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Chapter Two: About Religion


What We Have Come to Expect from Religion

If there is a need for religion in human culture, one of its functions would be to explain the experience of personal being after death. Our identities are bound to that consciousness. We can view the corpse of someone once living and imagine that this person, wherever his spirit may be, continues to have thoughts like our own. Perhaps the dead person can communicate with us? Or, the person may simply be dead and have no thoughts whatsoever? That is a frightening thought. The consciousness that we now have may experience indescribable trauma as it passes into extinction. And if it continues? Then we must fear the unknown. In our present situation, we are powerless to control what will come after we die.

Religion says that there is life after death. There is eternal life within the provision of God. That means that, in some sense, we remain eternally conscious. It makes a difference, then, whether the consciousness will be filled with happy or miserable thoughts since we have the idea that eternal consciousness is stuck in one mode. Either we will be happy forever or we will be forever miserable - and nothing can change this determination once we have died. But before death, religion says, we do have an opportunity to determine what our condition will be. So it is an important choice. And, if religion is able to deliver our dying selves into a better rather than worse condition, then religion should be important to us now, during our lives.

More people on earth believe in Christianity than in any other religion. They believe that Jesus Christ has the power to deliver us individually into Heaven or into Hell. It is with more than a little curiosity, then, that we approach the question of who Jesus was and what he said since he may hold the key to our situation after we die. We want to make sure that we put ourselves in the right relationship to Jesus while there still is time. To do that, we need to understand his life and teaching.

Was Jesus a man who went around promising satisfaction after death? Did he say that he was the only person who did that? Even if he did, how do we know that Jesus was telling the truth? Whatever the answer to those questions, Christianity is established within human culture. There is a rather clear record of what Jesus said and did. We can take a look at this and decide whether it makes sense personally to follow Jesus. Or, to be on the safe side, we can assume that a billion Christians cannot be wrong and believe in his religion because they do. Most theologians will admit: Nothing more is required for salvation than simple faith.

If we want to know about Jesus, we can ask an ordained minister or priest to explain things for us. We can read the four Gospels in which the story of Jesus is authoritatively told. His is an interesting, colorful story. But we are looking for more than stimulation and excitement: We want to know why we should make Jesus the center of our lives. What is there about Jesus which would make us believe that he has control over our situation after death? The Bible does not say much about that.

Jesus was himself very much about life and death and the power to switch between one and the other state, but he was not a promiser of certain afterlife experiences. There is a clear record of what Jesus said and did in the four Gospels and other Biblical texts. What was there about Jesus which would make us believe that he has control over our situation after death? Why would we want to make him the center of our lives?

Three Stages in the History of Religion

Part of the answer to those questions might be found in the history of religion; for this type of experience did not begin with Christianity. We must go back two thousand years ago, when Jesus lived, and back beyond that another three or four thousand years to the beginnings of civilization. Even before that, religion existed; but it was a different type of religion. This system of rituals and beliefs was appropriate to the type of society that existed then. Humanity then lived in small communities which were an extension of the family. Economically, they lived close to nature. The religion suited to that type of society is what we today would call nature worship.

When we speak of religion, we think of an organized set of disciplines, beliefs, and rituals patterned after our own kind of worship. God must be a part of this. One must, after all, believe in something. I think it fair to say that, in the beginning, religion was fused into every other kind of experience. It was, as now, the “unseen” part of experience; but so was knowledge of any sort. Faced with harsh existence, humanity was interested in obtaining food, recovering from sickness, propagating children, and coping with death. He wanted some control over life’s condition. He wanted knowledge of it. Much of this knowledge, he thought, lay in the spirit world.

The idea of spirit mimics the human mind. The inanimate world must be populated with spirits with whom we can communicate. If we want their help, we must seek their favor by performing the right rituals. The term “animism” is sometimes applied to this view. Everything in nature - the sky, stars, trees, mountains, bodies of water - has a consciousness like our own. Everything is personal. God, as we know him, is the supreme personality in the universe. But God’s nature is malleable; our image of him follows our own experience. He may be a mountain or a bolt of lightning, or he may be a stern though loving Father, or he may be a Great King like Pharaoh, or he may be an Idea. His absolute being is unknowable. We must approach God, as ancient peoples did the spirit world, with fear and trepidation.

