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Hamblin & Peterson: Reading other people's scriptures requires sympathy, not just facts

Published: Saturday, April 20 2013 5:30 a.m. MDT

One of the most difficult things we find when trying to understand another religion is reading its scripture. While one can approach “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” or “Hamlet” with complete neutrality, it’s almost impossible to do the same with the Bible or the Quran. Because of the supernatural claims of scripture, readers almost inevitably make some type of judgment about the book before they even read it. The mere existence of a book that claims to be scripture places demands on a reader that ordinary books do not.

So how should one go about reading the scripture of another religion? A wise principle: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That is, in this case, you should read other people's scriptures as you would like them to read yours. When we teach the Quran, for example, we try to explain to non-Muslim students its claimed origins, the meanings of various passages, the disputed issues, its mystical interpretations, the doctrines derived from the book (e.g. why, in the Quran, Jesus is the Messiah, but not the Son of God), its impact on Muslim culture, and why Muslims accept the book as scripture.

One does not have to believe in the Quran to understand the book’s meaning and importance to Muslims. Other scholars should be expected to treat the Book of Mormon, or the Bible, or the Bhagavad-gita in precisely the same way.

An approach often taken when reading scripture is to treat it as “literature,” an approach most frequently found in “Bible as Literature” classes. This approach has some value, but it fails to engage the truly important issue: that the Bible functions in the world as scripture, not merely as literature. Its scriptural quality is, historically speaking, why it is important. To study anyone’s scripture as “literature” necessarily misses the essence of why that book has changed the world. Scripture is important precisely because, to its believers, it is something much, much more than literature.

Personally, we would much rather take a class or read a book on the Bhagavad-Gita as Hindu scripture from an informed, believing Hindu than from someone who tells us all the reasons the Gita should be viewed as a late literary addition to the Mahabharata, or why it isn’t really a revelation of Krishna to Arjuna. Likewise, we think non-Mormons should prefer to understand why Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is scripture, rather than why non-Mormons believe it isn’t.

To make matters more complicated, modern academics often treat “scripture” as a purely human production that some people happen to claim is scripture. While academics often profess objectivity in studying religion, in a very practical sense secular religious studies usually means explaining all religious claims, beliefs, visions, etc., as purely human in origin.

Often, the assertion of objectivity really reflects indifference — and occasionally even hostility — to a religion’s fundamental claims. Even more paradoxically, the assertion of the priority of secular objective academic study of religion frequently implies that believers can’t effectively teach their own scripture, since they’re not neutral or unbiased about it. While one can be objective about a chemical reaction or a mathematical formula, it’s much more difficult to be neutral about a work of art or a symphony — or the religious claims of a book of scripture. Some form of neutrality and objectivity may be possible for the hard sciences, but it’s impossible in the study of the humanities and religion.

One’s passion about religion — like art, or literature, or music — is an irreducible part of how the subject is understood. Passion and belief are an intrinsic part of what makes scripture scripture. To ignore or deny this is to miss the essence of scripture. Would you rather take a class from someone who, although he had memorized all of Shakespeare’s plays, found them dull and unmoving? Or would you prefer to take that class from a scholar who was passionately engaged with and moved by Shakespeare? Secular approaches to religion necessarily remove the passion from scripture.

Reading another religion’s scripture requires not so much a leap of faith as a leap of intellect. If, after reading a book of scripture, you conclude, “I can’t understand why anyone would believe this book,” you’ve failed to understand the book. If, however, you can truthfully say, “I may not believe this book is scripture, but I understand why others do,” you’ve taken a major step toward understanding it.

Professor Daniel C. Peterson is editor of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and a blogger for Patheos. Professor William Hamblin is co-author of “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” Their views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.

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