What are we to make of sacred texts? What is their status and how shall we relate to them? There are many sacred texts from many traditions. On my own book shelf I have (for example) several Bibles, a Hebrew Torah, more than one translation of the Quran, two translation of the Bhagavad Gita, Gnostic Gospels and other early Christian texts, Upanishads, Tao de Ching, A Course in Miracles….I could go on.
My background means that I am most familiar with the Bible although I read and value the others too. I was brought up to regard the bible as an inerrant inspired text, almost as though its words were dictated to the writers by God. Nowadays this way of understanding the Bible seems to diminish it; I think it is a much more living or dynamic text than that.
I am closer to the French/American anthropological philosopher Rene Girard’s description of the Bible as “a text in travail.” It’s not a text full of principles, conclusions, rules and dogmas (although you can find them there!) but rather one that reflects the struggles of humanity to understand our place in the Cosmos and our relationship to the Divine. It’s a text (or rather a collection of texts) that is full of all the struggles and experiences of life, the inspiring and the depressing realities of history in the making and the search to know and to understand. It’s a book with many stories, parables and aphorisms that has a way of shedding light on human experience, giving a sense of some sort of trajectory of human development and our relationship to the Divine. It contains accounts of some examples of the worst atrocities of human behaviour, sometimes in the name of God, and some of the most ecstatic and inspiring experiences. As such it comes across as a very real and authentic text although read from a modern scientific perspective there is a risk of failing to hear its deeper voice. It surely is better heard as story and metaphor rather than scientific facts and as such is able to speak to ultimate concerns that may lie beyond the scope of science. It does include facts but it is not an academic text but one that points to an evolving wisdom. For me this is one of its crucial characteristics – it is not static but describes some of the evolution of consciousness and culture that bears witness to the reality of God. When I say “God” I mean that awe and wonder inspiring mysterious evolutionary creative presence in reality that contains the fullness of personhood that continues to call and accompany all things into being. It’s a book that contains descriptions of our interactions with God formed in the image of our own understanding whilst at the same time greater insight is breaking through.
The Bible has this wonderful way of telling the stories of cultural evolution of one small part of humanity through the eyes of some important characters in all their glory, warts ‘n’ all. At the same time it gives a vision of a trajectory to a world with increasing goodness, beauty, truth, love and compassion. All of this comes to fruition in the life of a man Jesus who becomes the finest exemplar of what it means to be an authentic human being filled full with the wisdom and compassion of God – fully human, fully divine offered as an invitation tom us all. Yes, the Bible is a text in travail well worth contemplating at a time when we are all too aware that humanity itself continues to be in travail.
Sacred texts have stood the test of time – when contemplated they are capable of being inspired for us in that moment; they can speak deeply to our souls. Within them is the full range of human experience, the good bad and the ugly. But also shining through, if we have eyes to see, is a shimmering wisdom and insight that points from within the present moment to the future as though the future, through the Spirit, beckons us beyond the limits of our present experience to something more beautiful, good and true, transcending the past texts towards the new texts of life.