Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Oneness through contemplating many

Art always and everywhere has been a medium through which people have sought to express their religious beliefs, or a vehicle through which societies have sought to have their religion represented. This has resulted in many styles and raises the question of defining oneness through the contemplating the many particularly as there is general agreement among cognitive scientists that religion is a basic outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved early in human history. Some have suggested that religion is genetically "hardwired" into the human condition and its various revelatory expressions are varied responses to different environmental imperatives. One controversial idea, the God gene hypothesis, states that some human beings bear a gene which gives them a predisposition to creative episodes as religious revelation. Indeed, when we look at the history of religions, we see that they cannot be detached from revelation as an expression of human creativity. However, there is disagreement on the exact mechanisms that drove the evolution of the religious mind. The two main schools of thought hold that religious behaviour evolved due to natural selection and has selective advantage, or that religion is an evolutionary byproduct of other mental adaptations. New religions appear and serve as complements to previous religions. For instance, in the case of Islam, its revelation and source material is found in the Bible. The Christian religion is based in the Jewish Old Testament. Religion evolves with cultural diversity and works through the changing condition of time and nature, as well as through the changes in human knowledge.

Today, cultural diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, and make judgements upon them. Therefore, diversity is important because it allows us to engage in cross cultural dialogue and debate that can help create values and beliefs that are more universal, and generate a much needed collective language of universal citizenship. But it is precisely such dialogue and debate, and the making of such judgements, that contemporary multiculturalism attempts to suppress in the name of 'tolerance' and 'respect'. For example, it has been said that multiculturalism in the United Kingdom is an authoritarian, anti-human outlook. Its effects are political because true political progress requires not recognition but action, not respect but questioning, not the invocation of the 'Thought Police' but the forging of common bonds and collective global struggles against poverty and injustice.

In his book 'Religion, Art, and Visual Culture', Brent Plate presents a view of cross-culturalism through the act of seeing. What we learn is that seeing is a culturally constructed process, and religious icons are one of many contexts that guide how we see and interpret the world around us. We are all exposed through religious art to the power that an object has on a viewer. That power comes from the painter who has been sacralised to paint what he thinks about questions such as How do humans see the cosmos? What does it mean to see "religiously"? How does visual culture affect the way religions are practiced? Consequently, how might an understanding of the role of visual expressions of religiosity affect the way we move towards a collective language of universal citizenship? What do visual arts have to offer in making this synthesis which written scripture cannot? And what does religion tell us about the meanings of visual arts in ways that art history cannot? These question were dominant themes of the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, who believed there was an unchanging 'primordial and universal tradition' that was the source from which all religions were born. The geographical source was located in the Middle East and the production of devotional objects was primarily a craft of believers. The images have the dual purpose of reminding believers of their religious narrative and acting as conduits for supernatural power to flow into the material world. In this sense, icons are religious tools, which fits the idea that causal beliefs emerged from the use of every day utilitarian tools. The manufacture of complex tools requires creating a mental image of an object that does not exist naturally before actually making the artifact. Furthermore, one must understand how the tool would be used, which requires an understanding of causality. Accordingly, the level of sophistication of stone tools is a useful indicator of causal beliefs and the selection of mental abilities to make them may have led to the production of religious icons as symbols for veneration. Communing through prayer or gesture with an icon, a person would partake of holiness, of the divine condition.

The use of symbolism in religion is a universal established phenomenon and it is common for religious practices to involve the creation of images and symbols to represent supernatural beings and ideas. Because supernatural beings violate the principles of the natural world, there will always be difficulty in communicating and sharing supernatural concepts with others. This problem can be overcome by anchoring these supernatural beings in material form through representational art. When translated into material form, supernatural concepts become easier to communicate and understand. Due to the association of art and religion, evidence of symbolism in the anthropological record is indicative of a mind capable of religious thoughts. Art linked with symbolism demonstrates a capacity for abstract thought and imagination necessary to construct religious ideas. It was the is translation of the non-visible through symbolism that enabled early human ancestors to hold beliefs in abstract terms.

Some of the earliest evidence of symbolic behavior are associated with Middle Stone Age sites in Africa. From at least 100,000 years ago, there is evidence of the use of pigments such as red ochre. Pigments are of little practical use to hunter gatherers, thus evidence of their use is interpreted as symbolic or for ritual purposes. Among extant hunter gatherer populations around the world, red ochre is still used extensively for ritual purposes. Upper paleolithic cave art provides some of the most unambiguous evidence of religious thought from the paleolithic. For example, cave paintings depict creatures that are half human and half animal, an example of anthropomorphism commonly associated among shamanistic practices.

The Great Goddess of Asia Minor is the oldest true Goddess known to have an iconic image, predating the goddesses of the Sumerian and Egyptians by at least 5,000 years. While there have been Goddess figurines found which date to 30,000 years ago, they come to us without knowledge of their origin or character of the Goddess they represent.

A figurine of the Great Goddess Cybele found at Çatal Hüyük, dating to 8,000 years ago, depicts a mother squatting in the process of giving birth while flanked by two leopards. In later centuries, the leopards would be changed to lions--the metamorphosed Atalanta and Hippomenes, though leopards were considered to be female lions by the ancients. Her worship was originally combined with that of the Bull of Heaven, which is also prominently displayed at Çatal Hüyük. The priestesses of Cybele (Kybele - cave dweller) would, through a transformation by the Greeks, be confused with and eventually known as the Sibyls. The worship of the Sacred Bull throughout the ancient world is most familiar to the Western world in the biblical episode of the idol of the Golden Calf made by Aaron and worshipped by the Hebrews in the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus). Marduk is the "bull of Utu". Shiva's steed is Nandi, the Bull. The sacred bull survives in the constellation Taurus. The bull, whether lunar as in Mesopotamia and Egypt or solar as in India, is the subject of various other cultural and religious incarnations, as well as modern mentions in new age cultures. The Bull and the Mother together have a claim to be the font of what Coomaraswamy called the primordial and universal tradition of expressing the oneness of the divine.

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