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Thoughts on Christianity

By Leo Tolstoy

Editor's note:

This essay by Leo Tolstoy is a critique of Christianity, "The Religion." With very little word modification it could be a critique of Sikhi, "The Religion," or a critique of any "Religion," even a critique of "Religion" in general.

I have included this essay by Tolstoy because there are many parallels between the developement of Christianity and Sikhi. It has been around 500 years since the time of Guru Nanak and it was at a similar time period that Christianity was wrestling with the same issues as Sikhi is facing today. Tolstoy was writing about some of the same issues that both religions faced and are facing: truth vs religion and the place of dogma.Sikhi has one advantage over Christianty, in that there is the Guru Granth. Jesus never wrote anything down, so the only source of what Jesus said is the Gospels. This would be like Sikhi being totally based on the Sakhis.

The true Christian teaching is very simple, clear, and obvious to all, as Jesus said. But it is simple and accessible only when man is freed from that falsehood in which we were all educated, and which is passed off upon us as God's truth.

Nothing needful can be poured into a vessel full of what is useless. We must first empty out what is useless. So it is with the acquirement of true Christian teaching. We must first understand that all the stories telling how God made the world six thousand years ago; how Adam sinned and the human race fell; and how the Son of God, a God born of a virgin, came on earth and redeemed mankind; and all the fables in the Old Testament and in the Gospels, and all the lives of the saints with their stories of miracles and relics, are nothing but a gross hash of superstitions and priestly frauds. Only to someone quite free from this deception can the clear and simple teaching of Jesus, which needs no explanation, be accessible and comprehensible. That teaching tells us nothing about the beginning, or about the end, of the world, or about God and His purpose, or in general about things which we cannot, and need not, know; but it speaks only of what man must do to save himself, that is, how best to live the life he has come into, in this world, from birth to death. For this purpose it is only necessary to treat others as we wish them to treat us. In that is all the Law and the prophets, as Jesus said. And to act that way, we need neither icons, nor relics, nor church services, nor priests, nor catechisms, nor governments, but on the contrary, we need perfect freedom from all that; for to treat others as we wish them to treat us is possible only when a man is free from the fables which the priests give out as the truth, and is not bound by promises to act as other people may order. Only such a man will be capable of fulfilling, not his own will nor that of other men, but the will of God.

The reader should understand that the belief that the Gospels are the inspired word of God is not only a profound error, but a very harmful deception. He should remember that Jesus himself did not write a book, nor did he transmit his teaching to learned or even to educated men, but spoke for the most part to illiterate people, and only long after his death were his life and teaching described.

The reader should also remember that a large number of such descriptions have been written, from which the church selected at first three, and later a fourth Gospel, that out of the great mass of literature about Jesus they accepted much that was inaccurate. and that there are nearly as many faulty passages in the canoncal Gospels as in the rejected writings. Nor does it follow, becauce the teaching ofJesus is inspired, that all the descriptions are inspired. He should remember that these official Gospels are the work of many human minds; that over the centuries they have been selected, enlarged, and commented upon; and that the most ancient copies which have come down to us are only from the fourth century. The reader must remember all this in order to disengage himself from the idea, so common among us, that the Gospels, in their present form, have come to us directly from the Holy Spirit. If he does so, he will admit that, far from it being blamable to disencumber the Gospels of useless passages, and to illuminate passages the one by the other, it is unreasonable not to do this and to consider every one of these verses sacred.

On the other hand, I pray my readers to understand that, if I do not consider the Gospels to be sacred books, coming directly from the Holy Spirit, even less do I regard them as mere monuments in the history of religious literature. I am conscious of both their theological and historical significance, but I do not consider either of these important. What I see in Christianity is not a divine revelation nor a mere historical phenomenon, but a teaching that gives us the true meaning of life.

When, at the age of fifty, I first began to study the Gospels seriously, I found in them the spirit that animates all who are truly alive. But along with the flow of that pure, life-giving water, I perceived much mire and slime mingled with it; and this had prevented me from seeing the true, pure water. I found that, along with the lofty teaching of Jesus, there are teachings bound up which are repugnant and contrary to it. I thus felt myself in the position of a man to whom a sack of garbage is given, who, after long struggle and wearisome labor, discovers among the garbage a number of infinitely precious pearls. This man knows that he is not blameworthy in his distaste for the dirt, and also that those who have gathered these pearls along with the rest of the sackful, and who thus have preserved them, are no more to blame than he is, but, on the contrary, deserve his love and respect.

When I perceived that only light enables men to live, I sought the source of this light. And I found it in the Gospels, despite the false teachings of the church. And when I reached this source of light, I was dazzled by its splendor, and I found in it answers to all my questions about life, answers which I recognized as being in complete harmony with all the known answers gained
among other nations, and, to my mind, surpassing all other answers. I sought a solution to the problem of life, not to a theological question. And that is why I did not care about knowing whether Jesus is God, or whom the Holy Spirit proceeds from, etc. For me, the only important concern was this light, which for eighteen hundred years has been shining upon mankind,
which has been shining upon me as well, and which shines upon me still. But to know, in addition to this, how I ought to name the source of this light, what elements compose it, and what kindled it, did not interest me in the least.

Up to the present time, some people, conceiving Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity, accept his teaching only as it accords with that pseudo-revelation of the Holy Spirit which they find in the Old Testament, the Epistles, the Edicts of the Councils, and the Patristic writings, and preach a strange creed founded on these, which they assert to be the teaching of Jesus. Other people, who do not believe that Jesus is God, understand his teaching by the interpretation of Paul and others. But even though they believe that he was a man, they would deprive him of the right every man may claim, of being answerable for his own words, and in trying to explain his teaching, they credit him with what he would never have dreamed of saying.

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