I am currently reading some books on religion and sexuality. They are quite interesting and from different perspectives. Actually, it is really two areas of broader study I am pursuing right now. The first is a study of ancient religion, especially Greco-Roman religious life. This interests me not only on its own merits, but for the influence and conflict the polytheistic pagan world of Greece and Rome had with Christianity. The second area of study is a more contemporary discussion of sexuality within a religious, specifically Christian context. What I am finding is quite interesting.
The first area of study, the ancient religious world, is fascinating for its differences and similarities with Christianity. What I have been discovering is that in many ways the old polytheistic world never really passed away, it was simply incorporated into Christianity. For instance, the cult of the saints is quite similar to the myriad of little divinities that everyday people in Greece and Rome worshiped. After all, a saint is a divine, godlike, immortal figure, who can have some sort of influence in our lives. For the average person in the pagan, polytheistic world of Greece or Rome, there were literally thousands of little deities to be worshiped and venerated and who had special properties that one could ask assistance for. These often included elaborate rituals, prayers, rites, etc. I was reminded of how the Catholic Church incorporated this mentality, for instance when I see the ritual of St. Blaise. St. Blaise is the patron saint of those with sore throats. Every year on February 3, St. Blaise’s feast day, the priests ask the congregation after Mass if they would like to have their throats blessed. I have participated in this myself. People line up, and the priest holds two candles next to the persons throat and makes a blessing in the name of St. Blaise. The only thing different between this ritual and something that a pagan Roman might do is the concept of a saint working within a Christian context, rather than a pagan deity working within a pagan context. Christianity knew it could not simply wipe out the ancient religious practices of people, so it adapted itself to the culture that it was trying to influence, i.e., “inculturation”. It is a common practice still used by Catholic missionaries today. The role of the saints in Catholicism is a good example of that.
Another, more concrete example of the confluence of ancient polytheistic religion and Christianity would be the Pantheon in Rome. This was an ancient temple, first build by the Emperor Augustus in 27 BC and later rebuilt in its present form by the Emperor Hadrian in 126 AD. As its name suggest, it was a temple to honor all the ancient, pagan Roman gods. It is a monument to polytheism. Unlike most pagan temples which were destroyed in late antiquity, the sheer beauty and magnificence of this building, with its unique and monumental dome, ensured its survival, nearly intact. Today it is a Catholic Church. But who cannot look at this structure and not realize the vitality of the pagan, polytheism of Rome before the advent of Christianity? The architectural wonder of this structure has made it one of the most influential buildings in all of history. Simply turning this into a church cannot make us forget the fact that before Christianity arrived, the Roman world had a vast and complex system of religious beliefs and rituals.
In the interest of keeping my posts short and readable (I won’t read excessively long posts on other blogs, so I try not to post excessively long things here), I will save other items for future posts, such as the relationship between the concept of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and ancient near eastern mother goddess cults that were quite popular and powerful, especially in the Roman imperial period. Also, the persecution of pagans by Christians is a fascinating topic. It is something a lot of Christians do not want to admit, and yet it is there, both in the past and today.
The second area of study is of course one of my favorite, the area of sexuality, eroticism and spirituality. There is a lot of interesting stuff being written out there, at least going back a decade. With the rise of the internet and blogging, the communication between people has only increased. I think in many ways the open and free discussion of people’s personal experiences of their own sexuality within the context of religion and spirituality might be the greatest threat to the authoritarian, dictatorial structure of religious hierarchies since the Reformation, and perhaps in the whole history of religion and Christianity. There are many people out there such as myself, who reject the traditional notions and ideas of sexuality within Christianity, while not necessarily rejecting Christ. Now, we can communicate freely about these things in a way we could not before. It leaves us outside the boundaries of traditional ecclesial structures, but this is fine, since being within those traditional structures is proving more dangerous to our spirituality than not. This has been my own experience with the Catholic Church: the neuroticism instilled by an unhealthy and traditional asceticism towards the body and sexuality is dangerous for one’s mental and spiritual health. Now, I reject it for the most part, and rejoice in the beauties of sexual pleasure and sexual love, without the guilt, shame, and self loathing that Catholicism is so skilled at instilling in its members. And in addition to the complete enjoyment of sexual pleasure, a enjoyment of erotic art and beauty is also something I embrace. I have found embracing these things has not lessened, but rather deepened, my own spirituality and belief in the divine world.
History of religion, beauty, spirituality, eroticism…these are all fascinating areas of study for me. I hope to write more about them here, and, hopefully, engage some readers in one way or another