Friday, February 15, 2013

An Accident of Birth

I was born and raised in a Christian culture. I was indoctrinated in a protestant denomination. The community in which we lived included various representations of the Christian world, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists, etc. My religious education included the “what and why” we believed as we did, as well as a brief summary of how our beliefs differed from the other denominations, and why we felt confident in our interpretation of truth.

My being a “Christian” was not a decision of choice made by me. It was “expected” of me to follow the precepts and rituals in which I was raised. For many years of my early life I never questioned this allegiance. It was, for the most part, comfortably easy to accept. All of my early questions had been met with appropriate answers all neatly tied up in packages that coincided with the theology of “my” denomination.

As I grew older, my interests and quests began to expand beyond my denominational world which fed my curiosity about other cultures and people. My primary sources of research became the scientific disciplines of Archeology, Anthropology, History, Astrophysics, Geophysics, Chemistry, Flora & Fauna research, many allied sciences, and the forever educational, National Geographic. Soon questions began to arise concerning my original cultural instruction and answers.

How can so many denominational branches of the same tree claim to possess an exclusive knowledge of truth? If I had been born into another culture such as, Chinese, Indian, Islam, Mayan, Aztec, Viking, or Cheyenne, I would have more than likely embraced the dominant religion of that particular culture. Each of these cultures, and all others, has their own stories about God, creation, history, and the rituals they practice. So, the truths we claim and live by are nothing more than an accident of birth, not a result of a personal search for truth.

The Bible upon which both Judaism and Christianity base their foundation and religious authority is an enigma of myth, legend, history and suggests its claims of truth are within its own stories. There is no way to verify the source or veracity of these stories because almost all of them existed first in an oral tradition, 50 to 1000 or more years before they were ever written, then rewritten many times over before they became words now found in today’s Bible. In almost all cases, the original stories were not written by first hand witnesses but by later unidentifiable scribes. Stories allegedly written in the “first person” suffer incompatibilities with various aspects of the stories, and stories recorded in the “third or fourth” persons were written as if they were a fly on the wall observing and recording events in real time.

To compound the inaccuracies of transition from years of oral tradition into many written accounts, councils of the many Christian sects were convened by Constantine 1, in the 3rd Century AD, and were ordered to collect and consider all of the miscellaneous texts being circulated and used by the many disconnected Christian sects scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Their commission by Constantine was not only to make a final selection of texts to comprise a final and canonized authority for all Christendom, but to gather the various churches under one central authoritative body. As in any quasi-political assembly, the 300+ voting Bishops were heavily weighted by delegations favoring the Church of Rome as the seat of authority, instead of Jerusalem, the cradle of the Christian story. These decisions made in Nicea were backed up not only by the authority of the council of participating church leaders, but by edict of the Emperor of the Roman Empire, and everyone attending these councils knew the pressures to consolidate under one flag; either the flag of Rome or the Flag of one religious authority which is answerable to the Emperor.

I believe in the creative and inventive minds of men far more than I believe in the accuracy of stories included in the Bible. The Judeo/Christian Bible is not the only book of its kind. Almost every culture has its own written form of religious history and instruction which uses similar myths and legends to guide its adherent’s understanding of truth in their religion. Each has been enhanced by creative minds through oral traditions before there was any inspiration to set the words in written forms. Many cultures share some of the same recorded events, such as portions of a much earlier Sumerian Epic have been included in both Muslim and Hebrew records.

Almost everyone familiar with these religious books believes them to be interesting and remarkable. They contain all manner of examples of life morals and ethics filled with great stories, parables, myths, legends. They, and many non-religious books, are worthy of consideration when taken in light of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, “Moderation in all things.” Unfortunately, most religious books provoke dissention, violence and separation between people, denominations, and cultures when used as an authority of absolute truth.

We have discovered more about the nature of creation and the universe in the last 50 years than man could have imagined during the previous 10,000 years. Yet we continue to cling to ancient texts from a very single pin-point in time as our prevailing knowledge of God and creation, ignoring current information gained through scientific discoveries in nature and the universe.

The Old Testament was a script to establish a new culture and tribe. It was written to answer all of the normal human questions of the time, about the creation and social relations using heroes and legends to model an allegiance to a tribe and their God of choice.

