Rethinking Our Imagined Reality: Evolution of “Truth”

In Featured, Reasoned Spirituality by Dave Gaddis

One often hears the religious “preach” the truth about the universe and life. In this article, we will survey the evolution of “truth” (i.e., religion) over the millennia.

This topic is the subject of doctoral degrees, so it is impractical to think that I can cover every aspect and nuance of these religions. While the overviews are simplistic, I think you will see that they capture the core ideas of each.

I chose to address those religions that have “stood the test of time” or, in the case of Deism, had a dramatic impact on human affairs.

Finally, there are two basic evolutionary religious streams, comprised of those originating in the Near East and those originating in the Far East.

The information that follows comes primarily from the book World Religions at Your Fingertips and Wikipedia articles. If you are interested in the book which is largely paraphrased below, please consider using the preceding link to buy a copy from Amazon to support this website.

Near East

The Abrahamic faiths comprise the largest segment of the World’s religions by a significant margin. Abraham, a descendent of Noah, is the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His story is told in the Book of Genesis (Ch 11-25).

Yahweh (i.e., God) instructed Abraham to leave his homeland and family and to resettle in Canaan, which Yahweh promised to Abraham and his progeny. In exchange, Yahweh would make of Abraham and his children a great nation, along with ensuring Abraham’s name would be one of greatness.

Judaism

Judaism, which is over 3,000 years old, encompasses the religion, philosophy, culture and way of life of the Jewish people. Judaism is an ancient monotheistic religion, with the Torah as its foundational text.

While Abraham is hailed as the first Hebrew and the father of the Jewish people, his great-grandson Judah is the namesake for Judaism. Moses is considered the greatest prophet of Judaism and thought to have founded Judaism in second millennium Before Common Era (B.C.E.). Jews believe Yahweh revealed his commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The focus of a practicing Jew is the “Shema” found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which states: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord Our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength.”

Core Beliefs:

  • There is only one, true God.
  • God is eternal and transcends both time and material reality.
  • While God is beyond human understanding, God is worthy of prayer and worship.
  • Belief in the validity and truth of ancient Prophets.
  • Belief that Moses is the greatest of all the Prophets.
  • God will reward the good and punish the evil.
  • Belief in a Messiah who has not yet come.

Christianity

Christianity is the largest religion in the world with over 2 billion followers. Christianity was founded by Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ, a Galilean Jew, at the turn of the Common Era (C.E.). Jesus gave his life that the sins of humanity may be forgiven. Three days after his execution, Jesus was resurrected and ascended to Heaven.

Christians view Abraham as an important exemplar of faith and the spiritual and physical ancestor of Jesus Christ. The covenant with Abraham was reinterpreted to include faith in Jesus as well as biological descent, meaning that faith alone was sufficient for the Abrahamic Covenant to apply. Christians also believe that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac foreshadowed God’s offering of his own son, Jesus.

The focus of Christianity is repentance and obedience to Christ’s commands.

Core Beliefs:

  • Belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah and the Son of God.
  • Belief that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin.
  • Belief that Jesus Christ provided redemption for humanity through his death on the cross.
  • Belief that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead three days after his death.
  • Belief that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone.
  • Belief that Jesus Christ is returning again.

Islam

Islam is the second-largest religion in the world with about 1.5 billion followers.

For Muslims, Abraham is one of the few prophets with “great responsibility.” Other prophets on his level include Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Muhammad, the last prophet of Allah, founded Islam in 610 C.E. Muhammad’s lineage is traced to Abraham through his son Ishmael, thus attaching them to the original bloodline covenant between Yahweh/Allah and Abraham.

The focus of Muslims are primarily dictated by the Five Pillars of Islam and obedience to the Qur’an.

Core Beliefs:

  • Belief that there is only on God (Allah).
  • Belief that Muhammad is God’s final Prophet.
  • Belief that God has sent a number of Prophets prior to Muhammad to communicate His message. Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the divine “Son of God” but that he was one of the greatest Prophets of God.
  • Belief that the Qur’an is God’s final and perfect message to the world about Himself and His expectations of humanity.
  • Adherence to the Five Pillars of Islam: bearing witness, prayer, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage.

Deism

In the latter half of the 1600s (the 17th century), a number of Anglican ministers and other writers began to question Trinitarian doctrines that appeared to be contrary to nature and reason. These writings continued through the 1700s, and the name “deism” was given to the views expressed by these writers. Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1581-1648) was an early proponent of natural and universal religion based on human reason.

Deism was not an organized religious movement. It was an effort by individual writers to reform Christian theology by ridding the church of certain doctrines that were inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus. Deists also rejected the concept of “supernatural revelation” (i.e. of truth and belief in “miracles” contrary to nature).

