In the second part of this mini-series, David Hickey continues to explore Karen Armstrong’s book The Lost Art of Scripture. Last month focused on the scriptures of Judaism and Hinduism; this month we move to the scriptures of China and Islam.
[New City Magazine – March 2022 page 16-18]
China: Rites and the Mandate from Heaven
Unlike the Aryans of India, the Chinese had a strong tradition of writing from early on, and it played a vital role in their political and religious life. In fact, we find the earliest ‘scriptures’ in the modern sense of written sacred texts in China. The Chinese consider in particular some of their earliest classical writings as scriptures (for some 3,000 years now), because they made the sacred accessible to them. Through these writings they experienced transcendence and learnt how to nurture it in their daily lives. Amongst them are: the ‘Classic of Changes’, the ‘Classic of Documents’, the ‘Classic of Rites’ and the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’. These were later added to by the writings of Confucius, in particular.
From the time of the Zhou dynasty (around 1050 BCE) the Chinese tried to repeat the order of the cosmos as they experienced it, in the design of their houses, social life generally, and particularly in their political life.
The Zhou introduced an ethical dimension into Chinese religion, having learnt from Chinese history (rather than from divine revelation) that the ‘blessing from heaven’ would only remain with rulers who were in harmony with the ‘little people’ (i.e. their peasants and workers generally). Heaven was not impressed by ‘the slaughter of pigs and oxen but demanded compassion and justice instead’. This mandate from heaven would become an important ideal in Chinese scriptures, and in them, there was never any question of separating religion from politics, because suffering, injustice, and the welfare of society were of sacred importance.
The Way of Heaven
Chinese scriptures insisted that a ruler’s policies must conform to the ‘Way of Heaven’, that is to the fundamental rhythms of life. Once he had achieved this harmony with the ultimate and ever-present reality of heaven, there was nothing that he could not do, because he would be aligned with the way things ought to be, and his presence alone would correct people’s hearts and intentions. But once the ruler lost this mandate from heaven (especially through injustice), then people had the right to replace him with another leader.
The text telling of the Zhou conquest became scripture, which was then expressed by means of ritualised gestures, music and dancing, acted out each year in the Temple of the Ancestors, accompanied by songs from another early Chinese scripture, the ‘Classic of Odes’ (composed probably during the first century of Zhao rule). Along with such public rituals there was also the strict regulation of every detail of court life through particular bodily movements in a stylised performance, that created an art form out of the mess of everyday life. As one of their scriptures stated: rites prevent disasters just as dikes prevent floods. They were a vision of sacred harmony achieved on earth, a holy communion with their departed ancestors, and by conforming physically to the tradition in the rite, they learnt to embody it at a level deeper than the rational. The physical actions of the participants inscribed the past in the body, making a sort of text or scripture out of the performance. A skilfully acted rite could also lead to a transcendent experience in which the participant went beyond the self in an ecstasy and experienced a profound transformation.
Islam and the Poetry of the Quran
Our understanding of Islamic scripture in the Western world has suffered from a lack of a more intuitive and creative approach to its language and structure. Armstrong’s in-depth knowledge and understanding of the Quran and the Muslim world generally is one of the strongpoints of the whole book.
Her main point is that the Quran may seem bewildering to people of Europe and the Western world generally, as we often use a narrowly rational understanding in our approach to religious scriptures. For some of us the Quran is often lacking in a clear narrative line, there’s little sense of time, and themes and doctrines are not developed in a logical way. But the Quran (like so many other scriptures) was initially transmitted orally and meant to be performed publicly rather than read privately.
The Arabic world is very rich in poetry and recitation generally, and Muhammad’s audience would have been able to pick up verbal signals that are lost in the written format, and even more so in translation. They would ‘hear’ the recurrence of themes, words, phrases and sound patterns again and again, like ‘variations in a piece of music, that subtly amplify the original melody and add layer upon layer of complexity’, as Armstrong so aptly describes it, and goes on to say:
‘The Quran was not imparting facts that could be conveyed instantaneously… listeners had to absorb its teachings slowly, their understanding growing more profound and refined over time. The rich, allusive language and rhythms of the Arabic helped them to slow down their habitual mental processes and enter a different mode of consciousness.’
The importance of recitation
One of the key points in understanding the Quran is that it was not designed to be read for information or even inspiration, but to be recited as an act of commitment in worship. You don’t ‘read’ the Quran, but rather you worship by means of it. In reciting it you re-affirm it for yourself. The event of revelation is renewed every time one of the faithful relives the affirmations of the Quran, and so it continues to be an event rather than a statement of facts or norms.
Quranic language had the power of an Indian mantra. When Muhammad received a revelation, he was instructed to listen intently until its meaning became apparent. He would then recite each new revelation to his companions until they too knew it by heart – the traditional mode of transmitting Arabic poetry. For Muslims God’s presence is experienced in the sound of the Quranic text recited in communal worship.
Muslims also learn, and acquire meaning, from bodily rituals. The essential practices of Islam, their ‘Five Pillars’, are corporal as well as mental disciplines. Their prayers include ritualised physical movements, among which the bowing down and touching their foreheads to the ground is meant to impress on their bodies, hearts and minds their ‘surrender’ to God.
Our short journey through elements of some of the scriptures in Armstrong’s book is obviously quite limited, but hopefully it gives us a chance to review our approach to scriptures generally, and the importance of ‘living’ them as a means to ‘understanding’ them.
I remember buying my first personal copy of the New Testament when I was about 16 – a ‘Penguin’ paperback with a painting of the head of Christ by Georges Rouault on the cover – I still have it. I marked the parts I liked particularly, and they did help me to be more Christian. Yet it wasn’t until I started to live the Gospel’s ‘Words of Life’ in a very practical way with a small group of students in university five years later that I really began to grasp what the New Testament was all about. Above all it was the fact of living it together as a group that made the scriptures, and God’s presence, real. The incarnation of the Gospels in my mind and heart and body through the spirituality of the Focolare took time, a lot of practice, and a great deal of ‘starting again’ with my travelling companions on our journey together. As I now know it’s a lifetime’s work, but other people’s example and witness, and the application of my whole person to the process, have all helped me to live much more deeply my beliefs and my hopes and my dreams.
The liveability of scripture
Armstrong’s book has helped me to understand far more deeply how sacred scriptures are by nature and necessity incarnational: they need to be expressed and lived practically, and by a group of people. A narrowly intellectual approach to them may be fascinating personally but does not bring people to a truly profound understanding, and living out, of the realities they are trying to represent. As a Western European Christian, I found particularly inspiring and helpful the incarnational nature of all religions that Armstrong describes, despite the fact that we have all reduced our religions to concepts and dogmas at various points throughout our histories.
To quote an old proverb, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the truth of sacred scriptures lies in their ‘liveability’, and in their capacity for transforming people’s lives. Furthermore, as Armstrong points out, one of the great beauties about sacred texts is that they can never be exhausted or fully understood, much like a profound piece of literature or a great song.
Illustration: ©Duncan Harper