Archive for the ‘religion’ Category


Hinduism (1500 BC – ) is the main religion of India. It is a religion of temples, gods with many arms, holy cows, Untouchables, karma and reincarnation. It gave us two other religions, Buddhism and Jainism.

Hinduism is not the same all over India. It is more like a huge family of religions which hold certain ideas in common:

  • Reincarnation: After we die we will be born again on this earth: same soul, different body. This happens over and over again. Forever. Our aim is to escape from this endless wheel of reincarnation and become one with Brahman:
  • Brahman is everywhere and in everything, even in us. Brahman is the soul of the world. To escape this world of life and death and become one with Brahman, we must live according to its principles, not according to money or the other things of this world that would lead us in the wrong direction.
  • Karma rules the world, not fate or chance or even the gods themselves. If we do bad things, we will be punished, sooner or later, one way or another; but if we do good things, then we will be rewarded, sooner or later, one way or another. That is karma. The reward or punishment may happen in this life or in the next. Some people seem to live a charmed life while others have the worst luck not because of anything they did in this life, but because of what they did in the last! The Buddhists and Jains also believe in karma.
  • Caste: Society is divided into castes: at the top are the Brahmans, the priestly caste, then the princes and soldiers, then businessmen and farmers, then the masses and then, at the very bottom, the Untouchables. There is no moving up or down in this life. That is done between lives as determined by our karma. If you do good things in this life, then your next life will be better.

Hinduism has hundreds of gods, but three stand out: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Both Vishnu and Siva are pictured as having many arms and both have large followings in India. From Brahman sprang Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Vishnu has appeared on earth nine times and will appear again. Once he appeared as the hero Rama, another time as Krishna, that blue man in the Bhagavadgita. Krishna tells Arjuna the ways of the world, giving him the Hindu answers to the deep questions of life. The Bhagavadgita, which is part of an extremely long story called the Mahabharata, is the single best book an ordinary person can read to learn about Hinduism.

To learn more you can study the ancient Vedas. Not by reading them by yourself but by studying them at the feet of a guru. Work for him and he will teach you part of them. The two most famous parts are the Rig Veda and the Upanishads. The 108 Upanishads are about the nature of Brahman.

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The God of Abraham (by -1363) is worshipped by half of mankind: he is the god of the Jews, Christians and Muslims; he is the god of the Bible and the Koran.

He first appears in Egyptian records by -1363 as YHW. He is also known as YHWH, Yahweh, Jehovah, Elah, Allah, the Lord, the Holy Trinity, God Almighty and the Demiurge. I will call him by his common English name, God.

Jews, Christians and Muslims say he is the only god, the one who created the world. Other gods are demons or made up.

God talks to us through prophets, angels, holy books and prayer. He tells us what is right and wrong. At the end of the world on Judgement Day he will judge us, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He is beyond human thought and word.

Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same god? Historically, yes. Theologically, it depends who you ask.

Christians say that God has three Persons: he is one God yet somehow he is also God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. This is called the Holy Trinity. They see Jesus Christ as God made flesh.

Gnostics call him the Demiurge, which means Creator. But they mean that in a bad way: they see this world as a prison of matter that our spirits have fallen into. He is hardly God Almighty.

Even though he was the god of a people with an unhappy history, he has conquered the gods of the Roman Empire, the gods of the  Greek philosophers, the 360 gods of Mecca, the gods of the Aztecs and countless others.

Three things set him apart from other gods:

  1. Like a wife, he is jealous. He wants us to worship him alone. Even though he started out as a god of the Jews, a people who never built an empire, he says he is god of all men, of the whole universe! Other gods are happy being the god of rain or war or whatever and sharing men’s worship with other gods. Not this one.
  2. Like a hard father, he is severely moral. Unlike other gods he does not use his power to do whatever he wishes. He always acts justly and morally and demands the same of us. But with justice comes mercy:
  3. Like a friend, he listens to us and shows mercy. He is not some nameplate in the sky, he is the “living God”. He hears us and cares about us. But like a good father he will punish us out of love and yet pardon us when that is wisest.

Because he is so wise, he is often pictured as an old man with a long white beard, as Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel (pictured above). But of course he is beyond anything we can picture. Muslims and Jews and some Christians say it is wrong to even try to make a picture of him.