Deists opposed the doctrines of original sin, the divinity of Jesus and substitutionary atonement through the death of Jesus. Deists also rejected the Calvinistic doctrine of “predestination” that claimed that individuals are either “saved” or “lost” (condemned to “hell”) before they are born. This gloomy doctrine made God appear to be a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.

In contrast to Trinitarian doctrines, the English deists wrote that (1) the existence of a Creator (God) is known through nature and reasoning, (2) individuals should worship (honor) God by virtuous behavior (love for others), (3) individuals are accountable for their behavior, and (4) repentance is the means for obtaining God’s forgiveness for wrong-doing.

Deism had a significant impact on several key historic figures during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, playing a role in both the American and French revolutions.

Deism stresses moderation, reason, freethinking, tolerance (racial, social, and religious), self-reliance, and the equality of all human beings.

Core Beliefs

  • A monotheistic belief in a creator god, but one that is based on reason.
  • Belief that the existence of God is made evident through observing both the order and complexity of nature and the universe.
  • Belief that God’s nature is unfathomable, due to the limitations of the human mind and language.
  • Belief that God gave humankind the ability to reason so that they could create moral and ethical principles (this also applies to the human conscience).
  • Belief that every individual should be allowed the freedom to find, know, and worship God in whatever manner he or she deems fit.
  • Belief that all humans are created equal under God, with the same basic inalienable rights.
  • Belief that all views of God (whether they are Deistic or not) are to be respected, under the condition that they do not cause harm to or oppress the views of others.

Far East

Religions of the Far East refer to those originating in India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. The most important of these include Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

Confucianism is also thought to be one of the important religions of the Far East. However, Confucianism was considered by its founder, Confucius, to be an elaboration of Taoism and not another religion. Confucianism is considered a moral and ethical code focused on the individual in society, whereas the Tao focuses on the individual in the natural world. For this reason, I only address Taoism in the discussion below.

Hinduism

Hinduism is prehistoric and considered to be the World’s oldest existing religion. Hindu texts were written down between 2000 B.C.E. and 900 B.C.E. Hinduism originated on the Indian subcontinent.

Key themes in Hinduism include dharma, karma, samsara, and nirvana. Dharma refers to the moral and spiritual obligations of a Hindu. Positive and negative karma are accumulated by a person’s actions and impact the state of a person’s life or future incarnations, serving as a form of universal justice. Samsara is the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. Nirvana is a state in which the soul escapes samsara.

The focus of Hinduism is to transcend negative karma and accumulate positive karma by living a life in harmony with one’s dharma. The goal is to achieve nirvana and escape samsara.

Core Beliefs:

  • Belief in the laws of dharma and karma.
  • Belief in the wheel of samsara, through which a person continues to reincarnate until liberation is achieved.
  • Belief that the true God can and does take many different forms (often misunderstood by non-Hindus to be separate deities). However, the forms are but representations of the endless natures and layers that make up the one true God.

Buddhism

Buddhism began in India 2,500 years ago. It is a nontheistic philosophy that is based on the teachings of and Indian prince named Siddhārtha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha (“the awakened one”).

According to Buddhist tradition, the prince led a sheltered life. Upon visiting his people outside the palace he was shocked by the suffering he witnessed. He gave up his royal life to find the way to end suffering, which he ultimately accomplished. He spent the remainder of this life teaching the Buddhist version of dharma, which is the path to liberation from suffering.

Core Beliefs:

  • Belief in the teachings of the Buddha, and adherence to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
  • Belief that all suffering arises from the ego, that is from a sense of a permanent self which is ultimately an illusion.
  • Belief that nirvana (enlightenment) is available to all regardless of social status or gender.
  • Belief that achieving nirvana is the means to ending the wheel of rebirth.

The Four Noble Truths

  1. The truth of suffering.
  2. The truth of the origin of suffering.
  3. The truth of the cessation of suffering.
  4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering.

The first noble truth explains that suffering has three aspects: (1) the obvious suffering of physical and mental illness, growing old, and dying; (2) the anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing; and, (3) a subtle dissatisfaction pervading all forms of life, due to the fact that all forms of life are impermanent and constantly changing.

The origin of suffering is commonly explained as craving conditioned by ignorance, but the deeper meaning is that we suffer because we are ignorant of the true nature of things.

The third noble truth is simply recognition that the cessation of suffering is possible.

The fourth noble truth points to the Eightfold Path as the way to ending suffering.

