Growing up I was fortunate to experience different religions. As my family found their place in many different faiths I was able to pick up on the basics. Staying centered in the sects of Christianity, and the occasional Buddhist, I was taught the stories of the Bible from many different perspectives. At such an early age I was unable to comprehend how one book could mean so many different things to so many different people. I was caught in a personal debate trying to learn who was right and who was wrong in their interpretation. At that moment I decided I would devote my time to learning what I could about this one book with so many different meanings.
Through personal study and attending different churches regularly I began to find explanations within the text that ministers and priests weren’t mentioning. When I went to these people for clarification and understanding of this new perspective I was often told the word of God is difficult to understand and must be interpreted carefully. I took that general answer personally and felt I was being told that I didn’t have the mental capacity to understand the bible. I tried to just sit there and listen to the minister teach how it was supposed to be but couldn’t break the mindset I had which picked up every contradiction and break in logical thinking.
As I attended different churches in the company of my relatives I found it impossible to just accept what the ministers were teaching. Based on what I was told about the minister being trained to interpret the bible I was once again faced with the question of why are these messages so different if they came from the same book. I rationalized these inconsistencies down to ministerial ignorance but could not determine which ministers were correct and which were not. When I asked my family they stood behind their respective church doctrines and explained to me once again how interpretation is a delicate process.
It often came down to half of my family calling the other half heretics and vice versa. The Catholics thought the LDS Mormons were bad for not going to confession or taking communion and the Mormons felt Unity was a lazy way and blasphemous way of honoring Christ. I detected some hatred between my family members and all but the Buddhists feared for the souls of the others in the afterlife. After years of being torn in so many different directions I came to the conclusion that they were all wrong. My mistrust in these sects of Christianity grew until I considered myself a devout atheist. My logical nature deduced that if there was no right answer to these questions they must be preaching the wrong answers. The Buddhists tried to teach me the benefits of finding the middle ground but I couldn’t incorporate that teaching with Christianity since each sect had such a radically different view in my opinion.
I brought the challenge upon myself to discover what was truly right in the world. My first step was to prove to myself that there was a logical reason for religion by discovering my understanding of a higher power. Only after that was I able to begin my extensive research on the teachings of the proclaimed prophets of the world in hopes of finding one with the same ideals and standards I had. Instead of finding a religion I fit into I found stunning similarities between them all.
After researching these similarities I found the only difference truly relied on the time and the mindset of the people surrounding the prophets. Those wise and learned people we call prophets today obviously understood the people surrounding them and how to lead them to the well of a higher power through stories and teachings. I discovered that if I was going to get to the heart of these religions I would have to learn the traditions, culture, and mindset of the prophets and those who followed them for the first time.
In my years of studying religions and the messages of the prophets I’ve found it difficult to understand some of the situations that have been written about. Stories such as the great flood of Noah’s time and the protective cobra of Siddhartha seemed like tall tales until you understand the mindset of people living in that time. Noah for example came from a village of farmers as opposed to the nomadic tribes of the area so his travels were quite limited. Add that to the region he was a resident of with its geological basin topography and one can easily understand how it would be a truthful and possible comment to say Noah’s world was covered with water. “Until finally the water covered all the high mountains under the whole heaven, standing twenty two feet and more above the highest peaks,” Genesis 9:19-20. By understanding the geology of the land and the mindset of those living at the time one could easily concede that this statement is entirely true from the perspective of the author.
Interpretation depends entirely on understanding the perspective of the creator. How could Jesus have possibly fed the multitudes with nothing but a couple fish and two loaves of bread? By learning about the area and culture of the time a person could comprehend what a mob was considered to be at that time. Multitude as defined by Webster’s Dictionary is, ‘A great number of persons collected together; a numerous collection of persons; a crowd; an assembly.’ By today’s standards the statement that Jesus fed the multitudes with only seven loaves of bread and a few small fish is inconceivable without the aid of a miracle. However at the time the statement was made the average town’s population was approximately one hundred or less. By definition alone feeding at most a hundred people is still amazing but much easier to believe.
Making these realizations I was compelled to find more examples of how the cultural norms of the first century would make this collection of stories make more sense. I began to read more from sources outside the bible about the culture and traditions of the area. I found that just as the bible was exaggerated so was most of the written history since writing was still not commonplace. The Rabbis and the Romans of the time didn’t feel that the actions of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth were noteworthy so the only written Christian history came well after the time of Jesus. Told as stories and passed on to fellow followers until a written history from these stories could be copied.
