Saturday, September 11



The oldest religious ideas uncovered were found in ancient Egypt to date circa 2400–2300 BCE. Prior to those records being uncovered no one knows when religious views first emerged. But possibly it coincided with the ability to distinguish the ‘self’ as separate to oneself. Thus occurred relatively late in the evolutionary journey possibly circa 200,000 years ago.   

At that time the offering of sacrifices as an atonement by priests to appease deities was a feature in the developing agrarian communities. Once settled communities were acutely aware of their dependence on the success of the harvest and supporting infrastructure inextricably tied to the elements and avoidance of pestilence. So the idea of making peace with the angry GOD(s) for inequalities or sins committed meant one must offer sacrifices as an atonement. That situation contrasted with hunter gatherers able to freely move from one place to another in tune with the seasons. This idea of atonement and reconciliation with GOD(s) permeated those dependent cultures but any distinction one wishes to make becomes highly subjective given the abundance of available material. This summary will seek to formulate some broad observations and later explain atonement in more detail in the Jewish/Christian perspective.   

But to begin in China, a once highly religious society, it is noted it became a melting pot for many of the world’s religions. Initially Confucius (552-479BC), and others were making a mark on society that continues to a minor degree today. But in ancient China no separation existed between church and state. Confucius happily existed alongside the prophetic streams from Abraham and Buddha. China was also profoundly influenced by outside cultures by virtue of the ancient Silk Road (130 -1453 BC) linking east and west. The introduction of Buddhism from India in 150 BC initially met with stiff opposition but it was eventually reconciled to Taoist traditions. Both Pure Land Buddhism and Chan (Zen) Buddhism remain today along with elements of folk and other strains. 

The end result is different religions remain integral to a person’s needs and the laity who routinely freely propose prayers and petitions indifferently to the popular deities.


Hans Kung (Chinese Religions) talks about the ‘Heavenly Masters Sect’ which was considered the beginning of the Taoist religion established in the second century. This replaced bloody sacrifices by the offering of cooked vegetables. Confessions of sins, were instituted for healing rather than previously through spirit mediums. Shamans were replaced with male and female priests as the prevailing superstructure for various cults, in lieu of Buddhist inspired literature. 

Some of the practices however date back to the 3rd century BC associated with Taoist Yoga and the concepts of Yin and Yang. However the religion steadily declined from the 17th century but thereafter evolved to incorporate many different pantheistic beings and rituals to celebrate the cosmic seasons,  


In Hinduism, as the oldest world religion, during Vedic times it offered sacrifices to please devas (gods) or the Brahman. Oblations were poured into the divine sacrificial fire, usually by a priest destined to reach the GODS to the chants of Vedic verses.

Hence such ceremonial practices supported the idea of atonement and acted as a form of penance for sins that violated the dharma – assisted by practices such as fasting and acts of charity to atone to the GODS and as a means of liberation from the Karma which causes their sins.


Buddhism is far from theistic religions so the concept of atonement to God is absent. Instead, atonement is focused on fellow humans with the accent on forgiveness.  Nevertheless, even if you are offended you are expected to forgive others. Here atonement is expected to be initiated more by the offended party. The idea of forgiveness in Buddhism is to negate the suffering and harmful emotions from the Karma that attaches in sin and attendant misery.

Abrahamic religions

In the Abrahamic religions (Jewish Christin and Islam) atonement was very similar, except offerings were made to a single GOD.


In Islam religions atonement continues to be associated with repentance and similarly in making amends for offences. Muhammad, who was the founder of the Islamic faith communicated closely with influential Jewish tribes of Arabia so that Jewish teaching was integral his preaching and quest for them to accept him as a true prophet.

Fast of Ramadan

Ramadan involves fasting that extends through the daylight hours, in accord with the Koran, which replaced the earlier one day fast known as the Ashura. The word is derived from the Hebrew word Asor, the tenth, (Leviticus in the OT 16:29) to designate the date of the holiday (the tenth day of the seventh month). The Koran (2:183-187) reflects the prophet’s command to adopt the Jewish custom of fasting on the Day of Atonement.