Human societies have grown larger and more sophisticated than in the early days. Separate institutions have grown to serve the specialized functions required in society. So religion has become a specialized institution to deal with certain needs. One of them is to deal with our fear of death. When we look at the history of religion, however, we must view religious institutions in the light of what we know of human conditions in earlier times. Religion will evolve in accordance with the society at large. It will evolve in accordance with human knowledge. Its particular forms will resemble what is happening elsewhere in human culture at various points of its history.

Arnold Toynbee has written in An Historian’s Approach to Religion that, while “our first impression (of religion) will be one of a bewilderingly infinite variety, yet, on consideration and analysis, this apparent variety resolves itself into variations on Man’s worship or quest of no more than three objects or objectives: namely, Nature; Man himself; and an Absolute Reality that is not either Nature or Man but is in them and at the same time beyond them.”

The three objects of religious worship - Nature, Man, and an Absolute Reality - correspond roughly with three periods of world history. Nature worship is prevalent in prehistoric or precivilized times. Worship of Man in the form of human communities is prevalent in societies that have advanced to the first stage of civilization. Worship of an “Absolute Reality”, or an abstract being called “God”, is characteristic of societies that have advanced to a second stage of civilization. Christianity and other so-called “world religions” would be associated with the last type of society. Religion, then, proceeds in three stages following developments in the larger society.

Precivilized society - the first stage

We call “precivilized” those peoples who remained in the hunter-gatherer phase and some who practiced small-scale agriculture. Their type of social organization was based upon blood kinship. The pressing need to gain material sustenance for these communities left little surplus with which the higher arts and fields of knowledge might be developed. Such societies had static cultures. There was no written language. According to Arnold Toynbee, precivilized peoples live in a type of society whose practices include “the religion of the annual agricultural cycle; totemism and exogamy; tabus, initiations, and age-classes; segregation of the sexes, at certain stages, in separate communal establishments.”

This type of society practiced nature worship. Toynbee said humanity worships what it fears. Because the food supply and other material needs were not yet secure, primitive man worshipped elements in the natural world needed to sustain life. Such worship can take many forms. In general, religious practice at this stage focuses upon a spirit world which must be acknowledged and “fed” through rituals in order to keep life going. The spirits may be of our own dead ancestors or of particular elements in nature. We are surrounded with an invisible spiritual presence that includes beings with which we are able to communicate and transact business. When we ourselves die, we go back into that unseen world.

Some objects or locations in nature were believed to have a greater spiritual presence than others. Whether these were “gods” is subject to interpretation. There were also sacred places where priests tended shrines to certain gods. Particular elements of nature were associated with a divine spirit. The Greek goddess Athena was originally the patroness of olive-cultivation. Zeus was the god of thunder and lightning, the god of the skies. Toynbee speculates that Jehovah might originally have been a “volcano-god” or a “weather-god” on the basis of his association with Mount Sinai.

As with the Greek pantheon of deities, the spirits were often designated by gender. The male gods tended to be associated with the sky while the female goddesses were associated with the earth. A kind of sexual exchange took place when rain poured from the skies upon the earth to provide needed water for crops. Fertility, both of the earth and of humankind, was an early object of nature-centered religion. Human societies needed the crops to grow so priests performed ceremonies to encourage the gods to cooperate in this process. Earth was the Great Mother who needed to become fertile through the paternal agency of the sun. In some rituals, human beings copulated in the fields to show nature what to do. This illustrates a process called “sympathetic magic.”

