Principles or Personalities?
by: Paul W. Sharkey
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I had actually intended to write and submit a piece on this topic some time ago, long before the current brouhaha concerning the U.S. Presidential campaigns and upcoming election. Instead, I had been motivated to do so because of two very different approaches to religious belief. The effect and consequences of these two views, however, could not be more clear nor more pronounced than by what is happening in the “race” for the U.S. Presidency.
Ask any “believer” why they believe-in Jesus, Siddhartha, Mohamed, or whoever and you will find that quite frequently it has nothing to do with what is true but rather with the hopes and/or fears of the “believer.” Or ask: “Do you believe in Jesus (Siddhartha, Mohamed, etc) because what he teaches is true, or do you believe what he teaches is true because he is Jesus (Siddhartha, Mohamed etc).” This is a very ancient question and one, in a slightly different form, Socrates reputedly asked of Euthyphro shortly before the former’s execution.1 What it comes down to is whether what one ultimately believes-in and values most (worth-ships) is some particular personality (or other) or the truth. And if the two the personality and the truth should diverge, which will one follow?
I know of no original or “founding” teacher (whether Jesus, Siddhartha, Socrates, or Mohamed) who counseled anyone to forsake the truth in order to follow them.2 None of them set out to found a personality cult but rather instead attempted to help awaken people to a wider, richer, freer and more responsible way of life. But neither can the human ability to pervert the truth for the sake of individual gain, glory or power be underestimated or ignored.
Are there demonstrable “spiritual truths?” Yes!3 Are they exclusive to or depend upon a particular teacher or personality? No!
Those who place their ultimate trust in any particular individual or personality have missed the point; they confuse the teacher with the teaching the messenger with the message.4 Teachers and messengers come and go; truth does not, though it can be distorted, manipulated and perverted to the point that it is almost if not completely lost.
If we are to place any trust in any individual or “personality,” whether spiritual teacher or political leader, let it be because we have found them to be trust-worthy because they speak the truth and not because of our hope for personal gain, our fears, or petty prejudices. Reason, truth and honesty demand nothing less.
- See Plato’s early dialogue: Euthyphro
- In fact, Siddhartha is reputed to have taught: “Accept my words only when you have examined them for yourselves; do not accept them simply because of the reverence you have for me. Those who only have faith in me and affection for me will not find the final freedom. But only those who have faith in the truth and are determined to follow its path will be awakened.” See also and compare: Matthew 7:21; Luke 6:46 etc.
- I intend to address and explain some of these in an upcoming “Meditation.”
- One “spiritual truth” (which is both definitionally as well as existentially true) is: “If you place your faith (trust, happiness ... whatever) in something that can or will be taken from you, then you can or will lose your faith (trust, happiness ... whatever) and is the basis for many many “teachings” in various forms in various religions from those concerning Buddhist renunciation to Christian “poverty” (cf. Matthew 6:25; 19:16ff.) or just plain common sense!.