Tag Archives: Jesus

Understanding God/gods (and other things).

Just as it is necessary to engage with the terms “dyophysite/diaphysite” and “miaphysite” if we wish to understand how Christians are encouraged to interpret the nature of Jesus, to understand the concept or character or nature of God, it is necessary to engage with “cataphatic” and “apophatic” theology.

Cataphatic theology seeks to characterise God positively, while its apophatic counterpart chooses the via negativa, approaching knowledge of God by understanding what God is not.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

It is perhaps in Buddhism that apophatic interpretation is most often encountered in a so-called world religion, but such interpretation is not applied to the concept of God, of course. The Buddhist concept most often subject to apophatic interpretation is probably that of Nirvana (liberation), which Buddhists regularly define in ways that explain what it is definitely not (it is not Heaven or Paradise. Nor is it somewhere where the body and the soul will reunite and where those who attain Nirvana will secure all the material “rewards” they may have been denied during life on planet Earth. Nor is it somewhere where God or gods will be encountered, etc.). This said, it might be argued that the very thing Buddhists are encouraged to believe will transfer from one life form to another when the first life form dies, or that will escape from the potentially endless cycle of birth, life and rebirth because it has achieved enlightenment and thereby enters Nirvana, is itself subject to apophatic interpretation in so far as Buddhists are encouraged to call the thing “anatta” or “anatman”, terms often translated to mean “not the atman or soul”. The term “atman” is well-known to Hindus, among others, and the term “soul” to Jewish people, Christians and Muslims, among others. The terms “anatta” and “anatman” are also translated to mean “the absence of self” or “not-self” or “the absence of a self or essence”.

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if the divine exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if the divine exists at all, of course)?

Apophatic theology works in this way. Subtract from discussion or definitions everything that does not do justice to a concept until what remains says it all. But do such reductive methods lead to understandings of such a modest or mundane or generalised nature that you are left wondering what all the fuss is about? However, perhaps this is not a bad thing. Reason and rationality may have more chance of thriving than mystery and misinformation!

There is another thing worth considering. Even where apophatic interpretation, as in Buddhism, plays a key role in reaching conclusions about genuinely or seemingly important matters, satisfactory answers to questions do not always (ever?) emerge. For example, do Buddhists broadly agree what Nirvana or anatta/anatman are? Most emphatically not.

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

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More Sex and Christianity.

The second part of Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch’s TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity was so good that I cannot resist providing a summary of what he said. If, by summarising, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

During the first thousand years of Christianity, Christians converted sex from something Jesus hardly ever discussed into a sin. Sex became something shameful and women were described as temptresses driven by uncontrollable sexual desire.

From the 11th to the 16th century there were two “revolutions” in Christian thinking. The first “revolution” saw the churches take control of people’s lives, minds and bodies as never before. The second “revolution” was the Reformation, which resulted in many Christians rejecting papal authority and the Church in the West splitting into two. However, by the end of the 16th century Christianity’s grip on sexual morality was stronger than ever.

Covington, Kentucky, USA

Covington, Kentucky, USA

It was in the 11th century that the Roman Catholic Church sought to micro-manage people’s sex lives, and such micro-management began with the institution of marriage.

For the first thousand years of Christianity people did not go to churches to marry. For all that time marriage was a civil contact between a man and a woman. However, in 1073 a new pope emerged on the scene, Gregory VII, who wanted to take control of the institution of marriage. His desire to control the institution of marriage occurred at precisely the time that wealthy and powerful men wanted to ensure that their wealth and power benefited their heirs; such men wanted to ensure that all their world goods were inherited by their oldest son.

The problem of inheritance was predicated on the fact that wealthy and powerful men had a tendency to produce children with different women and their sons would therefore dispute who was the rightful heir to their father’s possessions. Outcome? The Roman Catholic Church would co-opt the best referee of all, God, to determine who was the rightful heir. The Church would declare marriage valid so that men would know that the legitimacy of their heirs was beyond challenge. In so doing, the dynasty would be safe.

This turned out to be a neat deal sealed by the clergy and the nobility. People now had to be married by a priest. Inevitably, this significantly increased the power, influence and, eventually, wealth of the Church, especially once the Church had drawn up laws saying precisely who people could and could not marry. The Church soon found itself in a position in which it could approve or veto almost every marriage across the West. However, for a hefty fee the pope would grant special dispensations to side-step the laws!

By such means the clergy came to control society more effectively than in the past and, in the process, the Vatican became very rich. The Church now had a legal stranglehold on sexual expression. Moreover, by the end of the 12th century marriage had become a sacrament. Marriage therefore became an unbreakable contract with God in the same way that baptism and communion were already such unbreakable contracts.

But control of the institution of marriage confronted Christians with a dilemma. Since the time of Augustine all sex had been deemed sinful, even within marriage. Tension lay between approval for marriage as a sacrament and marriage tainted by sexual desire. The dilemma meant that, when the clergy first conducted wedding ceremonies, they were held in the porch leading into the church. Marriage would lead inevitably to sex, sex was sinful, and those who would soon commit sin should be excluded from the interior of the church itself.

However, by the end of the Middle Ages most of the wedding service was conducted inside the church in front of the altar. By that time, therefore, the Church had finally adopted marriage with enthusiasm. The central institution of Western society was now unmistakably a Christian sacrament.

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Attention soon turned from marriage to the sex life of the clergy. Until the 11th century, a large number of the clergy were happily married and had children. Until then, monks and nuns represented the “benefits” of celibacy; there was no such insistence that the clergy should also be celibate. However, Gregory VII wanted the clergy to renounce sex. He and other leading figures in the Roman Catholic Church thought that married clergy were offensive/an affront to God. But married clergy also posed a threat to the wealth of the Church in so far as their wives and children had to be supported. Church wealth was finding its way to the priests’ off-spring rather than staying in Rome.

In 1139, a council of bishops meeting in Rome declared clerical marriages were universally unlawful and invalid. Clergy had to embrace the “highest Christian ideal” of celibacy. But one unforeseen consequence of this was that the clergy soon began to see themselves as superior to everyone else. They saw themselves as set apart from those who engaged in the sin of sex. The clergy began to look down on the inferior members of the laity, especially women.

