Such a statement makes us ponder just how many centuries have passed when religious leaders decided for a variety of reasons to parrot the status quo instead of what was dawning inside of their minds. During the first 500 years of the Christian Church, monks routinely adjusted the ancient manuscripts of the Scriptures as they copied them to reflect more precisely a message that would reflect the theology that came from the Church’s leadership.
There can be no question that Gnosticism and other aberrations of Jesus’ life and teachings were perceived as a sizeable threat to the years of the Church’s earliest, impressionable years of evolution. There was a need to control the essential message lest it become diffused and diluted by those whose message differed widely from what was perceived as authentic.
It was as if the Church leadership said, “Thank you God for giving us your Word. We can take it from here as we determine how Your Word must be interpreted.” What resulted was assigning Divine authorship to the Scriptures that were deemed authentic by the collective voice that spoke for Christianity – the early Councils. This was done in order to hold and maintain control over the thinking of the masses, but a side bar was that the decision also froze theology in a very primitive state. Who would dare attempt to adjust or add to God’s Word an idea once referenced by Peter when he was facilitating a massive shift in how Christianity was to be practiced in the future? (Acts 11:17) God’s Word has become a non-ending source of controversy that could not have been anticipated by the early Councils. What we have today is a Church that is fragmented because of what people choose to reverence with their allegiance.
For example, the Southern Baptists choose to maintain a Salvationist theology. The Pentecostal movement stresses the significance of being baptized by the Holy Spirit, charismatic worship services, faith healing and glossolalia (the speaking in tongues). Other Protestant traditions stress liturgy, sermon centered worship experiences or multimedia emphases that engage high tech mood-changing effects with sound and lighting, up-beat praise music and large congregations known as mega churches.
On the other side of the aisle stands the Roman Catholic, the Eastern, Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions that maintain a carefully crafted hierarchy of power that separated these traditions from others in both theology and polity.
Once again, we come back to the theme of which tradition has the truth that will shape the decision-making of the individual? When all of these issues become resolved centuries from now, perhaps the reality will surface that religious traditions only become empowered because people invest in them emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Does one tradition or religion have any more truth than another? The answer is yes. If the people who are investing their lives in a particular tradition believe that they have the truth, for them they have it.
For example, seldom will a devout Southern Baptist become convinced that the Vatican has the answers that will lead a person toward salvation. What makes something true is not the reality of the claim but a belief. In every field of study, belief is what forms the basis for pursuing truth, a reality that is always changing as it expands.
What is very exciting about our modern era is that human beings are free from being burned at the stake because they think and believe differently from mainstream Christianity. For example, Eugene H. Peterson recently translated the Scriptures into shirtsleeve English. Millions of copies of his Bible have been sold. In today’s climate, Peterson is free to place the Scriptures into the hands of readers who find the authorized versions – those translated from the earliest manuscripts -- very difficult to understand. His emphasis was on communication, not adherence to the original languages of the ancient manuscripts.
In contrast, in 1526, a renegade priest named William Tyndale published an English New Testament. His Old Testament began to appear in pieces in 1530. He was coaxed out of hiding, captured, arrested and was tried for heresy. In 1536, Tyndale was strangled to death. To make sure that the message from religious leaders was abundantly clear, his remains were burned publicly.
What we have inherited is a mixed blessing. We are free to live our lives without powerful, rigid uncompromising influences coming from our church leadership. No one is dictating with authority how we must live and what we must believe. That is a good thing.
The down side is that quite often self-interest becomes our moral compass. Since the Church lost its absolute power to inform societies, self-interest has become the new source of guidance. The result can be aggressive drivers, a pained young man who removed from our world 32 lives who were fellow students at Virginia Tech, upset men who douse their girlfriends with gasoline and ignite them, angered employees who, upon being terminated from their positions, return to their business establishments and murder as many people as possible before taking their own lives.
Our headlines are filled with Hollywood’s finest who cannot cope with success. The business sections of our newspapers have cited corporate chief executives and financial officers who engaged in deceit and fraudulent practices. There are youthful suicides, scores of people who suffer from low self-esteem and an untold number of people who escape into various forms of substance abuse, video games or other sources that heighten emotional pleasures.
For every story that makes the headlines, there are scores of other people who live their lives literally starving for guidance and spiritual nourishment. They are unaware of the existence of this invisible, powerful aspect of themselves. They can be rich or poor, mysteriously beautiful or plain, physically fit or out of shape, intellectually superior to most or average in intelligence and still be starving for meaning and purpose. The author of Ecclesiastes, possibly King Solomon, suffered from the same spiritual ignorance. He had everything for which men and women strive yet his wealth and pedigree produced no compelling meaning and purpose for anything.
Religions have so muddied the waters that quite often only those who have been reared in their various traditions have any stake in them. The rest of the world starves and often will grasp at anything that will provide a framework that provides a moral rudder for their lives or provides them a system of beliefs for guiding their understanding. In this respect any religious tradition can be helpful. Humans reach for what remains hidden from their senses or they suffer. Even in our suffering there is guidance.
We teach spirituality because it addresses a hunger that remains disguised. It goes right to the heart of why coping with hurt is so challenging, why divorce takes a toll on both former spouses, why it is that no one can give us lasting happiness, why wealth cannot nourish our starving spirits and why we become so entangled with the constantly changing forms found within our physical world. Such experiences can offer guidance or reinforce our belief that we are victims caught in hell that only gets worse.
Near the close of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas there is a very intriguing and compelling passage. Jesus was asked when the Kingdom of God would arrive. Many believed that it would come in a more pure physical form. Jesus’ response was, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth and men do not see it.”
Indeed, the world of spirit is invisible, yet it commands all the decisions that we make. Our senses deceive us by revealing only a part of our universe, that which can be observed and interpreted by our senses. Those who learn about the dimension of life that remains invisible are the true bearers of the light. There have been many such persons in our world from ancient times to the present – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, the Sufi poet Rumi, St. Francis of Assisi, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, etc.
Humanity has never been without those who have shouted their visions from the rooftops. Who is listening when so many delicious visible illusions beckon us to partake of the fruit as it was in the proverbial Garden of Eden? Eve said, “God told us not to eat the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden or even touch it; if we do, we will die.” The snake replied, “That’s not true; you will not die. God said that because he knows that when you eat it, you would be like God and know everything.” (Gen. 3:3-5)
The physical world holds nothing that has lasting value. Everything including powerful nations will always rise and fall. The physical world is the matrix into which we have entered. During our class time, we will concentrate on questions that force us to push back the horizons of what we know. Without this tension between the known and the unknown in every field, humanity will not evolve. Anything that makes us think before we act feeds the spirit and gives the angel within us the ability to make visible what we know. If orthodoxy and dogma cause us to remain frozen by fear, humanity will only succeed in engaging in delay. The truth is out there awaiting discovery.