– Abagond, 2007, 2015.

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EllenGWhite_aEllen G. White (1827-1915) was an American prophet who helped to establish the Seventh Day Adventist church, a Protestant church which now has 14 million believers worldwide. She was not its founder, but its first leading light. Adventists interpret the Bible according to her writings.

God sent White more than 2,000 visions so that she could tell Christians that Jesus will soon come back. That is what the Advent of “Adventist” means: when Jesus Christ will come back to judge the living and the dead on Judgement Day.

She was born in Maine at the north-eastern end of America, one of two twin sisters. When she was eight a stone struck her in the nose and she lay unconscious for three weeks. When she recovered she did not go back to school – she no longer seemed to have enough  intelligence.

Three years later she went with her parents to hear William Miller. He said that Christ would return in a few years on Tuesday October 22nd 1844. They became his followers.

The day came and went. Nothing happened. This was called the Great Disappointment. Miller lost most of his followers, but Ellen remained. She tried to make sense of what had happened. She prayed and read the Bible. Then one morning in December she received her first vision. She saw the Adventists on a journey to the City of God. Other visions followed. It helped to hold some of the Adventists together, the ones who later became the Seventh Day Adventists.

Other Adventists interpreted the Great Disappointment differently. Some of these became the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So how did the Adventists become the Seventh Day Adventists? Ellen married an Adventist preacher, James White. They both read “The Seventh Day Sabbath” by Joseph Bates and were persuaded that Christians, not just Jews, should observe the seventh day of the week, Saturday, as a day of rest and worship. Six months later God told her she was right in a vision.

Most Christians go to church on Sunday and see that as the day of rest. Sunday was when Jesus rose from the dead. But Bates pointed out that this change from Saturday to Sunday is no where mentioned in the Bible. Therefore it was instituted by man, not by Christ.

Her husband led the new church while she helped to guide it through her visions and writings. She saw the church grow from a few thousand to over 136,000. It now has over 14 million, most of them now outside of North America.

Of her many books the one to read, or read first, is “The Great Controversy” (1858). It is both history and prophecy: it details the history of the world from the year 70 to Judgement Day. It is her reading of Christian history and the book of Revelation in the Bible, painting history as a war between Satan and God. Like it or not, she says, we are fighting on one side or the other.

– Abagond, 2007.

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John Calvin (1509-1564) founded Calvinism, a severe form of the Protestant faith that took root in Switzerland, Scotland, America and the Netherlands. Even today those places still have a watered down sort of Calvinism. Presbyterian, Puritan and the Reformed churches grew out of Calvin’s teachings.

Calvin came a generation after Luther and Zwingli: he was only eight when Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door. But he took their thought and made it into a well-argued, rational system. You can read about it in his book, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”.

Calvin was born in France. He went to Paris to study to be a priest. He loved theology, Greek and Hebrew. But he found that the leaders of the Catholic Church were corrupt, its priests had little education and its believers just went through the motions.

In 1533 he turned against the Church and a year later he had to flee France. He first went to Basel, Switzerland. There he wrote his “Institutes”. In 1541 he came to Geneva, where he became the religious leader.

Like Luther he believed in sola scriptura and sola fide: that we are saved by faith, not works, and that all truth comes from Scripture, not from the mouths of popes or bishops.

And like Luther he believed that God had chosen whom he would save and send to heaven when he made the world. This is called predestination. But Calvin went further: he said that God has also chosen those who will go to hell; that we have no free will – how could we if God is all-powerful?

We are on our way to heaven or hell – God has already made his decision! God even wanted Adam to fall!

This was too much for most Protestants to take, even though no one had a good answer for Calvin’s well-reasoned arguments. It seems like a cruel doctrine, but since God is just everything is fine.

Really when you think about it, Calvin said, we should all go to hell. We have all sinned. Admit it. Christ died for our sins, but only for those who believe in him. And that belief, that faith, is only given to those whom God chooses. It is an act of God’s mercy. It has nothing to do with justice. None of us deserve it.

How to tell if you are going to heaven:

  • Confession of the faith
  • A Christian life
  • Love of the sacraments

Calvin recognized only two sacraments: baptism and communion. The other five sacraments, he said, are not in Scripture, therefore they were not instituted by Christ.

