I grew up in the Midwest, a small town in southern Indiana. Our mother saw to it that myself and my two sisters went to church regularly. We attended a Methodist Church which sat on a hill in the town and looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. Usually it was just required that we attend Sunday school, but on some occasions it was also required that we attend the regular church service. I say “required”, however, quite often it was also our desire to go. Sunday school was a “twofer”; our church had colorful and interesting Sunday school literature and we got to see our friends.
I have memories of many of the townspeople who attended our church. People generally dressed up, a shirt and tie was common and many men wore suits. Women wore conservative and often colorful dresses. For the most part the congregation was quiet, humble, benevolent and gentle. Along with the church itself, they could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. The church was a central figure in our growing up.
I remember that early on I didn’t question much. As children tend to do I just accepted what I was being told. I didn’t think much about the striking contrasts that were presented between a loving, nurturing God and a strict and wrathful God. To a child’s mind, knowing our parents loved and cared for us but could still on occasion send us out to get a switch for them to use on our bottom seemed explanation enough.
As I got older, particularly during my first year at college, I remember clearly noting some of the contradictions in what the Church was teaching. Contradictions that did not reconcile within the teachings of the Church. These contradictions generally had to do with, again, the images of a loving, nurturing divine being and a strict, judgmental and wrathful one. Some of the expectations that the Church taught that God has of human beings just are unrealistic. For instance, there is much preoccupation with the body, the feelings/impulses that occur within the body and the thoughts that occur as a result. Impulses that have to do with sexuality, anger, fear, even hunger and the thoughts they inspire are presented, to a greater or lesser extent, as indications of human kind’s corrupt nature.
A person could be in the highest degree of control using the highest degree of discretion in how they express their feelings/emotions but just the fact they occur and that we think the thoughts that we have, are said to indicate we are bound for hell unless we accept the intercession the Church claims to have to offer. At the same time God is presented as having created the body and called it good. These two highly polarized and contradictory teachings could leave one in a state of perpetual anxiety to say the least. The Church of that time and place did not engage in nor encourage a lot of critical examination of such contradictions. Nor do a lot of churches today. It was, and may still be, all about acceptance and obedience.
Through the years I’ve learned I was far, far from alone in the things I was noticing and finding illogical and unacceptable. But in those days, in a setting in which even thinking such thoughts, much less talking about them, was seen as heresy, it was easy to feel isolated and unique for having them. Even during my first year in college I can remember that on one occasion when I did verbalize some of my perspective there was a fellow student, someone I considered a friend, that was ready to physically attack me he was so offended. He probably would have if another student hadn’t restrained him.
And as the years have gone by and I’ve had a chance to explore the literature around the history and development of the Christian Church. That, along with studying psychology, sociology and other related disciplines, has led me to becoming much more comfortable, both in my intellect and in my feelings, with the perspective on Christianity that has emerged for me. In essence the perspective is this; what is commonly accepted as Christianity today is a patchwork quilt of tribal history, enduring truth, half-truths and total fabrication. It is possible to separate the contemporary doctrine that is presented as being Christianity into two, often contradictory, themes. One is natural, organic, developmental, loving and forgiving. The other is top-down authoritative, unnatural, manipulative, and unforgiving. The characteristics of these two themes give clues to their origins and the motives of their authors. And it seems the intertwining of the contributions springing from these motives has resulted in a web of thought, which through the centuries depending upon which strands the reader lands upon, has variously inspired, enlightened, comforted, and/or disconcerted, tortured, and plagued good people into insanity.
From a developmental, evolutionary perspective the job of the brain, of thinking, is to aid in our survival. The thoughts that occur as a result of our feelings are not inherently evil, but would simply by virtue of the fact that they occur be tending toward being inherently good. Because they represent our mind doing it’s job; presenting us with options. What we do with those options, the values we express in our speech and actions resulting from the thoughts we select to move forward with, are what will determine the ultimate survival value of the process.
