Triumph of the Texts: Religion as Word

Nearly 5,500 years ago or about 3,500 BCE, the Sumerians began writing about supernatural matters; in a sense, this marks the origin of what most people today understand as “religion.”  This relatively modern and provincially Western understanding of religion is on full display in Paul Raushenbush’s article introducing HuffPo Religion’s new series on religious texts and scripture commentaries.

It is apparent right from the beginning that Raushenbush privileges texts and that his (Christian) understanding of religion is grounded in the written word:

On Sunday I attended an early-morning ecumenical Christian service on the beach in Cape Cod. The minister introduced the scripture passage by saying that she was reading the version of the Lord’s Prayer found in Luke instead of Matthew because it is thought to be the more original version. She finished the scripture passage by saying the traditional words: “The Word of God.” This anecdote illuminates the central yet complex role of scripture in religious communities. The minister was reminding us simultaneously that sacred texts such as the Christian Gospel are complicated, even while affirming scripture to be essential to our spiritual experience, ethical wisdom and faith in the Divine.

Here we have the classic Western understanding of “religion” that derives almost entirely from two sources: (1) Christianity, which emphasizes texts, scriptures and writing; and (2) a long academic tradition — grounded in the Christian understanding of religion — which assumes that the study of other faiths or traditions is best accomplished by looking to texts, scriptures and writing.

As Jonathan Z. Smith and many other scholars (including Edward Said) have noted, using Christian assumptions and methods to categorize and study other spiritual traditions — most of which do not place primacy on texts, scriptures, and writings — is a dubious enterprise.  It may come as a surprise to many, but the collection, compilation, and study of ancient Vedic and Buddhist texts was largely a Western academic enterprise grounded in the Christian assumption that religions consist of writings.  How did this happen?

With the help of isolated, scholarly monastics in the East who collected and studied texts largely unknown to the practicing masses, Western orientalist and religious scholars constructed a textual Buddhism and Hinduism that could be slotted into an historical and scholarly category called “religion.”  Once fitted into this category, these essentialized and textualized faith traditions could then be scrutinized in the same manner that theologians have been studying Christianity for nearly two millenia.

Although Raushenbush mentions indigenous, non-written spiritual traditions in passing, it is clear that he considers them unimportant in comparison to religions enshrined in writing:

Most religions, either from inception or along the way, produce written texts to which followers turn for worldview, strictures, and wisdom for living life. It is our relationship to these texts that makes them sacred, or scripture. By calling a text or texts “scripture,” we are saying that the text has a special relationship not only to us personally, and to our community, but also to the Divine or Truth.

Scripture differs among religious traditions. Hinduism, for example, has central texts that have been elevated, such as the Bhagavad Gita, but there is no single canon agreed upon by all adherents. Indigenous religions may have written texts, but the power of the sacred story is still in the oral tradition of passing them from one generation to the next. Other traditions, especially the tellingly named “religions of the book” — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — have written texts that have themselves become imbued with divinity; this might especially be said about the Qur’an. Understanding the complex relationship between a religious tradition and its sacred text is foundational to understanding the tradition itself.

That being said, religious scripture has been the world’s most influential cultural guardian and transmitter of aesthetic vision, existential wisdom, ethical instruction, and knowledge of God, what the theologian Tillich described as Ultimate Concerns. Scripture endures because billions of people from different religious traditions have looked to it and found comfort in times of hardship, wisdom in times of confusion, ethics in times of selfishness, beauty among shadows, and faith in times of doubt.

Humans have been engaging with the supernatural for perhaps 100,000 years or longer; we have fairly good evidence of this engagement beginning approximately 40,000 years ago.  This engagement — which was not uniform, not written, and not doctrinal — consisted (and in some places still consists) of a hugely diverse set of beliefs, understandings, and practices loosely grouped under the concept of shamanisms.  These are what the anthropologist and scholar of religion Harvey Whitehouse would call “imagistic” traditions, which he contrasts with “doctrinal” or written traditions.

What Raushenbush suggests in his article is that imagistic and shamanist traditions — which have existed far longer and been practiced more widely than any written traditions — are mere prelude; they serve only as background to religion understood through texts, scriptures and writings.

This is a rather cramped understanding of the supernatural and religious, and it requires one to accept that the transcendent — if it exists and can be understood or experienced, will come through reading and interpreting texts.  There will be many, deeply aware of history and non-written traditions, who will reject this requirement and the parochial assumptions embedded within it.

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