungian archetypes expressing themselves in each culture. I know that the Greeks and later Romans all tried to categorize local deities and pantheons as different aspects of their own Olympian family.

Beyond these beliefs in individual deities, there is also Pantheism, the idea that God is everything and everything is God.

Ah, I see that Wikipedia has many more concepts beyond those discussed here. The other one that I wanted to talk about, is Panentheism. It has similarities to Pantheism, that God is in everything and everything is in God... but that there is more to God than "just" the sum of the universe. That there continues to be something beyond what we can understand.

The Mystic traditions that I've been reading up on since I was small, all seem to point to some ultimate Oneness of Everything. I tend to see it as panentheistic.