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Diversity of the global religious heritage I

from the archive, 2015

When we survey the faith traditions of the world, past and present, we are struck by a bewildering array of seemingly different religions, practices and spiritual paths. Difference and contradiction can be unnerving, giving rise to doubt as to ultimate and absolute truth, and to fear about humans having sufficient respect for one another to live in peace. The healthy response to doubt and fear is to sincerely seek truth and to draw upon the courage to explore meaningful patterns and explanations that, whilst not trivialising differences, can help us intuit compatibilities in the diversity of religious experience. The following broad brush aims to open the mind to the possibility of some kind of unity in diversity.

Etymologically, "religion" probably comes from Latin "re-ligare": to reconnect. The reconnection implied could be to our Source - the source of our existence. All religion could be understood in this way, as a getting in touch (again) with the roots of our existence; of where we and everything else comes from; and of why the cosmos is here.

Two basic approaches to the mystery might be designated 'the patriarchal' and 'the matriarchal', from the idea that Spirit can be personified as Father and Matter can be personified as Mother. Matriarchal religions orientate to nature as harbouring ultimate causes and powers, whereas patriarchal religions look to a Creator - an infinite, invisible Spirit - as the beginning and end of the creation. God is typically represented by humans as masculine and one - or tending towards singularity. And we typically represent the goddess, the divine feminine, as multiform. There are also religions, of course, that mix gods and goddesses. History and geography tell us more. The matriarchal cultures flourished earlier than the patriarchal on the timeline of civilisation. The northern hemisphere of the earth predominantly cradled the patriarchal cultures, while the indigenous animism of the southern hemisphere can be seen as a cradle of matriarchy.

The Hopi native Americans (of the Arizona, New Mexico region) trace matrilineal descent and theirs is one of many spiritual traditions giving prominence to the mother and the feminine. The Iroquois Confederacy of native American nations placed women at the centre of society, because of their natural endowment as the givers of life. The Goddess Movement, associated with twentieth century feminism is a modern example of a path that many believe has roots in prehistoric matriarchy.

The Biblical tradition on the other hand exemplifies religious patriarchy. All authority stems from God who is masculine, and He is the God of the fathers who transmit the faith tradition - the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Men as a consequence assume a dominant role both in the home and in society.

Modern scholarly researchers like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung suggest that the gods and goddesses of mythology are archetypes in a collective unconscious that human beings can or seek to embody. Religion cannot merely be reduced to a study of stories or psychology. But the insights they provide can enrich our appreciation of religion. This will be taken up in the next installment.

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