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3.1 Religions

The seven religions taken into consideration have common characteristics but also some very dissimilar aspects:

  • Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monotheist
  • Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, and Confucianism are polytheist
  • Judaism, Christianity, Islam and, to a certain point, Buddhism, are universal religions with adepts all over the world
  • Shinto, Taoism, and Confucianism are generally described as Asian religions
  • Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Confucianism have a clear founder. The others do not have such a figurehead
  • Judaism, Christianity, Islam have definite doctrines and rituals that their members have to accept and follow without discussion
  • Judaism, Christianity, and Islam offer Salvation through faith based on the intervention of a Saviour
  • Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, and Confucianism offer something more like a religious–philosophical way of life in the members’ communities

Why do we Have Religions?

Practically every man/woman believes in one, or more, Divine Super Deity who has definite power over people’s life –from before birth to after death. As a consequence, people who want to know where they come from, and where they go after death, but have always been unable to find a logical answer, turn to religion – in one form or the other- to receive some indications. For the members of the three big monotheist religions God, known as Yahweh, the Father, or Allah, provides the answer. The other four have also their gods or deities, but their main teaching is mainly about religious-philosophical concepts that aim to guide their members on the “good way”. Most people are more curious than concerned about where they come from. After all, they are here, alive and, more often that not, they have a comfortable life without too much unsolved problems. What really interests them is to know where they will go after death. Nobody wants to die and we would like our life to go on forever, although we know that this is not possible. It is true that even the organised seven religions have no logical answer but, at least, they offer hope.

  • Judaism, Christianity and Islam tell their devotees that as long as they follow the rituals and rules of their church and believe in the official doctrine, salvation after death is possible, if not guarantee. In this case, salvation is by faith only
  • Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, and Confucianism do not require the same obedience, but they also offer hope for a better life after death

Means of Salvation

The hope of salvation has naturally involved ideas about how it might be achieved. These ideas have varied according to the form of salvation envisaged; but the means can be divided into five significant categories:

  • The most primitive way to salvation is based on belief in the efficacy of ritual magic
  • Salvation by “Gnosis or knowledge” has been the base of the ancients Mystery Schools and Gnosticism whose members had to be “initiated” into their secret teachings
  • Salvation by self-effort, usually through the acquisition of esoteric knowledge, ascetic discipline, or heroic death, has been variously promised in certain religions (orphism, Hinduism, for example)
  • Salvation by Divine aid, which has usually entailed the concept of a divine Saviour who achieves what man cannot do for himself (as in Christianity, Judaism, Islam)
  • Salvation obtained by knowledge, meditation and proper social behaviour with a minimum of ritual and doctrine. This is the case of Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, and Confucianism

Techniques of Salvation

The means by which salvation might be achieved has been closely    related to the manner in which salvation has been conceived, and to what has been deemed to be the cause of man’s need of it.

–  Ritual
Christianity’s main rituals are baptism in water, confession, symbolic communion with God (Eucharist), participation to mass, and obedience to the clergy and sacred texts. The Jewish rituals include circumcision of the boys, participation in religious ceremonials, respect of the dietary laws, etc. Islam’s rituals include respect of the Islamic laws as described in the sacred texts, participation to the rites and ceremonies, dietary laws, etc.

–  Knowledge
Religions that trace the ills of man’s present condition to some form of primordial error, or ignorance, offer knowledge that will ensure salvation. The three main monotheistic religions have their sacred writings. All members should at least be aware of them or, better, have read and understood them, each one at its own level of competence. These are the Old Testament for the Jews, the Old and New Testaments for the Christians, and the Koran for the Muslims. Buddhism. Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism offer a mixture of religious, philosophical and, up to a point, esoteric knowledge. In some instances (e.g., Buddhism and Yoga), the knowledge imparted includes instruction in mystical techniques designed to achieve spiritual deliverance.

Basic Context of Salvation
Evidences show that the menace of death is a basic cause of concern and action. Salvation from disease, or misfortune, which also figures in religion, is of a comparatively lesser significance. But the menace of death is of another order of importance, and it affects man more profoundly because of personal awareness of the temporal categories of past, present, and future. This time-consciousness is possessed by no other species with such clarity. It enables man to draw upon past experience in the present, and to plan for future contingencies. This faculty, however, has another effect: it causes man to be aware that he is subject to a process that brings change, aging, decay, and ultimately death to all living things. Man, thus, knows that he is mortal, he can project himself mentally into the future and anticipate his own death. Man’s burial customs grimly attest to his preoccupation with death from the very dawn of human culture. The menace of death is thus inextricably bound up with man’s consciousness of time. In seeking salvation from death, man has been led on to a deeper analysis of his situation. The quest for salvation from death becomes transformed into one for deliverance from subjugation to the destructive flux of time. The earliest known examples occur in ancient Egyptian religious texts. In the Pyramid Texts, the dead pharaoh seeks to fly up to heaven and join the Sun God Re on his unceasing journey across the sky believed to be a mode of existence beyond change and decay.

