About Christmas time Han Fei told us the story surrounding Chinese New Year in preparation to teach some aspects of Chinese culture to the Elementary kids she worked with. The story had some interesting points that led to an interesting statement that I mulled over for a while.
Why the Chinese Celebrate Chinese New Year
Thousands of years ago in the mountain lived a demon named Nian. He terrorized the people and everyone was scared of him. In the past, people have tried to stand up against him but they all failed. Finally the God’s came and locked him up in the mountains at the edge of the world.
After Nian was locked away, everyone was happy, and life was good. But a year passed, Nian escaped from the mountains and began to seek revenge on the people. So everyone gathered and started to think of plans to defeat him. Some suggested Nian was afraid of loud noises, bright lights and red colors. So everyone began preparing and all the houses were painted bright red.
Not so long later Nian appeared at the village. Nian was shocked by all the colors and noises everywhere he went, he ran back into the mountains and never dared to come out again. So the people of China continued this tradition of making noises and decorating their houses red during the New Year even until this day.
The part that stood out at me was:
“ Finally the God’s came and locked him up in the mountains at the edge of the world.”
I asked Han Fei why they had Chinese stories about Gods- I thought the Chinese people didn’t believe in God.
She offered this response: “China is very old. Our legends and stories are also very old and so are our gods. Your country and your religions and your gods are all very young. When your country and your religion and your gods are as old as ours no one will believe in them either because you will have outgrown the need for them.”
I smiled politely at her explanation- but I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. There are thousands of stories of gods that people no longer believe in. When studying ancient civilizations when they died off so did their gods… or when they grew up they outgrew their gods- moving gods from literal to figurative and allegorical. Civilizations like the Greeks and Romans, or the Egyptians… or the Chinese for instance. No one worships Zeus anymore right?
When I thought more about it I also realized that it seemed that religion and religious explanations for ‘phenomena’ were just one step ahead of what science was able to explain. Religion was consistently used to explain what there was no explanation for- but when that mark moved, when science could explain the unexplained- then religion simply moved the marker (after rejecting science and hindering it for a time).
A good example of this is Ben Franklin and the lightning rod– a story I first heard from my mom about the same time as I’d had this conversation with Han Fei. Lightning was considered a punishment from God, sent to punish those who needed punishing. There were many different ways that people tried to ward off lightning- but one of my favorites is ringing the large metal bell in the town’s church tower. When a storm would start the bell ringer would ring the church bell to ward off demons and the bell being metal, and as the highest point in town the church bell was frequently struck (while not striking the low lying brothels and bars). In my not favorite part of this- many bell ringers died from this duty.
When Ben Franklin made his discoveries about lightning and electricity and its nature he invented the lightning rod. The lightning rod would not only save lives- but also churches (and other tall buildings) from fire. Yet the religious communities rejected his invention calling it “from the devil” and blamed many events (including lightning itself, earthquakes and other natural phenomena on it). This went on for decades before it was accepted by the religious community.
We no longer blame lightning on punishment from God. We no longer reject the simple technology of the lightning rod. But it’s because we understand the nature of electricity. If you were to try to convince a person that lightning was a punishment from God you’d be hard pressed to find a person who agreed with you. The bar has been moved- and churches now have lightning rods on top of them- including Mormon temples.
But if you were to try to talk about near death experiences, why bad things happen to good people, AIDS (at least in the 80’s) why sometimes you feel an instant connection to a person, why some people seem to miraculously heal… even the rash of tornadoes in the Midwest- then you’re dealing in that murky area of beliefs about God all of a sudden. (I am also baffled by preachers who blame natural disasters on God punishing people for some reason- but they still exist).
In 100 or 200 or 500 years from now they’ll be looking at us as a civilization as crazy- because I have full confidence that we’ll have figured those things out- outgrowing out current gods- and figuring out something else to attribute to God- or maybe not. The fastest growing religious affiliation in the US is currently “none” after all.
If you look at the history of the LDS church there are many “doctrines” that the church has outgrown and moved past in it’s short lifetime as well. For example:
- African American’s didn’t have the priesthood (and African American men and women weren’t allowed in the temple) because they were fence sitters in the war in heaven… and other horribly racist doctrines- until 1978- and now it’s a “folk doctrine” and the racist teachings were simply a “product of their time.”
- Polygamy was the only way to exaltation and was required for exultation… until 1890- or 1904…
- Adam was God– a doctrine that Joseph Smith hinted at and Brigham Young not only taught extensively but made a part of the temple ceremony.
- We can all be Gods– (“I don’t know that we teach that” by Hinckley)
- Blood Atonement– because Jesus’ atonement doesn’t cover everything.
- Homosexuality being a choice, then “we don’t know“, now just a sin for “acting on it” (coming soon: gay temple marriage!) Don’t forget that in The Miracle of Forgiveness– a book still published and still handed out by bishops everywhere Kimball- a former Mormon Prophet- says that homosexuality is caused by masturbation. (read review here).
- Oath of Vengeance in the Temple- removed in 1927
These were things that the prophets (who were supposed to be talking to God on behalf of the church and the world at the time) were saying- yet then a couple prophets later were changed and “we no longer emphasize that” or they are now “folk doctrines” or racist prophets were simply a “product of their time.”
Except that these “folk doctrines” hurt people. Then and now. In very real ways. Doctrines and teachings that the current prophets are teaching are also hurting people. They say they’re speaking for God. But will those words be “true” in 20 years? In 50 years? Does God change his/her mind? Do we listen to the men speaking for gods that will be extinct soon? When there is a correlation of churches being about 30 years behind culture- do we really think that god is behind the changes? Or would an all knowing, all powerful God be on the front side of history?
Are we like the religious people of Ben Franklin’s time- frantically ringing the bell to ward off evil- instead of listening to the scientists who have logic and reason on their side? Ignoring science because men of god tell us to just have faith and pray instead? Maybe the answer isn’t “god did it” it’s simply, “we don’t know…yet.”
Another point from Han Fei’s story that I found interesting- was that after the Gods locked Nian up in the mountain he escaped. Then the people got together and used what they knew to protect the town- and it worked. They didn’t need gods- at least not for long (and what the gods tried didn’t even work for very long). They simply outgrew them- and so will we.
What do you think?