So what are we to make of the “relatively” long history of human’s efforts to make some sense out of what we are not able to understand about the mysteries of the world and the universe and our place in it? “Relatively long” because the kernels of the religious quest started over 20,000 years ago, but that amounts to less than a microsecond in the context of a planet that came into being 4.5 billion years ago. The takeaway from the last two blog posts was that the religious quest began with Homo sapiens due to features of our brains, which distinguish us from all other animals. We have imagination and we ask questions. Some believe human brains are “hard wired” to search for answers related to why we exist and what is the meaning of life. Over the past 20,000 plus years, religion has been the vehicle we humans have used to seek answers and to communicate with the spiritual realm. The earliest religions were animistic, and some used shamans and other holy men to help us humans communicate with these spirits, which came to be called gods. Gradually over many thousands of years, religion became more sophisticated, religious “professionals” were enlisted to help, and animism morphed into polytheism, some with elaborate cosmologies. Specific gods came to be associated with clans, tribes, nations, and empires. Common religious beliefs helped bond people together and helped leaders keep control of their clans, states, and nations.
Polytheism was the dominant form of religious belief and practice for thousands of years. The first inkling of monotheism did not happen until the writings of Zoroaster in ancient Persia around 600 BCE. The Jews were not far behind, having adopted some of the gods worshiped by neighboring tribes in Canaan and placing one god, Yahweh, above all others. By 350 BCE, however, Israel had become solidly monotheistic. Other nations and empires, however, held onto scores of deities, and two of these countries had a huge influence on the Mesopotamian world. The first was the Greek Empire started by the conquests of Alexander the Great, who conquered and ruled a huge area around the eastern Mediterranean Sea almost to India, beginning in 356 BCE and lasting over 100 years, until 30 BCE, giving way to the Roman Empire, which expanded the area under its rule, which lasted another 400 years until 476 CE.
At the time of Jesus, Palestine was ruled by Rome as a vasal state with a puppet ruler, Herod the Great. But the cultural influencer at the time was still Greece, which had ruled the region for over 300 years. Most educated people spoke Greek and were influenced by Greek religion and Greek philosophy. The early manuscripts of the Christian New Testament were all written in Greek.
This is the world that Jesus was born into. Even though Palestine was under Roman rule, Judaism remained strong as the dominant religion in Palestine and unlike the other religions was strongly monotheistic. Jesus was first and foremost a devout Jew, influenced by the teachings of the Torah and the Prophets and belief in one God.
There is very little historic information about Jesus outside of the material in the Bible. There are believed to have been brief accounts, now lost, by minor historians at the time and a brief references by Josephus, a Jewish historian, in the 90s CE and Tacitus, a Roman historian, in the early 100s CE. We know that he lived and that he was executed by the Romans but that is about it. All the information we have comes from writings which began as stories and oral tradition by Jesus’s followers. The writings came many years after Jesus’s death around 30 CE. when he was only in his very early thirties. (No one knows for sure the exact dates). Mark was the first Gospel, written a generation later between 65 and 70 CE, followed by Matthew and Luke (85-90 CE), a second generation later, and finally followed by The Gospel of John (early 100s). The writers were not likely eyewitnesses and relied heavily on oral tradition and stories passed down from those who were.
Jesus’s ministry was mainly in Galilee and lasted only a few years. He performed miracles, preached a message of love and redemption by God, and the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. He healed the sick, comforted the poor and the outcast, and was anti establishment with calls for addressing the injustices in the world.
So here is the central question: why did this new religion centered around Jesus happen and how and why did it grow so quickly, eventually becoming centuries later in the early 2000s the most popular religion on the planet with over 30 percent of the Earth’s population calling themselves Christian? There are hundreds of books and scholarly articles dealing with the life and meaning of Jesus. I read some of them when I was a student at Union Seminary in New York in the mid 1960s. Here is my take:
Five things enabled Christianity to resonate and expand. The first is what I call the “resurrection experience.” Whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not has been debated for years, but certainly Jesus’s followers believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. This was the “good news” or “gospel” of the early church and was a message that validated Jesus’s message and His life. It resonated with many people as a direct connection between Jesus and God, and morphed into the belief that Jesus was God. Were it not for the resurrection experience, at best Jesus would have been noted briefly as just another Jewish prophet.
The second reason is Saul of Tarsus, a respected rabbi, who had his own resurrection experience of Jesus after the crucifixion, changed his name to Paul and committed his life to evangelizing others. Paul was brilliant, a good writer, energetic, charismatic, and an inspiring person. He was the person who figured out what the life and death of Jesus meant. His primary audience were the gentiles (the Greek speaking world outside of Palestine) and the Jewish diaspora, not the Jews in Palestine. He was extraordinarily successful. In a word, no Paul, no Christianity.
