SACRED TEXTS: WHAT DO UUS USE?
by Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 6, 2010
by Rev. Kit Ketcham, June 6, 2010
Do you find wisdom in the Bible or other traditional sacred texts? If not there, where do you find your wisdom? What are the sources you use? Do you have favorite sayings that sum up some of your acquired wisdom? How about throwing some of those sayings out there? Something that encapsulates some of your acquired wisdom?
We find wisdom in a lot of places, it seems to me. Some of it comes out of our experiences; some of it is visible on the bumpers of cars or on t-shirts. We find it in novels, in non-fiction, in textbooks, in memoirs, in a lot of different kinds of writings. Poetry. Murder mysteries. Comic books. We find it in Art works. Theater productions. Songs and Symphonies. We find it in The Bible. The Bhagavad Gita. The Tanakh. The Koran.
Some of these sources of wisdom are said to be divinely inspired, right out of the heart of God and written down by human beings. Most of them are human creations; it’s a little hard to say for sure about the ones attributed to God, but I suspect editors over the millennia since their publication have altered texts here and there, either deliberately to reflect their own views or by copying a mistake made by a previous copier.
Recently I came across a book entitled “The Language God Talks”, a memoir by the author Herman Wouk, a treatise on his efforts to link science and religion. And because it seemed to relate both to our service today and also to the Science/Ethics/and Meaning symposium we are hoping to begin next fall, I bought it and settled in to enlighten myself and hopefully find a few ideas. I was especially interested in learning about the language God talks.
One traditional take on the language God talks has been either the ancient languages of the Hebrew Scriptures or the King James Version or other translations of the Christian Bible. Of course, other religions see it differently: the Koran was the voice of Allah spoken through the mouth of Mohammed; the Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Krishna the god and Arjuna the human on the eve of a climactic battle and lays down Hindu theology in this context; Confucianism relies on the writings and teachings of Confucius, who set forth a moral and philosophical code for his followers, though no Deity is involved.
But what makes a text----or any object or teaching---sacred? Since our rational minds can’t know for sure whether God actually spoke to Moses, David, Jesus, Mohammed, and others, we have to make some assumptions about texts and other things purported to be sacred.
Somebody clearly thought that the voice in his or her head was divine. And the voice offered wisdom, guidance, prophesy, or warning. Sometimes the listener argued with the voice, as so many of the Psalms seem to do, lamenting human fate and helplessness before the chaos of human living.
So is it the hearer of the voice, the transcriber of those words who decides if a text, for example, is sacred? Or is it the reader of the text, the receiver of the wisdom who decides? In our faith, where reason is such an important ingredient of our religious practices, we want to know why something is considered sacred, not just take others’ word for it.
My friend Dr. Donald Cooper, a linguistics scholar formerly of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, responded to my question about sacred texts in this way:
“The idea of a sacred text is uncertain. Some groups of readers consider some texts sacred; others approach them as historical documents or literary works…The idea of the beauty of sacred texts is also uncertain. They are effective, but sometimes they are horrible.
“When a text in the Psalms recommends the killing of the babies of one’s enemies,… that is not beauty, but it gets to the heart of anyone who has ever loved a child.”
Dr. Cooper goes on to assert that people are the ones who make texts sacred, whether they are the scribes and accountants and priests of the early periods of human history or, I might add, the new readers who welcomed the advent of the printing press, which made written texts available to everyone who was literate or had someone who could read aloud from the printed page.
For our purposes today, we will consider primarily written texts. Our service is chock full of writings that Thomas and I considered to be sacred to us. Together we chose hymns that are meaningful to us. Our choir today is using a number of lovely texts as their musical offerings to us.
These writings came out of human hearts. Were they inspired by God? Not in the traditional way of thinking, perhaps, but certainly they sprang from hearts overflowing with joy, with beauty, with contemplative wisdom, with sorrow, with anger.
I get mailings from a company called The Teaching Company, having bought a few of their courses, and in thumbing through one of their recent catalogs I found a course entitled “Life Lessons from the Great Books”. Its description struck me. Here is some of it:
“…Four characteristics define a Great Book: its focus on great themes such as love, courage, and (true) patriotism; its composition in a noble language; its ability to speak to readers across the ages; its ability to speak to readers not as groups, but as individuals…”
Categories of Great Books, according to the catalog, are these: the unconquerable human spirit, youth and old age, romance and love, adventure and courage, laughter and irony, and the true meaning of patriotism.
Books and authors mentioned in the guide are such things as the gospel of John, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky, works by Albert Schweitzer, Shakespeare, Homer, even the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark of the famed Expedition.