Calvin said that Christ is not present physically in the bread and wine of communion, as Catholics and Lutherans believed. Instead Christ sends the Holy Spirit into the believer when he takes communion.

Calvin allowed plain crosses in church, but none with Christ pictured on them. He allowed singing, but only psalms.

Calvin was influenced by Augustine, but he took his ideas on predestination much further.

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Martin Luther (1483-1546) founded the Protestant faith in 1517. It started when he nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of a church in Germany, protesting the corruption of the Catholic Church. This led to a hundred years of off-and-on religious wars that divided first Germany and then Europe in half. Protestants are now the second largest branch of Christianity.

Luther founded the first Protestant church, the Lutherans. His ideas were later developed by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland. It is their sort of Christianity that became common in the English-speaking world.

Luther was an Augustinian monk who felt he was not going to heaven. No matter how often he confessed his sins and did all the things a good Catholic should, he was not at peace. A friend of his told him to study Scripture. So he did and found his answer in Romans 1:17:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”

We are not saved by our good works, but by faith, a faith which God gives us by his grace – his free and unmerited gift.

Yet at this very time the Church was selling indulgences to lessen the punishments of purgatory in the afterlife. Not only had the practice become corrupt, it was completely against Luther’s new understanding of the faith.

So to protest against indulgences he nailed to a church door his list of 95 reasons why they and the Church were wrong.

In the following years Luther went further. He taught two things that became the root of all Protestant thinking:

  1. Sola fide: “faith alone” is all that you need to be saved. You do not get to heaven by good works, you get there by faith in Christ.
  2. Sola scriptura: “scripture alone” is all you need to reach the truth. You do not need popes or bishops to tell you what to think.

Luther was declared a heretic and brought to Worms before the emperor, his princes and a representative of the pope. They tried to get him to back off. He refused. So they condemned him.

Luther’s friends got him into hiding at the castle of Wartburg. There he translated the Bible into German.

Luther translated all the books of the Bible, but he said that some books were not sacred: they were good to read, but should not be used to argue doctrine. These became the books of the Apocrypha:

  • Old Testament: Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
  • New Testament: James, Jude, Hebrews, Revelation

As it happens, Maccabees and James supported Catholic ideas of purgatory and good works.

Melanchthon, who came after Luther, restored the New Testament but kept Luther’s Apocrypha for the Old Testament.

Luther’s ideas divided Germany. It led to years of war with neither side able to win outright. Nine years after Luther’s death it was agreed that each German prince could choose the religion of his own subjects.

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Hans Kung: Credo

Written: 1992
Read: 1994

Till I read “Credo” I had a high regard for Hans Kung. Seeing his thick, serious-looking books in the library and knowing that he got in trouble with the Catholic Church, I assumed he was a serious, independent thinker. After reading “Credo” I was shocked.

If I got my theology from the newspaper it would be almost as good – and not much different. I was hoping for something deeper, better reasoned, something that would make me think.

In “Credo” Kung explains the Apostles’ Creed, a short list of beliefs that Christians have universally held for nearly 2000 years: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, and so on. In Latin the first word is “Credo” – I believe.

Kung goes through the Creed line by line. Unlike Christians through most of time, Kung believes:

  • There was no Adam and Eve.
  • There is no original sin.
  • There is no hell.
  • There will be no Judgement Day.
  • The were no miracles.
  • There was no Virgin Birth.
  • Jesus was merely a holy man till his death.
  • Jesus did not rise physically from the dead.
  • The Bible is not the Word of God but a history book about the Jewish and Christian religion.

But Kung does believe that after death Jesus somehow became one with God; that he was closer to understanding God than anyone.

While Kung freely questions the truth of the Bible, he never questions the received wisdom of his time and place – the German-speaking world of the late 1900s. Past ages were backward and knew little. Not so Europe in 1992, at least compared to the Bible and Christianity.

His knowledge of the past is shockingly thin for such a learned man. He has never read Lucretius, for example. Or if he has, he did not understand him. Otherwise he would know that most of what passes for received wisdom in the West these days has been believed before and found wanting.

Kung disproves hell in part by showing that most people in his part of the world no longer believe in it. Wait, this is theology? But that is what most of his book boils down to: theology by the numbers. If most religions or most Germans believe it, it must be true.

