My great great grandfather was a Baptist minister in Missouri. His name was Abner Norris, and his family arrived by wagon train in the 1830s as part of the great westward migration. Unfortunately, their quest for cheap land on the frontier led them straight into a hornet’s nest. No, it wasn’t the Indian tribes; they had already been decimated. In fact, it was their land that the government wanted to sell to settlers like Abner for $1.60 an acre. No, the real hornet’s nest was slavery. About half of all the pioneers in Missouri supported slavery, and the other half didn’t, and civility between the two factions was at the breaking point. I always wondered how Christians could approve of slavery, but I now know that they found their excuses in the Bible. Exodus and Leviticus tell us how to buy slaves, how to beat them, and even how to sell your own daughter into slavery. After Congress passed the Missouri Compromise in 1820, Missouri was granted statehood as a slave state on condition that Maine join the Union as a free state. The Congress wanted to keep a sense of balance, you see. How is that rational, you ask? Well, it’s not, it’s Judeo-Christian politics. Fifty years earlier Jefferson had written, “all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
That had a nice ring to it, but then Jefferson owned slaves too. So, who was kidding who? And just who was that Creator he mentioned in the Declaration of Independence? It certainly wasn’t the Creator in the Baptist Bible; the God of Abraham didn’t believe in equality. He said owning slaves was ok for the Chosen People. He said they would inherit the Earth. So, from 1821 to 1861, Missourians waged their own civil war, minister against minister, town against town, and father against son. It was a bloodbath. As it happens, the Reverend Abner was anti-slavery and five of his sons joined the Union Militia. Technically their side won the war in 1865, but those pro-slavery ministers never did surrender their religious beliefs, and this just shows you what an irrational thing religious faith can be. It is the eternal paradox of religion that the smallest spark of blind faith can ignite a maelstrom of suffering. It would seem that we humans are missing something when we cling to religious superstitions and political ideologies. We aren’t actually seeing reality as it is. We are stumbling in the dark. We have a blindspot.
For those Norris pioneers in the Bible belt, Christianity wasn’t just a religion, it was the culture. It was how you got christened, married and buried and everything in between. Births and deaths were recorded in the front of the family Bible, which sat in a place of honor in the parlor. Memorabilia from weddings, graduations and pressed flowers from the prairie were tucked between the pages. But, by the time I was kid in Kansas, that culture was changing. Console radios and Emerson TVs had begun to push the Bible off the table and into the bookcase. We even switched from the Baptist Church to the Plymouth Congregational Church because it was more liberal. Nonetheless, by the age of ten or eleven, I was thoroughly disenchanted with the whole thing. To my rebellious young eyes, something elemental was missing; something theologians used to call, the living magisterium of the holy trinity. Our minister talked endlessly about the omnipotence of God, but I didn’t see it and I couldn’t feel it. It seemed to me that our church was more of a club for developing social connections and managing tribal behavior and gaining status through tithing and justifying intolerance against Jews, Communists, and Catholics. The central tenet of our Protestant superiority came from the New Testament Book of John, where it said those who believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior will find everlasting life in a heavenly mansion, but those who do not believe are condemned to everlasting hellfire. Now, I was only ten years old, but it seemed to me that if God was truly omnipotent, he would have straightened out those non-believers a long time ago. What was he waiting for?
Then there was our Sunday school. That was a trip. We kids were fed an endless litany of preposterous myths about Noah’s Ark and Jonah’s whale and Virgin births, etc, all of which faded from my mind as soon as I stopped attending. In fact, the only event I truly remember from those times was the day Wilt Chamberlain attended our 11:00 o’clock service. He was a student at Kansas University at the time, and one particularly hot Kansas morning he walked in with his entire basketball team and somehow squeezed his seven foot, one inch frame into a woefully inadequate pew. I was sitting in the balcony, and had a splendid view of the top of his head. All us kids were giggling at his immensity, and our parents weren’t much quieter. Not only was he a freak of nature, but he was black, and there were no blacks in our church. This was revolutionary! Suddenly, a brochure slipped off Wilt’s lap and flew right into the aisle. We all gasped and pointed. Well, he didn’t even have to bend over to pick it up. Wilt could reach ten feet high while standing flat footed, and he had a wingspan over seven feet across. So, his crane-like arm reached all the way down to the floor and snatched up that paper with ease. We gaped in amazement. As you probably know, Wilt went on to be the only basketball player to score 100 points in a single game, and he claimed in his autobiography that he had slept with over 20,000 women! So there you go; I never saw the magisterium in my church, but I did see Wilt Chamberlain.