Here, in humanly-produced texts, are some of the predominant lessons of human living: where wisdom can be found in life’s experiences, the meaning of evil, suffering, and death, reverence for all of life, the idea that great strength can contribute to great evil when pushed too far, the ideals that undergird true patriotism and democracy, that war brings devastation, yes, but also an opportunity for wisdom and redemption.
What is the difference between these books and the body of texts that are generally considered sacred today? I note that traditional sacred texts focus on lessons learned from God or the power beyond human power, rather than human experience. We Unitarian Universalists are apt to name texts which are human products, rather than divinely inspired works.
I often ask my UU colleagues for their thoughts when I’m preparing a sermon, and when I threw the question about sacred texts out to them, I got a variety of answers. Somebody mentioned Moby Dick and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Another mentioned Darwin’s Origin of Species and Emerson’s Essays.
And another colleague warned me thus: “The caution that I would offer about our approach (of naming our own sacred texts) is that there's a danger of naming "sacred" any text that seems to confirm our existing biases. A text that only reassures us that our perspective is the "right" one is a dangerous thing.”
Remember when the Kansas State Board of Education was deciding to include the Biblical story of creation in the science curriculum of Kansas schools? This alarmed a lot of people, not only in Kansas, as it seemed to be the very antithesis of science education and there was a great deal of outcry.
Among those protesting this decision (which was eventually revoked) was Concerned Citizen Bobby Henderson, who complained that if Creationism and Intelligent Design were to become part of the Kansas school curriculum, he wanted his own Deity and Creation Story to be included as well.
Henderson wrote an impassioned letter to the Kansas Board of Education, describing his Deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and the wonders of its creation, all performed by the Monster with his Holy Noodly Appendages.
Since that time, a cult of Flying Spaghetti Monster followers has sprung up and has issued some sacred texts of their own, notably the “8 Things I’d Really Rather You Didn’t Do” statement. Many of the 8 things are in language not fit for the pulpit, but I will quote you one of them so you can get the picture:
6. I'd Really Rather You Didn't Build MultiMillion-Dollar Churches/Temples/Mosques/ Shrines To My Noodly Goodness When The Money Could Be Better Spent (Take Your Pick): A. Ending Poverty B. Curing Diseases C. Living In Peace, Loving With Passion, And Lowering The Cost Of Cable. I Might Be A Complex Carbohydrate Omniscient Being, But I Enjoy The Simple Things In Life. I Ought To Know. I AM The Creator.
I don’t think our modest but beautiful small building goes against this stricture. We didn’t need a huge fancy building to do our work in the world, but we needed something!
Anyhow, so speaks the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And his Complex Carbohydrate Omniscient Being states ideas that have been lobbed at religious extravagance for millennia: don’t be holier-than-thou, don’t use religious language to subjugate and oppress people; don’t judge others; treat women equally; don’t take advantage of people sexually; get over yourself; and be careful when you do unto others if you have odd urges.
If you’re interested in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and think his Noodly Goodness might be right up your alley, you can google him easily on your computer.
So are the “8 Things I’d really rather you didn’t do” a sacred text? I guess I wouldn’t call them that, because they are a deliberate spoof, but then you think of Jonathan Swift’s satirical work “A Modest Proposal”, in which he suggested in 1729 that impoverished Irish parents sell their children to rich folks for culinary purposes; this, he claimed with tongue deep in cheek, would solve Ireland’s economic crisis and give rich ladies and gentlemen a new gourmet delight.
His purpose was to castigate British officialdom for their oppressive policies toward the Irish citizenry. Not too different from the proclamations issued by irate Hebrew prophets, railing against the cruelties of Rome and other conquering nations as well as against the idolatry of the Israelites. Only they weren’t using satire and irony.
My friend Donald Cooper passed along a little more about sacred texts: that oral traditions passed along wisdom by speaking it, whether it was received from God or human experience, until written language developed, making it possible to inscribe and preserve it in some way; that in the case of the Bible, a canon or set of texts has been declared sacred but that this designation has often come from the text’s usefulness in upholding some theological premise or what he calls “bestsellerness”, its ability to relate to actual human life; and that sacred texts are often misused and taken out of context, including literal interpretation.
Tell me about it! I have a few dear Jehovah’s Witness friends, women who witness to me monthly in my home. They know I’m a Unitarian Universalist minister and our relationship is based on fragile acceptance of our differences. But they earnestly tell me about the messages they receive from the Bible, about the coming apocalypse, the second coming of Jesus, what God expects of his people, that sort of thing.