Kung believes that the great religions of the world – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism – all seek the same truth. Christianity has got the closest, but even it has fallen short.

Kung seeks that common truth, that understanding of a Higher Reality. But in trying to find what is common to the great religions – that can also be squared with current Western thinking! – he is left with something that is neither great nor religion.

True, “Credo” is too short to go into all the hows and whys, so maybe his thicker, heavier books do. But from his style of thinking in “Credo”, I doubt it.

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St Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most famous and beloved Christian saints. He founded the religious order of the Franciscans. He is known for his love of animals, especially birds. He called them his brothers.

St Francis was born Francesco Bernardone in Assisi, a small town in the mountains of Italy. He was named for the France his mother came from, where his father often went to sell cloth. She came from Provence, land of the troubadours.

His father was rich but not a noble. To win glory and title for the family and himself Francis fought in the endless war against Perugia, a nearby city. But instead of glory and title, Francis found himself a prisoner of war. Later he had a long illness. God began to speak to him in dreams.

It took him some time to understand the dreams. In one dream God told him to rebuild his church. So he started to rebuild San Damiano, a small, broken-down church in the country where he went to pray. Not what God meant.

Francis still sought glory in war — in vain. And the dreams kept coming. In time Francis turned from war and glory to prayer and helping the poor. Humility, not honour.

Instead of selling cloth, Francis gave away the family’s money to the poor. He even had them come to eat at the house. His father was outraged, but not even prison would stop Francis from his course.

Finally his father took him to see the bishop. Maybe the bishop could talk some sense into Francis. It did not work: Francis disowned his father and even gave him the clothes on his back.

Francis walked out to the church with nothing — no money, no family, no home, trusting only in God. He preached the poor and simple life of the gospels, more by example than words. “Always preach the gospel,” he said, “by words if necessary.”

He began to gather followers, even among the sons and daughters of the rich. They knew the emptiness of wealth and saw in Francis something true and real. One was St Claire.

Francis wrote a short rule for the new order and got the approval of the pope. The Franciscan order was born.

His order was hardly the first, but it was something new. Until then members of a religious order – called monks and nuns – lived apart from the world – in their own buildings, on their own land, mostly in the country. Francis and his followers lived like Jesus: not apart from the world  but with everyone else. You saw them every day in the streets. They were called friars or brothers.

Franciscans take three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. No money, no sex, no self-will.

The Dominican order founded by St Dominic about the same time was similar. The two orders renewed the Catholic Church, which at the time had grown powerful and corrupt. It is what God meant when he told Francis to rebuild his church.

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Origen (185-254) was a Christian intellectual from Alexandria. He influenced Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Bernard and others. His allegorical interpretation of scripture, though out of favour now, deeply influenced the West in the years from 600 to 1200.

Alexandria of the 200s produced two great thinkers: Origen and the Greek philosopher Plotinus. They produced the two great roads to the truth that men of the Roman Empire followed in the 200s and 300s. Augustine followed both roads in the early 400s and showed how they were the same road.

Origen had a good Greek education. He tried to make Christian and Greek thinking into one system but failed. His mistake was to treat Greek thinking as a set of truths, not as a way of thinking.

It was partly in “De principiis” that Origen tried to make the two systems into one:

  • Eternity of creation: it is without beginning or end. God can create and destroy, but he cannot exist without a creation.
  • Free will: God made angels, stars, demons and men all equal to each other. They became unequal through what they did with their free will.
  • Matter: All spiritual beings have a material nature, even angels. But some, like men, are more material than others.
  • Universal salvation: If you are not saved in this life, your soul will be brought back for another chance. Because the universe lasts for ever even the demons will be saved.

Origen was not a heretic – all this was within the limits of Christian thinking in the Alexandria of his day. But the book got a bad name when heretics later used it to justify teachings that opposed the Church.

The emperor Justinian pushed to have Origen condemned. He had political reasons of his own, but “De principiis” made it easy for the Church to do it. That is why he is not considered to be a saint.

He fell out of favour in the Greek east in the 600s but the Latin west continued to read him. Not “De principiis”, but his books about the Bible. Of the few books that existed then in the West many were by Origen. They stood like a lighthouse to the Bible.

