greater than all these

Taiwan_temple05

Dragons are the most exalted “animal” in Chinese culture.

I was struck by its colors. Bright red and yellow and blue and green . . .

But then it was gone. Nick* was driving too fast. But, oh wait! There was another one. This one looked similar, only it was bigger. Rainbow-colored dragons with yellow spines leaped from its peaks. Black-bearded men holding whips perched nearby. I was agog.

But then it was gone.

“Would you slow down?” I wanted to punch Nick.

“You want to see temples?”

I said nothing.

“There.” He pointed through the windshield. “Aaaaaand there.”

Sure enough, another small temple was coming up on our left, followed by another.

“They’re everywhere!”

Nick looked at me. “You’re pretty observant, you know that?”

This time I really did punch him.

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A temple in Taipei

From the moment I arrived, it was easy to see: The Taiwanese are a religious lot. Most practice a combination of Taoism and Buddhism, and, as I later learned, they integrate these into almost every part of their lives. Locals consult various gods for everything from what to name their unborn child to remembering what they’ve studied for a test. Worship involves incense sticks and offerings: things like fruit, cookies, a bag of chips—almost anything will do. Animals are slaughtered at certain festivals, too.

It was a world I wasn’t prepared for—a world about which I didn’t have a clue.

It was a world that changed me for forever.

I made friends with some of the locals. They helped me survive—aided me with day-to-day living and taught me (a little of) the language. Most importantly, though, they taught me about their culture and beliefs. They explained the history behind certain festivals, and told me how much their religion was tied to their culture, too.

Eventually, they asked me what I believed. They’d heard about Jesus, of course. But, to them, Jesus’ story was just that—a story: a story just like Buddha’s, or Mohammed’s, or Mazu’s.

And it got me to thinking . . . Here in the States, nearly 80 percent of adults say they are Christian. In Taiwan, less than 5 percent do the same. So how much of religion is cultural? How much of life has to do with how—and where—we were raised?

This past weekend the Christian world celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Through His life and death and resurrection, by grace, we are saved. But today I’d like to tack onto that. If God is greater than death, could He not also be greater than religion? Greater than location? Greater than culture?

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Another temple in Taipei

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Yet another temple

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Worshipers at the famous Longshan Temple in Taipei

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World Map of Religions

……

*Nick was the American director of the the English camp where I worked. I took his place the following year.

Sources: Culture Taiwan, GallupUS Embassy in Taiwan

Images: Google (Taiwanese temples)

57 thoughts

  1. No religion has emerged twice anywhere on the planet, no single deity has been envisaged by two populations separated by time and geography, and not a solitary person in history has arrived independently at Mithraism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Scientology or Judaism without it first being taught to them. That is an inalienable, unarguable truth.

    If there were a god it should be able to state exactly what it wants to say and do so free of any and all ambiguity. Its word should be unencumbered by cultural idiosyncrasies and remain unmolested by divergences in language, calligraphy, obscure and dead lexicons, future dialects, exotic morphemes, or even illiteracy and deafness. Its word should contain no contradiction, no absurdity, no oversight or declarations that are in conflict with observed facts. Its word should penetrate all tribal, domestic and international legal code and remain morally true in a timeless continuum. Such an entity should be instantly recognisable to all sentient creatures regardless of locale or epoch, and its actions should exhibit no fault or favour, no bias, prejudice, second-thought or indeed, if omnipotent, no mind-set at all.

    Long story short: there’s no indication of any god ever existing.

    • I hear your questions loud and clear. I admit the logic and can’t say I haven’t had and don’t have similar questions. Even within the Christian spectrum, why would a loving, omnipotent God create a “beloved being” whom he knew would fall? Why would all of the sh** that happens on a day-to-day basis in this world have to take place? I don’t have an answer.

