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What Do We Gain or Lose by the Historical Approach?

At the Intersection of Science and Religion

[This essay was originally posted to]


[This paper was originally originally written for Religion 600 at Hsi Lai University (now The University of the West). The professor was my favorite, Dr. J. Bruce Long, and the paper was submitted on December 17, 2003.]

Before considering the question, "What Do We Gain or Lose by the Historical Approach?" I wish to clarify what I mean here by "the historical approach." I mean the effort to arrive, through the use of modern historical methods, at an assessment of the historical verity of narratives recounted by various religions. Was the Buddha a prince, and what did that word mean in the context of his time? Was Jesus crucified, and if so, what was the social and cultural significance in such an event? Such questions are the proper province of history. However, they have ramifications beyond the historical considerations: If Christ was not crucified, what happens to the faith of the Christian in the saving power of that act? If the statements regarding the Buddha's earthly biography in the Pali Canon are false, what does this mean for those who have lived their lives according to the teachings of those documents?

Furthermore, when we talk of history, we are also admitting to the presence and importance of its brother, science. Science when applied to religious narrative creates even more immediate problems for the person of faith. Did Jesus perform miracles, or rise from the dead? Was he born of a virgin after the appearance of an angel? Was the Buddha born from his mother's side after her dream of the white elephant? Was he omniscient? Again, such questions go to the root of faith.

As so much of religious life depends on religious stories, we will concentrate on the effects of history and science on religious narrative. To do so, we will consider the goals of such narrative. And we will begin with a joke.

A man walks into a doctor's office with a frog on his head. The doctor looks at him and asks, "What happened?" and the frog says, "Well, it started as a wart."

The purpose of a joke is to make people laugh; the value of a joke lies in its humor. One could assess the humor of a joke on a scale of one to ten (assigning this, I suspect, a value closer to one than to ten), and thus evaluate its efficacy in achieving its goal of making people laugh.

Once this assessment has been made, one wonders what value there might be in applying "the historical approach" to the joke by asking the following questions: "Who was the man? How did he really manage to get a frog on his head? Where was the doctor's office? What were the doctor's credentials? Is it medically possible for a man to develop from a wart? Can frogs talk?" and so on.

If someone actually were to ask and answer these questions satisfactorily, the question must then be asked: "Does answering these questions in any way affect the ‘humor value' of this joke?" Put another way, "Is this joke funnier or less funny once these questions have been answered?" Or further, "What do we gain or lose by applying the historical approach to this joke?"

Such a question must be "unpacked" before it can be answered. There are two important elements undergirding the question. The first is: "What is gained or lost by whom?" And the second, somewhat more complicated question, goes back to the issue of what the purpose of the joke is. Provisionally, let's state this second question as: "To what aspect of the joke will we apply our examination of gain and loss?"

To explore the question of what is gained or lost by whom, we will divide the audience of the joke into four kinds of listeners. And we will concentrate on the miraculous aspect of the joke. The first type in our audience is a hardheaded realist, who insists that every element of a joke be literally true before it can be funny. "Aw, heck," he says, "frogs can't talk. That joke is disqualified from being funny." Another, more broad-minded, person says, "I recognize that the frog's ability to talk is intrinsic to the story, but I will suspend my judgment on the possibility of frogs talking in order to appreciate the story at face value. After all, the value of a joke lies in its ability to make me laugh, not its historical authenticity." Another member of the audience has absolute faith in the joke teller, and believes everything he says: "If the teller of this joke says frogs can talk, then by golly frogs can talk!" And a fourth, more "spiritually-minded" listener, may say, "There is a crucial lesson in this joke, and the frog's ability to talk is indicative of some deeper meaning, far removed from mere questions of biology. I will try to go beneath the surface of the joke to try to discern the real meaning of the frog's ability to speak."

Let's call these four "The Rationalist," "The Liberal," "The True Believer," and "The Mystic." The Rationalist insists that all elements of a joke accord with his scientific/materialistic world view before he can accept it; The Liberal will take all jokes and work with them on the same practical, human level, regardless of any "supernatural" elements in them; The True Believer slides right past the issue on skis of Faith; and The Mystic tries to see through the difficult point to access its deeper significance.

Despite the differences in approach, these four listeners have one thing in common: they all approached the joke in hopes of getting something out of it: a laugh, a chuckle, a smile, or, perhaps in this case, a grimace. They are all, in some sense, seeking satisfaction from the joke; they are all potentially members of a "Faith-in-the-joke" community.