By the time I was out of high school I was quietly agnostic, and by the time I graduated from college, I was an outspoken atheist. But I didn’t make that transition casually; I came to it after a thorough examination of the historical record. After all, I was still a Norris, and I was abandoning my family legacy and my culture. Abner would have disowned me! So, what persuaded me to do such a thing? Well, three books got me started down that path. The first was the Bible itself. Remember that family Bible I mentioned, the one with the births and deaths recorded in it? Well I still had Reverend Abner’s Baptist Bible. It had been passed down to me through five generations of Norrises, and it wasn’t your average Bible. It was a huge leather bound book with thousands of pages of historical commentary on Greek and Hebraic controversies, including the Apocrypha. I found it fascinating. It showed me that theologians had never agreed on the content of the Bible; it was church leaders who defined the creed, and that creed changed from church to church and from century to century. I so wished that my minister would have talked about that stuff in his sermons; I might have paid more attention! But I also I found two other books: Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and Asimov’s ‘Guide to the Bible’. And as I poured over these books, I began to realize how utterly ignorant I was about the origins of Western Civilization and the role of religion in shaping it. So, I began to read voraciously. It seemed to me, that the only way I could prove or disprove the existence of the one true God was to see how and when he first appeared to humanity. So, I traced my Protestant Christianity back to Henry VIII and Luther’s Reformation. I traced Roman Catholicism back to Theodosius and Constantine. I traced the early Christian church back to Peter and Paul and I traced their Jewish roots back to Jesus, Josiah, and Hezekiah and on back to Moses and on back to Abraham and on back to God’s own genesis in Mesopotamia. It took a lot of digging, but there it was – there was the evidence.
As it turned out, the god of Abraham wasn’t the one true god at all, but just Abraham’s favorite patron deity among a pantheon of Semitic gods. Abraham’s god was called El, and El had been the chief deity in the Sumerian pantheon for a millennium before Abraham claimed him. El was the king of heaven, and he had a queen consort called Asherah to keep him company. At this point, things were looking rather dubious for the Plymouth Congregational Church!
Years later, as the history of the gods took shape in my mind, a few common sense observations began to emerge. The first was that the animistic gods of Stone Age hunter-gatherers had given way to astral-based gods when humans began to live in permanent agricultural settlements. Mountain gods, bear gods and holy groves weren’t so important anymore. Farmers needed to placate the sun and the moon and the rain and the seasons in order to insure good crops and constant fertility.
The second thing that emerged was that each separate culture developed its own local pantheon, typically headed by a male deity and his female consort with a collection of subordinate or child gods overseeing war, weather and animal husbandry, etc. In other words, the heavenly pantheons invented by humans bore a striking resemblance to the elite class of the city states. Many kings claimed their own divinity, and many gods were said to rule the kingdom of heaven, so where did kingship end and godhood begin? The pantheons of Mohenjo Daro and Sumer and Thebes and Akkad and Canaan looked suspiciously anthropomorphic, and it was no different in Hellenic Greece or Etruscan Rome or Celtic Gaul or Viking Norway.
The third thing was that when these settled populations outgrew their local food supplies, they began to make war on their neighbors, and extolling the superiority of your own pantheon over the other guy’s pantheon was a great pretext for massacre, theft, rape, slavery, and genocide. The other guy didn’t deserve mercy because he was an unbeliever, he worshipped false gods. And in fact, this was Moses’ argument when he sent Joshua to ravage Canaan.
