As a young person, the “outer trappings” of religion turned me off. Rites and ceremonies are largely symbolic and traditional. If you don’t understand the meaning of the symbolism or if you don’t relate to the traditions, then the rituals are meaningless. While others are attracted to the mysteriousness of ritualistic symbolism or to the ancient age of traditions, I am not. What draws me is the idea of understanding God and spiritual truth. Religion is complex, addressing cultural cohesion, societal responsibility, morality and other virtues, while at the same time providing various answers to life’s deepest questions: “Where did I come from?”; “What is the purpose of life?”; “What happens when I die?”. But to my way of thinking, Truth is simple. Truth is absolute. Truth addresses everyone’s heart-felt needs, personally and directly. Knowing the “Truth” answers those questions.
Finding a religion that supports truth is good. But the religion is secondary. James 1:27 reads, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Regardless of one’s take on this standard, it certainly doesn’t describe most religions today, and the implication is that there are many religions that are not pure or faultless. In fact, because of human nature, I don’t think any religion is pure or faultless. Yet it is possible to know the pure and faultless truth.
We know from history that religions have been around for a long time. Evidence from prehistoric times indicates the existence of religion is as old as the human race itself. But at present there appears to be a disconnect in how we relate to religion, as compared to the past. There is a general tendency to feel that religions are not needed when society approaches problem-solving from a scientific world-view, as opposed to a superstitious premise. Factors that play into this tendency are 1) the sense of self-reliance produced by the benefits of modern technology, which enables easy access to information and resources, 2) the transference of identification with closely knit families or localized communities (geographical, national etc.) to more diffuse, even global associations based on shared areas of interest, and 3) the influences of relativism and consumerism on one’s world view (example given later). While these factors are largely intellectual, there are also political influences on attitudes toward religions. In developing his political philosophy of Communism, Marx viewed religion as a capitalist tool for controlling workers. As an atheist, he offered the State as something the people could believe in, replacing an “imaginary” God with a real, human institution that was looking out for them.
How a person views religion is fundamentally a product of his concept of ultimate authority. The traditional paradigm for the adherents of any religion is that one’s beliefs and values have the greatest authority over one’s life. Under Communism, the authority of religion threatens the ultimate authority of the State. So, in order to promulgate a “statist” or secular paradigm, Communism conditionally allows the practice of religion, as long as adherents “keep it to themselves”. They preach that religion belongs in places of worship, not in public. That way religions no longer raise the issue of authority. They merely become culturally or ethnically defined activities, subject to government regulation in the same manner as business or commerce.
The issue of authority for religious beliefs stems from the reliability of the source of such beliefs. Every religion has its source. Rather than examining the reliability of these sources, there is a tendency today to join a religion as a consumer would buy a car. In the market place of ideas, religions are packaged to appeal to people for various reasons, and are presented to the public as options or choices. The relative “truth” of any particular religion is politely ignored. I have even heard it said, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe.” This, of course, follows the premise that religions give us answers for things that cannot be otherwise understood. And since “spiritual”, “supernatural” or “magical” things can’t be explained to the satisfaction of all, just take your pick — as long as you don’t insist on the authority of such beliefs.
I, on the other hand, look to the reliability of my source for the authority of my beliefs. The Bible is that source. I invite everyone to examine its reliability. The Bible we have today (in all its various languages and translations) represents thousands of years of devoted, scholarly preservation of Scriptural texts. Taken together, the Tanakh (the Jewish Bible, or the Old Testament) and the New Testament are better attested to than all other classic literature. To critics who say the accuracy of Scripture has been eroded over time because of copyist errors, I love to point out that the entire book of Isaiah found in the Dead Sea Scrolls is the same exact book of Isaiah we have today (a product of thousands of years of being copied). And to critics who claim the Bible can mean whatever you want it to mean, I suggest they weigh that charge against good scholarship. Critics make this claim for two reasons: 1) They see divergent theologies all claiming Biblical authority; and 2) They have not studied the Bible themselves. (They’ve already made up their minds.) Because I have studied the Bible and continue to do so, I am only concerned with addressing the first reason.
First of all, the Bible was not written by mystics and is nothing like the cryptic writings of the likes of Nostradamus or Edgar Cayce. The books of the Bible take various forms. Some are historic, instructional, legal, some poetic, some in the form of stories, prayers, preaching and prophesy. The best exegesis (critical analysis of Scripture) results from scholarly expertise in the fields of language (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin), literary conventions, ancient culture, ancient history and archeology. At those levels of examination, there is less disagreement as to what the Scripture actually says than to what implications it holds for believers. An illustration of this is the existence of so many different Christian denominations, who, in spite of minor differences, agree on the basics. A more critical problem is the widely divergent beliefs of what some apologists have called “Christian Cults”.
Examples are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Science and Unity. These are characterized as being outside the mainstream orthodoxy for three main reasons. The first is that, contrary to what the Bible teaches, they introduce some other authoritative source in addition to the Bible — usually the “revelations” of the founder. This undercuts and contradicts the authority of the Bible. The second reason is that they violate sound interpretive practice (hermeneutics) by taking verses out of context, mistranslating word meanings, or changing the definitions of common Biblical terminology to manipulate their own unique theology. The third reason is they claim the full message of the Bible is hidden and their exalted office or special knowledge enables them to reveal those hidden secrets to the chosen few.
In every case, it is not a matter of the Bible meaning different things to different people. It’s a matter of not really paying attention to what the Bible says, but confusing that issue with extraneous, non-scholarly information from people who “go beyond what is written”. Applying that to the issue of authority, It is clear that members of cults have imbued their organizations and their leaders with authority that is not in the Bible. Jesus said, “All [ALL] authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18). Every cult undermines that truth.
When a person decides to take a religion as their own, they are exercising their own authority. They are saying, “I authorize this religion to have authority over my life.” Of course, if its just a politically correct activity, as mentioned above, they’re only saying, “I authorize myself to spend time in this activity.” But to those who are willing to accept spiritual authority over their lives, I urge them to carefully, exhaustively examine the claims of their authoritative source. There is a substantial difference between Muslims (Islam means submission.) and Bible believers (“What the Messiah has freed us for is freedom!” – Galatians 5:1, JNT). While some seek the right religion, I seek the truth.