Man, through his whole history, has always felt necessary to believe in God or Gods. Very few men can say that they do not believe in a deity of one form or another. It is true that not all the people have ever believed in the same time in the same God(s) and, moreover, some new religions appear from time to time and others disappear. Nevertheless God is a constant presence through Man’s History. Religion is, at the base, a unifying tool. The members of any religion think generally of themselves as brothers and sisters. It is also, unfortunately and at the same time, a way to separate men. Members of different religions have generally regarded each other, at the best, as different but also, very often, as enemies. It is true that at the present time there is a tendency for the main religions to try to understand and respect each other but it is not always the case and it has not always been true. The people who deviated from one religion, those that we know as heretics in general, have been most of the time in History the object of repression. The main religions have not hesitated to use the secular forces to eliminate what they saw as their worst enemies, those coming from within and trying to change the system and put in doubt the leadership in place.
However before entering the subject it is necessary to define the main terms used.
Religion, broadly, way of life or belief based on a person’s ultimate relation to the universe or God. In this sense such diverse systems as Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Shinto may be considered religions. In a more commonly accepted sense, however, the term religion refers to faith in a divinely created order of the world, agreement with which are the means of salvation for a community and thus for each individual who has a role in that community. In this sense the term applies principally to such systems of Western civilisation as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which involve faith in a creed, obedience to a moral code set down in sacred Scriptures, and participation in a cult. In its most specific sense the term refers to the way of life of a monastic or religious order.
It is impossible to find a satisfactory definition of religion or a realistic way of classifying the various kinds of so-called religion because of the important differences of function among the various systems known. A general survey and comparison of religions would therefore be misleading if the material to be examined were all assumed to be of the same kind. It is a historical accident that the earliest European students of foreign or primitive cultures used the term religion for phenomena of which they had only a rudimentary knowledge. They jumped to the conclusion that other cultures must have institutions of the same type and function as Christianity or Judaism in their own culture. This premature assumption is at the root of much of the confusion.
In light of more advanced knowledge, a survey of religions must therefore begin by restricting the term religion to those institutions for which it has customarily been used-Judaism and its descendants, Christianity, and Islam. If this restriction is somewhat arbitrary, it nevertheless has the merit of giving the word a clearer meaning by confining it to institutions that have much in common.
The next step must be to examine the so-called religions found in other cultures, noting the degree to which they correspond to the term in its restricted sense and then employing new ways of classifying them when no correspondence is to be found. Such correspondence is not a matter of doctrinal agreement or disagreement, for example, as to ideas of God or of moral conduct. It is a matter of deciding whether institutions that have been called religions have the same function in their various cultural contexts that such an institution as Christianity has in the West.
Another difficulty that appears in attempting a survey of religions from the historical standpoint is the customary notion of so-called primitive religion as the earliest and most undeveloped form of human religious feeling and practice. It is not safe, however, to assume that non-western forms of culture lacking technological development are necessarily representative of the first groupings of the human race toward spiritual insights. The more that is known about different types of culture, the more difficult it becomes to fit them into any simple evolutionary scheme or even into any clear system of types.
For present purposes the treatment of religion will be concerned with a comparative account of three principal forms of consciousness about the human relationship to the universe or God, one found in the primitive religions, one in the religions as commonly defined, and the third in the various Oriental systems of belief and practice that may be termed “ways of liberation.” Social and moral rituals lie outside the scope of this article.
A.1 Primitive Religions
The varieties of feeling and behaviour known as primitive religions constitute a type of consciousness that Western civilisation has lost.
A.1.1 Internal and External World
The main feature of primitive religious consciousness, as studied among peoples such as the Polynesians, African blacks, or Native Americans, is the absence of any sharp boundary between the spiritual and the natural world, and thus between the human mind or ego and the surrounding world. This feeling may be described as corresponding on its own level with the modern intellectual grasp of humanity’s interrelationship with nature in the science of ecology. A similar absence of boundary prevails also between the worlds of waking experience and dream, and between the individual will and the spontaneous emotions and drives of the psyche. As a result, the whole external world is charged with powers that may be called mental or spiritual. Material objects, as stable and comprehensible features of the external world, do not exist, for everything seems to behave as whimsical as the events in dreams. Uncontrolled as the contents of experience may be in this state of mind, they would appear to be so lively, mysterious, and fascinating, as well as terrifying, that the whole of nature is suffused with an atmosphere of the awesome and uncanny. The German religious historian Rudolf Otto referred to such an atmosphere as the “numinous.”
A.1.2 Numinous Atmosphere
Basically, the numinous atmosphere is attached to the entire natural world and every object within it. A good example may be seen in Shinto, a present-day “primitive” religion practised in the sophisticated civilisation of Japan. Shinto has no system of doctrine, no creed, and no formulated religious ideas; it is fundamentally concerned with expressing wonder, respect, and awe for everything that exists. This concern involves treating everything as if it were a person, not always in the sense that it is inhabited by some human like ghost or spirit, but in the sense of having a mysterious and independent life of its own that may not be taken for granted.
Obviously some things such as the sun, the moon, the ocean, and certain mountains and places of peculiar strangeness or beauty seem more highly charged with the numinous atmosphere than others. As the intensity of the numinous at particular spots differs, so the qualities or aspects of the atmosphere itself differ.
