(Before you start each new assignment, I strongly recommend you read through the orange "notes from class" from the previous class.)
Study Genesis 1-2 and Proverbs 8.
As you go, create for yourself a list of the most important ideas you find in these texts concerning not only creation, but also the other main topics of our course:
- (e.g. creation by speech)
- Human condition
- (This is tougher; can we infer anything from these texts about how people are "saved" in some sense?)
Background reading (essential for honors students): Coward, Scripture in the World Religions, 1-10.
Remember to also complete the next assignment on the New Testament for this class.
(For class notes see below under New Testament.)
Study John 1:1-18 and Colossians 1:1-23.
On your list of ideas from the Hebrew Bible about creation, the human condition, and salvation, note which ones also appear in these New Testament passages. What new ideas do these New Testament passages suggest on these subjects?
Background reading (essential for honors students): Coward, Scripture in the World Religions, 34-50.
Notes from class
Our initial attempt to fit details from several texts together to form a coherent model of creation ran into the difficulty of how to fit in the intermediate figure(s) of Wisdom, the Word, and Christ. The parallels between these three figures are fascinating; indeed they may all be the same figure, and we could perhaps have come up with an interpretation that fit them all together. But instead we switched to another project: we asked ourselves, what if these texts aren't all trying to present a single model of creation; what if they have different purposes? We ended up with the theory that Proverbs 8, John 1, and Colossians 1 all retell Genesis 1 at least partly for the purpose of presenting their own views of salvation (or of how to gain "life"):
- Proverbs 8
- Defines life or salvation as a combination of material prosperity, righteousness, and some kind of closeness to God (favor, and maybe being like a child he delights in).
- Presents the pursuit of wisdom as the key to that life/salvation (which is fitting for a text that seems to come from some kind of educational context).
- It inserts wisdom into the creation story to argue that humans should imitate God's creative act by starting with wisdom in their own acts.
- John 1
- Defines life/salvation as involving a relationship to God characterized by grace and being his child. May view salvation as a second creation/birth (of God not flesh).
- Presents "receiving" the life-giving creative work of the Word (Christ) as the key to that salvation.
- Rather than saying humans should imitate God's creative act, it says humans should receive it.
- Colossians 1
- Defines life/salvation as reconciliation with God, following a state of death and evil and alienation from God.
- Presents Christ as the creator and head of two creations: the universe (both material and immaterial), and the church (i.e. the community of Christians).
- Doesn't really retell the process of creation, but states Christ's role in the first creation in order to point to his second creation, by which he gives new life.
- What about Genesis 1-2? Does it present a view of salvation too?
- It seems less concerned with offering a path to salvation than with explaining why things are the way they are, and what humans' role in the world is.
- In fact, taken all by itself, Gen 1-2 seems to assume humans already have life/salvation, and it points out the path to death.
- We suspect that taken in the larger context of the Torah, Gen 1-2 may help set up the genealogy of a particular community people, membership in which is a key to salvation. But we will need to test that idea later using more texts from the Torah.
This analysis of why each text retells Gen 1 fits with something Coward said: Jews view the Writings and Prophets and the Oral Torah as explanations of the written Torah, and Christians view the New Testament as functioning similarly, explaining the Hebrew scriptures. We have certainly seen that to be true: Proverbs (one of the Writings), John, and Colossians each provides a kind of commentary on Genesis, even rewriting it in a sense - not replacing it, but putting a new spin on it, and using it as a springboard for a new idea.
Study chapter/sura 10 (Jonah), verses 1-39, of the Qur'an. (That is, Q 10:1-39.) Also read Q 13 (entire), Q 21:30-40, and Q 41:9-12.
What seems to be the purpose of telling about creation in these texts? Do their views of creation, the human condition, and salvation differ significantly from those of Genesis, Proverbs, John, or Colossians?
Background reading (essential for honors students): Coward, Scripture in the World Religions, 81-94.
Notes from first part of class
First, we took an important step on the question of the purpose, value, and pitfalls of comparison:
- Comparing texts across religious traditions means we are choosing to use a selection of vaguely similar texts from different religions as the context for our interpretation of each text we study.
- This is not what most religious people would consider the appropriate interpretive context for their scriptures. For adherents of a religion, good interpretation often (though not always) means interpreting each text in light of the context provided by the other scriptures of that religion, or in light of a belief system that is supposed to be derived from those scriptures. We, by choosing a different interpretive context, are doing our interpretation wrong.