Christianity Taken as an Example
According to most Literalist Christian churches, all that is required from their members to deserve salvation is to have a “good social behaviour”, participate in the rituals and ceremonies of their churches, accept without restriction their doctrines, and follow and accept fully the indications given by the clergy. No special knowledge is required although, at least at the present time, reading of the sacred books (first of all the Old and New Testaments) is strongly recommended. It is a fact that until the first translation of the Bible from Latin to English and other current languages was made in the 14th century, people only knew the bible indirectly through their clergy. However, the Gospels did not become really available until after Gutenberg invented the printing process in the 15th century. But even later on, until the middle of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church, at least, still celebrated mass in Latin, a language known by very few people in the world at that time. Even the ordinary priests, who were obliged to do it, had only a limited knowledge of this language. It this way the members had no direct access to religious knowledge, which was imparted and explained to them by the Clergy. This limitation to a direct access to religious writings is not new. If we look back at the origin of Christianity, we first must recognise that Jesus Christ not only was a Jew, but also that he remained a Jew all his life. He was crucified by the Romans in the way they normally treated the Jewish people condemned to death. His funeral was also done following the Jewish custom. From all this we can only deduce that early Christianity, as conceived by Jesus Christ, was in fact a Jewish sect. James the Just, Jesus’ brother, who succeeded him as leader of the Jerusalem Christian Church, followed the Jewish laws too. It was St Paul who, for reasons of opportunity as well as to attract non-Jewish members, freed Christianity of its link to Judaism. In this way he gave Christianity the chance to become a Universal Church as this happened later on. By that time, at the beginning of the second century AD, Christianity grew and spread to many countries. It did not do so in a linear way. Many independent groups of people, all of them proclaiming to be Christian and Jesus Christ’s heirs, organised themselves and fought between them. The more important ones were the Gnostics and, of course, the Orthodox that we will describe as “Literalist Christians” to avoid any confusion with the Eastern Orthodox Church which is something completely different. The main differences between the two groups, or sects, can be summarised as follow:

  • The Literalist Christians believed that faith alone could lead to Salvation; that any contact with God was impossible for ordinary people, this privilege being reserved to the clergy; that the Bishops were the heirs in direct line from Jesus Christ and, if only for this reason, only them could interpret God’s will
  • The Gnostic believed that everybody with the proper preparation could have direct contact with God or, at least, to reach a certain union with the Divine; as a consequence, the clergy was useless and had no special privileges in the eyes of God.

The Literalist Christians defeated the Gnostics in the fourth century after many hundred years of confrontation. The present Christian Churches –especially the Roman Catholic Church- are the direct heirs of these early Literalists. There are quite a few reasons why the Literalist Christians won:

  • No special qualification was required to become a member of the Literalist Church. All that was necessary was to proclaim faith in the doctrine, in the Church, and obedience to the clergy. As a consequence, many people joined this sect as an easy way out
  • The Gnostic way to salvation was based on knowledge and this required a special ability, and a lot of work. In consequence, few people, known as the Elects, could reach salvation. The direct consequence was that Gnosticism could never become a Universal Church. Moreover, rejecting the clergy made any organisation impossible

In other words, if the Gnostics had won their battle with the Literalist Christians in the fourth century AD, the Christian Churches would more probably not be here today.

Jesus is traditionally described as growing in rural countryside among shepherds and fisherman. In fact, by that time, Judea had adopted Greek culture. Jerusalem was surrounded by Hellenised cities, the home of many Pagan philosophers. Even the Jerusalem’s Temple was, at one time, transformed into a Greek Temple to Zeus and festivals of Dionysus also took place there. The result was integration between the Jewish and Pagan culture over many centuries. The Jewish land was conquered many times, and the local people where strongly influenced by the Pagan culture of their conquerors. They were also dispersed in many countries as slaves forming what is known as the “Diaspora”. Those who were freed became integrated in the Pagan civilisation of their new country –especially in Alexandria- where they generally remained. They also integrated their own religious traditions with Pagan spirituality and science, such as astronomy. They even adopted their own version of the Pagan Mysteries, and some went as far as saying that Pagan philosophy was originally Jewish, saying, in fact, that paganism and Judaism were parts of the same religious tradition. They created a Jewish version of the Pagan Mysteries that led to the Jesus Mysteries. Philo wrote in 10AD, 20 years before the date of Jesus’ crucifixion (according to the Literalists) about a group of Jews, known as the “Therapeutae”; many experts believe that they were the first Christians and, obviously, not Literalist Christians. These Therapeutae were Jewish, but they were practising a Jewish version of the Pagan Mysteries. However, they celebrated the Jewish festivals and followed the Jewish Law but they also dressed in white, held all their goods and wealth in common, and admitted women as equals.

