Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Diverse Approaches to the Scriptures

 Humanity has inherited a wealth of scriptures from ancient times, which are accepted as authoritative to various religions. The scriptures are a record of the experiences of the past generations on the earth. Through the scriptures we can have a glimpse of how our ancestors faced the existential challenges on this earth. An examination of how they lived their life will help us today to live our life better. We have the option to use them, misuse them, ignore them, or even attack them.

Divinizing the Scriptures
When a community finds its scriptures very useful, slowly they might rise to a very high position in the minds of its members. The community might even place their scriptures on the seat of God. Once a scripture gets canonized or divinized like this, it ceases to be useful. It is treated as infallible, and it is believed to have directly originated from God. As a result people stop studying it. It is read only ceremonially, never subjected to critical study. Such an attitude can be counter-productive to the growth and development of a community. People often oppose scientific developments using their scriptures. A couple of centuries ago, people opposed Galileo’s idea of a round earth by quoting scriptures. Similarly today people oppose the scientific idea of evolution by quoting verses from the scriptures.
It also causes problems in human relations. A community that divinizes a certain scripture can develop friction with those who do not divinize it. For example, the Bible is divinized in the Christian community and the Koran is divinized in the Islam community. This can cause frictions in human relations where Christians and Muslims co-exist. Some Christians may try to burn the Koran, and some Muslims may try to burn the Bible. 

Demonizing the Scriptures
In revolt against divinizing scriptures arises the approach of demonizing the scriptures. If scriptures make our existence miserable, the sensible way would be to get rid of them from our midst. If people oppose scientific development quoting Bible verses, the best solution would be to get rid of the scriptures. People attacked Galileo because there was a Bible they considered authoritative. People oppose the idea of evolution for the same reason. Doesn’t it mean that Bible is opposed to all human progress? Isn’t it imperative that this Bible be eradicated for the progress of humankind? Let all sensible people in the world unite against the scriptures! Let us burn them all in order to save the humanity! If we let the scriptures survive, humanity may not survive.

Reading the Scriptures
What we have seen above are the two extreme approaches to the scriptures. While some people place it on the throne of God ascribing infallibility to the scriptures, some others want to trash them or even burn them. For example when a lot of people in the south-east part of the US, called Bible belt, elevate Bible to the seat of God, a lot of people in the other parts of the US demonize it. Why do some people want to demonize the Bible? Because they see some people elevate it to the seat of God. Why do they do so? There could be more than one reason. The primary reason seems to be the lack of the right knowledge about the Bible. They get so much excited about the guidance it offers to life that they elevate it to the seat of God.

            The right use of the scriptures is to read them with an open mind. Divinizing and demonizing the Bible are both misuse. Those who demonize the scriptures are mostly those who divinize the modernity and human rationality.

            The Bible or any other scriptures from the ancient past are invaluable treasures. They provide us with a window to the life of our ancestors who lived on the earth long time ago. They are a means of communication across generations who are separated by millennia. A scripture is like a seed from a mighty tree of civilization that existed on the earth in the long past.
            Reading and understanding a scripture from the past is not easy. We need to cross the barriers of language and culture. We need to know the worldview of the people and the exact context in which the scripture was written.  When we make an effort to understand the scriptures, they talk to us giving us some guidance in our situation today. Our understanding is still going to depend on our own specific context. It seems that we can never have a fully objective understanding of the scriptures; it is always going to be subjective.

            A Recent Example of Biblical Analysis
            Recently I happened to listen to a presentation by a retired professor from Kerala on his view of the Bible. He made a content analysis and character study of the Bible. He stated that he was fascinated by one character in the Bible—Jesus. Other than the character of Jesus he couldn’t find anything worthwhile or admirable about the Bible. He did not refer to the context in which the Bible was written. He analyzed the Bible just like a contemporary text.  He was eager to point out all kinds errors in the Bible—mainly the scientific, biographical, and biological. Among the many examples, he pointed out that the world could not have been created in BC 4000 as it has been calculated based on the Bible. He also pointed out that Lot’s daughters could not have had children from their unconscious father, for it is a biological impossibility. The strict sexual morality stated in the Bible is senseless and impractical. What he did was a textual or content analysis without any reference to the historical context in which the text originated or transformed over centuries. Much of his thrust was against divinizing the Bible. Although he repeatedly mentioned that Bible is a book and it needs to be read as a book, his approach slanted more toward demonizing the Bible. The only character worth salvaging in the entire Bible was that of Jesus. Coming from a retired professor of English literature, this presentation sounded disappointing.

