Audio: What is a sacred text?
Talk by Karen Armstrong (picture) at the British Library, 4 June 2007
Extremist Christians, Jews and Muslims have all quoted scripture to justify their aims. The vast majority of adherents of these religions say they are misusing the holy texts. So what's going wrong? Religious historian - and former nun - Karen Armstrong gives a fascinating talk examining this thorny issue.
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The problem with religious texts today, according to religious historian Karen Armstrong, is that too many people want to take theirs literally.
Part of the problem, she suggested, is the very rationalism that drove so much scientific progress: "our modern era does not see the value of mythos, myth. In 18th and 19th century logos - reason, science - achieved such spectacular results that myth became discredited. The whole idea that every word of scripture is literally true is an entirely recent notion, " she said. "All the early religious leaders said interpretation had to be allegorical."
Such literalism makes it too easy for extremists to pick and choose sections to justify their aims, she argued, citing examples of Christian, Jewish and Islamic activists invoking their own sacred texts when committing acts of violence for political ends. "Scripture has been degraded," she said. "Extremists are forcing the agenda, and moderate opinion is being swamped."
Armstrong, a former nun, is the author of books such as A History of God and The Great Transformation. She lectures all round the world, to Jewish, Christian and Muslim audiences alike, as well as many other faiths. Her wide-ranging talk was enlivened by wisdom, insight and wit from all aspects of religious history, across not only Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but also Buddhism and Taoism.
She frequently drew laughter from the audience with her incisive quips and observations - such as her recent trip to the United Nations, where "everyone was talking about the importance of dialogue - in a succession of monologues!"
Her central point was that we must rediscover the value of engaging with the whole of our sacred texts. The Qur'an, she noted, is meant to be listened to: each part is understood not by itself but in relation to the whole. "Scripture is a call to action," she said. "It's not a text... not just something you zip through to find out some information about God. It's an activity, for reinterpretation."
But she stressed that the need for every individual to engage with the sacred texts themselves, to come to their own personal spiritual approaches to life, did not mean interpretation was a free-for-all. Quoting leaders of all three faiths through history, she summarised their views as: "The scriptures are all about love... Any interpretation that leads to hatred is not acceptable."
Scripture today, Armstrong concluded, must be seen as "a summons, to make us address the massive problems of our time with compassion and generosity."