Origen said the entire Bible is true, but not necessarily our interpretation of it. Some passages just have a straight sense, some only have an allegorical sense, where the Bible speaks in figures, and some passages have both senses.

For example, the wood of Noah’s ark stands for the wood of the Cross of Christ. The lamb’s blood the Jews put on their door frames on the night of the first Passover foreshadows the saving blood of Christ. These were real events in history but God used them as figures of what was to come.

Origen’s New Testament included:

  • Acts of Paul
  • 1 Clement
  • Barnabas
  • Didache
  • Shepherd of Hermas

but not:

  • James
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John

The books of the New Testament were still not fixed till the 300s.

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How to translate the Bible

The Authorized Version (AV) or King James Bible is the best translation of the Bible done so far in English. Here are the rules, written and unwritten, that the translators followed:

  1. Start with the Bishops’ Bible (1568). Use its wording except where it is wrong.
  2. Translate every word. You do not always have to translate a word the same way into English.
  3. Keep the original word order as much as possible.
  4. You may add words to the English for sense, but clearly show which words were added. (This is done with italics in the AV).
  5. Read the English to others. The AV must be good for both public and private reading. (That it must sound good as spoken English also makes verses easier to remember.)
  6. Do not invent new ways to translate words. For example, the Greek episkopoi has always been translated “bishop”, so do not make it “overseer”.
  7. Prefer familiar names of people and places where they exist. For example, use Job, not Ijob.
  8. Where a word can be translated in more than one sense, use the sense favoured by the ancient church fathers.
  9. Faithfulness to the original is more important than style.
  10. Do not add notes. The English must stand on its own. References to parallel verses are allowed.
  11. You may consult five other translations: Tyndale (1526), Coverdale (1535), Matthew (1537), the Great Bible (1539) and the Geneva Bible (1560).
  12. Find about 50 of the most learned men in Hebrew and Greek. Divide them into six companies of seven to ten translators each.
  13. For each book of the Bible, assign it to one of the six companies. Each member translates it independently of the others. When they are done, they come together and come up with a common translation. They send this to the other five companies for review and then make any final changes.
  14. When all books of the Bible have been translated, the twelve top men come together and review the entire Bible.
  15. Consult outside experts as needed. Allow them to send in their own observations.

If you count the consulted translations, then each line of the AV has been translated or reviewed 20 times. This makes outright errors in translation rare.

On the other hand the men who did each of the 20 steps were all Protestants who lived in the same age in the same country. Although the translators were far more humble and faithful to the Word of God than those of our time, they were bound to be affected by the ideas they held in common.

None of the translations of the past 50 years have been clearly better than the AV. Yet there is a crying need for a new translation because the English of the AV is too old to clearly understand.

The new translations are bad because they break one or more of these rules. The AV will last till a new translation more or less follows the same rules as the AV.

– Abagond, 2007.

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Authorized Version

The Authorized Version (AV) (1611) of the Bible, also known as the King James Bible or King James Version (KJV), is the most read English translation of the Bible, if not the most read Bible translationof all time.

The AV translates the Greek of the Textus Receptus for the New Testament and the Hebrew of the Masoretic text for the Old Testament.

While it is the best translation ever done in English, it is not perfect:

  1. Its English is becoming too old to clearly understand.
  2. We now know that the original that it translates has errors. None of them are serious.

The New King James Version (NKJV) attempts to set right the first but not the second.

So far no new translation has been good enough to take the place of the AV, not even the NKJV.

The authority and respect that the AV enjoys today did not come about till 1700 when a whole generation had grown up on it and it alone.

Before 1650 the Geneva Bible stood against the AV. It was the translation of choice for Milton, Bunyan and the Pilgrim Fathers who came to America on the Mayflower. It was the translation of those who fought for the republic in the English civil war in the middle 1600s. Those who fought against them for the king read the AV. In the end the king’s men won and so did their translation.

The AV is a faithful translation. It is not as good as the Latin Vulgate – it is much harder to turn Greek into English than into Latin. But it translates the original almost word for word, even keeping much of its word order.

The English translations of the past 50 years are much looser than the AV, putting a much thicker layer of interpretation between the reader and the original.

