MY FOURTEEN BOOKS

 

         My personal philosophy has been gleaned from a great number of literary sources, which were sometimes uplifting and sometimes shattering to my pet theories.  But the greatest impression on my thinking has been made by a few specific volumes, fourteen in number, and these are the books that have shaped my life:

 

         The Bible

         The Origin Of Species by Charles Darwin

         Human Destiny by Lecomte du Noüy

         The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer

         The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

         The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

         The Story Of Philosophy by Will Durant

         The Dialogues of Plato

         The Life Of Jesus by Ernest Renan

         The Pensees of Blaise Pascal

         Apocrypha And Pseudepigrapha Of The Old Testament by R. H. Charles

         The Anabaptist Story by William R. Estep

         Walden by Henry David Thoreau

         Life After Life by Dr. Raymond A. Moody, Jr.

 

THE BIBLE

         At the top of my list, of course, is the Bible.  My innate religious nature was doubtless enhanced by an early submersion in the Bible and in Baptist teaching materials.  And after a thorough examination of the religions and philosophies of mankind, I have concluded that it is the Bible alone that provides mankind with the best and highest concept of God and of His ethical standards for living.  The Sermon on the Mount has never been superseded and its Teacher’s life and works have never been surmounted.  It is with a great deal of pride that I confess myself a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ.  I am a convinced Christian because of what the Book has told me about the compassionate Creator of this cosmos.

         And yet, while the Holy Scripture is still the greatest of all books to me, I must agree with the anonymous philosopher who warned, “Cave ab homine unius libri (“Beware the man of one book”).  As a religious seeker, I believe that God is Truth and that when one has found Truth, from whatever source, one has found God.

                 

THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES  (1859)

         My pilgrimage as an independent thinker began in the fourth grade when I encountered a little book, Fleetfoot The Cave Boy, in the elementary school library.  This small novel about how cave dwellers lived brought me to a new awareness of the real beginnings of mankind apart from what I had learned in Sunday School.  For a long time Adam and Fleetfoot stood juxtaposed in my mind as the dual progenitors of the human race.  Both were vivid characters, but somehow Fleetfoot seemed more real.

         In the ninth grade I took biology, and it was about this time that I read Darwin’s Origin Of The Species and Lecomte du Noüy’s Human Destiny.  The uncontestable, proven truth in Darwin and the reverent factualism of du Noüy confirmed my identity as a theistic evolutionist.  Thus, I finally found a place for Adam in the scheme of things: he was simply the first individual in the family of primates who had achieved moral awareness and who was endowed with an immortal soul.  From this point on, my personal philosophy became permeated with that central fact and law of the universe, evolution.  It was evident to me that this was the primary method by which the Creator operated and by which He directed all processes in His world.

 

HUMAN DESTINY  (1947)

         In the conclusion of Darwin’s great revelation on animal species, he addressed the religious question with these words: “I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone.  It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Leibnitz, “as subversive of natural, and inferentially of revealed, religion.”  A celebrated author and divine has written to me that “he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.”

         The book Human Destiny was written by a French scientist (a mathematician and bio-physicist), who believed in both God and evolution.  Using mathematical analyses, he proved that this universe and its laws were far too complex to have been the outcome of chance occurrences.  There had to be a supreme Intelligence behind it all.  Lecomte du Noüy’s special name for God was “Anti-Chance.”  He postulated that modern man had essentially completed his biological evolution and was beginning on a new era of moral evolution, thereby moving on an upward slope of progress according to the will and purpose of God.  Another French scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was a Jesuit priest and also the co-discoverer of Peking Man, later completed the thought of du Noüy by envisioning a continued spiritual evolution for the human race.  Teilhard contributed another treasured book in my library, The Future of Man (1959).

         All of these ideas confirmed my own belief in theistic evolution and gave me an optimistic outlook on life and the human species, which is moving ever upward according to the eternal purposes of God.