The Rationalist, however, because of his standards of Faith, has rejected the joke outright. It can have no value for him, because it does not meet his a priori criteria for validity. Some might say he is judging the joke, not on standards based on its purpose, but on standards alien to the very spirit of the joke.

The Liberal, on the other hand, has made acceptance or rejection of the joke a non-issue, concentrating on the "human value" of the joke. He seeks in the joke nothing more than it purports to offer. It is a vehicle of humor, not history.

The True Believer has accepted the joke dogmatically, insisting that it bears not only humor, but history as well. The precariousness of this position is evident: If one could break through his dogged acceptance and prove to him that the joke "never happened," it would shake his ability to benefit from the joke to its very foundations.

Finally, like The True Believer, The Mystic has put his faith in the joke, albeit at a different level: The Mystic sees the "facts" of the joke as something to transcend, as a signpost toward a deeper experience of life.

To dwell at this length on a joke may seem somewhat frivolous, but this method has been carefully devised to make a point. Like the joke, religion has a purpose. And as in this joke, this purpose is largely effected through story. While there are other aspects to religion--practice, especially, and inner transformation (be it salvation, enlightenment, or other)--the fact is any other aspect of religion is borne through its stories, its myths and scriptures. Some would say that the application of the historical approach to stories that had a-historical--that is, humor-based--purposes, is like applying the historical approach to religion. Just as the value of a joke lies in its ability to fulfill its purpose of making people laugh, so the value of religious stories lies in their ability to fulfill their purpose of mediating spiritual information to seekers. The "truth value" of a joke lies in its humor; the "truth value" of religion, likewise, lies outside of historico-scientific parameters.

Above, we offered a provisional statement of the second question (the first one being, "What is gained or lost by whom?"). The second was: "To what aspect of the joke will we apply our examination of gain and loss?" And we chose to apply it to the miraculous aspect of the joke. As we re-examine the attitudes and responses of the four types of listeners--this time strictly in terms of religious narrative--we will be keeping in mind not only stories of the supernatural aspects of religion--the miraculous assertions in religious texts--but also the more properly historical aspects of these stories: Where and when they were delivered, the role of known historical figures, etc.

Let us return, then, to our four types of listener, this time examining their points of view in religious terms. It is not too difficult to discern in these four the various responses to religion and, especially, "scriptures," among modern Westerners. The Rationalist is the Atheist or borderline Agnostic; The Liberal is Agnostic or is casually involved in a faith community; The True Believer is a churchgoing pillar; and The Mystic, while he may or may not go to Church, practices a deep, personal form of belief.

What have each of these types gained or lost by the historical approach to religion?

The Rationalist tends to reject The Story as invalid without ever considering its meaning. In fact, The Rationalist was never part (or is only tentatively part) of the "faith community" in the first place, so it's difficult to assert that he has "lost his faith." Others would point out, however, that the only reason he is a Rationalist is that he was born in a time after the historico-scientific worldview has come into power. Born in a disbelieving environment, he is naturally a disbeliever, and therefore has lost his faith in an "Original Sin" sort of way.

The Rationalist himself, however, would argue that nothing has been lost at all. In fact, from his perspective, he has gained a clarity of perception that is lacking in those who live by what he calls "blind faith." So whether this is a gain or loss depends on one's point of view: The True Believer would say that The Rationalist has lost his eternal soul; The Rationalist would say that he has gained perspective, and that The True Believer has lost his mind! The Rationalist and his brethren make up by far the dominant voice in modern Western culture, a result largely of the Enlightenment and the great advances of the 19th century; he is the Modern Man par excellence.

The Rationalist, however, represents something of an extreme. Although his is the dominant voice in the public discourse, he may in fact be outnumbered by The Liberal. The pews of many churches are filled with this representative of the Western Middle Way, the balanced point of view between The Rationalist and The True Believer. The Liberal probably doesn't give nearly as much thought to these matters as the two extremists. Rather, he listens to the stories of his faith, finds them mildly interesting and occasionally inspiring, and goes about his business. This is the person who "believes in God," but doesn't really do anything dramatic about it.

Thus, when "challenged" by the historical approach, The Liberal doesn't feel much of a threat. If the stories taught by his faith are proven to be historically untrue or scientifically impossible, this does not affect the "story value" for him in any way.

The True Believer finds the historical approach a serious threat to his faith, and therefore refuses to even consider the validity of its conclusions, somewhat like the Emperor and his New Clothes. The True Believer may be affected in one of two ways. One of these is entrenchment. Consider the violently anti-modern position of Christian fundamentalists (fundamentalists of all stripes, really). The rise of so-called "Creation Science" and the court challenges it has presented to public educators is but one example of this sort of radical response.

