As soon as the first humans learned to manipulate tools, they created works of art to make sense of the terror, wonder, and mystery of their existence. From the very beginning, art was inextricably bound up with what we call “religion,” which is itself an art form. The Lascaux Caves, a cultic site since 17,000 BCE, are decorated with numinous paintings of local wildlife, and nearby, in the underground labyrinth of Trois Frères at Ariège, there are spectacular engravings of mammoths, bison, wolverines, and musk oxen. Dominating the scene is a massive painted figure, half man, half beast, who fixes his huge, penetrating eyes on visitors as they stumble out of the underground tunnel that provides the only route to this prehistoric temple. This hybrid creature transcends anything in our empirical experience but seems to reflect a sense of the underlying unity of animal, human, and divine.
From the very beginning, men and women deliberately cultivated a perception of existence that differed from the empirical. Humans have an instinctive appetite for the sacred, for a more enhanced state of being. Until the modern period, it was taken for granted in all cultures that the world was pervaded by and found its explanation in a reality that exceeded the reach of the intellect. In the modern world, we may not cultivate this sense of the transcendent as assiduously as our forebears, but we have all known moments when we are touched deeply within, seem lifted momentarily beyond our everyday selves, and inhabit our humanity more fully than usual—in dance, music, poetry, nature, love, sex, or sport as well as in what we call “religion.”
Throughout history, artists, poets, and mystics have carefully nurtured apprehensions of an ineffable unity of reality. Some of these seers expressed their insights in scripture. Others were inspired by scripture to exercise a natural faculty that brought them important insights that are essential to humanity.
The deep-seated human yearning for transcendence and transformation is a major theme of scripture, as are descriptions of ways of achieving these. Today we are less ambitious than we were through most of our past. We want to be slimmer, healthier, younger, and more attractive than we really are. We feel that a “better self ” lurks beneath our lamentably imperfect one: we want to be kinder, braver, more brilliant and charismatic. But scriptures go further. In Understanding Religious Life, the American scholar Frederick Streng has this working definition of religion:
Religion is a means of ultimate transformation. . . . An ultimate transformation is a fundamental change from being caught up in the troubles of common existence (sin, ignorance) to living in such a way that one can cope at the deepest level with these troubles. That capacity for living allows one to experience the most authentic or deepest reality—the ultimate.
The myths, rituals, sacred texts, and ethical practices of religion develop a plan of action “whereby people reach beyond themselves to connect with the true and ultimate reality that will save them from the destructive forces of everyday existence.” Living with what is ultimately real and true, people have found that they are not only better able to bear these destructive tensions, but that life itself acquires new depth and purpose.
Scripture emerged when human beings started to live in larger and more complex societies and needed a common ethos that bound them together. The earliest civilizations were founded in the Middle East in the mid-fourth millennium BCE. Before the development of our modern industrialized economy, all states and empires were based economically on agriculture and were maintained only by ruthless exploitation. In every agrarian society, a small aristocracy, together with its retainers, seized the surplus grown by their peasants and used it to fund their cultural projects, forcing 90 percent of the population to live at subsistence level. No premodern civilization ever found an alternative to this pattern. Yet, historians tell us, without this iniquitous system we would probably never have advanced beyond a primitive level, because it created a privileged class with the leisure to create the arts and sciences on which our progress depended.
One of these civilized arts was scripture, and it depended on the civilized science of ritual. In the premodern world, a “science” was a body of knowledge that required specialized skill and training. Most of history’s sages, prophets, and philosophers belonged to the elite classes, who alone had the time to engage in intensive contemplation and ritualized practice. Yet nearly all scriptural traditions express a divine discontent with the inequity of their societies and insist that even the humblest human being was not only worthy of respect but potentially divine.
A “scripture” can be defined as a text that is regarded as sacred, often—but not always—because it was divinely revealed, and forms part of an authoritative canon. Our English word “scripture” implies a written text, but most scriptures began as texts that were composed and transmitted orally. Indeed, in some traditions, the sound of the inspired words would always be more important than their semantic meaning.
Scripture was usually sung, chanted, or declaimed in a way that separated it from mundane speech. Even after a scripture became a written text, people often regarded it as inert until it was ignited by a living voice, just as a musical score comes fully alive only when interpreted by an instrument. Scripture was, therefore, essentially a performative art, and until the modern period, it was nearly always acted out in the drama of ritual and belonged to the world of myth.
Today, in popular parlance, a “myth” is something that is not true. But traditionally, a myth expressed a timeless truth that in some sense happened once but also happens all the time. It enabled people to make sense of their lives by setting their dilemmas in a timeless context. The myths of scripture are not designed to confirm your beliefs or endorse your current way of life; rather, they are calling for a radical transformation of mind and heart. These myths are a way of envisaging the mysterious reality of the world that we cannot grasp conceptually. Myths come alive when enacted in ritual, without which they can seem abstract and even alien. Myth and ritual are so intertwined that it is a matter of scholarly debate as to which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it.
