THE ORIGINAL SACRED TEXT: The Language “God” Really Talks
Rev. Kit Ketcham, April 19, 2015
Over the past months, we’ve talked about the several sources of Unitarian Universalism, which make our faith different from most other religious traditions. Most of our wisdom sources are in writing or in stories of lives well lived. But let’s talk a bit now about sources of wisdom as a genre and what makes a source “sacred”.
Do you find wisdom in the Bible or other traditional sacred texts? If not there, where do you find your wisdom? What sources do you use? Things your Dad or Mom used to say? A favorite teacher or coach or other wise person? Do you have favorite sayings that contain wisdom? How about throwing some of those sayings out there, something that encapsulates some of your acquired wisdom? (cong. Resp)
We find wisdom in a lot of places. Some of it comes out of our experiences; sometimes it is visible on bumper stickers or t-shirts. We find it in novels, in non-fiction, in textbooks and memoirs, in a lot of different kinds of writings: poetry, children’s books, comics. 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, since scholars have realized that ancient and modern editors over the ages have altered texts here and there, either to reflect their own views or by copying a mistake made by an earlier copier. And we’re not talking Xerox here.
Awhile back, 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. I bought it and settled in to enlighten myself. 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 of the Christian Bible. 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, laying down Hindu theology in this context. Confucianism relies on the writings and teachings of Confucius, who set forth a nontheistic moral and philosophical code for his followers.
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, Jesu, Mohammed, and others, we have to make some assumptions about texts and other items said to be sacred.
Somebody clearly thought that the voice in his or head was divine. 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 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 part of our religious practices, we want to know why something is considered sacred, not just take others’ word for it.
I asked a friend, Dr. Donald Cooper, retired linguistics scholar, my questions about sacred texts and he answered in this way:
“The idea of a sacred text is uncertain. Some groups of readers consider some text 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, for example, 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.”
He goes on to say that people are the ones who make texts sacred, whether they are the scribes and accountants and priests of early human history or the readers who welcomed the advent of the printing press, which made written texts available to everyone who was literate or knew someone who could read.
Sacred writings come out of human hearts. Were they inspired by God? Not in a rational way of thinking perhaps, but certainly they sprang from minds and hearts overflowing with joy, with beauty, with contemplative wisdom, and also with sorrow and anger.
According to the Teaching Company, which offers a course entitled “Life Lessons from the Great Books”, a great book is one whose focus is on great themes such as love, courage, and true patriotism; it is composed in a noble language; it has the ability to speak to readers across the ages; and it speaks to readers as individuals, not as groups.
Categories of great books, by their reckoning, 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 are such things as these: the gospel of John, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, works by Albert Schweitzer, Shakespeare, Homer, even the journals of Lewis and Clark.
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 life, the idea that great strength can contribute to great evil when pushed too far, the ideas 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 , rather than human experience. But we UUs are apt to name texts which are human products, rather than so-called divinely inspired works.
I often ask my UU colleagues for their thoughts when I’m preparing a sermon, and when I threw my questions 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 (to naming our own sacred texts) is that there’s a danger of naming “sacred” any text that seems to confirm our existin 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, several years ago, was deciding to include the Biblical story of creation in the science curriculum of Kansas schools? This alarmed a lot of people, not just in Kansas, as it seem 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 its own, notably the “Eight Things I’d Really Rather You Didn’t Do” statement. Many of the eight 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 disease; 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.
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 favorite device.
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 Don Cooper passed along a little more about sacred texts: that oral traditions passed along wisdom by speaking it until written language developed, making it possible to inscribe and preserve it; that in the case of the Bible, a set of texts has been declared sacred, but that this designation has often come from the text’s usefulness in upholding some theological idea; and that sacred texts are often misused and taken out of context, including literal interpretation.
For my conservative Christian friends and family, the Bible is a deeply sacred text, yet their interpretation is usually literal and spelled out explicitly in their publications. For me too, the Bible is a sacred text and my interpretation tends to be metaphorical, not literal. I think, too, that the Bible is wrong in many ways for our time and culture, that, for us, revelation and understanding are constantly evolving.
The meaning of any sacred text is something that we the readers infer from the word and tone the writer uses, making our own interpretations. We often don’t 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?
A traditional sacred text, such as the Bible, comes from a divine source; it may be written in a sacred or liturgical language like Sanskrit, and 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 their own lives and challenges.
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 are 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 library 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 overuse its resources but to keep our greedy natures under control and be grateful for its bounty. It has given us beauty to love and to cultivate, other species to nurture and to use respectfully, and challenges us to grow, to evolve. That’s not to say that we all do this faithfully!
As 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 greater than that.
Isaac Newton summed up his lifework in this way 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 courageous 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.
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 harshness with justice, mercy, and love, until eventually those lessons became inscribed in human writing 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 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 library of the Universe and we humans 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 and we earthly beings are invited to contribute our language too---the poetry and prose and music and art of beauty, love, justice, and joy.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.