Catholics in Trouble over ‘Idols’ Again

Idols on the Catholic altar

Various idols on the altar of a Roman Catholic church in England (photo: churchmilitant.com)

Maybe you missed it, but there was a minor scandal at the Vatican last year over the liturgical use of an image of Pachamana, one name given to the indigenous Mother Goddess of the Andean region of South America. Some traditional Catholics were deeply offended:

The statues, which were identical carved images of a naked pregnant Amazonian woman, had been displayed in the Carmelite church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, close to the Vatican, and used in several events, rituals, and expression of spirituality taking place during the Oct. 6-27 Amazonian synod.1)I realize the “Andean” and “Amazonian” mean different things, but the reporting —  or the pope — is a little confused.

The pope said they had been displayed in the church “without idolatrous intentions,” French agency I.Media reported.

The statues were thrown into the river Oct. 21; a video released on YouTube showed two men entering the Church, leaving with the statues, and then throwing them off a nearby bridge

Pope Francis called the statues “Pachamama”; someone else referred to “Our Lady of the Amazon”; and the pope ended up trying to “walk back” the whole affair:

As bishop of this diocese,” Pope Francis, who is Bishop of Rome, said, “I ask forgiveness from those who have been offended by this gesture” . . .

Vatican spokesmen have said that [the statues] represent “life,” and are not religious symbols, but some journalists and commentators have raised questions about the origins of the symbols, and whether they were religious symbols of Amazonian indigenous groups.

Evidently the Roman Catholic diocese of Brentwood in England not get the memo, because this month they “tweeted a picture of the idols of Shiva and Buddha, alongside an icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd and an African carving advertising an ‘interfaith prayer service.’

Cue the outrage over “Pagan idolatry”: “Within minutes, hundreds of outraged Catholics bombarded the diocese’s Twitter thread accusing Fr. Belevendran of idolatry, syncretism, sacrilege and the heresy of indifferentism.”

A Christian convert from India was scathing:

“Father Belevendran says he is from India,” she said. “Doesn’t he know how the caste system of Hinduism oppressed us for 3,000 years and only Christianity liberated us? Doesn’t he know the idol he placed on the altar is that of Shiva — the Hindu god of destruction?”

“Is the Bishop of Brentwood so racist that he believes Catholicism is only for white English people and not for brown-skinned Indians like me and so I need to go back to Hinduism?” she asked. “The image of Shiva as Nataraja on the altar conveys the Indian conception of the never-ending cycle of time, which is completely contrary to the biblical linear concept of time.”

I have to agree with her on the concepts of time; she knows her Hindu symbolism. Meanwhile, Pope Francis continues to try to smooth things over, using the big, heavy, hot smoking iron of monotheistic triumphantalism:

“Everyone prays as he knows, how he can, as he has received from his own culture. We are not praying against each other, this religious tradition against this, no,” the pontiff added. “We are all united as human beings, as brothers, praying to God, according to our culture, according to our own tradition, according to our beliefs, but brothers and praying to God. This is the important thing.”

In other words, we are all praying to the One God, even those benighted Hindus, Africans, and indigenous Amazonians who do not know better.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I realize the “Andean” and “Amazonian” mean different things, but the reporting —  or the pope — is a little confused.

Pagan with a Capital P

In editing the current issue of The Pomegranate, one of my “favorite” issues came up again: whether or not Pagan is capitalized.

American scholars and Pagan authors tend to say yes. There has been a small campaign to convince the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook, widely used in the news media, and the Chicago Manual of Style, widely used by university presses and serious nonfiction publisher.

It’s a matter of accurate labeling and of respect. If Muslim, Hindu, etc. get capital letters, so should Pagan.

This is not an issue that will be settled in a year, or even two or three. But I have hope.

Meanwhile, “pagan” can be used in direct quotation, particularly when it has the sense of “irreligious,” as in C. S. Lewis‘s reference to the Roman poet Ovid as “that jolly old pagan.” (But he was also a cap-P Pagan, in my view.)

On the other hand, writers in the UK tend to lowercase “pagan.” Others try to split the difference, using “pagan” for the ancients and “Pagan” for practitioners of post-1900 Pagan traditions, i.e. “Neo-Pagans.”1)And that term, popular in the 1970s–80s, is more and more supplanted by “contemporary Pagan” or “modern Pagan.”

To my editorial eye, this approach is worse than no capital P at all. Imagine someone writing this: “Ancient pagans and today’s Pagans differ in their attitudes toward animal sacrifice.”

The reader might think that someone had either forgotten to capitalize one “pagan” or mistakenly capitalized the other. Confusing.

I was happy to see recently that Koenrad Elst, a Belgian scholar of Hinduism, was using the capital-P in a broad sense.2)Although he has a PhD in the study of Hindu nationalism, he is in fact is a civil servant, not an academic, which gives him certain advantages. Here, interviewed in the Hindu Post, he implies that “Pagan” is like “Hindu”—a label imposed by outsiders that nevertheless has been adopted today:3)This is a pro-BJP (ruling party) website.