The AV is so close to the original that it sounded a bit strange at first. It was full of strange Greek and Hebrew ways of putting things, like “stand in awe”, “the powers that be”, “it came to pass”, “by the skin of his teeth” and “from time to time”. None of these expressions were common before 1700, yet sound completely natural now. That shows the influence the AV has had on English.

The AV is written in the English of south-east England. It has helped to make that sort of English a universally accepted form of the language.

The AV sounds old-fashioned to us, but it sounded old-fashioned even when it first came out. In 1611 few still said “He loveth his dog” instead of “He loves his dog”, or “The house and the windows thereof” instead of “The house and its windows”. That old-fashioned sound comes from the way it was translated.

The AV that is printed today drops the books of the Apocrypha, uses present-day spelling and punctuation and is no longer printed in thick, Gothic letters.

The King-James-Only Movement accepts the King James Bible as the only trustworthy translation of the Bible.

– Abagond, 2007.


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Virgin Mary

Virgen_de_guadalupe2The Blessed Virgin Mary (-21? to +49?), also known as Our Lady, was the mother of Jesus Christ and wife of St Joseph. She has become one of the chief Christian saints. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe she is in heaven where she can hear their prayers and put in a good word for them. Though not a goddess, she is almost like their mother in heaven.

So much has been written and argued about Mary that special terms have sprung up:

  • Immaculate Conception: the doctrine that Mary was conceived without original sin. Believed by Catholics.
  • Annunciation: the archangel Gabriel came to Mary and told her that she would give birth to the Christ. Reported in the Bible
  • Virgin Birth: the doctrine that Mary gave birth to Jesus while still a virgin. Believed by Christians and Muslims. The Bible says the Holy Spirit was the father.
  • perpetual virginity: the doctrine that Mary was a virgin for life. Believed by Catholic, Orthodox and Gnostic Christians. Doubted by present-day Protestants, even though such leading lights as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Wesley all said it was true. The Bible does mention brothers and sister of Jesus. Gnostics say these were his half brothers and sisters through Joseph.
  • Mother of God: the doctrine that Mary is the mother of Jesus, as both God and man. The original Greek term is Theotokos, “God-bearer”. Jesus as the Son of God existed before Mary, but once he became flesh it became impossible to say where the human part of him left off and the divine part began, so Mary is the mother of both together. The arguments over this in the 400s were about the nature of Christ, not Mary. Believed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians, denied by Nestorians.
  • Assumption: the doctrine that Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven. Believed by Catholics and many of the Orthodox, who call it Dormition.
  • Mariolatry: Mary worshipped as a goddess. What Protestants think Catholics do. Catholics honour her as the Mother of God made flesh, not as God.

Sightings: Catholics say Mary has appeared several times:

  • 1531: Guadalupe, Mexico (then New Spain)
  • 1858: Lourdes, France
  • 1917: Fatima, Portugal
  • 1981: Medjugorje, Bosnia (then Yugoslavia)

The Catholic Church says the first three were real, but is not yet sure about Medjugorje. In addition to Medjugorje, there are many other sightings which the Church has not (yet) recognized as real.

Most sightings are reported by pious Catholic girls, but one was reported by a Calvinist.

In her appearances, Mary speaks. Most of what she says supports Catholic doctrine. But at times she says something uncomfortable. For example, in 1846 at La Salette in the French Alps she said, “Rome will lose the faith and become the seat of the Antichrist.” The Church does not recognize that sighting.

That was not the only time she predicted the future. In 1917 at Fatima Mary said Russia will be in darkness for seven decades, which turned out to be true: atheist communists ruled Russia from 1917 to 1991.

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written: -45
read: 2007

After Julius Caesar was killed, Cicero retired to his estate in the country to write. There he wrote “On Divination”. It records a discussion he had at the time with his brother Quintus about whether divination is true: do the gods tell us about the future through oracles, visions, astrology, prophets, the flight of birds and so on?

Quintus argues the Stoic position: divination works.

Cicero argues the opposite: it does not work. Diviners are right only through mere chance, not through any true knowledge.

His arguments sound like what someone today would say, yet Cicero still believes in the old Roman gods. He makes that plain. He just does not think that the gods would tell us things in such a roundabout way. In art and science we already have all that we need to know to live in this world.

Quintus says that if the gods exist, then they would tell us about the future. As it happens, they do: through divination. Therefore the gods do exist.

