The Language(s) of the Sacred
How strange a thing language is. Here are some exercises to prove the point. Try to describe in words who you are. Attempt to explain what coffee tastes like to someone who has never tasted it. Convey the meaning of a spiral staircase without using your hands. Much of our ordinary language reaches for examples or analogies or poetic imagery to convey our deepest experiences (which is why we have so many songs and poems about love). Computer experts puzzle over how to teach a computer to distin¬guish simple sentences like "The sky is blue" and "I am feeling blue today." It is only on reflection that we begin to understand how complicated, deep, and resourceful language truly is.
What is true of language in general is equally true of religious language in par¬ticular. Even when we use an ordinary word like "God," different images are conjured up in our imagination: Is God an old patriarch with a long white beard? Does the word mean a philosophical principle that causes everything at the beginning like a First Mover? Does the word mean a projection of our own needs and aspirations as Marx and Freud and others think? A figment of our imagination? A loving Father or Mother? All of these notions, and many others, have been responses to the question of what the word "God" means. These are all questions to think about when we enter the treacherously complex world of religious language because religious language in particular, like language in general, is a profoundly complex subject.Throughout this book, we have insisted that the religious person is one who affirms that there is a dimension of reality beyond the world of immediate experience, yet with which human beings can have contact. We use the term "sacred" to refer to that reality, although it is obvious that the diverse religious traditions have quite distinctive notions about the sacred and quite specific names for it: God, Brahman, Nirvana, Heaven, the kami, Allah, and so on. What is common to all religions is the conviction that the sacred is somehow "set off" from ordinary experiences and from relations that are "merely" customary. When the great sixteenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross, attempted to describe his sense of God, he used the paradoxical phrase Todo y Nada (everything and nothing). When Hindu mystics are asked to describe the ultimate principle of the universe (Brahman), they say, in Sanskrit, "Neti, Neti" (neither this nor that). In both of these instances, there is an obvious attempt to say implicitly that the sacred somehow defies language and that it is unlike other realities. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the very first question of the Summa (article 9), argues that God's revelation comes to us in metaphorical language barely adequate to express the reality of God. Thomas further argues that it is easier to say what God is not than what God is. Religious traditions do not always use paradoxical language to describe the sacred. They might call God, for instance, Father or Mother or Lord or King in order to set out an analogy with something that, while "ordinary," seems helpful in describ¬ing the object of their devotion. When we look at religious language, in short, we find something very close to poetry: Believers (and poets) use ordinary words, yet they want to convey a sense of something that they consider larger, more profound than the ordinary referents of the words. We can get some sense of the ways religious language develops by performing a small experiment. Think of the happiest moment in your life (or, if you wish, the saddest) and recollect the feelings that were present then. Try to set out, in a limited number of words, a description of that moment that will communicate to a sympa¬thetic audience something of those feelings. Those who are genuine poets may carry off this assignment with ease, but for many, it will prove difficult. The same thing happens in religion: Words strain to give meaning.
The origins and difficulty of much religious language are very similar. Such language attempts to convey to persons the experiences of people of faith. The Bible presents numerous and varied examples: narratives (e.g., the gospels), poems and hymns (e.g., the Psalms), proverbs, legal codes, sermons, letters, stories of beginnings and endings, parables and ethical reflections, chronicles and histories. Interestingly, what one does not find are rigorously philosophical or scientific texts — -although lews and Christians responding to the Bible in diverse contexts have certainly devel¬oped such texts. Generally, the biblical answer to questions of philosophy or science seems to be a story of some sort.The entire question of religious language is frighteningly complex. Philosophers ask about the meaning and truth of religious language; experts in interpretation try to establish methods for understanding texts; language scholars attempt to penetrate the exact meaning of words and the reliability of translations from one language to another. This chapter attempts a much simpler task. In the pages that follow, we set out some of the ways in which language is used in religion and then reflect on the character of religious language.
We begin with the language that may be the oldest and most widespread form of religious discourse. The word "myth" has a distinctly premodern ring; it is associated with^tories that "are not lrue^_or are fanciful. In the field of religious studies, however, myth has a somewhat different meaning. For the purposes of this chapter, the following will serve as a summary definition: Myth indicates a mmitivL' gini-emmi? sjavil reality sacred reality, myth is designed to disclose the ultimate truth ahn^t mirial human questions — for example, the origin of the cosmos or the final destiny of the world andTts" inhabitants. In that sense, as a number of scholars have argued, myth is a way to explain thejvorld and, as such, served as a kind of primitive science or explanatory model of the world. Othgr frtpirs include bow evil got into the world, what the worldwas like at its beginnings, and how the world will eventually end and what_wjll_cgme after that ending.
There are many types of myths, to be sure. But it is interesting to note that all religions, wherever they fall in the typology developed earlier in this text, attempt to answer the questions: How did everything and everyone begin? How did it all start — and why? Answers to these questions are nearly always cast in the form of a story. The Bible provides such a story in the "opening chapters of the book of Genesis; that story is repeated, though in piecemeal fashion, at various places in the Qur'an. Other reli¬gions tell of great struggles between the gods and a primordial chaos or see the world as hatching from a great cosmic egg; still others depict the creation of the world as similar to the unfolding of a long drama flowing from the creative force of the absolute. There are obvious and important differences among these stories, but at this point, the interesting fact is that so many of them have similarities and that they occur in almost every culture.
In modern, scientifically oriented societies, the relationship between creation myths and historical or scientific "fact" is of great concern. The ongoing debate in the United States over the teaching of evolution in public schools bears witness to this. And yet, to focus exclusively on the question of whether God in fact created the world in six calendar days (as many think the opening chapter of the book of Genesis suggests) would be to ignore important aspects of the religious dimensions of creation myths.
In examining such stories, the great questions of religious studies are these: What basic premise(s) lies behind such language? What notion(s) of sacred reah'ty, and of its relation to human beings, is reflected in the imaginative langviay gmployed in a particular mythf we mignTsay, at a minimum, that every creation myth reflects a tacit assumption that the world is not self-explanatory; the world is dependent on a sacred "other" from which it derives its significance. If we turn again to the biblical and Qur'anic story of creation, it seems clear that the story affirms at least the following: ( 1 ) God is not only independent of the world but "stands outside" it as its effortless creator; (2) the world is created as good — it is not evil, nor is it an illusion; (3) at the center of creation, both as apex and as steward, stand the primor¬dial man and woman, Adam and Eve. The story thus stands as a vehicle for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to express some of their deepest feelings about the origins and purpose of the world and of human beings.
