Eric Butterworth Unity Podcast #49
We’re considering today the second in our series, The Gospel Truth. Last week We’re considering today the second in our series, The Gospel Truth. Last week we dealt especially with the background and ideas and the objectives of Jesus, with the key idea in his teaching, the divinity of man. We emphasized the distinction between Jesus the man and Christ the divine level within the man, that Christ is not a name but a principle and a process within all persons. Jesus discovered the Christ of his being, but it was a discovery of the potential of the Christ in you and me.
Today we’re going to speak frankly about the roots and evolution of the Christian Church and the religion about Jesus. Next week we’re going to look at the confusion of Christian creeds and traditions, deal with the confusion of church dogma and the need to return to 1st century Christianity.
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We’re considering today the second in our series, The Gospel Truth. Last week we dealt especially with the background and ideas and the objectives of Jesus, with the key idea in his teaching, the divinity of man. We emphasized the distinction between Jesus the man and Christ the divine level within the man, that Christ is not a name but a principle and a process within all persons. Jesus discovered the Christ of his being, but it was a discovery of the potential of the Christ in you and me.
Today we’re going to speak frankly about the roots and evolution of the Christian Church and the religion about Jesus. Next week we’re going to look at the confusion of Christian creeds and traditions, deal with the confusion of church dogma and the need to return to 1st century Christianity.
You may be wondering, why all this emphasis on Jesus in the Christian Church? Many non-Christian students have always felt comfortable with my brand of metaphysics, which normally stresses a universal approach. Let me say, startling as it is to some persons, that you really don’t have to be a Christian to be a student of truth. You’re dealing with universal ideals that transcend separations of divisions of religions.
Go on to realize that the whole throw of Western civilization has been very much involved in and influenced by the Christian Church and the outreach of Christian ideals. There’s no escaping this. Whether you’re a dropout of or a member of a Christian church, even if you have a non-Christian background, you undoubtedly have a bias for or against Jesus and Christianity. It always seems to me that both the proponents and the antagonists have been arguing about the wrong things. So boldly, we’re meeting head-on some of the questions that you have long had about Jesus and the church that has evolved in his name and maybe were afraid to ask.
Religion is very much in the news today. The Pope is issuing a new call for ecumenicism and the unifying of churches. There are still ongoing conflicts between educators and creationists over the question of teaching evolution in schools. And we have the current spectacle of television evangelists, who are bringing the Christian world into a new kind of notoriety. But it seems to me that the Christian movement does not really know itself, as it does not adequately represent itself. Theologians have been preoccupied with a religion about Jesus, giving little if any thought to the religion of Jesus.
The evangelists who say they are preaching Christ somehow seem unable to grasp that Jesus taught the divinity of man and that Christ is not Jesus, but the divine level that Jesus discovered in himself and which he taught is the depth of potential in all persons. Stress has been on the miracles wrought by Jesus, but rarely do we hear Jesus’s clear statement, “He that believeth on me, the works that I do he shall do also. And greater works than me shall he do.”
It is an interesting and quite revealing statement, written, of all things, by a philosopher-physicist, Oliver Reiser, formerly of the University of Pittsburgh, in his book Cosmic Humanism. I quote, “In the long course of social evolution, man has sanctified many things as the source of ultimate power, the object of veneration and worship, but he has seldom touched upon man’s essential divinity. Never have societies deified the creative force, the divinity in man. And yet, if there’s one thing that Christian mystery sought to teach, it was the divinity within man, the Christ in you, undeveloped and unheeded.”
Jesus taught a simple philosophy, essentially composed of the ideas of the allness of God active within every person as a living presence, that man is a spiritual being with the kingdom of God enwrapped within him as a dynamic potential for health and creativity and love, that if a person knows who he is and takes charge of his life, controlling his thoughts and emotions, keeping open to the intuition of flow of God and mind, that he can experience what he called life more abundant.
But Jesus had a living, practical teaching. It was not a set of creeds to be professed, but a series of principles to be applied. One person said recently, “I hear you talk about the truth of Jesus, and I’m inspired by the idea that God lives in me, and that I can experience his presence as my help in every need. It’s a great source of joy and peace. Then I listen to the Bible-thumping evangelists preaching of the sinful and the sordid and of hell and the day of judgment. I walk into a cathedral and see the statuary and Godly displays on the altar, witness the pageantry and ceremony, and I wonder what happened in the evolution of the Christian Church? How did we get that way?”