Our decisions, which are significantly determined by the level of knowledge we’ve accumulated, will determine the results we achieve. If we get unbalanced, for instance too self-indulgent or too self-denying in our choices, we may end up suffering for it. However, it isn’t that God has now sentenced us to an eternity in hell (although it may feel like it). We have the opportunity to redeem ourselves (just having the opportunity is a form of redemption) by recognizing and adjusting/changing the thinking errors and the behaviors that led us into the state of discomfort in which we might find ourselves.
However, if a person can be convinced that even that fact that the process is happening is an indication of their having a sinful nature, again, that they are bound for an eternity in hell without what someone has to offer, well, that’s salesmanship. Again, within contemporary Christianity there is a very mixed bag going on.
Not all those claiming to be presenting the benefits of following Jesus’ teachings focus on trying to terrify a person into submission. There are also the messages of love and genuine morality; teachings/options we can very much benefit from incorporating into our thoughts and behaviors.
There are two common motivations for people who read the Bible. One is love; a love of life and a desire to know more about the life of Jesus and others who spoke of love and demonstrated love and a sincere desire for the well-being of humankind. The other is fear; the fear of death and what’s going to happen when we die. It is the latter motivation which much of the authoritarian manipulation makes use of.
Remember the Bible was compiled by a council that was convened within the Roman Empire. The Romans at that time were very much involved with and interested in power and domination. This council decided which teachings to include, which to cull out, and probably came up with a few of their own. Within the early Roman Catholic church, the common person couldn’t read and, regardless, wasn’t allowed to read a Bible. It was the position of the Church that the common person could not have a personal relationship with God. People were taught to be dependent upon the priests to know what God wants/expects of them. If that’s not a set-up to be manipulated then nothing is.
However, Martin Luther took his stand and it began to become recognized that everyone has the ability to have a personal relationship with God. However, in general Martin Luther was still utilizing the same image of a God of mixed messages as the Catholic Church. It is from this characterization of God as a de facto inconsistent, schizoid supreme being that I believe the saying came that; “Man created God in his own image.”
The single most important teaching around our spiritual reality that I think got invented in order to provide the authoritarian, manipulative aspect of the Church a tool to work with is the concept that we only have one chance at an earthly life. Further, that for all eternity we either win or lose a heavenly afterlife on the basis of our performance during that solitary lifetime. Talk about pressure. Would any loving parent, supposedly being wise enough to have some idea about human developmental theory, impose such a standard? Not unless they sadistically enjoyed seeing their offspring cringe with anxiety.
That brings us to the phenomenon of reincarnation (or successive incarnations as I most like to phrase it). We live many lives, learn many lessons and gradually develop in knowledge and wisdom while on our way to becoming what it is we’re on our way to becoming. Reincarnation can be characterized as a gradual developmental process which allows that we’ll make errors, gives us room to do so, has natural consequences (there is an order to things which we need to learn to observe), and repetitive opportunities to correct ourselves. Doesn’t that seem more like a loving, wise, organic, natural, system? If there is a divine intelligence which had a hand in creating this world and the human race, and I believe there is, this is the system I can more easily associate with such an intelligence. Such a model is consistent with what we know about how human beings learn.
But such a system does lack the threat of eternal damnation and a desperate reliance upon an authoritarian institution. So it lacks the necessary fear factor to be a really good manipulative tool for those seeking worldly power.
There are lots of places to research what is known about reincarnation. Just Google it. However, I really like and suggest reading Michael Newton’s book; “Journey of Souls”.
There are differing opinions about whether reincarnation was part of the teachings of the early Christian Church, prior to the Council of Nicea. I find it easy to consider that it was. Especially with what we know about Jesus’ travels (with the caravans of Joseph of Arimathea?). There are references to Jesus visiting India and Tibet during what are called his “lost years” between the ages of 12 and 30. Because Jesus was attracted to spiritual learning I find it hard to believe he could have visited India and Tibet and not have encountered teachings around reincarnation. I find associating reincarnation with the love, forgiveness and the general tone of Jesus’ teachings actually rounds them out in a very consistent manner.