Should we view the story as a rival or alternative explanation of, for example, the "Big Bang" theory of contemporary physicists? Undoubtedly the story may be read this way — at least, it is read this way in certain religions, especially in Christian communities. But for most communities that refer to the story, it functions as myth: That is, it discloses their perceptions of the ultimate truth concerning cosmic and human origins from a religious perspective.
We should underscore the point that creation myths are never the product of an individual. These, and indeed all religious myths, come out of the collective experience of a people. The stories related by American Indians or Australian aborig¬ines of the origin of the world are not statements of personal opinion. They express the perception of a community concerning the relation of the world, including itself, to the sacred. Such myths serve as frames of reference for a particular community's notions of reality. They define the community and its relationship to the world. It may well be that someone created the story, but its power comes from the fact that it is remembered and re-created in a community.
It is worth noting that a myth, rather than being a harmless story, is a powerful vehicle for life and action. That fact can be demonstrated through an example of a myth turned to degenerate usage. In the 1930s, Nazi ideology resurrected old myths of Germanic purity, stories of blood and national identity, and dressed them in a whole range of ritual and symbolic gestures in order to instill in the German popula¬tion a sense of social cohesion and contempt for others (Slavs, Jews, Gypsies, etc.) who were not a part of the "master race." This dimension of myth—its power to energize a community for evil, in particular—shows how naive a dismissal of myths as "fairy tales" or "tall stories" can be.
There is a final point. It is alleged that myth has now been replaced by ration¬ality in modern culture. Scholars like to point to the philosophers of ancient Greece (sixth century B.C.E.) as forerunners of modern science because they were the first to attempt an account of the world without reference to myths of origins. Although the evidence of certain dialogues of Plato, in particular the Timaeus, which contains a myth of origins, would seem to count against this, it is undoubtedly true that mod¬ern science owes much to Greek "rationalism." And it is undoubtedly true that most people in industrial societies look to science for an explanation of world origins. Nonetheless, the persistence of mythic thinking in modern culture is an unassailable fact. Myth, after all, is narrative that conveys perceptions of deep and abiding truths about the human condition.
Mircea Eliade argued that, although there are persons in modern society who live without reference to mythic patterns of thought, they constitute a very small and exceptional minority. Eliade's words, written more than a half a century ago, still hold true:
A whole volume could be written on the myths of modern man or the mythologies camouflaged in the plays he enjoys, in the books he reads. The cinema, that "dream factory," takes over and employs countless mythical motifs—the fight between hero and monster, initiatory combats and ordeals, paradigmatic figures and images (the maiden, the hero, the paradisical landscape, hell, and so on). . . . Whether modern man "kills" time with a detective story or enters such a foreign temporal universe as is represented by any novel, reading projects him out of his personal duration and incorporates him into other rhythms, makes him live in another "history."1
*Myths, of course, are stories, but they are stories of a certain kind. Myths deal with cosmic" questions: the origin of the world; the creation and meaning of human beings; stories of a lost paradise or golden age; stories about thg_end of the world and The manner of that end. jjeyoncTtriose great^ythic reconstructions are other stories, narratives embedded in the historical religious experience of the people. The Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once quipped that God created human beings because God loves a good story. While it was only a quip, it contains a truth: Much of the Bible is a story. The God of the Bible, for instance, is often described as the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob"—that is, the God who did marvelous things for those patriarchs whose stories are central to the evolution of the people of Israel. In a similar fashion, we should remember that large parts of the New Testament are made up of stories either about Jesus or about the experiences of his earliest followers or stories that Jesus himself tells.
Every great religious tradition has its official stories (in Hinduism, for example, the great Mahabharata is an epic poem),2 but we should note that every religious tradition also produces stories of believers who witness to, in their narrative, the significance of their personal encounter with the sacred. It is worthwhile noting that autobiography begins in Western culture with the publication of Augustine of Hippo's Confessions—an attempt to account for his slow coming to Christian faith— in late antiquity. The taste for religious autobiography continues to this day both in its written form and in the oral tradition of those who testify how their faith was born, sustained, and matured over time.
Why is story so central to religion? We can begin by noting that story is central to the fact of being human. When one person asks another, "Who are you?" and wants something more than a name and Social Security number, the answer includes a story. How much the one giving the answer reveals depends a great deal on the degree of intimacy he or she shares with the inquirer. The fact that one person tells another about personal desires, longings, and disappointments is often a sign of trust, one of those benchmarks of friendship and love between persons. Stories, in short, are forms of disclosure and revelation. They are meant to alter relationships (usually, for the good).
Michael Novak once defined religion as the "acting out of a vision of personal identity and human community—it is the living out of an intention, an option, a selection among life's possibilities."3 To paraphrase Novak: Religion is my story being shaped by another (religious) story. For a Jew this means that his or her story is shaped by the larger story of God's covenant with Israel. We should be very clear about this point. Apart from some minor chronicles, the normative stories of a religious tradition are not told simply to hold on to a history but to disclose a notion of the sacred to people. For example, when the biblical writers reveal their purpose in writing, they indicate it is to "build faith" in the revelation of God. Many scholars have called the first 12 chapters of the Gospel of John the "book of signs" because of the writer's repeated use of the term "sign" with refer¬ence to the stories he tells of Jesus' words and deeds. At the close of the gospel, the writer makes it clear that his purpose is not to record a history but to make a disclosure that will enable faith:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe ihat Jesus is the Christ, ihe Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31}
What are the central functions of religious stories? First, and most simply, the stories are a kind of discourse that passes on information, insights, lessons, and instructions. In this sense, religious stories are like histories, novels, and other pieces of literature because they contain material that people think is worth remembering. Such stories give shape to religious tradition (i.e., thai which is "handed down"). Thus Buddhists keep alive the stories of the Buddha's journey toward enlightenment because they believe that the memory of his seeking and finding retains value across generations.
