Religion, An Examination of History, Beliefs and Connections Number One

 

Essay Number One

These essays represent a work in progress and use a number of approaches at connecting a diverse collection of religious information, facts and histories and at times represent some of the same information in a different context.

Currently it’s estimated there are as many as six billion of the world’s seven billion people associated with one of the world’s five largest religions. Those numbers alone speak to an appeal that seems to go to the heart of being human. While the significant differences between faiths would suggest that there have to be many people deluded in their choice of beliefs, it also suggests a fundamental spiritual connection in people to the realm of the Devine. For a better understanding of faith it is necessary to explore these religions, their beliefs and the evolution of faith.

With the five major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam there are a number of fundamental similarities but a number of serious differences as well.

Hinduism and Buddhism

The oldest of the five is Hinduism and the one that demonstrates the most evolution in its tradition and core beliefs. The origins of Hinduism are difficult to place. Many believe it dates back as far as 3,000 to 4,000 B.C. and is probably a blending of a number of philosophies and beliefs extant at that time in India. Currently there are a number of sects and many do not even share the same gods. Hinduism has probably evolved from a form similar to the ancient pagan beliefs where the gods stood apart from humanity to its recent forms where the focus is on self or the Hindu Atman. There are a number of sects that do not recognize any gods at all but rather a continuum of levels of Atman. In order to understand the Hindu worldview it is essential to grasp this first and foundational concept. Atman refers to the non-material self, which never changes (similar to the Christian soul). It is distinct from both the thinking brain and the external body. This real self is beyond the temporary designations we normally ascribe to ourselves, in terms of race, gender and even species.

Atman is core to the concept of Karma and reincarnation that are fundamental in the Hindu faith. An integral part of this faith is meditation and its main purpose is to reach inward and recognize Atman and to achieve moksha. In Hindu philosophy moksha is the union with Brahman, the divine foundation of existence, and the experience of blissful “egolessness” or the liberation from samsara, the repeating cycle of birth, life and death.

The common scriptures of Hinduism are the Vedas. They are a large body of Hindu texts originating in ancient India, with its Samhita and Brahmanas dating before about 800 B.C. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. Hindus consider the Vedas to be apauruṣeya, which means “not of a man, but superhuman” and “impersonal, authorless”. The knowledge in the Vedas is believed in Hinduism to be eternal, uncreated, neither authored by human nor by divine source, but seen, heard and transmitted by sages. The sages are an important part of the Hindu religion. They are called ‘Rishis’. Sages had understanding of things and places which normal people could never imagine, who after intense meditation understood the supreme truth and eternal knowledge, which were composed into hymns.

A popular misconception regarding Hinduism is that it recognizes multiple Gods. At its core Hinduism recognizes just one “God”, “Being” or “Universal Spirit” but it’s their view of him that changes. The individual manifestations recognized by Hinduism are actually avatars of Brahman who is the Supreme Entity.

Buddhism has its origins in Hinduism and is based on the teachings of the Buddha. While Buddhism teaches about the self like the Hindu Atman and Karma, Buddha also believed that it was possible thru proper living and mediation to rise above the eternal cycles and reach Nirvana (moksha). Above all else Buddha taught that knowing self was the ultimate quest and that finding self was an individual process that each person must seek and find on their own. Seeking to understand and know oneself is more important than any teaching or guidance from others. In teaching how one should live Buddha taught the “middle path” or a way of living between sensual indulgence and severe asceticism. The goal of self awareness is Nirvāṇa which literally means “blown out”, as in a candle and refers to the stillness of mind after the fires of desire and worldly delusion have been extinguished.

“We are what we think.

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts, we make our world.”

The Lord Buddha

In both Buddhism and Hinduism is an understanding that behind the material world that we live in is a realm of spirit that is apart from our reality. This spirit dwells in this other reality but also dwells in all life and is an integral part of all living things as well as separate at the same time. Atman, Brahman, moksha, samsara and Nirvāṇa are all various aspects of this other reality. Both also believe that man individually can gain an understanding of this other reality thru meditation and self knowledge. Almost a quarter of all people of faith hold to this belief.

