The Medium Is The Message

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            I said in my description of this sermon in our newsletter, that it was inspired by an article in the most recent issue of the UUA World.  In that magazine there is a review of a book which questions the assumption widely held in Unitarian Universalist circles, at least, that all religions are at heart the same.   The debate over universality versus particularity in religion is a long one; I believe in the universality of religion though the metaphor I use is not that all religions are the same, but that all arise from the same place.  We human beings are spiritual creatures.  We know that because we see spirituality in human beings all around the world.  I believe that spirituality evolved in us, others believe that it was implanted in humanity by Divinity; but it is clearly a universal characteristic of human beings.  The picture I use is of a water lily; there is a single root (our spirituality) from which rise different stalks each giving birth, if you will, to different pads and flowers.       

            Just so, our human spirituality has given birth to different religious traditions which have followed different paths of development but which arise from one root.  Or so I believe.

            There is a story of the Muslim and the two Hindus who get into a conversation about religion. 

The Muslim says, “We have God”.  The first Hindu says, “Oh, we have God also”; and the second says, “Yes, many”.

            The Muslim says, “But we have the one true God”.  The first Hindu says, “Oh, we have the one true God also”, and the second Hindu says, “Yes, many”.

            The Muslim says, “But that is a contradiction”.  The first Hindu says, “Oh, we have those too”, and the second says, “Yes, many”.

Old Islamic saying: If you find what appear to be contradictions in the Qu’ran, then you are interpreting incorrectly.

One of my divinity school professors said: There are no contradictions in the Bible; there are only tensions.  

How is that possible?  I give you two non-Biblical statements: “Strike while the iron is hot” and “look before you leap”.  Contradictory statements?  No; complementary statements that are in tension with one another.

Muhammad is reported to have said, “Live each day as if it is your last; live each day as if you will live for a hundred years”.  A contradiction?  Only for absolute literalists; for the rest of us, those again are complementary statements though they may be in tension with one another.  And it is in the tension that deeper wisdom lies.

In the religious traditions that believe they hold revealed texts—that is, texts which are revealed to humanity by or from a Divine source—there is a presumption that there can be no contradictions in those texts.  The Divine source is perfect and therefore the word revealed must also be perfect.

The approach that is taken by what I will call the “fundamentalist” believers in the Torah of Judaism, the Bible of Christianity, the Qu’ran of Islam, and the Vedas and Upanishads of Hinduism (such as some followers of the Vedanta school) is that since the sacred text is revealed by Divinity, it must be read as literally true.  

The Liberal approach to sacred texts tends to view them as written by human beings for human beings or to see them as requiring a metaphorical rather than a literal reading.  Liberals see that the Bible, for example, is not a single voice but has many different and distinct voices within it.  There are voices of certainty, but also voices of despair, of confusion and of hope.   These are the writings of people who have grappled with questions and doubts; who wonder how it is possible, in a world ruled by God, that the good can suffer and the evildoer can prosper.  These are the voices of those who, in pain and suffering, cry out for the intervention of a God who seems to have gone away.

Liberals do see contradictions in sacred texts, but some see more deeply than mere contradictions; some also see that these apparent contradictions are only complementary statements that are in tension with one another and that in that tension lies deeper wisdom.

Within Judaism today that includes some in the Reform movement and certainly most in the Humanist Judaism movement; within Christianity that includes most Unitarian Universalists and many other liberals in other denomination; within Islam that includes the Sufis who tend to read the Qu’ran as metaphor; and within Hinduism it includes the Brahmo Samaj movement created by Rammohun Roy and later lead by Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore.  The Brahmo Samaj base their approach to the reading of the Upanishads on the approach that Unitarian missionaries in India took towards Christian scriptures, one of them taught Rammohun Roy. 

            The Torah or five books of Moses—also called the Pentateuch—are on a large scroll which one finds in most Temples and Synagogues.  There are other Jewish writings including the Prophets and the Writings.  These were also on scrolls, and there were collections of these and other scrolls in various places—think of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  So in a library of various Jewish writings (as in a library of Roman or Persian writings) there were these collections of scrolls.  But, an important point—for Jews only the Torah was the word of God; only the Torah was (and is) sacred text; only the Torah was presumed to have no contradictions.

