Thursday, January 26, 2017

Reading Sacred Texts Reliably I

No comments:
by Henk Hart

"Do you understand what you are reading?"

Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:26-40.

Objective readings

Reading sacred texts reliably does not, I think, require “objective” reading. For some people objectively reading sacred texts is important because see their lives depending on how we read the Bible. Objective reading for them may be a reading untainted by agendas. They may read a text like Romans 1 as simple and unproblematic. The text straightforwardly says what it says, so just read what it says. I maintain that such objective readings do not exist because they are impossible, given what texts and readings are. Instead, perhaps our best word for a reliable reading would be a “responsible” reading.

What would constitute an objective reading? “Objective” has many meanings. Probably no one objectively knows the objective meaning of objectivity. We use “objective” as an evaluative comment on how reliable we judge our knowledge to be. Such evaluation is the act of an agent, a subject. It is, therefore, a subjectivity. And if an objective evaluation of objectivity seems impossible, if by “objective” we mean the absence of subjectivity, this would seem to make an objective reading of a text impossible.

Here are three quick examples of “objectivity” and of some problems that attend them. (1) Sometimes “objective” means the accurate presentation of an inviolable or undeniable reality. An objectively true statement then makes a claim which any normal and competent observer will accept. Say: “sugar tastes sweet.” That seems obvious enough. Nevertheless, could “Trump is incompetent” be objective in this sense? Can some U.S. voters legitimately claim Trump’s competence as an objective reality? That depends on who is a normal and competent observer, as well as on what counts as competence in this case. (2) “Objective” sometimes refers to independence from subjectivity. But we don’t use “objective” to qualify something that is independent from us. Rather, “objective” qualifies what we (subjects) claim about something. How, then, is such a (subject-made, i.e., subjective) claim objective? Do objective claims provide iron-clad guarantees, or are they merely made without bias or prejudice? (3) Academics often think objectivity is the hallmark of science. But scientific claims are not necessarily without our interest. Climate scientists on both sides often have an agenda.

Claims about objectivity are especially made when objectivity is disputed, as in the case of claiming Trump’s competence. We press objectivity when others are skeptical regarding our claims. Once a claim is accepted as “objective,” we’re often no longer interested in that objectivity. Objectivity seems more important when we don’t have it than when we do.

Since “objective” has such a variety of conflicting and disputed meanings, claims will likely be regarded as objective by a community within the boundaries of some theory of objectivity accepted by that community. But that acceptance is a subjectivity. Reformed theologians might tell Lutherans that the Reformed reading of “law” in the gospels is objective and that therefore Lutherans are mistaken. However, such objectivity appears mostly to Reformed readers, which is just what people wish to avoid by appealing to objectivity.

If objectivity varies like this within theories and communities, its limited territory and multiple uses could undermine its significance as objectivity. Yet this is precisely the difficulty when we consider objective readings of texts in the context of legitimately multiple readings. It is difficult to deny multiple readings. Text readings have histories. Meanings come and go, or simultaneously differ from confessional community to confessional community. Is there, for example, one among the several views of the atonement that is objectively taught in Scripture?

If objectivity is primarily characteristic of some claim about reality, more than of that reality itself, that objectivity is then a characteristic of human behavior and, therefore, of a subjectivity. In the reading of texts this is so to a pronounced degree. Not only is reading a subjectivity, but texts are products of a subjectivity as well. So what might objectivity mean in this context? It seems to have much potential for misleading us. The text is not likely able to fully contain, as an objectification, all of the subjective meaning that belongs to it. There is too much subjectivity in the background. Moreover, this subjectivity is in development and bears traces of individual difference. In addition, written texts have no intonations and facial expressions. Texts as objectifications of subjectivities at best objectify these subjectivities only partially. They leave us responsible for subjectively assessing the role of the (traces of) unobjectified subjectivity.

In significant disputes about a sacred text’s meaning the original manuscripts will play an important role. But they do not count as objective as distinguished from subjective translations.

Texts such as phonebooks make it easier to consider objective readings, because they nearly fully objectify all of their subjective meaning. If I’ve forgotten my glasses and ask for help finding someone’s number, I need not mistrust the information I receive. Even if I get the wrong person by dialing the number I’m given, we’ll be able to discover whether I misdialed or my friend misread.

