"Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man."
I watch as modern man wages wars over the words in ancient religious books and wonder if we cannot do better. Our beliefs and world views are tied to ancient dogma that sits enshrined in manuscripts deemed sacrosanct. Well-meaning followers of all faiths struggle to apply the teachings in a modern world, and all too often the result pits human against human with tragic results.
Surely the sacred writings of all traditions contain both jewels of wisdom and statements that could do with some intelligent review. My idea may sound sacrilegious, yet it may be just what our modern world needs. So too thought the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
In 1820, six years before he passed away at age 83, Thomas Jefferson produced an 84-page volume entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It is also commonly referred to as the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson, in correspondence with William Short, a lifelong friend and Jefferson's private secretary, makes clear the principles which guided his editing:
"We find in the writings of His biographers [writers of the Gospels] matter of two distinct descriptions. First a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms, and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed."
Applying these distinctions, Jefferson keenly extracted what he saw as the spiritual core of the New Testament. Gone are the virgin birth, miracles and the story of the resurrection. Shining bright are the moral and ethical principles upon which exemplary human lives from all cultures and times have been founded. Jefferson retained references to heaven and God, and to the parables of Jesus.
It is upon these profound yet accessible teachings that Jefferson sought to create a moral fabric that could guide our newly formed country. And guide, it did. From 1904 until the 1950s, each newly elected United States senator received a Jefferson Bible on the day the legislator took the oath of office.
Jefferson knew that the westward growth of our nation would include the spread of Christianity. He created his version of the Gospels in the hopes that it would be the foundational text for that expansion. I think that scholars and religious teachers from all faiths would be wise to do the same with their religious texts as an offering to future generations.
To undertake a project such as this requires a confidence in one's own internal compass and the ability to feel the essence of being human. I challenge religious leaders to step in stride with Jefferson and share the core wisdom of their faiths with their adherents. Such revisions would provide the guidance we need in order to participate fully in the modern world - with peace and with love.