It was not long before the misogynistic inclinations within Christianity led to women being defined as threats to the holy places. For example, Durham Cathedral (in what is now the UK) became a Benedictine monastery and women were forbidden to enter the main body of the nave. A ban on women in cathedrals became quite common in many parts of Roman Catholic Europe. The ban operated at a time when women were rarely granted a public voice so their protests/objections could easily be ignored.

The only places where woman were in charge were nunneries/convents. Some nunneries/convents had large libraries and celebrated female scholars. But from the 12th century nuns were increasingly excluded from the world of learning. Why? Because intellectual life began to prosper at its most innovative in universities, but entry to the universities was restricted to males alone. In time, of course, it was in the universities where the clergy, doctors, lawyers and other most important figures in society received their education and training, but all such important figures had to be male.

As a general rule, the all-male clergy did not raise objections to the exclusion of women from learning. In response to being denied scholarly opportunity women inclined toward mysticism, which did not require access to books. It was not long before women in nunneries/convents in many parts of Europe began having visions, and some of the visions were of a sexual nature. Some women had erotic visions involving Jesus.

Such sexually charged mysticism was one of the few outlets for women’s voices in the Middle Ages. Women were otherwise kept silent within the walls of the nunnery/convent or by their husbands within marriage.

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

Kansas City, Missouri, USA

By the 13th century the Roman Catholic Church had taken control of marriage, made the clergy celibate and largely silenced women’s voices. It had boosted its power and influence by intruding in people’s private lives to an unprecedented degree. Sexual desire, even for your partner in marriage, was a sin. The Church disapproved of all sex, even sex within marriage.

But many ordinary people ignored a lot of what the Church taught about love and sex. Even during the Middle Ages there was a lot of sex, and not only within marriage. Medieval Christians celebrated adultery, so much so that they turned it into great literature. There was also a lot of same-sex love. The Medieval period was a golden age for gay poetry and monks were among those who wrote such poetry. Moreover, many members of the clergy indulged in the “sin” of homosexuality.

People engaged in so much sexual activity outside marriage that, in an effort to control such “unacceptable” behaviour, the Church began to set up and licence brothels. Where the Church managed such institutions its wealth increased significantly. This became yet another way that the Church tried to control how, when and where people could have sex.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

But the Reformation inaugurated a change.

The Reformation was set in motion in 1517 by a celibate Roman Catholic monk called Martin Luther. The Reformation not only led to the emergence of many Protestant churches, but also to changes in attitudes toward sex.

Luther challenged the idea that you can enter Heaven only by accepting the Church’s offers of confession, penance and forgiveness. He came to the conviction that God alone can decide whom to forgive. This meant that all the Church’s ceremonies, confessions and promises that good deeds will get you to Heaven were worthless. They were a sham.

Luther issued a challenge to papal authority when he shared with the public his 95 theses. But he also challenged Church teaching on sex. He thought of sex as a fundamental gift of God and it was there for everyone to benefit from. Sex was not just for the procreation or children; it could also be enjoyed. He also said that marriage had never in fact been a sacrament. It was a civil contract between a man and a woman who loved each other, a contract that could be broken by the husband or the wife. Following Luther’s lead the Protestant churches introduced divorce, which fundamentally altered how Western society viewed marriage.

The Protestant churches also rejected the insistence on clerical celibacy. Luther saw celibate clergy as a potential danger to society, partly because such clergy felt they were superior to those who engaged in sex, and partly because celibate clergy often succumbed to sexual temptation, invariably in ways detrimental to others. Luther said that all clergy should marry to avoid problems of sexual temptation.

It was not long before the clerical family became a model for non-clerical families to emulate in the emerging Protestant communities. The wife of the clergyman became a valued member of Protestant society and, of course, there was no equivalent to her in Roman Catholic Europe.

Inevitably, the Roman Catholic Church condemned the Protestants as dangerously heretical, not least for their “progressive” views about sex. The Protestant view that people should be encouraged to enjoy sex within marriage seemed especially shocking to many Roman Catholics, and their worries about what the Reformation had unleashed seemed confirmed when some Anabaptists, a “radical” group of Protestants, began to indulge in promiscuous sex in Switzerland. Some Anabaptists, noting that many marriages in the Old Testament were polygamous, introduced polygamy.

The Anabaptists also caused the Roman Catholic Church great alarm because they said that only adults who knew what responsibilities and commitments they were assuming should partake in baptism. Of course, this challenged over a thousand years of Christian tradition in which Christians baptised babies at fonts. To deny baptism to babies was to “dynamite” the Christian foundations of Europe (even though Jesus had not been baptised until he was himself an adult).

In time, Roman Catholics and Protestants united to suppress some of the excesses that the Reformation had unleashed. Roman Catholics and most Protestants felt that the “sexual revolution” had got out of hand.

Spain

Malaga, Spain

In response to the Reformation the Roman Catholic Church launched a holy war against the Protestant churches. In 1545 it convened the Council of Trent, which began what came to be known as the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation dealt with some of criticisms levelled against the Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s 95 theses, but it was also an opportunity to impose even more controls on the laity and clergy. The celibate clergy were described as superior to the fallen laity and celibacy was enforced among the clergy as never before.

One beneficial outcome of the Counter-Reformation was that the Roman Catholic Church engaged in social work to assist the poor and supported the opening of many schools. In time, however, the opening of schools had unforeseen and tragic consequences. Why? Because celibate clergy who succumbed to sexual temptation played a key role in educating children and young people and/or running the schools.

Calasanz was one of the first Roman Catholics to open schools for poor children and young people (many such Roman Catholics were known as Piarists) and it was not long before he was in charge of a growing number of such schools. However, it soon became apparent that the headmaster of one of Calasanz’s schools in Naples was sexually abusing the boys for whom he was responsible. The headmaster had influence in the Vatican and, to rid the school of the headmaster’s malign influence, Calasanz had to promote him to another post rather than dismiss him altogether (the headmaster’s new post was one that gave him even more access to children and young people). The scandal was hushed up and all incriminating documents burned.