The Eightfold Path

  1. Right Understanding/View: Maintain a simple outlook by seeing things for what they are. Understand and accept reality joyfully, with neither fear nor hope.
  2. Right Intent/Thought. Once one has assumed Right Understanding, one must apply it to life with proper Intent. This is achieved by renouncing desire for selflessness, being properly motivated by goodwill instead of greed, and choosing the peaceful life by rejecting the temptation to act in ways that are harmful to others.
  3. Right Speech: When one has paper view and pure intentions, one’s speech should reflect this. Speak plainly and honestly. Do not try to fool, bully, or manipulate other people with deceitful or angry words. Seek only he words that need to be said, and do so with simplicity and sincerity.
  4. Right Action/Discipline. Practice a frugal and simple lifestyle. Abandon needless indulgences and frivolous possessions. Such things complicate one’s life and relationships, leading to desire, jealousy, increased debts, and unnecessary financial hardship.
  5. Right Living: Earn an honest living by assuming an occupation. Be joyful and hardworking in your job, whatever it may be. Do not waste your working hours by bemoaning how you want to be home or desire a job that is more “important” or “glamorous.” Every job is important, from a janitor to a soldier to a world leader, as each contributes to the whole of humanity in its own way. However, do not assume illegal, dishonest, or harmful occupations, such as slave trading, drug dealing, or killing for profit.
  6. Right Effort: Put all the previous precepts into every effort or task you undertake. Negative thoughts cannot be eliminated. Therefore, when negative thoughts enter your mind, accept and recognize them, and find positive aspects to counter them. By doing so, one will act with love, compassion, and kindness in all one does.
  7. Right Mindfulness: Live in and be mindful of the present moment. do not waste time or energy dwelling upon the past or worrying about the future. Avoid entering situations with preconceived notions, as they hinder one’s ability to see the truth of matters with Right Understanding. In dealing with other people, try to see things from their points of view and avoid being judgmental.
  8. Right Concentration: Simply put, pay attention to and be mindful of one’s place in the cosmos. Meditate often and seek inner harmony. In meditation/prayer, do not allow oneself to become distracted by preconceived expectations or selfish desires.

The first two disciplines (right understanding and thoughts) are thought to lead to wisdom about the self and reality. The practices of right speech, action, and livelihood cultivate morality. The final three disciplines (right effort, mindfulness, and concentration) lead to mental discipline and stillness of mind.

Taoism

Dating around the 6th century B.C.E., Taoism is one of the two main indigenous religions in China, the other being Confucianism. Taoism, which focuses on a pantheistic notion of God, is as much a philosophy of life as it is a systemized form of religion, focusing upon the Tao, meaning “the Way,” and emphasizing that human beings should align themselves with the natural flow of the universe in order to achieve harmony and perfection. It is founded on the teachings of Lao Tzu. Taoism focuses upon the quest to find and become one with the harmonious balance between the opposing forces of the cosmos.

A Taoist pursues wu wei (i.e., “non-doing”). It refers to natural action, or in other words, action that does not involve struggle or excessive effort. Wu wei is the cultivation of a mental state in which our actions are effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life.

Core Beliefs:

  • Belief in the teaching of Lao Tsu and his disciple Chuang Tsu.
  • Belief that humans are at their very best when they live in harmony with nature.
  • Belief that those who live the most simply are those who learn to live with the flow of the Tao.
  • Belief that the journey of life is of far more value than the destination.
  • Belief that the Supreme Being is not present or active in human affairs; however, the Supreme Being does manifest in the form of lesser figures or deities who are active in human affairs.
  • Belief that all things in creation, whether natural, supernatural, or spiritual, are one.
  • Belief in the harmony of opposites within the peaceful flow of the Tao (yin and yang).
  • Belief that physical existence is finite and that only the Tao is eternal.

Conclusions

Religion permeates humanity. It is woven into the social, cultural, familial and spiritual fabric of our lives. Each religion strives to define God, explain the meaning of our lives, and to layout a path for how we should conduct ourselves.

The definition of God seems to largely fall into two camps. The most prevalent version of God is as a creator God who sits in judgement of His creation. This God makes land deals and blood covenants with select people. The Far Eastern religions espouse an inclusive, pantheistic God. Judgement does not come from God but through the “natural” law of karma.

The meaning of life varies dramatically between the Near East and Far East religions. The Abrahamic faiths focus on submitting one’s self to God’s law with the hope of going to Heaven and avoiding eternal damnation in Hell. By contrast, the Far East religions focus on improving this life, right now. The exemplar of this case is the Eightfold Path in Buddhism, though Taoism’s focus on balance is a close second.

The risk of atrocity seems much more likely in the exclusivity and absolutes of the Near East religions. When one deeply believes his or her actions enjoy divine mandate or that one is part of a chosen people, there are few bounds to the cruelties that may be inflicted in the name of their God.

For all of the wisdom in their doctrines, the Far East religions are still fraught with teachings, such as karma and samsara, that defy natural observation and verification.

Reasoned Insight #3: There are four primary indicators of a false religion: (1) exclusive membership; (2) sacred dogma which cannot be questioned or adapted over time; (3) culturally based God concept and laws; and, (4) extraordinary claims that contradict science.

Reasoned Insight #4: Despite their shortfalls, the World’s religions do offer valuable insights into how we might consider the divine as well as how we should conduct ourselves.

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