Introduction

Introduction in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 1–14.

Introduction

Brigham Young University’s symposium on “The Literature of Belief” focused, as does this volume, on that great body of literature best referred to as sacred literature or holy scripture. The goal was to learn more about the nature of religious experience by examining its expressions in the sacred texts of a number of the world’s religious traditions.

Both the papers written originally for the symposium and five additional studies prepared under other auspices address the theme of the conference. Several different religious perspectives and academic backgrounds are represented in the different essays, yet all of the scholars involved share a keen interest in the study of religion, particularly the study of sacred literature.

In appreciation of these differing viewpoints and interests, no attempt was made to structure the symposium beyond asking the participants to address the experiences of the sacred as recounted in the religious texts they selected for study. Hence this collection manifests a broad range of approaches. Some are very personal, even autobiographical; many come at the task using the tools of the literary critic, the historian, the philosopher, and even the theologian. Some of the essays are clearly introductory; others speak chiefly to specialists. The result is an impressive undertaking, a cooperative endeavor to understand the religious dimension of our common human heritage.

A major objective of those who planned the symposium and this volume has been to provide an occasion for studying some of the scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a broad comparative setting. Consequently, this anthology includes not only reflections on Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts, and on writings held sacred by Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists, but also studies of the Book of Mormon, the Articles of Faith, and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s account of his first vision. Here the goal is to consider what the structure and content of these Mormon scriptures can tell us about things of the spirit and to emphasize the stature of these writings in the context of world religious literature.

Obviously in treating such an extensive subject as “the literature of belief,” no attempt has been made to be comprehensive. Rather these essays must be seen as individual insights into aspects of some of the world’s major scriptures. By bringing these viewpoints together, we hope that the reader will learn more about this kind of writing and better appreciate the varieties of religious experience and their dynamic nature.

Of all the aspects of religion, none is more important, because none is more foundational, than the experiential dimension. William James, for one, makes “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine,” the very center of his definition of religion. It is from this base—from relationships with the divine expressed in rituals, beliefs, moral affirmations, and even physiological and psychological states—that, according to James, “theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations” emerge.[1]

One has only to consider a number of classical incidents in the lives of several religious figures to appreciate this observation. For instance, a main theme in the earliest of the Buddhist sacred texts centers on how the Buddha sought for and achieved enlightenment while sitting beneath the Bo Tree. The singular visions of the Hebrew prophets taught them something profoundly important about God and emboldened them to teach others in his name. Muhammad’s own experiences prompted him to preach the unity of Allah and, in the course of time, to be instrumental in bringing forth the divine teachings known as the Qur’an. Surely the climax of the most popular of all Indian holy texts, the Bhagavad Gita, is the terrifying theophany granted to Arjuna, leaving him filled with awe and promising unstinting love and devotion to Lord Krishna. The Book of Mormon narrative recounts experiences which radically transformed the lives of the prophets and others—Lehi’s dream, Enos’s answer to prayer, the conversion of Alma the Younger, and the Nephites’ encounter with the Savior. And as with the prophets, so with the Master. Christ’s temptation in the desert, his transfiguration, and the ministrations and manifestations that accompanied his prayer convey the intimate relationship he enjoyed with the Father; divine himself, his experiences with the divine informed his teachings and marked him “as one having authority” (Matt. 7:29).

It is experiences such as these—expressed in mythic accounts, in epics, stories, and poems about the gods and cultural heroes, in historical narratives highlighting the intervention of God in the course of events, in sacred laws and ritual instructions, in teachings and expositions of venerated spiritual authorities and dialogues of seers and sages, in moral anecdotes and philosophical and theological discussions, and in countless hymns and prayers—that make up much of what is spoken of as sacred scripture. This is the subject matter of this book.

Part One deals with the sacred literature of the West. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share not only a common heritage of belief in one God, but are spoken of as “religions of the book” in deference to the indispensable role the Hebrew Bible, the Old and New Testaments, and the Qur’an play in these respective traditions.

For generations the teachings and ways of the Hebrews were transmitted orally. In time, sacred lore became sacred writ, and the books of scripture were divided into the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi’im), and the histories, psalms, and lessons called the Writings (Ketubim). The entire collection is often referred to as Torah or the Hebrew Bible. Herbert Schneidau’s presentation calls attention to the characteristic style of the Hebrew Bible and suggests that this style not only illuminates how the ancient Israelites may have experienced their world and the things of God but also that it eventually produced Western literature.