The pope knew about the sexual abuse of boys in Naples but did nothing. This was an extraordinary failure of power and trust. Amazingly, the problem of the abuse of children and young people in the Roman Catholic Church has persisted into the contemporary era, as has the cover-up of such abuse, the denial that it happened and the excusing of those responsible for it.

While the sexual abuse of children and young people by members of the Roman Catholic clergy could sometimes/often be ignored, adulterers, fornicators and homosexuals among the laity were punished all over Europe as Roman Catholics and Protestants tried to outdo each other as they imposed what they deemed “acceptable” in relation to sex and sexuality.

Extremadura, Spain

Extremadura, Spain

All expressions of the Christian religion in the West viewed witches as agents of sexual disorder and therefore persecuted them. Christians thought they were destroying Satan when they persecuted people said to be witches. Inevitably, the great majority of those accused of being witches were women, and a thousand years of Christian misogyny was given full and violent expression through their persecution. Some 60,000 people, most of whom were women, are estimated to have been executed as witches in Europe. Most victims were widows or single women who lacked a husband to protect them. Moreover, most women confessed to being witches only following threats and torture. Their confessions condemned thousands of innocent people to a dreadfully painful death, one often brought about by burning.

Such was Christian Europe’s mania to control sex and sexuality that Roman Catholics and Protestants killed thousands of innocent people. Protestants began by challenging celibacy and freeing marital sex from the taint of sin, but they agreed with Roman Catholics that sexual transgressions such as adultery, fornication and homosexuality threatened the very fabric of Western society.

Sex and Christianity.

Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch recently narrated a TV series about attitudes toward sex in Christianity. I found the series excellent, although, in truth, it did not tell us very much that is not already known by millions of reasonably intelligent and/or widely read people. However, what is astounding is that the knowledge and understanding contained within the TV series has not already had a profoundly beneficial impact on Christian thinking about sex. Might it have a beneficial impact in the near future? I am not sure, because closed minds are resistant to accommodating what is true, particularly if the truth conflicts with what people assume are truths contained in scripture.

I am so impressed with what Diarmaid MacCulloch had to say in the first episode of the series that, below, I paraphrase the main points in his argument. If, by paraphrasing, I misrepresent what was originally said, the fault is all mine. Blame me and not the professor.

Comments in brackets are my reflections on what was originally said.

Guisborough

Ruined monastery, Guisborough, United Kingdom

Churches in the West have never been able to agree what to say about sex, and such disagreement has turned sex into an obsession. Issues such as contraception, homosexuality, women in the priesthood and clerical child abuse have long caused immense controversy, just as today immense controversy rages within Christianity about same-sex marriage and whether women should be ordained as bishops.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) turned sex from biological necessity into a vice, from a pleasure into a sin.

According the the gospels, Jesus said very little about sex. He spoke in favour of monogamy and against divorce, and, when asked by a crowd of people if they should stone a woman thought to be guilty of adultery (Jesus is alleged to have said that only those who are themselves sin-free can cast a stone. The crowd broke up when it was obvious no one was sin-free), he made it clear to the woman that she should not sin again (we can therefore assume that Jesus thought adultery a sin). Perhaps of far greater importance than his pronouncements on sex is that Jesus appears to have thought that forgiveness and mercy are far more important than just about everything else (as the story just mentioned would seem to confirm).

Early Christian attitudes toward sex were shaped by Judaism, the religion from which Christianity emerged, and Greek and Roman civilisation. Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation were male-dominated and, although Jesus challenged some of the patriarchal attitudes enshrined in contemporary Judaism and Greek and Roman civilisation, it was not long after his execution that Christianity became as patriarchal as the world views from which it emerged.

Near Tercan, Turkey

Ruined Armenian church, near Tercan, Turkey

Jesus, himself a Jewish male, knew full well that contemporary Judaism was preoccupied with the survival of the Jewish people because of how the Jewish people were so often subjected to persecution and massacre (persecution and massacre were suffered partly because Judaism required its followers to subscribe to a monotheistic conception of the divine, when, as far as we can tell, all other Middle Eastern religions were dualistic or polytheistic). Reproduction of the Jewish people had become a sacred duty, so much so that procreation was the main object of marriage. However, sex was something that could be enjoyed, but within marriage alone. Divorce was possible, but, as a general rule, for specific reasons only. However, the reasons for divorce favoured men and disadvantaged women.

It would be a mistake to paint too glowing a picture of sexual attitudes within Judaism because the patriarchal assumptions of the time meant that husbands possessed their wives. Also, the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah suggested that women were nothing but trouble. Outcome? Women had to be controlled and confined as much as possible to the home where they had to “serve” their husbands. Moreover, the Jewish people engaged in polygamy, which, although increasingly uncommon with the passage of time, was not outlawed until the 11th century. Celibacy and adultery were unacceptable and homosexuality an abomination (more so among men than women). Put rather crudely, sex within marriage was wonderful, but sex in all other circumstances was unacceptable.

The Greek and the Roman world views affirmed sexual pleasure whether such pleasure was heterosexual or homosexual. Concubines existed, as did male and female prostitutes. Older Greek men of high social standing befriended younger males to teach the younger males how they could prosper in wider society, and such relationships invariably involved sexual encounters that were deemed normal and acceptable.

However, a very different line of Greek thought began with Plato who believed that a great gulf existed between the body and the soul. He said that reality and everything that was important to humankind related to the soul, while unreality and everything that was unimportant related to the body. The world of the flesh, which embraced the sexual impetus, was false, worthless and wicked. Plato advocated “denial of the flesh” and, in the fullness of time, this became a basic instinct in Christianity. Plato’s concern for the “pleasures of the flesh” played a key role in encouraging Christian celibacy and monasticism.