      The only thing I know is that our knowledge as humans is in itself very limited. We consider ourselves advanced and yet we *still* can’t figure out how to stop polluting our planet and stop doing many things by which we know we are only hurting ourselves. You say that “if there were a god, it should be able to state what it wants to say and do so free of any and all ambiguity.” I say that you’re right, but, also, that it should be able to NOT do those things if it so chooses. (I have no idea why it wouldn’t, but…)

      The only other thing I can say is that, despite the fact that “no religion has emerged twice anywhere on this planet,” people throughout history have felt deep within that things on this planet are not the way they ought to be. If this is all we know, and all we were meant for, what is it that makes us feel that way?

      Thank you for your well-organized, thought-provoking comment. I’m sure my response does not do it justice.

    • My opinion for an answer to your question of why if there is a God it doesn’t make itself known is that there is a purpose for us to gain experience and live by faith in the process. If God gave us knowledge that he exists and wants us to do certain things then we would do it, wouldn’t we? If we didn’t we’d have no excuse because we would have had a perfect knowledge of what we were supposed to do. It is likely that if God manifested himself to us in glory we would do what he told us to do. That doesn’t allow room for our growth. If he gives us commandments through a prophet, someone who is just like us, then we need to exercise faith. There is room for growth in this way.

      Of course, it is easy to look at this and say “that’s just what a church would teach so that people will continue to follow it without questioning anything.” That may be true in some cases. Again, we are all free to think, act and believe whatever we want. While I believe a certain way, I concede the possibility that I believe in a concept that has no foundation, I don’t believe that is the case because of my experiences, but it is all subjective and whose to say it wasn’t cooked up in my brain? I don’t think it was, but I can see how that argument can be made.

      In any case, if there is a God, who are we to say he doesn’t exist because he doesn’t come out and tell us he exists? Perhaps he has a plan that requires he leave us to our own devices? If he is God and created everything we know, and are, then wouldn’t it be possible that such a plan exists for purposes that we might not fully understand? I appreciate your perspective and I think you have a solid argument, but I do disagree with you that there is no indication of any god ever existing, and offer my opinion that if we can’t prove God exists then we can’t prove he doesn’t, if he is what many people believe him to be then he is completely capable of leaving us to figure things out on our own. One of my favorite topics, but I’ll leave Jessica’s comment section alone for now. Thanks for reading!

      • I’m sorry I didn’t respond to this sooner. I’ve been meaning to…

        Just want you to know that I agree. It is true that God doesn’t want puppets… Faith is an important aspect of… everything. But what I said to John is also true. I don’t honestly understand why certain things had to happen in the first place. The thing is, I’m okay with that. One day at a time. Reasoning. Thinking. Hoping. Praying. Breathing.

        In faith.

        Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful thoughts!

    • No worries about passing time between responses.

      I think John’s questions are very appropriate and that they can be answered if they are sought out. I think God has a plan and just because it involves us not knowing everything and him not revealing everything to us, in short, just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a plan. That’s how I see it anyway. Thanks for the reply!

  2. Jessica, this post is fantastic. I love the questions you ask at the end. My wife and I were discussing the culture of our religion on Sunday. Personally I feel there is a social culture and a doctrinal culture to our church and often the social culture interferes with the doctrinal or spiritual culture. I believe we are absolutely influenced by our culture, sometimes to our disadvantage. Is God greater than culture? I say with conviction, yes He is!

    While I do believe there is a unique and individual God, with one doctrine for all people, I also believe He will hold us accountable to whatever path in life we have been born into or chosen to follow. Where would justice and mercy exist if we were held accountable to rules we never knew about? I attended a Christian university and in a psychology class I learned about Taoism. My professor was well-traveled and didn’t restrict himself to the voices of our prescribed religion alone, as we are instructed to find truth wherever truth exists (some of the social culture of the church prevents that in some people, I think). I find Taoism to be very profound and even in the very limited understanding I have of it (I still haven’t gotten to a deeper study of it yet, but I hope to. I’ll add the Tao Te Ching to my “to read” list) it has influenced my life.

    Obviously this topic is close to the surface for me. Since I read something about defining God on your blog or in the comment section a few weeks ago I’ve been working out in my mind a series of posts about all of this. One aspect of it is my invitation to all to participate in a blogging day of writing about personal concepts of “the purpose of life” on April 15th. Mostly an arbitrarily selected date. Anyway, as I let all of these thoughts stew a bit more I hope to write some good posts. Another thought inspiring post, thanks!