Second, religious stories recall paradigmatic moments and/or persons. A par¬
adigm is a blueprint or model. Religious stories thus are not simply "handed
down"; they provide models to emulate. Early on, pious Muslims began to collect
reports of Muhammad's words and deeds. The motivation of such activity was in
part simple love and admiration for the Prophet and his memory, but such stories
also provided a normative example for submission to the will of God. Hence they
were (and are) collectively known as the sutttia—the "beaten path" provided by the
Prophet's example. --^,—^
Third, religious stories are vehicles for disclosure or>fevelation.)Such stories jriay recount events that could he called "ordinary." but TiM-thgjjelicving com¬munity, thc-v mediate sacred reality. What, for example, could be more ordinary than the traditional Chinese story of a meeting between the founders of Confucianism and Taoism? According to the story, Confucius entered into the pres¬ence of Lao-tzu and paid him homage—a simple enough act, because Lao-tzu would have been the elder. Bui told from a Taoist point of view, the story indicates the superiority of Lao-tzu and thus of his way. It discloses the connections between Lao-tzu's teaching and ultimate truth.
In many traditions, of course, such stories (and usually, other material) are set down in a written text and receive an official form. In such cases, the text itself may become a disclosure of the sacred. The book(s) take on the character of a repository of what we can say about the divine. Thus, Jews enshrine the scrolls of the Torah in an ark in their synagogues; many Protestants display an open Bible in their churches or homes; Catholic priests kiss the Scriptures after the solemn reading of the Bible at their worship; Muslims regard the memorization of the Qur'an as a supreme act of piety. One of the more dramatic examples of the sanctification of a written text occurs in the worship of the Orthodox churches. Before the gospel for the day is read, the deacon or the priest cries out to the assembled people: "Wisdom! Let us be attentive.
"He then comes in procession before the congregation with the gospel book (usually lavishly ornamented on its cover) in order to read aloud. The symbolism is patent: It is from hearing the story that one gains not just knowledge, but wisdom, the Wisdom that is God's Word.
It is also worth noting that the religious character of persons and societies is almost always described in terms of a story, simply because there is a narrative character to human life. A person is who he or she is, religiously speaking, because there is a history, a story behind the person that is either accepted or rejected (e.g., the religion of his or her family). The personal religious experience is most commonly interpreted in a way that emphasizes the contribution such experience makes to one's growth as a person. Religious people tell stories because they wish to demonstrate the way(s) religion gives shape to their lives.
STORY AS PARABLE
Thus far we have discussed two kinds of religious language: myth and story. One division of the latter, however, deserves special attention: the parable.
Parables are to be distinguished from allegories. Allegories are stories, usually fictionaljn which the various characters and incidents actually represent figures and eventsjigt a part of the story^assuch. George Orwell's Animal Farm is an allegory: It is a story about barnyard animals and their problems, but each animal (and the barnyard itself) actually represents something quite outside the story.
Aparable,J5y_contrast, is a story, usually fictional, in which the narrative jhrust is to make jyxiint (ofteiytfio'ugh not always, religious) but The elements of the story do not, in each and every instance, stand for something else. The point to be grasped arises from the story in its own right.
The parable is meant to arrest the hearer or reader in such a way that he or she must think of things in a new and unaccustomed manner. The parable has a certain element of the puzzling or the outrageous that carries with it a kind of "shock value," which calls in to. question comfortable assumptions. The gospels depict Jesus as a teller of parables—a technique that is also common in rabbinic literature. When Jesus tells parables, his audience often does not understand the stories or is upset by them. In Luke 10:35-47, Jesus tells the story of the "good Samaritan" in response to the question of a scholar of Torah: "Who is my neighbor?" The parable as told is a rebuke to the scholar, for the Samaritan (regarded commonly as ritually impure and doctrinally aberrant in the Judaism of first-century Palestine) acts as a neighbor to a person in need, while a priest and a Levite (religious leaders, like the scholar) fail to do so. To make such a person as the Samaritan a hero presents a challenge to a certain way of thinking about love. It is the acts of a person and not his social status that determine who the true neighbor is. The parable is meant to shock the reader into realizing this new insight.
Unlike the myth, which deals with great, cosmic issues such as origins, the parable deals with immediate, existential realities: jJor_example, awarp"p« pf nnp'«; neighbor andjhe pr"p°r rpspnnrp tnjiis orlieTneed. In that sense, parables belong to that broad class of religious language called "wisdom" speech. Like proverbs and allegories, the parable hopes to move people beyond conventional understandings to a deeper engagement with realities conceived to be sacred. Here is an excellent story told of the Buddha. It is a short dialogue in question-and-answer form between a seeker and the Buddha that underscores the fact that the path of the Buddha leads to spiritual enlightenment:
"Are You a god or a magician?"
"I am not a god or a magician. I am awake."
THE PRESERVATION OF SACRED LANGUAGE
Although people do not often reflect on it, language has in it a power that alters and shapes the way they perceive the world and the way they live. This is generally recognized only on those solemn occasions when language is used in a formal manner. One may say what one wants with respect to the truth; when he or she utters the words of an oath to tell the truth in a law court, the language used effects a change. Not to tell the truth after repeating that oath is not simply a moral wrong; it is a felony called "perjury." With similar formulas, the relations between two people may be altered (as, for example, with the marriage vows) or persons may be inaugurated into public office. In all of these instances, words carry power. Such words, in the technical vocabulary of modern philosophy, are examples of "performative language."
For many religious people, words have a peculiar power because they point to and/or reveal (he sacred dimension of reality. That is why religious stories, myths, and so on are preserved within religious communities; they constitute the peculiar memory and the accumulated power of a given religious tradition. In fact, one way different kinds of religions may be distinguished is according lo the manner in which they effect this preservation: Some have an oral culture, others a written one. Let us say a few words about each.
Examples of oral cultures abound among the indigenous or aboriginal peoples of various parts of the world: the Indians of North, Central, and South America; the tribal cultures of Africa; the aborigines of Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Among all these peoples, ihere are religious traditions that involve myths and stories of various types. The point of distinguishing such traditions here is that they transmit the stories orally, from one generation to the next. This transmission may be the special task of certain families or designated "wise persons," or certain stories may be taught to the young of the tribe at appropriate times (e.g., at the onset of sexual maturity). These stories or myths, furthermore, are told only at certain occasions or at certain times; they are sacred and, more to the point, sacred for specific reasons and specific times.
