New book looks at common values of world religions

Nancy Thompson 

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I have to start this article by thanking my neighbors, Charlie and Christine Gingo, for inspiring it. We met each other recently on a Baby Bear kind of evening here in town, an evening when everything was just right. They were headed out for a walk, and I was heading home. We stopped to chat, but as we talked, it became clear that everything was not just right. Fires in New Mexico, flooding in Yellowstone, historic droughts in the Southwest; 159 million acres of crops are experiencing drought conditions this week. And that’s just here in the U.S., just nature events; we didn’t even tackle topics like mass shootings.

“Fire and flood,” Charlie said. “That should be your next article.”

Fire and flood are interesting to think about from religious perspectives. To start, we can think about flood from the perspective of the Abrahamic religions. In the Hebrew Bible, we learn that God destroyed the earth with flood, save for Noah and his family and two of each animal, to cleanse the earth of people because of the violence that they had brought into the world (Gen. 6:13). For forty days and nights rain fell and the waters rose, and the flood persisted for 150 days. Then God allowed the waters to recede. After about a year, the earth was dry, and Noah and his family and the animals set about repopulating the world.

As old and well-known as this flood story is, it was not the first. In fact, there is evidence that the Noah flood story came from older Babylonian stories. In the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, we learn of Utnapishtim, a Noah-like character who survived a great flood sent by the gods that destroyed the world. He survived by building an enormous boat that saved himself, his family, and the animals and plants of the world. The god Ea, who had warned Utnapishtim of the flood, defended his heroism to Enlil, and in return for Utnapishtim’s efforts, the god Enlil granted immortality to Utnapishtim and his wife, who want on to repopulate the restored earth.

All over the world, different cultures have had their own flood stories. In ancient Norse mythology, the earth was flooded by the blood of the giant Ymir, and Bergelmir and his wife built a boat, escaped the flood and repopulated the earth. In one of the Buddhist Jataka tales, Samudda-vanija jataka, a thousand unscrupulous carpenters sailed off and desecrated an island. The local spirits became angry and decided to flood the island. Two men ruled the carpenters, one wise and one foolish. The wise man heeded the warnings about the flood and told his group to build a ship in case the threat was real. The foolish one decided the warning was a joke. When the flood came, the wise carpenter and his group sailed to safety, and the foolish carpenter and his group drowned.

Throughout the different stories, flood both destroys and cleanses. Flood is regenerative; flood provides a fresh start. Fire has similar but different connotations. In ancient Greek religion, fire was a gift from the god and trickster Prometheus. In Christian mythology, fire is associated with Hell, a place of eternal burning punishment for the damned. In Revelation 8, the first of seven angels sounds his trumpet, and hail and fire mixed with blood are hurled down on the earth, burning up a third of the trees, a third of the world, and all of the grass (7). In Revelation 9, four angels are released upon the world, and a third of humankind is killed by the plagues of fire, smoke, and sulfur that come forth from the angels’ mouths (14, 18). In Hinduism, Agni is the god of fire, that useful yet destructive energy. Hindu Vedic rituals often include fire sacrifice. Agni has ten forms, ranging from the sun to digestion to the cremation fire, to encompass the many forms of fire.

Around us, the world burns. The world drowns. If we look at all – it is so comforting to look away in denial, isn’t it? – we look for meaning. Some evangelical Christians welcome the destruction as signs of the End Times. Such a view sees more than destruction; it anticipates the second coming of Jesus who will gather up the righteous, a deep hope that one is going to be saved by God. Hindus may see the destruction as part of the Kali Yuga, the current age of darkness that will end in destruction of the world as it is and the subsequent creation of a new and purified cycle of life. Amidst all the narratives, science tries in futility to get us to understand that we in fact are the destroying gods; we are the tricksters.

Nancy Thompson teaches comparative religion classes for CCV and NVU Online. She is author of Touching the Elephant: Values the World’s Religions Share and How They Can Transform Us.


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