Aug. 10, 2008 — On the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008, at exactly 8:08 p.m., the Summer Olympics began in Beijing.
The day and hour for the start of the opening ceremony were chosen for their probability of assuring good fortune by practitioners of Chinese folk religions.
The first ancient Olympics were religious festivals. Prayers and sacrifices were offered before a 42-feet high gold and ivory statue of the god Zeus in the temple at Olympia. In 391 C.E., Emperor Theodosius the Great put an end to them because their religious character made them an evil pagan influence on society.
Could Theodosius have been an ancestor of James Dobson?
Consistent with the testosterone-controlled religious thinking throughout history, people with ovaries were forbidden to attend the Games, except for the required presence of the Priestess of Demeter. Was she a precursor of the Virgin Mary and Aimee Semple McPherson?
Historically the venerable International Olympics event is awash in religion, and some observers think the 2008 Summer Olympics could be a forum which lets the world see the growing presence and influence of religion in China.
Westerners have tended to think of modern China as a nation of godless Communist atheists, which often comes as an insulting surprise to informed Chinese people.
Chinas bureaucracy includes a State Administration of Religious Affairs. Even organized institutional religious denominations are not only permitted in China, they are encouraged: sort of.
Last year their top official announced that "religion is one of the important forces from which China draws strength," He praised Buddhism for its "unique role in promoting a harmonious society." Not mentioned were Baptists, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Jews, Mormons, or Zoroastrians, which one assumes are not thought to contribute to societal harmony.
The Chinese State ARA enhances a harmonious society by keeping close watch and control over anything remotely related to religion. Earlier this month they issued their "Order No. 5" dealing with "management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism."
In effect it basically prohibits Buddhist monks from returning from the dead without government permission. It is, of course, directed at the religious factors in Chinas current political problems with Tibet and the political/religious role of the Dalai Llama.
But before we become righteously enraged that totalitarian China wants to control the lives of its subjects after their deaths, we should remember that Tibet is a political and cultural theocracy and the Dalai Lama is their deity in whom resides all religious and secular power. When Tibetans, guided by their equivalent of the Holy Spirit, declare someone to be the reincarnated Dalai Lama, they are also choosing a head of state with absolute authority.
That kind of arrangement is incomprehensible to most of us.
We have never experienced or even closely observed life where government and culture are coterminous. A reasonable comparison might be if the Pope were to set up shop in Canada or Mexico, declare himself to be their divinely appointed head of state with absolute control not only over religion but also official government action. A lot of Americans might join the National Rifle Association and a Roman Catholic priest would need a permit to be on the streets after dark.
Most in the civilized world now view the Pope and Dalai Llama as not only benign but as learned and good individuals who exert a wholesome influence. But somewhere in their history both Roman Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism believed that about themselves. The Chinese also had Mao. And they have long memories.
But I digress. Let the games begin!
After, of course, a word of prayer led by the reverend Chaplain of the Ancient Benevolent Worldwide Order of the Sons and Daughters of Revolutionary and Free Beavers, Bears, and Buffalo.
Its part of our culture.
W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado.
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