It is not hard to see the functional benefit of such transmission to particular communities. The stories thus communicated provide historical identity to the tribe. The retelling of important myths links the young with the old and ultimately places all the living in relationship with the ancestors and the gods and goddesses of the tribe. The transmission of myth, in short, ensures cultural and social identity. Further, cultures that focus on oral techniques of transmitting myths store in such myths ways of acting that ensure their survival. The Hopi Indians, for example, tell stories that emphasize the great importance of corn, in particular, its origin and its use for the tribe. By learning such myths, the younger generation imitates the past and learns how, when, and under what circumstances they should plant corn in the semiarid lands in which the Hopi live. The oral transmission of sacred stories main¬tains and ensures both the social sense of the people and their relationship to the world of nature.
The word "scripture" comes from Latin and means simply "that which is written." Many of the great religions of the world preserve their inherited past and their reli¬gious language in writing. In fact, it is common, though misleading, to refer to the three great religions of the West (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as"religions of the book" because of their emphasis on the written word. We should also note, however, that written records of religious language are also important for the great religions of the East.
More technically, scriptures indicate those writings that, by reason of their particular authority, are considered privileged and normative for a particular tradition. These writings are called canonical. Canon (from the Greek word meaning a "list") refers to a particular set of books or a single book that is authoritative for a religious community. In Christianity, the canon of scripture (the Bible) is the list (canon) of texts read in public worship. Thus, for example, in Christianity, there are many religious writings, ranging from the classical treatises of great theologians to certain treasured devotional works; in Theravada Buddhism, numerous works systematize and comment on discourses of the Buddha. Only the writings in the Bible (for Christianity) or the collection of texts known as tripitaka ("three baskets"; Buddhism), however, are authoritative or canonical.
What is the function of written scriptures? Of course, there are variations among the several traditions related in large part to their view of the nature of scrip¬ture. But certain functions occur across the lines of diverse traditions, such as those discussed here.
Scriptures serve as the yardstick (another meaning for the word "canon") against which the truth of certain ideas or the Tightness of certain practices can be measured and judged. Nobody, for example, can be considered a Muslim if that per¬son openly contradicts the teachings of the Qur'an. Conversely, a pious Muslim will appeal to the same book as the norm for how he or she should relate to God and live in the world. Thus one may say that a scripture has normative power.
Scriptures evoke the presence of the sacred. The classic, Vedic rituals of ancient Hinduism constitute only one of the many examples in which scriptural materials form an integral part of religious worship. In the srauta sacrifice, a group of special¬ists contributed to the performance of rituals that invoked the presence and favor of sacred beings, each specialist being a reciter of selected sections of the Rig-Veda, a group of hymns praising the various virtues of gods and goddesses. Scriptures reveal the sacred, not in the Western sense that they come from God, but in the sense that through their use in reading, meditation, and ritual, the sacred is revealed. As unique words, scriptures possess power and act as a repository of material for the spiritual life of believers.
As in the oral traditions discussed earlier, scriptures define a community. In that sense, the scriptures have a symbolic function that testifies to who a person and/or a community is. Because all scripture appeals back to a revelation or ancient, sacred wis¬dom, it serves to connect contemporary readers with the community's traditions, When contemporary Jews read the accounts of the Passover meal in the book of Exodus, they affirm, in that reading, that there is a connection between themselves and the events of which Exodus tells. They become, as it were, contemporary with the text.
Finally, scriplures function in a way parallel to the stories of oral cultures in that both act as a means of preservation for the traditions of particular communities. In both cases, myths of origins and destiny are preserved and can continue to communicate a tradition's worldview to those who listen to or read them. Such preser¬vation, and more precisely the memory it engenders, founds and sustains the world (to paraphrase Mircea Eliade). Scriptures provide a framework for the religious life of the believer.
A SUMMARY AND SYNTHESIS
It should be obvious by now that there is a close connection between the various topics discussed in this chapter. Myths, stories, and parables are all part of the larger phenomenon called religious language. The focus of this discussion on these few categories does not even touch such genres as law codes and sacred poems. These also have a part in the religions of the world and are reflected in both oral and scriptural cultures.
We might summarize this section by asking and responding to a final question: What motivates religious people to hold on so deeply to sacred stories and other forms of religious discourse? We can frame an answer by recalling Joseph Campbell's explanation for the persistence of myth. Campbell, a lifelong student of the world's religious myths, cited four reasons:
1. Sacred stories are 3 means of connecting with the sacred dimension of existence.
Through such stories, believers get a sense of the otherness of the sacred and a
glimpse into the.world or realm of the sacred. For the person who does not
believe, sacred stories might be "great poetry" or "great literature"; for the
believer, they are vehictes for the disclosure of sacred reality.
2. Religious stories "order the cosmos." The basic purpose of myth is to provide
coherence to the world'in which the believer lives. Religious stories act as a
buffer against the notion that there is no direction, purpose, or meaning to the
world. That is why, as Mircea Eliade points out in many of his books, chaos
plays such an important role in creation mythologies. Creation is often
described in terms of a struggle or a victory over the forces of chaos and disor¬der. The Bible begins with an account of how the world came to be and ends with an account of the final days. From Genesis to the Revelation, there is a framework that gives shape to the human journey, from its origins to its final destiny.
This ordering of the cosmos is, at its root, an attempt to give meaning to life. At this level, the telling of religious stories corresponds to those deep theo¬logical questions that stand behind every religious tradition: Who am I? Where did I come from? What does my life mean? How will I (and everything else) end? If the first purpose of religious language is to provide a disclosure of the sacred, its second purpose is to account for the world.
3. With respect to the communal or social aspect of religion, stories give shape to
memory; they sustain and nourish a tradition. A Christian is a Christian
precisely because the story of Jesus has a pertinence and reality that goes
beyond the historical record; a Muslim is a Muslim because what Muhammad
recited in the Qur'an is applicable now; a Buddhist is a Buddhist because he or
she recalls the story of Gautama's enlightenment and, in that recollection, finds
meaning and clues for his or her own enlightenment.