And I earnestly unfold for them the deeper message I hear in those scriptures, a message that speaks to me of human life and human responsibility and love and compassion for others. We don’t argue but we are not convincing each other either!
For them, the Bible is a deeply sacred text, yet their interpretation is literal and spelled out explicitly in their publications The Watchtower and Awakening. For me too, the Bible is a deeply sacred text, and my interpretation is metaphorical, not literal. I even go so far as to say that the Bible is wrong in many ways, at least for our time and culture, that, for us, revelation is not sealed, that we learn new insights every day.
The meaning of any sacred text is something that we the readers infer from the words the writer uses and our own interpretation of those words. We don’t always or even often know the context from which the text springs, but we do have the commonality of human experience from which to extrapolate our own meanings.
So what is the nature of a sacred text? Here are a few more tidbits: a traditional sacred text comes from a divine source, may be written in a sacred or liturgical language like Sanskrit, may be most precious when inscribed in calligraphy, as are the Koran’s most holy renditions.
A non-traditional sacred text emerges from human experience and speaks wisdom to those who wish to understand and use that wisdom. What about this oddball example?
In the story of the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions are trying desperately to get Dorothy and Toto back home to Kansas. On their way to ask for help from the magical Wizard of Oz, who lives in the Emerald City, they survive many adventures and finally arrive in the fabled Emerald City.
The Wizard himself receives them but is hidden behind a curtain, dispensing his wisdom, and when rascally Toto the dog grabs the curtain and pulls, the Wizard is revealed to be an ordinary little man with no magical powers and only a reiteration of the lessons they have already learned from their journey. They are a little taken aback, to say the least.
Gradually they realize that though the Wizard may be a fraud, still Dorothy and company have learned what they needed to learn from the perils of their journey to Oz.
But all this study and cogitating about sacred texts has led me inevitably to another question, the one which for me lies beneath the lesser questions. And that is “is there any source of wisdom which does not require human intervention, that is intrinsically sacred, in the sense of “ultimate value”, that is not handed down from fallible human to fallible human, that is pure, truthful, perfect, and accessible to all creatures regardless of intellect?
If such a text existed, would we not protect and revere it? Well, those who recognize it DO protect and revere it. That perfect sacred text is not written, its truths not influenced by human touch, yet are discovered and rediscovered every day by those who consult it. It is the source of all human knowledge, the fount of insight that has fueled all human endeavor.
It is the Earth, one book in the ever-expanding canon of the universe. We humans and all other creatures have learned all we know from our relationship with the Earth, how we might survive most successfully, how we might use the resources of the planet most effectively, how important it is not to over-use its resources but to keep our greedy natures under control and be grateful for its bounty. It has given us beauty to love and cultivate, other species to nurture and to use, and challenges us to grow.
As quantum physicists and other explorers are discovering as they decipher the secrets of this unwritten text, its original source seems not to be the romantic scene on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, whether you see in your mind’s eye a burly Caucasian God-figure or the Noodly Appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. No, it’s much bigger than that.
As Isaac Newton summed up his lifework before he died: “I know not what I seem to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Newton, one forerunner of today’s scientific explorers, was part of a long stream of human beings who sensed that there was more to Truth than what was found in the common sacred texts of the time, no matter how valuable they were.
That Truth was accessible through study of the Earth and the Universe beyond the Earth. That Truth embodied the Divine, expressed itself in unspeakable beauty and inconceivable starkness. Its code of life and death was inexorable, unfailing. Its lessons were sweet and also harsh.
But it was true and humans learned to cope with its truth, to bargain with its rigidity, to soften its starkness with justice, mercy, and love, until eventually those lessons became a secondary sacred text and the prophet Micah was moved to write: “What does the Divine require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly on the earth?”
The Earth, our original, unwritten sacred text, the one most accessible to us, will survive, I think, the damage we do and will heal itself if we let it. It will heal us too, if we allow it to do so.
And the language God talks as I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon? If the Earth is a book in the canon of the Universe and scientists are discovering the way the Universe seems to work, the language God talks must be calculus, the beautiful mathematics that outline the vectors of space and time. That’s God’s language, maybe, but we humans have contributed our language, too, as another colleague has suggested, and that is the language of beauty, love, justice, and joy.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that all we experience can have a sacred dimension, if we recognize it and use it to grow. May we be mindful of the lessons all around us, in the Earth especially as well as in the words and art and music and social justice actions we experience. And may we seek to offer others a model of living in a sacred way. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.