We are introducing a new subject to the class on November 1 and November 8
(2015). Thereafter it will only appear as the need arises.
As you can tell from the title it is called “Sacred Texts of the World”. But it takes some explanation before you all bail out on me.
I have been researching the subject of Sacred Texts for some time. In our tradition when we say sacred texts we normally mean our Bible, which many of us, especially in this learned class, have studied for most of our adult lives. But it is my view that most people in the Judeo Christian tradition only have a vague knowledge of the other sacred texts of the world, which are in a word, voluminous.
What I propose to do, when the opportunity presents itself, is to present to the class an analysis of the scared texts of some of the major religious traditions on this planet. This could literally be a major study. The Teaching Company has a course on this subject, which is 36 lectures long. Don't worry, I am not going to even approach 36 classes. Instead I will probably present one or two classes whenever we have an unexpected opening in the schedule. The first two will be on November 1 and November 8.
Why Study Sacred Texts?
First let me make the point that these will not be studies in comparative religions. Nothing wrong with those, but they would be even more challenging. Examining the sacred texts of selected religions can offer some very interesting insights into these religions without getting into all of the aspects of the religions, such as theology, liturgy, daily practice, rituals, and endless statistics on the demographics of adherents, etc. Again all important to some, but examining the nature of the sacred texts of these religions is a much more manageable task that still can lead to a deeper understanding of why these texts have attracted the loyal following of so many people through history.
What do I mean by more manageable. In recent years almost all of the sacred texts of the major religious traditions have finally become widely available in English for the first time. Not only available but essentially free. Yes –on the internet. Spoiler alert – the internet is not really free – you should see my monthly high speed internet bill.
For many of these traditions the widespread availability of these texts was simply not available to us because many are still predominantly oral traditions that frowned on reducing their sacred text to written form. And still do. We will talk about that later.
Should We Do This?
There are some who think this might not be appropriate because things we learn might challenge our own faith. I frankly do not believe that for a minute. It is possible to study scared texts in a totally agnostic manner, even while trying to understand why these texts have attracted millions of adherents for centuries on end. But my experience has been that I have come to better understand our own sacred texts by better understanding what the entire spectrum of sacred texts represents.
In fact one of the early learning’s from looking at sacred texts is that our Judeo Christian notion of what a sacred text is differs dramatically from some other traditions. We will get into that immediately in the second class when we start looking at Hindu sacred texts.
I am convinced that coming to a deeper understanding of these texts can help us understand our world better. The world is literally in our living rooms now. And a substantially number of conflicts going on in the world, for better or worse, have deep underlying religious differences behind them. We could better understand those differences if we better understood how these different peoples are interpreting their world through their sacred texts.
Many people in this room have spent most of their adult lives studying our sacred scriptures, but most Christians have never looked at any others.
This raises an important question. Why would Christians want to study any sacred scriptures other than ours? That is an important question. And the only way I know how to answer it is to tell you some of the reasons I have chosen to study other people’s scriptures.
You may have different reasons or even strongly believe that it is completely unnecessary, but here are mine:
1. Simple intellectual curiosity.
2. To understand why these texts are so important to so many people.
3. A broadened understanding of what is going on in the world.
4. The study of sacred texts is much more manageable than complete examination of each religious tradition.
First, simple intellectual curiosity. (I just want to know what is in them).
Second – sacred texts are not just significant writings in a culture, they are often considered the most important books – the kind that people are willing to memorize for years or to copy laboriously by hand over centuries of time, or to rescue from destruction during bad times - and they are frequently in all cultures the very first texts to be translated into other languages. In many religious traditions the sacred texts significantly influence art, literature, dance, music, and even the legal systems of the cultures they support. I would like to understand that better.
Third, a broadened understanding of what is going on in the world.
Religion is a significant part of the lives of most people around the world. So I think studying various religious traditions offers an important window into understanding global politics, thought and culture. In order to understand others, we need to have some sense of how they see themselves in relation to the cosmos and tradition and other people – and in many cultures those relationships are often defined by religion.
But why study sacred texts, why not just study the religions?
Religion encompasses much more than just scripture. It includes, rituals, ceremonies, practices such as meditation, humanitarian service, ecclesiastical organizations, formal theology, sacred spaces, idols and artifacts, ethical codes, communities of believers, and on and on. This is not to mention all of the variations of all of these things within one religious tradition, such as the 900 different denominations within Christianity.
But by studying sacred texts rather than the actual religions, makes the problem of studying this subject much more manageable.
Many of the things mentioned above are not readily available to us unless we are willing to devote a lifetime of research and travel to the endeavor.
Sacred texts, though are now for the first time in history, readily available for us to read. And in English. Sacred-Text.com>
And sacred texts are central to each tradition. There are many types of Judaism in the world today, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and they are significantly different in many of their practices. But they all share a reverence for the Torah. And in spite of all of the conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims, they all cite the Quran. And the hundreds of Protestant denominations that I mentioned earlier all are united in their reliance on our Bible.
And I would argue that studying only the sacred texts give us a basis for comparison. Not all traditions use their sacred text in exactly the same way, as you will soon see, and there is remarkable variety in the types of writings and in the sizes of the various canons of text, but at least written texts give us some common basis for comparison.
So it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the religious diversity of humankind throughout history, but scripture gives us some common ground to at least start the conversation.
What I hope to do more than anything else is help us all stretch our mind a bit and briefly step outside your own faith community, then you can return to your familiar scriptures with new questions and possibly see things in a new light, from a broader perspective.
I would appreciate any feedback you have on this new subject matter we will occasionally put into our schedule.