4. Also in connection with the communal aspect of religion, stories serve an
ethical function. Believers measure behavior, style of life, attitudes, and
patterns of living against the paradigms provided in the tradition. One is
identified as part of a certain tradition precisely because one patterns his or
her life after important stories. The recollection of such stories encourages
approved behaviors and provides a standard of judgment for the community
in dealing with persons who act in ways that are dissonant with its tradition.
THE LANGUAGE OF THEOLOGY
For purposes of this chapter, one can think of a theologian as a believer who reflects on the fact of personal and communal faith in such a way as to clarify it and/or to argue that such faith is worthy of consideration by those outside his or her community. One who "bears witness" to the importance of faith in his or her life acts as a theologian, as does one who engages in the systematic study of and reflection on the importance of faith, although the latter is obviously more professionally and explicitly so.
The basic point here is that much of theology is "second-level discourse." The theologian attempts to set forth, systematically and conceptually, the meaning of the stories of a particular tradition. Thus, in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' early message is summarized as follows: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (4:17). These words are "first-level discourse" for the tradition; that is, they are part of the scriptural record that transmits the sacred stories of Christian faith.
Now, the theologian—whether "simple believer" or professional—formulates conceptions of the meaning of these words. He or she must consider the import of the command "repent" and the sense of the phrase "the kingdom of heaven is at hand"; he or she may also judge the truth or falsehood of the words and perhaps be willing to provide reasons for the judgments that result. A professional theologian for example, might use knowledge of ancient languages and insights from biblical studies and the psychology of religion in order to translate the words of Jesus into a modern idiom. He or she might point out that Jesus demanded a radical change of life prompted by a keen sense of the impending end of history, and then go on to sug¬gest that the attitudes engendered by such a message help the believer maintain a sense of tension between the world "as it is" and the world "as it might be." When the theologian does this, he or she is engaging in "second-level discourse." That is, the theologian tries to interpret the story by moving toward statements that are less in the form of narrative, more like propositions, and framed in a language that a person who lives after biblical times might comprehend. One of the most useful definitions of theology, formulated by Anselm of Canterbury in the middle ages, is "faith seek¬ing understanding."
The theologian's task is to transform story into doctrine. This may involve a number of steps, some of which are as follows:
EXEGESIS. This term refers to the process by which texts are explained and explicated. The theologian as exegete requires a range of skills: knowledge of languages, history, archaeology, cultural history. The task of exegesis is to indicate the range of meanings that a text may have.
HISTORY. Tradition is an essential element in religion. The theologian as historian attempts to understand the development and meaning of particular aspects of a community's tradition.
SYSTEMATIC THINKING. The theologian as systematician attempts to develop the relations between various aspects of the community's tradition and to give a comprehensive account of the community's faith.
APOLOGETIC DISCUSSION. As apologist, the theologian tries to answer the questions and critiques of the community's faith offered by outsiders.
CRITICAL THINKING. As critic, the theologian provides a thoughtful perspective on the community's current faithfulness (or lack thereof). He or she may also examine political, literary, social, or scientific affairs from the viewpoint of the community's faith.
ETHICS. Religion is not only a matter of believing but of behaving. As ethicist, the theologian elucidates the practical teaching of the community in an attempt to show its implications for human behavior.
As a closing observation, we note that it is wrong to think of the theologian as a detached commentator. Although theological discourse necessarily occurs at a "second level," and is slightly removed from the "first level" of a tradition's stories, theologians are believers—often, passionately so. For that reason, it should not be surprising that some of the greatest theologians also contribute to their communities through other
forms of discourse. Great theologians have also been great writers of hymns, poetry, stories, and prayers.
THE VISUAL LANGUAGE OF RELIGION
To this point, the discussion has focused on verbal language—whether transmitted orally or in writing. But there is another stream of religious language that we ought to mention: the use of painting, sculpture, architecture, and the other arts as a means of conveying a sense of the sacred. Indeed, long before writing became the primary vehicle for communication, people used visual images to communicate and preserve their religious traditions. The oldest examples of religious language avail¬able are paintings (e.g., the cave paintings of neolithic peoples) and manufactured images (the ancient "Venus" figures of female deities from prehistoric sites or arti-facts found in ancient tombs). Sacred sites, whether of temples or shrines, should be understood not simply as buildings but as expressions of religious belief. The point is this: A careful study of religious art is, at its base, a study of a particular kind of language (a symbol system) that reflects an apprehension of the holy.
The ways in which this kind of art is used are many and varied. Some religions view the artwork as a direct vehicle that lets one "see" into the world of the sacred. Thus, in Orthodox Christianity, the icon (Greek for "image") is a window through which the believer is led to the sacred mysteries of Christ and the gospels. Sacred buildings may serve as an "anteroom" to the world of the divine. When people enter a temple or a church, it is as if they are passing from the profane world to that of the sacred. It is worthwhile remembering that profane means "outside the temple."
Sacred art also serves a didactic, or teaching, purpose. The great cycles of biblical stories in the stained glass windows of medieval cathedrals were often called the Bibles of the poor. In an age in which literacy was limited to a small class and books were a luxury for the rich, the ordinary person could look at the windows and "read" the great stories of biblical history. The great sculptural programs that adorn Hindu temples were an attempt to set out in stone what might otherwise be available only to the few who could read the sacred texts.
Visual representations also serve as a form of religious statement. On any large American university campus, students wear around their necks a cross or a star of David as if to say visually, "I am a Christian" or "I am a Jew." We often see, in the yellow pages of the telephone book, the advertisement of a firm with a stylized fish as a sign that its owners are "born again" Christians, just as a food store might use the Hebrew letters for "kosher" to indicate that it observes the Jewish dietary laws in the handling and preparation of food.
Paradoxically, even in religious traditions that are strongly aniconic (against images), there is, nonetheless, a strong visual quality to religious practice. Quakers, for example, avoid religious decorations, but the very austerity and simplicity of their meeting houses testify to their strong belief in the spiritual nature of God and the movement of God's spirit. Similarly, Islam prohibits images, equating them with idola¬try, an affront to the absolute otherness and transcendence of Allah. As a consequence, Muslims traditionally decorate their mosques with abstract, nonrepresentational art
and with highly stylized calligraphy (from the Greek for "beautiful writing"), utilizing verses from the Qur'nn. Anyone viewing such mosques understands the motive of such artistic work: to present ordered beauty while insisting that the ultimate source of beauty cannot be represented by human hands or conceived by the human imagination.
