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Ways of Conceiving the Divine: Part Two

 
The Divine Expressed in Religious Texts

 

The text makes no distinction between texts that are about religion, and texts that are actually held to be sacred by a religious tradition.  This second group of texts is often referred to a “scriptures” (literally writings).  Scholars generally classify these two types of writings as “first level” and “second-level discourse.”

o     The "first-level" is the religious community's authoritative stories, myths, sayings, laws parables, etc. 

o     Second level discourse generally refers to the writings of those who reflect on and interpret scriptures (first level discourse)  Those who engage in “second level” discourse are “theologians” (from “theology”,  literally “god talk”) Rather than simply retell and restate these authoritative expressions of the sacred, the theologian seeks to understand what they mean, interpret them so that the believer can apply them to his or her circumstances and explain them for those who are not a part of the religious community. 

 

In your text, Aristotle, Sankara and St. Thomas Aquinas represent second-level discourse (theologians). The Jewish and Christian scriptures are “first level discourse.”

 

Scripture literally means "writing."  It has come to refer to a writings that are considered to be divinely inspired and therefore that are authoritative. A canon (literally a "rule" or "measure") is a collection of sacred texts that a religious community has established as the authoritative guide for the community.  Generally, the works in the scriptures of a religious traditions were originally passed on orally.  A perceived crisis or defining moment usually motivated the community to commit these to writing and to define which writings would have the status of scripture.  For example, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. seems to be that catalyst that led the Jewish community to establish its canon. Further threats to Judaism led the community to commit its oral tradition to writing.  Similarly, the earliest Christian scriptures were probably not committed to writing until around 70 A.D. and later.  The fact that the first generation of Christians was dying off probably motivated the community to commit its oral tradition to writing.  It was only in the fourth century that the canon of the Christian Bible was established in response to a number of “heretical” movements.

The Role of Sacred Scripture

Even though sacred scriptures exhibit an enormous variety, they are all held by their faith traditions to have certain distinctive characteristics. Sacred scripture is believed to be:

  1.    Transformative: by hearing or reciting scripture, individuals are transformed.
  2.     Eternal and unchanging (i.e. the canon is closed).        
  3.     Normative and authoritative for the community.