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Karen Armstrong: How scripture is abused by both believers and non-believers

Instead of being transformative, as in the past, scripture is now being used to confirm our own views as the right ones, says author Karen Armstrong in this extract from The Lost Art of Scripture.

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 sceptics, 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, whereas Christian fundamentalists have developed a Creation science, claiming the book of Genesis is scientifically sound in every detail. Jihadis cite passages from the Quran to support their acts of criminal terrorism. Religious Zionists quote “proof texts” to assert their claim to the holy land and justify their enmity towards the Palestinians. Sikhs have been assassinated for applying modern textual criticism to the Guru Granth Sahib [the principal scripture of Sikhism], and others quote their scriptures to assert Sikh distinctiveness in a way that contradicts Guru Nanak’s original vision.

Not surprisingly, all this has given scripture a bad name. Our logos-driven mentality also makes it difficult for people to think in terms of conventional mythos and this makes scripture highly problematic. 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.”

Read more: The author rescuing the world's sacred texts from fundamentalists | The place of religion in schools

Scripture is an art form designed to achieve the individual’s moral and spiritual transformation and, if it does not inspire ethical or altruistic behaviour, it remains incomplete. The “art” of science is quite different, because it is morally neutral. In fact, that’s 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 was always heard in the context of ritual, which dramatised it and enabled participants to embody it. Music, a product of the brain’s right hemisphere, stilled the analytical thinking of the left side and gave participants intimations of a more mysterious dimension of reality that transcended their mundane experience. It evoked attitudes of wonder, respect and reverence for the cosmos and other humans. Without this liturgical context, an essential dimension of scripture is missing.

Contemplating scripture outside a ritualised setting is like reading the lyrics of an aria. In India and China, elaborate ceremonial ritual gave an emotional and sensory dimension to the dry ritual science of the Brahmanas [ancient Indian texts with commentaries on the hymns of the four Vedas] and the Classic of Rites [a collection of texts describing the social forms, administration and ceremonial rites of the Zhou dynasty]. Ritual also evoked ethical attitudes of wonder, respect and reverence for the cosmos and other humans. When Ezra introduced his torah to the people of Judah, he humanised it, making its novelty less disturbing, by introducing them to the ritual of Sukkoth. Without the domestic rites designed by the rabbis to replace the magnificent temple liturgy, the abstruse spirituality of the Mishnah [the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions] could never have taken root among the people.

Long before they had any scriptures, the early Christians had commemorated Jesus’ horrific death in a ceremonial meal. Later, the splendour of Byzantine liturgy would transform the participants’ perception of both Christ and themselves. In western Europe, Benedictine monks chanted the entire Psalter [the Book of Psalms], interspersed with scriptural readings, every week, an exercise that required breath control and ritualised genuflections and bowing, physical disciplines that taught them attitudes of reverence at a level deeper than the cerebral. The haunting, repetitive cadences of the Gregorian chant also restricted and bound the rational, discursive activity of the left brain so that the monks were open to the intuitive vision of the right.

The Quran is called “The Recitation”. From the very beginning, the Prophet drew on the Eastern tradition of sacred sound, and the Quran records the extraordinary effect it had on its first audiences. Quranic recitation is the major art form in the Islamic world. It evokes a state known as huzn, designed specifically to give audiences what Christians used to call “the gift of tears”. When Westerners claim to have “read” the Quran, they have experienced nothing like this.

Scripture has never yielded clear, univocal messages or lucid incontrovertible doctrines. On the contrary, before the modern era, scripture was regarded as an “indication” that could only point to the ineffable. From the rishis [Hindu sages or saints], through the brahmodya ritual, to the Upanishadic sages, the Indian expositors of scripture knew they were trying to express something that lay beyond the capacity of language and could say only, “Neti … neti [not this, not that]”. It was possible to grasp these truths only by the careful cultivation of a different mode of consciousness in physical exercises, rituals and complex mental disciplines.

Even the Hebrew scriptures, which personified the divine, presented Yahweh [a form of the Hebrew name of God] as opaque, puzzling and inconsistent. It is significant that the image of God that became embedded in Jewish consciousness was Ezekiel’s baffling vision of the divine kavod [glory] that defied categorisation. It was this that inspired Jewish philosophers and mystics to insist that God’s essential being was not even mentioned in the Bible or the Talmud [the central text of Rabbinic Judaism].

In Christianity, the Cappadocians, Denys and Thomas Aquinas all insisted scripture could tell us nothing about what God really was. In the Quran, Allah is given 99 names that Muslims recite as a mantra, but these are contradictory, cancel one another out, and can only therefore point to a reality that lies beyond the reach of speech.

Consequently, scripture has no clear message and has nothing in common with the clear and distinct ideas that characterise sola ratio. Sometimes it even forces us to experience the shock of total unknowing. This was clear in the Mahābhārata, which induces a spiritual and conceptual vertigo, but which is, significantly, one of India’s most popular scriptures. In their scriptures, Daoists inveighed against dogmatism and the lust for certainty that makes people fall in love with their own opinions, because “the dao that can be known is not the eternal Dao”.

The Analects [an ancient Chinese book composed of a collection of sayings and ideas attributed to Confucius and his contemporaries] left the Chinese with a deep suspicion of lucid dogmas and rigid formulations. It is impossible to find a set of tidy doctrines in the Hebrew Bible; and in the New Testament, there is not one gospel but four, each presenting a different picture of Jesus. The Quran, too, produces no clear teaching on such topics as the conduct of war, and jurists had to rely on their own “independent reasoning” when they developed Islamic jurisprudence. The Protestant reformers’ discovery that they could not agree about what scripture said on such basic issues as the Eucharist split the movement into divisive sects. Yet that has not deterred later monotheists from making dogmatic and often aggressive statements about what scripture really means.

Scriptures could eschew such dogmatism because, until relatively recently, they were never regarded as the Last Word; they were always a work in progress. From as early as the Rigveda [an ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns and commentaries on liturgy, ritual and mystical exegesis], later texts were grafted onto older scriptures that had a very different vision because they were expressing new concerns. Scripture always drew on the past to give meaning to the present. Its message was never cast in stone.

In China, Confucians read their own ideas into Confucius’ words; he was the soil in which they planted their own views and reflections. In India, the Upanishadic sages radically reinterpreted the mystical experience of the ancient rishis, and new Vedantic writings continue this process today. During their exile in Babylonia, an editor or group of editors recast the ancient traditions of Israel and Judah in a way that spoke directly to their condition and left its imprint on nearly every book of the Hebrew Bible.

Later, after the destruction of the temple, the rabbis developed the art of midrash [ancient commentary] that marched purposefully away from the Written Torah. They joined disparate quotations to form a horoz that gave the original texts a different meaning, and even changed the words of scripture to give them a more compassionate significance. The New Testament authors ransacked the Written Torah to create their own pesher exegesis, reinterpreting ancient laws and prophecies to make them predict the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

While some Muslim jurists, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, tried to interpret the Quran literally, Shiis very early read their own esoteric beliefs into certain verses, and influential mystics, such as the formidable scholar Ibn al-Arabi, insisted that every time a Muslim recited a verse from the Quran, it should mean something different to him.

Unlike science, scripture always had a moral dimension and was essentially a summons to compassionate, altruistic action. Its purpose was not to confirm the reader or listener in their firmly held opinions, but to transform them utterly.

THE LOST ART OF SCRIPTURE: RESCUING THE SACRED TEXTS, by Karen Armstrong (Bodley Head, $40)

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.