In the early agricultural societies, human sacrifice was sometimes practiced. Dead human beings resembled the kernels of grain which would miraculously spring to life at the next year’s planting of crops. H.G. Wells writes in his An Outline of History: “Whenever sowing (of grain) occurs among primitive people in any part of the world, it is accompanied by a human sacrifice or by some ceremony which may be interpreted as the mitigation and vestige of an ancient sacrificial custom ... From this it is assumed that there was once a world-wide persuasion that some one should be buried before a crop could be sown ... which has produced profound effects in the religious development of the race.” The idea of a god who was killed and later resurrected is embodied in the Egyptian god Osiris. There may be a vestige of agricultural sacrifice in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The sky was also populated with gods. One of the first, the moon, was a favorite of women. The moon was believed to seduce women causing them to menstruate. Sun worship became popular as agriculture replaced hunting and gathering. Rays of warm sun light were needed by growing plants. The stars also had their own god-like spirits and were formed into constellations exhibiting personality. The sun god became a supreme deity in Egypt and other lands. Re, the sun god, was combined with Amun, “the breath of life”, to comprise Amun-Re, Egypt’s chief god. Later, Pharaoh Ikhnaton established the cult of Aton, god of the sun, claiming that this was the only true God.

Toynbee speculates that humankind continued to worship nature so long as nature was untamed. One does not worship what one does not fear. Untamed nature became either a monster needing to be defeated, as in the myth of Mithras slaying the bull, or a self-sacrificing victim such as Ti’amat, the dragon of Babylonian mythology, from whose body the universe was created. One worshiped the gods and goddesses of creation and destruction through human sacrifice or ritual prostitution; alternatively, one sacrificed oneself or practiced self-mutilation. In Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac and in God’s sacrifice of His Son, one finds vestiges of nature worship. The Islamic religion retains the fetish of the Kaaba stone.

Early civilization - the second stage

A society’s rise to “civilization”, according to Toynbee, comes through meeting a challenge. The waning of the Ice Age in Europe, Africa, and Asia required a change in social structure. As the lush grasslands of north Africa turned to desert, Egyptian civilization came about by use of the Nile River to irrigate crops. Similarly, in southern Iraq, collective irrigation projects along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers transformed arid land and swamp into places suitable for agriculture. Human enterprise had to be applied on a broader scale than before; and that required organization.

The first city-states, appearing in Egypt and Mesopotamia, produced a type of culture which Roger Lewin has characterized in terms of “sedentism, elaborate burial and substantial tombs, social inequality, occupational specialization, long-distance exchange, technological innovation, (and) warfare.” Another mark of civilized societies was that they acquired the art of writing. All twenty-one societies which Toynbee considers civilizations developed written scripts with the exception of the Incas who kept records through a system of knotted ropes. This writing was ideographic, which meant that the symbols stood for words rather than elemental sounds.

The early city states were built around temples. In Mesopotamia, these temples consisted of a large brick structure called a ziggurat which was built up on several levels to a towering peak. Inside there was a large statue of the local god, tended by a staff of priests. A priest-king, who was the god’s chief servant, ruled the community in his name. The temple became a center of civilized arts in which astronomical observations (to aid planting of crops) would be made, grain would be stored, medicine would be practiced, and rituals would be performed. Specialists in these arts were housed there while the mass of common people worked the fields surrounding the city.

As this type of civilization developed, the function of king separated from that of priest. The priests performed rituals to maintain the proper conditions in nature while kings adjudicated disputes and defended the community against outside attacks. A royal palace was constructed alongside the temple. Unlike the more learned scribes and priests, the kings were practical men whose chief function was to wage wars. Society became centered in the institution of monarchical government. Historically, this period saw the rise and fall of large political empires culminating in the four great ones - the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han Chinese empires - which existed at the end of the 2nd century A.D.

Toynbee said that one of man’s three objects of religious worship was “man himself”, meaning man’s collective identity or, in other words, the state. Today, this “religion” is associated with patriotism. We salute the flag as if it were an object of veneration. Young people are asked to die for their country. Two thousand years ago, worship of the state was indeed a religion. Nature worship had given way to civic celebrations honoring the community god. In the early city states, there would be a large statue of this god in half-animal form in the temple and an altar to receive sacrifices. The statue was sometimes regarded as the image of the god (or goddess) and sometimes the god himself. A city’s relative importance in a region followed the prestige of its local god. In Mesopotamia, Eridu was the holiest city because it had the shrine of the god which had created mankind.

