Traditionally, every village and urban neighborhood has a temple. The temple grounds will be the only public space in the community. There is no clergy; the temple is administered by a neighborhood or village committee. Here is where public meetings will be held, where public entertainment—nominally for the deities housed there—will take place, where older people hang out, where children play, where local people gather in the evening to play musical instruments or chess, and where grain may be dried at harvest time. The temple building will theoretically focus on one or a few deities, but anyone is free to contribute an image, and over time, the temple will be crowded with a multitude of images. All will be worshipped.
—Jordan Paper, The Deities Are Many, on Chinese temples
Before reading about Chinese temples in Paper’s book, I was pondering creating a virtual public temple in which people could anonymously post images of their divinities, or anything related to their divinities. I’ve not gone ahead with the idea because I’m aware that anonymous posting on the Internet would not be conducive to the kind of environment I’m hoping to create, though I’m still brainstorming ways to create such a virtual space.
Discovering that there already are such public temples, to which people can contribute likenesses of their own divinities, was astonishing and heartening. Creating and tending such spaces may not be something that is beyond people on the whole.
I did have to wonder whether such temples would be supported by the public at all, given that people—at least in the West—usually imagine temples to be dedicated to one or a few predetermined divinities. The idea of such a temple, in which anyone can post a likeness of any divinity they happen to perceive, might seem troublesome even to members of interfaith communities. After all, “What if someone posts an image of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” While it’s very unlikely that the TMNT would be discovered in a traditional Chinese temple, the question should be asked: if someone wanted to post a picture of a superhero or video game character in an inclusive temple, because they perceive the divine in that character, why would that be so wrong? I can hypothesize some reasons for why people may perceive such an action to be improper.
For one thing, it would be a reminder that one need not go through the routes of any major religion to commune with the divine. Even for people who accept that there is no one right, or correct, religion, I think there is often some unnecessary attachment to the idea that religions can offer a better take on spirituality or divinity that one’s own perceptions.
Perhaps in connection with the above point, a lot of people have attachments to presumed appearances of the divine, and I don’t know about the entire variety of those presumptions, but I can imagine that cartoon characters aren’t exactly prevalent among them. When people create temples with the aim of creating a universal worship space, they still create such spaces with their own perceptions of “everyone’s gods” or “a divinity for everyone” in mind, and they often don’t like to stray from their own visions.
I think there’s also a spiritual fear of tainting an environment with non-sacred images, and in doing so perhaps making the environment less conducive to the divine presences. If people want places conducive to certain divinities then they can make those places themselves, but that does not mean that there cannot or should not be public temples which are entirely inclusive, even to cartoon character divinities and their devotees.
Conflicts over non-traditional divinities aside, a public space in which people can appreciate the full spectrum of divinities recognized by people all over the world, as well as the wildly diverse methods of divine communion, would be helpful and illuminating to many people who are shut out by popular and ignorant convictions about the absolute nature of the divine. It would additionally be helpful and illuminating to the people who have such convictions, if they could come to understand that their convictions are unfounded and that they do people harm by professing them.
Such a space would offer a place to explore the very real phenomenon of divine communion, and yet it could be predominantly secular by remaining silent on the nature of divinity itself. An inclusive temple’s facilities could offer such opportunities for exploration, as well as seminars covering historical and anthropological angles of spirituality, in which information would be offered without any ecclesiastical endorsement.
Then, the temple’s sanctuary, with a variety of images, artifacts, and personal statements—confessions (regarding the natures of one’s own divinities, not confessions of sins)—placed by people who worship there, would be a place for connection, and appreciation for the wide variety of extant divinities. It would allow people to see how their contemporaries truly commune with the divine, and in doing so perhaps inspire others to acknowledge their own gods. For me personally, when I was very young, it would have been very moving to find an image of Rydia alongside other divinities, because I could have recognized early on that there would have been nothing wrong with considering her to be a god, or seeking her assistance instead of turning to gods—at the urging of established religions—who felt thoroughly alien to me. I wonder if others would be able to find their way in the world better with the help of other peoples’ gods, thanks to something they would find in such a temple.
Because of the importance of divinities to so many people, and the deeply personal nature of relationships with the divine, I understand very well that it will be difficult to organize and maintain such a space so that it would be beneficial to all who would utilize it. In a virtual space such organization might be easier than in a physical space; however given that physical spaces similar to these imagined inclusive temples do exist, it may be possible to learn from them and simply alter their structures somewhat to create an even more optimally inclusive space.
Beyond inclusivity, though, such a temple would ultimately be a source for understanding, of oneself, of everyone’s divinities, and hopefully of the most important elements which underlie the confounding religions of the world. In seeing the real natures of the gods people have warred over for ages, through the creative efforts of our fellow people, perhaps everyone could finally begin to appreciate the realness, the immensity, and the importance of the multitude of divinities while simultaneously shedding the petty societal baggage which has long been paired with the concept of the divine.
And, the occasional picture of Darkwing Duck on an altar may actually go a long way toward strengthening such understanding.