Alternate sources of information about this subject have the same need for objectivity but often have a completely different perspective giving the researcher a more complete image from which we can derive the truth. Even opposing perspectives can be very helpful in finding the truth giving the reader an idea of how the situation differed from the local norm. The very few Codex’s which have been found are incomplete due to damage to the original scrolls. The Gnostic Gospels of the New Testament found in the ancient caves of Nag Hammadi and the Qumran Old Testament found near the Dead Sea are the two most well known original Codex linked to Christianity. Both are damaged and incomplete but give a basis of comparison between modern day Christianity and how Christians of the time saw traditions develop within their new found religion.
To be able to understand the mindset of the original creators I’ve been able to further understand the message and more effectively teach as well. I give my students a choice to modernize their faith as they see fit and not be governed by history and its need to modify the message. By learning what life was like in the first century my students also become more connected to the hows and why’s of the creation of the Christian church. This knowledge allows a much deeper connection and understanding than any traditional minister could offer them by regurgitating the same old information from a book written by fifty three church delegates remembering the stories of the original twelve and re-written more times than can be imagined.
I found through my heightened understanding of the culture of Israel during the first century my ability to understand the writings improved. I made a conscious decision to apply that theory to other research projects I was involved in and found the result to be similar. I also found that some religions included their cultural anthropology in their lessons as a basis to answer why their faiths traditions are as such. Some religions are old enough they have no basis of comparison due to their existence before written history. In those cases it is pointless to question the reasons and must either accept what is written or invent theories based on understanding of the writings. Theorizing in this case can be very destructive because of cultural separation. With only one source of information we are victim to the perspective of the author and must concede his opinion as a cultural norm. To theorize any other possibilities would be based on sheer imagination and not truly relevant to any culture but our own.
Another hindrance found in modern times is translation. Between the initial conceptualization of the document to its modern existence it is conceivable that it may have been translated thousands of times. With so many different forms of communication throughout the world and no standard of translation two translations of the exact same document could take on two completely different meanings. There is also the problem of coining of words into languages for which have to no word to describe existing words in other languages. This problem was solved by turning entire thoughts into phraseology that those speakers of foreign languages could easily understand. The fault with that is by changing the words you change the meaning. Even if the different words mean the same thing the original thought is lost in ecumenical politics. An example of this is quite evident in poetry. Spanish poetry is every bit as eloquent and carefully phrased as English poetry however a Spanish poem translated into English often makes little or no sense and never rhymes.
I would suggest to anyone searching for meaning in their current set of beliefs to study the anthropology of their founding members. By understanding their necessity for creating this new religion you could often find a connection to your need for believing. By going back to the beginning you also benefit by cutting out the centuries of interpretation and translation that could very possibly have polluted the documents of your faith. Many coaches and business leaders often use the term ‘back to basics’ when the original goal gets lost and the same method when used with religion can be just as beneficial. Religious leaders have become very efficient in explaining the who, what when and sometimes the where but have lost all connection to the why by abandoning the cultural evolution and continuing to use the same methods which worked in the first century. I believe if people would take the time to research as I have done they would be able to identify the differences between the culture of modern times and the first century and make adaptations where necessary.
Discovering the mindset of authors and the significance of documents and teachings of ancient civilizations isn’t limited to religion. History students can just as easily incorporate anthropology to understanding the people and events they are learning about and why they were they way they were. Critics can use these methods to discover the motivation of artists, musicians and writers and even better understand what they were critiquing. The average person could use it to learn more about other religions and maybe even discover the similarities between all belief systems to someday bring peace on earth. Even managers can use the method of anthropology to understand why his employees react to different situations they way they do based on their backgrounds.
By doing this research I have become much more understanding of people with different beliefs. I’ve learned to always listen to other opinions for a more complete perspective of events. The biggest advancement I’ve made in my own life is to acquire the ability to tell the difference between historic fact and opinion of events. I’ve noticed that fact and opinion is often confused especially when it comes to beliefs and religious doctrines. By increasing my knowledge of religious anthropology and history I can be closer to those who wish to ask me about God and give them informed answers in a variety of different belief structures.
Because of my extra effort in studying not only the religions of the world but also the people who create them I am able to put a feeling of personal experience into my writing. My sermons have a deeper connection to the people who formed the ideals in the first place. When people understand where the ideals and beliefs they hold dear come from and the circumstances from which they are derived they can easily understand their own connection to the doctrine. Also by adding the element of personifying the prophets and making them seem more real and alive I bring the lessons they taught in their time to the present for study. I’ve found when people study different options the one they ultimately chose becomes their own and part of their persona as opposed to being told how to live the right way and the wrong way. This personal connection to religion is what truly makes a person righteous and a faithful follower of God and his many prophets.