Important thing about myth is that it's not just something that you believe, a myth is essentially a program for action. And unless you translate a mythical story, or a doctrine out of the church, into practical action, it just remains incomprehensible. Rather like the rules of a board game which seem very sort of dull and complicated and incomprehensible until you pick up the dice and start to play, when everything falls into place.
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Compassion is not a popular virtue. Very often when I talk to religious people, and mention how important it is that compassion is the key, that it's the sine-qua-non of religion, people look kind of balked, and stubborn sometimes, as much to say, what's the point of having religion if you can't disapprove of other people?
The more aggressive our ideologies become, the more aggressive our discourse whether it's in the United States, from Washington D.C., or whether it's from Tehran, or from some underground Al-Qaeda cell. The more aggressive that discourse is, the more people of moderate persuasion have to organize and speak a voice of compassion. That means to feel with the other.
Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.
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He [Aristotle] pointed out that people who had become initiates in the various mystery religions were not required to learn any facts 'but to experience certain emotions and to be put in a certain disposition.' Hence his famous literary theory that tragedy effected a purification (katharsis) of the emotions of terror and pity that amounted to an experience of rebirth.
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I had tried, as I thought as a nun, to open myself to God and God seemed totally uninterested in me. The heavens remained closed and opaque. I now realize, of course, that I had a very, very inadequate idea of God. I was expecting clouds to part, a little sort of whisper in my ear, and of course, that's not what God is. God is not another being; we are talking about something much more profound.
Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.
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If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, of self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology.
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What seems wrong to you is right for him What is poison to one is honey to someone else. Purity and impurity, sloth and diligence in worship, These mean nothing to Me. I am apart from all that. Ways of worshipping are not to be ranked as better or worse than one another. Hindus do Hindu things. The Dravidian Muslims in India do what they do. It's all praise, and it's all right. It's not I that's glorified in acts of worship. It's the worshippers! I don't hear the words they say. I look inside at the humility. That broken-open lowliness is the Reality, not the language! Forget phraseology. I want burning, burning. Be Friends with your burning. Burn up your thinking and your forms of expression!
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In the tenth century BC, the priests of India devised the Brahmodya competition, which would become a model of authentic theological discourse. The object was to find a verbal formula to define the Brahman, the ultimate and inexpressible reality beyond human understanding. The idea was to push language as far as it would go, until participants became aware of the ineffable. The challenger, drawing on his immense erudition, began the process by asking an enigmatic question and his opponents had to reply in a way that was apt but equally inscrutable. The winner was the contestant who reduced the others to silence. In that moment of silence, the Brahman was present - not in the ingenious verbal declarations but in the stunning realisation of the impotence of speech. Nearly all religious traditions have devised their own versions of this exercise. It was not a frustrating experience; the finale can, perhaps, be compared to the moment at the end of the symphony, when there is a full and pregnant beat of silence in the concert hall before the applause begins. The aim of good theology is to help the audience to live for a while in that silence.
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We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a 'resource.' This is crucial, because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.
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The constant reprimands made me hyperconscious of my own performance, and so instead of getting rid of self, I had become embedded in the egoism I was supposed to transcend. Now I was beginning to understand that a silence that is not clamorous with vexation and worried self-regard can become part of the texture of your mind, can seep into you, moment by moment, and gradually change you.
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Theologians in all the great faiths have devised all kinds of myths to show that this type of kenosis, of self-emptying, is found in the life of God itself. They do not do this because it sounds edifying, but because this is the way that human nature seems to work. We are most creative and sense other possibilities that transcend our ordinary experience when we leave ourselves behind.
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Ibn al-Arabi gave this advice: Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you may disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for he says, 'Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah' (Koran 2:109). Everyone praises what he believes; his god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself. Consequently, he blames the disbelief of others, which he would not do if he were just, but his dislike is based on ignorance.
