De Vos: Moral relatives in different times
Last week I was accosted by a person who doesn’t know me at all, calling me a moral relativist. I was uncertain what they meant but I chose to be flattered. My accoster left no doubt that I was hellbound, using a lot of thunderous pulpitspeak to put me in my place, saying my liberal rants were violating the Universal Moral Law.
Hmm, the Universal Moral Law must refer to the Bible because for Christians, what else is there? But while God may have inspired early writers of the Bible, scribes, popes, kings and librarians have had a dramatic hand in what remains between the covers of the 1.9 billion Gideon Bibles found in hotel nightstands.
For instance, have you ever read the Gospel of Thomas? Probably not, but it’s an important work. In the year 340 CE, Eusebius, the Bishop of Rome made three piles of papyrus scrolls that were biblical contenders. The first pile was the obvious rejects, the second were maybes, and the third were works that complemented and supported the prevailing Christian ideals. There was a great body of holy writings to choose among, but the Gospel of Thomas was left out because sometime in the prior 300 years, some librarian misfiled a few pages. So the Gospel of Thomas was rejected solely on the grounds that it was incomplete.
Nearly 30 years later, in 367 CE Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, embraced Eusebius’ top picks and essentially embalmed the 27 books of the New Testament, banning any and all other documents from the Christian canon.
Then, nothing happened for 1600 years until 1947 when a farmer, digging bat manure out of a cave in northern Egypt made a startling discovery, one that is beginning to widen our understanding of Jesus and his message. The farmer uncovered a large earthen jar packed with ancient scrolls including the complete text of the Gospel of Thomas. The jar also contained two other complete scrolls of the Gospel of Phillip and the Gospel of Truth, both previously unknown. Remember, Luke tells us there were many gospels written of Jesus.
Conservatives quickly branded the discovery as forgeries but carbon dating and other growing evidence has verified their authenticity. In fact, the Gospel of Thomas looks as if it was the source material for the 3 synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and may have been written as much as 20 years before them, around 50 C.E. Synoptic merely means the three gospels are very similar in content, structure and chronology and likely evolved from the same original source, i.e. the Gospel of Thomas.
Today Americans are turning away from organized religion in unprecedented numbers. Religious affiliation has dropped almost 23 percent since 1994. The only increase was a slight one among evangelical Protestants. The greatest decrease is among Millennials; more than 35 percent claim no religion.
Despite each generation wishing it were not so, every generation breaks with the past. Ideals, goals and even concepts like good, evil and morality get defined anew as civilizations advance and decline.
When it comes to people who believe in the literal Bible, there’s comfort to be found there, more for what it symbolizes than what it says because so many fundamentalists have trivialized the message with cherry-picked sound bites without really gaining any insight as to the intent of the Bible.
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