In the Protestant West, ritual is often regarded as secondary to scripture or even dismissed as superstition. But before the early modern period, reading scripture outside its ritualized context would have felt as unsatisfactory as reading the libretto of an opera. Sometimes, in fact, ritual was regarded as far more important than scripture. Some essential teachings, such as the Christian belief that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, are rooted in ritual practice and have little valence in scripture. Other traditions, such as Chan (or Zen) Buddhism, find scripture entirely dispensable. But ritual was rarely discarded: in the past, those reformers who rejected the ceremonial rituals of their day nearly always replaced them with new rites. The Buddha, for example, had no time for the Brahmins’ elaborate Vedic sacrifices but required his monks to so ritualize their everyday physical actions that the way they walked, spoke, or washed expressed moral beauty and grace.
Our modern society, however, is rooted in “logos” or “reason,” which must relate precisely to factual, objective, and empirical reality if it is to function efficiently in the world. For our full functioning, logos and mythic thinking, or mythos, must complement each other. Both are essential and both have limitations. Myth cannot bring something entirely new into existence, as logos can. A scientist can cure hitherto incurable diseases, but this cannot prevent him from succumbing occasionally to despair when confronted with the mortality, tragedy, and apparent pointlessness of our existence.
The prevalence of logos in modern society and education has made scripture problematic. In the early modern West, people began to read the narratives of the Bible as though they were logoi, factual accounts of what happened. But scriptural narratives never claimed to be accurate descriptions of the creation of the world or the evolution of species. Nor did they attempt to provide historically exact biographies of the sages, prophets, and patriarchs of antiquity. Precise historical writing is a recent phenomenon. It became possible only when archaeological methodology and improved knowledge of ancient languages radically enhanced our understanding of the past. Because scriptures do not conform to modern scientific and historical norms, many people dismiss them as incredible and patently “untrue.” But they do not apply the same criteria to a novel, which yields profound and valuable insights by means of fiction. Nor do they dismiss the poetic genius of Milton’s Paradise Lost because its account of the creation of Adam does not accord with the evolutionary hypothesis. A work of art, be it a novel, a poem, or a scripture, must be read according to the laws of its genre, and, like any artwork, scripture requires the disciplined cultivation of an appropriate mode of consciousness.
Scriptural traditions prescribe different ways of living in harmony with the transcendent, but on one thing they all agree. To live in genuine relation with what Streng called the unknowable “ultimate,” men and women must divest themselves of egotism. What the Greeks called kenosis (the “emptying” of self) is a central scriptural theme. Kenosis requires a transcendence of self that is extremely difficult to attain. That is why some traditions insist that you cannot read scripture by yourself. Without going beyond the ego, dismantling our instinctive tendency to place ourselves at the center of the world, scripture remains impenetrable. But nearly all the scriptures present us with the human being who has achieved this transformation and achieved a more authentic mode of being. The scriptures insist that this is not the attainment of a few exceptional people but is possible for anybody.
Before the early modern period, when the Renaissance humanists and Protestant reformers sought to return “to the wellsprings” (ad fontes) of Christianity, scriptures were routinely revised, updated, and their message dramatically reinterpreted to meet the demands of the present. The art of scripture did not mean a return to an imagined perfection in the past, because the sacred text was always a work in progress. The art of scriptural exegesis was, therefore, inventive, imaginative, and creative. So, to read the scriptures correctly and authentically, we must make them speak directly to our modern predicament.
In many ways, we seem to be losing the art of scripture in the modern world. Instead of reading it to achieve transformation, we use it to confirm our own views—either that our religion is right and that of our enemies wrong, or, in the case of skeptics, that religion is unworthy of serious consideration. Too many believers and non-believers alike now read these sacred texts in a doggedly literal manner that is quite different from the more inventive and mystical approach of premodern spirituality. Because its creation myths do not concur with recent scientific discoveries, militant atheists have condemned the Bible as a pack of lies, while Christian fundamentalists have developed a “Creation science” claiming that the book of Genesis is scientifically sound in every detail. Many would be in tacit agreement with the character in Mrs. Humphry Ward’s novel Robert Elsmere: “If the Gospels are not true in fact, as history, I cannot see how they are true at all, or of any value.”
This literalistic mindset subverts the traditional art of scripture. Here we have a confusion of genres. Scripture is an art form designed to achieve the moral and spiritual transformation of the individual and, if it does not inspire ethical or altruistic behavior, it remains incomplete. The “art” of science is quite different, because it is morally neutral. In fact, that is one of the reasons for its success. Science can say nothing about what we should do or why we should do it. It cannot and does not prescribe or even suggest how its discoveries should be applied. Science and scripture, therefore, are chalk and cheese, and to apply the disciplines of one to the other can lead only to confusion.
Scripture has never yielded clear univocal messages or lucid incontrovertible doctrines. On the contrary, scripture was usually regarded as an “indication” that could only point to the ineffable. Sometimes it even forces us to experience the shock of total unknowing. We see this, for just one example, in one of India’s most popular scriptures, the Mahabharata, which induces a spiritual and conceptual vertigo. Or Mahayana Buddhism, which rigorously rejected essentialism and produced a multifarious canon that demonstrated, insistently, that all our most basic assumptions about the world were untenable.