In primitive religions not only external things and places but also human beings are, on occasion, felt to be charged with the numinous in a peculiar way. The type of person gifted with special access to the power aspect of the world in such religions is the shaman or medicine man or woman. This role is significantly different from that of the priest or minister of such a religion as Christianity, for the power of the shaman is not traditional but personal in origin. It is his or her own peculiar discovery, brought forth in solitude from commerce with dreams.
The numinous is more than the sensation of awe and mystery in the presence of an uncanny world. The absence of a clear boundary between the human mind and its environment, in a world in which both inner and outer events seem merely to happen, brings ecstasies as well as fears.
Ritual plays a major part in primitive cultures, although it is not recognisable to them as in any way different from so-called practical activity. It is rather an attempt to influence or to harmonise oneself with the course of nature by dramatised or symbolic enactment of such fundamental events as the daily rising and setting of the sun, the alternation of the seasons, the changing phases of the moon, and the annual planting and harvesting of crops. Moreover, ritual is the acting out of the great mythical themes that, in these cultures, take the place of religious doctrines. Ritual, as found in primitive religions, might therefore be described as an art form expressing and celebrating humanity’s meaningful participation in the affairs of the universe and the Gods.
In cultures in which this type of feeling about the world prevails, no department of life is specifically recognisable as religion. Everything is permeated by religion; indeed, religion is so involved with everyday life that it is impossible to distinguish the sacred from the secular. Only greater and lesser degrees of the sacred exist. Religion as a specific activity does not exist, and members of such cultures would have the greatest difficulty in talking about their religion. They would have no way of distinguishing the rituals for successful hunting from what Western culture would call the pure technique of hunting. Symbolic forms on spears, boats, and household utensils are not for them unessential decorations but functional parts of the object, for their effective use.
Similarly, such cultures have no religious doctrine or abstract concepts about the nature of the numinous and its difference from everything else. Spirit is a feeling rather than an idea; the language most appropriate to it consists not of concepts but of images. Thus, instead of religious doctrine there is myth, or an unsystematic complex of stories handed down from generation to generation because such tales are felt in some undefined way to represent the meaning of the world.
The assumption that solar and fertility myths are rudimentary attempts to explain natural forces, as science explains them, must probably be abandoned. Just as the myth-making cultures do not distinguish between spirit and nature, or religion and life, neither do they distinguish symbolic truth nor fantasy from literal truth or fact. It is not a matter of confusing myth with fact, for the idea of the literal fact has not yet arisen.
A.2 The Religions
Religions, as defined in this article, arise in cultures in which people have acquired a strong sense of differentiating the human mind from the natural environment, subjective consciousness from objective fact, and thus spirit from matter. This sense of differentiation accompanies the development of settled agricultural civilisations in which the division of labour requires that individuals play different roles in the community. In hunting cultures, each individual male is master of all the skills required for survival, but in farming cultures a much higher degree of co-operation is required between individuals with differing skills and functions. Such co-operation necessitates in turn more precise forms of communication between people and thus of convention, or common agreement, as to the symbols of communication, especially language and role.
A.2.1 Language, Convention, and Roles
A language becomes more effective as its vocabulary increases. Large numbers of words also indicate a high degree of awareness of distinctions among various things and events. Every word is a label for a class of experiences, and the essence of classification is that it divides things from one another. The necessity for playing different roles in the community also divides individuals from one another, and, to avoid confusion, requires individuals to identify themselves with their roles. Many names, such as Smith, Baker, Priest, Taylor, Carpenter, and Fuller, originally denoted roles performed in society. The word person (Latin persona) comes from the word for masks worn by actors in Greco-Roman drama, the different masks identifying the roles to be played by the actors. People develop an awareness of their uniqueness and separateness from others based, in part, on their acceptance of particular roles in society.
The division of individuals by role and the increased perception of divisions in the world by language come about through convention, which is both divisive and cohesive. Conventions are complex and learned with some difficulty, however. Because of this, the differences agreed on by society have to be enforced, just as children must be disciplined to learn a language and to master the rules of games or of etiquette and morals. The very life of the community depends upon observing the conventions of communication. The function of a religion is precisely to guarantee the whole system of convention, or the rules of thought and language, conduct, and role. For Judaism and Christianity, the idea of salvation is inseparable from the idea of belonging to a community of so-called chosen people, that is, the Church, considered as a body of members, or an assembly (Latin ecclesia), whether it be Israel or the communion of saints.
The connection between a system of social convention and a system of beliefs about the universe requires further explanation. Social convention includes such means as grammars, vocabularies, numbers, and signs, without which a person can feel, but cannot think about the world.
As a culture develops a coherent and orderly picture of the world, it is natural for its members to believe that the numinous power behind the world is itself coherent and orderly, and that it has unity. Their gradual realisation that the natural order of the world has an intelligent pattern is accompanied by a feeling that they did not invent, but discovered this pattern, which someone must know entirely. They therefore attribute it to an intelligence other than their own. The more people appreciate the complexity of the pattern, the more they marvel at the intelligence behind it and so begin to formulate a mature conception of God as a being who excels in wisdom and power and is immeasurably greater than a mere mortal.