    • And thank you for a thought-provoking comment! I have much to learn about Eastern thought, I’ll admit. I have only just scratched the surface with what I have learned so far. But life experience has to count for something, right?

      Religion is definitely cultural. I grew up in a Protestant church in which the doctrinal and cultural lines were completely blurred. I found it frustrating.

      I like your idea about writing about “the purpose of life” on the 15th. Cool concept. I’ll try to check your post out if you do!

    • Experience counts for everything. I think living in countries that are home to different cultures are prime ways to learn about those cultures. It helps to lessen some of our own cultural biases. But that’s speculation on my part, I’ve never been further from the U.S. than Montreal, and that has been for baseball and church, so not really different culturally for me.

      I will be writing about the purpose of life on the 15th, I hope everyone does. I think it’d be really neat to read about people’s perspectives on it. That is, if it is something people are comfortable sharing. If you are up to it, consider this a personal invitation.

      • Thank you. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll try! And yes. There is no better way to widen your perspective than to live somewhere foreign to your own home. Especially if you’re someone who thinks there is “one truth” out there that applies to everybody.

        Thanks again for your wonderful comments!

  3. When I lived in Shanghai and traveled around China every weekend, we had a joke that there were no temples at the bottom of mountains. They were always at the top, and you must climb a thousand stairs to see them. I miss Shanghai.

    • I’ve heard that about many places in Southeast Asia. In Taiwan, though, they’re all over—at the tops of mountains but in the plains and cities, too. I haven’t been to Shanghai yet, but I very much want to go. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Are you Taiwanese? Yes, anyone who has been to Taipei knows about Shilin. I can’t say I miss the smell of stinky tofu, but I definitely miss milk tea with boba, and dumplings!

      • I’m Singaporean and we have lots of bubble tea and dumplings here too but the atmosphere is different. Our street food is very unlike the rest of Asia – we confined as you can see in my street food post.

    • It *is*! The world would be a much darker place without Asia. What I love is how unique the temples are to each country. You’d certainly never confuse Thai architecture with Taiwanese, or Chinese with Japanese, etc.

  4. Delightful post Jessica! Thank you. As Nick was pointing everywhere every 2-seconds, that reminded me of Texas. A church on about every other block; particularly in suburban areas.

    • Haha. I *almost* mentioned that—almost made a comparison of Taiwanese temples to churches in the South. I lived in Tennessee for six years… Thanks so much for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. :)

  5. ” If God is greater than death, could He not also be greater than religion? Greater than location? Greater than culture?”

    I certainly hope so. The God to whom I pray, from Whom I’ve asked forgiveness for my sins, in which I believe is the God of freedom. He’s not about ritual and bondage and networking and ticking off a distasteful to do on the week’s list.

    Excellent post.

  6. I’ve always been fascinated by the Eastern religions, they’re so interesting and seem free from the scandals that have tainted our western beliefs.

    Moving from Ireland, a deeply Catholic country, although the power of the Church has certainly waned greatly in recent years with various scandals and a general falling off in church numbers to the Czech Republic has been an intriguing change of perspectives. Sure there’s churches here but the majority of the population is atheist, thanks in no small part to Communism. It will be interesting to see if there is a return to faith now that the lid has been lifted so to speak.

    • Eastern religion isn’t tainted by scandal because it’s not put humans “in charge,” so to speak. What it is instead, though, is very superstitious and ritualistic. There are all these festivals and activities one does not because one really believes it, but rather because that’s just what you do, and you’ve got mom and pop and all of your dead ancestors to please besides. It’s very interesting.

      I would love to experience life in Ireland and the Czech Republic and that part of the world. I have always been frustrated by the rifts and hatred between Catholics and Protestants. I think what made Taiwan so amazing, though, was its entirely different concept of who “God” could possibly be. Here were these wonderful people who truly blessed me, and yet they had an entirely different way of looking at things. Truly eye opening.

  7. I suspect that (our) God is a dragon and that She is simply one of many gods…
    Nice post and very interesting comments. I am glad I signed up!