Well, today we’re going to have a lesson in Christian history. I hope that you’ll discover some things that will give you a new perspective on the Christian Church. You may wonder by what authority I express these thoughts. The thoughts come directly from available Christian history, but looking at it without being filled with the idea to justify certain traditional practices, looking at it from a purely unstructured point of view and a primitive Christianity point of view. But I remind you again that Jesus was a Jew, that for many years Christianity was scarcely more than a sect within Judaism. In the beginning, it was somewhat like the healing movement that is widespread through Protestant churches. People get involved in the ideas of healing. They have meetings within and without the church, no intent to break away from their church, but to supplement it with the experience and the prayer practice, the spiritual healing.
So with Jesus, there was no attempt to create a new religion or to form a division or schism within Judaism. Jesus’s disciples, it should be carefully noted, all remained pious Jews to the day of their death. Paul says of these disciples and of their followers, “They went regularly into the temple to pray.” So Jesus did not set out to found a new religion. He said clearly, “I came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it.” And the law was the Torah, the central feature in Judaism. He came into a time when the Jewish people had lost their way. They had been a devout and God-led people, with the early Jewish prophets bringing tremendous insights into the divine nature of man.
But their religion, as has happened with perhaps all religions, had settled into the mire of institutionalism. All inspiration had gone. It was all form and ceremony, no spirit. The temple, the law, the authority had become everything. All direct relationship with God had become merely a memory. A dead, dogmatic ceremonial system was in existence. The religion of the Jews in the time of Jesus looked back to other days, to Moses and Abraham and Jacob. It was what I call religion in retrospect.
But Jesus said, “Now is the day of salvation. The kingdom of God is at hand.” He put religion into the present tense, and for this reason, he was a threat to the establishment and, as we know, was put to death on trumped-up charges. We aren’t going to deal too much with that today. We’re not going to go into Jesus’s ministry and his teaching and healing work. That’s for other times. We simply want to make clear that there was no creation of an organization or even a religious system. All that came much later.
We might comment briefly on one incident of the gospels that has had a profound effect on the evolution of the Christian Church. It was that occasion when Jesus, sitting with his disciples, teaching, sharing ideas with them, he said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter, in a flash of insight, replied, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed it unto you, but my Father, who is in heaven.” In other words, we cannot really know a person by means of our knowledge of his background, of his resume, of the histories of things he’s done. We can only know him in terms of what he can be, not by sight but by insight.
So Jesus is delighted by this evidence of spiritual insight, and he says, “Thou are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Seems understandable, doesn’t it? But it hasn’t been understood. Confusion on this point has been largely responsible for the development of the Christian Church, because it has been accepted that Jesus is saying, “Peter, I’m so proud of that I’m going to build my ecclesiastical organization upon you.” So literally has this been accepted that St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is reputed to have built on the interred bones of Peter.
First of all, the man called Peter was really named Simon. Peter wasn’t his name. When Jesus said, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock,” he was not naming the man, but praising the quality displayed by the man, the perception. The quantity “petros” is a term similar to our word “faith”, which means rocklike steadfastness. He said, “You will be called Rocky.” Literally, that’s where the word “Peter” comes from, Rocky.
You see, Jesus is saying that it is in this kind of faith perception that the church must be built, but here again, our problem has been that we’ve read into that word “church” all that it has come to mean through the years since that time. But at that time, there was no precedent for what we’ve seen and experienced. The word “church” in the original form was the word “ecclesia”, the Greek word meaning called-out ones. Now, Jesus always dealt with thoughts rather than things. He spoke symbolically, metaphorically. He was referring to the aggregation of ideas and spiritual consciousness that comes to be the central focus of our consciousness, our true nature. The church Jesus is talking about in this instance is the inner life of man. He’s saying that to build this inner life, we must develop the perception to see ourselves and others in the context of the divinity of man.
So Jesus had no thought of establishing a church as we now know it. He probably would be extremely puzzled about the contemporary high church. I’m sure he wouldn’t identify with any of it. When I was a child, I was very puzzled in my experience in church. I was raised in the High Episcopalian Church, at least in my formative years. Believe it or not, I was an altar boy, carrying the crucifix and lighting the altar candles. I made a shocking discovery, that I had a lot of questions that I discovered I couldn’t ask of the rector, because he would usually snap us on the wrist for impertinence.
So I curiously one day looked behind the altar, expecting to find this great, gracious, beautiful holy of holies, and I found simply a storage area cluttered with old candles and worn hymnals. It was a shock that I remember to this day. It had a great deal to do with the development of my consciousness as sort of a positive-thinking agnostic.
