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Sacred Writings- A Challenge for Personal and Societal Resilience

We are living now in a culture radically reacting to a series of profound mistakes made in relating to its own religious scriptures. Because of the absurd weight placed upon the Bible in the Protestant tradition, we have created a culture of deconstructing sacred texts. Unfortunately, this leaves us as a society and as individual spiritual seekers at a loss for a healthy way of dealing with sacred and spiritual literature:

We’re all basically presented with an implicit choice between the “all-in,” uncritical, embrace of the biblical texts and completely abandoning and discrediting them. The former presents us with endless insoluble problems, while the later cuts our society off from its spiritual roots.

What we have to realise is that it’s a false choice, created for us by a particular historical path.

WHAT THE H#@% IS SCRIPTURE ANYWAY?

The answer to this question directly determines how you relate to scripture. If scripture was written by the Holy Spirit through human instruments in the same way you might dictate a letter to your secretary (the Protestant idea) then it follows that every word and every verse must have equal weight, and the bounds of what constitutes scripture can never be altered.

Historically, this absolute dependence on scripture came about as a swing of the pendulum away from the Catholic tendency to obscure scripture from the people. Protestantism wanted an authority that could stand ABOVE the corrupt medieval Catholic Church as an institution, something they could appeal to in remaking both the church and European society, and they found it in the Bible.

AH… BUT THERE WAS A PROBLEM WITH THAT…

But there was a problem. The deeper the Protestant world got into this project, the more they realised that, even among the most zealous sects and even among members of the same sect, they could not agree on a single interpretation of scripture.

Part of the problem was the questions they were asking. What they wanted, a definitive model of church organisation and public life, the Bible simply didn’t provide. Damn! It was like looking in a book about car repair for a better lasagna recipe.

After all, the Church of the New Testament was a persecuted sub-cultural group looking for a heavenly rather than an earthly kingdom. Absurd weight had to be placed on certain passages, and others ignored altogether, in order to yield such a product. Some passages, for example, could be used to support the divine right of kings, others to support republican and communitarian ideas.

The English Civil War in the 17th century, when the Calvinist Puritans seized power and attempted to rebuild England as a biblical Christian society, was the boldest test of the Protestant idea. And it failed miserably. Even among themselves, the Puritans could not agree on a consistent direction.

This led directly to the idea of freedom of religion in the English-speaking world, though it would take centuries more to mature. When Puritans migrated to the Americas, they set on a path that would lead to the recognition of faith as a matter of individual conscience. Because the Bible itself was insufficient to produce consensus, the idea of personal relationship with God and individual experience took on more weight.

This is ultimately the root of many of the personal freedoms we cherish today, the freedoms of thought, speech and publication. English civil society was born from the project of religiously-motivated political reformation, and it was the learning process that came from this project that led us ultimately down the path of accepting freedom of conscience. Where complete intolerance and a desire for the establishment of One True Dogma had reigned at the beginning of the Reformation, each man was now free to interpret God’s plan by his own inner light.

What the Puritans missed was the simple fact that everyone does this anyway, no matter how oppressive the religious social order. But thanks to this historical chain of events, you and I now enjoy complete freedom to do this publicly.

 

HOW THE BIBLE REALLY GOT PUT TOGETHER (NOT WHAT YOU THINK)

The reason for all this turmoil was that the West had lost a healthy relationship with its sacred literature, and with it a healthy way to interpret scripture. There was never any attempt to keep scripture within the clerical fold in the Christian East- the private reading and memorisation of scripture had centuries of tradition behind it- and yet, it never appealed to them as an ultimate authority on everything.

The East had a different understanding of the origins of scripture, and therefore its role. One of the problems with viewing the scriptures as an absolute authority is that at no point do they say exactly what is scripture and what isn’t. The East, however, still had the institutional memory of putting the Bible together, as well as of the books that didn’t make the final cut (many of which were still freely read outside the formal church services).