Was Jesus Christ a Literalist Christian or a Gnostic?
This is the main question, of course, but there is no clear answer:

  • The Literalists have no doubt that Jesus was one of them. Accordingly, the stories in the Gospels and the other books of the New Testament are a clear proof of their belief. They, of course, forget to say that they made the selection of the books included in the New Testament, rejecting and burning all those that did not fully comply with their views
  • There is no Gnostic left to defend their point of view. Up to a few years ago, none of their writings were available, having been burned by the Literalists, and the only contemporary documents dealing with Gnosticism had been written by their opponents.

The situation has changed with the discoveries of Gnostic writings at Nag Hammadi. It is now obvious that Gnosticism was an important Christian sect of which the Literalists had reason to be afraid. Not only they wrote many books to explain their beliefs and doctrine, but also it is also clear that they had a large and important following. From what they wrote it is not possible to decide definitely if Jesus Christ was a Gnostic or not, but they present a good case in favour of this view. From their many documents on this subject we will look more closely to “The Gospel of Thomas”.

Gnostic writings are full of references to Greek mythology as well as concepts from Pagan philosophy, astrology and magic, and Jewish mythology. A Gnostic group called Nassenes taught a philosophy that is based on Pagan, Jewish, and Christian mythologies. For them, Jesus was the Great Mother’s mythical son known also as Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Pan, Bacchus, etc; these are all names for Osiris-Dionysus. Literalist Christianity has God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit while Gnostic mythology has the Holy Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and the Mother Goddess Sophia. The Supreme God of the Pagan Mysteries was an ineffable Oneness beyond all qualities. He could not be described by words, and He could not be seen as a divine “personality”. The Gnostics adopted this concept. For both the Pagans and the Gnostics Zeus, Jehovah, and all the other personalised gods were only images of the true God. The Gnostic sage Valentinus said that Jehovah, the god of the Jews and the Literalist Christians, was in fact a “demiurge”, that is a subordinate divine being, a servant of the true God. Jesus Christ was not Jehovah’s prophet but the prophet of their True Ineffable God as well as from the Pagan Mysteries.

The Gospel of Thomas
The Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas was found at Nag Hammadi although its existence was already known to scholars (some references to it appear in the writings of some church fathers and other ancient writers). It is an old collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus Christ and believed to have been recorded by Judas Thomas, Jesus’ twin brother. It was probably written at the end of the first century AD, or at the beginning of the second. It is rather similar to the “Lost Gospel Q (from the German Quelle, “source”) reconstructed from sayings appearing in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The four Gospels included in the New Testament relate the life of Jesus of Nazareth, his miracles, his trial, his death, and his resurrection. In Thomas’ Gospel there is nothing of this kind, but only sayings of Jesus. It states that those who understand correctly these sayings will find salvation and life (“Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death”, saying 1). In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus does not perform any miracles, does not reveal fulfilment of any prophecy, announces no apocalyptic disruption of the world order, does not die on the cross to save his people and, obviously, there is no mention of any resurrection. In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus teaches wisdom, reduces the value of prophecy and its fulfilment (saying 52), criticises every apocalyptic prevision (sayings 51 and 113), and offer salvation through the understanding of the profound meaning of his sayings, whom his followers are invited to interpret correctly. Most of the sayings are esoteric, and suggest transcending the world and identifying with the divine. These sayings are obviously Gnostic since they describe knowledge as the way to salvation; they emphasises the mystical awakening of the inner self, that is the God within each of us. Saying 50 shows that Jesus is a dualist, contrasting the evil material world with the divine from which his disciples are children. Very often The Gospel of Thomas’ sayings are very similar to Jesus’ sayings recorded in the New Testament and in the Q Gospel. From this, one can conclude that there is a relationship between the synoptic Gospels, the Q Gospel, and the Gospel of Thomas. However, it is well accepted that the Gospel of Thomas is not an extraction of the synoptic Gospels but, on the opposite, these sayings appear to be more original than those of the New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas and the Q Gospel give an image of the historical Jesus that is quite different from the apocalyptic figure that is described in the New Testament. For instance he does not use any apocalyptic image to announce the coming of God’s kingdom. On the opposite, he declares very strongly that the kingdom is already on earth, but that most people, with the exception of those who have been able to interpret his sayings, do not see it. According to the sayings, Jesus is a preacher that travels through the towns and the countryside of Galilee teaching and explaining his vision of life that is summarised in his sayings.