Occasionally, however, as mentioned above, The True Believer discovers that his house has been built on the sand of pseudo-historicism, that is, the mistaken belief that the stories of his religion were intended as history rather than as religion. When "real" history comes along and shows the flaws in the foundations of The True Believer's edifice, the entire building comes crashing down. Some of the fiercest Rationalists one encounters were formerly True Believers.

Finally, there is The Mystic. I do not mean here the probably-less-than-one-percent of the population who are true practicing mystics; rather I mean the ones who see their stories as indicative of something deeper, as "fingers pointing at the moon" in the happy Eastern phrase, or, as Joseph Campbell somewhere said, people who see that their stories are "transparent to transcendence." When presented with the results of the historical approach, The Mystic may at most see in them some help for his deeper understanding of the story; but since he never mistook the finger for the moon, he finds the application of the historical approach generally irrelevant.

To recap: The Rationalist never really saw much benefit in religion in the first place, so the historical approach did little for him (except, perhaps, by forming the age that made him a Rationalist); The Liberal's lukewarm attitude toward religion made the historical approach of little consequence to him; The True Believer generally loathes the historical approach, and therefore benefits from it only by reaction against it; and The Mystic finds the historical approach of marginal benefit, as he never mistook "history" as the true purpose of religious narrative.

It must be said at this point that all of the types listed above are necessarily Western. Why is this?

The Rationalist and The True Believer (for the most part) are products of a peculiarly Western style of thinking: the Aristotelian logic of "either/or." There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this way of thinking; on the contrary, it has made possible the tremendous advances in Western technology, an achievement which has brought into being the world in which we live. Medical science alone would redeem this way of thinking; add to that the revolutions in transportation, communication, and information and we have a world in which all of the world's people are brought together into a truly Great Conversation.

However, this same mode of thinking has led to a categorical way of approaching things that is inimical to a full appreciation of religious narrative. To the proposition, "It either happened or it didn't," a necessary result of either/or thinking, The Rationalist says, "It didn't, so it's worthless," and The True Believer say, "It did--no matter what the evidence may say." The Rationalist's disbelief depends on his answer to the question; The True Believer's belief does the same.

Both suffer, however, from the same confusion of categories. Both insist that the propositions of faith are subject to historico-scientific testing. As Campbell has said, "They go to a restaurant and eat the menu," failing to see that religious narrative points to truths the way a menu points to food.

The East (though this is changing fast) has not traditionally faced this problem, because it never labored under the Aristotelian supposition. To be sure, Nagarjuna's tetralemma is evidence of a severely logical strain of thinking. But, as philosophy in Aquinas' thought was always meant to be the handmaiden of theology, and not its master, so the logic of (especially) the Hindu and Buddhist logicians (and in a different way those of Taoism and Confucianism) was never meant to supplant religion, or superintend it, but only to serve it.

It is a peculiarity of the Eastern mind that it can hold conflicting ideas simultaneously without the least bit of discomfort. My experience with people from especially Far Eastern culture has convinced me that they are not somehow reconciling these issues, or even consciously suspending judgment. Rather, I am firmly convinced that they are just not asking the question. A good example is the word "Tathāgata." It is sometimes translated "thus come" and sometimes "thus gone." In a class at Hsi Lai University, Dr. Lewis Lancaster once went so far as to suggest that this ambiguity was intentional, that it said something about the nature of the Buddha thus designated. 

(True, Western religion also makes similar assertions, such that Jesus the Christ was "fully God" and "fully man." But this reflects the original Oriental nature of the Biblical faiths. Before the Enlightenment, the West took such statements in a fairly naively concrete way, not subjecting them to tests of logic. Eden was somewhere on earth, but no one was mounting expeditions to find it; Jonah lived in the belly of a great fish; there were dragons at the edge of the map. The severe sword of logic was simply not applied, not until that triumph of Greek thought known as "The Renaissance.")

So in the Eastern way of thinking, only two of our original four types of listener remain: The Liberal and The Mystic. We can accept their existence in the East with this proviso: The categories are Western in that they presume the Aristotelian discrimination of either/or. The Eastern Liberal is not "ignoring" this distinction, and The Eastern Mystic is not "seeing past" it, because neither has ever been subjected to it.

