Taylor: How words shape religions

The notion of looking for God beyond the pages of a single text appeals to me.

We’ve just come through an 11-week election campaign. More words have flown around than leaves falling off trees. With about as much significance.

I’m tempted to quote Macbeth: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.” We will find out, in due course, how much all those words meant. And who the idiots were—the tale-tellers, or those who accepted their tales as gospel.

Words are a mixed blessing. They’re our primary means of communication. But sometimes they get in the way. When you’re kissing your sweetheart, for example. Or when you share grief. I shudder each time I hear a eulogist begin, “Words cannot express my sorrow….” Then they proceed to prove it. At length.

For good reason, Greek oracles spoke in riddles. The only safe way to provide prophetic insights was to be deliberately vague, to ensure that the wisdom expressed could seem true regardless of what happened.

Hmm… that too sounds like election talk, doesn’t it?

Michael Dowd thinks that the way we use words has shaped the phases of our religions.

Before we had words, your experience died with you; you had no way of passing it on.

Words enabled us to capture memory, and then to refine and interpret that memory. The tribe’s elders, the keepers of the tribe’s collective memory, passed along wisdom from the past through their stories and tales.

But memories are flexible. We can, and do, revise our memories. And so, in times of oral narrative, religion tended to adapt to new circumstances: “Orally transmitted stories would evolve over time as conditions changed and as generations faced new challenges,” Dowd says in his book Thank God for Evolution.

Writing, by contrast, is not flexible. Once written, words are fixed. Shakespeare cannot now say, of a politician, “It is a lie told by a bigot…” Even if his immortal soul wishes he could.

So, to quote Dowd again, the stories “were written down and declared to be the unchanging revelation of God. When a story becomes scripture, it ceases to evolve.”

The Bible was originally a record of one people’s fumbling efforts to make sense of their encounters with God. The wisdom came in hindsight.

The Bible was never intended to be a blueprint for the future. But fixing the words in print makes them feel eternal, unchangeable, God always right.

So we had, earlier this month, the founder of a fundamentalist fringe Christian group declaring that the world would end on October 7.

It didn’t.

Did that discourage his faith in a text? Not a bit. “We’ll keep studying the Bible to see what we can learn,” Chris McCann told the media.

If Michael Dowd is right, we’re on the cusp of a religious revolution. Religion 1.0 was flexible, he argues, because it relied on human memory. Religion 2.0 fixated on a printed text, so it hardened, became inflexible. Religion 3.0, Dowd suggests, will be evolutionary, constantly correcting itself, because it will treat the whole of nature—science, the universe, and everything—as its source of divine revelation.

The notion of looking for God beyond the pages of a single text appeals to me.