The basic point to be made is this: There is in religious art more than decora¬tion or beautification or solemnity. A complex language is being used. With patience, care, goodwill, and intelligence, a reading of that language is possible. Such a reading is as helpful for understanding religion as is an acquaintance with either the oral or written language of a given tradition.
When one travels on highways, it is not uncommon to see white crosses with flowers or souvenirs lhat mark the location of a fatal traffic incident. We have seen the same phenomenon at other scenes of tragedy, such as the area near ground zero after the 9/11 attack. Those "shrines" are a form of religious language that express a whole range of feelings: sadness, hope, courage, and so on. More often than not, the "shrines" are constructed from traditional religious artifacts, for example, crosses, or burning candles. These displays constitute a religious language also.
LANGUAGE AND TRUTH
A question emerges from the discussion of such a wide series of religious stories and types of religious language. Are the stories true? Or better, is any one of them more true than the others? If so, which? Shall we accept the Buddhist story or the Islamic one?
Obviously, we cannot test the truth of religious stories with the same ease that we test for measles. It is true that philosophers and theologians argue that the truthfulness of certain religious claims can be proven (e.g., the existence of God), but by and large, many religious claims are likened to other commonly held beliefs that are not fully subject to "proof." Can we really "prove" that a mother loves her child? We might say that her actions indicate the kind of caring associated with love, or do not—we might, in other words, give reasons for a considered judgment that she does or does not love her child—but does that "prove" the point? Can we, in fact, really identify such a thing as "mother's love"?
Some have argued, usually citing the thinking of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, that religion is a "language game." One enters the game by using the language and plays according to the rules of that particular game. Within the limits of the rules, everything makes sense and has its place. In this way, we can say that every religion is true for those who play the game and false for thost who do not, unless they also wish to join the "game."
An obvious objection occurs: We ought to be able to ask questions about the various games to be played or choices to be made. Why should we play the Buddhist game as opposed to the Islamic or the Christian one as opposed to the Jewish? It ought to be possible to answer questions about the justifiability of playing one game rather than another. Many people make such judgments. Many people do in fact argue that their religion is true—even that it is the only true faith. Others, a bit more modest, say that some of the truths of their religion are verifiable, and thus they have a closer connection to human nature and experience.
In approaching religion from the more descriptive, phenomenological point of view, should we be drawn into such questions? In one sense, questions of truth and falsehood seem contrary to the spirit of the phenomenological approach. And yet, can students with inquiring minds avoid such questions? Here, we offer four tentative observations.
First, most traditions attempt, at some level or another, to answer questions of the truth or, at least, plausibility of their faith claims. Indeed, something of that has already been indicated in the discussion of theology as religious language.
Second, such attempts may certainly be evaluated by students of religion in terms of their coherence, consistency, and accuracy. The discipline of the Philosophy of Religion devotes itself to such rational investigations. Particularly, in cases that make claims of fact, historical and/or scientific tests may be applied to religious statements, at least in principle. We add this qualification because of the importance, in many religious traditions, of claims concerning very ancient events in which the data necessary for historic and/or scientific evaluations may be difficult to come by. The Jain tradition of India (Jainism), for example, which is a very small though impor¬tant one in relation to Hinduism and Buddhism, makes certain claims about its chief exemplars, the "ford-crossers"—persons who, through ascetic and meditative disci¬pline, achieved "release" from the world of matter. The most recent of these is thought to have lived during the sixth century B.C.E., but according to Jain tradition, he was the twenty-fourth in a long series stretching back into prehistoric times. How does one test such claims?
Third, we must also say that not all the claims of religious traditions are "factual" in the ordinary sense of the word. Earlier in this chapter, we indicated that a too narrow focus on the "factual" accuracy of the Genesis creation myth can obscure the importance of other dimensions of the story: its view of human nature in relation to the sacred, for example. That human beings were created "good" and subsequently "fell" into evil is a claim indicating certain tensions in human nature, in particular its propensity for evil in relation to its desires for and intuitions of goodness.
Finally, from a phenomenological point of view, it is of crucial importance that we not ask such questions too soon. The point of a phenomenological approach is not so much evaluation as understanding. In examining the claims of Jains concerning the ford-crossers, for example, a phenomenological approach leads us to be concerned more with the meaning of certain expressions in the context of partic¬ular traditions, and thus in the general history of religion, than in their precise correspondence to truth. We can ask, "Is it true?" but only after dealing with such questions as "What is being said?" and "Does the language of one tradition have affinities with others?" From this perspective, it is of greater interest to know how religious thinkers and communities have tried to justify their claims than to think about theories of truth.
End of Chapter 4
Chapter 5 The Ritual
One often hears people say they want a simple religion, free from "ritual and mumbo jumbo." The popular denigration of ritual in religion overlooks a very important point: No person who lives in human society is free from some form of ritual. Ritual is one of the signposts of human living.
The simplest forms of religious practice can be called ritualistic. Praying before meals involves little bodily gestures (bowing the head; folding the hands), while bigger events, no matter how simply done, always involve some form of ritual behavior, as a cursory examination of weddings illustrates. One way to think about this is to watch or recall some kind of memorial service with its moments of silence, speaking, sitting or standing, the joining of hands, and so on. Even nonreligious "ceremonies" like fraternity or sorority initiations have a ritual character. Readers are invited to take an inventory of ritual moments experienced in life (start with birthday celebrations) and a rather large list will inevitably be developed. Here are some other examples of ritual behavior with which students may well be familiar: ceremonies for induction into the military and/or completion of basic training; graduation ceremonies; ceremonies for "coming of age" for adolescents; flag raising/flag lowering ceremonies; the ritual meeting of opposing teams with the coin toss at football games; and so on.