Now, after Jesus left the disciples bodily, the disciples set out to spread the good news throughout the land. Under Paul’s influence, they went far out into the gentile communities of the Mediterranean world. It’s important to note here, and this is quite surprising to many of us who assume that the church has always existed as it is, in the beginning and for several centuries, the ecclesia were simply prayer and sharing groups. Today it might be called growth groups. Students of Jesus’s teaching, gathering regularly to exchange experiences and to support each other. These were the churches to which Paul wrote his letters, such as the letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians and the Philippians and so forth, which form the bulk of the New Testament.
This was 1st century Christianity, no buildings, no ecclesiastical organization, no clergy. These little groups are informal and non-structured. We’re told that Paul ordained one of the group as a minister. Here again, we read into the word “minister” that which it has come to mean, a clerical group of people who are separate and apart from all the others. I’ve always thought of a national headquarters of an interfaith association. In the halls, there’s a block of restrooms, one marked, “Men”, one marked “Women”, one marked “Clergy”. It seems to suggest a lot, doesn’t it?
But the word “ordain”, which we’ve assumed is some special holy time of blessing upon a person to make him part of the class set apart, the word “ordain” simply means to appoint. There’s no intent to establish a separate class, creating the unfortunate separation of clergymen and laymen. This leader was appointed as the discussion leader. Many groups that meet together today have a chairman whose duty it is to fix the place of the meeting, perhaps to get the coffee and the donuts, have the chairs set, and perhaps become a discussion leader in the group, such as the leaders of our retreat groups. I’ve always said that when we look out upon the Allentown retreat in the summer and see these many, many groups seated all around under trees, it’s a very beautiful example of how Christianity began. No ritual, no organization, no ecclesiastical establishment, just individuals involved in the quest for truth, in this case, considering the truth of Jesus.
So let us again note, the small group ecclesia was the form that Christianity took for nearly three centuries. Three centuries, that’s a long time. No ritual, no form, no institution, no buildings, no altars, no pews, no hymnals, no choirs, simply the involvement and following what Jesus called the Way. So today we ask impertinently, how did we lose the Way?
And during this period of primitive Christianity, as the movement spread, there was increasing resistance by the Roman authorities, because you remember, this all took place under the time when Rome conquered the known world. There was a great deal of persecution, because the Christians taught and believed and insisted upon freedom and individuality. This is a great threat to the authority of Rome. So in those days, during the early days of primitive Christianity, you had to lay your life on the line to be a Christian, so that Christian groups often met underground, literally in caves.
The Christian movement grew despite this, and especially in Rome, where people were getting so little from their Roman religion and sought out the Christian groups. So in time, undeterred by executions and terror, which is unbelievable, the Christian movement became overwhelming. In the year A.D 324, and this is a red letter date, a watershed date in the whole Christian evolution, you want to remember it, 324, finding that they couldn’t destroy Christianity, the Romans, under the leadership of Emperor Constantine, simply annexed it. We have a term, if you can’t beat them, join them.
The emperor could see that he could make political capital out of the Christian movement, so he took over Christianity as the official religion of the empire. In a very short time, the Christian Church emerged in an entirely different form. It’s important to note this, how the church was imperialized and how so much and most if not all that has become fundamental in the Christian churches originated during this period of the Romanization of the church. When we think of the Romanization of the church, we think of Catholicism. This was the Romanization and thinking of Rome as the very authoritarian empire. It had no religion at all, except the state religion of pagan gods.
Under this influence, Jesus doffed his carpenter’s apron and his plain, coarse garments and was robed in imperial purple and fitted with crown and scepter, which we see so often in church pictures of Jesus. Big metaphysics, which was so much of the intellectual work of the Romans, altered Jesus’s simple teachings, injecting them with speculation, controversy, and mystery, creating a religion about Jesus, almost completely abandoning the simple hillside teachings of Jesus.
Now, the Roman religion had been an affair of temples and material sacrifices, or shows and processions, festivals spread through the year in honor of innumerable deities. The Romans brought into the Christian Church much of their old paganism, completely compromising Jesus’s monotheistic idea. The Roman temples had figures of gods and goddesses, which were simply replaced with the figures of saints, to whom prayers continued to be uttered. Christmas took the place of the Roman saturnalia, and we give Christmas presents today primarily because the Romans gave gifts on the feast of Saturn.
The great temples of the gods became, with few alterations, the Christian churches, and graduated priesthood was formed. Nuns took the place of vestal virgins. There was introduced bells and candles and vestments and ceremonials and incantations. It was a long departure from Jesus’s way. And the Roman conception of a single coordinated universe of empire became the church’s highest ideal. The Roman emperor became the Pope, and the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire.