Who is The Eastern Liberal, then? He is the average man, the layman in both senses, who has neither much religious training nor a deep desire for it. He is the one who lives by superstition or popular faith. The Eastern Mystic, on the other hand, is the "specialist of the sacred," in Eliade's happy phrase. He is the one whose study and practice by its very nature go to the core of reality, bypassing the false distinctions along the way.

Let's imagine, then, an audience of just these two. Imagine they are Buddhists, and that at the beginning of the conversation, they believe that the Pali Canon contains the words of the Buddha written down exactly as he said them (again, a proposition fraught with danger, as the "Middle Way" thinking of such people would avoid such dogmatic assertions).

Now let us prove conclusively to this audience that in fact the Pali Canon was redacted almost immediately after the Buddha's death, and that the redactors were trusting in a consensus of memories amongst those present. Further, we prove that it was not written down until centuries later, by which time further "errors" had crept in, and that even after that there was some editorial license involved.

What effect would this have on the belief and practice of our audience of two? I submit: absolutely none. Before we can ask what is gained or lost by the historical approach, we must ask if anything is gained or lost, and the answer here is: "No." These believers can hold "faith propositions" and "historical propositions" simultaneously without negative effect. True, Easterners have learned much--even about their own traditions--from Westerners, but this has had little effect on their acceptance or rejection of traditionally-held ideas.

The East seems little affected by the historical approach because the basis of "faith" in the East is in many ways a-historical. The Hindu gods are not mistaken for "real" people; the Buddha, Mahavira, Lao-Tse, and Confucius may have been historical personages, but the importance of their messages does not depend on their historicity. "The Tao that can be named" will never be "the true Tao," whether Lao-Tse rode off on an ox at the end of his life or not. Suffering is a fact of life whether the Buddha had thirty-two unlikely special marks on his body or not. Though these teachings are attributed to great teachers, they are in some ways self-evident in ways that "Western truths" are not. Another way to say this is that whereas Western truths are intrinsically validated by the fact of Divine Revelation, the stories framing the "revelations" of the East seem to be just that: frames, and not essential elements of the picture, a picture the validity of which is based in Wisdom available to anyone who thinks hard enough about it (viz. the concept of the Pratyeka-Buddha).

A case in point is Charles Allen's brilliant book The Search for the Buddha, which details the quest by a cadre of British civil servants (largely in 19th-century India) first to figure out what Buddhism is, as it had died out in that country, and second to re-establish the sites associated with the "historical" Buddha and his life. You might say they put Buddhism "on the map." Westerners interested in religion have hailed the book as everything from a gripping detective story to an inspiring work of religious history. But has the work of the "Sahibs" detailed in this book actually affected the course of faith? True, there has been a re-establishment of Buddhism on Indian soil. And certainly pilgrimage to these sites has been revived. But the first of these may well have happened once the world of global communication and exchange of information got started; and the latter, while admirable, is a mere blip on the screens of the lives of Buddhists all over the Asian continent.

No, when it comes to matters of belief and practice, the Eastern mind is little affected by modern historico-scientific events. One homely example will bear this out. Well-educated, modern-thinking Asian Buddhists have straight-facedly asserted to me time and again that "King Asoka built 84,000 stupas to house relics of the Buddha." This is (to them) an historical fact. No examination of the logistical unlikelihood of such a feat, nor the biological impossibility of such a division, nor the symbolic value of the figure "84,000," will sway them. Likewise, the worldly former abbot of Hsi Lai Temple told me with conviction that "relics of the Buddha multiply as the result of devotion." Could this be the justification for the idea that there were 84,000 of them a few centuries after the Buddha's death?

As in Buddhism, so in other Eastern belief systems. The typical Chinese person has the ability to hold in his mind simultaneously the ideas that Lao Tse both lived and did not live. This mental dexterity may be related to the Indian idea of lila, the Divine Play of the Universe. If there is an element of lila in one's (unconscious) cosmology, then one naturally becomes adept at "playing ‘as if'": When speaking to a Western scholar, an Eastern person can easily talk "as if" the gods of his people are projections of the unconscious; then, when approaching that god in a temple, he can just as easily live "as if" the god and his powers are real.

Examples could be multiplied. The extraordinary tales of the Jatakas, told even when the Buddha was considered only to be a "unique man" and not a celestial being; the supernatural powers attributed to those who practice meditation; the cosmic settings, characters, and events of the Mahayana sutras; these all are stated very matter-of-factly by people whose brains seem not to have been compartmentalized into "truth" and "falsehood."

