Not every religion has a sacred text. Among those that do, I’ve been pondering what their role might be in our 21st century world – a world of pluralism, science and technology and rapid global change.
It seems it might depend on a number of factors, most especially the bent the particular brand of religion takes.
Within Christianity, the only religion about which I have credentials to speak, understandings of the Bible, our sacred text, run the gamut from it being God’s literal word, to it being texts written by humans who were inspired by God, and to being a record of how the Jewish community of which Jesus was a part and the early community of his followers understood the world, God, and their relationship to God.
For those Christians for whom Biblical scripture is the literal word of God (never mind all the exegetical problems that entails), the text becomes the raison d’etre for every single thing that happens in the world. While it provides its adherents clear parameters for their lives, it can, and also has become the justification for the conversion, if not the annihilation of all those who do not share the adherent’s understanding of the Bible. In a world where our future as a species depends more and more on our learning to cooperate and care for one another, this approach to the use of a text seems problematic.
For those for whom Biblical scripture is the work of human writers yet inspired by God, the texts are often used as the source of guidance for how to live according to “God’s will.” These adherents find comfort in knowing the way in which they should walk. This use of scripture is typically a bit softer and not used so much of a bludgeon in its correction of those who have not “seen the light.” These “true believers,” however, still often feel justified in convincing the “lost soul” of the truth as they know it to be.
And for those for whom the Bible is a record of stories of an ancient people told to explain the world, God, and their relationship to both, these texts function in an entirely different way. They are no longer prescriptive in the way they are for the other groups of believers. They no longer have the authority to tell anyone the one right way they should believe and/or act. For this group, the Bible becomes descriptive – descriptive of an unfolding story.
Whether some of the stories are factual, or they all are relegated to metaphor, taken together they create a narrative thread. Even though bound by time and culture like all stories are, for its adherents this narrative carries truth. It is, as well, a thread that is ongoing and that we who subscribe to it can choose to inhabit, to live within. The way we do that is to make the practices inherent to this Christian narrative our own – practices like confession, forgiveness, self-giving, care for those in need, prayer and meditation, and rituals that make of disparate persons one people. That is the way, it seems to me, that sacred texts in this scientific age, in a pluralistic society, can continue to have relevance.
We all live by story. Our culture offers us the stories of acquisition, power, rabid individualism and violence as a solution to differences. Some religions, including more fundamentalist Christianity, offer us the story of the one right way. A more progressive Christianity, however, offers a different narrative, one that allows for continuity with the past and (not but) takes into account the knowledge and needs of the present day.
We all live by story. We have a choice by which story we choose to live.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.