- This would seem to undermine the goal of studying sacred texts to get to know individual adherents of each religion. How will we understand them if we interpret their texts in a way they consider wrong-headed?
- Interreligious comparison might help us understand individuals if it prompts us to see more clearly details of texts that we might not otherwise have noticed, or helps us to recognize presuppositions that people bring to their interpretations of their texts, which might otherwise have remained unrecognized.
- On the other hand, if our goal is to understand the generic or universal or essential religious makeup of humanity in general, then we are less concerned with how religious individuals interpret their own texts as with what religious texts have in common. Indeed many religious individuals interpret their own texts so as to distinguish their religion from others, but we, by choosing an interreligious context for interpretation, may find commonalities that they did not see (or did not want to see). This does pose the risk that we might end up claiming to understand peoples' religions better than they do themselves.
Second, we confirmed that our Qur'anic passages, like Proverbs and John and Colossians, deliberately retell the story of creation (more or less as it is in Genesis, but in less detail) for the purpose of communicating a certain vision of salvation.
- The Qur'an points to creation, and tells about it, as a sign.
- The sign of creation reveals God's unique creative power, his sole control over the world, and his ability to resurrect and judge people after death.
- The sign of creation guides those who are attuned to God and looking beyond this world, and it warns those who are not looking for God but are preoccupied with this life.
- The sign of creation thus calls people away from unbelief and punishment, and toward belief and heavenly reward.
- The sign of creation thus points the way to salvation, which seems to involve several things:
- Belief in the Qur'an's message.
- Good deeds (by individuals - even though revelation is addressed to whole groups of people).
- (We could not yet decide which of these - belief or deeds - is most crucial. This has long been debated by Muslim theologians, and we should look for more Qur'anic statements about this as we read more passages.)
- God's "grace"
- Mercy was mentioned frequently.
- Revelation is also a mercy from God, in that it brings wisdom and guidance (though also judgment).
- We could not decide which came first - the human decision to believe and do good, or God's mercy and guidance. Sometimes the human response to God's guidance determines whom God saves, and sometimes God himself decides whom to guide and save.
- In passing, we noted that the Qur'an's accounts of creation also set up creation and the human condition a bit differently from the Biblical books we read: there is no intermediary involved in creation, and humans do not rule over creation. Only God creates and rules, and no one shares those functions.
(Notes on the Vedas are below.)
Study Rig Veda 10.90, 1.154, 10.129 (in Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism, pp. 27-28 and 33, sections 184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, and 2.3.1).
Jot down for yourself some major parallels (if any) to the Biblical and Qur'anic creation narratives, as well as differences that seem important to you.
Background reading (essential for honors students): Coward, Scripture in the World Religions, 105-111.
Notes from second part of class
The Rig Veda (RV) presents creation in terms that are murky and sometimes deliberatly inconclusive. Some details, however, recall aspects of creation from our Biblical books:
- Darkness and water are both associated with an early stage of creation.
- There are intermediaries in creation (e.g. the firstborn Person) whose seem at once divine and part of creation (just like Wisdom, and Christ the firstborn of creation).
- Creation happens by means of sacrifice. There are parallels in Native American religions, and we will see later that Christian texts present Christ's sacrifice as key to the "second creation" that gives "new life."
We decided, however, that these Rig Vedic passages do not explicitly indicate a view of salvation. In that respect they are more like Genesis 1-2 than like Proverbs or John or Colossians or the Qur'an. Nevertheless, just as we were able to imagine that Genesis 1-2 might be interpreted as the basis for the view that salvation depends on one's genealogy, so here we were able to see some potential seeds for two views of salvation that we expect to see developed in later Hindu texts:
- If (as Coward tells us) RV 10.90 is intented for use in a sacrificial ritual, then by telling about a cosmogenic sacrifice it may be demonstrating the necessity of continuing to perform sacrifices to gain some kind of salvation (e.g. perhaps to maintain the cosmos).
- These passages could be read as hinting at knowledge (about the origin or nature of existence as non-existence in 10.129, or about the soul's unity with the cosmos in 10.90) as the path to salvation. Some later Hindu texts will in fact interpret early sacrificial texts as being all about just such knowledge.
- It may even be that RV 10.129, in hinting at knowledge as a path to salvation, reflects a later stage of the composition of RV, in which RV 10.90's concern with sacrifice is giving way to a focus on metaphysical speculation and knowledge.
