I've recently finished reading a book whose premise revolves around the idea that Christianity is not what Jesus was really all about. That he himself would not recognize the institution that was built upon him. I've read variations of this argument before and surely it is missing something. Obviously Jesus was not a Christian and the ideas that are expressed in the Bible, both in the Old and in the New Testament are part of a set of ideas that adjusted to changing contexts over a very long time. If we focus on one man and one time, if we freeze the frame, we are missing the larger context. The interesting aspect for me in this debate are the changes within a suite of ideas over time, the work of many creative people and how they have then influenced their societies.
The story of the long history of religious thought is full of ideas that stepped out of the box and reinvigorated the societies within which they were embedded. Paul (Saint Paul) took the ideas of a shunned sect and reframed them for a larger audience. He didn't ruin the central concepts but universalized them. The artists and poets and writers who followed enlarged and helped it reach into the heart of every moment down through the centuries, a continually updated dialogue. The creative thought and practice of so many people helped this particular religion become adaptable to change through time. For example, one thinker in the last century, Carl Jung, when asked if he thought God existed said that if believing helped one in life, gave meaning, then why wouldn't one do so? A pragmatic but creative response in an cynical age aimed at finding meaning in an individual's life. A psychological perspective. Another, C.S. Lewis, usually viewed as a religious writer, created a mythical word in his 'Narnia' series of books. His concept was that the world of imagination was more useful to people psychologically than a 'scientific' view based on 'no meaning'. That societies as a whole need a set of creative ideas set within creative forms to work with that will allow them to develop and prosper. Ultimately, tangential though they may seem at first, this continuing process of thought and action is the advancing front of religion. And this idea is found in all religions, just as in other areas of human cultures. If a set of ideas can no longer speak to the present moment it is discarded, but re-framed in the language of the present it can live on to enrich our lives.
Picasso, talking about art, said there were no new ideas, no evolution from bad towards better, but that it always exists in the present, and that only the context of ideas change and the way of expressing them. Apply this way of framing to religions and we can see that there is no such thing as more evolved, higher religious ideas, just people through time expressing universal thoughts within the conditions of their present moment and using the ideas from the past as building blocks in new contexts. The Animist in his jungle clearing has a set of beliefs that work for him, the Zen master in a monastery in Japan is not superior but just well adapted to his culture, the Christian or Jew or Islamist has a set of ideas that enrich a certain cultural context. They are not in competition for first place or more 'true', but are adaptive to their culture at the present moment. Religious ideas can have a 'useful' element; - they perform a transformative function for the present. They explain our lives.
Back in Galileo’s day in Renaissance Italy, it was possible to have an unsystematic set of ideas, one could look at the universe and see that the earth was not the centre of everything after all and yet believe in many aspects of religion. Over time though, that new 'scientific' perspective has lead us to try to have one comprehensive world view. If one is true, then the other cannot be so. We live in a conceptual straight jacket within one suite of related ideas or another.
A perspective I found in Joseph Campbell's book, 'Transformations of Myth through Time' was illuminating: the Buddhist concept of the Idam , a deity that an individual has chosen. It has no existence, it is a picture, a concept, and has life only insomuch as I make it the guide for my own life. So, if I choose an aspect of Jesus, or the Buddha, or Moses or Thor or Thunderbird and make the ideas resident in that to be my life's guide I will have accomplished Jung's idea that there is a useful psychological aspect to belief, but I can also admit a rational understanding; it is possible to live within a 'rational' mind set and yet to access religious ideas.
I choose my 'Idam', I exemplify those principles over the span of my life and thereby give them consciousness. I am making meaning, not taking, receiving or rejecting it. I am participating in that long tradition of reconstructing perennial ideas in the context of my time. My beliefs are my art and my art is my life.