I’ve now talked about secondary and marginal Jewish and Christian scriptures, about the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretations (also regarded as scripture by Judaism) and about the interpretative tradition in Christianity. There is one area left within “sacred texts” which I haven’t covered – religions other than Judaism and Christianity.
Many people I know would be very uneasy about a suggestion that Christians might read the sacred texts of other religions. We are, after all, Christians – and so we consider that Christianity is the way to understand and show devotion to God – don’t we? We have all heard John 14:6 being quoted time after time, after all…
Firstly, I’ll look at what came before, just as did the Hebrew Scriptures. I’d suggest that, if we are to understand the creation narrative of Genesis 1-3, we should look at what the creation narratives of nations which preceded Israel and from whose area the Israelites are said to have come say about creation, and which bordered the area where the Israelites eventually settled. There are two major narratives from Mesapotamia (Babylon), the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elis which treat of creation, and the parallels (and differences) between those and the Biblical text are fascinating. Biblical scholars have made much of this in understanding how Genesis came to be in the form it is.
The big question, however, is whether we should look to scripture which are entirely outside the traditions of the Bible (such as the Vedas and Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras and the Dao de Ching), or those which follow on after Judaism and Christianity, such as the Koran, the writings of the Sufis, Bah’ai writings and, I suppose, the Book of Mormon (I apologise for any offence given to LDS readers, if there are any; I personally find the Book of Mormon very difficult to regard as anything but a pastiche of King James language, and I have yet to find in it anything I might wish to take to heart which is not already in the Bible).
Dealing with the second category first, I think it necessary to point out that by many standards (and certainly in the eyes of most non-Christians) the Latter Day Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists are Christians, but the first definitely have additional scriptures in the form of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, the second arguably treat the writings of Ellen White as scripture. The Koran acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, but considers Mohammed to have given a better and less corrupted revelation; the Bah’ai faith accepts the Bible and the Koran but considers the writings of its founders to correct (or at least update) both. Needless to say, in the chain of successor religions, each tends to regard the next one in the chain with particular disfavour (Judaism to Christianity, Christianity to Islam, LDS and to a lesser extent SDA, and Islam to Bah’ai and, from time to time, the Sufis). The same mechanism probably explains the particular venom of the early church towards the Gnostics, which I mentioned in part 1.
Are these scriptures worth studying? I know people who would claim that they are without exception Satanic attempts to mislead the faithful, and that we should therefore avoid them like the plague. I think this woefully underestimates both the Bible and God, assuming that (as those of that persuasion would argue) that the Bible is “The Word of God”. Beyond that, I would argue that there is huge value in knowing how others think, and part of that is (for believers) going to rest on their scriptures. If, perchance, we mistrust or fear the actions of those of a particular religious persuasion, there is no more convincing argument than to quote their own scripture to them.
Also (and this is going to apply to the unconnected scriptures as well) there is no more positive exercise for deepening one’s own faith than to allow it to be critiqued by others – and that is particularly the case when those others are from “successor religions”. Those in The Way Station (for whom this post is initially written) will maybe have encountered this idea in Peter Rollins writings and practices – it is “The Evangelism Project”, in which you talk with those of other faiths (or none) and allow them to evangelise you, rather than arguing with them.
Those scriptures which do not share any philosophical or theological presuppositions with Christianity are perhaps even more challenging in one sense, that they require a complete change in thinking, though less challenging in the sense that they are less likely to have an insidious evangelising effect. One could argue that they challenge also in that they may not be wholly accessible to us without a knowledge of the languages and cultures from which they developed, though the number of Christians comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin is fairly limited!
Do they give us something which we cannot get from the Bible? Well, J. Robert Oppenheimer would have been hard pressed to find anything as apposite as the Baghavad Gita’s “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” to comment on the development of the Atomic Bomb. While I value the writings of Christian mystics highly, none of them has quite equalled Baba Kuhi of Shiraz writing “In the market, in the cloister, only God I saw”, and that link is to a site mostly devoted to Rumi, whose writings I know have inspired countless Christians. Is there, I ask myself, anything Biblical which conveys the message of “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao”, or of a host of Zen koans?
When we come to praxis (or practice), very many Christians do yoga or other meditative practices with their origins in Eastern religion – where would they be without Patanjali’s yoga sutras, or the nikayas? They find there nothing contrary to their Christian belief.
So yes, I think we definitely should dare to look beyond the Bible. There is a massive amount there which could inform or enhance our Christian faith. And, in conscience, if as a result we end up not being Christian any more, perhaps we can recall “in my Father’s house are many mansions”.
As a postscript, I will say that the two scriptures which scare me the most (and probably should scare anyone else who is part of the Western developed world) are “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” and “Sell all you have and give it to the poor”. And they are both not only part of the New Testament, but ascribed to Jesus himself.