The church, now centered in the hierarchy of Rome, took the most dead part of Jesus’s life, his death, and made it the chief feature of its system. The important symbol was the figure of Jesus on the cross, the crucifix, and Jesus’s teachings of the great power of the divine in man, the kingdom of God within, were pushed in the background, thoroughly emasculated by the church’s new teaching of the depravity of man, with no hope of redemption except through the mediumship of some intercessor with God.
And it was into this maze of speculation and pomp and ceremonial power, coupled with the subjection of all people to absolute authority, that the canons of the New Testament were formed. A series of church councils were held to formulate tenets of belief and the articles of faith. And the first and the best-known of these councils, called in 325 A.D., was the Council of Nicaea. The purpose of this council that was authorized by Emperor Constantine was to decide once and for all the nature of God. Who is God? How did God work? It was at a time when the early theologians were speculating on how many angels could dance on the head of a pin and many such abstruse ideas as this.
So after much wrangling, the Nicaean Creed was formulated. There was a violent argument, much like the labor-management negotiations that we have so often. It is recorded that Arius struck Nicholas a blow in the face. And when the votes were counted, in a narrow decision, what was to be known as the doctrine of the Trinity emerged. Hereafter, God was three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. No one has ever really understood it. It has been the source of endless wranglings and divisions in churches ever since. As a matter of fact, it was so empty of value that Jesus never once mentioned it. People today speak of the great historic creeds with reverence, unaware or uncaring that all of them came out of the Romanization of the foundation of Christianity, the development of the religion about Jesus.
This is probably shocking to some, and maybe even difficult to accept, but this is a part of church history. The history of the Roman church through medieval times and the Reformation touched off by Martin Luther are an interesting story, but we’re not going to spend weeks in history, and it would take that long. One history lesson is enough. But there’s a revealing comment by Henry Drummond, a Scottish preacher-scientist of the 19th century. I would like to quote him. He says,
“Perhaps the most dismal fact of history is the failure of the great organized body of ecclesiasticism to understand the simple genius of Jesus’s religion. Down to the present hour, almost whole nations in Europe live, worship, and die under the belief that Christ is an ecclesiastical Christ, religion is the sum of all the church’s observances, and faith is an adhesion to the church’s creeds.”
You see, it is important to know how the rigid practices of the church have evolved, so that we can get an objective understanding of them. Today there’s a professed concern about the secular society. We hear theologians talk about this. But it is institutionalized religion that created the divisions of secular and sacred and holy days and weekdays. The church isn’t made to be a place set apart, conducted by a clergy as a class set apart, on a sabbath day which is a day set apart. Jesus made it very clear that the practice of spiritual principles was not a matter for one day a week. He said, “The sabbath is made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
How easy it is to go through a ritual on Sunday, and then put it all back in what I call the six-day closet of unconcern. “Sunday worship” is one of the least-understood words of the Western religious practice. It does not merely imply a glittering spectacle in which the congregant becomes merely a spectator, a communion with God that is done by professionals. Actually, the word “worship” antedates the Bible. In pagan times, people prostrated themselves before idols in fear and self-abasement. The word “worship”, from the Greek “proskuneo”, literally means to lick at the heels like a dog. We’ve retained this spirit in the practice of bowing our heads in prayer, abasing ourself before the Almighty.
But in the root word from which our word “prayer” has come, we have the Sanskrit word “palal”, P-A-L-A-L, which literally means “judging oneself to be wondrously made.” So prayer should lead us to lift up our eyes, to know that if I’m worthy to draw breath, I’m worthy of the fullness of life. So we need a renewed sense of self-worth. This is why I introduced the idea of “worthship”, not a performance we put on for God’s benefit, but as Emerson says, “the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.”
Much religious worship is an attempt at what is called reconciliation. This is a term you hear so often through orthodoxy, trying to make peace with God, but you can’t make peace with God, from the standpoint that you don’t have to, because there’s no way that God can have other than a peaceful relationship with you. God is always present as a presence, always loves you with a love that is everlasting. How you experience yourself in consciousness depends upon you, but God is the allness within you, no matter what. You need to make peace with yourself, to love yourself, to respect yourself, and thus to give expression to the God power that is always seeking expression through you.
Now, maybe this is all somewhat startling to review the evolution of the Christian Church as we’ve done it very briefly. But it’s important that we see the church in the proper perspective. The forgotten message of Christianity, the great discovery of Jesus, is the divinity of man. Unless the church rediscovers this focus, it may well in time deteriorate into a monument to a man never known and a message never applied. In the Christian churches around the world, the cathedrals and basilicas may in time become gaudy museums, where curious tourists may see displayed the lavish ends to which man has gone in his fruitless search to find God, who is all the while within himself.