The third reason was that humans on the planet Earth had had their fill of polytheism where hundreds of gods existed in the Roman and Greek lexicons. Human beings were searching for something better, something that made more sense. There also was much religious fervor in the Greek speaking world where Gnosticism and mystery religions were flourishing. People were looking for something more. Jews in Palestine were also unsettled, unhappy with Rome dominance and had differing views about Judaism. The news of Jesus fell on fertile soil.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, was his message: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ “ (Matthew 22:37–39). The central message of love, redemption, and hope continues to be the most important message of the Christian faith. This message has had a major impact on the history of the Planet Earth. It has changed millions of lives for the better and provided hope for those in despair and pain.
There is a final reason and that is the Emperor Constantine, who in 313 CE ordered the persecution of the early Christians to cease. This was instituted by Edict of Milan, following his victory over his brother’s army in a battle for the control of the Roman Empire. Constantine’s army was much smaller than his brother’s and as a desperation measure, Constantine, who had a vision of Jesus in a dream, had the Christian symbol of Chi Rho painted on the shields of his soldiers. (His mother had converted to Christianity years earlier). His underdog army won at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Game over. Years later Constantine’s successor, Maxentius, in 380 CE declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Had Constantine lost, persecution of Christians likely would have continued, and the fledgling religion could have died out. When it became the religion of the Roman Empire, it expanded dramatically. This came with a huge price, however, as the early enthusiasm, energy and dedication of the early converts cooled off after Christianity became a state religion. In addition it took several hundred years for the early church to come to terms with the Resurrection and what it meant. Theology was in high gear, with religious leaders and scholars trying to find answers to questions like these: Was Jesus human or divine? What was the relationship between Jesus and God? Where was Jesus between the time he died and when he rose from the dead? What does this mean for humans? Was Jesus a sacrifice to redeem the flawed human race or was he just a role model? Is there such a thing as a Holy Spirit and is that part of God? These same questions are still being discussed and debated in churches and religious institutions around the world.
Shortly after he decreed that Christians should not be persecuted, however, Constantine was concerned about the divisions in the early church. He had made Christianity safe, for goodness sake. What did they want? Constantine was not about to let the fledgling religion fall apart and thus weaken his rule. He ordered the church leaders to come together and resolve the conflict, essentially putting all of them in a room and throwing away the key until they could agree on the fundamentals of the religion. This happened in the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, producing the Nicene Creed but it took over 50 years and another council to clear up some lingering issues. The council produced the creed that most churches use today, and that was in 381 CE. Bottom line: It took almost 400 years for the Christian Church to figure out the basics of the Christian faith. And as we know today, there are still deep differences regarding belief, worship and the ultimate meaning of Christianity.
So for those today who insist that Christianity is the only valid religion and that you are going to hell if you do not take Jesus as your personal savior, which version of Christianity are you talking about and what is your answer as to why it took so long for the early Christians to figure this out?
My answer is this: We humans are limited by how much we can understand. We sit at the top of the animal kingdom, but we are in fact animals. We do get hints from time to time, but with regard to Absolute Knowledge, it is beyond our pay grade. For the Absolutists who label people like me heretics, explain to me the meaning of the Big Bang. Explain why it took God over 4 billion years before we Homo sapiens began our quest to communicate with God. Explain what the other 100 billion stars are all about in our Milky Way Galaxy. Explain what is going on with the 200 billion galaxies that scientists believe exist. Some say the number is closer to a trillion. And then there is the idea that our universe is part of a multiverse, which includes an infinite number of universes. You do not know the answers to these questions, nor do I. Yet we say in the Nicene Creed that we believe God created everything in the universe. Sorry, friend, many things we will never know.
But does this mean that we humans should throw in the towel and become card carrying athiests? Heavens no, not in my book. Atheists are acting on faith every bit as much as Christians. Who is to say with authority that there is no meaning in life and that the spiritual world is not real? We are all on a journey to try to make sense of our lives with regard to the Big Picture; and for me, the tradition I was raised in (Episcopalian) is as good a path as others. That is why I have hung in with the Christian spiritual journey all these years. One destination, many pathways. But you have to find a pathway.
Postscript: A Note to Readers
I recently received an email asking me why I am writing about the evolution of the planet and how religious life began. Easy answer: the Senior Warden (“board chair”) of our neighborhood Episcopal Church asked if I would do a lecture/discussion series for our small congregation on something to do with religion and Christianity. We are in a transition period without permanent clergy; and given my seminary background, I was a logical candidate. Besides the warden’s name is Embry Howell. How could I refuse?
So I have been hard at work, trying to remember what I learned at Union Seminary along with a lot more research on the web. My goodness, what a difference the web makes! However, I promise I have not gotten any help from ChatGPT or any other AI. I recall the story of the guy who asked ChatGPT if there was a God. The answer came back: “Now there is.”
These posts (and there will be a few more) have given me the chance to try to make some sense out of my own life and my religious journey. At my advanced of age 81, there is not a lot of time left….