 

 

THE GOLDEN BOUGH  (1922)

         I was captivated by Greek mythology from elementary school onwards, and upon reading the wonderful tales of the Hellenic bards, Adam slipped, in my youthful mind, by imperceptibly slow degrees into the realm of fancy alongside the heroes and demigods of old Achæa.  Then I started noticing parallels between the legendary tales of the Greeks and the Hebrews, and there was a gradual awakening in me of a precious gift of mythical perception.  I came to an awareness of my ability to intuitively perceive the fables and folklore within the scriptures of the world religions.  This talent developed, almost unawares, until I was confronted with its powerful expression in the pages of The Golden Bough.  Then I fully understood the real value of what the Bible calls “the ability to distinguish between spirits” (i.e., genuine and spurious revelations) (1 Cor. 12:10) or, in another place, the ability to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).  I came to realize that the ability to distinguish fabricated myths from historical events, allegories from actual occurrences, irrational taboos from valid moral prohibitions, superstition from pure religion, and the magical from the symbolic, is the heart of correct exegesis (theological interpretation) of the Bible.

         I believe that no one is fully educated until he knows the Bible and classical mythology.  These are twin keys that are needed to unlock the treasure chest of Western culture.  One cannot truly appreciate the masterpieces of paintings and sculpture without understanding the predominant artistic themes of angels and gods, saints and sages, as well as the Bible’s men of renown and the Greeks’ legendary heroes.  Much of Shakespeare, and practically all of Milton and Dante, remains a closed book to the person lacking in these areas.  One cannot speak or write with real refinement without some grasp of classical and biblical expressions and derivations.  And to the extent that the public schools fail in grounding their students in the Bible, the Illiad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, and the Æneid, just so far have they swerved from what should be the heart of learning and have abandoned the literary legacy of Western civilization.

         The title of the book, The Golden Bough, was taken from a reference in Virgil’s Æneid to the magical branch of mistletoe which, at the Sibyl’s bidding, Æneas plucked before he essayed his perilous journey to the world of the dead.  Frazer’s book showed how primitive magic and superstition evolved into religion, i.e., how the shaman and the sorcerer became the priest.  Frazer said that magic was “a command to an impersonal Force in nature,” while religion was “a prayer to a personal Power.”  This evolutionary process in religion was acceptable to me as divinely directed “progressive revelation.”  (This theological concept says that ancient and primitive beliefs and practices become obsolete and are replaced by higher and purer ideas and ideals through the evolutionary influence - or inspiration - of God.)  This means that pure religion is attained by eliminating elements of magic and superstition that remain to contaminate it.

 

 

THE RUBAIYAT  (1859 translation by Edward Fitzgerald)

         It is common knowledge that when a youth enters upon higher education at a university, he may experience for the first time a serious challenge to his religious faith.  In my case there was only one serious occurrence of this sort, and that was when I first encountered The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  The reason this experience was so profound for me was that I instinctively fell in love with the beautiful poetry of this Persian classic and with its amiable author, Omar himself.  I saw in this old scientist-sensualist a seeker of truth like myself and an honest doubter when in the presence of simplistic dogma.  However, there was one major difference between us two: Omar was a cynic, while I was determined never to allow my doubts to so degenerate that I would be forced into a dismal philosophy of despair.

         Consequently, I went through a great struggle to get free of this masterfully worded skepticism and to regain my footing on some firm system of belief where I could honestly stand and defend my ideals with sure confidence.

         The primary obstacle I faced in regaining my religious integrity was the poem’s central monumental issue of kismet (predestination), the hateful doctrine that Omar had thrown in my face to shake my faith.  It was as though that ancient mathematician had devised a clever riddle and, in true oriental fashion, had tossed it at me with the challenge of the Sphinx, “Solve it, or forfeit your life!”

         Predestination was to me a damnable doctrine that, if true, could overturn my entire world of verities.  I feared the snowballing peril in this one hideous hypothesis that could sweep away everything of value, for if such things as fatalism, determinism, divine whim, and arbitrary bias were the driving forces behind the universe, then all worthwhile theology was out the window.  If God - or Allah - really and truly operated like some whimsical, petty tyrant, favoring one soul and damning another just as He pleased, then His name was really “Diabolus,” and He did not deserve either my respect or my allegiance.

         Unfortunately, at this point my problem became doubly difficult, because while I could have easily disposed of the kismet dogma of Islam as a thing foreign to my own faith, a foolish fable of infidels, when I turned from the Quran to the Bible, I saw the ugly cancer growing there as well.  Especially in the ninth chapter of Romans, no less an authority than Paul himself was absolutely ecstatic about the idea that the Sovereign of the world might pick one of twin infants in the womb for salvation and predestine the other to perdition, or that He would deliberately harden the heart of an Egyptian king and then drown him forthwith for his unfortunate obstinacy!  And to make matters even worse, having slandered the good character of God by attributing such heinous acts to His deliberate will, Paul then takes on the obsequious character of a Uriah Heep and meekly bows before the sovereign majesty of a whimsical Despot whose ways are past finding out.

