Milestones in our Faith: Finding Truth Across Faiths
Scripture Reading: Selections from the Gospel of Thomas
Hello everyone, and thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to talk about my wandering journey through faith and spirituality. I am so honored to be sharing the final Sunday of Summer Worship with you all in this way.
I’ll start by giving you some context, a sense of what my life was like before I hit my first major faith milestone. I was born in Kentucky, which according to some definitions lies in the Bible Belt - others disagree - but Christianity was certainly a strong presence in my childhood. I was raised by a Catholic father and a mother who had converted to Catholicism but was originally Southern Baptist. I attended Catholic school through the 2nd grade, and I have fond memories of reading my children’s Bible with my parents. I think many of my earliest and strongest moral principles came from reading and discussing those stories, but I also remember spending what seems like almost equal time reading a book of fairy tales: my Children’s Book of Virtues. I’ll come back to that in a bit, but what I want to illustrate now is that Christianity was all around me, and in a way it was the “default”. And I had no problem with that, in fact I was all in.
As I grew up, two things threatened to separate me from my faith and Christianity. The first was moving to a new state when I was 9. We were separated from our Kentucky church community, and over time church became less of a constant in my life. But, we were definitely still Christians. The second thing was “the teenage years”. I wasn’t particularly rebellious, but I was a young scientist, growing increasingly more interested in the scientific method and the hard facts. I did say these things threatened to shake my faith. In reality, they didn’t. But what did happen is this constant in my life became something that was just “plain vanilla”, not that exciting, and as I mentioned earlier, something that felt like a “default”. Given that feeling, and knowing my attention span, I guarantee my Christianity would have slowly faded into the background, and while my faith may never have been broken, my level of engagement almost certainly would have dwindled, perhaps even to nothing.
Enter my spiritual sensei. In high school, I signed up for a class called “The Hebrew Bible as Literature”. Not because I was so darn excited to read the Bible again, but because the course description intrigued me. Let’s read the Bible not as a religious text or a source of a moral compass, but for the stories. To analyze the plot, and draw comparisons to Star Wars, the Matrix, the Godfather. My teacher was a true master, drawing from the pop culture he knew we enjoyed to make us care about the “required reading”, to make our heads spin with so many new ideas we just HAD to write essays about it. What I appreciate most about this experience when I look back on it was that it took these familiar “background” “default” “vanilla” aspects of my life and gave them depth, made them compelling, and most bafflingly, my teacher – I kid you not – managed to turn the Bible into a real page turner. And this, as I mentioned, was a big milestone.
Re-engaging with the Bible in this way also came at this time in my life where, as I mentioned, I was a budding scientist, and an increasingly independent thinker. This meant that this was about the time in my life where I might have tried to reconcile what was written in the Bible with what I could observe in the real world. Would I one day have to choose between Evolution and Intelligent Design? Would I have to wrestle with the physics and anatomy of Sampson’s strength, or the derive the equation that explains how the burning bush obeys the law of the conservation of energy? When I started reading the Bible as literature, it brought me to another great milestone in my thinking. When people refer to myths and fairy tales, these words are often used in a sort of disparaging way. Things that aren’t true, things that are made up, things that are perhaps of trivial import. But there is a quote I like by author Neil Gaiman, which he attributes to writer/philosopher/theologian G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” In my mind the “truth” of a good story, the “truth” of the Bible, the “truth” of the fairy tales I grew up reading in my Children’s Book of Virtues, have little to do with the “facts” of those stories. If you’re spending your time trying to prove that “yes, in fact the world was created in seven days and here’s how”, or “yes, actually there was a big flood that covered the whole earth”… you’re missing the point. Does it matter what we can and can’t prove if the stories make us better simply by virtue of having heard them? This is the question at the heart of “Big Fish”, a favorite movie of mine. “Life of Pi” asks a similar question, and is another book and movie I recommend if you have ever felt a conflict between the truth and the facts. We all know dragons don’t exist, but I guarantee you can think of a dragon you’d like to beat, or a Goliath you’d like to bring down with your slingshot of faith. As for myself, newly equipped and motivated to read these familiar tales in the Bible through new eyes, searching for a genuine, deep truth in the Bible became far more valuable to me than trying to read it as a combination history and science textbook. It’s not.
Another milestone was borne out of reading the Bible in this way. Through a literary lens, the Bible is not a novel. We call it THE Good Book, but bible comes from the greek biblia, which is a plural of biblion. Biblia means “the books”. The Bible is an anthology, collecting wisdoms and experience across space and time, all with a common focus of God, and later of Jesus. So, I became confused and frustrated when I learned about the distinction between canon and deutorocanon, or the Apocrypha. It turns out different denominations disagree about which books belong in THE Bible. Why? I’ve heard many answers, but never ones that seemed good enough. The debate about what belongs and what does not is almost as old as the Christian church, with some key moments at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and later among Catholics at the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s. But even within this century, we have new books to grapple with – and by grapple, I do mean a sort of intellectual and spiritual wrestling, because these books are weird, and awesome.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library were discovered in Israel and Egypt, respectively. The Dead Sea Scrolls contain many copies of books we all know – Isaiah, Genesis, Judges, Song of Songs, Job – but 60% of these scrolls are books that were never canonized as a part of the Hebrew Bible. half of those are documents we had never seen before. What are they doing in the same collection? Someone thought they belonged together. Over in Egypt, the Nag Hammadi library contained mostly texts from early Christianity. There is speculation that these texts were buried by members of a nearby monastery that was burned in 367 AD over disagreements about what is and is not Christianity. In this collection are 52 texts from the Gnostic tradition of Christianity. The Gospel of Thomas, which we heard just moments ago, is one of those texts. The Gnostics believed that the glory and power of God is spread among us all, and by seeking spiritual knowledge and deep experiences, that divine spark could be unlocked within us. How cool is that?
