Monday, July 6, 2015

'True' Beliefs Forever Changing

Daytoi's faithful
In the classic movie, Inherit the Wind, the religious townspeople of Dayton, Tennessee battled the forces of evolution and sang choruses of an 1873 Gospel song titled “Give Me that Old-Time Religion.”

Some of the lyrics include:

It was good for the prophet Daniel
It was good for the prophet Daniel
It was good for the prophet Daniel
And it's good enough for me.

It was good for Hebrew children
It was good for Hebrew children
It was good for Hebrew children
And it's good enough for me.

Give me that old time religion
Give me that old time religion
Give me that old time religion
It's good enough for me.

The impromptu choir was comprised of residents convinced that what they believed simply continued what every Christian believed before them and would afterwards.

They were wrong. So are people who think the same thing now.
Artist's view of Daniel in the lions' den

The error starts with the lyrics since neither Daniel nor the Hebrew children believed anything close to what each other believed or what the good people in Dayton believed in 1925.  Daniel is a Jewish prophet who supposedly lived in the 6th century BCE; Hebrew children presumably lived in Egypt from the 16th to the 11th century BCE, where Jews were called Hebrews.  The term is not used in the Bible after the Jews settled in the Promised Land under Joshua.

Daniel lived when Judaism was a monotheistic faith; prior to the seventh century, it was polytheistic with Yahweh identified as the chief god entrusted with the Jews as “his portion,” to quote the Bible.

Such changes are hardly unusual.  Beliefs change over time.  As a result, the stubborn fundamentalists of 2,000 years ago would be appalled by what “true believers” today claim as their faith.

Artist's conception of Paul
Originally, based on Paul, Christianity did not claim Jesus was a deity or performed miracles.  The great apostle Paul, the first known person to write about Jesus, knew of no miracles: “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:22–3)

He has no concept of a virgin birth either. Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law." (Galatians 4:4)  To Paul, Jesus was chosen by God on the cross and nothing he did on Earth mattered.  His view was supported by the Ebionites, the original followers of Jesus, who otherwise rejected Paul and an emerging alternative Christian theology.

Icon from Nicaea
They failed to convince enough people.  By the fourth century, Jesus had become the human form of God by a vote of some 300 bishops meeting in Nicaea.  Prior to that, the tri-parte God was considered a heresy. 

By Nicaea, too, the bishop of Rome, once one of several church leaders, had evolved into the pope.

Other debates over time involved the use of religious icons and whether communion wafers and wine really mutate into the body and blood of Christ.

The idea that Mary was immaculately conceived comes from the 1800s; so does the infallibility of the pope.  Prior to that, espousing such ideas might have gotten a theologian labeled a heretic.
The changes continued.  The Second Vatican Council met in the early 1960s.  Every theologian there was male.  If there is a third council, constituents are likely to be largely female, according to T. Howland Sanks, professor of historical and systematic theology at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif.

“These are the people doing theology today. To see them, look at the theological faculties in the graduate and professional schools and at the students currently enrolled in doctoral programs. These are the future theological experts,” he said.
Diverse Catholic bishops

At the same time, Catholic theology has been affected by the swelling ranks of religious leaders from outside Europe and North America.  At a meeting in 2010, for example, some 600 theologians came from 75 countries, including Kenya, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Cameroon; Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador and Chile; India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Japan and the Philippines.

Their views of inclusivity are rupturing old-time beliefs.

Along the way, Christian religious dogma has been affected by enormous gains in science.  “We live in a universe of unfathomable temporal depth and spatial extension,” wrote John F. Haught, of the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C.  He added that the university is 13.7 billion years old and of an estimated 125 billion galaxies racing away from one another at an ever-increasing rate of speed.  There’s also the likelihood of intelligent alien life, he said.

That’s one reason Vatican II broke with Catholic traditions by conceding that “there may be truth,
grace and even salvation through non-Christian traditions.”   Pope Francis more recently added atheists and gays to the list of those who are acceptable into a Catholic heaven, another idea transformed over time.

Early Christians accepted the after-life ideas circulating through Middle Eastern culture: a few worthy souls take up residence in a pleasant place modeled on the Elysian Fields of Greek mythology.  Everyone else wandered about as a shade.  As such, early Christian writing barely mentions afterlife.

Gradually heaven evolved into a kind of Garden of Eden, built around images created by poets like Dante, Bunyan and others.

Hell didn’t take on grand proportions until no earlier than the fifth century when the non-canonical Gospel of Nicodemus offered the first detailed version.  The idea of rapture – when the faithful are lifted bodily into heaven – has become a fixture of Christian theology these days, but it’s less than 200 years old.  John Nelson Darby, originally an Anglican minister, taught the concept of clergy violated the Bible and invented the rapture concept in 1830.

Now discredited view of hell
Today, opinions about heaven and hell fill the airwaves as if the ideas have been part of Christian faith from the first. 

Actually, maybe 200 or so years from now, Christians of the future will probably be laughing at what believers today insist is the “true” faith.

However, they are still likely to be singing Gospel songs.  They don’t seem to go out of style so easily or quickly.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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