The New Testament created a new hero, Jesus. Although he was a Jew who honored Jewish laws, practiced Jewish rituals, and honored the Jewish God, for the most part he was bent on confronting hypocrisies of human nature that had corrupted the rulers and leaders of the Jewish tribe. He led a social ministry to denounce corruption and hypocrisies of many Jewish laws and restore the primary edict of, “Treat your neighbor as yourself,” from the book of Leviticus. This was such a bold reminder at a time when the Jewish nation was not only occupied by the Roman Empire, but the Empire had a strangle hold on the Jewish leadership, holding them responsible for infractions of Roman law by members of the Jewish tribe. After Jesus’ execution for inciting insurrection, the seeds of his revolutionary thoughts continued to take root and spread. Again, we are dealing with the human nature of oral traditions long before anything was ever recorded. When the stories of Jesus were finally written, it was after many tellings and retellings and were finally penned by people who had no firsthand knowledge of events.

Many people, both before and after Jesus, have made an equal effort to call immoral ethics and corruption into question. Prophets of the Old Testament, as well as more recent prophets such as, Martin Luther, John Knox, John Calvin, John Wesley, Abraham Lincoln, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, etc. Many of their efforts have also taken root in often unintentional new movements by ardent followers.

So, who was Jesus? He was one of those rare individuals who had an eye for injustice and a heart for getting involved. He lived his principles and died modeling them. Jesus was never reported to have baptized anyone, nor did he ever start a Christian church. He spoke as a Jew to Jewish people in synagogues, on the street, in the hills, from a boat, in a language using simple stories and parables his listeners could understand. The friends who followed him were so taken with his wisdom and bold manner that they began a movement which has resulted in what we know today as Christianity. Unfortunately, none of the first hand witnesses of Jesus’ activities ever recorded any of their experiences. Again, these stories were left to the embellishments of human creativity after many years of oral traditions which has a tendency to make anyone larger than life, before someone decided to start writing these stories into words. One of the first to do this was a very literate and a prolific writer, the Missionary minded Paul, but even he had no first hand witness or knowledge of Jesus or his activities. All Paul had to rely on were the oral stories that were circulating about Jesus. Later, written accounts began appearing in the names of people who may have had first had knowledge, but were written by unknown authors who again, heavily relied on stories circulating in an oral tradition.

When the Bishop’s Council of Nicea began collecting written accounts of stories about Jesus, 300 years after his death, they too sought to continue the larger than life legend of Jesus by selecting only those ancient texts which they believed contributed to this purpose. Many texts not included in the final canonized collection were intentionally banned and attempts were made to quickly destroy them in order to discontinue their use as an authority for religious teaching. Another purpose of the Bishop’s Council was to select texts that related to construed and vague predictions recorded in the Old Testament of a future Messiah. Old Testament references to a Messiah were made after King David’s reign, and were hopeful expressions for another King like David who would restore the temple in Jerusalem, end Roman occupation, and restore Israel to its former glory and protection from Israel’s many surrounding enemies.

Was Jesus the super hero depicted in the Bible, or was he another of those once in a great while extraordinary men in history that have made a positive footprint to emulate? This has been an intimidating question for two thousand years.

Is God a reasonable deity?

In the year 1 AD, there was an estimated population of 300 million people living all around the world. Is it reasonable that God would suddenly decided after 200,000 years of man’s existence on this planet, that the people on earth needed a “Get To Heaven Free Card,” and took steps outlined in the Bible to provide a special “Pass Key” to only a small fraction of the world’s population living in Judea? Is it also reasonable to believe that in order to provide this “Invitation to Heaven,” he had a son produced by a Jewish virgin, who would eventually be crucified on a cross as a means to immortality in either a heaven or a hell? In light of the extraordinarily complicated universe he had created earlier, would this even have been a reasonable story about anyone, least of all, a God?

Stories such as, man created from dust, woman from the rib of a man, a tempting talking snake, a son of God produced by a Jewish virgin, may have been acceptable answers to questions of ancient superstitions, but they don’t fit in today’s knowledge bank. The current and growing knowledge man has of the past, present, and future of our place in the universe far and exceeds any attempts to describe a God based on primitive 10,000 year old concepts by any religion or accident of birth.

Finally, the question of religious truths is not bound to the accident of our birth. Nor does the location of our birth confer the element of truth in our cultural and religious practices. I, for one, believe truth lives somewhere in our ever expanding knowledge of our planet and universe, and questions are our tools of the search.