To reiterate, atonement has its origins as a sacrificial rite to Leviticus, which seeks to purify from sin in (ref Lev. 5). This was the constant theme of the prophets and became synonymous with fasting and prayer to more specifically attain atonement (Isa. 58:1–10; Jonah 3) 

But after the period of the destruction of the Temple in 70AD in Rabbinic references sacrifice was completely replaced by prayer and repentance plus charity.  Suffering also came to be regarded as a means of atonement and was preferable over a sacrifice in an attempt to win GODs favour.

 The Day of Atonement is effective for transgressions between man and God, but for sins against a fellow man, restitution and forgiveness are also necessary.


The word atonement only arose in the English language during the 16th century but was translated in the NT to link it’s meaning to be associated with Christ’s death as an atonement for mankind’s sins and the means to reconciliation.  

There are references to this concept in the NT evident in Paul’s letters in 1 Cor.15.3. And in Heb.9.11-15, linking his death as a means of atonement for sins as there is elsewhere in the OT.  

Today the Eucharist (bread handed out at Communion) continues universally in Christian services.

Nevertheless atonement and the link to the Eucharist does not have a firm doctrine. In modernity there is a softening in the idea to link Christ's death as an atonement for sins. Depending on Catholic versus Greek Orthodox versus Protestant, Eucharist (bread during communion) represents the substance, mystic or symbolism of Christ's atoning will. 

The formalisation of Christ's death as an atonement for mankind's sins and hence as a means of reconciliation is included in Paul's letters in 1 Cor 15. 3 and In Heb, 9 11 15. 

The idea of Eucharist also followed on from references to the last supper on the eve of Christ's execution. The sequence of events and emphasis is different in John's gospel which talks about his washing of the disciples feet and a new beginning after the destruction of the second temple in 70AD. This marked a new way of thinking in contrast to the older gospels of Mark, Mathew and Luke.

One can glean from those sources disagreement between St Peter and St Paul, recorded in Luke's gospel.

Paul was intent on a new beginning inspired by his revelation of the resurrected Christ whilst Peter thought the existing Jewish practices could continue. The result was Paul was to set off on missionary journeys whilst Peter remained until such time many years later when a truce was formed to revert to a simple gospel message. What transpired thereafter we don't have a clear picture, except what was agreed in 320 AD at the behest of Constantine, so that Christianity then could become the religion of the Roman Empire.   

But in early Christianity Jewish holy days continued to be celebrated by both Jews and Christian's alike. The principals involved continued making restitution where possible, repentance and the offering of sacrifices for past sins whether intentional or not.

To reiterate, just as is the case in Islam, its origins as a sacrificial rite date back to Leviticus, which seeks to purify from sin in (ref Lev. 5). This was the constant theme of the prophets and became synonymous with fasting and prayer to more specifically attain atonement (Isa. 58:1–10; Jonah 3)  

Secular and other spiritual aspects.   

The secular aspects to atonement is also evident in attempts to ameliorate wrongdoing by arranged meetings in prison between victims and their perpetrators. 

The remorse towards the victims can be the catalyst to healing for both parties.  

In the steps to be taken at Alcoholic Anonymous those similarly address the harm or wrong that may be due to the alcoholic’s addiction.  


The idea of a simple repentance or to give away money or goods or demonstrate sorrow in recognition of wrongdoing is what seems both practical and important to society if it is to be healed. Atonement in this respect must involve making sincere amends for wrongs just as applies to repentance or remorse.      

Christ as a NT example as the king of peace, a fighter for justice, a friend of the poor and disenfranchised who showed compassion for all seems sufficient enough as an exemplary example. The mystic elements of his death and influence remain profound, without the need to insist on making him a sacrifice for our sins.  