At this point, we may define ritual in the manner of the dictionaries: A ritual is a ceremonial act or a repeated stylized gesture used for specific occasions. When we think of ritual in terms of this definition, we see immediately that life is filled with such gestures. People shake hands as a sign of mutual trust; stand to indicate honor to another; indeed, make untold numbers of small formal gestures during each day. Such gestures are stylized and full of symbolic significance. In fact, many ritual ges¬tures are so familiar and so frequently used that their significance is overlooked until someone fails to perform them or, as a kind of antiritual, does the opposite of that which is expected—for example, a refusal to shake hands or to stand in honor of a particular person. Such failures or refusals often make us aware of the importance, otherwise obscured by ordinariness, of customary rituals. Alongside such personal rituals as shaking hands, we find numerous examples of civic rituals. Making the ritual gesture of raising the right hand, swearing on the Bible, and uttering an oath signifies that one is bound to tell the truth in an American court. In some sense, the ritual surrounding the task of bearing witness in court deepens the obligation to speak truly. Failure to do so is not merely a lie, it is a felony given the formal name of perjury and can result in criminal penalties. Other civic rituals similarly involve gestures having broad consequences that are recognized by the law; any person who has been married knows the truth of this.
It seems obvious that ritual plays an enormous part in every religious tradition. Such traditions as Roman Catholicism or Russian Orthodoxy are certainly famous for their ritual character, but even those religious traditions that are noted for resist¬ance to ritual do not really escape it. The Sabbath meetings of the Society of Friends (or Quakers) are known for their absence of ritual and their emphasis on silence and simplicity. However, the very action of sitting in a plain and unadorned room is a stylized form of behavior peculiar to the Quaker meeting and hence can be seen as ritual behavior, even if it is deliberately "plain."
The varieties of ritual and ritual behavior are so great that it would be impossible even to catalog them here. Rituals may be as simple as the "body language" a believer uses when praying or as elaborate as the official sacrifices of early Hinduism, which required priestly experts to perform rites over a span of several days. For the purposes of this chapter, we focus on describing a few forms of rituals and then discuss several generalizations about the relationship of ritual and the sacred.
MYTH(OS) AND RITUAL
One of the most common forms of ritual involves acting out or dramatizing religious stories. Mircea Eliade noles, in a number of his books, that in many tribal societies people not only remember the tribal myths but also live them and act them out. Creation stories, for example, may be ritualized through dance and gesture at particular times of the year so that people reenact the first deeds of gods and goddesses. Typically such ritual activity occurs in the spring, when the world is "reborn" or "re-created" after its winter "death." In this case, the conjunction of myth and ritual serves as a way for people to participate in the creative power of the sacred.
Of course, such ritual enactment of myths is not peculiar to tribal societies. The origins of both Greek tragedy and modern drama derive from religious ritual, in the for¬mer case in the worship of the god Dionysius, and in the latter case, in the acting out of the Easter story in the liturgy of French monasteries in the Middle Ages. Further, both Judaism and Christianity preserve examples of the conjunction of myth and ritual at the heart of their traditions, as in the Passover (from Judaism) and Holy Communion or the Eucharist (from Christianity) in which biblical traditions are reenacted.
Every spring (the date varies from year to year, based on the lunar calendar), Jews all over the world gather in their homes to share a formal mesl involving the eating of symbolic foods, various readings and prayers, and a number of blessings. The meal is orchestrated by the head of the household, who conducts it according to well-established traditions. In fact, the Passover meal is also called the seder, a Hebrew word that means "order" or "arrangement."
Passover commemorates the meal eaten by the Jews the evening before they left Egypt and the enslavement of their people in order to journey toward, and even¬tually reach, the Promised Land. Central to the Passover meal, then, are those great events described in the Bible in the book of Exodus. One of the high points of the meal comes when the youngest person present at the table asks why the meal is eaten. The response conies in the form of a reading from the haggadah (from the Hebrew meaning "narrative") about the great events recounted in Exodus.
We should underscore what is being played out at the Passover meal, lews celebrate an ancient story in their tradition by reenacting ihe story in a highly ritualized fashion. The purpose is basically to affirm that there is a continuity between past and present; that God did singular things for the ancient Jews; that there is a solidarity between contemporary Jews and those ancestors who were called out of slavery into freedom: "And you shall tell your son on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt'" (Exodus 13:8). Such a celebration is not merely a historical remembrance. For lews participating in the Passover meal, there is a deep admixture of memory, worship, and hope.
Holy Communion (The Eucharist)
Holy Communion in Christianity functions in ways that are analogous to the Passover in ludaism. In fact, Holy Communion has its roots in the Passover meal. The various Christian communities give diverse interpretations of the significance of communion, and they celebrate it with varying frequency (e.g., Baptists may celebrate the "ordinance" of the "Lord's Supper" a few times a year, while Catholics may celebrate the Eucharist or "thanksgiving" every day). Yet all Christian groups agree that when they celebrate the communion meal, they are reenacting events connected with Jesus of Nazareth. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as the letter of Paul known as First Corinthians, describe a ceremony involving the use of bread and wine, which are given significance through words attributed to Jesus. According to the apostle Paul:
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same manner also the cup, after supper, saying "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." (I Corinthians 11:23-25)
As in the Passover celebration, a religious story (the mythos) is reenacted long after the event it narrates, not because it tells a particular moment in history, but because it carries a meaning that the community of believers, long after the event itself, wishes to restate. The reenactment puts believers in touch with the origins of their community, while at the same time it expresses certain religious convictions that are viewed as having enduring significance.
The conjunction of myth and ritual is characteristic of many of the most important ceremonies of religious traditions. In Shi'i Islam, the "passion plays" of the month of Muharram reenact the martyrdom of Husayn at Karbala in 692 C.E. and draw members of the Shi'i community into an eternal drama in which good suffers in its struggle with evil. In Shinto, the rituals performed at shrines throughout Japan reenact the conflict between Amaterasu (the sun goddess) and Susanoo (the god of storms} and enable participants to feel themselves a part of the struggle to bring order to the world. Such rituals allow people to step outside ordinary time in order to become one with long-past events. The stories provide data and/or symbolic memories, which the rituals bring into the present. Rituals, we may say, are ways of entering the realm of the sacred. They enable believers to participate in remembered moments of a sacred past, and thus they illumine the present.