In so arguing, Schneidau grapples with the age-old confrontation between two ways of experiencing the world—the historical and the mythological. He demonstrates that the Hebrew way of thinking is historical—there is no logos in the biblical narrative, God can remain hidden and yet still not be inscrutable, and for the Jews, the historical and social order of things has no status beyond contingency. This thesis well illustrates the distinctive Hebrew world perspective and simultaneously helps us to grasp important differences that separate this tradition (and to an extent that of Christianity and Islam) from other religions of the world.

Gerald N. Lund also deals with the scriptural material contained in the Hebrew Bible, coming at his task from a Christian perspective. The term Old Testament means “old covenant” and describes the dealings of God with the Jews under the Mosaic law. Christians reading the Old Testament find Christ foreshadowed there and thus regard the New Testament or the “new covenant” as the fulfillment of the Old.

Lund illustrates this cardinal point in detail, focusing on the Old Testament’s rich trove of ritual instruction and dramatic historical narrative. He describes sacrifice, circumcision, the cleansing of lepers, and important days of worship: the Sabbath, the Feast of Weeks, and the Days of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles. He concludes by considering the meaning of such epic events as Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, Moses’ liberation of the children of Israel from Egypt, the establishment of the ritual of Passover, and the Jews’ wandering in the wilderness and their final entry into the Promised Land. All of these acts and events, Lund argues, can only be fully understood when interpreted, with the aid of latter-day scripture, as symbolically pointing to Jesus Christ and his atonement.

Turning to the New Testament, Richard L. Anderson examines experiences of divine revelation as recounted in this holy text, convincingly demonstrating that Paul’s letters contain records of the same events written in the later synoptic Gospels. Recorded soon after the events described, the letters validate historical events and thus function as checks on their authenticity.

Correctly pointing out that these letters record events as understood by the first generation of those who knew the Lord, Anderson finds a pattern of revelation in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. From the foundational level of spiritual gifts to personal visions of Jesus Christ, the pattern instructs the Corinthian Saints in the Resurrection, not only its reality as a historical event but also as a revelation of the personality of the Father. Anderson concludes that Paul’s letters teach, intentionally and elaborately, that God is a divine personality. Thus, later generations of scholars and theologians who quarrel with this definition of God deny “the living revelation of God that constitutes the New Testament witness and fired the zeal of the early Christians.”

The remaining article in Part One is Fazlur Rahman’s consideration of Islam’s sacred scripture, the Qur’an. No other religious tradition is so wedded to a single book of scripture. Many authors produced the books of the Bible, but from the mouth of Muhammad alone sprang the Qur’an.

Qur’an comes from the Arabic verb meaning “to read, repeat aloud.” Thus, according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad did not write the Qur’an but was taught by a spirit usually identified as the angel Gabriel, and recited it. The text itself was composed later by scribes and other hearers as it was recited. The scripture read in the original Arabic is said to move listeners to tears because of the elegance of its powerful, rhythmic prose. For all Muslims, the Qur’an is the book, a divinely dictated scripture, unique and incomparable. Furthermore, for Muslims, God’s revelation is the book itself. In contrast, Jews seek for God in the events of history, and Christians see God revealed in Jesus Christ.

In outlining what he sees as the Qur’an’s essential teachings, Rahman looks to the religious experiences in Muhammad’s life and especially the social and economic conditions that prevailed in Muhammad’s Mecca. The result is a concise, fascinating introduction to the world of Islam.

Over the course of twenty-three years, Muhammad, struggling against the injustices in his society and the powerful influence of tribal polytheism, proclaimed the radical oneness of Allah and the need to abolish economic and social disparities. These two principles, along with the assurance that God will yet judge the world, anchor all other teachings in the Qur’an.