In terms of Toynbee’s theory that man worships what he fears, nature had ceased to be a source of danger after mankind tamed name through agriculture and other technological achievements. The greater danger now came from humanity itself. To be defeated in war meant that many members of a members would be slaughtered while the survivors might be raped or carried off into slavery. Religion adapted to the new circumstances by transferring its focus of worship to the separate warring communities. One worshipped the state. Moloch, or “God worshipped as King”, demanded that blood be shed in his honor.

If an empire such as Rome’s was formed from conquering other cities, its leaders not only created administrative arrangements to incorporate those cities into the political structure but also an assembly of gods that would arrange the local gods in a hierarchy. Toynbee writes that “when the Egyptian world-state was reestablished by the Theban founders of the Middle empire, Amun, the local god of Thebes, was identified with the pan-Egyptian sun-god Re and was elevated as Amun-Re, to the headship of the Egyptian pantheon.” Wise state craft included the task of finding an honorable place for conquered peoples by enshrining their gods in a pantheon.

As the new religion of political states replaced the religion of nature worship, the two systems were able to coexist. Toynbee writes: “In Egypt, we find the worships of the Sun, the Corn, and the Nile surviving side by side with the self-worship of the cantons. In Sumer and Akkad, we find the worship of Tammuz and Ishtar surviving side by side with the self-worship of the city-states. In China we find ... an annual agricultural ritual in which the prince ... ploughs the first furrow of the new agricultural year, surviving side by side with the self-worship of the Contending States ... In this gradual, peaceful, and imperceptible religious revolution, the new religion has not only imposed itself on the old one; in many cases it has actually commandeered one of the old Nature gods to serve also as the representative of the new worship of parochial collective human power.”

And so Athena, patroness of olive cultivation, became divine protector of the city of Athens. Egyptian priests of the sun-god Re organized nine separate nature cults into a pantheon of nine gods among whom Re was chief. Pharaoh’s designation as “sun of Re” linked the political ruler to the divine order. In the myth of Osiris, the victory of Horus, Osiris’ falcon-like son, over Set was politically significant because his totemic representatives, pharaohs of the first dynasty, had conquered the northern Delta region where the worship of Set was concentrated. Pharaoh himself became worshiped as a god. His burial rites were linked to the cult of Osiris, god of the underworld.

Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar both conquered Egypt and promptly succumbed to the lure of divinity. Egyptian priests told Alexander that he was the son of Amun-Re. A cult worshiping Caesar as a god was established shortly after he returned to Rome from Egypt. The Roman Senate confirmed Caesar’s deification two years after his death. While Caesar’s nephew Octavian resisted such designation, subsequent Roman emperors did not. Caligula announced that he was a god equal to Jupiter, appointing his favorite horse to be one of the priests in his cult. Nero ordered a 120-foot high statue of himself to be erected with solar rays projecting from his head in the manner of Phoebus Apollo. Domitian ordered government officials to address him in official documents as “Our Lord and God”.

The main battle fought by the early Christians was not against Jupiter, Zeus or another god associated with nature worship but against state religion. Christians, like Jews, refused to worship any god but their own. They refused to pay homage to the emperor or worship his “genius” (spirit). They also refused to bear arms for the Roman state. These Christians were what we would call “unpatriotic” but, in this case, it carried the greater stigma of treason both against the state and its civic religion. They simply would not accept Rome’s hegemony in religious affairs. Earlier Greek attempts to make Jehovah a local god and work him into an imperial pantheon with other gods had likewise failed.

World Religion - the third stage

Historians point to the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. as a time of unusual cultural and spiritual activity throughout the world. Across the Eurasian continent, from China to Greece, a remarkable set of prophets and philosophers, including Lao-tze, Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jeremiah, Pythagoras, and Socrates. While their message varied, these great pioneers of religious thought brought an ethical focus to human culture. They brought an increased sense of reason. Humanity became aware of such concepts as justice, beauty, goodness, and truth. A new way of thinking broke with tradition and made the next civilization possible.