Aristotle built on Plato’s thinking by developing a distinction between what he thought were “natural and unnatural practices”. Such practices applied to the sexual domain as to all others. Aristotle believed that male semen contained a complete unborn child in embryo and a male needed a woman only to incubate the semen as it developed into the unborn child. Aristotle argued that to “spill” male semen for other than reproductive purposes (e.g. in masturbation, in sexual encounters with other males) was to engage in the “unnatural act” of murder.

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

Inside the Armenian church, Kayseri, Turkey

With all these sometimes contradictory ideas about sex and sexuality around when Jesus was alive, it becomes clear that Jesus was relatively radical in his thinking. For example, it can be argued that his commitments to monogamy and life-long marriage were designed to enhance women’s rights at a time when they had very few rights. Moreover, Jesus posed other challenges to patriarchal attitudes in so far as he seemed to encourage women, some of whom existed on the social and sexual margins of society, to play an active role in the religious sect emerging prior to his execution. It is also worth noting that, according to the Bible, women were the first people to be aware of Jesus’ resurrection, and they are described as deacons not long after his execution.

What we can say with confidence is that, if the New Testament is to be believed, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality and very little about celibacy, even though both these matters assumed disproportionate importance in Christianity after his execution. Conclusion? jesus is not representative of what was to become a sexually repressive religion.

Paul, who at one time was called Saul and engaged in the brutal persecution of Jesus’ followers, can be blamed for steering Christianity toward a more sexually repressive outlook, but only because Christians who followed him took his writings out of context and ignored some of the positive statements attributed to him.

Paul has a lot to say about sex in relation to the city of Corinth, which, at the time, would appear to have been a place where people lived in a most uninhibited manner. It was the alleged “sinfulness” of many of the Corinthians, and the fact that Paul thought the end of the world was not long away, that led him to suggest that marriage had no point to it and celibacy would ensure no one engaged in fornication. But Paul is also on record saying that marriage between a man and a woman is good and that, within marriage, a man and a woman are equals. He also praises a number of women deacons and calls a woman in Rome an apostle. However, Paul says that women should not speak in houses of worship, which would seem to negate their chance to officiate during ritual practices, and this statement has been used to this day by many Christians as the reason to deny women a leadership role in churches.

Taken collectively, Paul’s pronouncements on matters sexual are, at best, contradictory. Christians in some denominations have ignored the pronouncements that point toward gender equality to deny women the same opportunities as men. Paul denounces male and female homosexuality, but there are only two New Testament verses of about forty words that refer to same-sex relations. Forty New Testament words out of 200,000 are used by many Christians as an excuse for homophobia.

The early Christians (in reality, some of the leading and allegedly most learned Christians) ignored Paul’s more positive views on sex and emphasised celibacy and hostility to homosexuality instead.

Malaga, Spain

Malaga, Spain

The celibate lifestyle of monks and then nuns first appeared in the 2nd century (among hermits living in isolation in very barren parts of Egypt and Syria), but there is nothing in the New Testament about monasteries, monks or nuns. A significant part of what was to become mainstream Christianity therefore has no support in the Bible. The inspiration for monastic lifestyles derived from Syrian merchants who travelled to the east where they encountered Hindu holy men who gave up all their material possessions and Buddhists who lived simply in monastic communities. Individuals known as hermits first took to a life in which they denied themselves comfort and pleasure, sometimes in desert regions. In Egypt, Anthony played a key role in making such self-denial popular, so much so that by the beginning of the 3rd century celibacy and chastity had more prestige among Christians than marriage and sex.

It was toward the end of the 2nd century that literate Christians began to rewrite early Christian history to emphasise the value of virginity and, in the process, it was not long before Christians sought to remove any taint of sex from the story of Mary, Jesus’ mother.

In that only two of the gospels mention it, the virgin birth of Jesus cannot be regarded as a fundamental article of faith for Christians. This is even more the case in that the two gospels mentioning the virgin birth seem rather confused about whether it took place. For example, much time is spent exploring Joseph’s family tree. Why do this unless it is to confirm that he is Jesus’ father? Also, the author/authors of Matthew’s Gospel refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which sits oddly with the idea of a virgin birth.

Gospels such as that of James which did not find their way into the Bible place more emphasis on Mary’s virginity than the four gospels that are canonical, and they also say that God intervened in the conception of Mary herself! Of course, the idea that Mary was conceived without sin has become a very important Roman Catholic idea, but it is not an idea that derives from the New Testament.

What is perhaps the second most important story in the New Testament for Christians, that of Jesus’ birth (the most important story is the story of Jesus’ resurrection), does not therefore involve sex at all! And what of the “problem” posed by Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Jesus’ siblings are explained away as Joseph’s children from a marriage preceding his marriage to Mary.

The shift from the merits of marriage to the merits of celibacy were accentuated by Clement of Alexandria, for whom sex could be engaged in only for reasons of procreation, and Origen, who castrated himself so as to make it impossible to satisfy any urges he might have to engage in penetrative sexual acts. And the shift in favour of celibacy helps to explain why the early Christian churches did not elaborate a wedding ceremony. Marriage remained a civil ceremony for many centuries and the churches did not seek to interfere in the matter. It is only Christians of a much later time who felt it necessary to establish a grip on the institution of marriage. Given Christianity’s relatively late interest in marriage, one begins to wonder whether some Christians today have an interest in the institution merely to deny gays and lesbians the opportunity to partake in same-sex marriage!

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Emperor Constantine’s change of heart toward Christians in 312 opened the way for Christianity to become a world religion with immense power and wealth (and in the process a religion that once suffered persecution found itself in a position to persecute others). And, as its power and wealth increased, it could promote its views on sex wherever its influence spread.

At a time when the wealth and the power of the Christian churches was rapidly increasing, Jerome tried to remain true to what he thought Christianity was all about, simplicity in faith and avoiding the temptations of the flesh. He said that sex was bad because it endangered your salvation. For this reason, virginity was best. Jerome played a key role in ensuring that, despite opposition from other Christians, celibacy and chastity were deemed superior to marriage and sex, and he had an important ally in Augustine. The idea began to emerge that all sex is intrinsically evil and sinful, even in marriage for reasons of procreation. Hence the idea that all children are born into sin and that their sinfulness must be overcome. At the same time, males elaborated the idea that women were sexually unruly temptresses as well as inferior to men (is it not always the case that those who are already vulnerable and denied opportunities enjoyed by others are scapegoated and vilified? Humankind is God’s supreme creation? Pull the other leg and quickly).

The collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead to the collapse of Christianity, even though, when the empire collapsed, Christianity was intimately associated with Roman power and prestige. Christianity endured, offering certainty in an uncertain world. Christian values gradually became the dominant values in the Western world.

In the 6th century, monks in Ireland began to turn their attention to the sexual behaviour of the laity around them. They developed many penitentials based on what they perceived to be unacceptable sexual practices. Those who indulged in such sexual practices were required to undertake penances that differed depending on the seriousness or extremity of the unacceptable act. In the fullness of time, such penitentials led to the confessional, which significantly increased Christianity’s ability to shape and control society.

The writings of some of the Irish monks are full of rules relating to sex and sexuality. The rules are so thorough that, in any given year, people could engage in sexual acts for about only a hundred days (and such acts had to be between heterosexuals who were married). Precise penalties for unacceptable sexual acts soon became the norm and such penalties were issued in the confessional.

The penitentials first elaborated in Ireland became for five hundred years the means to impose a rigid Christian sexual morality on large swathes of the Western world. As never before, an institution was invading people’s lives, and in relation to the highly personal matter of sex, which the churches thought to be sinful. Those who transgressed in relation to sexual matters should be made to feel considerable shame and guilt, and the penalties relating to such acts were often very extreme.

Jesus and the dyophysite and miaphysite churches (and the massacre of students at Garissa University College in Kenya).

It is the time of year when Christians around the world reflect on the life, the teaching, the execution and what they believe to be the resurrection of Jesus (the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated on what is now Easter Day, which in 2015 was the 5th April for Roman Catholics and Protestants, and the 12th April for the great majority of other Christians such as Orthodox Christians). For some such Christians it is also a time to reflect on whether Jesus, when alive at least, was wholly divine, wholly human or divine and human, and, if the latter, how the divine and the human existed within Jesus’ person. It may even be the case that some Christians reflect on what fraction or percentage of Jesus was divine and what fraction or percentage was human.

It always surprises me how little even educated Christians know about one of the most important fault-lines that exists in Christianity, the fault-line between the “dyophysite” and what we used to call the “monophysite” churches. In the interests of knowledge and understanding, forgive me for lifting most of what follows from another website of mine, “In Search of Unusual Destinations”.

Midyat, Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Midyat, Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

The monastery featured in the photo above belongs to the Syriac Orthodox Church, a church which in the old days used to be misleadingly called “monophysite”. The churches most often deemed “monophysite” (Christ has one nature, the divine) are the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches. These churches are distinct from the “dyophysite” churches (the Protestant, the Roman Catholic and the “mainstream” Orthodox churches such as the Greek, the Russian and the Serbian Orthodox churches) which subscribe to the idea that Christ has two natures, the divine and the human.

However, the Armenian Apostolic, the Coptic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox churches are better described as “miaphysite”. The “miaphysite” doctrine derives from Cyril of Alexandria who described Christ as having one incarnate nature in whom both the divine and the human are united. While the prefix “mono” refers to a singular one, the prefix “mia” refers to a compound one.

The “dyophysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing oil and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, are present in Jesus, but do not mix), while the “miaphysite” concept of Jesus can be equated to a glass containing wine and water (the two natures, the divine and the human, mix).

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

A brief word (my thanks to DelCogliano for most of what follows) about the attractive sutore (the plural of suturo) d’madbho, or sanctuary veils. Suturo d’madbho is a type of artwork encountered everywhere in Tur Abdin in south-east Turkey, the heartland of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Every Tur Abdin church has at least one suturo that separates the altar from the congregation at certain times during the liturgy. The suturo is attached to a curtain rod so that it can be easily drawn back and forth when necessary. Most churches also have several other sutore hanging on a bare wall or covering an alcove or doorway. Sutore are examples of a Turkish craft skill particularly popular in Anatolia called basmacilik, which literally means “stamping”. The art of basmacilik involves taking wooden moulds carved into various figures and shapes, pressing them into paint, and then stamping the cloth with them. An alternative way of achieving the same outcome is to draw the outlines of the figures and the shapes on the cloth and then paint them by hand.

Most sutore are approximately two metres square. Each suturo has one or two large images in the centre of the cloth, typically of Mary, the last supper, the crucifixion or the resurrection. Almost without exception, in small circles at each of the four corners, are images of the four evangelists together with their symbols: John with an eagle, Matthew with a man, Mark with a lion and Luke with an ox. Other images include seraphim or angels. Figures on the sutore are usually surrounded by decorative floral arrangements or elaborate scrollwork. While some sutore are subdued in tone because of the use of shades of brown, many are bright and vibrant because they employ deep reds, blues, yellows and greens. Although most sutore in Tur Abdin are not very old, they appear to be based on designs from an earlier age.

It is very sad that the importance of the Syriac Orthodox Church in the history of early Christianity generally, and Christian monasticism in particular, is so poorly appreciated in most of the West. It is also sad that the distinction between “dyophysite” and “miaphysite” Christianity is so rarely acknowledged in classrooms, whether in schools or universities.

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

Tur Abdin, eastern Turkey

P.S. I have read in recent times that some academics believe that Christianity is the religion currently suffering the most persecution globally, sometimes by people who are characterised as aggressive or militant secularists, but more frequently by people subscribing to religions other than Christianity itself. While I strongly suspect that people who follow, for example, Yazidism, Sikhism and/or Paganism will question that Christianity is the religion suffering the most persecution, a growing body of evidence confirms that it is increasingly dangerous to be Christian in many parts of the world (e.g. Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, parts of Nigeria and even India). Add to this that persecution and massacre in the past have rendered some nation states, or parts of nation states, effectively Christian-free (e.g. most of the Arabian peninsula, large parts of North Africa, the sub-Saharan region and large parts of central Asia) and you realise why such concerns are expressed. Recent events in Kenya, where gunmen who were members of or in sympathy with Al-Shabaab (the brutal and bestial Somali Islamist group) murdered at least 150 people at Garissa University College, add to the evidence that to be Christian is to invite hatred of the most extreme nature imaginable (it is now clear that the great majority of the people murdered at Garissa University College were Christian and that the gunmen separated Christians from others so that non-Christians, most of whom were Muslim, could live).