Religion, in this sense, is invariably theistic. It involves belief in a personal, living, and spiritual God, distinct from the world that he has created as the human mind is felt to be distinct from what it knows. Various forms of theism exist, however. The Old Testament of the Bible shows a progress from henotheism (belief that the community must be loyal to one God only) to monotheism (belief that this God is the one and only God). Other forms of theism are polytheism, belief in many Gods, which includes usually at least a vague apprehension that the many are aspects of one; pantheism, the belief that God is simply all things in the universe (although this type of belief is historically a philosophical idea rather than a religious belief); and panentheism, the belief that every creature is an appearance or manifestation of God, who is conceived of as the divine actor playing at once the innumerable parts of humans, animals, plants, stars, and natural forces.
Religion is therefore communal faith in and conformity to the pattern that thought discovers, or has revealed to it, as the will or commandment of the intelligence behind the world. The community binds itself to this pattern as its rule of life consisting of three elements-the creed, the code, and the cult. Creed is faith in the revealed pattern and in the divine intelligence that gave it. Code is the divinely sanctioned and authorised system of human laws and morals comprising the rules of active participation in society. Cult is the ritual of worship, or symbolic acts, whereby the community brings its mind into accord with the mind of God, either by ceremonial dances or dramatic re-enactments of the deeds of God, or by sacrificial meals held in common between God and his people.
Religious salvation is basically the idea of incorporation in a divine community through conformity to the will of God. In the later phases of the Semitic tradition, salvation began to include the idea of survival beyond death, first through miraculous resurrection of the body and later, as a result of Greek influences, by virtue of the inherent immortality of the soul. Salvation, however, remained subordinate to and conditional upon membership in the divine community. After death, those who remain unincorporated are spiritual outcasts consigned, for example, to the Judaic Gehenna, the Christian hell, or the Islamic Iblis. On the other hand, salvation beyond death is conceived of as being a state of the most intimate union with God, in which, however, the distinct personality of each member is preserved.
Although salvation is considered to rest upon observance of a rule of life, all religious traditions recognise that, of their own powers, people cannot fulfil perfectly the conditions of salvation. The Hebrew Scriptures, which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam hold to be divinely revealed, contain the idea of a primordial Fall, or original sin, committed by the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, as a result of which the human will is basically perverted by self-love and pride. Salvation is therefore impossible without divine assistance. The three religions teach in common that God is, above all, loving and merciful and that his final purpose is the salvation of all humanity. Whenever individuals repent of their shortcomings, God freely offers his grace, that is, salvation considered as a gift to the undeserving. In the Christian tradition the only mediator or giver of grace is the historic Jesus of Nazareth, who is held to be the human embodiment or incarnation of God himself. Jesus loves the world so much that he comes into it to suffer its pains, bear its burdens, and transform it from within.
Therefore, in the present scheme of classification, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam may be termed the three “world religions,” that is, religions that have as their ideal the incorporation of the whole human race.
A number of other more localised faiths fit the definition of religion, but they are more closely bound to definite patterns of culture. These faiths are Sikhism in India and Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Parsees, in India and Iran. Among certain forms of religion no longer practised are the cults of Ra and Osiris of ancient Egypt and the classic mysteries of the Greco-Roman world.
A.2.4 The Ways of Liberation
In Asia are certain clearly recognised types of spiritual experience that occur in the West only incidentally and with a minimum of recognition by the official religious traditions. These types of experiences should not always be identified with mysticism, or the sense of union with God, which may occur often in a theistic and religious context. It therefore seems best to use the term “ways of liberation” to describe these forms of spiritual experience, for all are concerned with liberating human consciousness from ideas and feelings brought about by social conditioning, that is, by the very systems of convention that a religion, in the usual sense of the term, guarantees. These ways should not be considered anti religious, however, for they seek not so much to destroy religion and convention as to use them without being bound by them. They endeavour to go beyond the view of the world acquired through the use of thought and language; they consider that this view overemphasises the divisions and differences of things and tends to make people neglect their inseparability from the total universe. Among the principal ways of liberation are those found in Hinduism (notably Vedanta and Yoga), Buddhism, and Taoism.
Within the cultural complex of Hinduism, which may be considered panentheistic, are a number of equally legitimate darshana, or points of view, which the individual may adopt. The most notables are Vedanta, based on the teachings of the Upanishads, a body of poetic scriptures; and Yoga, a way of meditation believed indigenous to India. Both Vedanta and Yoga are concerned with liberation from the world, which is considered an illusion of reality.
Ordinarily, neither Vedanta nor Yoga is studied until a man has reached the middle of life, has established himself in his caste, which may be considered his role or vocation, and is ready to transmit his social duties to his sons. Thus, Vedanta and Yoga usually are not taught to children, as are the Scriptures and beliefs of such a religion as Christianity, but only to mature adults fully disciplined in the ways of society. These ways involve precisely giving up one’s role and person and leaving the task of maintaining one’s social obligations in order to prepare for death. The reason is that death is held to be a calamity when it comes to a person who still believes that he or she is a separate individual.
According to Vedanta, the idea that the world is a multiplicity of distinct things is considered Maya, or an illusion, resulting from the conventional way of thinking.
Vedanta maintains that all distinctions are relative to each other and that opposites such as the knower and the known, the subject and the object, are distinctions as inseparable as the two faces of a coin. In other words, the world can be separated into independent things only in thought. In concrete fact the world is an inseparable unity or, more exactly, a non-duality, for unity is also a thought or idea existing only in relation to the idea of diversity. The true state of the world is neither unity nor multiplicity. The state of the world is rather immeasurable, indescribable, and indefinable.