Contrast this attitude to statements made by a Western scholar recounting the "basic facts" of the Buddha's life story:

No Western scholar today would claim to know the exact details of the founder's biography, or for that matter the exact content of his teachings. The [account given here] is merely an educated guess based on formulations from a time removed by several centuries from their origins. Scholars agree, nevertheless, on the historicity of the founder. That is to say, though they may doubt the accuracy of the information transmitted in traditional "biographies" (beginning with his personal name, Siddhārtha Gautama) or in legends about Buddha's sermons, Western scholars accept the existence of an influential religious figure, called Shakyamuni ("the sage of the Shakya tribe") by his disciples, who at some point in the sixth century BCE founded in the Ganges River valley the community of wandering mendicants that would eventually grow into the world religion we now call Buddhism. (Gomez, 354)

Historians of religion even wonder whether Buddhists got his name right! The carefully-worded reservations of the scholar have no place in the mouths of devotees of "the world religion we now call Buddhism"--a name, by the way, also assigned by Westerners to this far more organic, less-rigidly-defined world of beliefs.

This leads to a second consideration of why Eastern believers are less affected by the historical approach than those in the West. "Buddhism" as an institution is less defined, more natural than the institutionalized religions of the West. An institution tends to defend itself through dogma, making truth assertions and then defending them in an effort to give the appearance of having a monopoly on Truth. That the West is the non-religious environment that it is today is a result of the democratization of truth; the historico-scientific approach has removed control from the hands of the priests, and put it in the hands of every thinking human being.

But the East never made such a necessary connection between its institutions and Truth. In the Asian religions, there is usually no one, single Institution to which all members of a faith community look. There is no Pope of Taoism or Archbishop of Varanasi. This lack of centralized authority leaves these religions somehow impervious to "modernism." Or perhaps more accurately, they were well-prepared for the challenged of modernism because, as the Buddha taught in the Kalama Sutra, they were always encouraged to "think for themselves." Or perhaps better, to not think for themselves, but rather to seek to bypass that discriminatory mode of mind and just live in the possibilities.

This de-emphasizing of institutional authority and the above-mentioned non-Aristotelian mode of thinking in the East are intrinsically related. Both are in some ways elevations of the non-Rational (not irrational) to a higher status than that held in the West. Both the building of institutions and the maintenance of an either-or worldview require a certain amount of hardheaded "realism" if they are going to succeed. Whatever religious institutions do thrive in the East do so on a more local, one might say human, scale. Those in the West long ago outgrew the human factor, taking on a life of their own.

Lest this paper seem to be nothing but philosophical rambling, let us now turn to four examples of the effect of the historical approach on the religious institutions of the West--specifically Christianity--and through them, on the man-or-woman-in-the-pew. I have chosen examples from the history of Christianity for several reasons. First, I am most familiar with Christianity. Second, having shown that the East is little affected by the historical approach, it behooves us to examine a Western way of thinking, and Christianity has certainly dominated the Euro-American West. Finally, it is the dogmatic nature of the Western Christian tradition, deeply rooted in the far-reaching institutional power of the Roman Catholic Church and its successors, that provides a clear contrast between the "old time religion" and the one that is increasingly foisted on the believer.

The first is the case of Protestantism, which presented a major challenge to the authority of the Church; the second is the case of Darwinism, which challenged the self-perception of Christians (child of God or descendant of apes?); the third case is that of the rediscovery of the Gospel of Thomas, which presented a challenge to the dogma of nearly two thousand years; and the fourth and final case is that of the Virgin of Guadalupe, including the recent canonization of Juan Diego, which presents a challenge to the devotion of a great number of Catholic believers.

First, then, is the Protestant reformation's challenge to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The story is well known: the benighted Church held sway over the more-benighted people for centuries, as the unified Church before the schism of 1054 and as the Western Church (claiming universal sovereignty) after that. Then along came the Renaissance, and increased intellectual activity. The influence of the Greco-Roman cultural world was "reborn," and the access to texts increased exponentially due to the technology of printing. Finally, these general cultural advances were applied specifically to the belief, practices, and institutions of Christianity, and the glorious Reformation was sprung.

In the context of this discussion, however, a somewhat different story can be read. True, the Classical worldview enabled the people to throw off the vise-grip of the Church's domination. But in some ways, the Reformation resulted from a naive misapplication of the historical approach. The Reformers believed that what they were doing was re-establishing the original form of the Apostolic Church; to do so, they had to wipe out nearly a millennium-and-a-half of progress. In my opinion, the baby went out with the bathwater, and in denying the "superstitions" of the Roman Church, the Reformers set the stage for the rampant fundamentalism of today's True Believers.