Rahman underlines the Qur’an’s teaching that human beings, unlike the rest of creation, are free to obey or disobey the will of God. Still, he points out, the holy book also emphasizes that individuals are invariably short-sighted, selfish, and narrow-minded, inclined, in times of prosperity and acclaim, to forget their responsibility to others and God, a theme familiar in the Bible and the Book of Mormon too. Given self-deception, human beings think they do good, judged by the standards of the world, but more often than not misjudge themselves and their deeds. The Qur’an teaches that for persons to be righteous they must not simply desire the good but actively pursue it, judging their deeds according to divine, not human, standards. And herein, Rahman stresses, the Qur’an brings its teachings about human nature full circle. “So long as man acts only on the basis of immediate consequences, there is not much possibility of his producing deeds that will be consequential in the long run. So to cultivate taqwa (the fear of God), to clear the earth of corruption and to reform the earth—to create on earth a social order based on ethically valid principles—is the message of the Qur’an.”

Part Two is devoted to the sacred literature of India and the Far East and deals with representative scriptures of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

Composition of India’s wondrously diverse scriptures may have begun as early as A.D. 2000 and, following Hindu custom, are considered to be either shurti (“that which is heard”)—the most sacred and hence most authoritative—or smriti (“what is remembered”). Shurti includes the ancient Vedas or sacrificial hymns; the Brahmanas that explain them; the Aranyakas or Forest Books; and the Upanishads that transform the earlier ritual narratives into deeper philosophical and theological insights. All four are also collectively called the Vedas. Smriti embraces the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and the Puranas—tales of gods and ancient beings—as well as philosophical and sectarian texts. Of all the Vedas, Western thought has tended to focus on the Upanishads as Hinduism’s most important and typical literature even though a section of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita (“The Song of God”) is clearly best known and most loved by Hindus.

One could not ask for a better guide into the world of Indian sacred writings than P. Lai of Calcutta. He chooses to deal indirectly with these texts, telling us of his personal quest for enlightenment and thus enabling us to better understand how a Hindu might experience and interpret the world. Implicit in his parables is the Hindu belief that all beings are subject to samsara—the seemingly endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth—and that they are trapped in this condition by virtue of karma, the cosmic law of cause and effect which holds that what we did in prior lives accounts for the circumstances of our present life and along with our present conduct determines our future circumstances. Both good and evil result in rebirth; hence, for the Hindu, the ultimate goal of life is to be freed from samsara altogether. This theme, introduced in Lai’s parable of the wish-fulfilling tree, lies at the very heart of the teachings of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and other sacred Indian texts. According to these scriptures, the aim of life, the goal of all worship and ritual, the point of service to others and the gods is liberation from the cycle of rebirth and union with Brahmin—the One, the All, the Absolute.

The moral of Lai’s story for us, then, is our need to recognize that the meaning of life lies in performing “pure acts”—deeds of compassion done wholly without regard to the consequences. Lai thus advocates the tradition of karma marga (the way of works and performance), one of four classical means of liberation. (The others are jnana marga, the way of knowledge, raja yoga, the way of mental discipline, and bhakti marga, the way of love and devotion to God.) But regardless of the path, the message is always the same: just as all mountain streams eventually empty into the sea, so all paths lead to the Universal One, the Absolute.

No theme is more readily identified with the religions of the East than is yoga, a term derived from the Sanskrit yuj (to link, join, or unite). While most westerners associate it only with physical control and discipline of the body (properly hatha yoga), each of the four margas just mentioned are also called yogas. So is the tradition of practices known as tantra or kundalini explicated in this symposium by Joseph Campbell.

In his The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, Campbell observes that both yoga and religion (from the Latin religio) mean “to link back, or bind” but that this linguistic resemblance masks profound theological and spiritual differences. Religion refers to a historical linking of man and the divine by way of a covenant, a sacrament, or, in the case of Islam, a holy scripture. Yoga implies a psychological linking of the mind to that superordinate principle “by which the mind knows.” In yoga, what seems to be two is in reality one, whereas in religion, what is linked are God and man, which are not the same.[2] Though both yoga and religion imply man’s distance from the divine in his normal secular life, “yet the arguments radically differ, and therefore support two radically different civilizations,” Campbell points out. “For, if man has been removed from the divine through a historical event [the Fall], it will be a historical event that leads him back, whereas if it has been by some sort of psychological displacement that he has been blocked, psychology will be his vehicle of return. And so it is that in India the final focus of concern is not the community, . . . but yoga.”[3]

Campbell calls kundalini yoga India’s great gift to us as a “highly developed psychological science.” Reaching back to pre-Aryan times in India, it is suggested in the earliest of the Upanishads and has influenced not only Hinduism and Buddhism but Jainism as well. The tradition suddenly reemerged in the fourth century B.C. in India and ever since then has “shaped and informed every significant development of Oriental doctrine.” Campbell takes us up “the jeweled tree” of the kundalini centers, in what amounts to a tour de force in exposition and interpretation of the rich symbolism of its seven chakras (circles).