What was this civilization? In the first phase, it was philosophical. A new type of man appeared, the philosopher, motivated to seek the truth. This was a man of great discipline who put truth-seeking above pleasures of this world. Necessarily, his was an elite occupation; the masses could not be expected to adopt this austere mode of living. In time, however, the new spirit of truth seeking worked its way into existing religions. Philosophy became infused in earlier traditions of religion to create a culture that accommodated the emotional side of life. Such values as mercy and love were added to the mix of ethical ideals. Human personalities assumed a central position in religious worship. Scripturally-based religions emerged.

Some may wonder why this spiritual awakening occurred in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.? One explanation is that it coincided with the spread of alphabetic literacy. This type of writing is believed to have originated in Palestine or the Sinai in the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C. The peoples of Canaan and Phoenicia had fully developed alphabets perhaps as early as the Hebrew patriarchs. Their relatively early acquisition of writing allowed the Jews to record their religious expressions in a more primitive stage.

Yet, the same wave of ethical thinking that swept through the rest of the Old World also came to Judaea. One catches a glimpse of this spirit in the words of the prophet Amos who, quoting God, wrote: “Hate evil and love good; enthrone justice in the courts ... I hate, I spurn your pilgrim-feasts; I will not delight in your sacred ceremonies ... (Instead) ... Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. ” (Amos 5: 15, 21, 24) Rituals were replaced by conformity to ethical ideals.

In the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., then, we had a fully developed system of government combined with philosophical ferment brought on by the diffusion of alphabetic literacy. Many philosophers of that age were persons aspiring to impose their ideas on governments. Confucius and Zoroaster wandered from one royal court to another looking for a king to patronize their schemes. Buddha, on the other hand, was a royal prince who renounced his throne to pursue philosophy. His life, too, served to advance the principle that philosophy was superior to worldly power. Plato put forth a proposal for a “philosopher-king”. In Judaea, the focus was upon reviving the idealized empire of King David or, in a later version, bringing about a supernatural or spiritualized “Kingdom of God”.

A factor in the decline of state religion was that truth-seeking individuals questioned the traditional values of their society. Each had his own idea of who God was. Aristotle, for instance, identified God with the philosophical concept of the Good. God became, as Toynbee suggested, a manifestation of “Absolute Reality” - i.e., an idea. Socrates played a part in this process both as a questioner of community values and a martyr for the new “religion” of truth. An Athenian jury convicted Socrates for the crime of impiety because he had caused young people to question the civic religion of Athens. But Socrates had once fought bravely for Athens. He had honest convictions and faced death with courage and dignity. The injustice of executing him for impiety gave the old civic religion a bad name.

With Jesus, the same dramatic elements were present. He, too, went to his death on a trumped-up charge while retaining his dignity to the end. In this case, the Jewish high priest and his crowd arraigned Jesus on the charge of blasphemy - claiming to be God. The Roman authorities acquiesced for political reasons. As depicted in the Gospels, it was a classic case of pitting truth against the world. The followers of Jesus went on to create a religious institution which became a pillar of the emerging civilization. While the previous type of civilization was based on military might, the second was tempered with the moral influence of religion. Goodness was said to be superior to worldly power.

The Political Origin of World Religion

Historians have too little noted that the founders of the first two world religions, Buddha and Jesus, did not arise from the tribe (or caste) of hereditary priests but from that associated with royal government. Gautama, the Buddha, was a member of the Kshatryia, or warrior, caste rather than belonging to the caste of Brahmin priests. Likewise, Jesus was not a Levite priest. Instead, he was born into the tribe of Judah which had produced David, Solomon, and other kings. His lineage was traced through Joseph to the House of David. A sign in three languages hung over his body at the crucifixion, saying “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (John 19: 19) We are told in the Gospel of John that, even if this title was meant to mock Jesus, some took it seriously and tried to have Pontius Pilate to change the wording to read: “He claimed to be King of the Jews.” But Pilate refused.

So in a mysterious way, world religions such as Buddhism and Christianity have politics in their genes. They brought a change in the direction of religion. Religion was changing from concern with performing rituals correctly to scripturally based systems of belief. The image of government in a full-blown form underlay this new scheme. In Buddha’s case, the decisive event of his life was to renounce the throne of a small kingdom in Nepal and seek the higher good of personal enlightenment. In Jesus’ case, it was to seek the “Kingdom of God”, a divine order which would replace earthly kingdoms. We see, then, that, while such religions embraced government as the dominant institution of their day, their teaching aimed at a superior order. They were moving civilization to its next stage.

