Why Sacred Texts?

I was recently on holidays in the Caribbean.  I was immersed in nature, with the lush foliage, palms, the ocean and snorkeling, sunsets.  It is not easy to explain, but being in nature served to shuck off all the city anxiety, worry, and stress.  I fell into a natural way of being.  Taoists would call it being in harmony with Tao.

My fellow companions on this vacation and I talked about our upbringings and how our past determined the present issues we confront in our life growth.  We talked of spiritual ideas like reincarnation, Scientology, Buddhism, and Swedenborg.  My worldly concerns were gone, and I found myself falling naturally into spiritual interests.  This and the healing power of the love my partner, her sister, and her sister’s partner all felt together.

Then I returned home, and got caught up in the wheels of the world again.  There was one striking impression that I experienced as I returned to work.  I am a pastor.  And in the middle of my first church service back from holidays, I saw the open Bible on the altar.  I thought about how little I was involved with the Bible while on holidays.  And yet there was a deep spirituality about my holidays.  I felt like so many people in the world today.  I wondered why the words of a bronze-age storyteller matter today.  Matter to me, to my spiritual life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson had similar doubts about the relevance of Israelite history and the landscape of Palestine.  His language is somewhat hard to read, but the examples he cites from the Bible are so strange and opaque you get the idea—Emerson doesn’t understand why he needs to read the Hebrew Scriptures.

“What have I to do,” asks the impatient reader, “with jasper and sardonyx, beryl and chalcedony; what with arks and passovers, ephahs and ephods; what with lepers and emerods; what with heave-offerings and unleavened bread, chariots of fire, dragons crowned and horned, behemoth and unicorn? Good for Orientals, these are nothing to me. The more learning you bring to explain them, the more glaring the impertinence. The more coherent and elaborate the system, the less I like it. I say, with the Spartan, ‘Why do you speak so much to the purpose, of that which is nothing to the purpose?  My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s. Of all absurdities, this of some foreigner proposing to take away my rhetoric and substitute his own, and amuse me with pelican and stork, instead of thrush and robin; palm-trees and shittim-wood, instead of sassafras and hickory,- seems the most needless” (Representative Men: “Swedenborg; or The Mystic).

Emerson wants to rely on his own lights, his own mind, draw metaphors from his own natural world—“thrush and robin . . . sassafras and hickory.”  Emerson thinks that he doesn’t need sacred scriptures.  Instead, Emerson thinks that his own mind, birth, and habits are sufficient modes of spiritual inspiration, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s.”  This is the basis of Emerson’s criticism of Jacob Behmen and Emanuel Swedenborg.  They bound their imagination to Christian symbolism and the Bible, “Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.”  Instead of relying on the Bible and Christian symbolism, Behmen and Swedenborg should rely on their own minds, their own moral imagination, says Emerson, “the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.”

However, I think that there is value in mining sacred texts for spiritual direction.  I think that there are things in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures that are of value today—taken with advisement.  I admit the antiquity of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Christian Scriptures.  But everything we think, every judgement we make, everything we know, we learned—either from our family, our city, our country, our schools.  We are born ignorant of everything.  We need to learn everything—to walk, to talk, to think, to make judgements, to hold spiritual ideas.

This is where Emerson mistakes.  He writes, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit, in the delight and study of my eyes and not of another man’s.”  First, there is no delight and study of Emerson’s eyes.  Every delight and study came to Emerson from another person.  Someone taught him manners; someone taught him civility; someone taught him language; someone taught him the habits he practices.  I think that his New England culture taught him much of who Emerson was.  He himself says so, “My learning is such as God gave me in my birth and habit.”  His birth and habit came from the New England Culture he grew up in.

We are fated to our local customs, our family’s habits, if we do not look outward.  There may be much good in our local habits.  But to remain only in one’s local habits can be limiting.  There can also be falsities and misguided values in our localities.  This is why we need input from other world-views.

The Bible is a 1,500-year-old record of humanity’s encounter with God.  Even if some of it comes from a bronze-age culture, it is still a sincere record of humanity’s encounter with the Other.  Buddhist Scriptures, too, are the product of intense thought, meditation, and spiritual inspiration.  Where do we get our own ideas of spirituality?  I will admit that we can receive spiritual influx directly from God, or the angels.  But a little reflection will show just how much of our spiritual thought and beliefs came from parents, teachers, school, church, local culture.

I suggest that more than we might realize, our spiritual beliefs are, in fact, “another man’s” and not “the delight and study of my eyes.”

 

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