Here below are some of the 114 sayings from the Gospel of Thomas:

  •  “These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Judas Thomas the Twin recorded” (prologue)
  •  “And he said, Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death” (saying 1)
  •  “Jesus said: Let one who seeks not stop seeking until one finds. When one finds, one will be troubled. When one is troubled, one will marvel and will rule over all” (saying 2)
  • Jesus said: If your leaders say to you, Look, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of heaven will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea”, then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and outside you
  • When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you will dwell in poverty, and you are poverty” (saying 3)
  • “Jesus said, I have thrown fire upon the world, and look, I am watching it until it blazes” (saying 10)
  • “Jesus said, Perhaps people think that I have come to impose peace upon the world. They do not know that I have come to impose conflicts upon the earth: fire, sword, and war. For they will be five in a house: There will be three against two and two against three, father against son and son against father, and they will stand alone” (saying 16)
  • “The followers said to Jesus, Tell us what heaven’s kingdom is like. He said to them, “It is like a mustard seed”. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of heaven” (saying 20)
  • “Jesus said: The Pharisees and the Scribes have taken the keys of knowledge and have hidden them. They have not entered, nor have they allowed those who want to enter to do so. As for you, be as shrewd as snakes, and as innocent as doves” (saying 39)
  • Jesus said, “Be passers-by” (saying 42)
  •  “Jesus said, Fortunate are those who are alone and chosen, for you will find the kingdom. For you have come from it, and you will return there again” (saying 49)
  • “Jesus said, Fortunate is the person who has worked hard and has found life” (saying 58)
  • “Jesus said, I disclose my mysteries to those who are worthy of my mysteries. Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (saying 62)
  • Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: From me all has come forth, and to me all has reached. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there” (saying 77)
  • Jesus said, “Whoever is near me is near the fire, and whoever is far from me is far from the kingdom” (saying 82)
  • “Jesus said, Seek and you will find. In the past, however, I did not tell you the things about which you asked me then. Now I am willing to tell them, but you are not seeking them” (saying 92)
  • Jesus said, “One who seeks will find; for one who knocks it will be opened” (saying 94)
  • Jesus said, “The Father’s kingdom is like a woman. She took a little yeast, hid it in dough, and made it into large loaf of bread. Whoever has ears should hear” (saying 96)
  • “Jesus said, damn the Pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the cattle manger, for it does not eat or let the cattle eat” (saying 102)
  • His followers said to him, “When will the kingdom come? It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, Look, here it is, or Look, there it is. Rather, the father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it” (saying 113).

According to the Gnostics what makes us free is Gnosis (knowledge), and the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas are “Gnosis” made available to people, religious or not. The first knowledge required is a complete knowledge of ourselves. These sayings tell us that salvation requires knowledge, not belief. Faith does not lead us to wisdom, and Jesus is a wisdom teacher. One cannot build a church on this gospel, nor organise a clergy around it. Jesus urges his followers to be passers-by, in other words loners who teach his wisdom, but not doers. This gospel repeats time and time again that what we seek is already inside and outside us, and the kingdom is on earth and open to be found; one only has to knock and enter. In addition, salvation can be described as the entrance in the wedding chamber by solitary, mystical intellectuals, or elitist individuals who have transcended gender distinction. In clear, this salvation is not for everybody, but only for the chosen few. This Jesus has not come to atone for the sins of the people of the earth; rebirth, in this context, means joining Jesus in his solitude and being a passer-by with him.

Judaism is the oldest of the religions taken into consideration

  1. The 6th century BC saw the founding -or rebirth- of three major religions
    – The Jews returned to Palestine after a long period of captivity and rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple (520/516 BC)?
    – Confucius lived in China at the same time and created his long lasting religion
    – T. Gotama, the future Buddha, was born in northern India in 567BC
  2. Shinto and Taoism date from the 3d or 4th century BC.
  3. Christianity, as we know it today, was founded during the first century AD and Islam, the more recent, dates from the 7th century AD.
  4. Main characteristics of the seven religions
ReligionsFounderMonotheist- PolytheistMain GodFoundation Date
JudaismNo?MonotheisticYahweh20th Century BC
ChristianityJesus ChristMonotheisticThe Father33rd Century AD
IslamMuhammadMonotheisticAllah7th Century .AD
BuddhismBuddhaPolytheisticBuddha?6th Century BC
ShintoNoPolytheisticNone3rd Century BC
TaoismNoPolytheisticNone4th Century BC
ConfucianismConfuciusPolytheisticNone6th Century BC