         Looking back upon this point in my life, I am grateful for this crisis in thinking which Omar forced upon me, for I was made to rethink some things and to eventually turn a corner in my religious pilgrimage.  I reached two major conclusions, as follows:

         1. I would abandon simple biblicism, the uncritical acceptance of everything taught in the Bible as though it were final, absolute, and infallible, and instead operate on the rational basis of “rightly dividing the word of truth” - digging out the nuggets of truth and throwing away the dross of error found in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures.  (When I came at length to recognize a kinship between The Rubaiyat and the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes, I was able to perceive that the dismal Preacher, Qoheleth, was under the same kinds of delusions as the benighted Persian.)

         2. I would embrace an elevated theodicy, the insistance that the Deity is good, despite all the evil and calumny that has been heaped upon His reputation by both misguided believers and scurilous detractors.  I would subject every doctrine to this test: “Is God still good if this doctrine is true?”  And any doctrine failing this analysis would be eliminated from my personal theology.  I have determined that I will not assume a false humility and survility that will accept false views of Deity just because they are set down in somebody’s “holy scripture.”

 

THE DIVINE COMEDY  (c.1320, final completion of the Paradiso)

         (This book was called a “comedy” by its author, because it was written in Italian rather than “tragic” Latin and because it progressed to a final felicity, starting in hell but ending in heaven.)

         Everywhere a person travels in Italy, he runs into statues of Dante.  It is said that when this poet passed people in the streets, they would react to his presence with reverence and awe as one who had actually descended to Hell and ascended to Paradise and come back to tell the tale of what he saw there.  To the modern reader, however, The Divine Comedy has lost its authority as a factual travelogue of the supernatural realms.  Where its value remains is in what it can tell of the beliefs of Christians through several centuries of time, specifically, the age of the medieval Roman Catholic Church.

         Since I first read The Divine Comedy, I have found that actually, Dante was not original in much of what he wrote down.  There was in existence a body of earlier works that purported to describe the fabulous æthereal worlds of the Afterlife.  The Jewish apocalyptic Book of Second Enoch was written based on the premise that after Enoch was taken up to heaven without experiencing death (Gen. 5:24), he recorded what he saw there and, somehow, got the book back down to earth to enlighten mankind about the various levels of heaven and the inhabitants of each realm.  Later, various Gnostic works elaborated on this theme, substituting divine emanations called Æons for the angelic hierarchy.  And then a Christian version of this mythical tale, the Apocalypse of Peter, gave a detailed account of the final destiny of the departed spirits in heaven and hell.

         What Dante gave the medieval world was a revised, detailed version of heaven, purgatory, and hell suited to the credulous Catholics of his day.  This is valuable information to one who seeks to recognize and purge remnants of this highly mythical extraterrestrial cosmology from the teachings of the modern-day Church.  Dante’s imagined Universe from the highest to the lowest realms were:

 

EMPYREAN HEAVEN

SPHERE OF ÆTHER

      God: the Fixed Point on which hangs the Universe.

Angelic Circles: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominations, Virtues, Powers, Princedoms, Archangels, and Cosmic Angels (Nature Forces or “Elemental Spirits”)

SPHERICAL HEAVENS

The Crystalline Sphere (Primum Mobile): the Cosmic Angels

Fixed Stars: eternal abode of the Apostles and Saints

Saturn: abode of the Righteous Contemplatives

Jupiter: abode of the Righteous Lawgivers and Rulers

Mars: abode of the Righteous Warriors and Heroes

Sun: abode of the Righteous Intellectuals and Martyrs

Venus: abode of Righteous Erotic Lovers

Mercury: abode of the Righteous Ambitious and Famous

Moon: abode of the Righteous Inconstant (Vow-Breakers)

SPHERE OF FIRE

MOUNT PURGATORY

Apex: the Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden)

Temporary Abode of the Lustful, the Gluttonous, the Avaricious, the Slothful, the Angry, the Envious, and the Proud

SPHERE OF AIR

ANTE-PURGATORY

Temporary Abode of Princes Negligent of Salvation, Death-Bed Penitents, Violent-Death Penitents, and those Negligent of Salvation