A man may therefore recognise that in his deepest consciousness (Atman, in Hinduism) he is not this separate individual but Brahman, or the indefinable totality. He has been led, however, to consider himself as a separate being by the necessarily divisive character of thinking. It cannot be said what Brahman is, because the basic reality of the world does not belong in any class to which a word can be attached. Even though Brahman cannot be grasped in words and ideas, it can, however, be experienced, and the realisation of this experience is the function of Yoga. This realisation consists in the so-called unification of consciousness, that is, in the temporary renunciation of all divisive thinking and in the abandonment of all ideas and concepts about life. The world then may be experienced in its original, real, and inseparable state.
Buddhism, the doctrine of Gautama Buddha (see BUDDHA), arose as a clarification and reform movement of Hinduism.
In many ways the objectives of Buddhism are the same as those of Vedanta and Yoga. Gautama Buddha avoided, however, giving even the barest name to that which is ultimately real, both in its universal aspect as Brahman and in its human aspect as the deepest self, or Atman. He felt that such terms were too easily turned into ideas and forms of thought that would detract from direct experience. His teaching was that people suffer because of avidya, or ignorance, of the total relativity of the world of things and events. Thought is avidya because it is a process of ignoring; that is, it cannot focus on any one aspect of experience without ignoring everything else. It is a way of looking at life bit by bit instead of totally and leads in turn to grasping (trishna, in Buddhism), or trying to wrest the desirable bits of experience away from the whole; however, because the good is always relative to the bad, this separation can never be accomplished. Similarly, one can never experience a solid without a surrounding space, space and solid being relative to each other. Giving up grasping leads to the Buddhist ideal of Nirvana, which Gautama Buddha refused to define except in negative terms, as the Vedantist defines liberation.
Attributed to the Chinese philosophers Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu (flourished 4th century BC), Taoism is the specifically Chinese form of a way of liberation. In certain respects it resembles Buddhism, and Taoist terms were used liberally in translating Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. Like Vedanta and Yoga, Taoism was adopted ordinarily by older men who had played their part in society according to the basic patterns of convention provided by Confucianism in China. In common with Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism allows for the return of the liberated sage into worldly affairs. Its principal text, the Tao Tê Ching (Teaching of Tao), attributed to Lao-tzu, was written as a manual of advice for rulers.
Pure Taoism has never been organised and has remained the pursuit of independent scholars and philosophers both in China and Japan for more than 2000 years. It regards the natural universe as the operation of the Tao (“way”), which eludes all verbal and intellectual comprehension. Experience of the Tao is to be realised through kuan (“silent contemplation of nature”) and wu-wei (“the absence of mental and physical strain”), which is equivalent to the Buddhist attitude of not grasping. Taoism emphasises strongly the union of the individual and nature, suggesting that one controls the environment not by fighting it but by co-operating with it as a sailor uses the wind when tacking against it.
A.3 Comparative Religion
The study of the world’s religious traditions is coincident with the political and economic expansion of Western Europe.
Christianity, the most widely distributed of the world religions, having substantial representation in all the populated continents of the globe. Its total membership may exceed 1.7 billion people.
Like any system of belief and values-be it Platonism, Marxism, Freudianism, or democracy-Christianity is in many ways comprehensible only “from the inside,” to those who share the beliefs and strive to live by the values; and a description that would ignore these “inside” aspects of it would not be historically faithful. To a degree that those on the inside often fail to recognise, however, such a system of beliefs and values can also be described in a way that makes sense as well to an interested observer who does not, or even cannot, share their outlook.
B.1 Doctrine and Practice
A community, a way of life, a system of belief, a liturgical observance, a tradition-Christianity is all of these, and more. Each of these aspects of Christianity has affinities with other faiths, but each also bears unmistakable marks of its Christian origins. Thus, it is helpful, in fact unavoidable, to examine Christian ideas and institutions comparatively, by relating them to those of other religions, but equally important to look for those features that are uniquely Christian.
B.2 Central Teachings
Any phenomenon as complex and as vital as Christianity is easier to describe historically than to define logically, but such a description does yield some insights into its continuing elements and essential characteristics. One such element is the centrality of the person of Jesus Christ. That centrality is, in one way or another, a feature of all the historical varieties of Christian belief and practice. Christians have not agreed in their understanding and definition of what makes Christ distinctive or unique. Certainly they would all affirm that his life and example should be followed and that his teachings about love and fellowship should be the basis of human relations. Large parts of his teachings have their counterparts in the sayings of the rabbis-that is, after all, what he was-or in the wisdom of Socrates and Confucius. In Christian teaching, Jesus cannot be less than the supreme preacher and exemplar of the moral life, but for most Christians that, by itself, does not do full justice to the significance of his life and work.
What is known of Jesus, historically, is told in the Gospels of the New Testament of the Bible. Other portions of the New Testament summarise the beliefs of the early Christian Church. Paul and the other writers of Scripture believed that Jesus was the revealer not only of human life in its perfection but also of divine reality itself.
The ultimate mystery of the universe, called by many different names in various religions, was called “Father” in the sayings of Jesus, and Christians therefore call Jesus himself “Son of God.” At the very least, there was in his language and life an intimacy with God and an immediacy of access to God, as well as the promise that, through all that Christ was and did, his followers might share in the life of the Father in heaven and might themselves become children of God. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, to which early Christians referred when they spoke about him as the one who had reconciled humanity to God, made the cross the chief focus of Christian faith and devotion and the principal symbol of the saving love of God the Father.
