What makes a written work ‘sacred’, and why are certain works elevated above others?
Please bear with my scholarly tone for the next few paragraphs. Eventually, I’ll make a case for ongoing revelation as opposed to set scripture (see – there’s a payoff coming!) But first, I need to set the ‘sacred’ scene. Here we go!
Most religious traditions have a fixed and unalterable set of written work that is ‘official’ or canon (i.e., sacred.) All subsequent writing is considered supplementary and of lesser authority.
The reason for canon is to unite followers around a common understanding or set of rules, thus reducing the chance of misinterpreting or altering the understanding of their Divine’s communication. It also enables the community to pass on their beliefs to subsequent generations.
For example, the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads are Hindu canon. Called Shruti, meaning ‘heard’, they are understood to be received directly from the Divine. Everything after is called Smriti,’remembered’- contemplations upon Shruti.
Theravada, or Way of the Elders, is Buddhist canon, and Mahayana, or Greater Vehicle, is the inspirational supplement.
Judaism’s canon, the Tanach, is supplemented by the Talmud and the Midraash. Christians accept the Tanach (the Old Testament) as canon, and also include the New Testament. Catholic Christians add writings (Apocrypha) that are considered merely inspirational by Jews and Protestant Christians. These gathered writings are known as The Bible.
Canon, then, is an expression of the conviction that Divinity speaks to a given group only for a discrete time. During this period, revelation is received, and then held as God’s final word. The problem is, this assumes a group’s behaviors and understandings – their culture – does not change through generations.
And this assumption runs contrary to history. Cultural norms DO change, and dramatically. For example, Judeo-Christian ideas about equality, about slavery, about consequences for trangression – even about what constitutes transgression – are markedly different than they were 4000, 2000, 1000 or even 100 years ago. How can a religion remain relevant in the face of canonical rigidity?
Christians today are caught in this dilemma. In light of canon that teaches that men should not shave and women should not speak, that slavery is acceptable and despots are God’s judgement on the faithful, Christians today tend toward one of two perspectives:
1) Evangelicals, who accept canon as the unalterable Word of God, but focus heavily on certain passages and ignore others. This pick-and-choose fundamentalism requires mighty mental machinations to navigate.
2) Mainliners, who consider canon as a reflection of the time in which it is written, but continue to incorporate outmoded interpretations into their worship. (I.e., virgin birth, original sin, human sacrifice.)
Both approaches are problematic – in the exact same way. Because new revelation is not allowed, Christians are forced to shoehorn antiquated perceptions of the Divine into their modern understanding.
It is error to relegate God’s voice to the ancient past. Divine revelation in one moment becomes blasphemy in the next if people hold rigidly to it rather than embracing ever-unfolding epiphanies. Today’s movement of Spirit is not supplementary, it is primary. It is as canonical as were the transcendent whispers in the ears of our ancient mothers and fathers.
In my next post, I’ll talk about candidates for a current canon. Post your ideas here, too!