Ever heard of the Epistles of Clement? According to some manuscripts of the Apostolic Canons, the first body of canon law, two epistles of Clement were to be included in the New Testament. Other listings provided by preeminent authorities of the early Church lacked books that were later included, such as Philemon and James, and included some, like the Apocalypse of Peter, that were later discarded. The final selections accepted by the Ecumenical Councils were chosen from a broad field of early Christian literature, and only after many disputes. Generally, the Church went for the earliest and most authoritative writings it could find- the Gospel of Mark, for example, was definitely written within the lifetime of the Apostles, probably during the persecutions of Emperor Nero.

Thus, the New Testament is something that the Church consciously and deliberately assembled from a universe of Christian and Hebrew sacred writing. Similarly, the Septuagint, the third century BC Greek translation of the Old Testament that’s cited in the New Testament and still used in the East, did something similar, by including the best of the Jewish prophetic and wisdom literature in their translation. Books such as the Wisdom of Solomon, Judith and Esdras were included which are still used in by the Eastern Church. In post-Christian times, these books and the Septuagint translation itself were disavowed by a reforming rabbinical Judaism, whose Masoretic version of the scriptures is now more commonly used in the West. But the core ethos of the Septuagint scholars was inherited by the Eastern Church.

THE ORIGINAL BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION (FORGOTTEN IN THE WEST)

Scripture was therefore simply an attempt to assemble an essential list of inspired writings. But the East continued to recognise and produce such writings. The words of the saints, deified human beings inspired by the Holy Spirit, were considered essential for spiritual instruction. Thus, the inspiration of scripture was not a “back then and never again” affair, but a continuous tradition of direct transformative encounter with God.

The East also understood that inspiration does not abolish human will, creativity or personality. And this is where the Protestant approach really falls down- imagine how you would react if your off-the-cuff correspondence were being used as the deciding factor in doctrinal disputes centuries after you wrote it. For that reason, there was no need to try to give equal weight to everything or to go crazy over the many contradictions in the Bible, nor is there an expectation that an assembly of such diverse writings would form an entirely coherent corpus.

This is reflected in the Eastern treatment of the Old Testament. The interpretation of the Old Testament that prevailed in the East is figurative- the stories are to be interpreted as figurative spiritual instruction. This may have been the easy way out of dealing with the blatant moral and spiritual contradiction between the Old and New Testaments, but it did allow the spirituality of the New Testament additional room to grow. It was also consonant with the broader tradition of Semitic sacred writing, which assumed that all texts embodied multiple levels of meaning. Similar assumptions are used in interpreting many other traditions of sacred writing.

The Bible is not therefore the Word of God- the Word took on flesh, not ink. It is an account of God’s revelation to humanity, in which the love of God speaks alongside the imperfect voice of the human being. It is neither the source nor the definition nor the evidence of faith- only the direct encounter with the divine energies is any of those things. The Bible itself was to be interpreted in light of the tradition of deification, and through inner prayer. To interpret the Bible without prayer is considered a pointless exercise. It is this interpretive tradition and all that stands behind it that allows scripture to be used for its theological purpose, the spiritual advancement of human beings, and not as an end in itself.

BOTTOM LINE – HOW TO READ SCRIPTURE

If the absurd weight the Reformation placed upon scripture was ultimately instrumental in our social development, the Eastern tradition gives us a key to relating to scripture and sacred writings generally in a healthy way. And this key is pretty much the same one we find in Authentic Ancient Traditions worldwide.

If we understand that human will and character do not vanish when they encounter the divine, we can begin to weigh what we read according to the spiritual fruit it bears in the heart. What is clearly unhelpful or harmful can then be set aside and what is helpful can be used for benefit, just as we do with the rest of the books we read.

In this way, we use sacred writing for the purpose for which it was intended- for the enlightenment of human beings and the spiritual progress of the human race- and not as a divine dogmatic rulebook. If we as individuals are to make spiritual progress, and if our society is to transform itself into a sustainable form, we need to restore a healthy relationship with the record of our spiritual struggle.

~Dr. Symeon Rodger




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