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How Religions Begin

I once found a toad in the stairwell leading down to our cellar door. Surrounded by the corpses of many of his fellows, he was frantically trying to escape his concrete prison before he became one more casualty. I caught him, carried him up the stairs and put him in the garden. As I left, I wondered how he was going to explain this experience to his friends that night.

"Listen to what happened to me," he might have said, bursting with awe and excitement. "I fell down a great cliff into a terrible hard, dry place. Others of our kind had also fallen into this pit, and their bodies lay all around me. There was no way to escape, and I was afraid that I would end up like the others, dry and lifeless.

"Then the miracle happened. An enormous hand reached down from heaven toward me. I was terrified because I thought this was the Being who killed toads. I tried to escape its grasp, but it kept pursuing me. When it finally caught me, I was sure I would never see any of you again. But, before I knew what was happening, I found myself on the cool earth among the grasses. And then the great hand simply went away. There must be a god who saves lost toads!"

His story might well have been so startling that it became the main topic of conversation in the toad community. They had certainly never before heard of a toad god, and might have wondered what to do about this revelation. Perhaps, a few days later, the toad took them out to the edge of the cliff over which he had fallen, and let them peer down into the frightening depths where he had been trapped. Then he might have taken them to the spot in the garden where he had been carried by a power greater than himself. They probably would have marveled at this miracle, realizing that it had forever changed their level of awareness. Imagine the scene:

One of the older toads says thoughtfully, "I think we should come out here every week to recall what happened to our friend. We should stand at the cliff and remember how he fell, and then come to this spot in the garden to remind ourselves how he was raised to new life. And I think we should be silent for a moment and meditate on the fact that there is a god who cares about lost and frightened toads."

Pointing to the rescued toad, he continues, "You could tell your story over again, and then perhaps we could all say something together in toad chorus, something like: 'The god reached down from above and took hold of me. He rescued me. He helped me out of danger.'* And we must be sure to tell our toadlings that there is a god who cares for lost toads."

After a while, some of the wiser toads begin to wonder why their friend had been saved when so many of their brothers had been left to perish. And it occurs to them that this toad must have done something to please the toad god, while the others might have offended him. And so they draw up a long list of rules which they think might please their new-found deity. They want to be certain that, if they ever fall into the dark pit, the great hand in the sky would be inclined to reach down and save them, too.

In later years, while everyone knows the rules, the original toads have died off and no one is left who remembers actually talking to the toad to whom the miracle happened. The story is passed down from mouth to mouth for many years, and the more superstitious toads in every generation faithfully follow all the rules. But in time, the details of the story are lost forever, and it becomes nothing more than a myth which parent toads tell their toadlets at bedtime.

(*Psalm 18:16,17,19)


Posted May 15, 2004

Copyright: John W. Sloat 2004