Why the Early Christians Changed Christ’s Message
The Jewish people, at the time of Christ, had arrived at a karmic crossroads. In their decision to live by high principles, the Jews, as a people, were far ahead of most peoples of their time. They had taken the next step, also, of recognizing that living for God is the highest principle. They had chosen God, and for this reason, as the Bible states, God chose them.
The next step for the Jewish people
The most important step on the spiritual path, however, is to make oneself receptive to divine guidance. The next step for the Jewish people would have been to welcome practical spiritual guidance — not only through written laws, but through enlightened masters like Jesus Christ who themselves were in tune with God’s will.
Jesus came to teach the Jewish people the true meaning of freedom: not liberation from outer slavery such as they’d endured in Egypt and in Babylon, and were enduring to a lesser degree under Roman rule, but freedom from the tyranny of delusion: from material desires and attachments, from the demands of an arrogant and self-affirming ego. He came to help them understand that their original “contract” with God was primarily inward. Inner communion with God was the essence of Jesus Christ’s message and was recognized as such by spiritually-minded Jews.
The challenge the Jewish people faced was to awaken to God’s love by accepting the guidance of Jesus Christ, an enlightened master, and through that love, to enter into communion with God. But for this next step the Jews, as a people, were not ready.
The early Christians and the Greco-Roman world
Jesus, not surprisingly, was opposed by the narrowly orthodox Jews of his day – the pedants and the prelates who, enclosed in high walls of dogmatism, condemned his fresh perception of truth, inspired as it was from within. The orthodox Jews’ rejection of Jesus had the effect of pushing his followers out into the Greco-Roman world, where the overall approach to life was radically different from the more-or-less unsystematic teachings of Jesus Christ.
In the Greco-Roman world, institutionalism had already been developed to a fine art. As Christianity entered into that world, the early church leaders thought it necessary to adapt Christ’s message to that culture — for most of them, the only culture they knew. They therefore perceived a need to get organized, and to encase Christ’s teachings in a formal structure, under strict administrative control.
As Christianity became absorbed by the Greco-Roman world, it adopted the rigid disciplines of Greek reasoning to bolster the teachings it was formulating, and shunned the more fluid perceptions that come with soul-intuition. Slowly there emerged an authoritarian Church, centralized and all-powerful. As soon as the Church was in a position to do so, it declared a need for fixed definitions — that is to say, dogmas— to protect Christ’s teachings from numerous ideological assaults. Dogmatic definitions offered a safe and easy way of “refuting” error.
Who were the Gnostics?
During the early years of Christianity, the importance of inner communion and a personal relationship with God was widely recognized. This importance was particularly emphasized by the Gnostics, a school of early Christians who were eventually suppressed by those Christians who wanted to establish a formal religion.
Much has been made by scholars recently of the Gnostic teachings. Indeed, from everything Paramhansa Yogananda said and wrote on the subject, there were Gnostics who came much closer than the churches to the original teachings of Jesus Christ, for they emphasized inner grace and truth, not outer law and authority. The Gnostic teachings were, in fact, more Eastern than Western in their orientation. The Gnostics insisted — and Yogananda endorsed their statement — that Jesus Christ’s emphasis had been on seeking personal verification of truth by direct, inner experience of God.
The Apostles, including St. Paul, were true Gnostics, for they believed in verification by direct inner experience. Of the four gospels, St. John’s is the most inward in emphasis. John was the “beloved of Jesus,” his closest and most highly advanced disciple. In the first chapter of his gospel, John describes Christ as the Infinite Light and also, in the tradition of all great masters, as a doorway to the Infinite Light. Repeatedly St. John urges the reader to seek God in inner communion, and not only in outward religious observances.
The suppression of the Gnostics
The Gnostics’ more mystical school of thought had its own shortcomings, however. After the passing of the Apostles, other teachers emerged whose statements were not always rooted in wisdom. Errors crept into their teaching, including the reasonable, but mistaken, belief that Jesus Christ, being the Son of God, could not possibly have suffered on the cross. There were also Gnostics who mistook the ego for the higher Self. But there were also very deep Gnostics, who were saints, who communed with God and taught the importance of loving God and experiencing our oneness with Him.
