By William Shelton • March 14, 2023
From the earliest moments of mankind, even until today, our species has been compelled to look up and ponder our origin. What trait in the human soup has us convinced that we are not solely terrestrial, but have a tie to existence beyond the veil of stars? Or that our consciousness might even transcend mortal life? It is no coincidence that every known human culture has recognized spiritual deity in one form or another, and given them credit for all bounty or misfortune. Likewise, those cultures built their entire civilization around the worship of their particular deities. The offering of sacrifice, the supplication of favor, often in conjunction with the harvest of crops or cycles of weather, were the diastole and systole of each day. Portents and signs were everywhere, and each was weighted with meaning. Though millennia have passed, customs remain; we still invoke the aid of deity when a choice parking spot is desired, or a favorite sports team takes the field. Our places of worship are filled with the devout, and most of our population face the prospect of death with faith inspired hope of renewed life everlasting.
Much of the written word produced by mankind has been devoted to recording our beliefs. From crude paintings on cave walls, to cuneiform scratches stamped into wet clay, to the first book created on a printing press in 1454, the Gutenberg Bible, when recording our thoughts we often have turned to our spiritual beliefs.
Some of the oldest surviving examples of religious writings are:
The Sumerian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from 2,100 BCE, is considered one of the oldest texts which contain themes of philosophy, spiritual belief, and morality. Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk, goes on a heroic saga with the encouragement, and often the punishment, of Mesopotamian gods. It is said that the poet Homer would use The Epic of Gilgamesh thirteen centuries later as the model for his own work. An interesting tie with the Abrahamic religions is that The Epic of Gilgamesh also includes the story of an 'immortal man' who was divinely led to build a boat to save select people and animals from a great flood. Many of the details are similar to those recorded in the book of Genesis of the Bible.
Dating from the Indian Bronze Age, the Vedas began as an oral tradition in Sanskrit. There is much scholarly debate around when they began to be recorded in writing, with the general consensus being 1,400 to 400 BCE, but there is no debate needed when discussing the role they play in the Hindu religion. The purpose of the Vedas is to encourage practitioners of Hinduism to pursue a moral and ethical life, while striving for four principal goals: dharma, kama, artha and moksha, collectively known as the Purusharthas.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, manuscripts written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and dating from approximately 300 BCE, are considered the oldest surviving examples of writings which would later become part of Biblical canon. Discovered in earthenware vessels in twelve different caves (the act in and of itself representing an ancient Jewish custom called genizah), in 1946 to 1951, they are thought to be the texts of a Jewish sect called the Essenes. In total, 972 manuscripts were discovered, some complete scrolls, and some fragments of earlier texts.
More recently, the Transcendental Movement inspired a flurry of written work to expound on the beliefs that man and nature are inherently good, and purity can be derived through independence of the mind and body. Spawned in the New England region in the 1830s, much of the philosophy of Transcendentalism is closely tied to the Unitarian denomination. Authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Ellen Sturgis Hooper were strong advocates of the movement, and dedicated much of their work to recording the philosophy of Transcendentalism. Though the movement died out along with many of its early adherents, there was a second wave in the early nineteenth century who took up the mantle of expression of individuality and love for fellow mankind. Even though the author of this blog was reared in the Episcopal tradition, and practices those forms and ceremonies today, I must confess that I have always been drawn to the Transcendental philosophy of communing with nature. As an avid gardener, one can’t help but rejoice in the renewal of life that comes with each spring.
Our spiritual beliefs are often highly individual, but also give us the opportunity to form groups of the like-minded to help cope with the mortal coil. Even so, there are those who eschew spiritual pursuits, and that in itself forms a belief system.