However, the Bible isn’t like a phonebook. Indeed, we’re not surprised that ever since Darwin we’ve had much trouble discovering what it means to read the first chapters of Genesis. There’s no obvious way to tell who has the “real” or “true” meaning. The Bible doesn’t help out here. It may give us reason to say that reading the Bible is important in the Bible itself, but Biblical texts do not tell us how to regard them as texts. Our account to ourselves of what the Bible is, is a subjective account by its very nature.

There may be some objectivity in small dimensions of the text. Since the Greek verb form for “read” in John 5:39 can be either imperative or indicative, can we tell objectively which it is? That seems like identifying the black key on a piano between “a" and “b." Is it an "a sharp" or a "b flat"? Only with the note in a scale can we tell. Can we also tell whether John commands us to read the text (read the Scriptures!), as we once thought, or whether, as we now think, he disapprovingly notes that we read it (you read the Scriptures) inappropriately? A subjective theology of inspiration will influence us here. Furthermore, even if we could objectively ascertain what each single word in a text means precisely, the text as such is not known simply by knowing the meaning of each word. When we move from textual fragments to entire psalms, or narratives, or letters, objectivity is just not in view. Is it believable that someone wrote the definitive commentary on Romans? That seems unthinkable, even in principle.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Image: Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626, in the public domain. Used from wikipedia.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Linguistic Intuition and the Possibility of Judgment

No comments:
by Julia Rosalinda de Boer

I think 2017 is a fantastic year to be a grammarian.

“Why, Julia, would 2017 be a fantastic year to be a grammarian? Don’t you know that instruction in ancient languages is at an all time low, that many adults struggle to locate the predicate in a sentence, and English enjoys a smug, linguistic superiority? Why, why is it a good time for grammar?”

Thank you, conveniently-place Rhetorical Other; I’ll tell you. It is true that the wider communal appreciation for the grammatical arts appears to have fallen, a trend which is in no way indicative of the overall health of linguistic philosophy as an actual discipline. Linguistics is finding such good health within our beloved Philosophy that occasionally a fellow student or a philosopher I am reading will figuratively or literally roll their eyes backwards into their skull when a language lover interjects to point out that everything, after all, comes back to language. It seems to me that philosophy is still reeling from the linguistic turn, with the realization that if “constitutive language theory” is correct and grammar is not a mere affective phenomenon which can be perfected through pain, language precedes even thought itself and cannot be passed aside in any hearty philosophical consideration.

If I speak in idealistic terms about the current state of linguistic philosophy, it is because I see it as brimming with possibility. We’ve had this linguistic turn, our own copernican revolution, and structuralism is starting to lose its iron clad grasp. It’s not that I am not convinced of Saussure, Lévi-Strauss or Chomsky’s attempts to analyze the underlying form of language; in fact I am a linguist by first training. Rather, I see the tension that arises when we claim the sign is completely arbitrary. These are discussions still ongoing in the academy today. The fact is, we are creatures of meaning, and we imbue meaning into the words that we use and signs that we employ. Of course there are underlying structures of language, and these can tell us more about a human’s capacity for communication, but there must be a balance between saying the sign is sometimes arbitrary, on one hand, and on the other, acknowledging that because we are creatures who seek to add or uncover meaning we must account for intuition in some manner (consider onomatopoeias and similar words where meaning is encoded in the lexical stem). This is why constitutive language theory (language as preceding and indeed enabling thought at all) is so significant: by saying that language is primary to everything, including thought, language can be analyzed for the way in which it does structure our thought, while still permitting it to be an instinctual practice, where language is almost our primary sense.

Speaking of senses, philosophers of hermeneutics (Richard Kearney and Brian Treanor’s volume, Carnal Hermeneutics, springs to mind) are beginning to lament the valuing of sight and sound above the senses of taste and touch. This is an incredibly important critique, and a problem that can only be solved, in my opinion, with constitutive language theory. There has been, and will be, a privileging of language, because it is primary. But in some ways, being aware that it is primary, allows us to “shelve it” and move on. I do not mean “shelve it” to be a negative valencing, but rather to mean that since language is now conceived of some outer shell of linguistic sensitivity which makes thought and sensation possible, we do not need to worry about language superseding other sensations, but understand them in relation to one another (i.e. How does grammar shape our conceptions of touch and sensual experience, and vice versa). Not to sound too normative, but to each its own place, and good riddance. Perhaps you will find I have not actually opened space for such hermeneutics of taste and touch because I’ve primarily justified them in terms of language. I admit, it’s a vicious circle. Mea culpa, but also, meum gaudium.