As the techniques of yoga remind us, it is not death but rebirth that is the enemy in Hinduism and Buddhism. In the older tradition of India, liberation from this ceaseless round comes in the uniting of self with the Self. Buddha built on this old faith but developed its doctrine into a new doctrine, a new code of life, a new way. Buddha showed his followers a way to end rebirth, through right conduct and mindful concentration. His path leads to peace of mind, to knowledge, to enlightenment—to Nirvana.

The dharma (teachings) of the Buddha are often compared to a raft that carries believers across the river of samsara to Nirvana on the further shore. Theravada Buddhism (“the way of the Elders”), is sometimes known as the “lesser vehicle”; it involves joining the sangha (order of monks) and hence attracts fewer followers. A monk who reaches Nirvana becomes an arhant (saint). In this school, Buddha is merely one who has attained this goal and whose example shows others the way.

The sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhism (the Pali Canon) is called the Tripitaka because it is divided into three sections. This canon, not counting its thousands of commentaries, is estimated at twice the length of the Bible. The most popular anthology of Buddha’s original teachings is the Dhammapada.

Mahayana Buddhism, also known as the “greater vehicle,” offers the ultimate goal to both the pious monk and the layman. Its followers strive not only for Nirvana but for a godly existence of self-sacrifice and compassion. This tradition’s ideal is not the arhant but the bodhisattva—one who embodies the buddha-nature and in compassion vows never to cross the river “until every living being, every blade of grass is liberated.” In this tradition, Buddha is more than “one who shows the way.” Buddha is a universal principle, neither one Buddha nor many, but the origin and source of buddhahood itself.

Mahayana scriptures include not only translations of the Sanskrit Tripitaka but thousands of original works in Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, and other languages. Two of the most important are the Vaipulya Sutras containing the Saddharma Pundarika (“Lotus Sutra”) and the Prajnaparamita Sutras (“Discourses on the Perfections of Wisdom”).

Richard Mather’s paper traces the influence of one of these sacred texts, the Nirvana Sutra, in the development of Maya yana Buddhism in China. He shows how, in the fifth century B.C., the Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva contributed to southern China’s idea of an eternal Buddha as the sole means of liberation. This belief in turn nurtured an intellectual and spiritual climate favorable to the radical teachings of the Nirvana Sutra, which challenged conventional Buddhism by positing a “real self” which even Nirvana does not destroy. Since everyone contains the buddha-nature, buddhahood is within everyone’s reach. Mather illustrates the kind of theoretical controversies which this text ignited (for instance, is enlightenment sudden or gradual?) but is more interested in showing how this scripture eventually helped popularize ahimsa (the practice of nonviolence) among Chinese Buddhists as the ultimate expression of belief in the compassionate Buddha.

Whether the basic texts of Taoism or Confucianism should be called sacred is open to question. They were originally viewed as human wisdom books, written by men for men. In time, these writings acquired added authority and were accorded profound reverence, thus becoming, in effect, sacred texts. The Tao Te Ching, the topic of the last paper in Part Two, is an example.

Wing-tsit Chan, the patriarch of Chinese scholars in this country, is interested in showing how this Taoist classic determined the course of Chinese philosophy and religion centuries before the time of Christ.

He focuses on the Tao Te Ching’s central theme, the idea of the Tao, explores its various meanings, traces the influence of Taoism on Confucianism and, even later, on Buddhism in China, and shows how Taoism was, in turn, changed by these contacts. The Taoist effort to promote life, their search for the means to prolong life, and even achieve immortality, and their teaching of the inherently mysterious nature of the Tao, are, according to Chan, elements which transformed Taoism into a religion and hence into a major factor in the religion of ancient China.

