Christmas reflections on religion

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - December 26, 2019 - 12:00am

Christmas has become a highly successful commercial festival; and, Santa Claus has overtaken Jesus Christ as its symbolic figure. The one thing that has not changed in this world of globalization, artificial intelligence and rapid technological change, is the exemplification and perfect statement of the ideal human life which can only be seen in the life and words of a Man who lived 2,000 years ago, long before the invention of the airplane, the computer, internet and artificial intelligence. 

Christmas is a reminder that it was the birth of the Baby Jesus to a poor working family in a manger in an animal stable  that began the road to redemption for humankind. 

During the first half of the 20th century, two catastrophic world wars, advances in science, and the rise of secular forces like communism and consumerism would result in the marginalization of religion. However, the 1960s saw the resurrection of the Catholic as a result of the Vatican Council. In the 1970s, the world saw the upsurge of religion and the rise of energetic forms of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and charismatic Christianity. 

The rise in Islamic fundamentalism has seen parallel growth in Christian and Hindu. In Europe, church attendance is said to be at an all time low. However, Europe continues to be the scene of violent religious conflicts. Aside from conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, there are numerous skirmishes between Christians and Muslims. I have always wondered why religion which teaches peace and brotherhood can be the cause of so much sufferings and violence.

Historians contend that there has always been a link between history and religion, between culture and religion. The distinction between religion the sacred as primarily a cultural and historical matter; and, the sacred as primarily an individual matter. The word “religion” is derived from the Latin term “religare” meaning to tie together or bind. Historians believe that this suggests how this unique relationship between history and religion arose. There is much to learn from studying religion from a historical perspective. Starting around 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, the world saw the rise of the universalizing religion.  After all, the origins of religion are tied to the development of human society. 

During the earliest human societies of hunters and gatherers, spiritual power was focused on the sky, the world of animals and the “shaman” or the individual who gained power over the spirits. The development of agriculture was the second stage. There was a transfer of attention from the forest to the planted fields, which meant that the earth goddess grew in significance. Animal and even human sacrifice to the powers of fertility became common.

The population explosion and growth of trade saw the rise of empires such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and China. Religion became more formalized and rulers were considered divine. These religions rose and fall with the rise and fall of their empires and civilizations. 

Starting around 2,000 to 2,500 years ago, the world saw the rise of universal religions. These are religions that attempt to be global, to appeal to all peoples wherever they may live in the world and not be limited to one culture or location. 

In the history of mankind there have been less than a dozen of these religions. Only three have been truly successful – Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. There have been many academic attempts to explain this phenomenon and the extremely rare success of a universalizing religion. 

Historian Linda Woodhead says that historical records show that religions flourish when they are in alliance with earthly powers. Such power may be political, economic, military or a combination of all three. Woodhead seeks to explain that the key factor for the spread of early Christianity was its adoption as the official religion of Roman Empire in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine. She said: “Without this, its [Christianity] fate would probably have been similar to a rival world religion Manichaeism, which failed to sustain its political patronage, and was unable to consolidate its early gains.” 

 Historians also note that the spread of Islam was facilitated  by the victories of the Arab and Ottoman Turks armies and conquests in the Middle East. However, the idea of an imperial power colonizing and converting colonies did not always happen. Spain colonized and converted Latin America and the Philippines, its former colonies. However India, a British colony never became a Christian country. The same is true of Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony.

For most of us – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus – a religion or spiritual movement developed because it was God’s ( or Allah’s ) will that it should. The overwhelming truth is that these religions were founded, not by the force of history or development of human society, but by the inspiration and work of four persons – Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, Mohammed – whose lives and teachings continue to shape our world today. 

Throughout its history Christianity has achieved a wide diversity of forms. But they all derive ultimately from the persona, life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Today, it exists in a world full of strains and paradoxes. It is the church of the wealthy and the church of the starving. In some countries it is in recession; but, in other countries it is bursting with energy and fervor. 

Each year, at Christmastime, Christians come together to commemorate the birth of the Baby Jesus who became Man in order to save Humankind. 

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