Overall, like Genesis, RV is more clearly intended to explain why the world is the way it is (e.g. marriage in Genesis, social castes in RV 10.90) than to lay out a path to salvation.
Study Brahmanda Purana 18.104.22.168-61 (in Textual Sources for the Study of Hinduism, pp. 65-68). Continue to note any parallels you can find to texts already studied, as well as major differences.
Background reading (essential for honors students): Coward, Scripture in the World Religions, 111-122.
Notes from class
At our first level of analysis - the content of our texts - we made a few minor notes about creation in this Purana:
- Creation occurs by division of things into categories (as in Genesis and RV 10.90)
- But here that division occurs by means of meditation - not by speech (as in Genesis) or by sacrifice (as in RV 10.90)
- This text does not directly suggest any view of salvation, unless creation by meditation suggests salvation will be through meditation.
- Creation is intimately tied to language: the names of things reflect their origins and thus their place in the universe, and ritual speech is one of the things created.
This last point led us to our main accomplishment, which was at our second level of analysis - the form and function of scriptures. We constructed the hypothesis that each religious community can be placed on a spectrum between two views of language and scripture:
- Language and scripture have an intrinsic connection to reality. This "ideal
type" has six components that seem to occur
- Language (whatever language the religion holds sacred) is part of the natural structure of the universe. (E.g. Coward's description of Hindu view of language, and Brahmanda Purana's etymologies.)
- Scripture is part of the eternal structure of the universe. (E.g. Hindu view of Vedas, and Islamic doctrine that Qur'an is God's eternal attribute of speech.)
- The language of scripture is intrinsically powerful. (E.g. Hindu view of Mantras.)
- Scripture is used in ritual. (E.g. Vedic chants for sacrifice, Qur'an in prayer.)
- Scripture is only scripture in its original language. (E.g. Vedic Sanskrit, prayers in Arabic, Latin for some Catholics.)
- Scripture is transmitted orally.
- Language and scripture are merely tools for conveying information about reality.
Coward thinks religious people with the second view have lost touch with their scriptures and are missing out on their power.
- Language is an arbitrary assignment of sounds to things in creation. (Perhaps reflected in Genesis where Adam gives names to already existing categories of animals.)
- Scripture is historically produced. (E.g. New Testament letters.)
- The language of scripture is useful only insofar as it conveys true information. (Typical Protestant view. [Coward also said this is how Buddhists view scriptures.] Conflicting creation stories in the Vedas, however, may indicate its purpose is not content, or at least not narrative content.)
- Scripture is studied for its content. (Somewhat true in all scriptural religions; widespread in Protestant and Judaism.)
- Scripture should be translated so that people understand its content. (E.g. the Protestant Reformers; [also Buddhist scriptures in many languages].).
- Scripture is transmitted in writing.
This contrast between two views of language and scripture not only contributes to our project of figuring out how scriptures function within their religious communities; it is also important for our third level of analysis - our analysis of how we analyze our texts. It serves as yet another warning of the limitations of our type of study: by looking for ideas about creation and the human condition and salvation in translated texts, we are assuming the second, informative view of language and scripture, and we may be completely missing what some religious people (especially many Hindus and Muslims) think is the whole point of their scriptures. This is also a warning about the limitations of Religious Studies as a field, because it has a long tradition of studying religions mainly the way we are doing it - through the comparative study of scriptures.
Study Warren, Buddhism in Translations, 161-170. This selection of short texts requires us to step back and reconsider the entire notion of creation, and even of existence. Can you come up with a succinct way to compare this doctrine of existence with our prior explanations of the world's existence?
Background reading (essential for honors students): Coward, Scripture in the World Religions, 138-151.
Today let's try to sum up the principal models of creation, the human condition, and salvation that we have encountered so far.
Notes from class
When we came down from our grand (and important) theorizing about views of language and scripture, we had just enough time to note some dramatic differences in how these Buddhist sutras tell about "creation":
- Rather than tell a story about where the universe came from at some point in either linear or cyclical time, these sutras insist existence does not arise through a temporal sequence at all.
- Rather than explain the origin of all physical things, or of all things earthly and heavenly, these sutras show little concern for unconscious existence (which has no continuity or real substantial existence) and focus instead on psychological experience - the existence of consciousness itself.
- But they don't really affirm the existence of consciousness; they deny both that it exists and that it does not exist.
- If consciousness exists, then its existence is itself the main problem and source of suffering.
- Salvation seems to consist in breaking free from the continuity and existence of consciousness, and it seems to happen through knowledge.
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