I ask Muslims once again, whether friends of mine or not, to explain how it is that people who are quite clearly “inspired” by the Islamic faith can act in ways which suggest that fear, hatred, contempt for life, hostility toward diversity and disregard for individual and communal rights lie at the heart of their mindset. No longer will it do to allege that such people are not “good” or “true” Muslims; they justify their actions with quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith, and they dress and act in ways that are stereotypically Muslim. Moreover, there appear to be a worryingly large number of Muslims who engage in such acts, or support such acts from the safe distance of their homes in stable lands that are not predominantly Muslim.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Obviously, Christians all round the globe have condemned this latest atrocity by Muslim militants, but why have similar condemnations not derived from the Muslim world itself? And why is it that thoughtful, reflective, caring Muslims with commitments to interfaith dialogue, community cohesion and human rights (and millions of such Muslims exist) have not provided us with a narrative based on Islamic scripture which undermines the Islamist scriptural narrative of hatred for and the murder of the despised other, a narrative which also embraces the persecution of women, whether Muslim or otherwise, the destruction of anything deemed unIslamic and an alarming distrust of the benefits of education and free enquiry? Non-Muslims could quite easily generate such a narrative, but, if such a narrative derived from non-Muslims, it would be ignored with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders by the Islamists themselves. Such a narrative must be generated from within Islam itself if it is to have an impact on extremist Muslims, many of whom are alarmingly young. Sadly for all of humankind, burn, burn appeals to such Muslims far more than build, build.

Why is it that so many Muslims have a complete disregard for one of the most fundamental principles that most people sign up to, even though they often fall short of living up to it: do to others as I expect others to do to me? This principle, one that is inspired by notions of equality, justice, fairness, mutual respect and the celebration of diversity, makes perfect sense, but in sharia, the Islamic legal code, it is very rarely, if ever, given expression. Note how Muslims and non-Muslims must be accorded different rights, responsibilities and opportunities. Note how Muslim males and females must be accorded different rights, responsibilities and opportunities. And note how people of the book (people who have access to scripture said to derive from God) must be accorded more rights and opportunities than people who lack access to God-given scripture. Sharia is predicted on checks and balances designed to ensure that Muslim males enjoy rights and opportunities denied to everyone else. Discrimination of the most overt kind permeates sharia, so much so that one is reminded of the worst excesses of the medieval feudal system or the caste system in Hinduism. Moreover, in some interpretations of sharia, apostasy is punishable by death. Yet verse 256 of sura 2 in the Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” How can anyone make sense of this? No wonder sane and sensible people within the Muslim world say that sharia has no place in ethnically or culturally diverse nation states which seek to treat all their citizens equally, fairly and with dignity. In fact, some sane and sensible people in the Muslim world say that sharia has no place in predominantly or overwhelmingly Muslim nation states if such nation states seek to provide all their citizens with universal human rights and the benefits, material or otherwise, currently enjoyed by developed nation states in the so-called West.

For those who value inclusion and seek to challenge religious, etc. stereotypes…

… the following is welcome news from South Africa (the BBC first ran the story in September 2014):

A Muslim academic has opened a gay-friendly mosque in South Africa, despite receiving death threats and fierce criticism from groups in the local Muslim community. Women will also be allowed to lead prayers at Taj Hargey’s Open Mosque in Cape Town.

“We are opening the mosque for open-minded people, not closed-minded people,” Mr. Hargey told the BBC.

He says the mosque will help counter growing Islamic radicalism. Mr. Hargey, based at the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in the UK, told the BBC’s Newsday programme that it was time for a “religious revolution”. “In South Africa twenty years ago, there was a peaceful revolution changing from apartheid to democracy and we need to have a similar development in the area of religion,” he said.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mr. Hargey, who was born in Cape Town, said the mosque would welcome people from all genders, religions and sexual orientations. “As well as leading prayers, women will be allowed to pray in the same room as men,” he said. He contrasted this to the current Islamic practice which sees “women at the back of the street, back of the hall, out of sight, out of mind.”

However, members of Cape Town’s large Muslim community have taken to social media to criticise the new mosque, with some calling him a “heretic” or “non-believer”. One group tried to block the opening of the mosque. South Africa’s umbrella body for Islamic groups, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), says it is investigating the new mosque and has noted concerns raised in the community.

In his sermon, Mr. Hargey condemned the increasing hatred in the world between Muslims and Christians and blamed it on “warped theology”, reports AFP news agency. When asked about his qualifications as a religious leader, he said, “I have a PhD in Islamic Studies from Oxford University, unlike my opponents who went to some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.” He told the BBC that he wanted to revive “the original mosque of the Prophet Muhammad where there were no barriers. This idea of female invisibility is an innovation that came after Muhammad. Unfortunately it has become entrenched,” he said.

It’s a pity about the ill-considered reference to “some donkey college in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia”, but we know what Mr. Hargey is getting at. I would suggest that similar “educational” facilities exist in parts of the Bible Belt in the USA, for example. “Going cheap: certificates to confirm you are a pastor in some weird and wacky Christian ‘church’ following a one-month distance learning course. Assessment by multiple choice questions is available on request.” Charlatans exist in the world of religion and belief? Perish the thought!!!!

I have done some research about Taj Hargey on the internet and he is a somewhat controversial figure with a colourful track record to date. However, given that some of the most vehement criticism leveled against him derives from extremist groups which seek to impose on others their oppressive brand of religious belief and practice, I would suggest that Taj Hargey is well-meaning in his efforts to open such a mosque. It’s more inclusive than exclusive, so has to be welcomed. As it is, Taj Hargey enjoys quite a lot of support for his plans from Muslims, both male and female, so this in itself is interesting.

