What Cicero saw in the Eleusinian mystery religion and its similarities to Christianity

In Cicero’s dialogue “On the Laws,” a character comments on the Eleusinian mysteries:

“For it appears to me that among the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those mysteries. For by means of them we have transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of humanity, and have been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy but also for dying with a better hope.”

So there you have four points that sound like outcomes from an evangelical conversion experience: (1) transformation from sinfulness to fullness, (2) knowledge of the source of life, (3) joy in this life, and (4) hope for life after death.

That quotation from the Cicero dialogue was found in The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer. Here I’m including it as an additional note to some of my previous posts about ancient mystery religions, including this one and this one and this one. If you read the dialogue quotation with these three links in this paragraph, Cicero’s character seems to add something more than mere external and descriptive similarities between ancient mystery religions and Christianity. He seems to add something that maps with Christianity in the realm of interiority and values: enlightened living, joy for this life, hope for a wonderful afterlife.

It’s worth mentioning that the two most influential Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, saw these kinds of similarities not as challenges to Christianity but as supports for Christianity. Generally speaking, they believed the myths, poems, and philosophies of the ancient world were different kinds of divine revelation that prepared people for the advent of Christ — in Lewis’s famous phrase, “myth became fact,” meaning myths or pieces of myths were historically actualized and tied together in the Incarnation.

That being said, having been grown up with simultaneous influences of two very different strands of American Bible-skimming fundamentalism, I have to say the ancient mystery religions and their similarities to Christianity are a huge challenge to Christian faith (again, follow the above links). As a friend and I were saying the other night, the ancient mystery religions, sharing so many similarities to Christianity, challenge the assumptions and claims that there never was anything like Christianity before.

I finally understand the Truly Reformed approach to interpreting the Bible

My interpretation of the Bible is infallible because I’m Elect because my interpretation of the Bible is infallible because I’m Elect.

For all their stated emphasis on grace, some Reformed Christian folks demonstrate such certainty in their own understandings that they actually emphasize their own interpretative stances over anything else, including grace.

What does this have to do with anything? Take a look at a few rounds of this video debate between a Reformed guy and a Roman Catholic guy, as I did recently.

Watch how they both selectively avoid the consequences of the opposing proof texts. Notice how their selective engagements involve work-arounds that have nothing to do with the texts themselves.

The take-away from their exchange, in my opinion, is simply that systematizing the Bible into a complete set of firm answers and airtight conclusions is not possible. But some people can only have a Bible if they have an infallible interpretation of it, too.

Watching the debate also reminded me that the late great French Protestant Jacques Ellul once said “the Bible is not a recipe book or an answer book, but the opposite: it is a book of questions God asks us.”

Czeslaw Milosz on Imagination, with reference to Blake, Dante, and Swedenborg

Through Imagination, spiritual truths are transformed into visible forms. Although he took issue with Swedenborg on certain matters, Blake felt much closer to his system than to that of Dante, whom he accused of atheism. Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell is modeled on Swedenborg, and he would have been amused by an inquiry into whether he had ‘really’ seen the devils and angels he describes. The crux of the problem—and a serious challenge to the mind—is Blake’s respect for both the imagination of Dante, who was a poet, and the imagination of Swedenborg, whose works are written in quite pedestrian Latin prose…. Neither Swedenborg nor Blake was an aesthetician, and they did not enclose the spiritual within the domain of art and poetry and oppose it to the material. At the risk of simplifying the issue by using a definition, let us say rather that they both were primarily concerned with the energy which reveals itself in a constant interaction of Imagination with the things perceived by our five senses.” — Czeslaw Milosz, from his essay “Dostoevsky and Swedenborg,” in Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (boldface added)

Note: In my paperback copy of Emperor of the Earth, the word “Imagination” appears with a capitalized “I,” but in online sources I found, including the one linked above, it is not always capitalized. For Milosz’s purposes, I think it’s fitting to capitalize the first letter of Imagination as a way to designate it as something larger than what Coleridge would call, in contrast to Imagination, mere “fancy.”

True Love

“I’m probably not predestined, but I love John Calvin,” said no one, ever.

Jan 10 – William Laud

Interesting story of an Archbishop of Canterbury who stood up to zealous Puritans, and died for it.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Jan 10 - William Laud

William Laud
Archbishop and Martyr
10 January 1645

click here for books on or by William Laud

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San Diego Postcard: The bells along El Camino Real

A Christmastide message from 1885

Christmastide is an old liturgical word for the season that runs from Dec. 24 to Jan. 5, with specific times during those days varying within different types of churches.

Sometimes I’m curious to see how people in the United States have used less-familiar words like Christmastide because their origins tend to come from liturgical traditions more common on the other side of the Atlantic.

So I searched “Christmastide” in the Library of Congress’s database of old U.S. newspapers. That kind of search can provide a clue as to how words were used at certain times in U.S. history — or to what extent they were used.

For example, searching the database for “Christmastide” between 1789 and 1963, I found 6,385 returns.

Searching for “Christmas” during the same period, I found 1,382,961 returns.

That’s a big difference. “Christmastide” just wasn’t as popularly used during most of U.S. history, and maybe that gives some evidence toward the idea that American Christianity has tended to be less liturgical and less calendar-oriented. More “low church” and less “high church.” Possibly.

Beyond that, I can’t say the search for “Christmastide” revealed any special insights about religion in American — and I can’t say I read 6,385 returns — but I did find a seasonal message of reconciliation within a short, unsigned editorial in The Bossier Banner, Bellevue, Bossier Parish, La., Dec. 24, 1885:

And since love grows cold, sometimes with unwise estrangements, this Christmastide ought to send many out to regather and grasp the clues of ancient friendship. To those who clasp hands again after the long chill, and forgive, it should indeed be a merry Christmas.