The Evolution of Faith

Once there was a mythical age when people worked the land, were close to each other and had a strong reverence for nature. They lived with and depended upon the plant and animal spirits. There was little separation between the outer world of form and the inner world of mythology. Life depended upon nature, and although the people respected her, they also feared her. The mysteries of life were explained by myth. Their lives were run by something we call superstition. Their spirituality was personal and individual, it was experiential. All things, good or bad, came from the personal, or clan, relationship to spirit. All forms of expression, either what today we call the performing arts, i.e., dance, music, song, theater, story telling, or the classical arts, i.e., painting, poetry, sculpture, prose, astrology, reading oracles, etc., as well as their religion, connected the people to that which could not be seen. Although scientifically ignorant, they had a relationship with nature, spirit, and each other that we are unable to comprehend.

Although native people did pay homage to nature spirits and other gods, they were not always respectful to nature herself. Their agriculture was slash and burn and when erosion took over, they simply moved. There were just too few of them to make a serious impact. Idyllic as it may sound, scraping an existence out of the ground has never been easy. It is very hard work, and it can be dangerous. The only redeeming quality is that it leaves much free time for social, family and spiritual pursuits. Hunters usually work 2-3 hours a day and are then free for other activities. (That has not changed much since the Paleolithic age when hunters worked about 15 hours a week.) The Romans enjoyed 150-200 public holidays a year. All Medieval Europeans from lords to peasants had 200 days off a year (about 150 holidays and 52 Sundays). By contrast, in 1850 the average U.S. manufacturing work week was 70 hours, and four annual holidays without pay. Today in most US families, both adults find it necessary to work. So much for progress.

Then too, disease, pestilence, famine and raiding warrior bands periodically ravaged the population and its food supply. The people were either the property of some lord or paid homage to a warrior chief. For this honor their sons could go to war to be butchered or maimed. We must remember that in the 12th and 13th centuries men lived in castles and walled cities because they needed them. There are those who would have us turn the clock back 2,000 years and “return to nature.” The sentiment is admirable because we have lost our connection to nature and have little respect for her, but to the chagrin of romanticists, almost every tribal society has dropped its old ways when given the opportunity to do so. The seductive power of technology is a drug to man’s inherent thirst for power. Writers wax romantic about the “noble savage,” but they write these things in Mill Valley or Long Island. There are few “noble savages” who would not love to have clean water, a garden tractor, or a shotgun. We left caves for good reason, and it makes little sense to try to return. We must, however, find ways to recultivate our connection to nature and the land.

Confronted with the natural spirituality of native people the early church felt compelled to convert these pagans to Christianity and destroy competing beliefs. When the Church “saved these poor, ignorant savages” it replaced individual, experiential spirituality with a learned one, with faith and belief. God went from being known and expressed through the events of life to a remote and distant heaven where he rarely bothered with the people. This Christian God was inaccessible. He could not be felt, he had to be imagined. God could no longer be found in the woods or streams, he was an intellectual concept created by the Church. The people were forbidden to read his teachings directly. The Bible was not for the common people. In fact, until fairly recent times, those who translated the Bible into common language were ruthlessly persecuted. This was not a positive faith that created an affirmation of life and taught the interrelatedness of all things, it was a negative faith of intellectual ideas. This faith was based on the reaction to doubt and the fear of a condemning Creator. It was rooted in the need to conquer unbearable doubt and insecurity.

When people cease to experience God, they are forced to believe in him, and belief, as Paul Tillich pointed out, is a commodity subject to loss. Or, as William James maintained, belief is fragile because it is usually “faith in someone else’s faith.” As the cliche goes, “Theologians know a great deal about God but very little of God.” The divine had been removed from the realm of experiential knowing and degenerated into an object of external worship, robbing it of its “mysterious relation to the inner man.” Thus, along with salvation came insecurity and uncertainty.