This love is, in the New Testament and in subsequent Christian doctrine, the most decisive among the attributes of God. Christians teach that God is almighty in dominion over all that is in heaven and on earth, righteous in judgement over good and evil, beyond time and space and change; but above all they teach that “God is love.” The creation of the world out of nothing and the creation of the human race were expressions of that love, and so was the coming of Christ. The classic statement of this trust in the love of God came in the words of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). Early Christianity found in such words evidence both of the special standing men and women have as children of such a heavenly Father and of the even more special position occupied by Christ. That special position led the first generations of believers to rank him together with the Father-and eventually “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father [sent] in [Christ’s] name”-in the formula used for the administration of baptism and in the several creeds of the first centuries. After controversy and reflection, that confession took the form of the doctrine of God as Trinity.
Baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” or sometimes perhaps more simply “in the name of Christ,” has been from the beginning the means of initiation into Christianity. At first it seems to have been administered chiefly to adults after they had professed their faith and promised to amend their lives, but this turned into a more inclusive practice with the baptism of infants. The other universally accepted ritual among Christians is the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, in which Christians share in bread and wine and, through them, express and acknowledge the reality of the presence of Christ as they commemorate him in the communion of believers with one another. In the form it acquired as it developed, the Eucharist became an elaborate ceremony of consecration and adoration, the texts of which have been set to music by numerous composers of masses. The Eucharist has also become one of the chief points of conflict among the various Christian Churches, which disagree about the “presence” of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine and about the effect of that presence upon those who receive.
Another fundamental component of Christian faith and practice is the Christian community itself-the Church. Some scholars question the assumption that Jesus intended to found a Church (the word Church appears only twice in the Gospels), but his followers were always convinced that his promise to be with them “always, to the close of the age” found its fulfilment in his “mystical body on earth,” the holy Catholic (universal) Church. The relation of this holy Catholic Church to the various ecclesiastical organisations of worldwide Christendom is the source of major divisions among these organisations. Roman Catholicism has tended to equate its own institutional structure with the Catholic Church, as the common usage of the latter term suggests, and some extreme Protestant groups have been ready to claim that they, and they alone, represent the true visible Church. Increasingly, however, Christians of all segments have begun to acknowledge that no one group has an exclusive right to call itself “the” Church, and they have begun to work toward the reunion of all Christians.
Whatever its institutional form, the community of faith in the Church is the primary setting for Christian worship. Christians of all traditions have placed a strong emphasis on private devotion and individual prayer, as Jesus taught. But he also prescribed a form of praying, universally known as the Lord’s Prayer, the opening words of which stress the communal nature of worship: “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Since New Testament times, the stated day for the communal worship of Christians has been the “first day of the week,” Sunday, in commemoration of the resurrection of Christ. Like the Jewish Sabbath, Sunday is traditionally a day of rest. It is also the time when believers gather to hear the reading and preaching of the word of God in the Bible, to participate in the sacraments, and to pray, praise, and give thanks.
B.1.4 Christian Life
The instruction and exhortation of Christian preaching and teaching concern all the themes of doctrine and morals: the love of God and the love of neighbour, the two chief commandments in the ethical message of Jesus (see Matthew 22: 34-40). Application of these commandments to the concrete situations of human life, both personal and social, does not produce a uniformity of moral or political behaviour. Many Christians, for example, regard all drinking of alcoholic beverages as sinful, whereas others do not. Christians can be found on both the far left and the far right of many contemporary questions, as well as in the middle. Still it is possible to speak of a Christian way of life, one that is informed by the call to discipleship and service. The inherent worth of every person as one who has been created in the image of God, the sanctity of human life and thus of marriage and the family, the imperative to strive for justice even in a fallen world-all of these are dynamic moral commitments that Christians would accept, however much their own conduct may fall short of these norms. It is evident already from the pages of the New Testament that the task of working out the implications of the ethic of love under the conditions of existence has always been difficult, and that there has, in fact, never been a “golden age” in which it was otherwise.
There is in Christian doctrine the prospect of such a time, expressed in the Christian hope for everlasting life. Jesus spoke of this hope with such urgency that many of his followers clearly expected the end of the world and the coming of the eternal kingdom in their own lifetimes. Since the 1st century such expectations have tended to ebb and flow, sometimes reaching a fever of excitement and at other times receding to an apparent acceptance of the world as it is. The creeds of the Church speak of this hope in the language of resurrection, a new life of participation in the glory of the resurrected Christ. Christianity may therefore be said to be an otherworldly religion, and sometimes it has been almost exclusively that. But the Christian hope has also, throughout the history of the Church, served as a motivation to make life on earth conform more fully to the will of God as revealed in Christ.
Almost all the information about Jesus himself and about early Christianity comes from those who claimed to be his followers. Because they wrote to persuade believers rather than to satisfy historical curiosity, this information often raises more questions than it answers, and no one has ever succeeded in harmonising all of it into a coherent and completely satisfying chronological account. Because of the nature of these sources, it is impossible, except in a highly tentative way, to distinguish between the original teachings of Jesus and the developing teachings about Jesus in early Christian communities.