SPHERE OF WATER

SPHERE OF EARTH

UPPER HELL

Hell’s Gate: Nominal Christians and Neutrals

Circles of Hell: Limbo, the Lascivious, the Gluttons, the Avaricious and Wastrels, the Wrathful and Sullen, the Heretics

 

NETHER HELL

Circles of Hell: the Violent, the Fraudulent

THE PIT OF THE TITANS

Lowest Circle of Hell: the Traitors (Apostates)

Lucifer, up to his chest in ice

 

THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY  (1926)

         Will Durant has provided mankind with delightfully written histories that are both concise and comprehensive.  His monumental eleven-volume The Story Of Civilization carried the account of mankind’s existence from its beginning to the Napoleonic era.  It is a worthy reference work for any thinking man’s library.

         The small volume of The Story of Philosophy encompasses the thinking of the world’s greatest reflective minds.  However, the overall effect of this summary of knowledge attained by the sages, both ancient and modern, is altogether negative and depressing.  Durant, in one place, quotes the words of T. H. Huxley: “The only honest philosopohy is agnosticism.”  This means that the final answer to every profound question is the defeatist declaration, “ I don’t know.”

         When confronted with the weight of arguments presented in this book, there was, for me, a grave challenge to the meaning of life, the worth of ethical values, and the ultimate purpose of anything in the universe.  H. G. Wells made the observation: “If there is no God, nothing matters.  If there is a God, nothing else matters.”  Durant’s philosophers all came up with the negative conclusion that, most probably, there is no God.  This statement became a challenge to me, to refute Wells’ first sentence and take my stand with the second one.  My conclusions, upon which I base my more optimistic viewpoint, are arguments or evidences for the existence of God as follows:

         1. Creation (presumes a Creator)

         2. Natural Laws (presume a Law Maker)

         3. Mathematical Probability (eliminates chance causes)

         4. Non-Pragmatic Beauty (reveals an æsthetic Mind)

         5. Purpose and Direction in Evolution (presumes a Director)

         6. Christ the Immanuel (reveals a theistic God)

         7. Theophanies (visual encounters with a supernal Being)

         8. Saints and Martyrs (superhuman souls convinced of eternal truths)

         9. Christianity (historical evidence of invincible, universal Love)

        10. Personal Evidence (a living relationship with God in my life).

 

THE DIALOGUES OF PLATO  (c.360 B.C.)

         Plato was the mouthpiece of the greatest philosopher of all, Socrates.  He passed on Socratic ideas like “Know thyself and “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  The fact that Socrates was willing to stand up against public opinion and to die for what he believed gave him a Christ-like aura for me.  But what really claimed my attention in The Dialogues was Plato’s insistence on the existence of Absolutes - absolute Truth, absolute Beauty, absolute Love, etc.  These were, for the philosopher, synonyms for God.  Borrowing from this Platonic idea, I have postulated the twin equations “God is Truth, and Truth is God.”  Also, I have come to accept the open-minded maxim of Emerson: “Prefer Truth to past apprehensions of truth.”

         One of my insights into absolutes, however, has been that what may be absolute in heaven cannot be other than relative on earth.  For example, it is flatly impossible to defend the absolute rule, “Thou shalt not kill,” because there are so many cases in human existence where killing is the only or the best option.  We send soldiers to die in defending our country, we abort monstrous fetuses, we give placebos to terminal patients, we endanger the lives of astronauts in order to further the space program, etc.  It is true in morality as in other areas that “there are always exceptions to the rule.”  The advice of Augustine, “Love, and do as you will,” breaks a lot of rules when love is applied to real situations.  Jesus, Himself, broke Jewish laws when the welfare of men was to be preferred over keeping the letter of the law.  And Henry David Thoreau practiced civil disobedience in the face of his country’s pursuing an unjust war with Mexico.  (Other enlightened souls, like Mahatma Ghandi and M. L. King have followed his example.)  Another book of recent times has been the shocking Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher, extolling what has been called “the new morality.”  According to this premise, every situation calls for its own rules of what is right and wrong in each particular case.  This is dangerous stuff if misapplied by immature minds, but it remains the way Jesus Himself carried on His life and ministry.  Freedom is always dangerous and subject to becoming license.  But it has been rightly stated by Albert Camus that “integrity needs no rules.”