Saturday, September 4

Walking through the shadows of the mystics.


Out of my childhood were mystical memories of dreamy imagined worlds whose characters cast magical spells in the shadows of the giant hypnotic eucalypts which grew in the tranquil peaceful bushland setting behind our family home. At night my bedroom glass window louvers shimmered in the pale light and rattled to the sounds of wind or rain. I listened to the incessant buzz of cicadas or the more strident cry of - “mopoke! Mopoke!" of the mopoke owl before drifting off into sleep.

Although I would consider myself as a more practical and sceptical type person that mystical dreamy imaginative sense has also stayed with me to emerge in later life, in the form of a recurring daydreaming state from which I imagined nothing whatsoever existed; after a time when the feeling became uncomfortable I would return to my everyday perception.

In Australia over several decades we have seen a minor renaissance in spirituality in contrast to a marked decline in church attendances as increased environmental awareness generates more interest in the wisdom streams of ancient societies. Many older cultures, although beholden to magic and lacking scientific knowledge nevertheless, were more attuned to harmonious coexistence with nature emanating from mystic wisdom streams.

But firstly I should define mysticism for the purposes of these notes:  

Transcending human understanding, the beliefs or mental tendencies characteristic of mystics; belief in the possibility of the union with or absorption into GOD(s) by means of contemplation and or self surrender; belief in or reliance on the possibility of spiritual apprehension of knowledge.

Aboriginal mysticism

In our oldest known continuous culture of the Australian aborigines’ the ancestral origins of mysticism reside in the dream-time creation where all living things were believed to be made co-dependent and reactive to one another in one inseparable land.

As a child just before the time of the record –breaking floods which were to submerge our family home in raging flood water I recall the inexplicable death of the Aborigine named Kinjika from bone pointing for tribal transgressions. Speculation was that his extreme fear caused his untimely death just five days after admission to hospital. Medical authorities were unable to find any injury, poison, disease or medical condition that could be held responsible.

Like many religions, aboriginals were interested in the meaning of dreams which unlike other cultures were perceived as a mystical return to the past rather than to interpret the future.
Aboriginal people often interpret dreams as being the memory of things that happened during this Creation Period. Dreams were important because they were considered the time when one was transformed back into prior ancestral time. This linking of dreams to the Creation Period has led people to adopt the general term “The Dream-time” in order to describe the time of creation in their religion. The term “Dream-time” in Aboriginal mythology is not really about a person having a dream, but rather, a reference to this Creation Period.

Ineffable mysticism and reverence for life
In modern day terms the divide between mysticism in religion and philosophy has become blurred for although the experiences of mysticism may be claimed to be ineffable (Incapable of being expressed; indescribable or unutterable), nevertheless for those traditions to take root from one generation to the next required a teacher able to coherently convey what is meant to ensure a future survival.
In the Taoist religion “The Tao” was considered with such reverence that any references made could no longer be considered the true Tao-Lao Tzu (Taoist), since such supremacy in spirit is also ineffable.

GOD was also ineffable in early Judaism
In early Judaism coherency in teachings was described by reference to GOD’S ways or actions in the mystical stories of the Old Testament. The Jewish approach to mysticism is complicated but generally it is agreed the mystics are to be interpreted in terms of allegory and imagination, a not dissimilar view held by scholars today in relation to the parables contained in the New Testament.

In the end any inherent complexity must become mundane for its future survival, as the old story goes of the student and his understanding of the various contemplative mysteries of the mountain whose enlightened state reveals it is a mountain.
In more recent times the definition of mysticism has also tended to be expanded to include the ecstatic experience of oneness found in Indian religions such as Hinduism or Sufism in Islam which aims at unity or absorption of the divine.