The historical definition of the term “Hindu”, brought by the Muslim invaders[1], does not define a specific worldview and practice, as the definitions of Christianity and Islam do. “Hindu” is a geographically defined slice of Paganism, viz. all Pagan (=non-Christian, non-Muslim) traditions coming from Bharat (India). This means every possible belief or practice that does not conform to either Christianity or Islam. It includes the Brahmins, the upper and lower castes, the ex-Untouchables, the Tribals, the Buddhists (“clean-shaven Brahmins”), the Jains, and many sects that didn’t even exist yet but satisfy the definition: Lingayats, Sikhs, Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna Mission, ISKCon. I am aware that many now refuse to be called “Hindu”, but since they satisfy the definition, they are Hindu, period. Elephants are not first asked whether they agree to being called elephants either.

My preference, too, is to use capital-P Pagan for all non-monotheists, ancient or modern. It is a simple and orthographically uncomplicated solution. And if anyone questions it, just refer them to the umbrella term “Hindu,” now accepted by (almost all) Hindus.

Notes   [ + ]

1. And that term, popular in the 1970s–80s, is more and more supplanted by “contemporary Pagan” or “modern Pagan.”
2. Although he has a PhD in the study of Hindu nationalism, he is in fact is a civil servant, not an academic, which gives him certain advantages.
3. This is a pro-BJP (ruling party) website.

Pentagram Pizza with Milky Devotion and Unlikely Polytheism

Is this a case of misplaced devotional offerings? The Tamil Nadu Milk Dealers Association says yes.

• The Live Science news site is not the place where you expect tor read about Norse (or any other) polytheism, but this article strikes a reasonable note.

Icelandic elves again, this time on the BBC. I never get tired of reading this stuff though.

The Pueblo Revolt and Pagan History

Commemorative poster by Kiowa artist Parker Boyiddle Jr. (1947–2007).

Some time in the early 1980s, M. and I were traveling through northern Arizona on one of our VW Bug-and-cheap tent tours, when we stopped for lunch at the Hopi Cultural Center, a/k/a The Cafe at the Center of the Universe.

We could not afford much at the gift shop, but I bought this poster, which commemorates a signal event in the Pagan history of North America — the time in August 1680 when the different Pueblo tribes, separated by language and geography,1)It is at least 350 road miles from Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo, where the revolt was planned) to the Hopi villages. Teenage boys ran the distance—an event recreated in 1980. rose up simultaneously, killing Christian priests, destroying churches, and chasing the Spanish settlers back to what is today Mexico.2)The Spanish did, however, come back in the Reconquista of 1692. It is often called the “bloodless” reconquest — as in this somewhat-biased link — but it was not. Calling it the ‘bloodless reconquest” perpetuates the myth that the simple natives welcomed the Catholic priests.

The poster has hung by my desk in three or four different houses.

For a good, sensitive history of the revolt, I recommend David Roberts’ The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards out of the Southwest.

Two things recently  brought the Pueblo Revolt back to my mind.

For one, last month American blogger Galina Kraskova linked to a Hindu blog, which itself was about “How Japan Dealt with the Christian Threat.” (This followed an earlier post by the same blogger on “Japan’s Defeat of Christianity and Lessons for Hindus.”) In short, during the early 17th century the Japanese shoguns all but eliminated the Catholic Christianity that had been spread by (mainly) Portuguese missionaries among the population. Their tactics included threats, torture, imprisonment, and a sort of  Buddhist Inquisition.3)For the movie version, see Silence, 2016, directed by Martin Scorsese. Now the Japanese approach is endorsed by some Hindus who advocate restricting or eliminating Christian missionary activity in India.

Pottery jar by Virgil Ortiz from “Revolt 1680/2180.”

But back to the Pueblo Revolt, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center has a show up by Virgil Ortiz, an artist from Cochiti Pueblo, New Mexico, titled “Revolt 1680/2180.” It will be on display through the first week of January 2016, and I must see it.

Ortiz’s Revolt storyline transports the viewer back more than 300 years to the historical events of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, and then hurtles forward through time to the year of 2180 – introducing a cast of characters along the way. Though the narrative will be largely based on the Revolt 1680/2180 storyline that the artist has been developing for some time, Revolution will focus on the Aeronauts and other main Revolt characters: Po’Pay, Translator and the Spirit World Army, Tahu and her army of Blind Archers, Runners, and Gliders. Set in the future of 2180, the pueblos are in chaos, the invasion of Native land continues, the scourge of war rages everywhere. The Aeronauts summon their fleet and prepare for extreme warfare against the invading Castilian forces. Desperately, the Aeronauts search for any remaining clay artifacts from the battlefields. They know that challenges and persecution will continue, so it is imperative to preserve and protect their clay, culture, language, and traditions from extinction.