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In [the] early days, Muslims did not see Islam as a new, exclusive religion but as a continuation of the primordial faith of the 'People of the Book', the Jews and Christians. In one remarkable passage, God insists that Muslims must accept indiscriminately the revelations of every single one of God's messengers: Abraham, Isaac, Ishamel, Jacob, Moses, Jesus and all the other prophets. The Qur'an is simply a 'confirmation' of the previous scriptures. Nobody must be forced to accept Islam, because each of the revealed traditions had its own din; it was not God's will that all human beings should belong to the same faith community. God was not the exclusive property of any one tradition; the divine light could not be confined to a single lamp, belonged neither to the East or to the West, but enlightened all human beings. Muslims must speak courteously to the People of the Book, debate with them only in 'the most kindly manner', remember that they worshipped the same God, and not engage in pointless, aggressive disputes.
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The new atheists show a disturbing lack of understanding of or concern about the complexity and ambiguity of modern experience, and their polemic entirely fails to mention the concern for justice and compassion that, despite their undeniable failings, has been espoused by all three of the monotheisms. Religious fundamentalists also develop an exagerrated view of their enemy as the epitome of evil. This tendency makes critique of the new atheists too easy. They never discuss the work of such theologians as Bultmann or Tillich, who offer a very different view of religion and are closer to mainstream tradition than any fundamentalist. Unlike Feurerbach, Marx and Freud, the new atheists are not theologically literate. As one of their critics has remarked, in any military strategy it is essential to confront the enemy at its strongest point; failure to do so means that their polemic remains shallow and lacks intellectual depth. It is also morally and intellectually conservative. Unlike Feurerback, Marx, Ingersoll or Mill, these new Atheists show little concern about the poverty, injustice and humiliation that has inspired many of the atrocities they deplore; they show no yearning for a better world. Nor, like Nietzsche , Sartre or Camus, do they compel their readers to face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the resources to create a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work.
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For Dawkins, atheism is a necessary consequence of evolution. He has argued that the religious impulse is simply an evolutionary mistake, a 'misfiring of something useful', it is a kind if virus, parasitic on cognitive systems naturally selected because they had enabled a species to survive. Dawkins is an extreme exponent of the scientific naturalism, originally formulated by d'Holbach, that has now become a major worldview among intellectuals. More moderate versions of this 'scientism' have been articulated by Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg, and Daniel Dennett, who have all claimed that one has to choose between science and faith. For Dennett, theology has been rendered superfluous, because biology can provide a better explanation of why people are religious. But for Dawkins, like the other 'new atheists' - Sam Harris, the young American philosopher and student of neuroscience, and Christopher Hitchens, critic and journalist - religion is the cause of the problems of our world; it is the source of absolute evil and 'poisons everything.' They see themselves in the vanguard of a scientific/rational movement that will eventually expunge the idea of God from human consciousness. But other atheists and scientists are wary of this approach. The American zoologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002) followed Monod in his discussion of the implications of evolution. Everything in the natural world could indeed be explained by natural selection, but Gould insisted that science was not competent to decide whether God did or did not exist, because it could only work with natural explanations. Gould had no religious axe to grind; he described himself as an atheistically inclined agnostic, but pointed out that Darwin himself had denied he was an atheist and that other eminent Darwinians - Asa Gray, Charles D. Walcott, G. G. Simpson, and Theodosius Dobzhansky - had been either practicing Christians or agnostics. Atheism did not, therefore, seem to be a necessary consequence of accepting evolutionary theory, and Darwinians who held forth dogmatically on the subject were stepping beyond the limitations that were proper to science.
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a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.
After a time I found that I could almost listen to the silence, which had a dimension all of its own. I started to attend to its strange and beautiful texture, which of course, it was impossible to express in words. I discovered that I felt at home and alive in the silence, which compelled me to enter my interior world and around there. Without the distraction of constant conversation, the words on the page began to speak directly to my inner self. They were no long expressing ideas that were simply interesting intellectually, but were talking directly to my own yearning and perplexity.
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Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the traditional apprehension of mythology. It can be seen as a form of meditation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It projects them into another world, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not 'real' and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel becomes part of the backdrop of our lives, long after we have laid the book aside.
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This was the scientific age, and people wanted to believe that their traditions were in line with the new era, but this was impossible if you thought that these myths should be understood literally. Hence the furor occasioned by The Origin of Species, published by Charles Darwin. The book was not intended as an attack on religion, but was a sober exploration of a scientific hypothesis. But because by this time people were reading the cosmogonies of Genesis as though they were factual, many Christians felt-and still feel-that the whole edifice of faith was in jeopardy. Creation stories had never been regarded as historically accurate; their purpose was therapeutic. But once you start reading Genesis as scientifically valid, you have bad science and bad religion.
