Posts Tagged religion

A Papal Fascination

I’m not Catholic. Let’s just start right out with that, because it’s the most common reason to be fascinated by the transfer of power to the new Pope yesterday. Yet I was fascinated, riveted to the coverage for the hour between the rising of the smoke and the emergence of Pope Francis. I find many aspects of the Papacy fascinating. Don’t get me wrong, I find many aspects of it troubling as well, but for one hour yesterday the fascination held sway.

It’s because I love pre-Renaissance history. And names. And titles. And the history of names and titles. And really really long standing precedents. Let’s play this out.

The Pope is the Bishop of Rome. That’s his actual title. There’s a whole story behind how the Roman bishopric earned its primacy over, say, the Bishop of Alexandria which gets into ecumenical history that I don’t understand. Beneath that title lies the unofficial title Pontifex Maximus, a Latin phrase that means greatest bridge builder. This is the title I find fascinating, as it predates the papacy. Indeed, it predates Christianity by about 750 years, as the first recorded holder of the title dates to 712 BC. The title applied originally to the high priest of Rome. In the 60s BC this changed when an ambition young man named Gaius saw it as a stepping stone towards greater power. No one had ever tried that, but no one else was Julius Caesar. He passed the title on to his heir, and for nearly 400 years the title was one of those held by the Roman Emperor before applying to the Bishop of Rome.

There it is. Yesterday Cardinal Bergoglio accepted an elevation that includes a title with nearly 3000 years of history that was once held by Julius Caesar. Even if that title is largely unofficial, it’s one of the oldest titles held by any person today on the planet.

He also got a new name.

Popes choose a papal name, and they usually choose one with a history or meaning behind it. Cardinal Bergoglio chose meaning, but not history. The last pope to be the first of his name was John Paul I, though that doesn’t entirely count as he combined the names of his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI. One difference between John Paul I choosing an unused name and Francis? It’s that ‘I’. Typically that little “the First” is added retrospectively after there is a “the Second,” but John Paul I was John Paul I during his life. Francis will, at least it appears thus far, be Francis, not to be styled Francis I until a later Pope chooses to be Francis II.

Before John Paul I, the last Pope to be the first of his name? Pope Lando. Seriously. There was a Pope Lando. He served in an era where Popes used their birth names, and he had the birth name of Lando. He also served from 913-914. When compared to a 3000 year old title, a merely 1100 year old tradition sounds almost new and quaint, but it still stands that Francis is the first pope to choose a completely unique papal name in eleven centuries. Eleven centuries minus 4-5 months. Sadly, Lando also served in a period where the Papacy was under the thrall of the secular politics of Rome, a period the church doesn’t remember fondly. This means we shouldn’t ever expect a Pope Lando II.

Now we have a title that dates back 3000 years taken by a man who overlooked 1100 years of tradition while following in the footsteps of a man who was the first Pope to resign in 600 years. A man who then got to choose his own title because the precedence for a living ex-Pope is nearly non-existent. Titles of former office holders is another fascination of mine, though one that’s hard to exercise. In the United States, tradition states that an official is referred to by the highest governmental title received, even if no longer serving in that office. Thus we still speak of President Clinton, the two President Bushes, Governor Schwarzenegger, and so on. Along this line I’ve always wondered what title Taft would prefer to now be known as. He served at the top of two branches of government, first as President then as Supreme Court Justice. Indications are he took more pride in the latter, so I always feel he should be Chief Justice Taft, not President Taft. Benedict XVI chose “Pope Emeritus” which, okay, I guess. It’s not thrilling, but then the much better title “Antipope” is reserved for far different circumstances.

Alright, enough about titles and names. One more bit of the papacy fascinates me. The power of the Bishop of Rome rose as the Western Empire collapsed. If you’re Edward Gibbon, this is not a coincidence. The death of Rome in many ways caused the birth of feudalism. Or, perhaps, the birth of feudalism caused the death of the Western Empire. It’s tough to really assign causation during those chaotic last centuries. Feudalism rose and fell. Monarchies held on in several European countries, and wherever there is a king or queen there is one last trace of feudalism, at least by name. The Pope is a monarch. It’s another one of those duties, he’s the monarch of the Papal See, and is the only elected monarch left in Europe.

One of the delays between the smoke and the appearance, along with prayers and some personal time, is a ceremony of the Cardinals affirming their fealty to the newly selected Pope. It’s ceremonial now, but this is a little throwback to a period not just when it wasn’t quite such a given and to the old feudal oath taking practices, which themselves have root in the annual tradition of Roman troops repledging their loyalty to the Emperor.

That’s all trappings. And it’s the trappings I find fascinating. I find the position troubling. Perhaps because it’s one man who exerts more power of influencing opinions than perhaps anyone else on the planet. Even if I agreed with those opinions, and many I do not, I would find that troubling. I understand that even most Catholics don’t fall in lock step with these opinions. But those that do, those organizations that do, those politicians that do, they can then exert a lot of power over others. We see that with organizations using Catholic theology as an opposition to health care reforms. And so I also track the changes in the Pope because I know that an increased liberality from these organizations will have to start from the top down. And that’s the dark underside of it all. There’s the fun, the stuff on television, the pomp, the ceremony, that expectation after the smoke, and that’s all a hell of a lot of fun. Now today there’s a new man, and there’s his positions.

The Pope, man. It’s a fascinating job, and it’s a troubling position.

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World Building Question: Where’s Your God Now?

This is not a blog about religion. It’s a blog about writing and whatever else I want to write about. I don’t talk about religion on this blog. However, as we look at building a world and its society and cultures, it’s sometimes necessary to talk about talking about religion. Which is what I’d like to look into today. What is your culture’s religion, how did it grow, and how is it implemented? Primarily, I’d like to focus on four words: polytheism, henotheism, monolatry, and monotheism. If those middle two terms are unfamiliar, they were to me as well. They were coined by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling and popularized by Max Müller. If you don’t know the words, I suspect you’ll recognize the underlying notions.