Language is not logical. It does not simply exist to say something true about our reality. It is not a picture of how things are. Sure, it can be used to speak of things which may be logical, true, or real, but we do not speak only in declarative sentences, nor do we only name things. We also use language to communicate possibility and desire, emotions so often at odds with how things are in reality. In this regard, our definition of what language accomplishes expands, and resists the account given by logical positivists. Truly, knowing that linguistic sensitivity comes first and cannot be or should not be treated as only an a posteriori experience means that we have given up whipping our school children for their “poor” English (or Latin as the case may be) and have instead started to value differences in speech as distinct epistemological possibility. I’m optimistic that we will see a greater valuing of diverse grammar, both in our native tongue and foreign languages.

So what is the point in learning good grammar in light of these things? My estimation is that this linguistic turn allows the possibility of reconciliation with the speculative framings of language from earlier on in our shared cultural heritage; that of the ancients and medievals. Our speech or internal dialogue is not a phenomena which develop when we interact with the world, but rather the mechanism by which we are able to interact with the world at all. And that is an insight which is by no means absent from ancient and medieval thought, something that I recognize when reading Anselm on the two types of rightness/truth demonstrated by language, or read the speculative Modistae as they comment on the ways in which language has helped us paint what is at times a very accurate picture of the life around us. It is always difficult to know how to evaluate linguistic theory before Wittgenstein’s turn, but reading philosophers under the “old system” try to account for the instinct of language is the way that I have begun to bridge this vast difference in paradigms. What they saw keenly is that we are linguistic beings, made to interact with each other and with God, by and through language. Such a spirit supersedes any theory of linguistic philosophy.

My life of faith has called be to ask a new question: how do we, knowing what we now know about the a priori nature of a human’s capacity for language, now reintroduce value into grammar? What constitutes good grammar when correctness is no longer the goal? My Christian life constantly causes me to ask how my grammar, to even the most fiddly, minute detail, can be used to honour God and promote love. It is the calling of a Christian to begin the process of discerning, and this having identified instinct or intuition as the tie between these two accounts of human linguistically, I’ve grown to think that an aesthetic apparatus of judgment might be extremely appropriate. An aesthetic discussion of syntax and morphology might eliminate some of the problems raised by various camps of linguists and linguistic philosophers by providing an analysis which takes into account both beauty and effectiveness. I have more questions than answers at this point, which makes 2017 a fantastic year to be a grammarian.

Julia de Boer is a Latinist and linguist by training, who began a Master’s at ICS when she had too many questions about the interactions between faith and human capacity for language. Her thesis work is still ongoing, but projected to include liturgy, invented languages, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Zygmunt Bauman Leaves Behind Tools and Hopes

No comments:
by Dean Dettloff

Zygmunt Bauman, November 19, 1925 - January 9, 2017
It is nothing short of ominous that Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, that prescient sage of our contemporary, liquid lives, should die in January 2017, when the spirits of fear and resentment are busy reanimating what many took to be the corpses of a more solid modernity. Writing late into 2016, at the age of 91, Bauman leaves behind not only a legacy of conceptual handles and cultural observations, but also a set of hopes, fears, and determinate advice for those of us gazing into a troubled horizon. We would do well, therefore, not just to remember Bauman, but to recall his most recent observations (some of which are linked in the following text) and take them as a relay baton from the previous century into the next.

Famous for his identification of what he called “liquid modernity,” Bauman tried to articulate the anxieties produced by the rapid social and technological changes of the twentieth- and twenty-first-centuries. According to Bauman, ours is a society marked by ebbs and flows, more conditioned by the flux of time than the boundaries of space. What used to bind us together no longer holds. Bauman is not nostalgic here, for he recognizes that many of these older forms of solidity, like ideologies of blood and soil, were rightly melted away. At the same time, however, it is unclear how to build any new sense of trustworthy, solid ways of stabilizing ourselves, of dropping anchor, leaving us adrift on tumultuous tides. Caught between the solidity of earlier ideologies and an unclear future, Bauman calls our present time an “interregnum,” tarrying between the devil and the deep blue sea.