For those who can make use of the information, the following websites seek to meet the needs and aspirations of the millions of gay or lesbian Muslims:

www.imaan.org.uk/

www.lgbtmuslimretreat.com/

www.safraproject.org/co.htm

http://www.thekissgroup.co.uk/

www.qwoc.org

Some of the websites above lead to yet more websites sympathetic to the plight and predicament of gay or lesbian Muslims. No doubt all religious groups can direct me (and others) to websites generated within THEIR faith tradition that also seek to meet the needs and aspirations of gay or lesbian believers. For example, I’ve recently been examining websites for gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints people.

St. Mary's RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

St. Mary’s RC Cathedral, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

What follows is also worth examining. It is not often that excellent news derives from the Roman Catholic Church about matters to do with gay rights, but this appeared recently in “The Guardian” newspaper:

An Irish Catholic priest received a standing ovation from his congregation when he revealed he was gay and then declared his support for same-sex marriage from the pulpit. Father Martin Dolan, who has been a priest at the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Francis Street, Dublin, for fifteen years, made the unexpected comments during mass.

The priest, who was unavailable for comment and is reported to be on holiday, urged his congregation to back same-sex marriage in the forthcoming Irish referendum. Parishioners are understood to have applauded when Dolan announced “I’m gay myself” last Saturday.

Speaking to “The Irish Sun”, community youth worker Liz O’Connor said, “We are all very proud of Father Martin. Because he has admitted that he is gay, it doesn’t change the person that he was before.”

Gay equality groups in Ireland, including Marriage Equality Ireland and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, have praised the priest’s decision to come out in front of worshippers.

A referendum on legalising gay marriage in Ireland will be held on a date to be fixed in May. An opinion poll in “The Irish Times” last month found that 71% of the Republic’s electorate would vote yes to allow gay marriages in the country. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has fought against gay marriage in the Republic, however, warning it would be a “grave injustice”.

How odd to characterise gay marriage as a “grave injustice”. Surely it’s a “grave injustice” that marriage cannot be undertaken by everyone who wishes to marry.

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

Jesus in Malaga, Spain

Last, and for good measure, here’s something which challenges our perceptions of older people. Thanks to Sohan Singh for forwarding this information to me (Sohan: I hope my small amendments to the text have not misrepresented what has been discovered):

Ageing does not have to bring poor health and frailty, according to scientists who have discovered that the most active people in their seventies are as fit as people in their fifties. Researchers working at King’s Cross Station, London, approached cyclists aged between 55 and 79 and tested physical functions associated with ageing such as aerobic fitness, resting heart rate, skeletal mass, breathing ability and muscle density. The researchers were hoping to learn whether physiological markers could determine age, but found it was hard to tell who of the participants were older based only on the data collected.

“If you didn’t know the age of the older people, the data relating to many of the functions would point to a person much younger in age,” said Professor Stephen Harridge, director of the Centre of Human and Aerospace Physiological Science at King’s College.

By exercising you do what your body wants it to do and are allowing it to age as nature intended. It is not ageing itself which brings about poor bodily function and frailty, but the fact that people stop exercising and are no longer active.

The 84 men and women who participated in the study, published in “The Journal of Physiology”, had to be able to cycle 100 kms in less than 6.5 hours if aged 55, and 60 kms in less than 5.5 hours if aged 79.

Hmmm: no wonder Sohan says they were “superfit cyclists”!

It looks as if a long and healthy life IS predicated on more exercise! I’m a couch potato no longer, I promise!

Religion: does it facilitate or inhibit gender equality?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Shiva and Parvati, manifestations of the divine in male and female forms. Gender equality in Hinduism?

Why is it that so many expressions of religion deny girls and women the same opportunities as boys and men? Is it that God, gods, the supreme being/beings, ultimate reality and/or the divine are all too often described as if they are male? Is it that men and not women wrote all or most of the world’s scripture? Is it that men edited scripture in such a way that women’s contributions were distorted/suppressed? Is it predicated on daft ideas that the physically powerful (males) should always shape life for the physically less powerful (females)? Is it predicated on the equally daft idea, no longer sustainable, of course, that males are intellectually superior to females?

Goddesses and women have played diverse but significant roles in many religions throughout history, so why have they been nearly invisible in the official stories of most expressions of religious faith? In the contemporary world, women often make up the majority in any congregation/gathering for religious ritual purposes, but they are less well represented in leadership positions.

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

A woman idealised. A barrier to gender equality?

The qur'anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

The qur’anic class concludes with refreshments, Arapgir, Turkey. Note the difference in headwear

I am not convinced that religions are necessarily sexist in their beliefs, practices, predispositions or general character. By way of opening up discussion about this matter of supreme and fundamental importance about religious commitment (a religion that cannot treat males and females as equals is highly suspect and deserves condemnation of epic proportions to encourage it to mend its ways immediately), I will dwell on the case of Christianity, which, in its very earliest decades, looked as if it would present a formidable challenge to prevailing norms about gender roles. Too bad, therefore, that, in a relatively short time, males of sometimes questionable character (e.g. note in the first three or four centuries of the religion’s existence the disquiet expressed about the abuse of children, some of it of a sexual nature. Have things changed that much since?) seized the reins of authority and quickly marginalised women. In other than only a few fleeting instances thereafter, it was not until two centuries following the Reformation in the 16th century that some of the Protestant churches began to address the issue of gender equality in a holistic and serious manner (although, in fairness, some expressions of Christianity prior to the Reformation allowed women to attain positions of considerable influence, but only within monastic orders).

A general comment to begin with. To a very large degree, the Bible has been written by men for men about men (to what extent is this also the case in relation to scripture in other religious traditions?).

However, in John’s Gospel, women are active, innovative and ministers of the kingdom to come. They are affirmed in roles unusual/unacceptable in contemporary Middle Eastern society.