If you can be in Colorado Springs over the next three months, the museum is open Tuesday-Sunday.

Notes   [ + ]

1. It is at least 350 road miles from Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo, where the revolt was planned) to the Hopi villages. Teenage boys ran the distance—an event recreated in 1980.
2. The Spanish did, however, come back in the Reconquista of 1692. It is often called the “bloodless” reconquest — as in this somewhat-biased link — but it was not. Calling it the ‘bloodless reconquest” perpetuates the myth that the simple natives welcomed the Catholic priests.
3. For the movie version, see Silence, 2016, directed by Martin Scorsese.

Traditional Polytheism Helps the Economy

Or why Amazon is selling cow-dung cakes in India:

I learned that cow dung cakes can now be ordered on the Indian Amazon website. Out of curiosity, I ordered 6 pieces. It cost me 236 rupees, about $4. I called the local office of Amazon and spoke to Jaideep, who was very courteous and happy to answer my questions.

Read the rest.

Somewhere, Hermes is laughing at the mark-up on cow dung.

(Via Professor Althouse)

Animal Sacrifice and ‘Hard’ Polytheism

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A sacrifice to Kali in Nepal. (Washington Post)

There was some discussion last week at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting as to whether the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group should sponsor or co-sponsor a session devoted to issues surrounding animal sacrifice.

Some voices in the Pagan world suggest that you are not really a “hard” polytheist (truly understanding the gods as independent beings) unless you do it or at least accept its feasibility. Certainly it was a chief feature of civic Paganism in the ancient Mediterranean world. For many people, probably their chief or only opportunity to eat red meat was in the context of communal sacrifice.

At any rate, if being a hard polytheist is the goal and sacrifice is a way to get there, then these Nepalese Hindus in the middle of a sacrifice of thousands of animals are the “hardest” (and perhaps the longest and thickest) of polytheists.

More Reflections on Doninger’s Hinduism Book

Like a lot of people, I was dismayed (to put it mildy) that Penguin India has pulled Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History from sale in that country.

Indologist Koenraad Elst, no stranger to such controversies, explains some of the background on Indian law about religions here.

Art. 295A was never the doing of Hindu society. It was imposed by the British on the Hindus in order to shield Islam from criticism. The reason for its enactment was the murder of Pandit Lekhram in 1897 by a Muslim because Lekhram had written a book criticizing Islam. While the British authorities sentenced the murderer, they also sided with him by retroactively and posthumously punishing Lekhram.

Though originally and for a long time serving to shield Islam, Hindus gradually discovered that they too could use the religiously neutral language of this Article to their seeming advantage. Christians as well have invoked it, e.g. to ban Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. This creates a sickening atmosphere of a pervasive touch-me-not-ism, with every community outdoing the other in being more susceptible to having its sentiments hurt.

American academics have a moral right to deplore this law, on condition that they have spoken out against it on the occasion of earlier conspicuous incidents of book-banning. Where was Wendy when Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was banned? Not knowing her entire record, I leave it to her to provide the answer. At any rate, many Indian secularists, who mostly enjoy the support of those American academics, supported the ban, which was decreed by a self-declared secular Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi) and ruling party (Congress).

Some . . . interesting . . . comments on Elst’s post, too.

At the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, Steven Ramey uses this incident to discuss some larger issues in religious studies and the old scholar-practitioner tensions:

One point of contention between Doniger (and many contemporary scholars) and some of her detractors is the difference between a generally post-modern conception of interpretation as subjective and a more modern, objectivist epistemology. While Doniger’s detractors identify specific assertions and dates that they have labeled as inaccurate, the central issue, the cause for taking offence, seems to be Doniger’s emphasis on less prominent anecdotes, images and interpretations that do not conform to the image of Hinduism that her detractors want to maintain. Doniger’s self-reflexive acknowledgement of her own selectivity within the “embarrassment of riches” that she identifies as Hinduism (and sometimes Hinduisms) becomes a further point of complaint. These opponents assume that questions have definitive answers. They acknowledge “the historical consensus,” whereas Doniger describes her book as “a history.” They consider the meaning of a text to be fixed, as expressed in the legal complaint, “When text remains the same it is obvious that its meaning & message have remained the same.” Doniger, on the other hand, acknowledges that multiple meanings are possible throughout the diversity of Hinduism.

There are some obvious parallels with the academic study of Paganism(s), which I will leave (for now) to my readers to ponder.

The Purity, the Honesty . . .

Indian filmmaker decides to reinvent himself as a guru in America. It looks as though unexpected hilarity results.

The only question is, does pretending to be a guru actually transform him into some sort of guru? “I fake so much, I forget who I was before.”

Not available on Netflix yet, but I have it on my wish list.