The People of the Book

The other remaining modern major religions are often referred to as the followers of the God of Abraham or the people of the Book. Centered in the Middle East and beginning with the Israelites who accepted the God of Abraham and entered into a covenant with Him between 3,000 and 2,000 B.C. (historical evidence). Continuing with the Christians who followed the teachings of Jesus beginning around 36 A.D. and finally with the Muslims who accepted Muhammad as the final prophet of the God of Abraham around 610 A.D.

While all three faiths believe in and recognize the same God they are actually theologically distinct faiths. From the beginning Judaism represented a closed relationship between specifically the Jewish people and God. Its founder, Abraham accepted a covenant between him and God where he agreed to worship God, live as instructed and God would protect and enrich him and his progeny who would become a nation. Later after Moses led them out of captivity in Egypt, God required them to accept a set of 613 laws that they must live by to receive Gods blessings and protection. These laws of Moses covered almost every aspect of life, from preparing food, civil laws and punishment, rules for priests and kings and how to worship and when. In Judaism there is very little specific doctrine concerning Heaven and an afterlife and until the period of the second temple what did exist is mostly related to specific small Jewish sects.

Originally the belief of a minor middle-eastern tribe, Judaism arose in a region dominated by one of the world’s largest religions of the time, Zoroastrianism. Its roots dated back to 2,000 BC and was also a monotheistic faith, which unlike Judaism supported a strong belief in a Heaven and hell. The Jewish faith evolved through the same period and is defined by dozens of writings and books such as the Talmud and Torah. While much of this writing is historical and represents actual events and people there are scholars who believe a number of these traditions are allegorical or a synthesis of a number of events and traditions. There is current archeological evidence that places the Israelites as a people with aspirations to settle in the Jordon valley or Canaan around 1,200 BC. At that time Canaan was a part of the Egyptian Empire with a number of different local rulers and tribes. Written in the laws of Moses God instructs the Israelites to make war on the tribes of the Canaanite nations and destroy them (Commandment 187 in the Old Testament Law).

Around the time of the birth of Jesus Israel was a nation with Jerusalem as its capital but also part of and under the control of the Roman Empire. Jesus was born to a Jewish family and grew up in the Jewish faith and traditions.

While Christianity is thought to be on a continuum that includes Judaism it wasn’t until the teachings of Jesus and the founding of Christianity that the concept of the soul, Heaven and Hell became a common belief in the region. Christianity personalized the relationship between man and God and shifted the focus to the individual salvation of the soul and a life after death. While Judaism was based on being a member of the faith and accepting the Covenant with God, Christianity was fundamentally based on believing and accepting an individual relationship with God. A major tenant of Christianity is the Trinity where God is represented by three manifestations. God as the Creator and the Father, Jesus as the Son and a part of God made human to save humanity and the Holy Ghost representing the Spirit of God acting in the world. Some claim that this has created challenges to Christianity as a monotheistic religion.

Six hundred years after the life of Jesus the religion of Islam officially began in 610 A.D., when the prophet Muhammad receive divine revelation from the archangel Gabriel, who was recognized in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Islam’s primary belief is in the oneness of God, the one and only one God. Belief in all God’s prophets from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mohamed, belief in all God’s holy books (including Torah, Psalms, The Bible, and The Quran), belief in God’s angels, belief in Heaven, the day of Judgment and the destiny of God’s plan for us.

Like Judaism, Islam had a strong emphasis on laws governing society. Islam’s Sharia law is cast from the words of Muhammad, called “hadith,” his actions, called “sunnah,” and the Quran, which he dictated. As written the Sharia law itself cannot be altered but its interpretation, called “fiqh,” by muftis (Islamic jurists) is given some latitude.

As a legal system, the Sharia law is exceptionally broad. While other legal codes regulate public behavior, Sharia regulates public behavior, private behavior, and even private beliefs. Compared to other legal codes, the Sharia law also prioritizes punishment over rehabilitation and favors corporal and capital punishments over incarceration.

While Islam is more functionally aligned with Judaism there are also some major differences. Even though there is a strong theological inclusion of civil laws and individual obligations in the faith, it also shares with Christianity a set of strong beliefs concerning the soul, Heaven and Hell.