In turn the idea of oneness has also influenced other philosophers such as Albert Schweitzer who said the “Brahmins, taught as a great secret the mysticism of the identity of the souls of all beings and all things with the Universal Soul. According to this mysticism all that is of the nature of soul belongs to the Universal Soul. Man carries the Universal Soul within him. And because the Universal Soul dwells in all beings, it finds its own self again in all beings, in the life of plants as in the life of gods. This is the meaning of the famous Tattwamasi (That thou art thyself) of the Upanishads."

Schweitzer whilst in the midst of a calm river setting in Africa gazing at a grazing hippopotamus, experienced his mystical insight into the principle of reverence for life, which proved to be  ‘manna from heaven’ for a war ravaged weary world, striking a chord that subsequently led to his Nobel peace prize in 1952.

A similar theme is evident In Tathagatagarbha Buddhism to proffer the idea of an enlightened indestructible nature for all beings, obscured by moral and mental contamination but whose enlightened essence is the Buddha Nature, present also in Tibetan Buddhist texts and traditions. Nothingness does not mean an absence of anything but rather the enlightened state from which attachments bringing moral and mental contamination are removed.

Christian mysticism

Turning to Christian mysticism we find an amazing labyrinth of different strands from the medieval Christian mystics including St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Teresa of Avilia and Meister Eckhart and all of the other successors.

But by far the greatest of all of the Christian mystics is the apostle St Paul whose 13 letters are 50% of the New Testament, although scholars contend only 7 were actually written by him and the 6 by unknown authors written under Paul’s direction.

Paul was a scholar, sail maker and mystic whose epic journeys established Christendom throughout the Mediterranean and ensured its spread throughout the world. Paul was seen as an apostle for the gentiles yet in typical Judaist tradition frequently uses allegory by way of Old Testament references in his letters to the recently established infant communities.

Paul remains an enigmatically unique character – virtually unknown in a historical sense other than to be remembered in Jewish disagreements among followers, but one who professes to be willing to understand all things and become ‘as one’ to all men to further the cause of being “in Christ” which arose from his mystical experience on the road to Damascus. I think this factor has led many to interpret his work in a more complicated manner than need be the case.

The phrase ‘In Christ” has prompted many different interpretations and Schweitzer in his work ‘The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle’ on page 380 provides his view

"For him [Paul], believers are redeemed by entering already, through the union with Christ, by means of a mystical dying and rising again with him during the continuance of the natural world-era into a supernatural state of existence, this state being that which they are to possess in the kingdom of God. Through Christ we are removed out of this world and transferred into the state of existence proper to the kingdom of God, notwithstanding the fact that it has not yet appeared.”

Much has been made of the abstract nature of Pauline theology as a bridge from the more individualistic Judaism into Christianity with the idea of justification by faith but I think the primary aim of Paul was one of universal freedom from the law under the Jewish covenant about which he disagreed with Peter. His letters are best read simply as letters, not necessarily to be held as always Paul’s specific views but more to be understood as an encouragement and call to the fledgling communities to co-exist with love and respect for one another without the need for the prior ritualistic imposition of Jewish law.

St Paul is of significant interest to secular philosophers because his ideas carry with them the idea of a universal unencumbered system of unity which presupposes through grace existential philosophical aspects to life; to hold our life existence as sacred, to ascertain and acknowledge ones gifts for the benefit of the whole community, to joyfully exist in a state of grace without fear of death, to be free and remain free from guilt, to share in all things and to place love and affection ahead of all other known things. In the process Paul acknowledges our humanity and the imperfect cradle of existence which will continue to see communities straddle the idealism that is encapsulated in their new understanding and freedom from their law only to fall prey to the usual earthly failings.

In the same way as Schweitzer was to say he knew only Jesus of Nazareth; Paul sends his letters of encouragement and hope in the expectation that the experience of freedom from the law will bring joy to existential living to transcend earthly suffering and sorrow.