First, let’s back up and acknowledge our societal biases. That’s really an essential starting point. Most of the readers of this blog, whatever their individual beliefs, come from societies where most religious adherents are monotheistic. As such, we tend to think of religions as existing in one of two primary states: monotheistic and polytheistic. These western biases also push us towards the idea that monotheism is somehow more socially evolved. We call a lot of polytheistic religions “pagan,” lumping them together under that one broad term that really is a catch word that comes out of Judeo-Christian rhetoric.

In a way I’m going to pile on with that cultural bias by talking about moving from polytheism to monotheism. This is not to imply it’s the correct direction. However, it does represent the direction early adherents of what became the three major Abrahamic faiths moved, and presents a wider range of options when we’re determining just what the societies and characters we build believe and why. This is also all deistic religion, religions with gods. Religions surrounding shamanism or spirits will have to wait for some other time.

One last bit of ass covering. I’m going to talk about these things in the context of the Greek gods. This does not mean that the Greeks went under the stages that I’m presenting, only that I’m choosing a recognizable pantheon for hypothetical examples.

Wow. Alright, three hundred words in, and I feel my ass now sufficiently covered against a theological flame war in my comments. So let’s look at the four stages of divinity.

Polytheism. Most people have a handle on this stage. This is the Greek pantheon. Today is a beautiful day so I will offer my thanks to Zeus. Tomorrow I undergo a sea voyage, and so I will sacrifice a goat to Poseidon. My nation is at war, and so I will entreat Ares to see our armies to victory. Under polytheism there are multiple gods, often with a patronage system defining which god oversees which aspect of life or the world. There is often a hierarchy within these gods that includes power struggles and politics, and frequently a family tree. It’s important to note that a polytheistic individual is not just acknowledging multiple gods, but is actively worshiping multiple gods. This is an important distinction as we move through the categories.

Henotheism. Here things are getting a little more specific. A henotheistic adherent to the old Greek gods would acknowledge the entire pantheon, and even that it’s appropriate for others to worship their choice of god or gods within that pantheon. But with Henotheism we’re getting into a dedicated cult of Athena. Henotheistic individuals or societies will choose just one god within a broader pantheon to worship, forsaking all other gods. They may still recognize the hierarchy of gods within the pantheon, and the validity of worshiping these other deities, but they are devoted only to their individual god of choice.

Monolatry. Now we’re moving one step further. I have formed a cult of Athena, and while I recognize that Athena is just one of a multitude of gods, I believe that she is the only god anyone should worship. We’re now moving into a territory where the individual is no longer respectful of the choices of others to worship the god or gods of their choice. Sure, there are other gods out there, but only the worship of my particular god is the true way towards religious enlightenment.

Monotheism. Last step along the path. Not only is the worship of my god the only true way towards religious enlightenment, my god is the only god. No others exist. Any other proclaimed “god” is falsely divine or an idol.

Looking at this broadly, it’s likely that a society as a whole (assuming religious uniformity) is going to be polytheistic or monotheistic. However, individuals within a polytheistic society have the potential of being henotheistic or monolatristic. The best example that comes to mind is Dungeons and Dragons. The society as a whole is polytheistic, there is a very clear pantheon of gods who frequently have direct interaction with the people of the world. However, most characters with a divine build tend to be either henotheistic or monolatristic, depending on the heat of their particular religious fervor.

I’d like to briefly acknowledge one other deistic option. Monism. Monism is an odd duck. From the inside the religion is monotheistic, from the outside it appears polytheistic. This is the view, as typified by Hinduism, that there are multiple divine forms or avatars, but that they are all aspects of one god.

Clearly things can get more complex as the writer desires. There are examples within human experience that hybridized polytheism and monism. Which is to say that there is a vast pantheon of gods, and that some of these gods (Zeus is an actual example this time, not a hypothetical one) may take multiple, distinct forms. Religion is far more complex concept than these five terms. Theologians far more knowledgeable than I have had extensive debates about whether Christianity is strictly monotheistic, or if it represents monism or monolatry. I’m not having that debate here or now. I’m merely presenting these terms as a fantastic place to start when determining the beliefs of your society writ large or your individual characters.

During most of the history of religion in western civilization, movement trended down the chart. This isn’t to say societies only move in one direction. In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh Amenhotep IV moved the society from a henotheistic or monolatristic worship of the sun god Aten and pushed for monotheism, but his son Tutankhamen returned the pantheon and reasserted Egypt’s polytheism. However, the general momentum towards monotheism means that most radicals within societies were the ones that pushed in that direction. Even in the case of King Tut, he only reasserted an existing pantheon. We are now so accustomed to a monotheism that I’m not sure we would know as a society where to move if we were to return to polytheism. Ignoring that the path of western society, if it is moving at all, is from monotheism to atheism, trying to imagine a monotheistic society where polytheism is reemerging is intriguing. If western culture moved back up the scale, recognizing first the existence, then validity, of gods beyond the God of Abraham, what would that look like? Would it be an old pantheon reasserting itself into society, or a new pantheon being crafted? Does it grow out of the veneration of saints? These are the questions just within Judeo-Christian society.

Within your society, what would cause movement in the “wrong” direction on the course “towards” monotheism? What, if anything, maintains the status quo? Who are the renegades? The zealots?

If religion is going to be a core within your society, these are all important questions to ask and have answers for. Even if religion isn’t going to be a core issue of the story, if your society does follow a deistic religion, it’s important to at least have a notion of where it fits within categories, or how it straddles or breaks with categories.

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