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We are meaning-seeking creatures. Dogs, as far as we know, do not agonise about the canine condition, worry about the plight of dogs in other parts of the world, or try to see their lives from a different perspective. But human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value
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We have seen that a myth could never approached in a purely profane setting. It was only comprehensible in a liturgical context that set it apart from everyday life; it must be experienced as part of a process of personal transformation. None, of this surely applies to the novel, which can be read anywhere at all witout ritual trappings, and must, if it is any good, eschew the overtly didactic. Yet the experience of reading a novel has certain qualities that remind us of the mythology. It can be seen as a form of mediation. Readers have to live with a novel for days or even weeks. It prljects them into another worl, parallel to but apart from their ordinary lives. They know perfectly well that this fictional realm is not 'real' and yet while they are reading it becomes compelling. A powerful novel bcomes part of the backdrop of lives long after we have laid the book aside. It is an excercise of make-believe, that like yoga or a religious festival breaks down barriers of space and time and extends our sympathies to empathise with others lives and sorrows. It teaches compassion, the ability to 'feel with' others. And, like mythology , an important novel is transformative. If we allow it do so, can change us forever.
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We are absolutely right to condemn the suicide bomber's targeting of innocent civilians and mourn his victims. But as we have seen, in war the state also targets such victims; during the 20th century, the rate of civilian deaths rose sharply and now stands at 90 percent. In the West we solemnize the deaths of our regular troops carefully and recurrently honor the memory of the soldier who dies do his country. Yet the civilian deaths we cause are rarely mentioned, and there has been no sustained outcry in the West against them. Suicide bombing shocks us to the core; but should it be more shocking than the deaths of thousands of children in their homelands every every year because of land mines? Or collateral damage in a drone strike?
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Compassion dervies from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning "to suffer, undergo or experience." So "compassion" means "to endure [something] with another person, " to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view. That is why our hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.
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When the horror recedes and the world resumes its normal shape, you cannot forget it. You have seen what is "really" there, the empty horror that exists when the consoling illusion of our mundane experience is stripped away, so you can never respond to the world in quite the same way again." from Coleridge: Like one, that on a lonesome road Doth walk in fear and dread, And having once turned round walks on, And turns no more his head; Because he knows, a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread
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When they have contemplated the world, human beings have always experienced a transcendence and mystery at the heart of existence. They have felt that it is deeply connected with themselves and with the natural world, but that it also goes beyond. However we choose to define it - it has been called God, Brahman, or Nirvana - this transcendence has been a fact of human life. We have all experienced something similar, whatever our theological opinions, when we listen to a great piece of music or hear a beautiful poem and feel touched within and lifted, momentarily, beyond ourselves. We tend to seek out this experience, and if we do not find it in one setting - in a church or synagogue, for example - we would look elsewhere.
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Compassion has to become a discipline. It's something that you do. It's no good thinking that you agree with compassion or not, you've just got to do it. Just like it's no good agreeing that it's possible to float, you just have to get into the pool and then you learn that it's possible.
Alexander's achievement was not the conquest of India, but the feat of actually getting there and his two years in India were more of a geographical expedition than a military campaign. .... a Greek army had reached what they regarded as the end of the earth. They had pitted themselves against the ultimate as bravely as the yogins had struggled to break through the limits of the human psyche. Where mystics had conquered interior space, Alexander explored the farthest reaches of the physical world. .... like many of the axial sages, he was constantly 'straining after more'.
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You have to get into the water and learn against what seems to be the law gravity to float and dancing, or athletics takes you years before you develop a skill. But if you work at it, practicing daily, you can enable your body to do things that are utterly impossible to an untrained physic.
Islam is a religion of success. Unlike Christianity, which has as its main image, in the west at least, a man dying in a devastating, disgraceful, helpless death. The cross, crucified, and that turned into victory. Mohammad was not an apparent failure. He was a dazzling success, politically as well as spiritually, and Islam went from strength to strength to strength.
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Compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.