What is known is that the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth early attracted a following of those who believed him to be a new prophet. Their recollections of his words and deeds, transmitted to posterity through those who eventually composed the Gospels, recall Jesus’ days on earth in the light of experiences identified by early Christians with the miracle of his resurrection from the dead on the first Easter. They concluded that what he had shown himself to be by the resurrection, he must have been already when he walked among the inhabitants of Palestine-and, indeed, must have been even before he was born of Mary, in the very being of God from eternity. They drew upon the language of their Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible, which Christians came to call the Old Testament) to give an account of the reality, “ever ancient, ever new,” that they had learned to know as the apostles of Jesus Christ. Believing that it had been his will and command that they should band together in a new community, as the saving remnant of the people of Israel, these Jewish Christians became the first Church, in Jerusalem.
B.2.1 The Beginnings of the Church
Jerusalem was the centre of the Christian movement, at least until its destruction by Roman armies in AD 70, but from this centre Christianity radiated to other cities and towns in Palestine and beyond. At first, its appeal was largely, although not completely, confined to the adherents of Judaism, to whom it presented itself as “new,” not in the sense of novel and brand-new, but in the sense of continuing and fulfilling what God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Already in its very beginnings, therefore, Christianity manifested a dual relation to the Jewish faith, a relation of continuity and yet of fulfilment, of antithesis and yet of affirmation. The fateful loss of continuity with Judaism has, however, never been total. Above all, the presence of so many elements of Judaism in the Christian Bible has acted to remind Christians that he whom they worshipped as their Lord was himself a Jew, and that the New Testament did not stand on its own but was appended to the Old.
An important source of the alienation of Christianity from its Jewish roots was the change in the membership of the Church that took place by the end of the 2nd century (just when, and how, is uncertain). At some point, Christians with Gentile backgrounds began to outnumber Jewish Christians. Clearly, the work of the apostle Paul was influential.
From the Epistles and from other sources in the first two centuries it is possible to gain some notion of how the early congregations were organised. The Epistles to Timothy and to Titus bearing the name of Paul show the beginnings of an organisation based on an orderly transmission of leadership from the generation of the first apostles (including Paul himself) to subsequent “bishops”. By the 3rd century agreement was widespread about the authority of the bishop as the link with the apostles. He was such a link, however, only if in his life and teaching he adhered to the teaching of the apostles as this was laid down in the New Testament and in the “deposit of faith” transmitted by the apostolic Churches.
B.2.2 Councils and Creeds
Clarification of this deposit became necessary when interpretations of the Christian message arose that were deemed to be deviations from these norms. The most important deviations, or heresies, had to do with the person of Christ. Some theologians sought to protect his holiness by denying that his humanity was like that of other human beings; others sought to protect the monotheistic faith by making Christ a lesser divine being than God the Father.
In response to both of these tendencies, early creeds began the process of specifying the divine in Christ, both in relation to the divine in the Father and in relation to the human in Christ. The definitive formulations of these relations came in a series of official Church councils during the 4th and 5th centuries-notably the one at Nicaea in 325 and the one at Chalcedon in 451-that stated the doctrines of the Trinity and of the two natures of Christ in the form still accepted by most Christians.
First, Christianity had to settle its relation to the political order. As a Jewish sect, the primitive Christian Church shared the status of Judaism in the Roman Empire, but before the death of Emperor Nero in 68 it had already been singled out as an enemy. The grounds for hostility to the Christians were not always the same, and often opposition and persecution were localised. The loyalty of Christians to “Jesus as Lord,” however, was irreconcilable with the worship of the Roman emperor as “Lord,” and those emperors, such as Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, who were the most deeply committed to unity and reform were also the ones who recognised the Christians as a threat to those goals and who therefore undertook to eliminate the threat.
B.2.4 Official Acceptance
The conversion of Constantine assured the Church a privileged place in society, and it became easier to be a Christian than not to be one. As a result, Christians began to feel that standards of Christian conduct were being lowered and that the only way to obey the moral imperatives of Christ was to flee the world (and the Church that was in the world, perhaps even of the world) and to follow the full-time profession of Christian discipline as a monk. Most Christians today owe their Christianity ultimately to the work of monks.
B.2.5 Eastern Christianity
One of the most influential acts of Emperor Constantine was his decision in 330 to move the capital of the empire from Rome to “New Rome,” the city of Byzantium at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The new capital, Constantinople (now Istanbul), also became the intellectual and religious focus of Eastern Christianity. While Western Christianity became increasingly centralised, a pyramid the apex of which was the pope of Rome, the principal centres of the East-Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria-developed autonomously. The emperor at Constantinople held a special place in the life of the Church. It was he, for example, who convoked and presided over the general councils of the Church, which were the supreme organ of ecclesiastical legislation in both faith and morals. This special relation between Church and state fostered a Christian culture in which the noblest achievements of the entire society blended the elements of Christianity and of classical antiquity in a new synthesis.
At its worst, this culture could mean the subordination of the Church to the tyranny of the state. The confrontation with the Muslims was not purely military. Eastern Christians and the followers of the Prophet Muhammad exerted influence on one another in intellectual, philosophical, scientific, and even theological matters.