The Gnostics’ emphasis on inwardness, which went against the Church’s efforts to centralize its authority, gave the Church ample reason to discredit their teachings, though Church leaders were not lax in searching out other reasons as well. It is more than likely that the Church, in discrediting the Gnostics, exaggerated their fallacies, and passed lightly over their virtues. Christ’s emphasis on inner communion could only have been an embarrassment to it, for the Church wanted large congregations. That goal made it necessary to emphasize the outer symbols of truth, and to minimize the inner experience of God. To church-minded Christians, Jesus Christ would never become a major influence in the world if his message was given too mystical a slant. His promise of salvation to all men would, in that case, remain unfulfilled.
Unfortunately, the errors of the false Gnostics stiffened the Church in its denunciation of Gnosticism as a whole. Thus, the Gnostics ended up being condemned by the Church as heretical, and then persecuted. Writings that emphasized inner communion with God were determinedly destroyed and “true” (which is to say, formally recognized) Christians were exhorted to heed only outer authority, and to engage only in outer ritual.
It wasn’t until the Twentieth Century that many long-buried Gnostic texts, which the early Church had tried to destroy, were rediscovered. They had been buried and hidden until an age when people would understand again.
A major loss for Christianity
The suppression of the Gnostics constituted a major loss for Christianity. When Gnosticism was suppressed and fixed doctrines were formulated, Christian leadership came wholly under the control of church dignitaries, who sought to make Christ’s teachings uniform in order to strengthen the authority of the Church. “Universal truth,” as they understood it, meant virtually any statement that strengthened the Church’s authority.
With the suppression of the Gnostics, error entered the official teachings, including a diminishing emphasis on inner communion. Instead of personal contact with God, congregational worship and Eucharistic communion were given increasing importance. The development of the Judeo-Christian tradition thus passed from Mosaic law to form-bound definitions that enclosed Christ’s teachings in organizational restrictions and dogmatic definitions.
Saints without a supportive tradition
From time to time in the history of Christianity, there have appeared true men and women of God, great saints who, experiencing Christ’s actual presence, have infused the Christian religion with renewed faith. Without them, the churches would long ago have come to resemble elegant mausoleums.
These were individuals who accepted the commandment of Jesus to love God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus Christ remained, for them, not only someone to be addressed with formal hyperbole during church services, but their own divine Friend, with whom they could commune in a relationship of love.
Unfortunately, however, those saints were never given the freedom to join hands with one another over the centuries, and thus to create a coherent spiritual tradition. Always, they had to give primary recognition to the authority of the Church, which insisted that public revelation ended with Jesus Christ and the Apostles. Anything experienced since then, it decreed, falls into the category of private revelation. Thus, no tradition ever developed comparable to the ancient yoga tradition in India.
The living essence of the Christian religion
It was to remind Christians of their forgotten heritage that Paramhansa Yogananda was sent to the West. Yogananda declared that it was by the will of Jesus himself that he was sent to the West to revitalize Christianity by re-emphasizing the importance of meditation and inner communion.
Yogananda’s most important message on the teachings of Christ was that man is, and cannot but be, a child of God. There is nothing, anywhere in all creation, but God’s consciousness. Attunement with Christ must be sought more and more deeply in the silence of meditation. Jesus Christ himself, not church dogma, has been from the start the living essence of the Christian religion. The deeper our communion with Him, the less outer forms of religion seem important to us. The more attention we pay to outer law and forms, the more we become distracted from loving God deeply.
In Christianity today there is a noteworthy movement that emphasizes the need for developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The adherents of this movement do not reject church affiliation, nor Bible study, but they claim that if one doesn’t also seek a personal relationship with Jesus he is missing the true meaning of Christianity.
This movement represents an important step toward emerging from the stone-enclosure of Churchianity into the experience of Christianity as a living religion. Jesus constantly urged his disciples to attune themselves to his spirit. He also discouraged mere doctrinal squabbling. Only by direct inner experience of truth can one attain wisdom. Indeed, lacking inner experience, one can twist scripture itself to conform with any bizarre notion one fancies.
“Gnosis”– knowledge of the inner Self
We live in a new age. “Self-realization,” Yogananda declared, “will someday be the religion of the world.” People everywhere will realize that the essence of religion is true “gnosis”– knowledge of the inner Self.