As far back as I can remember I have had a desire to understand God. I know that seems like a rather lofty goal, but there has simply been an underlying sense of connection with the eternal. This is somewhat surprising because I was raised in a liberal mainstream denomination and was taught in Sunday school that the Bible was merely a compilation of material written by various men, not a divinely inspired source of truth. Consequently, by the time I was a teenager, it seemed absurd to attend church if the doctrines and worship were merely based on myths and human ideas.
As an older teenager, I briefly became involved with the Mormon Church because it was supposedly based on a more contemporary connection with God. This appealed to me because I reasoned that if God is real, then He should still be active in the universe today and potentially interacting with mankind. Eventually, I drifted away from the Mormon Church and my spiritual interests and became involved in many of the activities that were prevalent among young adults during the late 1960s and early 70s.
Ultimately, I encountered and became actively involved with a Pentecostal church. There I had some amazing spiritual experiences that confirmed my underlying sense that there was a divine presence in the universe that can be perceived by people today. For nearly 30 years I remained involved with several different congregations, but I struggled with the fundamental Christian doctrines. I was quite certain about the validity of my experiences, but could not accept that the Bible is “inerrant” and the only source of spiritual truth.
As I have continued my effort for spiritual growth, I have read a variety of religious texts from many of the major religions of the world. One thing I have noticed is that it is easy to identify the myths and contradictions in religious writings that are not part of one’s upbringing. However, it is harder to step back from scriptures that one has been raised with and accepted as “truth” and evaluate them with a purely objective eye. It really is more satisfying when someone else’s sacred cow is being gored. Nevertheless, I have had to be honest with myself and objective in my search.
Many have written works examining the origin of the Bible and/or challenging its claim of divine inspiration. I have found two that have been very enlightening. They may not necessarily be the final word on the subject, but they were quite interesting. The first, Age of Reason, written by Thomas Paine in 1794, has extensive historical significance. Paine was a proponent of British deism, an eighteenth-century philosophy that espoused faith in a divine being but rejected formal religion. The objective of his book was to point out inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible, thus refuting the divine authority attributed to it by “the church.”
It was not an easy book to read. The first section was written hastily while he was in a French prison during the French revolution and had no idea whether or not he would survive the ordeal. He had to rely on his memory because he did not have access to a Bible; consequently the arguments and conclusions presented in the first section are often weak and flawed. However, the second section of the book is thoroughly thought out and extremely well done for someone who was not trained as a Biblical scholar. Although I found it difficult at times to endure the disdainful tone of his writings, I learned a great deal.
The second book that has been very helpful is Misquoting Jesus: The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why, written by Bart D. Ehrman in 2007. This is truly a scholarly work on the compilation of the New Testament. Written to be understood by non-scholars, it clearly elaborates many of the factors that influenced the variations contained in the numerous texts of the New Testament that have been discovered over the years. After reading this book, it was quite evident that what is presented in the current Bible is merely what the orthodox church promoted and cannot be viewed as an accurate or complete source for the original teachings of Jesus.
My conclusion has been that what I was taught in my Episcopal Sunday school class is generally true; the religious texts from around the world were compiled by human beings and convey the thoughts and opinions of the individual writers. However, what I was not taught in Sunday school but now believe wholeheartedly is that much of what appears in the original writings reflect a sincere effort to know God and convey their understanding of His nature to others. What is quite amazing is the continuity of the underlying principles contained in these numerous works. In Tolstoy’s last major book, A Calendar of Wisdom, he gives us a brilliantly simple means of evaluating the truth in these various scriptures. He wrote, “Only the spiritual teachings of religion are true.” I appreciate this approach and have discovered that when I apply this, I begin to see God peeking out at me from various sources.