            How would you feel if you accidentally run into a literary work written by your father who passed to the other side of the veil a long time ago? Wouldn’t you feel excited to read it? You will handle it with respect because it was written by your own father. You will read it with all your attention because it offers you a window to the heart of your father. Would you care if you come across something you notice as a mistake in it? In spite of all the mistakes, you will respect it and cherish it because it was a creation of your own father.
            I believe that this should be our attitude to the scriptures we have inherited from our ancestors. They are a creation of our forefathers, and we should treat them with respect and love. If we read them with an open mind and with humility, we will be able to learn many precious lessons from them. We wouldn’t disrespect them for any number of mistakes we happen to find in them.


G. Puthenkurishe said...

Criticism of scripture, religion, and the leaders were always there. One of the severe criticisms was by Jesus and recorded in Mathew chapter 23.

What I heard from Prof. Thomas Thomas in that meeting was a repetition of what Jesus said two thousand years ago against the hypocrisy of religion and the religious leaders. I thought the spiritual freedom Jesus promised was clearly evident in the speech of Prof. Thomas Thomas. He was not bound to any religion or obliged to any religious gurus. With an open and mind we analyze the speech, there is no reason for disappointment.

G. Puthenkurishe

Susan Eapen said...

This is about G Puthenkurishe's comments that Mathew Chapter 23 is a criticism of the scriptures. It is not. It is a criticism on the leaders who interpret the scriptures. Jesus clearly said that the purpose of religion is man and not viceversa- sabbat was made for man and not man for sabbat. Religions are the paths to man's true personality as a son of god and all religions ultimately teach us to love God and one another. This would lead to a better society and solve many problems.

Susan Eapen

John Kunnathu said...

Yes, Jesus also criticized, but he criticized not the scriptures. Jesus criticized the people who misused and misinterpreted the scriptures.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

These verses from Matthew 23 are specifically about how the pharisees interpreted the scriptures. They did not distinguish between important and unimportant.

Ninan Mathullah said...

I believe that God sent His prophets to all cultures, and thus all world religions are from the search of man for God and God's interaction in that search. In the course of time corruption and traditions and ritual practices creeped in to all religions that was not originally intended. Since all religions are from God and there are cultural differences in that revelation, there are different levels of that revelation. It is your job to search for the Truth, and you get what you deserve. All will stand for reward and you will be rewarded based on your knowledge of things. It is none of our business to say that who will get to heaven or hell as it is in the authority of God.A person who is a Muslim and practice that religion as is revelaed to him will be judged by that scripture and his understanding of it. So there is no need to demonize any religious scriptures or think that one is superior to the other in character. I believe Jesus Christ is the highest level of God's revelation. Only those who deserve to know this Truth will see this.

Ninan Mathullah said...

I couldn't listen to Pro. Thomas presentation fully but participated in the discussions. The topic of his presentation was whether Bible is true, scripture or literature. I believe all this true about Bible. Bible is true as whatever happened related to the events recorded there is the truth. No effort is being made to edit it or whitewash it. Shameful events in David's life and Ruben lying with Jacob's wife or Deena's modesty being violated etc are recorded as such. Compare this to some of our family histories. Nothing there that ruin the image or prestige of the family. Solomon as King could have influenzed scribes to delete these portions. So Bible is True. Bible is scripture, the word from God as it is the inspired word through Prophets. Creations that survive time or ages is called classics. So Bible is included in classics of literature. In literature there is imagery. In Bible it is inspired.

I do not see anything in Bible contradictory to science or history. About the age of earth Bible says, in the begining God created heaven and earth. It doesn't say when it was created. So even if it is many many years there is nothing contradictory. If anybody could pointout anything contradictory, please bring to this forum. We can discuss about it.

Anonymous said...

The oldest surviving Hebrew Bible manuscripts are dated at around the 2nd century BCE. They were also written by multiple authors whose identities cannot be established with precision except perhaps of the Pauline letters in the New Testament. Experts credit the authorship of the latter to St.Paul.

I see nothing wrong in any scholar critically examining any religion's scriptures. But, to say that any of them have anything worthwhile to contribute (if that is what Prof Thomas actually said with regards to the Bible) is due to plain ignorance. Scriptures of all religions have tenets worthy of attention by its followers interested in contributing to the healthy and peaceful evolution of humanity.

The Westar Institute's Jesus Seminars routinely "dissects" on almost an annual basis (with the help of over 100 Bible Scholars) all the books of the Bible to validate their authenticity. I for one applaud such work.

For those interested in being exposed to the work of Westar Institute and Jesus Seminars, the following link may be useful.

C. Alex Alexander