My personal faith conclusion: the more stories, the better. Authorship, authenticity, consistency, these things are less important to me than gathering more perspectives, opening my mind to how others saw God and Jesus, and experiencing the truths of people who are and are not like me. Now, you may not agree. But I hope you agree that burning these texts is not the answer. If 50 years from now, some basement was discovered with unreleased demos and studio jams by the Beatles, we would be psyched. Would you send those tapes to a landfill because they don’t perfectly represent the Fab Four’s artistic vision enough to warrant official canonization? I submit no.
Now, the next milestone came to me in the semester after that wonderful English class “The Hebrew Bible as Literature”. I had to decide on another elective, so naturally I chose “World Mythology” with the very same teacher. Now, I knew enough at this point to realize that myth – there’s that word again – was in fact a great source of truth. But isn’t that so sneaky how my Judeo-Christian high school chose that word “mythology” to refer to faith traditions from around the world? In this class, I gained a deep appreciation for the truths that are to be found in other religions. I am a Christian. I was raised that way, I practiced my faith that way. But if Hinduism has a good idea, or a story worth checking out, I’ll put on that hat. I’ll try it out, and see if it speaks to me. Why shouldn’t I? Most oral traditions throughout time and space share similar story beats, similar characters, and similar themes, in the end just trying to make us feel something or learn something. These other religions represent more stories to enjoy, and not blasphemous lies, but more truths to acknowledge! Over time I’ve expanded my views even to count groups like the Jedi in Star Wars as other religions we can learn from. Around the world, people have been experiencing something of the divine, and they decided to write it down and record their experience. They used different names and gave different explanations, but they’re all just trying to wrap their brains around something that is just working at a higher level. This should be unifying, not divisive!
And so, it’s been 10 years that I’ve been embracing this love of storytelling in all its forms, that I’ve been seeking truth wherever I can find it. Some refer to this as an interfaith or a universalist way of thinking. And to some, these are dangerous ideas.
I’ve talked about what is myth and what is religion. I’ve talked about whether the facts of the Bible are important at all. I’ve talked about expanding the canon of our great anthology - the Bible - beyond what has been deemed to be THE Word of God. I’ve even suggested: why stop there? There are truths I need in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita.
I don’t see these ideas as dangerous. And truly, they’re what get me in the door. Expanding my view, to seek deeper truth in the fantastical, to include the B-sides in my Bible, to value the viewpoints of global traditions, has only deepened my love and interest in the “familiar” stories of my childhood and religious upbringing. At the end of our year, my English teacher disclosed to us his personal faith journey. Like me, he was raised as a Christian but over time became disenchanted, to the point of becoming a militant atheist. However, he remained a lover of literature, theater, broadly of storytelling, and ultimately by becoming fascinated with Buddhism, he found his way back to Christianity.
Some of you may say, “How can this be? That’s quite the jump.” I’ll answer that by finishing with a story that I like to tell myself. It’s a fairy tale, perhaps, one I borrow from Alan Watts, a writer and philosopher I’m fond of. The truth about this story is we don’t have the facts, so I think a good story is just as charming. We know a lot about the birth of Jesus. We know a little about Jesus’ childhood, and what we do know is that he was very taken with the Hebrew traditions he grew up with. We have an episode in Luke of Jesus deep into religious study with teachers at his temple. And then, we have nothing until suddenly he’s 30. And now, he’s a very mystical dude. He’s performing miracles, he’s preaching love, empathy, humility, and self-sacrifice as the central tenets of his relationship with God. Not the blood sacrifices of the Torah. I’ll read two more selections from the Gospel of Thomas, which – don’t worry – have correlates in the “real” Gospels.
Verse 3: Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the Father’s kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the Father’s kingdom is within you and it is outside you.
Verse 113: His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.”
First of all, wow. Second of all, where is that in the Hebrew tradition? What had Jesus been doing for the last 25 years to fill his head with these new ideas? My answer: he headed East. Why not? I say Jesus traveled to India, and was exposed to Hinduism and Buddhism. I’m sure you know someone whose perspectives expanded after a semester abroad. Why not our greatest teacher? And what he did with those ideas was not a matter of swapping faiths, but rather of integrating truths into something new and exciting: the Christian church, one of love and forgiveness, not of wrath and punishment. This is what I seek. I seek to be like the Jesus that perhaps I have made up. Reading the Bible as literature, including non-canonical texts, exploring other faiths – none of these things threaten my relationship with God and Jesus. They deepen my experience.
And with that, I’ll end. Truly the most recent milestone in my faith journey has been finding United Parish. A place where I can give this talk! Wow! A place that would have welcomed my English teacher, the militant atheist, as he sorted through his Buddhist texts. And a place where these dangerous ideas are not just tolerated, but celebrated. Thank you all, and in the words of one of my favorite religions: May The Force Be With You.