Lastly, it became clear that countless deities had gone extinct in the past, along with the cultures that worshipped them. The life expectancy of a god wasn’t all that good in the big picture. But maybe that was a failure of polytheism. What about monotheism? What about the one true God that Jews, Christians, and Moslems all attributed to Abraham? Well, modern archaeology and secular scholarship has shown that the Semitic tribes of Abraham’s day continued to be polytheistic and even adopted some new gods from the Egyptians during their stay in the Nile delta. In fact, Moses was still trying to extinguish the Israelites’ polytheistic habits during the Exodus. If you read that book carefully, his invention of Yahweh appears to have been a clever pretext for genocide. Exodus 23 tells us: “You shall not worship their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their deeds; but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their sacred pillars in pieces.” Well, Moses’ generals did manage to invade Canaan, and they slaughtered cities like Jericho, but they never made a dent in that region’s polytheism. Solomon was still building temples to foreign gods in 950 BC just to please his concubines. It wasn’t until the reign of King Hezekiah in 700 BC that a major attempt was made to settle on a single Jewish patron deity. That effort failed too. His own son, King Manasseh, reversed course and reestablished local shrines to Baal, and Asherah and sponsored an Assyrian astral cult throughout Judah. He even approved the cult of Moloch that required sacrificing young children.
It wasn’t until Hezekiah’s great-grandson Josiah became King of Judah in 641 BC that monotheism finally gained headway among the Jews. Josiah and the priests of Aaron instituted draconian measures to accomplish this. Josiah’s high priest, a man named Hilkiah, claimed to have found the original Torah of Moses during a renovation of the Temple of Solomon. Of course, it was nothing of the sort, but wonder of wonders, Josiah now claimed that this new Torah contained a lost scroll, unknown since the time of Moses! That lost scroll was the Book of Deuteronomy. It seems that the Pentateuch had contained only four books up to that point, and now there were five. And in this lost scroll they found a forgotten law stating that God could only receive his sacrifices in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. How fortunate for the priests of Aaron, who just happened to control the lucrative worship in that temple. Hilkiah’s new law gave Josiah the justification he needed to force his people to worship the one true god in the one true temple. He unleashed his army to purge the kingdom of every other shrine, altar and holy place. Nothing was to be left intact but the Temple in Jerusalem. Even the holy groves of Asherah in the most remote valleys were obliterated. Dissenting priests were hacked to death upon their own altars. It was a holocaust of unimaginable barbarity perpetrated by a Jewish King against his own Jewish subjects. Such an act would be comparable to the Pope declaring that Saint Peters in Rome was the only consecrated church in Christendom!
I dwell on these events because they are largely ignored today, and yet this was the pivotal moment for Western Civilization when our current model of religious tyranny took shape. Akhenaten had tried something similar 700 years earlier in Egypt, but his priests had rebelled. Josiah made it stick. The allure for the elite class was irresistible. The power and wealth that had previously been distributed across myriad cults and temples could now be consolidated in one supreme god, represented by a single all-powerful king, and managed by a single priesthood mediating between heaven and earth like semi-divine tax-collectors. Every aspect of Jewish life, from the secular to the sacred, was now under the control of an exclusive group of patriarchal families. That tyranny would eventually lead to the rebellion of Jesus Christ, the coercion of Constantine, and the corruption of the Vatican. It would create a Dark Age in which militant popes and pious princes could claim divine right while perpetrating every manner of butchery upon their fellowmen. The church anointed the ruler, and the ruler sanctioned the church, quid pro quo. It was such a lucrative collusion that just prior the Reformation, the Roman Church owned one fourth of all the land in Europe. To this day, we follow Josiah’s example in our reckless merging of faith and statecraft. Even in America where the founding fathers declared the separation of church and state, the American president’s first act is to place his hand on Josiah’s Bible during the inauguration. What a supreme act of hypocrisy! Even the word inauguration contains the Latin root augur left over from the ancient tradition of having an augury rummage through sacrificial entrails for an omen of divine approval.
So the truth is that our western monotheism did not begin with a prophet or a messiah, but with a king and an emperor. It was King Josiah who perfected the formula for the Jews and Emperor Constantine who adapted it for the Christians. Josiah saw that if he could depopulate heaven, leaving only a solitary god, a single temple, and one holy scripture, he could seal his power over the tribes of Israel. In the end, it was holy scripture that gave the system its longevity. Josiah’s remaking of the Old Testament transformed the history of God into a clever charter—a patent establishing unassailable credentials for the kings of Judah and the priests of Aaron. It was a masterstroke.