For the last several years of his life in this interregnum, Bauman turned his research and commentary to issues of reaction, migration, and the need for a new solidarity. Having the ground shift beneath our feet makes us scared. So scared, in fact, that Bauman, a leftist thinker, updated the previous identification of the “proletariat” with an exploration of what he calls the “precariat,” united, paradoxically, by a common experience of individual suffering. Bauman does not thereby deny social inequalities, but rather shows how they mutate, bringing out the pervasive affects and effects resulting from the precarious position of people beholden to the flows of networks like global labor markets.

According to Bauman, this is what makes the present refugee crisis so difficult, for the refugees represent what the precariat fears might happen to them. Just recently many of the refugees streaming into Europe were educated persons, with families, jobs, housing—and now their lives are even more precarious than those of the precariat itself. Instead of welcoming the stranger, precarians refuse the stranger as a symbol of their own fears, and they respond by making enemies and forming phobic collectives.

The picture Bauman paints of contemporary liquid life is troubling. But Bauman is not content only to articulate the problem. Among a variety of recommendations he makes throughout his work, perhaps the most common is his call for dialogue in an effort to create new forms of solidarity. True dialogue, Bauman suggests, is not simply talking with people, but intentionally talking with others who are different. In this effort, Bauman suggests Pope Francis as a model, one who thinks about those on the margins of a globalized society and who reaches out to others of alternative perspectives. In an interview with Vatican Insider, Bauman, who was not a Catholic but who was himself known for dialoguing with people of other positions, said, “I am in awe of everything Francis is doing; I believe his pontificate gives not just the Catholic Church but the entire humanity a chance.”

What will happen in the coming years as we continue to be tossed about the waves of uncertainty and precarity remains to be seen. Bauman's forthcoming book, due out this year, is entitled Retrotopia, promising to analyze the growing popularity of visions of the past as a response to the problems of the present (e.g. promises to make America great again). As far as Bauman is concerned, however, creating new forms of solidarity with others through open dialogue is the only way in which we will retool our communities for an unclear future. With Bauman's passing, we have indeed lost one of our best navigators. But out on this open water, if we are willing to speak with each other, perhaps we might cobble together some kind of life raft after all.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies. His doctoral research deals with the intersections of media, politics, and religion.

Image used from Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny, flickr.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

No Idle Claim III

No comments:
by Henk Hart

Scrub Hare, photo by Henk Hart
The ruminant hare of Leviticus 6:11 was unclean. Today we can enjoy it as a delicacy.
The third blog on Scripture ends the series with a brief presentation of how I think we can meaningfully read the Bible today.
Each religion will uniquely approach its sacred writings, Christianity is no exception. So how would my two preceding blogs relate to the Bible? New Testament theologian N.T. Wright has used the metaphor of a play in three acts for how the Bible, seen from a Christian perspective, unfolds the Spirit’s guidance on the human journey. Act one, the Old Testament, tells us the initial story of people living with God’s hopes and expectations. In act two, the New Testament, Jesus and the early church focus on the deepest spiritual core of act one. In their vision the living Spirit in the Torah could be followed beyond the law of Moses. For them Torah, as living source for the fullness of God’s grace, called for a life firmly rooted in love, free from specific rules and regulations experienced as permanent law. The third act would be written by the church in the freedom of the Spirit, seeking a constantly renewed and renewing embodiment of love in acts of grace and compassion shaped for their time.

The church seems to have been tempted to close the Biblical canon and to treat the NT as a definitive guide for the ages, not only in its spirit, but also in its actual rules. Over the centuries some of these rules have often not been followed, such as those about head covering, long hair, or the place of women, because they no longer fit later times. But there has been scant appreciation for the character of all NT rules as time bound. NT rules are then read as exempt from the NT’s own prohibition of new laws.