On the Anvil of Opposing Forces in the Fertile Crescent

Political history is the matrix from which Jewish prophecy sprang. Had the Jews maintained themselves as a powerful nation, no prophets need have arisen to challenge their moral direction. Through most of its history, however, this nation was politically and religiously divided. It was under attack from powerful neighbors.This unhappy historical experience conflicted with a promise which God had delivered through Moses that the Jews would prosper under his guidance and protection. They would always be on top.

The geography of the Middle East tells why the Jewish nation may have run into problems. The earliest civilizations on earth were in Egypt and Mesopotamia, in the northeastern corner of Africa and in the area north and east of the Persian gulf respectively. City-states first appeared there during the 4th millennium B.C.. For at least a millennium, those societies were unchallenged by other civilized societies, only by nomadic tribes. In the 2nd millennium B.C., we find the first known cases of military conflict between political empires. The kingdom of David and Solomon arose toward the end of this millennium. Then, in the 1st millennium B.C., things took a turn for the worse. The Jews, living in Palestine, were hammered by more powerful neighbors who had created aggressive empires.

The accompanying map shows Palestine in relation to other countries of the Middle East; it lies within an irrigated strip of land which is sometimes called the “fertile crescent”. Egypt and Mesopotamia, the two “cradles of civilization”, are at either end of this inverted U-shaped territory. The inhospitable Arabian desert stands between them. One must go to the north, through Syria, to travel easily by land. Palestine is south of Syria, on the Egyptian side of the crescent. As powerful nations situated in Egypt and Iraq had increasing contact with each other, Palestine became the buffer. Often, it was a battleground in wars between Egypt and kingdoms to the north.

At Megiddo, in Galilee, there was a fork in an ancient trade route that ran between Mesopotamia and Egypt. At one time, this city had a larger population than Jerusalem. Megiddo was the site of several important battles including one that took place in 1468 B.C. when Pharaoh Thutmose III defeated an alliance of Asian powers to become master of Palestine. We know this as the site of “Armageddon” - “Har” meaning a mountain overlooking the valley of Megiddon - the predicted battleground of the last struggle between good and evil described in the book of Revelation.

Zechariah foretold that “on that day I will set about destroying all the nations that come against Jerusalem, but I will pour a spirit of pity and compassion into the line of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Then they shall look on me, on him whom they have pierced, and shall wail over him as over an only child, and shall grieve for him bitterly as for a first-born son. On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning over Hadad-rimmon in the vale of Megiddo. (Yet also) ... on that day a fountain shall be opened for the line of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to remove all sin and impurity.” (Zech. 12: 10, 13:1)

So we can see that Palestine, ancestral homeland of the Jews, was a place drenched in the blood of wars between foreign powers. Egypt, to the south, was a military presence for nearly three thousand years preceding the time of Jesus. Like an anvil, it caught the blows of attacking forces from the north while at other times seeking conquest. Egypt’s northern adversaries included Hurrian, Mitanni, and “Hyksos” nomads, as well as Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks. In the end, the Romans conquered all. Then Christianity conquered Rome.

Toynbee supposes that the Hebrew people were a nomadic tribe which settled in lands along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean sea around the 12th century B.C. This region had previously been under the influence of the Hittite and Minoan civilizations. Along with the Amorites, Phoenicians, and Persians, the Hebrews belonged to what Toynbee called the “Syriac civilization”. Such peoples invading a settled area usually came from a sparsely populated hinterland in the desert or steppe.

According to the Bible, however, the Hebrews were exiles from more ancient civilizations. Abraham, thought to be their ultimate forbearer, came to Canaan (or Palestine) from the Sumerian city of Ur. After living in Canaan for a time, Abraham’s descendants moved to Egypt to avoid famine. Moses then led an Exodus from Egypt back to Canaan. So we have a connection here with the two earlier civilizations that arose at either end of the fertile crescent.

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