Two thousand years ago most Jewish people outside of Palestine, and many within it,were Greek speakers.  They wanted translations of their sacred texts.  The Septuagint was a collection of Greek translations of the Torah and of other Jewish writings: The Prophets, the Writings, but also other books, books that are not found in the Jewish collection today. 

            There are problems with writings that are on a scroll.  It is difficult to move from one passage to another, especially if they are widely separated, without multiple copies of your document. 

At about the end of the first century AD, that is, just as Christianity was both expanding and separating out from Judaism, a new technology became popular, a new data storage system: the codex. The codex was essentially a book.  It used papyrus pages stitched together which could be written on both sides and which could be flipped through to move from one part of a document to another.  The codex allowed for more information to be stored in one place and for easier access to that information, it was easier moving back and forth from section to section of the writings. 

Christians, who like their Jewish neighbors mostly spoke Greek, used the Septuagint as their religious text, especially the Prophets whose citations were used to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.  And they used a codex version of the Septuagint because that made it easy to flip back and forth between citations.  In a very brief period of time Christians began to treat the entire Septuagint as the word of God; they “sacralized” the whole thing.  Instead of just the Torah, they now said this book, everything that is joined together in it, is the word of God.  And there can be no contradictions in the word of God, so there can be no contradiction in any of this.  They expanded the Canon.

What made that happen?  I believe it was partly because the writings were all collected together in one place.  It is unlikely they would have said the same thing about a pile of scrolls.  So for these early Christians, the medium, the collection of the writing from various scrolls into one codex, into one document, sacralized the entire contents.

Years ago a writer by the name of Marshall McLuhan wrote a book entitled The Medium Is The Message.  I stole that title from him for my sermon because in the case of the Christian movement, the medium, the method of storage, changed the reading, changed the meaning of these texts.

            Today there are new media for storing or accessing sacred texts.  For example, one can go online to the Internet Sacred Text Archive and order a DVD that contains hundreds of sacred texts, including multiple translations of the Bible and of the Qu’ran, it includes the Tanakh, dozens of Hindu texts, including the Vedas and the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata; it includes Zoroastrian, Taoist, Buddhist, Confucianist, native African and native American tales and stories, ancient Egyptian and Greek writings and much more.  At a font size of 12, standard for writing a document, the list of writings on this DVD stretches for 38 pages. 

The website by the way has all of these texts available for free.  And it has a searchable data base.  I typed in the word “justice” and got over five thousand hits within the data base.   These included links to A Pictorial History of the Tarot, the Sanhedrin Tractate of Judaism, the Minor Law Books of Hinduism, Bushido, the Soul of Japan, Plato’s Republic and Sadi’s Scroll of Wisdom from Islam and many more.  One place, one source, one searchable data base; it is all one.  And from there it is easy to say that within that entire data base there are no contradictions; there are only tensions.

None of this is new thinking; Ralph Waldo Emerson read Hindu texts in the early 1800’s and the Parliament of World Religions took place in the 1890’s and the Bible of World Religions was published in 1939.  But technology has the power to bring this truth to everyone in an immediate way.

I believe technology is also bringing us into a new world that will change not only how the majority of people view sacred texts, but also how we view each other.  That new view will encompass all human beings as one. 

There is a naive view of humanity that says we are all the same but that ignores culture, ethnicity and race.  These are important parts of our individual and group identities.  They should not be overlooked. 

There is a more complex view that recognizes that there are particularities about culture and about ethnic and racial experiences that make us different. 

And, there is a still more complex view which says that despite our differences, despite our particularities, there are things which we share simply by virtue of being human that validate the claim that we are all the same.

When we see humanity as a whole, with tensions but no contradictions, with differences but with no divisions; then we will be a united world.  Cultural differences yes, but underneath, universal human sameness.  We will finally see ourselves as, “six billion cells of one body”.  We will finally see that the child in Belmont and the child in Bosnia and the child in Burundi and in Beijing and in Bombay is our child. 

We need not have identical thoughts or beliefs in order to share hopes, dreams and compassion.

We not call the divine by the same name, or even perceive it in the same way to feel awe.

We need not believe in God in order to feel the presence of the Holy.

We need not be alike in order to feel the touch of the sacred.

May our hearts always be open to new vision, to new revelation and may our spirits be ever expanding.