The other day I was talking to a man who suggested that if Muslims would take time to seek out the history of Muhammad and the early history of their faith roots, they might be surprised and make some belief changes. I tried to also suggest the same for followers of Jesus. It is so easy to accept and follow traditions and creedal statements rather than what history might teach otherwise.
Throughout the centuries, there has always been tension between accepting what is taught to one about religious beliefs and what one might discover with a more honest seeking of the beliefs origins. This is true with religious teachings as well as with so-called secular ones. What many of us were taught and assumed about the so-called “fathers of our nation” may appear much different if one takes time to read the histories and writings left by these “fathers.” In the past year I have read biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Many ideas given to me in earlier years of studies were modified and changed. George Washington and John Adams, for example, our first two Presidents, were leaders in creating what was to be called the Federalist Party, those who favored a more monarchal, centralized view of government leadership. Jefferson, our third President, led the country toward a more republican, democratic, and grass-roots involved country. Debates over these ideas were fierce and bloody. In the first 20 years of our country’s life, over 100 politicians died in duels to attest to their principled ideas. “A man was as only good as his word and he better be ready to die for it!” In 1804, Alexander Hamilton, a fierce and brilliant Federalist, died in a duel with Aaron Burr, a fierce Republican who was Jefferson’s Vice President at the time. Yes, reading recent histories of our nation’s early years can give totally new and different perspectives.
For over a century there have been heated discussions over the Jesus of creeds versus the Jesus of history. In the 19th Century, many thinkers sought to take a new look at the literary and historical backgrounds of the Bible, especially the early Christian writings. They were met with fierce opposition and condemnation by those who strictly adhered to the creeds. Any question about the actuality of miracles and assumed histories of the Bible’s composition were met with accusations of betrayal and heresy. Throughout the ages, thousands had paid with their lives for questioning creedal authorities.
In 1985 a group of scholars convened a meeting to share their information and findings on historical studies of the early church and writings of the Bible. They called themselves the “Jesus Seminar,” and were made up of scholars mostly outside of church related and religious institutions for obvious reasons. (http://www.westarinstitute.org/) I believe they have given and continue to give a valuable contribution toward the understanding of what occurred in the early century of Christianity as taught and influenced by a man named Jesus. They have helped me see better the context in which the various letters of the early church were written. They showed how Matthew was not the first and earliest book of the early church but one of the later along with the other so called gospels. They helped me appreciate the long period of time between the few years Jesus lived on earth until the stories much later appeared about his life. They have also helped us appreciate many of the discovered letters of the early church from the Nag Hammadi caves in 1946. They help us understand a different nature of Jesus from that portrayed in the later 4th Century Creeds of the Church. Jesus is seen as a more universal teacher of spirituality rather than just a founder of a special organization with exclusive rights and keys to salvation and eternal life while damming outside unbelievers to eternal death.
Of course, these are emotional ideas, especially for strong creedal believers. They elicit similar outbursts from other organized religions. When “believers” begin to question the authority, authenticity and structure of their teachers, strong emotions are aroused. It was the similar outrage against early American leaders who questioned the authority and rule of a monarch over their lives from England. It is also the anger created among some for reading the letters of these men today which help clarify and modify our early national myths.
To be open to truth is often a hard, lonely and difficult task. To question the major conclusions of a historical movement or to question a comfortable “herd instinct” that may be perpetuating myths of separation and superiority can be dangerous. I think of Jesus being in this category, as was Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
However, I urge readers to question their ideas and assumed teachers about religion and life. Any teaching which claims to have the ultimate boundaries of truth, guaranteeing the believer access to a special group with special privileges that keeps you special and separate from others, question and beware. Be free to think, question, explore and see the Essence of us all in each person, each place, and everywhere about you.
Daniel Nahmod depicts some of these ideas with his recent song, “To Be Free.” (2006, Nahmod Music Community)
For I think of all people as my family
This entire precious planet as my home
So let others build their borders, walls and boundaries
I will fly above them all, even if I must go alone.
Oh, I need…..to be free!
I will go where the wind will carry me
To be free, oh, to be free.
Seek the truth and you shall be led. Seek it with all your heart, mind and soul, and you will find it. And in seeking, it will not only free your own mind and soul but many lives around you. Do it in love, earnestness, and with compassion for all.