All these distinctive features of the Christian East-the lack of a centralised authority, the close tie to the empire, the mystical and liturgical tradition, the continuity with Greek language and culture, and the isolation as a consequence of Muslim expansion-contributed also to its increasing alienation from the West, which finally produced the East-West schism. Historians have often dated the schism from 1054, when Rome and Constantinople exchanged excommunications, but much can be said for fixing the date at 1204. In that year, the Western Christian armies on their way to wrest the Holy Land from the hand of the Turks attacked and ravaged the Christian city of Constantinople. Whatever the date, the separation of East and West has continued into modern times, despite repeated attempts at reconciliation.
Among the points of controversy between Constantinople and Rome was the evangelisation of the Slavs, beginning in the 9th century. Although several Slavic tribes-Poles, Moravs, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats, and Slovenes-did end up in the orbit of the Western Church, the vast majority of Slavic peoples became Christians in the Eastern (Byzantine) Church. From its early foundations in Kyyiv, Ukraine, this Slavic Orthodoxy permeated Russia, where the features of Eastern Christianity outlined above took firm hold.
B.2.6 Western Christianity
Although Eastern Christianity was in many ways the direct heir of the early Church, some of the most dynamic development took place in the western part of the Roman Empire. Of the many reasons for this development, two closely related forces deserve particular mention: the growth of the papacy and the migration of the Germanic peoples. When the capital of the empire moved to Constantinople, the most powerful force remaining in Rome was its bishop. The old city, which could trace its Christian faith to the apostles Peter and Paul and which repeatedly acted as arbiter of orthodoxy when other centres, including Constantinople, fell into heresy or schism, was the capital of the Western Church. It held this position when the succeeding waves of tribes, in what used to be called the “barbarian invasions,” swept into Europe. Conversion of the invaders to Catholic Christianity meant at the same time their incorporation into the institution of which the bishop of Rome was the head, as the conversion of the king of the Franks, Clovis I, illustrates. As the political power of Constantinople over its western provinces declined, separate Germanic kingdoms were created, and finally, in 800, an independent Western “Roman empire” was born when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor.
Medieval Christianity in the West, unlike its Eastern counterpart, was therefore a single entity, or at any rate strove to be one. When a tribe became Christian in the West, it learned Latin and often (as in the case of France and Spain) lost its own language in the process. The language of ancient Rome thus became the liturgical, literary, and scholarly speech of western Europe. Archbishops and abbots, although wielding great power in their own regions, were subordinate to the pope, despite his frequent inability to enforce his claims. Theological controversies occurred during the early centuries of the Middle Ages in the West, but they never assumed the proportions that they did in the East. Nor did Western theology, at least until after the year 1000, acquire the measure of philosophical sophistication evident in the East. The long shadow of St. Augustine continued to dominate Latin theology, and there was little independent access to the speculations of the ancients.
The image of co-operation between Church and state, symbolised by the pope’s coronation of Charlemagne, must not be taken to mean that no conflict existed between the two in the Middle Ages. On the contrary, they clashed repeatedly over the delineation of their respective spheres of authority. The most persistent source of such clashes was the right of the sovereign to appoint bishops in his realm (lay investiture), which brought Pope Gregory VII and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to a deadlock in 1075. The pope excommunicated the emperor, and the emperor refused to acknowledge Gregory as pope. They were temporarily reconciled when Henry subjected himself in penance to the pope at Canossa in 1077, but the tension continued. A similar issue was at stake in the excommunication of King John of England by Pope Innocent III in 1209, which ended with the king’s submission four years later. The basis of these disputes was the complex involvement of the Church in feudal society. Bishops and abbots administered great amounts of land and other wealth and were thus a major economic and political force, over which the king had to exercise some control if he was to assert his authority over his secular nobility. On the other hand, the papacy could not afford to let a national Church become the puppet of a political regime.
Church and state did cooperate by closing ranks against a common foe in the Crusades. The Muslim conquest of Jerusalem meant that the holy places associated with the life of Jesus were under the control of a non-Christian power; and even though the reports of interference with Christian pilgrims were often highly exaggerated, the conviction grew that it was the will of God for Christian armies to liberate the Holy Land. Beginning with the First Crusade in 1095, the campaigns of liberation did manage to establish a Latin kingdom and patriarchate in Jerusalem, but Jerusalem returned to Muslim rule a century later and within 200 years the last Christian outpost had fallen. In this sense the Crusades were a failure, or even (in the case of the Fourth Crusade of 1202-04, mentioned above) a disaster. They did not permanently restore Christian rule to the Holy Land, and they did not unify the West either ecclesiastically or politically.
B.3 Reformation and Counter Reformation
Reformers of different kinds denounced the moral laxity and financial corruption that had infected the Church “in its members and in its head” and called for radical change. Profound social and political changes were taking place in the West, with the awakening of national consciousness and the increasing strength of the cities in which a new merchant class came into its own. The Protestant Reformation may be seen as the convergence of such forces as the call for reform in the Church, the growth of nationalism, and the emergence of the “spirit of capitalism.”
Martin Luther was the catalyst that precipitated the new movement. His personal struggle for religious certainty led him, against his will, to question the medieval system of salvation and the very authority of the Church, and his excommunication by Pope Leo X proved to be an irreversible step toward the division of Western Christendom. Nor was the movement confined to Luther’s Germany. Native reform movements in Switzerland found leadership in Huldreich Zwingli and especially in John Calvin, whose Institutes of the Christian Religion became the most influential summary of the new theology. The English Reformation, provoked by the troubles of King Henry VIII, reflected the influence of the Lutheran and then of the Calvinistic reforms, but went its own “middle way,” retaining Catholic elements such as the historic episcopate alongside Protestant elements such as the sole authority of the Bible. The thought of Calvin helped in his native France to create the Huguenot party, which was fiercely opposed by both Church and state, but finally achieved recognition with the Edict of Nantes in 1598 (ultimately revoked in 1685). The more radical Reformation groups, notably the Anabaptists, set themselves against other Protestants as well as against Rome, rejecting such long-established practices as infant baptism and sometimes even such dogmas as the Trinity and denouncing the alliance of Church and state.