RITES OF PASSAGE
"Rites of passage" is a technical term, first popularized and thoroughly studied by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. Rites of passage describe those ceremonies associ¬ated with the transitional moments in a person's life. More specifically, van Gennep and others were interested in those ceremonies that marked the transition from child¬hood to adulthood in traditional societies. Students of religion have long observed that all religions provide riluals and/or theological rationales to commemorate such moments. Indeed, nominal believers who feel no great need to observe most of the customs of a tradition may still turn to religion for rites of passage. Thus, a nominal lew or Christian might ignore the weekly demands of synagogue or church but still have a child circumcised or baptized in infancy or (urn to the synagogue or church for a ritual of status change (bar mitzvah or confirmation; marriage) or to observe rites for mourning or death. For some people, such situation-specific rituals are what are most important in religion.
Drawing on the work of Van Gennep, the late anthropologist Victor Turner argued that ritual has three fundamental phases. First, there is a period of separation, followed by a time when they are in, what Turner called, the "liminal" soge (liminal comes from the Latin word for "threshold") followed by reintegration into the community but, now, in a new fashion. Thus, when a young person undergoes the ceremony of bar mitzvah (in Judaism) or a Christian is confirmed, they leave (symbolically) their childhood, enter into the ceremonial period prescribed (liminality) and then reenter their community but now in a new status.
Turner and his wife Edith applied this theory to pilgrimage in an analogous fashion. Pilgrims leave off their ordinary life to enter the liminal period of going on pilgrimage and then come back to their normal life with the added status of having completed the pilgrimage. In Islam, to cite a specific example, making the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) is not only enjoined on all Muslims but those who have made the pilgrimage are now allowed to add a form of the word Haj to their own names. Pilgrimage, in fact, is a fertile place to investigate ritual from the perspective of Turner's thesis.
Apart from the specific meanings invested by a religious community in such rituals, it is not difficult to see why such moments and their celebration are important for people. No matter how technologically advanced a culture might be, a sense of awe and risk still surrounds human birth, just as there is fear and bewilderment about the reality and inevitability of death. Even the most unsentimental or secular person approaches a marriage with a sense of ceremony and symbol. These great, transitional moments in people's lives touch persons as individuals and as social beings.
Let us say a few words on specific rites of passage.
Although some traditional cultures actually ritualize the moment of birth, "birth rituals" usually refer to rites connected to the newborn and its parents. Some of these rites, for example, circumcision and baptism, are profoundly social in their implications. By circumcision, a male child becomes a member of the Jewish people (and note that circumcision serves a similar purpose among Muslims), with the circumcision itself seen as a sign of the biblical covenant between God and the Jews: "You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you" (Genesis 17:11). Through baptism, a child becomes a member of the Christian church; in some Christian communities, baptism is the ceremony that distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian. Other Christian groups emphasize the naming of the child or its dedication to God as the central point of baptism. Through ritual feeding, a Hindu family initiates a male child into the duties of its caste. Similar meanings are given to birth rituals in the various religious traditions, even though the forms are quite diverse. People celebrate the safe passage of the infant from the womb into the world; they welcome him or her into the family; they give the child a name; they pay homage to the creative power of the sacred.
Rituals of Initiation
It was this complex of rituals that first attracted the attention of Arnold van Gennep. He focused his study on those rituals celebrating and symbolizing the passage of a person from childhood into adulthood. In those settings studied by van Gennep, this began typically for females at menarche (the onset of menstruation) and for males at the onset of puberty. In either case, the ceremonies signified the passage from child¬hood to the responsibilities of adult life, especially those attached to marriage and parenthood. While the specifics of this rite varied in different cultures, the outlines of the ceremony remained rather constant: ritual segregation from the larger group and some form of testing followed by the actual ceremonies of initiation, then reentry into the group as a recognized adult. Every member of a sorority or fraternity or anyone who has been in the military will recognize the pattern immediately: pledge or recruit status, initiation ceremonies after testing, acceptance as a full-fledged brother or sister or trooper.
The importance of this type of rite in signifying the passage from childhood to adult status is perhaps less clear in modern, industrialized cultures because of the
extending of the period called adolescence. Even though many young people go through a traditional rite of passage (e.g., a bar or bat mitzvah, or confirmation) [he "adults" are, in fact, economically dependent on their parents for some time after their "passage."
The great ritual of initiation in postmodern cultures is marriage. Even when the ceremony is contemporary, certain elements in the marriage rite hearken back to ancient traditions. The practice of the bride not seeing (or really, not being seen by) the groom before the ceremony, the symbolic colors (e.g., white for purity), the use of flowers, the separation of the newlyweds from the larger group (e.g., through a honeymoon), even the horseplay of soaping the car and throwing the rice—all of these things reflect ancient feelings about the mystery of sexuality, its generative power, and its promise of offspring. This sexual undertone to the ceremony parallels the symbolism of moving from a parental home to a new and independent one.
Rituals of Mourning and Death
If there is one moment in the human journey that speaks most compellingly of mystery and sacredness, it is the moment(s) of dying, death, and burial. Even in the most secularized cultures, the transitions from the death watch to death itself to the funeral are all freighted with awe. Death, while an intensely personal reality, is also social; hence the universal sadness (and, in some cultures, horror) at the prospect of dying alone or of not giving someone a "proper" burial.
Differeni religious traditions ritualize the mourning process in various ways. Taoist rites include an elaborate ritual involving an enactment of the soul's journey into the underworld and its rescue and delivery into heaven by ancestral spirits. The ceremony, which may require months of preparation, features the acrobatic actions of various acolytes (attendants), directed by a priest trained in Taoist traditions of ritual performance. By comparison, Muslims and Orthodox Jews bury the dead within a day, marking the occasion with only very simple ceremonies; the bereaved family and community subsequently observe a designated period of mourning.
Many burial rites symbolize the relationship of human beings to the natural world. Pious Hindus in India cremate their dead and consign the
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The two chapters attached to your posting are fascinating reading. Chapter four discusses language, or human written and oral communication. Myth, or stories that have been handed down for so long they are untraceable as to origin, are discussed, as are other stories, including parables, which teach larger lessons through storytelling (written or oral). Cultures which have oral traditions are mentioned, as when there exists no written language, or as when a strong oral tradition exists even when the culture has a written language. The effect language has on the sacred traditions of various cultures and religions is mentioned, and the importance of ...
Summary of chapters and reflective personal analysis of religion with focus on language and ritual
Religion and terrorist groups
What makes religion a useful tool for mobilizing member of terrorist groups?View Full Posting Details