On Sunday I attended an early-morning ecumenical Christian service on the beach in Cape Cod. The minister introduced the scripture passage by saying that she was reading the version of the Lord's Prayer found in Luke instead of Matthew because it is thought to be the more original version. She finished the scripture passage by saying the traditional words: "The Word of God." This anecdote illuminates the central yet complex role of scripture in religious communities. The minister was reminding us simultaneously that sacred texts such as the Christian Gospel are complicated, even while affirming scripture to be essential to our spiritual experience, ethical wisdom and faith in the Divine.
All religious traditions have sacred stories that establish their understanding of the nature of the universe and each person's place within it. Passing these stories from generation to generation is central to the making and maintaining of a religious meaning and tradition. Most religions, either from inception or along the way, produce written texts to which followers turn for worldview, strictures, and wisdom for living life. It is our relationship to these texts that makes them sacred, or scripture. By calling a text or texts "scripture," we are saying that the text has a special relationship not only to us personally, and to our community, but also to the Divine or Truth.
Scripture differs among religious traditions. Hinduism, for example, has central texts that have been elevated, such as the Bhagavad Gita, but there is no single canon agreed upon by all adherents. Indigenous religions may have written texts, but the power of the sacred story is still in the oral tradition of passing them from one generation to the next. Other traditions, especially the tellingly named "religions of the book" -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- have written texts that have themselves become imbued with divinity; this might especially be said about the Qur'an. Understanding the complex relationship between a religious tradition and its sacred text is foundational to understanding the tradition itself.
Ascribing to a text sacred power and insight into the Divine is the definition of scripture. Yet there are very different ways of understanding how scripture actually carries Divine power or can be understood as God's word. For instance, we can take scripture seriously without taking it literally. Taking scripture seriously means going beneath a superficial literal reading and understanding that we will find the deeper wisdom and guidance in the text when we recognize its history, complexity and that it contains many different ways of conveying its message. We are born with hearts, spirits and brains, and we need to use all of them when approaching scripture. Taking scripture seriously means acknowledging that there are texts that have been used in dangerous and harmful ways to subjugate women, legitimate violence against gays and lesbians, foster suspicion of other religious traditions, commit violence, and support barbarous ancient practices such as slavery. Taking scripture seriously means trying to understand what the original authors intended and, through literary, linguistic, or historical criticisms, either redeeming these texts from modern misinterpretations or, in the most extreme cases, condemning them.
That being said, religious scripture has been the world's most influential cultural guardian and transmitter of aesthetic vision, existential wisdom, ethical instruction, and knowledge of God, what the theologian Tillich described as Ultimate Concerns. Scripture endures because billions of people from different religious traditions have looked to it and found comfort in times of hardship, wisdom in times of confusion, ethics in times of selfishness, beauty among shadows, and faith in times of doubt.
One of the most effective forms of prayer and meditation comes through reflection upon scripture -- and while reading scripture on our own is edifying, it is even better to approach scripture together with a group to learn from the ways in which others understand the same passage. Likewise, it is enlightening to listen to or read the reflections of religious leaders who have thought about the deep meaning of a passage of scripture. To that end, Huffington Post Religion is starting a scripture commentary series that will bring together leading voices from different religious traditions to offer their wisdom on selected religious passages. Next month we will have Muslim commentaries for Ramadan, and in September Jewish commentaries for the High Holidays. This week we are starting with commentaries on the Gospel by Rev. Jim Wallis, Dr. Serene Jones, Dr. Emilie Townes, Sister Joan Chittister, and Rev. James Martin, S.J. They will all be offering their meditations on the same passage from Matthew 7: 24-27, in which Jesus says:
24Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall!
In this time of economic and social uncertainty, we hope that the scriptural commentaries this week and in the months to come will comfort you if you are in need, challenge you if you are too comfortable, and inspire in you a sense of the Divine presence in your own life and throughout the world.