This distant and remote God was also an unkind one. He gave man sexuality and sexual urges and yet, according to the celibate priests of the Church, made sex evil. People came into the world damned since lust pervaded every child by the act of conception. Thus, man was forced to share Adam’s sin and shame. We are also just beginning to learn that the Church’s interpretation of certain passages was extremely biased to serve the Church’s private ends. Consider this direct translation from the Aramaic texts (the native language of Jesus and his disciples) of the parable of the Garden of Eden:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasing to the eyes, and that the tree was delightful to look at, she took the fruit of it and did eat, and she also gave to her husband with her, and he did eat;

The church has vilified women for centuries as temptresses and seducers, the authoress of death and creator of all earthly woe. It has used the Garden parable as proof. Yet in the original Semitic text (both Aramaic and Hebrew) the serpent uses the plural form when addressing Eve:

And the serpent said to the woman You (plural – tmuaton) absolutely shall not die; for God knows that in the day you (plural – aton) eat of it, your eyes shall be opened and you (plural – aton) shall become like God knowing everything.

The text makes it clear that both Adam and Eve made the decision to eat the forbidden fruit, and yet “Original Sin” which is a gross misinterpretation of the Parable in the first place, has been dumped on Eve for centuries. The church had a doctrine at the time: Omne bonum a Deo, omne malum ab homine, i.e., “All good from God, all evil from man.” The whole focus of the Church was on salvation and the afterlife, nothing else mattered. Jules Michelet writes of the Medieval church: “On Sundays after Mass the sick came in scores, crying for help — and words were all they got: “You have sinned, and God is afflicting you. Thank Him; you will suffer so much  the less torment in the life to come.” In pagan societies the shamans were at least healers too.

Having taken man’s spirituality from him, the Church replaced it with fear. Then it corrupted this and abused its power. The Catholic Church of the 12th through the 17th centuries was corrupt beyond imagination, and held itself above criticism or reform. Consider the words of Dietrich Von Nieheim, Bishop of Verden, written in 1411:

When the existence of the Church is threatened, she is released from the commandments of morality. With unity as the end, the use of every means is sanctified, even cunning, treachery, violence, simony, prison, death. For all order is for the sake of the community, and the individual must be sacrificed to the common good.

As institutional rigidity and moral corruption spread, the Church began to lose the people’s respect and its base of power eroded. People began to search for other forms of spirituality that spoke to their needs and allowed a more direct contact with God. They began to openly question the Church’s practices and its trusteeship of the faith. The Church’s response was to tighten control. It created the Inquisition. There had always been low level antagonism between intellectuals and Church literallists who saw the Bible as the source of all knowledge. Copernicus could not publish his findings until his death, and Galileo was threatened with torture if he wrote or taught science that contravened scripture. Girodano Bruso was burned at the stake in 1600 for teaching the existence of infinity. During the Inquisition, reformers, scientists and intellectuals literally fought for their lives. A slip of the tongue or the pen, jealousy or neighborly gossip, of which there was a great deal, could bring a person before the scrutinizing eye of the Inquisitor to be tortured (torture was routine). If torture did not kill the hapless victim outright he or she was certain to eventually confess and would then join the estimated five million souls burned alive at the stake by the emissaries of The Prince of Peace.

Scientists knew that scriptural literalists were wrong and reformers and men of conscience knew that the Church had become abusive and corrupt. They formed the core of an intellectual revolution called Humanism and a religious revolution called The Reformation that freed the upper classes from Church control, and offered the masses a doctrine that decried church based spirituality and exalted what it saw as the higher aspect of man’s basic nature. Humanism glorified the individual and made him more free, but it was a rational and intellectual philosophy purposefully without spiritual content. The Bible had been replaced by dry Aristotelian logic. Carl Jung wrote that the uprooting of spiritual interiority, which he felt was vital to man’s health and well being, was greatly enhanced when Thomas Aquinas adopted the Aristotelian slogan, “Nothing in the intellect except the senses.”

Humanism offered freedom from political and clerical tyranny, but in abolishing man’s spiritual connection left him alone and isolated. Luther recognized this loss when he wrote: “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it struggles against the divine word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.” If the Humanists were without spirit the emerging Protestant sects lacked compassion. They demeaned man, holding that he could achieve no merit by his actions, and that any grace he received came from the free action of God alone. Rooted in Catholic training, they assumed an innate evilness in man that made it impossible for anyone to be good from his basic nature. These fundamentalist groups were without soul and, as we see in such groups today, when spirituality loses contact with soul it becomes rigid, simplistic, moralistic and authoritarian. Rigid in their beliefs to the point of fanaticism and cruelty, the excesses of the Puritan sects would foster a reemergence of Catholicism. Although the Reformation and Humanism had freed people from the abuses of the Catholic church, they had opened the doors to the destruction of faith through rationalism.

copyright©Blue Lotus Press 2016

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