 

THE LIFE OF JESUS  (1863)

         The French archæologist and priest, Ernest Renan, broke new ground when he applied scientific reasoning to writing his narrative of the life of Jesus Christ, the celebrated Vie de Jesus.  The book was said to be “the first biography of Jesus in the modern historical and literary sense of that word.”  In defense of his work, Renan wrote, “That the Gospels are in part legendary is evident, since they are full of miracles and of the supernatural; but legends have not all the same value.  No one doubts the principal features of the life of Francis of Assisi, although we meet with the supernatural at every step.”  The tone of the book was given in its opening lines: “Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee, which before his time had no celebrity.  All his life he was designated by the name of “the Nazarene,” and it is only by a rather embarrassed and round-about way, that, in legends respecting him, he is made to be born in Bethlehem.”  Such statements as these had no adverse effect upon my faith, because I accept the fact that the Gospels reflect eye-witness accounts of actual events, but that they were obviously embellished by later hands in some places.  Textual criticism is needed to weed out what was added.  But in the final analysis, I believe that Renan overstepped himself in calling into question the fact of the Resurrection.  He was ambiguous in this regard: “Had his body been taken away, or did enthusiasm, always credulous, create afterward the group of narratives by which it was sought to establish faith in the resurrection?  In the absence of opposing documents this can never be ascertained.”  And despite remaining in the priesthood, Renan was never sure of his faith.  His uncertain prayer was, “O Lord, if there is a Lord, save my soul, if I have a soul.”

         Regarding all this, I stand with another freethinking Baptist, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who demanded that if all other miracles attributed to Jesus were to be discarded, there is one which must remain, His Resurrection.  Fosdick wrote that, “Easter morning represents no egoistic self-importance on the part of the first disciples - far from it!  It represents devoted love for a Soul so revered that they were sure death ought not, must not, could not, did not have dominion over Him.”  I am convinced of the Resurrection by the number of Christophanies that happened after His reappearance, and also by the reasoning of the poet, Dryden:

 

                        Whence but from heaven could men unskilled in arts,

                        In several ages born, in several parts,

                        Weave such agreeing truths?

                        Or how or why should all conspire to cheat us with a lie?

                        Unasked their pains, unheeded their advice,

                        Starving their gain, and martyrdom their price.

 

THE PENSEES  (1669)

         I have a natural affinity for science and for scientists, being educated as an engineer and preferring the use of logic and reason in dealing with the great questions of life.  Little wonder then that I should hold Blaise Pascal in such high esteem.  Pascal was an authority on solid geometry and the inventor of the barometer and a calculating machine.  He gave to the science of fluid forces “Pascal’s Law,” and he advanced the study of differential calculus and mathematical probability.   Also, he devised a successful transportation system for Paris, introducing the first use of omnibuses.

         As to religion, Pascal was a Jansenist Catholic who at the age of 31 met God in a life-changing experience of “fire!”  His account of this divine encounter was found written on a piece of parchment after his death, and this note revealed Pascal’s ecstatic exposure to the sublime: “from about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve, midnight -- FIRE...certainty, heartfelt peaceful joy...joy, joy, joy, and tears of joy...everlasting joy...”

         His book Pensees (meaning “Thoughts” or “Meditations”) is a Christian classic. It was produced after his death from collected scraps of his writings arranged according to subject matter (primarily on rational religion, theism, free will, and foreknowledge).  Put together, these musings reveal an amazing intellect with a powerful grasp of eternal verities that should convince even the most stubborn unbeliever that God is real.  In fact, one argument that Pascal the mathematician gave to any person who wavered in his faith was “the wager.”  This is how he put it: “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is.  Let us estimate these two chances.  If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.  Wager then without hesitation that He is.”  I, myself, have considered the odds of a universe without God, without love, and without purpose, and have decided that the only logical choice - or wager - is God.

         Still, Pascal was honest enough to recognize some serious flaws in religion, as I do myself.  He condemned religious militancy with these words: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious convictions.”  And playing with paradoxes, he silenced cocksure atheists with the aphorism: “It is not certain that all is uncertain.”

