Thursday, December 22, 2011

From "Talking with the Spirits:" Circles of Worship

Many different practices are lumped together under the rubric of “worship.” If we are going to understand the way spiritual practices help us relate to and understand the Divine, we may do well to examine those various layers and the ways in which they influence each other. “There are many different pathways to God” is a common truism. But few realize that every individual simultaneously walks on several of these pathways at any given time.

The core of this spiritual onion is the relationship between Deity and the individual. Since the Protestant Reformation and its focus on a personal relationship with Christ, this layer has received the lion’s share of attention. Interactions at this level are personal and intimate. They may resemble the relationship between a king and his subject, between a mother and her child, between a lover and the beloved, between old friends exchanging helpful suggestions and entertaining anecdotes – the possibilities are endless.

From there we have the relationship between Deity and the family. Today we rail against efforts to “indoctrinate” children. For most of history indoctrination was seen as a good and a necessary thing. Parents were expected to pass down their religious teachings to their offspring. Spirituality provided children with role models to follow and provided a moral and ethical foundation that would help them become strong and productive adults. Much as children might learn the family trade, so too would they learn the family prayers and become acquainted with the family spirits.

Still other layers of worship were placed atop these. The family participated in the spiritual life of their village. Depending on the village’s ethnic or cultural makeup, those rites might establish them as part of the greater community or set them apart. Sometimes it would do both. In the Classical world different communities might serve the same God using different rites and representations. This did not give rise to war and to calls of blasphemy but to pilgrimages. A merchant who wanted to repay a debt to Zeus might visit His temples in several different cities. There he might be regaled with different stories of the Sky-Father’s origin: he might hear of Zeus the wolf-father, the Cthonic Zeus who lived underground, or the ram-horned Zeus Ammon honored in the Egyptian deserts. All these different tales of Zeus were proof of His glory and majesty: instead of focusing on their contradictions, devotees saw them as part of a greater whole, a Mystery that could not be summed up in a single book or a single legend.

A vision or a visitation might result in changes to the practices within an area, or they might result in visionaries setting up temples elsewhere and putting their gnosis to practical use. This was not seen as irreverence but as the highest form of devotion. Be it a small roadside shrine or a massive marble temple about which a city formed, gnosis led to the creation of another sacred place and gave us another myth by which we might come closer to the Gods. Worship was inclusive rather than exclusive: as the worlds of their devotees changed and grew, so too did the worlds of their Gods. As time went on new stories were added to the canon: once-important and widely known tales faded in importance and were lost.

(Indeed, many would argue that changes in the world of humanity were spurred by changes in the world of the Divine. Where many today believe the sacred world is a pale reflection of mundane reality, many historical intellectuals believed our reality was but shadows cast by the Divine Light – see Plato’s thoughts on the “Forms” for one particularly influential version of this theory).

This is not to say that the liturgies and rituals of the Gods were completely flexible, or that arbitrary changes were acceptable to the clergy or the congregations. Cities maintained their religious rites as diligently as their walls and defenses: families protected their patron spirits as fiercely as their treasure. Traditions were not altered without very good reason: it typically required some combination of gnosis, charisma and armed force to make changes in the way a city honored its Gods. Those who were unsuccessful in their campaigns were often invited to leave or even jailed or killed for blasphemy.

Religious controversies did not begin with the rise of monotheism. The Romans were horrified by the Carthaginian practice of infant sacrifice. (They also feared Carthage as a competitor, proving that the use of religious grudges for political ends has an equally long history). There were certainly doctrinal disputes and disagreements that might disrupt a community: the Bacchanals frequently attracted negative attention for their frenzied rites. But by and large there was a great deal of flexibility in the ancient world. Groups were allowed to believe and worship as they saw fit, so long as their members functioned as peaceful and productive citizens.