Saturday, January 22, 2011

For Epiphany 2011: Thoughts on Religious Pluralism

(I began this post on the day after Epiphany Gregorian reckoning, while I was still housesitting. After I got back home a couple of days later, life got rather intense for me including some disastrous floods in Brisbane. Where I live in New Farm stayed high and dry but we lost power for a few days and so decamped to friends with power. Other friends of mine were not so lucky. Once I finally got back home again I had other stuff to attend to which put this on the backburner. I'll leave what I've written as is and then continue)

7 Jan 2011

For Christians using the Gregorian calendar, it is now the the season of Epiphany. Western Christendom has traditionally associated the Epiphany with the coming of the Magi to the Christ-child in Bethlehem, as recounted in Matthew's gospel (Eastern Christendom associates Epiphany with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist, also known in the East as the Forerunner). This time last year I put up a post about the Magi and the history and symbolism, including astrological symbolism, this story invokes. You can read it here, and if you haven't read it, I'd recommend you do, because for this post, I want to start by quoting one of the final paragraphs from that older Epiphany post:

As well as astrologers and sages, the Magi were also priests, pagan priests. But in Matthew's story they travel to Palestine, they meet with Jewish sages, they bow before the infant Jesus, they converse with angels and then they return to their homeland, presumably to resume their religious duties. There's no trace of anxiety about pagan priests attending the birth of the Messiah, the child "from the Holy Spirit", Emmanuel 'God is with Us'. I said before that early Christians read Virgil's 4th Eclogue as a pagan prophecy of Christ. It seems that some early Christians accepted that there had been some sort of 'preparation for the Gospel' not only in Judaism but also in the pagan religious world as well. In other words, that as with Judaism, some sort of divine activity had been at work in the pagan religious worlds to make them ready for the Christ event too.

And it might be worth it to have a look at this post, also from last January, where I reflected on some of the complex inter-relationships between Jewish religion and Persian religion. The two religious traditions have strong connections with each other, and it's worth remembering that Cyrus the Great, the founder of the ancient Persian Empire is hailed as Messiah, Anointed, in Isaiah (45.1). In last year's Epiphany post, I also reflected on the change of identity for the Magi in Christian tradition, making them into kings out of the East, instead of sages. I speculated that such a move might have served to 'cover up' (or at least deflect attention from) the fact that the Christ-child was attended by pagan astrologer-priests, a most uncomfortable fact for a more triumphant Christianity in Rome, Armenia and elsewhere.

So, at least for Western Christendom, Epiphany raises the most uncomfortable question of Christianity's relationship and connection with other faiths in rather unsettling ways for those more triumphalist, exclusivist or fundamentalist in their religious outlook. And not just Epiphany, but Christmas itself, a major Christian feast, is also a site where differing faith traditions rub up against each other, both in terms of the varieties of Christian traditions themselves and Christianity vis a vis other religious traditions. This inter-faith overlay is further complicated by the demands of capitalism and its makeover of the feast into a 'secular' spending extravaganza. Here in the southern hemisphere, it's further complicated by the fact that a traditionally mid-winter feast is being celebrated at mid-summer.

Christmas is one of those feasts that highlight the differences within Christianity itself. There are Protestant denominations that do not observe Christmas at all, regarding it as a pagan or, even worse, a popish festival. Back in mid-17th century England, Cromwell's time, this position was held by a much broader Protestant constituency resulting in the suppression of Christmas, both as a religious observance and as a public holiday and festival, during the time of the Commonwealth. This was an unpopular move and with the restoration of the monarchy the bans on the observance of Christmas as both a religious feast/holy day and civil festival/holiday were lifted. But Protestant purists, to this day either regard Christmas (and Easter/Pascha too) with suspicion or reject it completely.