 

APOCRYPHA AND PSEUDEPIGRAPHA OF THE OLD TESTAMENT (1913)

         When I was living in Texas, I was able to make use of the library at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and there I ran upon a most amazing book entitled Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating To The Old Testament, edited by James B. Pritchard.  This book provided me with prebiblical Mesopotamian scriptures containing the creation story, the flood story and parallels to Adam’s loss of immortality, to Joseph’s temptation by Potiphar’s wife, to the baby Moses cast upon the river in a basket, to Job’s lamentations, to the Decalogue and the Levitical laws, to ideas about the underworld, to royal genealogies, and to Oriental rituals, charms, and curses like those in the Bible, etc.  Where I had earlier deduced parallels between Greek myths and legends to those of the Bible, I now found still other places where the Hebrews shared a common literature and culture with neighboring peoples.

         Then a similar discovery brought to light a collection of extra-biblical material written contemporarily with the Bible.  These were the Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings that were produced in the four hundred years between the Old and New Testaments.  In studying these manuscripts, I found that many questions about doctrines and beliefs in the New Testament were suddenly resolved.  In this literature I was confronted with numerous religious movements of that period, including the Zoroastrians, the Gnostics, the Essenes, the Hellenists, the Eleusians (mystery religions), and the Sibylline cults.  I found two books, Jubilees and Enoch, that were part of the canon of the Coptic Bible, books that I am certain were read by Jesus and Paul.

         I came to the realization that the best commentaries on the Bible were those books that were written at the same time, but which were not included in the accepted Scripture.  (The criteria for acceptance were given in the Muratorian Canon as authorship, antiquity, and popularity, that is, composition by a known orthodox author, being written in olden times when men spoke more directly to God, and widespread use in synogogues and churches.)

         The perceived necessity for these marginal compositions was the desire to clear up questions and to supply omitted material in the main body of Scripture.  That is why apocryphal writings are so valuable and why I find them to be a treasure of information in my task of “rightly dividing the word of truth.”  For example, I have often made this statement to a class of Bible students, “You cannot fully understand the Book of Revelation until you have read the Book of Enoch.”

 

THE ANABAPTIST STORY  (1963)

         In my youthful days in the Baptist Training Union I came to know quite a bit about my Baptist heritage.  But until I came upon William Estep’s book, I was quite ignorant of other spiritual kinsmen who helped to lay the foundations of my faith.  As a result of reading The Anabaptist Story, I have become conscious of these earlier predecessors and of what they contributed and stood for to the point of martyrdom.  It is a proud heritage.

         The name Anabaptist means “Re-baptizer,” and it was given by enemies of the upstart movement because these extremists insisted that infant baptism was a meaningless ceremony and that those who had received the rite should be re-baptized when they were of an age to voluntarily accept Christ as their Savior.  The feelings of Catholics and Protestants alike were strongly against these radicals who attacked a primary sacrament of the Church.  And so, as a consequence, Anabaptists were subjected to imprisonment, to torture, to hanging, to strangling, to drowning, to beheading, and to being burnt at the stake.  Few of the early founders lived to middle age or attained to prosperity.  But the movement they started spread like wildfire over Europe, mostly among the peasant classes.

         Anabaptists also took other radical stands like the Bible for the people, a symbolic Lord’s Supper administered to all worshipers, the separation of church and state, the repudiation of clergy and of civil government, pacifism, congregationalism, local church autonomy, strict church discipline, rejection of oath-taking, rejection of capital punishment, community of goods, and a literal application of the Sermon on the Mount.  These ideals were far ahead of their time and led to the general denunciation of these nonconformist troublemakers by polite society.

         Today, the modern expressions of Anabaptist belief are still carried on by the people known as Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites.  And their former-Lutheran counterparts are called Pietists, Dunkers, and Brethren.

         Baptists and Anabaptists differ enough that they remain separated to this day, but they share so many common beliefs and practices that it is very plain to me that they are my brothers in the faith.

 

WALDEN  (1854)

         Henry David Thoreau was one of America’s greatest sages, a man worthy to be a role model for any.  He was brilliant, industrious, benevolent, and very independent.  When he was just nine years old, someone asked Henry what he would like to be when he grew up.  And he answered promptly, “I’ll be myself.”  That simple declaration chimes with my own bell, for I have always had the self-assurance to be glad to be me - even “warts and all,” as Cromwell said.  His best friend was another man of genius, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

         Thoreau had little use for material things.  He liked to wander in the woods and enjoy nature.  That he was, in fact, an accomplished botanist is attested by his masterful catalog of New England flora in his Wild Fruits.  At one point, Thoreau decided to quit society and take to the woods as a sort of experiment in living.  In 1845 he built a little cabin on the shores of Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts.  There he lived for two years, and the outcome of his experiment was the literary masterpiece, Walden.  The whole book is a quotable tome, but a few of the best gems are as follows:

 

“A man is rich in proportion to the things he can do without.”

