January 13, 2011

Christian Piety versus Heathen Piety

Read/Post Comments (5)

     There is a tendency on the part of Christians to discount the personal religious experience of non-Christian religions. Judaism is not included in this harsh judgment—at least ancient Israelite piety is not included. Why? The Israelite Psalmbook was adopted by Christians as virtually reflecting a “Christian” piety and today is regularly read for spiritual nourishment in Christian faith, and used in prayers and liturgy. Other religions, however, are not accorded the same consideration that Christians accord the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible. But the truth is that the religious experiences of non-Christians are warm, personal, and as resonant with faith and deep piety as anything we find in the Christian experience.

     Here is an example from ancient Egyptian religion. The following prayer appears on a golden casket thought to be that of Akhenaton, the “heretic” king of Egypt’s New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC). The prayer is likely addressed to Aten, whom Akhenaton believed to be the creative force of the universe. If the casket does not belong to Akhenaton, then it is likely addressed to Osiris, the Egyptian God of the underworld.

     That I breathe the sweet air that issues from your mouth,

     That I behold your beauty every day—that is my prayer.

     That I hear your voice in the north breeze,

     That my body be instilled with life through your love.

     That you extend your hands to me, bearing my sustenance

     And that I receive it and live by it.

     That you call my name again and again,

     And that I never cease to answer.

Bojana Mojsov, Osiris. Death and Afterlife of a God (Blackwell, 2005), 82.

     The personal attitude of faith and warm devotion reflected in this prayer challenges the idea that “my piety is best because I serve the true God.” Apparently any believer in whatever God/god can have deep personal relationships with their God/god. The idea that only religious experiences in my religious tradition are valid because I serve a true God is flawed. Deep personal piety does not arise from the “trueness” of the God/god but from within any worshipper, and it has nothing to do with the God/god but only with how the God/god is viewed and responded to. All gods are true to those who believe in them. This prayer on an ancient Egyptian casket basically challenges the whole concept of “convert the heathen (whoever they are) to my faith.” And for modern Christians it raises the question: why not employ such appropriate religious expressions in Christian worship?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 8:30am

Dr. Hedrick,

When in the Religious Studies courses at MSU, “religious experience” was an area where I spent some considerable time studying. In my conclusions, and also drawing from the more psychological methods for understanding religious experiences, the common theme of all religious experience is found in a state of egoless. In other words, all the higher forms of religious experiences facilitated the act of laying down one’s ego and one’s certainty in what is known to be true. In the letting go of certainty and ego security we find ourselves open to new experiences of life, the world, and of what might exist beyond our common ways of “knowing.” Poetry, as illustrated here, is typically not a logical process of thinking but a felt experience that is not ego driven but a surrender to beauty.

Rita Moore, LPC
Ozark, MO
Posted by Rita Moore on 1/23/2011 at 8:00am

Thanks, Charles. As always, you tend to peel our minds back and forth. For me, your most important words are your last two sentences to the other Charles Hedrick. Long before William James' Gifford Lectures in 1902 and his subsequent classic, THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE, Christian writers of spirituality gladly acknowledged the diversity of which you speak. At least they spoke of that diversity within the Christian tradition, and some saw it outside their faith tradition.

Walter B. Shurden
Minister at Large
Mercer University
Posted by Walter B. Shurden on 1/17/2011 at 5:23am

Thank you, Charlie. This is excellent and we do agree with you.

Harrylyn and Charles
Posted by Harrylyn and Charles on 1/14/2011 at 6:59pm

Do you think that to qualify as religious, there must be some kind of rapturous, transcendent experience? How about a ritualistic attitude, that "things must be done in the proper order-- which for me, anyway, brings comfort, maybe, but not the kind of ecstasy you see in the poem you quote...

Charles Hedrick
Cowell College, UCSC
Santa Cruz, CA
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/14/2011 at 10:34am

I do not think that for “religious experience” to qualify as “religious” it must be some sort of mystical experience—in the sense that the individual becomes one with the god/God, or in your word reaching a state of ecstasy. And I do not take this poem (prayer) to reflect a present state of rapture on the part of the speaker. Notice that the speaker recognizes a current distance between the god/God and himself, and is asking for a closer experience. Presumably he is seeking a rapturous experience, a closer sense of the presence of the god/God. Religious experiences come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of intensities. From my perspective there is not one authoritative model that all must have. At least that is what I see when I look around me, and so it has been through history.

Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 1/16/2011 at 5:22pm

I would say that modern Christians do show respect to people of other faiths--at least the liberal minded ones--while still maintaining that they believe that their belief is the correct one. But the more conservative Christians, that are not as open to new ideas, I can certainly understand your point.

Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 1/14/2011 at 9:02am