Today we often think that before we start living a religious life we have first to accept the creedal doctrines and that before one can have any comprehension of the loyalty and trust of faith, one must first force one's mind to accept a host of incomprehensible doctrines. But this is to put the cart before the horse.
A God who kept tinkering with the universe was absurd; a God who interfered with human freedom and creativity was a tyrant. If God is seen as a self in a world of his own, an ego that relates to a thought, a cause separate from its effect, he becomes a being, not Being itself. An omnipotent, all"knowing tyrant is not so different from earthly dictators who make everything and everybody mere cogs in the machine which they controlled. An atheism that rejects such a God is amply justified.
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I left the convent and that was because I wasn't a very good nun. I could see that I wasn't going to make it. It's very difficult to be a nun, or to live a religious life. It's very difficult to live a life of total celibacy or a life without any possessions or material responsibilities at all, or in total obedience to somebody else, and remain a mature whole human being, and I knew that I wasn't going to be one of those.
Ever since the Crusades, when Christians from western Europe were fighting holy wars against Muslims in the near east, western people have often perceived Islam as a violent and intolerant faith - even though when this prejudice took root Islam had a better record of tolerance than Christianity.
I never intended to be a historian of religion. My aim was to become a professor of English Literature in a university, but I had a series of absolute career disasters and found myself making television programs about the nature of religion and about Christian history and started to discover about other religious traditions, and that was an absolute eye-opener for me.
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When the horror recedes and the world resumes its normal shape, you cannot forget it. You have seen what is really there, the empty horror that exists when the consoling illusion of our mundane experience is stripped away, so you can never respond to the world in quite the same way again.
We are opinionated society. We're very happy to spout forth our own views; we're not good about listening. We have to listen to other's stories. Learn to listen to the stories of the terrorists just as we hope that they will listen to ours because very often these narratives express frustrations, fears, and anxieties that most societies can safely ignore.
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You know how it is in the symphony when you are listening to the symphony, the last notes die away, and there's often a beat of silence in the auditorium before the applause begins. It's a very full and pregnant silence. Now theology should bring us to live into that silence, into that pregnant pause.
Theology is-- or should be-- a species of poetry,which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way you might listen to a difficult piece of music... If you seize upon a poem and try to extort its meaning before you are ready, it remains opaque. If you bring your own personal agenda to bear upon it, the poem will close upon itself like a clam, because you have denied its unique and separate identity, its inviolate holiness.
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Golden Rule lies at the heart of every religious and of every ethical system of morality, it what makes us look at one another. The religions have all adopted it independently, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, because they find it works and because it says something very deep about the structure of our humanity.
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Illness itself can make you angry, enraged, furious, and it made me angry, enraged, and furious. I don't think it brought me to God at all. It depends how you deal with it. And I think that, at its best, three little words that always have to be applied to religion, religion can help you to deal with that.
Religions have found that if you behave in a certain way, if you sort of perform certain rituals that expand your mind and make you realize that will make you realize and help you to seguey into transcendence and perform certain acts, adopt a certain lifestyle, you develop new capacities of mind and heart, just like the dancer, or the athlete that make you into a whole human being and principle after one of these disciplines right across the board in all of the faiths is compassion, the ability to feel with the other person.
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People knew there were two ways of coming at truth. One was science, or what the Greeks called Logos, reason, logic. And that was essential that the discourse of science or logic related directed to the external world. The other was mythos, what the Greeks called myth, which didn't mean a fantasy story, but it was a narrative associated with ritual and ethical practice but it helped us to address problems for which there were no easy answers, like mortality, cruelty, the sorrow that overtakes us all that's part of the human condition. And these two were not in opposition, we needed both.
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Yet while nature is in constant flux, we always go against the grain and try to freeze our ideas and experiences and make them absolute. It is egotism that makes us identify with one opinion rather than another, become quarrelsome and unkind, say *this* could not mean *that*, and think we have a duty to change others to suit ourselves.
The awful atrocities of religion happened when people assume that God shares your likes and dislikes. The Crusaders when into battle to kill Muslims and Jews and cried, "God will's it." That was their battle cry. Obviously God willed no such thing. The Crusaders were simply projecting onto a deity they'd created on their own image and likeness, all their hatred and loathing of these faiths and made it endorse some of their most awful prejudices and lethal prejudices.
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