At the other end of the spectrum, Christmas serves to highlight the divisions within Catholic Christianities too. The greater number of Eastern Christians celebrated Christmas early this month on January 7. These include Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, Serbian, Macedonian Orthodox Churches and the Jerusalem Orthodox Patriarchate. However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul plus the Patriarchates of Antioch and Alexandria, and the Greek, Albanian and American Orthodox churches observed Christmas at the same time a Western Christians. The former Churches still use the old Julian calendar which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar of the West. The latter Churches use the Revised Julian Calendar of 1923, bringing the greater part of the liturgical year into harmony with Western timing (the exception being Easter/Pascha which is calculated in such a way as to ensure all Orthodox observe it at the same time). But not only was the New Calendar obviously not adopted by all Orthodox but in the Greek Church especially it prompted a schism leading to small Old Calendarist denominations, who stick to the Julian calendar along with their Russian and other Slavic co-religionists. The Coptic and most other Oriental Orthodox Churches also use the Julian calendar so that their Christmas falls on January 7 Gregorian too. The Armenian Church, however, still observes the original date of Christmas, January 6, combining Christmas and Epiphany in the one feast. So even as a Christian festival Christmas highlights differences amongst Christians. to the extent that it is celebrated on different days by different communities or ignored, even, by some.

22 January 2011

As well as becoming a point of contention through its being given a 'makeover' by capitalism into a secular festival of shopping and consumption in the lead up to the New Year, Christmas also highlights the differences and interconnections between Christianity and other faiths. Christmas comes after the solstice, the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, and much of the customs and foods and symbols traditionally associated with Christmas have their origins in old pagan winter solstice practices, especially in the Celtic, Germanic and Slavic lands outside the old Roman Empire. In other words these practices were adopted or absorbed as the Irish and Scots, Saxons, Swedes, Germans, Danes, Czechs, Poles and Russians adopted Christianity through the second half of the first Christian millennium. It's a popular myth that Christians or even Constantine himself picked the date of 25 December to take over the old pagan religious festival. But that appears to be no more than a furphy as Christmas had already been set at 25 December in the West and 6 January in the East before Constantine ever appeared on the scene. These dates seem to be based more on the date of Jesus' death, as Christians then understood it, and the believed harmony of the death date with the date of Jesus' conception than on any pagan festival. And while, as has been seen, for many centuries the old pagan associations with Christmas only gave concern to purist Protestants, the situation has changed with the emergence of neo-pagan religions in the West, many of which claim a direct connection with the old religions of pre-Christian Europe. So there are growing numbers of people who are celebrating Solstice and not Christmas, per se. In the northern hemisphere, that can lead to arguments over who 'owns' what in relation to Christmas; less so in the southern hemisphere, as it's summer solstice down here with different seasonal symbolism to Christmas. But at the same time in Australia there has developed the tradition of Christmas in July, as an attempt to keep some kid of traditional seasonal connections with Christmas, too. And I've heard people advocate moving Christmas to winter as a way to respect the traditional liturgical calendar.

Christmas also falls around the time of the Jewish feast of Hannukah. Hannukah is the Jewish Feast of Lights and commemorates the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated (the 'abomination of desolation') by the Seleucid King, Antiochus Epiphanes, back in 167 BCE. Hannukah is an 8 day feast that starts on 25 Kislev: the Jewish calendar is a luni-solar one and so 25 Kislev falls any time between late November and late December on the Gregorian calendar. So more often than not, Jews are celebrating Hannukah around the time most Christians celebrate Christmas. And to further compound things in 2006 and 2007, the Muslim feast of Eid al Adha fell around Christmas too, which meant that in 2006 three of the Abrahamic religions were celebrating a major feast in the second half of December. However the Muslim calendar is strictly lunar so there are no seasonal associations with their feasts, which move all over the Gregorian calendar (and Julian and Jewish ones too) through the years.

The mention of Islam serves to remind that over the last few decades, the countries, like Australia, of the old 'settler' Commonwealth, along with the UK, USA and many European countries have seen the growth through immigration of substantial and growing communities following Islam and other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism etc. Questions have been raised about how appropriate it is in a multi-faith culture for the state to give preference to one religion by observing a holiday for it's key holy days (Christmas, and Easter too). Sometimes the debates can be quite contentious, especially in the USA, which strikes me more and more as a very fundamentalist society (perhaps as a result of it being the capitalist heartland - I'm thinking more and more that capitalism spawns fundamentalism, that most superficial form of identity politics, and lets face it the capitalist system doesn't want us to go any further in our politics than the superficial). Ironically, the voices of Muslims, Hindus et al are rarely heard in these discussions, which seem to be mostly bouncing around among Christians and post-Christians. And with the rise of the apparently new (and militant) atheism, both in response to the ridiculous excesses of US Christian fundamentalism and fostered by George Bush's crusades against the US's fundamentalist simulacrum in the Middle East, it's almost as if some people actually resent having to take a holiday. In my younger working days, all holidays, any holidays were always welcome no matter what, so I find this newfound secular puritanism quite disturbing, especially in Australia, the proverbial land of the long weekend.

