The Evolution of Religion

I have read several books on this journey. Professor Bart Ehrman’s book, “Jesus Interrupted” was among those and it turned out to be the perfect provocateur with a background of world religions developing over 8,000 years paired with the development of Christianity over the past 2,000. I will not try to reproduce the numerous insights from a three hundred page book and it would make a fabulous group study book, let me give a few key points of Ehrman’s which, by the way, are nothing new to my seminary training nor to anyone who has taken Education For Ministry. It was a good survey book for me and reminded me of some important things.

The religion OF Jesus morphed very quickly into the religion ABOUT Jesus.

Christianity developed a number of doctrines (and continues to do so) that simply cannot be supported by the Bible. All religions evolve in the face of cultural and historical forces.

Ancient religions followed similar courses of change and evolution. The early, pre-Hellenistic pantheon grew over the centuries adding stories and personae. This eventually becomes the full Olympic pantheon. Following the Roman conquest, the Greek gods and stories morph into the Roman pantheon. 

In the historical contest for doctrinal winners and losers, sometimes those closest to the original teachings of Jesus lose and sometimes they win. The various forms of Christianity we have today; whether evangelical or Orthodox, are far from the teachings of the itinerant, illiterate, apocalyptic prophet preaching in the backwaters of Galilee named Jesus.

The historical battle over doctrinal views of a religion are generally fought by well-meaning people who want to make the world better but the real driving motivation underneath it all is the quest for money and power.

So if all religions are “impure” in the sense that they evolve under human pressures quite a distance from the teachings of the founder, should we just get rid of them all? I am not ready to say “Let’s all be atheists.” Many religious communities contribute very positively to their larger community context. What would replace them if we waved a magic wand and got rid of all religions (as John Lennon advocated)?

Have they lost their validity? Even the Greek and Roman pantheons served a public good in unifying a population, giving it a history, stories to be proud of, moral lessons, and a cultural identity. But there may be times when a religion drifts so far from its founding roots, that something needs to be done. For example, when the zeal to expand a religion becomes an excuse for sectarian warfare and killing, the religion needs to disavow violence and work to stop it. Otherwise it loses validity as a force for good.

So perhaps the criteria for the validity of a religion should be decoupled from its beliefs and doctrines. As long as a religion is a force for good in society and it rejects and works to end violence, then it should remain as long as it works for the people. For example, even though Nestorian Christianity was repudiated by the Council of Nicea in 325, there are (or at least up to the recent wars in Syria) still communities of Nestorian Christians in Syria, still worshiping in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

The books I read this summer:

  • “Jesus Interrupted” Bart Ehrman
  • “In God We Trust” Kevin Kruse
  • Wine book
  • “Restore Restore Restore and More”

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