Quintus points out that men in all times and countries have believed in divination. Not only that, but it somehow works, though Quintus himself has no idea how. He gives many striking examples from history and even quotes Cicero’s own words in support.

Quintus’s argument takes up the first half of the book. It all sounds good. But then in the second half Cicero shows all the holes in it:

  • Just because most men believe something does not make it true. As philosophers we must argue from reason, not from the opinions of shopkeepers.
  • You give examples of where divination works, but not where divination fails, as it does most of the time.
  • All men believe in divination, but they do not at all
    agree on what this or that sign means. There is no body of proven knowledge common to all nations.
  • You say divination is built up by observations down through the ages. Is that so? Where is the proof of that? When observation leads to provable knowledge it becomes part of an art or science. It is no longer left to divination.

He uses the two twins argument against astrology. And on it goes.

Though most present-day readers will agree with him, Cicero’s own argument is also weak. Quintus gives in and never argues against it. I will have to fill in for him:

The holes in Cicero’s argument:

  • Cicero doubts divination because Quintus does not know how it happens. Should I doubt Cicero can think because he does not know how the mind works?
  • Cicero does a lot of supposing about how gods act and think and uses this to show that divination is unlikely. Yet he assumes that the gods think just like man. In fact, just like one man: Cicero!

This last argument, the-gods-agree-with-me argument, is still being used against religion 2000 years later.

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Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Dominican brother, was not just a Christian saint and thinker but one of the chief philosophers of the West. He explained Christianity in terms of Aristotle, making Aristotle “the Philosopher” in the West till the time of Galileo over 300 years later.

By making Christianity and Greek science into one system, Aquinas laid the groundwork for the rise of Western science.

What Aquinas did was a rare thing. The Muslims failed to make peace with Aristotle and rational thought. When they reached this turn in the road they concluded that God is beyond reason or even contrary to reason. And even in the West today there is no peace between religion and science.

Aquinas’s system of thought is known as Thomism or scholasticism and his followers were called schoolmen in English. It was the last time all of Western thought fell under one system.

Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is based on his thought. Even Shakespeare makes more sense once you know Thomism.

In the 1600s Aristotle’s physics was proved wrong and scholasticism fell, even though it had little to do with his physics. It lives on in certain Catholic circles.

In Aquinas’s lifetime the Church had not yet made its peace with Aristotle and though this was to happen through the system of Aquinas, it was not accepted till after his death.

The West had known about Aristotle’s books on logic all along. They had been translated into Latin by Boethius long ago. But in the late 1000s Aristotle’s science burst upon the West from Arab Spain.

Aquinas was friends with William of Moerbeke, a fellow Dominican who was translating Aristotle not from Arabic but from the original Greek.

Some were against Aristotle because he seemed to disprove Christianity, while others were for him just because he did. The genius of Aquinas was to use Aristotle to explain Christianity!

The pope asked Aquinas to write a commentary on Aristotle. He did, but his master work was not that but his “Summa Theologica.”

The Summa explains the nature of God, man, angels, Creation, Judgement Day, Christian virtues and the sacraments – all in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy, all in simple, clear Latin.

The Summa takes the form of a series of questions. For each question Aquinas looks at reasons for and against the Church’s answer. He uses Aristotle’s thinking to show how the Church is right.

The nature of truth: Aristotle said that we know the truth through facts and reason. Aquinas agreed but added one more thing: faith. Facts and reason help us get to through this world, but God needs to reveal to us other truths to help us get to heaven.

Faith and reason both come from God so both are true. Faith does not oppose reason but stands above it. God does not waste his time revealing what is plain or easy to prove, but what is beyond the power of our reason.

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Christmas (354- ), which falls on December 25th, is a holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. In America and in many Christian countries it is the most important holiday of the year.

Note: This post is about Christmas in America (the US).

Over the years Christmas has become something that has little to do with Christ. Many people celebrate it who have not been inside a church in years or who do not even call themselves Christians.

On Christmas Day almost everyone gets off work or school. They give gifts to each other and then at night have a large meal. For children it is the happiest day of the year.

In the north it comes a few days after the start of winter. Getting ready for Christmas and looking forward to it makes the coming of the cold seem not so bad.