That alliance helped to determine the outcome of the Reformation, which succeeded where it gained the support of the new national states.
B.4 The Modern Period
Already during the Renaissance and Reformation, but even more in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was evident that Christianity would be obliged to define and to defend itself in response to the rise of modern science and philosophy. That problem made its presence known in all the Churches, albeit in different ways. The condemnation of Galileo Galilei by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy was eventually to find its Protestant equivalent in the controversies over the implications of the theory of evolution for the biblical account of creation. Against other modern movements, too, Christianity frequently found itself on the defensive. The critical-historical method of studying the Bible, which began in the 17th century, seemed to threaten the authority of Scripture, and the rationalism of the Enlightenment was condemned as a source of religious indifference and anticlericalism. Because of its emphasis on the human capacity to determine human destiny, even democracy could fall under condemnation. The increasing secularisation of society removed the control of the Church from areas of life, especially education, over which it had once been dominant.
Partly a cause and partly a result of this situation was the fundamental redefinition of the relation between Christianity and the civil order. The granting of religious toleration to minority faiths and then the gradual separation of Church and state represented a departure from the system that had, with many variations, held sway since the conversion of Constantine and is, in the opinion of many scholars, the most far-reaching change in the modern history of Christianity.
The ecumenical movement has been a major force for bringing together, at least toward better understanding and sometimes even toward reunion, Christian denominations that had long been separated. At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church took important steps toward reconciliation both with the East and with Protestantism. A special case is the relation between Christianity and its parent, Judaism; after many centuries of hostility and even persecution, the two faiths have moved toward a closer degree of mutual understanding than at any time since the 1st century.
The ambivalent relation of the Christian faith to modern culture, evident in all these trends, is discernible also in the role it has played in social and political history.
By the last quarter of the 20th century, the missionary movements of the Church had carried the Christian faith throughout the world. A characteristic of modern times has been the change in leadership of the “daughter” or mission Churches. Since World War II national leaders have increasingly taken over from Westerners in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Churches in the Third World. The adaptations of native customs pose problems of theology and tradition, as, for example, African polygamists attempt to live Christian family lives. Thus, change continues to challenge Christianity.
Heresy, any religious doctrine opposed to the dogma of a particular Church, especially a doctrine held by a person professing faith in the teachings of that Church. The term originally meant a belief that one arrived at by oneself (Greek hairesis, “choosing for oneself”) and is used to denote sectarianism in the Acts of the Apostles and in the Epistles of St. Paul. In later Christian writings, the term is used in the opprobrious sense of a belief held in opposition to the teaching of the Church.
With the establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire, heresy came to be considered a crime against the state, punishable by civil law. Heresy was also generally outlawed in countries with an established or state-supported Church. After the Reformation, the principles of private interpretation of the Scriptures and denial of ecclesiastical authority in all matters of belief were eventually adopted in Protestant countries, and during the 19th and 20th centuries Roman Catholic countries have also adopted the principle of religious toleration.
D- Strange beliefs
Some people are now thinking that the Gods of the past were astronauts coming from other planets in some kind of spaceships. The crew of these vehicles soon discovered that the earth has all the prerequisites for the development of an intelligent life even if the earth’s inhabitants of the time were not very advanced intellectually and their day-to-day knowledge was very limited. In order to improve the species the spacemen fertilised some females of the earth. When the spacemen came back later on they selected the more intelligent among their offsprings and repeated many times the experiment until they were satisfied that they had produced a creature intelligent enough to learn the basic rules required to create and sustain an advanced society on earth. They also destroyed the unsuccessful creatures they produced. The first communities and the first skill appeared. These first men had a great respect for the space travellers coming and going back to unknown places. These spacemen were the “Gods” of our ancestors. The “Gods” took care of the creatures they had created and made certain that they had all the necessary protection they needed not only to survive but also to develop. It is true that this is only a theory but it is not really in contradiction with what we know. The religious legends of the pre-Incas people say that the stars were inhabited and that the “Gods” came down to the earth and to them from the constellations of the Pleiades. The Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians have left cuneiform inscriptions telling how the “Gods” came from the stars and went back to them in powerful and frightening spaceships. It is not astonishing in these conditions that the ancient people believed that their Gods were living in the sky. More recently it is also well known that the chronicles from the Mahabhara, the Bible, the Epics of Gilgamesh, the texts of the Eskimos, the Red Indians, the Scandinavians, the Tibetans and many others are telling the same stories of flying “Gods” in space vehicles. These legends have been appropriated by our present religions from which the Christian one is a very good example. Is this theory true? We do not know yet. However it is a possibility that is not in contradiction with what is known. We should keep our mind open to the possibility that it is true and looks positively for proofs of it. Up to now the Historians have been doing exactly the opposite: searching for arguments to disprove this theory although this is in direct contradiction with the basic rules of what Research should be. (d)