  8. This is the best post I have read from you so far, Jessica. Well done! And I love the questions you posed in the last lines, they are very powerful! :-)

    I understand the skepticism of the people who argue against the existence of God on the basis of diversity of religions. But this is actually where the implausibility of atheism lies.

    You might have heard of Buddha’s point on Four Noble Truths. But before we go on to that, let us dive into an infinite ocean ‘Kasyaf.

    ‘Kasyaf’ is Arabic for a moment of revelation. In Sufism, Kasyaf is a spiritual level when one attains true enlightenment, when everything is unraveled to them and what is hidden is concealed to them, when even a tiny particle looks as bright as the sun in a glaring day. One who has experienced Kasyaf would see what other people cannot see, and they can hear what other people cannot hear. One who attains Kasyaf is given one of these gifts: the gift of vision, the gift of healing, the gift of hearing, the gift of sense, the gift of the gab, or ‘ilmul ladunni (infinite knowledge without necessarily learning). Everyone is not the same. In the case of Rumi, it was the gift of the gab, in the case of Khidr, it was ‘ilmul ladunni, in the case of a relative of mine, it is the gift of the hearing-boy, this man predicted my future accurately according to what he hears from angels!

    When one has ‘Kasyaf’, either they would hear a voice or see something that is shown to them, they would receive their truth. They would receive a truth, not the truth.

    This truth, is a magnificent manifestation of the truth, of the Supreme Truth, of the True Omnipotent Truth, of God. The truth, the real truth, only belongs to God.

    One’s truth at the moment of revelation is a holy mission that one needs to carry out on earth. It is one way in which one is given a duty to prosper the earth and helps humanity to maximize the fullest of their potential.

    Because it is a truth, not the truth, then we completely understand why we have so many people who keep the earth in the right order. We had Abraham, we had Zoroaster, the Buddha, Khidr, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Rumi, Hafez, St Francis of Asisi, Thomas Aquinas, and so on and so on. Every one of these people had their own truth as a divine message that they said to people. In short, God speaks through these people.

    But isn’t it interesting that none of these people had the same truth even though they were reflecting the same truth, the same God’s love to humanity? Well, you know the answer. That’s because everyone of them is a mirror that reflects God’s light to many different directions, and surely with many different colors. That’s because every one of them is a singer who sings the same song composed by God, they just sing it differently. ♥

    And there’s a limitation due to linguistic and cultural boundaries as well, that one’s way of teaching their truth is limited by their own linguistic corpora as well as their cultural views of the world, and to a large extent, by their own experience in life. That’s why we have so many different religious traditions.

    Have you ever imagined why Buddha said “Life is suffering” as his truth, while Mohammed’s truth was an instruction to read and learn? In brief, in Mohammed’s case, that’s because the Arabs lived the life of jahiliyah, or the life of ignorance, when common sense was not applicable anymore, when people did not read, did not learn, hence receiving no knowledge whatsoever. They lived a barbaric life. Such situation went through his state of mind, until then a truth was revealed to him in the word, ‘Iqra’ or “read, learn something”. From thereupon, Islamic teachings are based on this principle. On the other hand, our historical examination on the Buddha’s life would highlight that he saw suffering when he lived in Kapilavastu, left his family, and went to live the life of an ascetic until he finally reached enlightenment. Along the way, he saw suffering was prevalent, not only among the poor, but also the sick, the disabled, etc. This went through his state of mind, until a truth was then concealed to him that life is indeed suffering, that the way to end the suffering is by living an ascetic life, until then attaining Nirvana.

    But believe me my friend, if Hafez ever met Buddha, which I am sure they would, the former would definitely, but jocularly, contradict the latter because he just did not buy the idea. For the Buddha “life is suffering”, but for Hafez, life is “the Beloved Divine’s game” where everyone could “have fun”. Take a look at this sample of Hafez’s poem:

    The sky

    is a suspended blue ocean

    *

    The stars are the fish that swim

    The planets are the white whales

    *

    I sometimes hitch a ride on

    The sun and all light

    Have forever fused themselves

    into my heart

    and upon my skin

    *

    There is only one rule on this Wild playground

    Every sign Hafez has ever seen

    Reads the same

    *

    They all say,

    “Have fun, my dear, have fun.