From a letter written by Albert Schweitzer to his future wife Helene, dated May 1, 1904, "Sometimes it seems to me as if I had arrived beyond the clouds and the stars, and could see the world in the most wonderful clarity, and therefore have the right to be a heretic. To know only Jesus of Nazareth; to continue his work as the only religion, not to have to bear anymore what Christianity has absorbed over the years in vulgarity. Not to be afraid of hell, not to strive for the joys of heaven, not to live in false fear, and the false submission that has become an essential part of our religion--and yet to understand the one Great One, and to know that one is his disciple."


Mystical religious ‘’out of body’’ experiences or visions. 

Subsequently over time the term out-of-body experience was also applied to ever widening aspects of visionary and mystical type experiences. There are many examples within the mystery traditions which often return to the familiar theme of losing one’s fear of death, and more particularly to provide comfort in times of severe trauma or persecution on the promise of an afterlife. The experiences would also conceivably have underwritten a spirit of embodiment or authority or meaning to give confidence of spiritual continuance in the afterlife.  

To reiterate certainly in religious terms, probably the most notable was that of the apostle St Paul on the road to Damascus, where he describes a vision of the future kingdom which some attribute to an out of body type experience, although its true meaning remains somewhat obscure and is hotly debated by scholars today.  Although these accounts don’t directly reference seeing the body separate to self there are many references to such a term, to give credence to the idea St Paul was familiar with the idea.  

In the Asian region the degree of complexity was astonishing, as according to Julian Ching (Christianity and Chinese religions) in their evolving Taoist tradition there existed a mammoth divination manual comprising 1,000 volumes. The essence of such practices was inherent in the idea of transcending the communications between self and the inner self with direct out of body union with the TAO –the way.

In modernity many of the practices of the ancients have tended to be regarded as mere magic or superstition, but in more recent times we are beginning to understand such ideas from a more enlightened viewpoint. In fact the idea of magic or mystery is entwined onto most people’s adaptive style of thinking more than we realize, regardless of the degree of sophistication or the way of life we choose in relation to our beliefs or non-beliefs as the case may be. Understanding others and their motivations, gives credence to how our beliefs and purpose in life are shaped and formed over time. Interestingly enough there are many physicists and neuroscientists who posit a non-mystical technical basis for support in relation to out of body experiences.  One such advocate has been Fritjof Capra’s TAO OF PHYSICS whose motivation for writing his book was Science does not need mysticism and mysticism does not need science, but man needs both.


The evolving interest of science and neuroscience


The human brain is the most complex creation known in the entire universe, yet it weighs in at only a bit over three pounds but is made up of over 100 billion cells. Along its six and one half miles of integrated circuitry the interneuron chemical reactions enable one to switch nerve impulses on or off - mostly from the perspective of an auto pilot since we are not aware of their functions until alerted that something is wrong. Although our knowledge of the human brain is incomplete we do understand how circuitry links the older limbic areas to the more recently evolved executive functioning frontal lobe regions which gives rise to the various ephemeral states of consciousness. This later evolution enables us to make many complex or abstract decisions or ideas- a tiny slither of the up to a billion or so decisions made for us each day of which we are unaware.  But exactly how all of this occurs in a physical sense at the micro level along the neural highways remains somewhat of a mystery. 

A credible possible explanation for out of body type experiences could conceivably entail a concept of a dualistic mind functioning process as opposed to the idea it (the mind) must only be the property of the material brain. At this point it is worth acknowledging the idea that the purely material mind gained credence over the past few hundred years as a consequence of the Newtonian mechanised clocklike view of reality. Given the fact large scale physics had been demonstrated to work very well it was not surprising this view gained traction in materialistic philosophical concepts to become the basis for determinism. This was predicated on the basis of the predictability for all events given a knowledge of the underlying initial conditions. But the reality is our knowledge of the human brain in its present state is incomplete in relation to the neural signalling which makes up our consciousness.   