This was the historical approach run wild. The Bible was "reformed," to the loss of some of its greatest wisdom and stories (such as Ecclesiasticus, the stories of the Maccabees, and the additions to Daniel). The power of the church's leaders was diminished--largely a good thing--but chaos, petty rivalry, and even war ensued. People were burned at the stake over minor differences in belief, and society lost its center.

The Roman Church at its best was very good. The "canonizing" of local gods and goddess into saints (viz. The Virgin of Guadalupe below), the accommodation of radical spiritual messages like that of Francis of Assisi, and the willingness to pour resources into art and architecture are just some of the benefits of the ability of an immense, "global" institution to absorb and evolve from the varying points of views within it. At its worst, of course, it produced the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the threat of hellfire.

But the Reformation was not a reform; it was a break. It was a radical rejection of everything the Church had to offer, even the good things. And thus it was an early misuse of historicism to justify what in some ways was merely a political grab for power. Had both sides been able to work out a compromise, the world we live in today would be radically different and, I believe, better.

The next case to be considered is that of Darwinism. Charles Darwin was working in the same intellectual environment that gave rise to modern historical thinking. It was his rising awareness of the conflict between his geological observations and the Biblical "history" of the world that first caused him to consider the possibility that the Bible was not a manual of science.

His central thesis--that humans had evolved from "lower" life forms through the process of natural selection--seems, on the face of it, to make just plain sense from our 21st-century perspective. But the furor it created was like Pandora's Box. Once we were "descended from apes" and no longer "the special creation of God," anything could happen. The world of The Rationalist discussed above directly results, first, from the new thinking that resulted from the Renaissance, and second, from the now-freed thinking of such great minds as Darwin, Freud, and Marx. Where the Reformation cleared away the detritus of medieval thinking, Darwin and his co-laborers built new structures that resulted in nothing less than the re-invention of what it means to be human. Not just humans, but the entire cosmos was affected. Man was no longer the special creature on the central planet of the universe; after Galileo and Darwin, He was little more than an accident on an insignificant rock.

No wonder, then, that fundamentalism arose from this challenge. Prior to this time, the Bible and its message never needed defending. Now it was crucial that the Protestants insist on the infallibility of Scripture--their authority--while the Catholics defend the infallibility of the Pope.

Two of our four modern Western listeners are sons of the Renaissance. As The Rationalist arose from the freethinkers of the Renaissance, so The True Believer was born of the dogmatic backlash against these challenges. This can be seen quite clearly in an examination of our third case, that of the re-discovery of the Gospel of Thomas.

Rediscovered with the other Nag Hammadi papyri in the mid-twentieth century, this Gnostic document of the mid-second century has been widely quoted by broad thinkers like Huston Smith and Joseph Campbell. Modern people find in its pithy sayings a fresh alternative to the canonical gospels; some experts even consider some of the sayings to be authentic, hitherto-unknown words of Jesus, such as "Love your brother as your soul, guard him as the apple of your eye" and "Woe to the flesh which depends upon the soul, woe to the soul which depends upon the flesh" ("Thomas, St."). Other sayings, while not accepted as authentically derived from Jesus' teachings, give a new spin on the Biblical image of Christ: "Jesus said: I am the light which is over everything. I am the All; from me the All has gone forth, and to me the All has returned. Split wood: I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there" (Grant and Freedman, 177).

Wouldn't such an event have a revolutionary effect on the Christian faith? New, authentic teachings of the Savior made available for the first time? Or new perspectives on the nature of a being who by His very nature must be multi-faceted? In fact, many rank-and-file Christians are completely unaware of the Nag Hammadi finds; many more have only the barest inkling of their existence. Some of those who do know about them are completely unfazed.

For some, this is because, being uncanonical, Thomas' Gospel is of no more use than a fairy tale. For others, the process of determining what is and isn't authentic leaves the "true gospel" unchanged: Anything new that aligns with historically-known teaching is "authentic," and, by definition, unrevolutionary; anything that deviates from historically-known teaching is "inauthentic," and therefore not accepted as part of the Church's message.