Based on a belief in the God of Abraham and the prophetic writings of Mohammad, Islam also provides a detailed vision of the afterlife, mans obligations in worshiping Allah (or “the (al) God (Ilah))” and a code of laws for man with Devine direction. Some religious scholars see Islam as a faith characterized on a continuum with Judaism and Christianity while others see Islam as an evolution from Judaism with Christianity being outside this genesis.

An True Outlier on the Continuum

It would seem that the main religions of the East and those from the Middle East have almost nothing in common as they represent history, culture and philosophy from completely different worlds. There are however a number of scholars that believe that in the case of Christianity that may not be the case. To understand this requires a critical examination of the early history of Christianity.

While accounts of Jesus are recorded in a couple of historical records at the time of his teaching, there are no generally accepted texts known to exist that date back to the period of Jesus life describing his actual teachings. Not until the second and forth centuries AD did a number of writings based an oral tradition provide context and history to His life and a record of elements of his teachings. These writings were as diverse as the beliefs that had grown up around the teachings of the Disciples, Apostles and their followers. In fact there is strong evidence that several of the original Disciples held radically different understandings as to who Jesus was and what His teachings meant.

Christianity as widely understood today did not coalesce into a unified form until the early forth century. To unify the religion and eliminate confusion a council of believers was called by the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 325 in Nicaea in Bithynia. This first ecumenical council was an effort to attain consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. The council established the core beliefs of the faith and accepted one common story relating to who Jesus was. From that point on the Christian “Church” took the position that Jesus was to be recognized as the Son of God and any writings or teachings to the contrary were declared heretical. In addition the council assembled a number of approved gospels and letters into a written testament recognized today as the New Testament of the Bible. The accepted structure and theology of the Christian faith was set going forward and basically continues to this day.

The religion that emerged from this process is not without its contradictions. One fundamental issue involves the accepted relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. John was an esthetic who had a conservative message and whose mission was to accuse the Jews and especially the Jewish leaders of straying from the “law”. It was this message that got him executed. John’s preaching was for a literal interpretation of the law and a demand that the people return to keeping the covenant with the Lord. He was characterized as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path”. At that time there were a number of sects and individuals declaring the prophecy of the coming of the messiah that would liberate Israel from Roman rule.

John the Baptist was a prominent figure proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin of not keeping the covenant with God. It was reported in historical commentaries that people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, as a way of confessing their sins. The Biblical accounts of John baptizing Jesus are probably historically accurate but the connection was probably greatly embellished in the Gospels to associate Jesus with the Jewish prophecies of a messiah.

The problem with this connection between John the Baptist and Jesus is best understood by characterizing Jesus’ ministry and His interpretation of the laws of Moses. Jesus while preaching as a Jewish rabbi often reinterpreted the law. Heb. 7: 18, The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19, (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw nearer to God. And 22, Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.

It became evident to Christians from this that the law of Moses was ended by the sacrifice of Christ. To trust in a human priesthood or to still offer animal sacrifices meant that they did not accept the new faith.

In the mid twentieth century a cache of religious documents were found in the Egyptian desert that began to shed light on early Christian history and philosophy. Dating to before the Council of Nicaea, these documents offered additional gospels with significantly different perspectives on the preaching’s of Jesus and what the Disciples believed.

There is a growing consensus among scholars that the new Gospel of Thomas dates to the very beginnings of the Christian era and probably predates the four traditional Gospels at Nicaea. After its discovery, established orthodox groups argued that the Gospel of Thomas was a Gnostic forgery. Most academics currently involved in studies of these documents reject that view. Today most scholars would agree that the Thomas Gospel has opened a new perspective on early Christian beliefs. Recent studies have led to a reappraisal of the events forming “Christian orthodoxy” during the second and third centuries. More importantly, the Gospel of Thomas along with other newly found Gospels are opening a window on a lost spiritual legacy of Christian beliefs. The beginning words of Thomas invite each of us “who has ears to hear” to join in a unique quest:

These are the hidden words that the living Jesus spoke, and that Didymos Judas Thomas* wrote down. And He said: “Whoever finds the meaning of these words will not taste death.” (Thomas the Apostle, called Didymus which means “the twin”, was probably one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus). If one is willing to look at these texts with an open mind it begins to suggest that much of the mystical foundations of Christianity have been expunged from the faith. Consider the following: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”

 

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