Curriculum Lectionary

What Makes Writings Sacred?

Understanding the Holy

What does it mean to say that a certain text is sacred? Does it mean that the words of the text came directly from the divine? This is the belief of some religions, but not all. Different traditions have differing views on how texts held to be sacred came to be. In some cases, we see a fairly direct transmission from the divine. In Hinduism, for instance, the Vedas are considered sruti, literally “heard”: ancient sages in meditation heard the vibrations of the divine transmuted into sounds and words, which they then passed down. In Islam, the holy words of the Qur’an were spoken directly to the prophet Mohammed by an angel on behalf of Allah. In other cases, the connection to the divine is more enigmatic. Jews and Christians hold that the human authors who wrote the Bible were inspired in a mysterious way by God. For Buddhists, sacred scripture consists of the transcribed words of the historical Buddha and other enlightened human beings. The sacred scriptures honored by Confucianists and Taoists were written by ancient sages who came to understand the ways of Heaven through years of study. The range of genres that make up sacred scriptures is also extremely wide. According to scripture scholars Denny and Taylor, when we look at sacred texts, we can find oracle, philosophic discourse, poetry, chronicle, ritual matter, divination, stories, prayers, parables, maxims, proverbs, oaths, history, legend, prophecy, biography, myth, theology, hymns, preaching, epistles, apocalyptic writings, law, ritual procedure – all considered to be sacred scripture (1985, p. 5). Different connections to the holy, different methods of transmission, and yet all of them are considered sacred scripture. Why?

Eternally Compelling

We could look to councils and religious leaders who say that certain writings are sacred while others are not, but even this sort of official sanction is really a recognition of what is already occurring within a community. By whatever means it happens, a group of people come to believe that particular stories or verses have been transmitted to them from a person or being who has direct knowledge of a vital truth. Looking at this from an objective historical standpoint, we may say that it is the process of communal tradition that makes a text sacred; from the subjective believer’s viewpoint, we might say that texts are sacred because they reveal the presence of the holy. What draws the two together is the understanding that in texts held to be sacred, believers encounter truths that are eternally compelling, that go beyond their historical origins to become perpetually relevant to human life as it progresses through the ages.

Uses and Limits

Scriptures may begin simply as a way of recording events, stories, or sayings, but soon they become one of the major ways that the community understands itself: Jews as believers in the Torah, Confucianists as followers of the Analects, etc. In this way, the sacred texts actually become a central point in the community’s continuity through the generations. While sacred texts function as the foundations of worship and study for believing communities, they also find expression as entertainment, in plays, poems, songs and other artistic works. They may be used as magic charms to find spouses or make the crops grow, or as the authority upon which believers make solemn oaths. They may serve as law books for one community and inspirations to revolution for another. These texts also tend to become arbiters of truth in their communities. For example, early Christian communities had a wide variety of teachings, but as the writings that became the New Testament began to be more widely circulated, we see a move toward greater agreement. Even the great controversies in Christianity tend to be about differing interpretations of the same texts that all sides hold to be sacred. Still, sacred texts function within limits. Despite their deep dependence upon and great reverence for the Torah, Jews do not worship this text. And in Buddhism, with its vast array of sutras and teachings, there yet remains an understanding that while scriptures are an incalculable help along the way, ultimately the seeker must let go of them and find what lies beyond. We must also recognize that scriptures can be used in more problematic and mean-spirited ways: as guides for exclusion of or even violence against those who disagree with a group’s interpretation of its teachings. Too often they have been the foundations upon which structures of oppression, sexism and xenophobia have been built. Sacred writings have a great ability to draw communities together, but they also have the ability to bring great harm. As contemporary seekers turning to these scriptures, we must acknowledge the limitations of their cultural contexts and historical usages, but we do the texts and ourselves a disservice if we stop only there. These writings have an extraordinary ability to inspire and challenge us with their profound wisdom and insights that remain as meaningful today as when they were first written. We offer these curriculum and lectionary sessions in a spirit of deep appreciation and gratitude for the guidance they offer to all who seek with open minds and hearts.

The Holy Book in Comparative Perspective. Ed. Frederick M. Denny & Rodney L. Taylor. Columbia, S.C. : University of South Carolina Press, 1985.