The irony is that Christmas has been changing, too, as capitalism has morphed it into a secular celebration of the great market sacrament of shopping. This process began over a century ago and is most dramatically evidenced by Coca Cola's makeover of Santa Claus (Santa Claus or Father Christmas was a much more complex, even threatening figure before this makeover). It's perhaps ironic, given the contentious nature of the debates on this question, that it is the USA which is the home of secular Christmas. Not only the commercialised Santa, but a whole suite of secular Christmas music, White Christmas, Frosty, Rudolph etc. To be honest I find these songs completely banal, if not vapid and utterly incongruous, too, in an Australian context of high summer. But to be fair, there are some pretty tawdry religious carols too, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries. I can't began to say how much I despise Away in a Manger for it's cheap sentimentality and it's obnoxiously patronising approach to children. I despise it as much as I do Frosty, Rudolph, and these neverending sleighbells jingling through our pretend winter wonderlands.

Secular Christmas was invented in the USA and then exported very successfully to Japan, definitely not a Christian country, where it is both a children's festival and oddly enough a kind of holiday for lovers too. Christmas has also been taken up in Singapore, again in a big way. Like Japan, Singapore is not a Christian country either. Perhaps because Christmas draws on a rich range of associations, both pagan and Christian, and given its seasonal winter associations in the northern hemisphere, it's a package that can be picked up and adapted in non-Christian cultures like Japan (and as China becomes more capitalist will Christmas be added to the Chinese festive calendar too?).

28 January
(since I resumed this post the other day, I had further problems with internet access which prevented me from getting back it)

I said before that most of the debates about the appropriateness of keeping a religious festival in the Anglosphere, anyway, seem to be mostly conducted by Christians and post-Christians with very rare participation by people from other faiths. Several years ago I had the privilege to work with two colleagues at UQ from Slovenia (one of whom now dead and the other returned to Slovenia). Their specialty was South Asia, Hinduism and Buddhism especially. They used to laugh at the Christmas debates. Being socialists they couldn't understand why people would resent a holiday (although they would critique the gross commercialisation of it and the associated hype). But they also told me that in much of India it's quite normal for people to join in each other's religious celebrations and holidays. It's a way that religious difference can enrich people's lives and their society. And India is a very rich and religiously diverse society containing ancient Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian communities, as well as Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain. I've also been told that in much of Syria too it was common for Christians and Muslims to join in each others holidays and share celebrations at each other's shrines and sanctuaries. And while we think of Syria as Muslim, the fact is that it contains many varieties of Islam, not one, and many, mostly ancient, varieties of Christianity too. Syria is a multi-faith society then despite appearances.

I think that these practices might provide a worthy model for our modern secular societies. Secularity does not mean the banishing of religion from the public sphere as in religious and spiritual = strictly private, while public = secular/atheist only. That's just a form of tyranny and only serves to promote arid fundamentalism and cheap sentimentality as evinced in the regular and tedious US Christmas wars and the incredibly vapid nature of commercial capitalist Christmas. Just compare the emptiness of Frosty the Snowman with the depth of something like Coventry Carol. The commercial and secular infantilises and diverts our attention from the depths of joy and of horror.

Here in Brisbane the Buddhist community has taken to holding public celebrations of Vesak, the birth death and enlightenment of Gautama Buddha, on the Labour Day public holiday. I've yet to get along as I'm usually marching with my union in the Labour Day celebrations. But in our multi-faith society I can't why there shouldn't be a public holiday for Vesak so that Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike can share in the day. And the same applies for other faiths too, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, indigenous religions etc. A secular and multi-faith society provides the opportunity for mutual enrichment, whether one's a believer or not. The secular state itself offers nothing for us to address the substantial questions of life and nor should it try to. All it can do is provide us the spaces, temporal, spatial etc, whereby we can share with each other and learn from each other and our respective traditions, in mutual respect, gratitude, and fun too. After all these are holidays.

AFTERWORD: Given all the disruptions in the writing of this post, which stretched out the timeframe for composing it, I suspect that I got clear away from where I thought was heading when I began early this month. However I intend to return to some of these themes through the course of this year.