“Trade curses everything it handles.”

“It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.”

“Why will men worry themselves so?  He that does not eat need not work.”

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?  If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

 

         A companion work to Walden is Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”  An opening statement in this writing is: “Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.”  Thoreau’s stand for civil disobedience was a courageous one, for he knew that breaking the law would likely bring punishment by the state.  Accordingly when he refused to pay taxes that would support the war effort, he was put into prison.  The story goes that Henry’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson paid him a visit at the prison.  “Henry, why are you here?” Emerson asked through the bars of Concord jail.  And Thoreau replied, “Waldo, why are you not here?”  This obviously echoes the Bible account of Peter’s undaunted response to the Jewish sanhedrin, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

 

LIFE AFTER LIFE  (1976)

         The concept of a life after death is lacking in the early books of the Bible.  It was later introduced in progressive stages first as a twilight existence, a groggy stupor or sleep, in the nether world, then as a resurrection of the righteous only, next as annihilation of the wicked, and finally as immortality of all souls in heaven or hell.  The doctrine of immortality was rejected by such late Jewish thinkers as the writer of Ecclesiastes, Sirach, and the Sadducees of Jesus’ time.  All these cited Moses as their authority, for the great Lawgiver had held out the promise of prolonged life to the righteous in lieu of a continuing life after death.  Of course, the final word for Christians in the Bible was the risen Savior, as the living proof of immortality and the hope of “those who have fallen asleep.”

         Nowadays something new has been added to this quest for answers to the ultimate question of existence by the publication of Life After Life.  This little book is a collection of the stories of numerous people who underwent what has been called “a near-death experience.”  All of these people had been pronounced dead, but had somehow revived.  And the most common elements in such experiences were an awareness of being out of the body, of traveling through a dark tunnel, and of glimpsing a glowing Figure of light at the tunnel’s end.  There was a feeling of perfect peace in the presence of the luminous Being, and when the souls were sent back to their bodily existence, they were reluctant to go.

         I was able to identify with this experience personally from an occurrence in my childhood days.  I was on an operating table being prepared for the removal of my tonsils.  Ether was being administered to me as a mask was held in place over my face.  Becoming claustrophobic, I started to offer resistance.  Then someone pinned my arms above my head and held my legs down as I gasped for air.  I was told that it took four cans of ether to render me unconscious.  Before going to sleep I felt myself moving into a black tunnel and passing through rings of light in a rapid sequence like being on a roller coaster.

         What got my attention in the book was the similarity between experiences of the individuals being interviewed.  They were people of all races, ages, creeds, and cultures, and they all had undergone essentially the same experience.  Another thing I noted was the perception by these people of their entire lives flashing before their eyes.  And also there was a feeling of judgment, rendered by each individual upon himself.  In this judgment the chief failures of life were summed up as not having learned and not having loved.  It was a powerful attestation to the veracity of the experience that those who had undergone it no longer had any fear of death.

         Of course, the actuality of this glimpse of the afterlife cannot be scientifically settled against all objections.  But the universality of the occurrence is certainly an argument in its favor.

         I remember that shortly after reading Life After Life, my grandmother died.  And during her funeral I felt a comforting warmth that brought me tears of joy, rather than grief, at her passing.  I was very glad that this little book had come into my hands.

                                                                                                                Richard L. Atkins

                                                                                                                  January 20, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

MY FOURTEEN BOOKS

 

The Bible

The Origin Of Species by Charles Darwin

Human Destiny by Lecomte du Noüy

The Golden Bough by James George Frazer

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The Story Of Philosophy by Will Durant

The Dialogues of Plato

The Life Of Jesus by Ernest Renan

The Pensees of Blaise Pascal

Apocrypha And Pseudepigrapha Of The Old Testament by R. H. Charles

The Anabaptist Story by William R. Estep

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Life After Life by Dr. Raymond A. Moody

 

These are the books that shaped my religion and my personal philosophy.

 

                                      Richard L. Atkins