Books of the Bible written before John’s Gospel make it clear that women should be the bearers of their husband’s children and satisfy their husband’s sexual needs. Biology shapes women (and men as well) and determines their roles in society. In a lot of early Jewish literature, women are defined as unclean and sexual temptresses, and contact with women should therefore be avoided. Because they were “responsible” for male temptation/deviation from an ethnically sound life, women were barred from public life lest they cause men to sin. Because women were not thought to have the intelligence of men, they were discouraged from using their initiative. In fact, it was sinful for women to study the Torah. Moreover, because they lacked intellectual ability, they could not act as witnesses.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls women to public ministry despite male opposition to the idea. He engages in theological discussion/debate (“I am the messiah”) with a Samaritan woman (who is doubly suspect, for being a woman and for being a marginalised/distrusted Samaritan). He talks with Martha about resurrection. The news of his resurrection reaches the disciples via Mary Magdalene.

Jesus is happy to interact with a marginalised Samaritan who is also a woman, someone whom many Jewish people at the time would have regarded as unclean. But it is the unclean Samaritan woman who is persuaded that Jesus is the messiah – and she drops/abandons everything to share her knowledge with others. She is therefore a model for apostolic activity and would therefore seem to be on an equal footing with the disciples. Her role in John’s Gospel is described in the same way that John’s Gospel describes the disciples’ ministry.

The Samaritan woman is the first person in John’s Gospel to whom Jesus reveals himself as the messiah and she is the first person who acts on the information. She is therefore the recipient of important theological knowledge. Jesus treats her seriously and responds to her comments patiently and thoughtfully. To a very real degree, therefore, she is a model of female discipleship. This seems to imply that women can be messengers of the kingdom.

In John’s Gospel, Martha of Bethany is introduced/described in such a way as to suggest that she is more important than Lazarus. Jesus delivers “I am” speeches to Martha and Martha’s response to them mirrors that of Simon Peter in Matthew’s Gospel. Simon Peter’s response is generally viewed as confirmation that he has a leadership role, which would therefore imply that Martha is like a leader within the Jesus sect. Jesus sees Martha as capable of perceptive and discerning faith.

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus's Cathedral, Prague

Even in stained glass windows, men invariably outnumber women. St. Vitus’s Cathedral, Prague

If Chapter 20 of John’s Gospel is taken at face value, it would seem to provide the ultimate confirmation that Jesus is the resurrected Christ, the Son of God. Mary Magdalene finds the tomb empty and tells Peter and the Beloved Disciple. Mary Magdalene is told to tell Jesus’ brothers the news of the resurrection. She is therefore entrusted with the supremely important message of Jesus’ triumph over death. It is due to this role that Mary Magdalene has been called the apostle of the apostles. A woman is informing/teaching the male disciples about the most basic tenet of the Christian faith, about the most startling mystery at the heart of the religion. One is therefore compelled to ask, “Is Mary Magdalene the equal to Peter?”

In some key respects, therefore, Jesus in John’s Gospel is revealed as distinctly radical/revolutionary in relation to the cultural norms of his age. He seems to suggest/confirm that women do not seduce men and that they should have access to public life. He seems to say that women should benefit from education. However, the Bible very soon confirms that all the disciples are male. Does this therefore reveal that Jesus is really a man of his time despite the above? Or does this merely suggest that others who came after him subverted his original intentions?

There is an indication in Chapter 12 verse 2 of John’s Gospel that Martha may have served at a table, perhaps as what became known as a deacon or, eventually, a minister in a house-church.

Although the earliest Christian texts attest to the importance of women in Jesus’ entourage and in the running of the first Christian house-church meetings, women rapidly disappear from the official history of church leadership (is this so because leaders within the church conformed with Paul’s hostility to women playing an active, public role in society/the church comparable to that of men?). However, sufficient evidence exists (historical and biblical) to confirm that, in those early days of innovation, Christianity accorded to women a role within the emerging religion that was indistinguishable from that of men. Consequently, far from the Church of England’s recent ordination of a woman as a bishop being a departure from early Christian tradition (of course, women bishops have existed for some years in the Episcopalian Church, the US version of the Church of England), Anglicans have simply brought practice within their denomination into line with the seeds sown in the decades immediately following the execution of Jesus.

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Torah scrolls, Reform Synagogue, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. For a number of years now, the synagogue has had a female rabbi

Although the great majority of religions worldwide discriminate against women in favour of men, or withhold opportunities to women that they grant to men (can anyone come up with examples of sexism that are more blatant?), the Church of England, the Episcopalian Church, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church are among the Christian denominations that have female priests/ministers, and within Judaism all “schools” except Orthodoxy encourage women to train as rabbis. Men and women share priestly responsibilities in ISKCON and in many manifestations of what is collectively called Paganism. Women also play a key role in rituals associated with the religion known variously as Vodou, Voodoo or Vodun (e.g. female Vodou priests are called “mambos”). In some manifestations of Sufism, men and women assume an equal role in ritual practices, and monasticism for males and females exists in many forms of Christianity and some forms of Buddhism.

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Where are the girls? Where are the women?

Can anyone identify the other religions around the world which accord women exactly the same opportunities as men to play a full/leading role within their faith? I’m not interested at this stage in those religions which say women are equal to men (this is frequently alleged by expressions of religion, but quite rarely carried through in practice); I seek instead evidence that this is so in terms of their authority within the religion. Put another way, if authority figures within a faith are men, can women fulfil exactly the same roles? If not, why not? If they can’t fulfil such roles, don’t tell me it’s mere tradition because, if it is, tradition needs to be immediately challenged. Slavery was traditional, but it no longer exists in most parts of the world (it is most common in India, however, where an estimated fourteen million people – yes, fourteen million people – suffer from different types of bondage/false imprisonment, children and women primarily). Female infanticide was traditional, but it is rarely encountered today (it appears to be most common in the People’s Republic of China). The burning of witches was traditional, but today it seems to be confined to only a few places in Africa and Melanesia. Human sacrifice was traditional, but it would appear to have died out everywhere (except in Louisiana, if “True Detective” is to be believed).

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Unnecessary differentiation by dress, Venk Koyu, near Malatya, Turkey

Who can say for certainty what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?

Who can say for certain what form the divine assumes (if it exists at all, of course)?