Stumbling over the scriptures

“To explain, nowadays we have mountains of scriptures by our side, both the text and the commentaries thereof. We study religious literature with weary and dewy eyes to such an extent that our heads are full of ready-made facts seen from various angles, say, from the viewpoint of religion, philosophy, literature, etc. And this manifold knowledge of ours, with reference to the scriptures, fails to enable us to effectively choose what suits us best and in which we can take refuge. The more we study the scriptures the less we know of the essence of religion. As a matter of fact the essence of religion can only be reached by genuine practice alone.”

– Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno, “Mutual Understanding of Each Other’s Religion”

“The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.”

– Joseph Smith

I thought this was an incredible quote from a series of lectures given by Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno called Christianity and Buddhism. In it, Bhikku attempts to create a level playing field of dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, as well as just between two different religions in general. In it, he makes this surprising assertion that perhaps scriptures only muddy the waters, rather than lead us to cool, pristine wells of knowledge and faith. He compares it to climbing a tree from the top to bottom — starting with the scriptures first before practice is, to him, simply the opposite way to explore a faith.

In a way, Bhikku has history on his side. Many religions schism because of, among other reasons, differences in scriptural interpretation. In Christianity, Martin Luther’s pronouncement of sola scriptura has led to some of the worst excesses of fetishistic Bible worship, creating an untouchable status with little actual knowledge of how the text came to be. Of course, us Mormons are not innocent either; many times over prominent Mormons would promote false, misleading, or ignorant interpretations of scripture in order to “prove” correlation between two completely different texts. Prooftexting is not just a Mormon phenomenon; I’ve had people try to drag the scriptures into any kind of discussion — biology, politics, economics, etc.

The funny thing is in the beginning of every religion, those scriptures didn’t exist. The early Saints didn’t have Doctrine and Covenants; they were writing it. The original Twelve Apostles didn’t have the New Testament; they were the New Testament — literally! In fact, in almost every religion, the act of writing scripture down usually didn’t happen for years until after the founder’s death — take the history of the Qur’an or Buddha’s teachings. The founding (and the usual explosion of growth) didn’t require the need for scriptures. It’s only after they’ve been written, and each successive generation groans under the ever growing body of scripture and commentary and interpretation, that people begin to drift away and the religion struggles to maintain the holy fire that once burned in their hearts.

But do you personally agree with this statement? On the one hand, prophets in the LDS Church have repeatedly told us that reading out scriptures is incredibly important. However, on the other hand, we also say that the Bible, and even our current open canon, is still a work in progress, and much more new information could be added to the ever-growing corpus of revelation, possibly even nullifying previous statements. Could we grasp onto the scriptures too tightly to cause a stumbling block for us? Obviously, anything done in excess is unhealthy, and surely the scriptures do provide worth when used for rich, meaningful study. But just how useful can they really be?

My mission president once addressed the complaints of some missionaries that studying Preach My Gospel, the missionary manual, every day for at least 30 minutes was too boring and repetitive. He responded by telling the mission that “If you read Preach My Gospel right, you will spend 90% of your time in the scriptures. If you read the scriptures right, you will spend 90% of your time in prayer. I would gladly take ten minutes of earnest prayer over an hour of reading the scriptures.” This statement floored me. As someone who has traditionally seen learning from books and study, the idea that you could learn more by “talking to yourself” in a closet caused me to reel.

In the course of my life, I have relied on the scriptures for a great many things, learning especially; however, recently I’ve found that earnest prayer, the heartfelt song of a psalm, the act of sitting meditation, or the performance of service has helped build my faith more than any scripture could. Like my mission president, I have found ten minutes of earnest prayer to be much more effective than reading the scriptures for knowledge, and I have learned more about God within one minute of genuine service than ten minutes of prayer or an hour of scripture study. As I’ve grown older, I love the scriptures even more than ever. They are beautiful pieces of literature, and both poetry and rhetoric can reach sublime heights. But maybe Bhikkhu is on to something. Maybe the scriptures sometimes get in the way. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes we’re climbing the tree backwards.

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1 Comment

Filed under life stories, religion

One response to “Stumbling over the scriptures

  1. I think it’s useful to define different kinds of learning differently and recognize their values as such.
    While I may find a statistical study fascinating, and a philosophical argument compelling and useful, critical thinking and traditional book learning are limited. I think your Mission president was right. For the kind of work you were engaged in, prayer, and drawing close to the lord through actual conversation with him was useful in ways reading Jesus the Christ and ruminating over scripture stories as you read them for the 50th time might not be, despite their very real value.

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