The same tactic was adopted by Emperor Constantine 700 years later. Like King Josiah, he hammered the fractious Christian sects into a unified Catholic Church at the Council of Nicaea. Like Josiah, he sent his armies to smash the opposition. Like Josiah, he sent his theologians off to re-wicker the books of the Bible into a New Testament. He even commenced the building of a church in Jerusalem, but rather than rebuild Solomon’s Temple, he built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This time, Christ was the one true God, the Gospels were the new Torah, and the orthodox Catholic bishops were the new priests of Aaron. Constantine was a consummate showman, and he knew a good thing when he saw it. The show he invented was the Catholic Church, and that show is still playing in churches throughout the western world, whether Catholic, Protestant, or Latter Day invention. Baptist ministers in Missouri are still thumping on Josiah’s Old Testament and Constantine’s New Testament and claiming that it is the word of the one true God.
Now we could go on to discuss how Constantine’s duplicity led to the annihilation of countless Pagan cultures across Europe, and the destruction of the Library at Alexandria, and the abandonment of science, and the onset of the Dark Ages, and the Albigensian genocide, and the Holy Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition, and the Jewish holocaust, and rise of jihad, but let’s not. Let’s save that for another time. Instead, let’s discuss something much more promising: the peaceful introduction of Buddhism to the West in the 20th century. You see, about the same time that Judaism was succumbing to monotheism, a seeker named Siddhartha Gautama sat under a Bodhi Tree in India and did nothing for seven days but explore the inner workings of his own mind. No god, no priests, no sword, no scripture, and no temple; he just looked inside his own mind. And when he finally rose from his seat, he was a Buddha; he had fully realized the true nature of mind. Just by sitting under a tree and cutting through his mental obscurations, he was liberated from the suffering that afflicts gods, kings, and peasants alike. That liberation is often called enlightenment, but the word buddha simply means the awakened one. That happened twenty-five centuries ago, and although Buddhism spread widely across Asia, it has taken a long time to penetrate the materialistic shell of the western mindset.
As I said before, when I was in my twenties I considered myself an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I gave up on my search for the living magisterium. Far from it. I would go on to explore psychotropic drugs, Jungian psychology, phenomenology, existentialism, Einstein’s relativity, Patanjali’s yoga, and transcendental meditation. I guess you could say I was obsessed in my quest to understand why I existed at all. There had to be a reason. To make a long story short, nothing answered that question until I encountered Tibetan Buddhism and suddenly the door swung open. Talk about a breath of fresh air! Buddhism not only offered a path to enlightenment, but a cogent explanation for the western blindspot that had my knickers all in a twist!
From the Buddhist perspective, the madness that haunts Western Civilization results from a basic ignorance that afflicts all sentient beings. In Sanskrit that ignorance is called avidya, or unawareness, and it stems from the fundamental misperception that there is an autonomous self that is somehow separate from other autonomous selves. Once that initial mistake is made, the confusion of ego is born, and the original clarity of naked awareness (vidya) is obscured by clouds of passion, aggression, pride, and envy. Looking for salvation in the form of an external god only exacerbates that illusion of separateness. The same can be said for brain-dazzling technologies, mind-boggling philosophies and mood-altering drugs. Those things only distract the attention from the ground of reality. The path to enlightenment is not outward, but inward. It unfolds through meditation, first as quiescence, and then as insight. With practice one discovers that the myriad phenomena projected by ego are empty of any inherent substantiality, and that emptiness includes the ego itself. And with that discovery comes an explosion of compassion for all those discursive minds still trapped in samsaric confusion. The illusion of separateness disperses, and there is a spontaneous reunion with unfabricated and unbounded consciousness that is quite beyond anything the intellect can imagine. That, in a nutshell, is the Buddhist Path.
The seeds of Buddhism have only recently landed on our western shores and they will need some time to bear fruit, but it is urgent that we nurture them along because we are rapidly running out of time. Our so-called Judeo-Christian civilization is collapsing before our eyes. The earth is over-populated, species are going extinct, greenhouse gases are cooking the planet, the oceans are dying, and nuclear war seems inevitable. Isn’t it time to stop pretending that our governments and churches know what they are doing? Isn’t it time for each of us to take responsibility for our own hearts and minds? What if we followed Buddha’s example and dissolved our blindspots into the innate wisdom of primordial consciousness? We just might create a civilization worthy of the name. Share this Post
Featured image: Emperor Constantine at the ‘Battle of Milvian Bridge’ painted by Giulio Romano in 1524. Although he was a pagan who considered himself descended from Apollo, Constantine’s vision of a cross in the sky convinced him that the Christian symbol would protect his army in the battle.
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