American Christmas is really two Dutch holidays rolled into one: Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th and Christmas itself. The Dutch in New York gave their children gifts on St Nicholas’s Day and put treats in their stockings. Christmas, meanwhile, was a more serious church holiday, like Easter.

The English in New York copied the Dutch, but did all the St Nicholas’ Day things on Christmas.

Over time St Nicholas became what we now know as Santa Claus.

Santa Claus is a fat man with a long white beard who dresses in red and white. He laughs a lot and says “Ho, ho, ho.” He lives at the North Pole with his wife. He keeps a list of good children and bad children.

On Christmas Eve Santa Claus delivers gifts to good children all over the world. Bad children get coal. Or nothing. Santa is helped by flying reindeer. The most famous of these is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. His nose is so bright Santa can fly through any weather.

Children and shopkeepers love Santa. He has largely taken over Christmas from Baby Jesus. Many shops, and even some industries, would go broke if it were not for the Christmas that comes in a box.

There are special Christmas songs, food, television shows, films and so on. It is not just any day.

A few weeks before Christmas you put up a Christmas tree. There is even a song about that! The gifts go under the tree and wait there to be opened on Christmas Day (or Christmas Eve).

The gifts are put inside of boxes and covered with colourful paper so you cannot tell what they are. The expectation and surprise is part of the experience.

Children put up Christmas stockings, which get filled with treats overnight. This part goes back to a story about St Nicholas.

As a child I liked opening gifts best. Most of what I got as a child came on Christmas and my birthday.

Now that I am older I like the church part better. I go to mass on Christmas Eve. It is the only part of Christmas that has not been ruined by shopkeepers and in-laws.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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Jesus Christ


Picture of Jesus Christ from the Roman catacombs (300s).

Jesus Christ (-6? to +33?) was a Jewish teacher who founded Christianity, the religion of a third of mankind. Christians believe he is the Son of God, that he is God who lived among us as a man.

What early non-Christian writings say:

  1. He was a Jewish teacher.
  2. Many believed he healed the sick and cast out demons.
  3. Jewish leaders opposed him.
  4. By +36 he had died on the cross by order of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, in the reign of the emperor Tiberius.
  5. By +64 there were already many followers of his in Rome who believed he rose from the dead.
  6. By +100 he was worshipped as a god.

See: Josephus (+93), Pliny the Younger (+112), Tacitus (+116), Suetonius (+121),  and the Talmud.

What the earliest Christian writings say:

  1. He was born in Bethlehem, a town near Jerusalem, to a virgin named Mary. He was a descendant of King David, a great Jewish king.
  2. He worked miracles and taught about the coming Kingdom of God. He called himself the Son of Man and was called the Son of God. He gathered thousands of followers. His top followers were the Twelve Apostles.
  3. He said he will return in the future on Judgement Day to morally judge the living and the dead. The bad will go away into everlasting punishment, but the good into eternal life.
  4. He was a threat to the power of both the Jewish priests and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate had him nailed to a cross, a common punishment in those days for revolutionaries (think Spartacus). He died and was buried.
  5. Two days later he rose from the dead. Over 500 people saw him alive again. After 50 days he went up to heaven.
  6. He gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins, to help us get right with God.

See Paul (by +60), Q Gospel (by +80), Mark (by +80), Signs Gospel (by +90) and Matthew (by +100).

What others say:

  • Jews of the time said Jesus got his powers from the devil and used them to lead Jews away from their faith. They say that the Messiah will come some day, but Jesus was not him.
  • Gnostics in the 100s and 200s said Jesus came not to die for our sins but to tell us a secret way to heaven. He only told the deserving few. Everyone else was fed a lie.
  • Arians in the 300s said Jesus is neither God nor man but something in between. He was a divine creature higher than the angels but lower than God.
  • Muslims since the 600s say Jesus was a great prophet, like Moses or Isaiah. He was born of a virgin and worked miracles, but was only a man. He only seemed to die on the cross. Christians rewrote the Bible to make him into God.
  • Western intellectuals since the 1700s say Jesus was merely a wise and holy man. Since miracles are impossible, the ones in the Bible are pure fiction, including the virgin birth and rising from the dead.

Holidays: His birthday is Christmas (December 25th). Easter is when he rose from the dead (the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring).

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