    In the Beloved Divine’s game,

    O’ in the Beloved Wonderful Game.”

    *

    by Hafez Syirazi

    I know that a lot of people have said that religions have caused perpetual wars. But that is a totally different issue. That’s an issue that is closely tied to the patriarchal domination that have been existing in our societies for far too long. It is all about male egos, personal ambitions of the religious authorities, etc. that’s why we have been having too many chaos.

    Now that we have understood this, I guess we should take the matter further. Should we prescribe to the point of view of one’s truth that is spoken hundreds of perhaps thousands years ago? What about if we seek and find our own truth? Isn’t the Divine’s Light within us is infinite that we are not unworthy or too small to be able to attain our own truth?

    The truth is one who is in the true spirit of Islam would love their Christian brothers, and vice versa. I think that’s all, sorry if it tires your eyes, I just love sharing ideas under the Light of Love. Many blessings and much love to you, Namaste ♥

    • Subhan, I’m sorry it took me so long to respond to this. Your comment is longer than my post itself—probably twice as long! :) Glad you liked it. “I LOVE your comment: I understand the skepticism of the people who argue against the existence of God on the basis of diversity of religions. But this is actually where the implausibility of atheism lies.” I love everything about your comment, really. I love the idea that all of the different “messengers” we’ve had on earth, whether Aquinas or Abraham or Buddha or Muhammed or… are simply reflectors of light to the various parts of the earth. I myself have had the same idea! It is what has given me peace.

      Sorry this reply is inadequate. I loved what you had to say.

      • Hi Jess, no worries, I just love sharing ideas. And I am glad we’re on the same page :-) I will reply to your email sometime tonight, I have just been very exhausted in the past couple of days. Take care Jess, many blessings and much love to you ♥

  9. Thought provoking post, as always, Jess. I’ve been to Asia as well, and I often ponder these same questions. What I always tend to come back to is the realization that our ability to reason whether there is or is not a God would seem to indicate that there truly is a God. I can see no other reason; for, why would evolution see fit to endow us with an ability toward abstract thought. The fact that we can be aware, it seems to me, is installed by our Creator. Beyond that, our universal longing to connect would lead one to believe that God is much more of a person than an “it”. As for which religion is “right”? None of them. We’re all pretty messed up. My heart tells me that God is the One being in all existence who is not messed up. I don’t know what name you want to attach to that sort of religion, but that’s my belief. It’s what drives me through the lonely hours of night and the hectic hyperactivity of the day. I’m a mess. God isn’t. And for reasons I don’t think I can ever explain, I do believe He likes me.

  10. I have always found religion to be man made and sometimes as such is not all inclusive, but God and his love is all inclusive of everyone in spite of their proclaimed religious beliefs for He is indeed greater that all, and his love is endless! I love your post, your words, your images every time I embrace them Jessica. I loved especially the dragon images, as i was born in the year of the dragon! You always capture real life in your images, and your words and thoughts are embracing of all! That is what a genuine spiritual love is about and it always multiplies when shared! God bless and much love to you and your family always!

    • Thank you, Wendell! Your kind words mean so much. I love to write and to share the human experience, and I can only do so through my own experiences. I’m glad you can relate to my words.

      And, yes. Religion is often exclusive and God is all inclusive. Which is why the only way I find peace is by realizing that He is far bigger than the human mind can grasp. For who can wrap their mind around eternity?

      Blessings to you.

  11. Awesome pics of Taipei! I have a friend who is native Chinese, speaks Cantonese fluently. He jokes, Taipei transliterated means “Great Fart”. LOL, the poetic interpretation is closer to “Great Spirit”. Cracks me up every time. :D

    • There certainly is antagonism between Taiwan and certain parts of Asia. (Although not even Hong Kongerers like Chinese Mainlanders! Haha.) Taiwan is a beautiful country, and I miss it, but I’m glad your friend makes you laugh! Laughter is the best medicine.

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