The gospel of John is helpful in this regard, because it shows the dynamics of following the NT’s Spirit when we adapt its letter to our times. In 5:39 Jesus points out that the Scriptures as guide to life must be read as bearing witness to him. So when in 1:14 John refers to the Word Incarnate as full of grace and truth, he tells us that in Jesus we experience the presence of God’s emeth and chesed. Focused on Jesus and guided by the Spirit the Bible becomes book of forgiving and life giving love. All its deepest spiritual intuitions serve to generate this love. Hence the importance of 8:11 where Jesus embodies the forgiving God. He does not condemn an adulterous woman as the law requires, but writes a new commandment of love. When John (14:6) talks about Jesus as way to God, he has in mind a spiritual dynamic rather than a new set of rules.

In the discourses of the upper room, 14-16, Jesus explains that following him after his death is made possible by the spirit of truth (i.e., of chesed and emeth), who will unfold for us the way to God as lived by Jesus. The Jesus to whom the Torah bore witness is the same Jesus made known to us by or in the Spirit. In Acts 10 and 11 Luke portrays the change from Torah as a specific law to following the Jesus of love: a radical move that engendered serious struggle among Christians. Peter, in a dream he accepts as coming from the Spirit, trusts that diet rules of the Torah are no longer the language of the Spirit for following Jesus.

The NT does not erase the Torah, but frees the Spirit’s arch blessings from being captured in a timeless specific tradition. The Spirit of the Torah and the Spirit of Jesus do not differ. Being “in Christ” is not different from loving God with all our being (Deuteronomy 6:5). But Paul ceaselessly teaches that freedom in the Spirit prohibits slavery to any rule bound tradition. Our lives are to be lived “in Christ,” or in God or in the Spirit. At the same time, he teaches concrete ways for the Spirit to lead people on their way. These actual NT paths of the Spirit belong to their own time. The Spirit of Old and New Testament remains God’s and Jesus’ Spirit. That Spirit lived in these Scriptures to show the way to love and life and will always remain recognizable in the actual rules of these Scriptures as spiritual footprints of old. But living “in the Spirit” today will ever require forging new paths to make the Spirit recognizable in our own time. And, as Leonard Cohen might say, what’s written in the Scriptures is not an idle claim.

Even the Old Testament unmistakably distinguished the Spirit of Torah from the letter of the law. Jeremiah (7:21-23) virtually denied that God had ever commanded the sacrificial instructions that people mistook for the heart of Torah. Isaiah (56:3-5) foresees that the spirit of Torah will one day set aside the prohibition that kept eunuchs out of the temple (Deut. 23:1).

When the apostles teach us to follow a “spirit” and not a law, they still set out actual paths of the Spirit for their time. These NT paths are footprints of the Spirit that we follow to make rules for our own time. 1Corinthians 7 is a clear and extensive example of how an apostle can struggle with a contemporary issue.  Paul wants to help Corinthians with guidelines for marriage. Being single, he has no experience and the Old Testament has few insights he can lean on. So, flexibly, he makes a concession that is not a command (6), gives a command he considers the Lord’s (10), makes rules that are his and not the Lord’s (12), lays down his own rule for all churches (17), offers his personal judgments as a reliable person (25), and presents his view as one who has the Spirit of God (40). Paul’s mature New Testament confidence in his own judgments as a follower of the Spirit sets out the heart of living with the Scriptures in the Spirit in our own times. They teach us to follow Jesus, whose Spirit leads us along paths of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

No Idle Claim II

No comments:
by Henk Hart

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, photo by Henk Hart

“we have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2Cor. 4:7).

Although the spirit of sacred texts is not voice specific, not tied to a specific voice, it also cannot be heard unless voiced in a specific language. We expect that specific language to enable us to hear the living spirit in the confusion, pain, and despair of our own times. Hence each different time needs its own different voice in hearing and reading the spirit in the text. To be faithful to the spirit of the text we let go of voices that no longer speak the life giving language of the spirit, even when the voice of origin retains its sacred character. No time has a voice that speaks for all times. Each time will in significant ways be tone deaf to the sounds of other times. And no time’s language sets the tone for other times, whether past or future.