In the latter period beginning with the 20th century, in relation to outcomes of small particle physics known as quantum mechanics it was established such outcomes are indeed unquantifiable, which was first made famous under Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, to create the requirement for an ultimate "observer".  

Physicist Paul Davies, who is author of the Other Worlds and The Edge of Infinity, maintains that the discoveries of 20th-century physics — relativity and the quantum theory — are now pointing towards a more mystical way to view reality  and opens up the possibility of a new appreciation of our place in the universe.

Hence for an out of body experience to be believable only requires one to accept the possibility of a dualistic view of the mind or spirit. One part (call it a soul if you want to) represents the form of a non-destructible conscious awareness, which could continue on in some disembodied form after death. In a nutshell the idea already exists for a nonlocal depository of brain particles – wave collapsed symmetry within mind consciousness, so that the continuation of that which is already present in some disembodied form may not be such a big deal after all.

Eminent physicist Roger Penrose in collaboration with neuroscientist Stuart Hereof explains that under quantum theory the brain's processing output may conceivably entail non-localised wave and particle entwinement in the same manner as everything is linked in the wider universe. Hence the mystery where traditional large scale physics gives rise to certainty to conquer the tyrannies of space and time as in space travel, don’t apply at the sub atomic level.

Penrose proposes the mind processing possibilities at this subatomic level (which ultimately comprises you and me) into definite values emerges as a reality from the collapse of the wave function into our conscious experience. Hence the conscious experience, which in turn influences our behaviour, is a combination of space time continuum, comprising both non-localised particles and their collapsed wave functions within the mind. If Penrose is correct then there already exists a “non- locally” brain existence, so that we are linked in one way or another mysteriously to matter within the wider cosmos. That link conceivably might live on in some embodied form after death. Certainly, any form of out of body experience, triggered by stimuli may be just a precursor or glimpse of that ultimate reality.  

Those opposed to such views say that the brain may be able to will itself into producing sensations which are akin to a perceived reality of another body moving outside the boundaries of one’s physical body. Hence, the sceptical view is that out of body experiences can be triggered by stimuli of one kind or another in the area of the brain responsible for imagining body movements, to flash an image of yourself as if you have that view from another point in space located outside of the physical body. But they cannot offer any explanation to the detailed accounts of items, procedures and conversations remembered and confirmed by medical staff as correct during periods when patients were declared clinically dead.




Two fitting quotes from Albert Einstein- “Nature shows us the tail of the lion. But I do not doubt that the lion belongs to it, even though he cannot at once reveal himself because of his enormous size “. And on imagination -Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” (From Cosmic Religion: 1931, p. 49).


So it seems that conceivably such mystical experiences may be just a precursor or glimpse of that ultimate gigantic reality, so that hopefully this discussion paper does provide some food for thought on this enduring mystery. There are of course those who reject the persuasive reasons to support the idea that life itself and near death experiences are inextricably linked to the infinite cosmos.


But I think one can say with some confidence there are no grounds to be dismissive of these accounts or to hold firm to the idea that the mind must purely be a property of the material brain.  


Mystical experiences have been crucial in providing the creative imagination which helps shape our philosophies and give us that sense of self that gives rise to our humanity.

What is strikingly apparent from many of the mystics is the similarity in ideas about oneness and interdependence for all living things. Another is the wonderful philosophies which are suggested, through grace, as being available to all regardless of belief, to be simply experienced by engagement in mind and spirit. To find your own meaning to life (as opposed to seeking a meaning for life) as I see it in the use of one’s gifts in the way that was intended for a more complete and energized happy life for oneself and community. In that respect secular philosophers’ views often unintentionally reflect religiosity. Previously science gave rise to philosophy up until the more recent materialistic age under the guise of enlightenment. But ever since we observed the double split quantum experiments those observations have given rise to ideas of subjective consciousness and objective reality as the gateway to a new way of thinking. Science is not only compatible with religion but once again can become a source of it to rise to introspection.