The Hindus of the Abrahamic World

By Lorenzo

Catholics and Orthodox are the Hindus of the Abrahamic world. The divine order is populated with many Personages–not merely the Trinity, but also Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Star of the Sea, and a myriad of angels and saints. A supernatural prolixity that manifests in a certain approach to religious art and architecture.

There is no level of tacky that is too kitsch.

Who has the brightest halo of them all?

Yes, that is an electric blue neon halo on top of a C18th statue of St Agatha. St Agatha is big in Catania, she is their local saint and martyr.  You can eat her breasts. (They are round, green, small cakes with red cherries on top that celebrate her martyrdom, part of which was having her breasts cut off–there is a smaller version of them with white icing over the green, but still with the red cherries on top.) My business partner and I ate a pair each on our last night in Catania because we felt it was required. We also had cavallo, horse; a local delicacy.  It was sliced thin, cooked in vinegar and delicious. (The breasts were fine too.)

The highly populated divine order of Catholicism is reflected in streetscapes dotted with shrines and religious art. Such as this street scene in Venezia.

Renaissance art and religious scene in the midsts of everyday life

It is very much the divine as immanent rather than transcendent. Catholicism and Ortodoxy, like Hinduism, are very much immanence-focused religions; of the divine manifesting in, and through, the material order. The physical presence of religious imagery being a pervasive part of the streetscape. Or included in unexpected buildings, such as lighthouses.

Getting a supernatural boost

Which encourages your actual religious buildings to go that one, two, three … steps further.

A window into the divine

This is actually a tasteful and refined, indeed restrained, example.

Monotheism also comes in transcendent versions–Judaism, Islam, Protestantism. Of course, theologians and philosophers of religion will tell you that God is both immanent and transcendent. But religions clearly come focused on one or the other. The transcendent versions of monotheism are far more religions of The Word; the immanent versions are far more sacerdotal, far more about divine authority mediated in, and so operating through, the World.

In Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Scripture is the product of the Church (understood as the community of believers). Which is why Catholic theology is friendlier to science than Protestant theology tends to be. And Christianity–where Scripture is inspired by God and written in more than one language–is theologically friendlier to science than Islam (particularly after the defeat of the Mutzalites)–where Scripture is the direct (and eternal) word of God written in one sacred language. If Scripture is the indirect word of God, a product of the Church, then the World, as the direct creation of God, trumps Scripture (and so gives more space to science, the study of God’s creation). Also, if the World is a more direct creation of God, that clearly encourages a focus on the divine as immanent.

Conversely, the more authority is given to Scripture, the less authority is given to the World. Which encourages a focus on the divine as transcendent. As something beyond reached by looking inward, not as something manifested in what we see looking outward. It also makes a contemptus mundi attitude more likely, one where the World is a distraction from where our focus on the divine should be.

It is striking how much all the monotheisms are inclined to produce much the same sets of prohibitions–a hostility to fun, display and gender and sexual diversity. With the transcendent versions generally more hostile than the immanent versions. The sort of things the Puritans used to hate in C17th England and Scotland (dancing, music, graven images, sexual display, “uppity” women) are much the same as what radical Muslims hate now.

Though Judaism and Islam are both transcendence focused, there is variance within them. Shia Islam, with its concept of the hereditary Imanate and its ayatollahs, is more immanent, more sacerdotal, than Sunni Islam. To the extent that Salafis accuse the Shia of being “corpse worshippers”. Catholic churches, with their glass-sided coffins and human remains offered up for veneration, bring the accusation to mind.

Veneration of human remains

This is a very different religious sensibility than that of transcendent religions.

The more sacerdotal a religion is, the more hierarchical it tends to be. Arguably the biggest impact of the Reformation was not in breaking up the intellectual unity of Latin Christendom (though that was very important) but in letting loose different visions of authority. Calvinist Churches might have been very controlling, but they were also dramatically more democratic than the elective monarchy of the Catholic Church. The individual conscience had far more play when one was naked before God than when the priest is complete intermediary, able to grant forgiveness.

This has all sorts of consequences. Protestant and Catholic countries tend to have different attitudes to time, for example. Corruption tends to be higher in Catholic/Orthodox countries than Protestant ones. Protestant countries tend to be richer (per capita) than Catholic ones. (And more likely to be monarchies.) Dominant religion is quite a good indicator of how badly a country is suffering in the Eurozone crisis (and how indebted it is, not an unrelated point–particularly not to attitudes to time).

In Protestant countries, declarations of religious tolerance tended to stick. In Catholic countries, they generally weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. (If deals with Protestant monarchs were also more likely to “stick” in general, then that would tend to favour the survival of monarchy in a situation of spreading social power, where making deals with your subjects was more conducive to institutional survival.) While Catholic priests having licensing power over what was printed drove scientific publishing to Protestant Europe. So, even though Protestant theology was less friendly to science than Catholic theology, Protestant concepts of authority were more friendly than Catholicism was–which proved to be more important than which way the theology leaned.

Start considering factors such as geography–the harder it was to get to somewhere from Rome, the more likely it was to go Protestant; monotheism originated in the Middle East–and interactions can get quite complicated.

But whether a religion’s sensibility is immanent or transcendent has a surprising range of consequences.


  1. Posted June 13, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    I really really really like that first picture.

    The breast cakes seem a tad over the top though…

    Actually I can see the point about a lot of this stuff. Artists should never be above gimmicks if they can make a point/add to the desired effect of the art, after all.

    My favourite example of religious bling is the overuse of gold, mosaic, jewellery, stain glass, and just general razzamatazz in Orthodox churches. (Some Catholic churches have a similar effect too.) When you enter – or even peek into – one of these churches while going about your everyday business, the effect can be quite ravising; part of its intent, I’m sure, is to give the passer-by a glimpse into heaven, a small taste of the ravishments to be found therein.

  2. kvd
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Catholics and Orthodox are the Hindus of the Abrahamic world […..] A supernatural prolixity that manifests in a certain approach to religious art and architecture. There is no level of tacky that is too kitsch.

    Awaiting with interest the comments of your Hindu readers.

  3. Kahmal
    Posted June 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Ooooo de elephants! Why are people so unkind?

  4. Posted June 14, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    The breast cakes are green? Clearly, this must have been the genesis of the famous Adelaide Frog Cake.

  5. Posted June 14, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Google image search turns up a few variations with white and pink icing. Some green on the inside though.

  6. Posted June 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Amusing post with a recipe.

    Please don’t spam filter me please don’t spam filter me please don’t spam filter me please don’t spam filter me…

  7. kvd
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Sorry TimT – couldn’t resist

  8. Posted June 14, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    TT: I found an image of the green on the outside variety.

    And a single link is usually pretty safe.

  9. Posted June 14, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I had to look up Adelaide frog cake. Oh, dear.

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