We cannot prescribe how our reading of sacred texts is to be heard by the next generation, nor can we fault earlier generations for having been differently attuned. At best we can forge a language that allows us, in our time, to hear and give witness to the spirit alive in the text. In humility we can offer that language to people who in our day seem to be deaf to the spirit because their hearts seem closed to the spirit’s dynamic. We can also strive to hear the spirit in languages that no longer speak to us and in that way seek connection with earlier communities that found guidance in the sacred texts. But we cannot escape our own finitude.

We must not only honor voices from the past, but also expect that over time our own voice will become a voice from the past. The spiritual power of our own voices needs to yield to a generation that no longer speaks our language. Those who preceded us were not for that reason ignorant or immature, neither are our own best efforts mistakes because a later generation is not well served by them.

Because the spirit of true sacred texts is not bound to any specific voice and can also not be recognized without having been given a specific voice, we can only speak the language of the spirit in humility. Hearing the spirit is a gift more than an achievement. Its voice is a still, small voice. No human language captures the spirit for all the ages to which it belongs. We may in our time find that compassion is the truest vehicle for the spirit’s journey among us. And if there is depth to our insight we will find the echoes of compassion resounding in the earliest sacred texts. But the pains and hopes of other generations will need to recognize their own word of comfort.

The spirit blows wherever and we don’t follow its windy path unless we allow ourselves to be born of the spirit. The spirit is free to drop the seeds of life wherever. As children of that spirit we seek to be free spirits ourselves, set free to follow the spirit of freedom where it moves. But we will always need to be liberated from Egypt, from fleshpots that continue to hold us in bondage. Our golden calves are always a temptation to protect the voice we once heard, to allow it to hold us back in ways that resist the spirit’s movement.

The spirit’s vulnerable sojourn in our stories and traditions encourages us to be forever on guard against enthroning our generation’s awareness of God as a shrine for the ages. All language about God is our language. We have no access to words, sentences, or stories that are God’s own. Our speech of God will always be contaminated by our voice because our voice cannot detach itself from spirits of our age that are alien to the spirit we seek as God. We are always tempted to muffle the sounds of God’s spirit with language that already serves as vehicle for a different spirit that we fail to discern as alien. In our sacred texts these barriers are embedded in the fact that, as human artifacts, these texts are impure and require that we are open to alien and distracting spirits that mislead us when we are closed to their presence in our texts. In addition, our finitude clings to our language and our speech is inherently insufficient, also when it is the speech of sacred texts. We can speak of God only in metaphors. In that way we experience the limits of our access to the spirit. We may try to embolden our metaphors with the hyperbole of superlatives that make God omniscient, or absolute, or omnipotent. But these, too, remain metaphors belonging to some time.

Throughout the ages the metaphorical message of sacred texts has been activated in the symbolic medium of the rites and rituals, songs and dances, sounds and silences of liturgy. Reading and understanding sacred texts in the context of a community’s cultic ways of nurturing the human connection with God remains the context of choice for keeping the spirit alive. Though the spirit who is present in the mystery of our being will always transcend our reach, we will recognize the presence of that spirit when sacred text and liturgy join to move us toward our destiny and connect us with all of creation. Movement and connection are fundamentally works of the spirit. We will always intuitively recognize our destiny in movements that bring us closer to peace and joy, to love and justice, to freedom and life. And in connection and community we recognize marks of the spirit’s presence; disconnection, exclusion, alienation, estrangement indicate that we have lost our way.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

No Idle Claim I

No comments:
by Henk Hart

Bible in St. George Cathedral, Istanbul. Photo by Henk Hart.

St. George’s is the seat of the Greek Orthodox ecumenical patriarchate and is still in use.
When in his last song Leonard Cohen wrote about some of his wisdom: “… it’s written in the Scriptures … it’s not some idle claim….” he said, for me, about all that needs to be said. The secret of Scripture’s claim on us does not lend itself to capture in a magic formula. Since I make a lot of use of Scripture I do want to give a brief account of its role in my writing to help blog readers evaluate some of my claims. I will again do so in a series of 3.
When we draw significant conclusions with far reaching consequences based on a reading of Scripture, we cannot take positions outside of history and speak with the voice of eternity. When we speak today about ancient and venerated documents that are recognized as sacred scriptures in religious traditions, we can only speak from within our present understandings of writing and interpretation, of ancient documents and their status as sacred, of inspiration and revelation.

