Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Religious rituals that boggle our minds

The biggest religious event in the world is taking place right now, and I expect you haven’t heard a word about it. It’s the Kumbh Mela, where 130 million Hindus will purify themselves by plunging into the Ganges River. 

            Stop! You didn’t let that figure sink in -- 130 million! That’s equivalent to gathering in one place the entire populations of metropolitan New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Mexico City, Cairo, and London – every man, woman, and child. 

            Or more than three times the whole population of Canada, gathering on a mud flat at the junction of two sacred rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna.

            For those five weeks, the Guardianreports, “an entire city about two-thirds the size of Manhattan (or 15 sq. miles) emerges from the banks of the river … that includes 185 miles (300 km) of roads and more than 120,000 toilets.”

            It is, in fact, the largest human gathering of any kind on earth. 

            By comparison, only about 2.3 million Muslims attend the annual Hajj, in Mecca – although it gets much more press coverage in western media. 

            The FIFA world cup final in Brazil crammed almost 200,000 spectators into a stadium. This Kumbh Mela would fill 600 of those stadiums.


Religious practices

            What do all those Hindus do at a Kumbh Mela? I don’t know; I’ve never been there in person. Even if I did go, I expect it would be meaningless to me, an outsider. 

            Certainly, nothing connected to the Ganges River suggests purification to me.

            But who am I to judge their religious practices? 

            I hope you won’t find this story offensive. A few years ago, my daughter and I got to visit a temple dedicated to Shiva, in the ancient city of Varanasi. Shiva is the god of destruction and renewal. His temples typically contain an upright stone lingam, or phallic symbol.

            While we watched, a couple – in their sixties, I’d guess – came to perform a religious ritual. They poured milk on his lingam. They rubbed the stone up and down with butter. They smoothed spices and ointments on it. They cooed soothing sounds at it. 

            No one wanted to interrupt their devotions to explain the ritual to a couple of ignorant Canadians. But it looked to me as if they were masturbating their god. 


Ways of praising 

            If that shocks you, consider this – in 80 years attending Christian churches weekly, I have never seen anyone display such a passionate desire to give their god pleasure.

            And if we found their ritual strange, I wonder how they might find our claim that a fragment of bread and a sip of wine constitute a feast – let alone the flesh and blood of the one we claim to worship? And what would they make of prayers in which people sit petrified, as if human bodies interfere with prayer?

            I suspect they would find most of our worship services remote, abstract, and excessively intellectual.

            And how would you explain to them the religious significance of plastic Christmas trees, chocolate Easter bunnies, and skeleton costumes at Halloween?

            Sometimes, I think, we ask the wrong questions. Not what the rituals of other religions mean to us. We should ask what the rituals of other religions mean to them.


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





On the subject of handshakes and their significance, Tom Watson commented, “In terms of an agreement between two people, a handshake means little or nothing anymore...unless, perhaps, it's between two mutually trusted friends. There was a time, though, that the thing that preceded the handshake -- a person's word -- was their bond. That's gone too. A particularly acute example is the words spoken by those seeking political office...what they say prior to the election is of little meaning once the election is over. These days, the campaign words are even excused away as not to be taken seriously.”


David Gilchrist reflected on his ministerial career: “Talk about a timely column -- again. I do some sermons in which I try to share some of the insights that we were given at seminary way back when. I almost left the Church as a youth because I had actually read the Bible through, and was struck by the obvious contradictions between some of the very early concepts of God, and the later Prophets (e.g., Moses’ insistence on sacrifices, vs. Micah saying that God simply asks us to ‘turn over a new leaf,’ and learn to love justice, mercy, and humility.

            “Then I was urged to go to seminary for answers, and discovered that the Bible is not a book that God wrote one day; but a collection of 2000 years of writers and their search to understand the mystery of God,. My world changed -- and my whole attitude towards what we all ‘religion.’

            “I was shocked when one of the profs told us to be careful about sharing our new knowledge, because it would offend traditionalists in the congregation and they would leave the Church. I told him that I almost left because the ministers I had heard in early years DIDN’T share.

            “Well, wouldn’t you know: in preparing for this coming Sunday as Pulpit Supply, this is the very matter I was dealing with -- and I have been searching for some references. Fr. Rohr says it so much better than I can.”


Isabel Gibson also liked Rohr’s summary: “I like Rohr's notion of ‘growing with the text.’  There are some books (prose & poetry -- not just scripture) that reward multiple readings over time.  We bring new selves to the encounter each time, but might also re-encounter our old selves.

            “As for handshakes -- an interesting extrapolation.  I've experienced the levels you describe more in hugs, from the perfunctory social hug to the person hanging on for dear life.”


And Bob Rollwagen added a new notion: “A handshake is a ritual that has history. While I know little about that history, I do feel it does have many levels of understanding. The deeper your knowledge and trust in the ethics of the other person, the deeper the value of a hand shake.”

            Bob added, “There are currently some leaders in our community that you require rubber gloves if they want to shake your hand.”






Psalm is sometimes described in the Bible as an old man's prayer, but it could equally well apply to a young child. Both are vulnerable and dependent on others. I chose to paraphrase from the child's viewpoint. Every one of us has been a child; only a few of us have been old -- yet.


1          Don't let them make fun of me.
Let me hide myself behind your skirts. 

2          Comfort me and protect me;
listen to my fears, and enfold me in your arms. 

3          When I am in trouble, I run to you.
I have no one but you to rely on. 

4          The bigger kids won't leave me alone;
their greedy hands keep grabbing at me.
Rescue me from their clutches. 

5          From the time I was tiny, you have been my refuge.
I have always been able to trust you. 

6          Before I was born, I felt safe in your womb.
As an infant, I rested on your breast.
You are all I have, and all I ever had.


            For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.






If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve started a webpage http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry where I post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email(no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of too many links.

                  Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                  Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom

                  Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet






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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges




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