The purpose of scripture was not to confirm the reader or listener in their firmly held opinions, but to transform them utterly. The art of scripture demanded that it issued positive, practical action; otherwise it was end-stopped, its natural dynamic frustrated. In India, Buddhists devised a form of yoga in which the practitioner extended loving sympathy to all quarters of the world, until he had achieved a state of perfect equanimity and impartiality toward all creatures. Furthermore, the Buddha sent his monks out to travel through the world to help suffering people deal with their pain. Contemporaneously, Jains saw their rituals, which expressed their loving care and reverence for all creatures, animate or inanimate, as far more important than their canonical scriptures. The Quran gave Muslims a divine mission to create a just and compassionate society in which wealth was shared fairly and the poor and vulnerable were treated with respect. Essential to the art of scripture, therefore, was what medieval European monks called intentio, a concentration or “intensity” of intellect that impelled them to better the world by practical, altruistic action. As Augustine famously remarked: “I call charity a movement of the mind toward [the goal of] fruitfully enjoying God for his own sake and myself and my neighbor for God’s sake.”
In modern secular society, the privatization of faith has overturned the dynamic intentio of the scriptural genre. Secularization—the separation of religion and politics—could have benefited religion by liberating it from the inherent injustice of the state, but it has not inspired a prophetic critique of society. Instead, by reducing religion to a “private search,” it seems to have subjectivized and even trivialized the art of scripture. Instead of extirpating egotism from the psyche, yoga has become an aerobic exercise or a means of easing personal tension and improving physical flexibility. Mindfulness, designed to teach Buddhists anatta (“no self ”)—that the “self ” we prize so dearly is illusory and nonexistent— is now used to help people feel more centered and comfortable in themselves. The old scriptural ideal of kenosis seems in abeyance.
None of the scriptural traditions could eradicate the systemic violence of the agrarian state, but they offered an alternative ideal, acting as a continual reminder of what should be done. Scriptures express an awareness that such attitudes as reverence for others and respect even for the stranger or the enemy were not easily acquired; they had to be cultivated assiduously. They insist, in their different ways, on the divine core of every single human being. This ideal needs urgently to be restated in a way that speaks to the modern world. In the past, scripture did not slavishly return to a presumed purity in the past; it always moved forward creatively to address new challenges. Unless our traditions can meet this urgent need, we are rendering our scriptures irrelevant.
The Episcopal theologian Hans Frei (1922–1988) pointed out that in the pre-critical world, even though the scriptures were seen as historical in the pre-modern sense, readers had always reached beyond the texts to address the issues of the day. Origen, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas had assessed current events as either negatively or positively reflecting patterns established in scripture. But during the Enlightenment, the biblical narratives began to be read as history in the modern sense. People forgot that they were written as stories that were merely “history-like” and began to regard them as wholly factual accounts, and, therefore, for some they became incredible.
Christians, Frei asserted, had a twofold task. They had to read the gospels and their history-like stories with all the critical, literary, and historical acumen that they could muster. They also had to read and interpret their own times with all the historical, sociological, and cultural sensibility at their disposal. Like the renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, Frei believed the Bible should be read in conjunction with a critical interpretation of current events. This should not be a complicated, abstrusely hermeneutical discipline. It simply meant that the Bible and the newspaper should, as it were, lie side by side.
Politics and the Bible should coexist in a symbiotic relationship, Frei argued, because it would prevent scriptures from becoming a convenient instrument for the clerical and political establishments. The gospels’ dissident ideas— about God, justice, equity, compassion, and suffering—must be brought to bear on our mundane circumstances. This, of course, was not achievable in a single, superficial reading; it could only be the result of a continuous process in which the readers daily transformed their understanding of themselves and the world in which they lived, and then acted accordingly.
Writing in a similar vein, the American theologian George Lindbeck concluded that the Bible should be read in a literary manner. Our reading of scripture, Lindbeck argued, must be innovative. In the past, scriptures were altered and reinterpreted quite dramatically to meet changing conditions, and Lindbeck was convinced that we should continue this tradition. This require intellectual skills that go against the grain of the modern academic reverence for the integrity of the original text. Yet unless scripture is made to reach out creatively to meet our current predicaments, it will fail the test of our time.
Every scriptural tradition has a central theme or motif, which reflects its unique view of the human predicament. Each tradition invests with dignity and significance a way of life in a world that can otherwise seem brutal, pointless, and terrifying. Scripture, when practiced as art, is language made numinous. Scriptures are, as they have always been, works in progress, which draw on the past to give meaning to the present. The message of a scripture is not cast in stone, and no scriptural text has all the answers. Even the inspired words of scripture must eventually segue into the silence that is an expression of awe, wonder, and unknowing.
Adapted from The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts by Karen Armstrong © 2019. Reprinted with permission of Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.