A fascinating example of what evangelicals have done with Thomas is contained in Robert Grant and David Noel Freedman's The Secret Sayings of Jesus, subtitled "A Modern Translation of the Gospel of Thomas with Commentary." As the book includes no biographies of the authors, nothing is said of Grant and Freedman's personal beliefs. However, they soon become apparent in their statements regarding the "value" of Thomas. At first it seems like they may be accepting Thomas: "The Gospel of Thomas is the most important document discovered at Nag Hammadi. Compared with it, the other books (except perhaps for The Gospel of Truth) shed little direct light on early Christianity, even though they illuminate the Gnostic religion, which was a rival of Christianity." The paragraph continues, however: "The Gospel of Thomas shows how Gnostics understood, or rather, misunderstood, Jesus and his gospel….It is probably our most significant witness to the early perversion of Christianity by those who wanted to create Jesus in their own image. Thus it stands, like Lot's wife, as a new but permanently valuable witness to men's desire to make God's revelation serve them. Ultimately it testifies not to what Jesus said but to what men wished he had said" (20).

What have these "Biblical scholars"--of a decidedly conservative stripe--gained or lost from this new historical material? Absolutely nothing. They bothered to publish a book on The Gospel of Thomas within two years of its first publication--and poisoned the well for many Christians who might otherwise have benefited from this new perspective on the teachings of Jesus.

Our fourth and final case involves the Virgin of Guadalupe. In 2002, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego, the poor shepherd who is said to have witnessed the apparition on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City. Newspapers in July of that year were filled with articles highlighting a controversy over the suitability of Juan Diego for sainthood. Many contended that he was fabricated by the Church in the 17th century to "win" indigenous Americans to the Church's cause--a century after the alleged visitation.

The controversy was fueled partially by an event that happened in 1995, seven years before the canonization was to take place. Guillermo Schulenburg--for more than 30 years the abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, built on the site where the apparition was said to have taken place--had in 1982 commissioned a study of the tilma, or cloak, on which a miraculous image of the Virgin had appeared at the time of the apparition. Schulenburg's scholars concluded that there was nothing miraculous about the cloak; it was simply a painting. The study was made public in 1995, and in 1996 Schulenburg was forced into retirement.

Then, in December of 2001, just a half-year before the scheduled canonization of Juan Diego, a letter sent to the Pope by Schulenburg and associates was made public. In this letter, Schulenburg urged the Pope not to canonize Juan Diego on grounds that there is no proof that he ever existed. Naturally, the Church rejected Schulenburg's suggestion--and threatened to excommunicate him as well.

It should be noted that at this time, Schulenburg did not question the existence of the Virgin herself, or the apparition. He has only said that the cloak is not an authentic relic, and that the witness, Juan Diego, did not exist (Iliff, Morgan).

Schulenburg is not alone. Other experts, such as Leoncio Garza-Valdes, say that the cloak not only was painted, but was painted three times. Garza-Valdes arrived at this conclusion through examining photographs taken of the tilma in 1999 using various ultraviolet and infrared filters. (Other members of Garza-Valdes' team disagree with his conclusions.) Another expert, this one actually commissioned by the Church itself, also concluded that the cloak was a human fabrication. "Look. This isn't the product of a miracle," Mexican art restoration expert Jose Sol Rosales said in an article. "You can identify the various layers (of paint). It has the marks of the paintbrush. But they say it was imprinted miraculously, with no preparation. No, no. This is not so." (Lara).

Nevertheless, the Church continues to promote the legend. Juan Diego was canonized on schedule, and I have seen very recent evidence of continued devotion to the Virgin. On Dec. 12, 2003--the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe--I visited Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles. There I saw devotion to a large painting of the Virgin. Whole families were lined up for their chance to venerate the image. Some touched their own hearts, then the heart of the (glass-covered) painting. Others kissed her feet. Many presented her with bouquets of red roses, reflecting the element of the story in which Juan Diego collected roses in the snow into his cloak, from which the image appeared. One thirtyish woman even waited in line on her knees, approaching the image that way and weeping the whole time.

Tell these people that the image in Mexico City is not authentic. Tell them that the apparition never happened. Tell them that Juan Diego never existed.

In a side aisle next to the main sanctuary where the painting was being venerated in Los Angeles is a small chapel. In it is displayed a precious relic: A small portion of the actual tilma, presented to the then-bishop of Los Angeles by the then-bishop of Mexico City in 1941. The pamphlet distributed in this chapel states: "In the 20th century, science proved what the faithful have always known: the origin of the painting cannot be explained in natural terms. Experiments have shown that the image was created without any natural paint, brushstrokes, or tracing, making its origin inexplicable" ("Tilma").

And even Leoncio Garza-Valdes can still say, "I am a Catholic and a Guadalupano [follower of the Virgin of Guadalupe]," although he continues to assert: "but I am not an apparitionist, and I do not believe in Juan Diego."

Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The historico-scientific approach has not slowed the juggernaut of faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe one bit. The True Believer of the Catholic Church will not be shaken by "mere facts." And those who challenge the Church's dogma, like Abbot Schulenburg, risk career suicide and even excommunication. The status quo is maintained.

The Western Church--like the Jews before them--has long tied its belief to historical statements. What have been referred to as "the historic creeds" are not just historic because they have been around for a long time; they are actually historic in content. No Buddhist would stand up and corporately confess: "I believe in Siddhārtha Gautama, who was born from the side of Queen Maya, and who…" etc. Yet the Christian does so. The first and third portions of the Apostle's Creed express belief in God the Father and the Holy Spirit, as well as certain doctrinal points such as "the forgiveness of sins" and "the resurrection of the body." The second stanza, however, is pure "history":

And [I believe] in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven…
        (Book of Common Prayer, 66).

Such bold assertions make it clear why, in the face of historical doubt, the Christian who believes in the literal truth of these statements has only two choices: lose faith, or deny the validity of the historical approach. Remove Christ, and Christianity as we know it tumbles; remove Buddha, and one suspects that Buddhism would trundle along just the same.

Finally, then, we must ask: Who gains the most by applying the historical approach to religion? Not surprisingly, it is historians of religion. This must be made clear: historians of religion as historians of religion are no more interested in the faith issues of religion than, say, biogeneticists as biogeneticists are in the ethical and cosmological ramifications of their research. History of religions and biogenetics are "pure" pursuits, and as such have major ramifications only for themselves (and for those amateurs who are interested in their "progress.") Not that their pursuits are not important: look at the poor Rationalists who have left the faith community largely because of the effects of the historical approach; and the benefits--and occasional monsters--spawned by biogenetics. But it must be emphasized that these results are not the goal of "pure" academics. The researcher in any academic field follows the evidence wherever it may lead, regardless of consequences.

One way to look at these matters is in terms of the esoteric versus exoteric. Academic pursuits are strictly exoteric in nature; they make no claims to any "truth" other than that which can be determined through the application of sense perception and logic. On the other hand, the ultimate goal of all religious effort is esoteric. No matter how hardheaded the religion's dogma may be, the final purpose is to attain union with, or come into full relation with, "things not seen." To be sure, most religions function at an exoteric level most of the time; and here is where the religious and historico-scientific points of view come into conflict. But as religious effort rises above the exoteric--into the realm of belief ascribed above to The Mystic--such concerns are left behind.

In the Introduction to the revised edition of Frithjof Schuon's classic The Transcendent Unity of Religions, Huston Smith states this idea elegantly. ""The fundamental distinction, " he writes, "is not between religions; it is not, so to speak, a line that, reappearing, divides religion's great historical manifestations vertically, Hindus from Buddhists from Christians from Muslims, and so on. The dividing line is horizontal and occurs but once, cutting across the historical religions. Above the line lies esoterism; below it exoterism" (Schuon xii). (See chart below) I would simply add that academic disciplines such as science and history, as well as other human endeavors such as politics, are also exoteric in nature, and as such can only peripherally affect the pursuit of esoteric goals.

after the chart on page xii of Schuon's book cited above 

Works Cited

  • Allen, Charles. The Search for the Buddha. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003.
  • Book of Common Prayer, The. New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979.
  • Gomez, Luis O. "Buddhism in India" in Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Mircea Eliade, 1987 ed.
  • Grant, Robert and David Noel Freedman. The Secret Sayings of Jesus. New York: Barnes Noble Books, 1993. Original copyright by the authors, 1960.
  • Iliff, Laurence. "Feast day for Virgin of Guadalupe highlights conflicts with Vatican." The Dallas Morning News 11 Dec. 1999.
  • Johnston, Francis. The Wonder of Guadalupe. Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1981.
  • Lara, Jerry. "Image of Virgin is no miracle, scientist says." San Antonio Express-News 3 June 2002.
  • Lee, Morgan. "Decision To Canonize Juan Diego Not Without Doubters." Albuquerque Journal 21 July 2002.
  • Schuon, Frithjof. The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Introduction to the Revised Edition by Huston Smith. Wheaton, IL: Quest, The Theosophical Publishing House, 1984.
  • "Thomas, St." in Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford: OUP, 1977.
  • "Tilma of Tepeyac Tour, The." Los Angeles: Apostolate for the Holy Relics, n.d. (2003)
  • Vara, Richard and Dudley Althaus. "Juan Diego never existed, critics argue." Houston Chronicle 27 July 2002.

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