All major religious traditions have sacred writings. They often date back thousands of years. At times they follow oral traditions that are even older. Over long periods of time the wisdom of sages, poets, visionaries, and prophets, having shaped people’s experience of blessed guidance, acquired the status of divine counsel in human affairs. The Bible, the Koran, the Veda, and others have played and still play a fundamental role in shaping the traditions that regard them as sacred. These traditions treat these writings as sacred because they are trusted to provide an occasion for connecting people with God or the divine and for receiving wisdom in relation to especially the boundary conditions of human existence: life and death, war and peace, sickness and health, blessing and curse, origin and destiny. They address our hopes and our fears and point a way to still waters as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. In each generation anew, people discover resources in these scriptures for coping with the human condition.

As sacred texts these writings do not yield their wisdom unless we are spiritually open to asking how they address us in our hearts. The spirit that speaks in them was alive when those who recorded their witness in these texts heard the sound of wisdom. That sound remains alive to hearts that seek to be connected to this spirit through these texts. Such connection is possible only when readers/listeners are open to a spirit that transcends the texts. These texts may look like songs or poems, sayings or parables, stories or letters, histories or tales. But none are intended to be what at first sight they seem to be: a letter to an ancient community of faith in Rome, a song celebrating victory in a battle many millennia ago, a story that recalls how a king ruled his people. Rather, they are all carriers of wisdom unto life taking on the character of what they initially look like. In their specific and historical embodiment as this letter, this poem, this story they give voice in their time to wisdom that is inspired by the living spirit at all times beyond this poem, letter, and story. When that wisdom is heard it can be voiced anew in a language of another time and speak to the experience of that time. To the open heart the wisdom remains available in all ages as guidance from a living spirit. When in later ages the wisdom of sacred writings is re-worded, those who recognize the spirit of that wisdom will also recognize it in the ancient sources.

If the darkness of our time shapes our experience of light as compassion, Christians will see that light shine brightest in the life and death of Jesus. But they will also be able to see that same light flickering in Genesis when God not merely expels Adam and Eve from the Garden, but also protects them in their vulnerability by clothing them; or when God after the Flood, moved by a human offering that reconnects God and people, swears by the Rainbow never again to destroy the whole earth because of evil. Literature that has these characteristics is more than classic. It is classic in so far as its value is recognized whenever and wherever it is read, throughout the ages, across cultures. But in being experienced as sacred this literature is miraculous: it sheds light in our darkness and provides contact with mystery.

Abiding sacred writ carries traces of wisdom that help us live with hope in the face of the mystery. Our awareness of that mystery is shaped by our inability to trace the origin of meaning or to control our destiny, our impotence to conquer death or to overcome guilt, our yearning for joy that will not end or for a final cure to our ills. In sacred writ the spirit allows our restless hearts to find rest even as the mystery remains. Holy writ is not an untrue story, but a trustworthy embodiment of God’s hope for the world. Its language, in all of its forms, is therefore always metaphorical, it carries us beyond the surface of its primary language, its times, its customs, its understandings toward light that clears up our darkness. What the sacred writings say is never the same as what its texts say literally on their surface.

Holy writ is our name for bodies of language in which the sound of the wind can be heard as the voice of the spirit. That voice has gathered communities of people who had ears to hear and has directed them in their journey from a beginning they cannot re-trace to a destiny they only know as promise. These communities have recognized the voice as the sound of trust. In that trust they discovered that following the voice where it guided them revealed light in their darkness.

Holy writ of the ages that has come to us in the history of the great religions is for the most part multilayered. The texts have a complex history and their wisdom addresses us in so many ways that the history of their interpretation may seem filled with conflict and contradiction. But if the elements of these texts are understood as the fragments of a kaleidoscope, we can appreciate the validity of the endless configurations of these fragments. They come together in wondrous harmonies of color and shape that surprise us with their joyous play of light. At any given time in history the changing pains and hopes of successive communities of readers give shape to different sensitivities that highlight different elements of the actual texts. We give these actual readings our trust when we perceive them as insightful in relation to our time’s specific shape of the mystery, in relation to the texts, to the history of interpretation of the texts, to the time transcending spirit of the texts, and to the centuries of fellowship with other readers whose witness to the texts survives the particularities of their times.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.