Now, our discussion today is not intended as a critical judgment of particular churches. I hope you understand this. We’re solely concerned that you find yourself and find the flow of divine power through you. The final authority for truth is not in institutions or holy persons. It is within the intuitive flow of the spirit within you. Religion is essentially a language. It has a lot of cultural roots, as well as philosophic and spiritual roots. It’s a language, and denominations within religions are a dialect within the language. The great ideas that religion seeks to communicate are truth. In most cases, religions were founded by a person, a person who inadvertently evolved an organization without even trying, because he put his concepts into the form of a message, which he sought to present to people to help them to understand the relationship that he’d found with God.
Once he was out of the way, then the disciples, whoever they may be and whatever religion they may have been a part of, began to close ranks, as it were, and to create a kind of a movement, so they’d work together. Over a period of time, sincerely and out of a desire not to lose what they had, they created a machine, so that it would automatically roll on. And over a long period of time, hundreds of years, perhaps thousands of years, the machine became simply a monument to the man. These are some words that are set forth by a professor at the University of Southern California, a professor of religion. He calls it the five M’s of religious evolution: the man, the message, the movement, the machine, and the monument.
If you look into the jungles of Cambodia today and see these temples, like Angkor Wat and so forth, no one today hardly knows what they were worshiping for or what they were objectifying. We see the monument to the fact that someone somewhere had an insight, had a revelation, and sought to set it forth into the world. That’s the ultimate, how it evolved. So we can see that very catch is subtly happening within the Christian Church itself. It’s important to see that, in terms of our own relationship with it.
Our particular faith is a dialect within the language of some religious form, whether your background is in Judaism or Christianity, whether you’re a Catholic or a Protestant, whether you are a Baptist or a Methodist, or whatever your roots may be. You’re involved in a language, which you probably never will eliminate, because it’s a part of you, even as today people wonder why I use the word “Jesus” so often. I say it’s because I speak the Christian language. I grew up in this. It’s the language I learned like I learned the language of English. If I’d grown up in France, I would speak French. My dialect would be different. My idioms would be different.
We’re basically concerned with the root, with the basis, the universal essence of truth that is involved within them. Understand that we don’t have to be defensive of or destructive of the various traditions of our church, but always seek to look within them, As we said last week, to wash the windows to see through them, to see the truth that Jesus taught or that has been taught by the great teachers. I think it’s important to indicate here that Unity is not an offshoot of any church body or denomination. It’s simply a return to 1st century Christianity, so we may be able to survey the evolution of the Christian Church with a little greater objectivity. I don’t know, at least it’s possible.
Next week we’re going to consider some of the fundamentals of Christian dogma, and our title for next week is An End to Dogma Eat Dogma. I’d like you first of all to join with me for just a moment and experience a visualization. Just get still now and try to find that place in consciousness that is beyond and transcendent to traditions and forms and ritual and pictures and statuary and all those things which have become so much a part of the language we speak, so much a part of our culture. Let them all go for just a moment and see yourself as established within a relationship with the infinite.
And as we sit quietly, reverently, humbly, seeking to know your oneness, think for a moment of the spirit within you, seen to you in feeling if not in so many words. Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Christ of you is the divine of you. This is your true nature. And the key is to understand this and to see it to such a great degree that we see this Christ in all persons and see it in ourselves. In this way, the spirit within says to us in effect, not in words, “Blessed art thou. The profession of God has not revealed it unto thee, but my sprit, my Father within. Thou art Peter, Petros, thou art faith.”
And in this spiritual perception is the church of the ecclesia and the aggregation of spiritual ideas within you made real. May you accept that injunction, go ye forth into all the world and preach the gospel. No, this is no guidance to preach or present or manifest or live out into experience the reality of truth, the good news, the ideal of the divinity of man. May we this day accept a deep spiritual commitment to take the heart of the religious ideal, our relationship with the divine flow. Let it become an influence to live a life that is light and love and truth. And may we determine that we will not be so established in ritual and dogma that we cannot see through the darkened window and see the truth.
Living, as the orientals say, so often the teacher points to the truth, and the students worship the pointer. So seeking to look beyond this, to resolve not to worship the pointer, not to worship the symbology, not to worship the darkened glass, but to see through the glass and become one with the realization of the truth that is universal, give thanks for this consciousness, for an ability to understand beyond our present feeling of doubt and confusion. We give thanks for the truth that makes us free. So be it.