The standard works of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints include ancient works (the Bible and the Book of Mormon), the modern Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price with both ancient and modern writings. Part Three explores certain of these sacred texts.

The Pearl of Great Price, probably the least-known Mormon scripture outside the Church is the focus of Adele McCollum and Steven Sondrup. McCollum discusses Joseph Smith’s account of his first vision while Sondrup examines the Prophet’s summation of the central tenets of Mormonism in the Articles of Faith.

In her paper, McCollum traces some theological implications of the First Vision, coming to some startling conclusions. She considers this inaugural vision as a classical instance of a numinous experience: a revelation that by its very occurrence threatens established ways of thinking and dealing with the world.

To appreciate the implications of an experience with two Gods, she reaches back to the polytheism of the ancient Greeks and argues that Mormonism’s polytheistic theology symbolizes the multiple-faith experiences of Latter-day Saints who, in their practice of religion and in their acts of worship, focus their commitment on one God. In this respect Mormonism is in the vanguard of the future of religion since, for McCollum, any religion which is to survive in today’s pluralistic culture must be polytheistic.

Steven Sondrup examines another central document in the Pearl of Great Price, the Articles of Faith. Creedal statements have played a vital role in the religious traditions of the West. While there is no single, simple creed for Jews, the most famous of the Jewish scholastics, Moses Maimonides, produced a twelfth-century statement of Jewish beliefs known as the “Thirteen Articles of Faith,” each prefaced, in time, by “I believe.” In the Christian tradition, early ecumenical councils produced, for instance, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, codifying Catholic doctrine. The Westminster Confession of Faith represents Protestantism in this respect. Islam’s formal creed is very short: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet.”

Sondrup compares the Articles of Faith with other Christian creeds, not in content but in form and as a means of confessing the faith. He shows how the linguistic distinctions between “believing that” and “believing in” not only communicate intellectual assent but more importantly profess trust and commitment. Furthermore, Sondrup finds that professing belief in this manner also means to act in a way that contributes to one’s salvation. Here Sondrup compares the performative function of the Articles of Faith with the Mormon tradition of publicly confessing one’s faith in “testimony meetings.” He argues that the testimonial formula “I know” and the creedal “we believe” are complementary, not antithetical and that, in fact, the dynamic relationship between the individual and the communal modes of expressing belief energizes the tradition.

1980 is the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of the Book of Mormon, historically the Church’s most significant scripture. Object of countless studies both within and, increasingly, outside the LDS tradition, it has only recently been dealt with as a literary text. The three remaining papers in Part Three each view the Book of Mormon from this vantage point, not only illuminating the structural integrity of the book but employing a tool that the authors hope will better enable readers to understand the experiential dimension of the text and appreciate its spiritual depth.

Bruce Jorgensen follows the lead of such literary critics as Northrop Frye and Erich Auerbach in applying a typological approach to a literary investigation of the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, he asserts, the Book of Mormon, like the Bible, invites this mode of interpretation through its prophetic and messianic nature.

Armed with this structural insight, Jorgensen not only discovers types that foreshadow the end of times, the Church, ritual ordinances, and the Christ, but also an archetype which subsumes all the rest into one unifying image—Lehi’s dream of the Tree of Life or Jacob’s parable of the tame and wild olive trees. He argues that all of God’s actions in the world—creation, conversion, covenant, and redemption—are one act of transformation, a move from darkness into light. The Book of Mormon, by this reading, testifies that only this change, required of us individually and collectively, will let us experience life as God wishes and be in the world in a truly sanctified state.

Richard Dilworth Rust extends this approach by focusing on the numerous occasions where Book of Mormon prophets themselves teach the gospel typologically. He particularly notes Alma’s instructions to his son Helaman, Moroni’s teachings from the prophecies of Ether, the sermon of King Benjamin, and, of course, the discourses of Lehi and Nephi. For them, understanding and teaching the gospel typologically was, according to Rust, so natural as to be almost taken for granted.

George S. Tate continues this line of interpretation and finds a unifying type for the Book of Mormon in the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their settlement in the land of promise. This type not only ties together the narrative of the Old Testament but, according to Tate, unifies the Old and New Testaments. Hence, he argues, we ought to expect this typology in the Book of Mormon. In fact, he finds the Exodus figure in greater concentration in the Book of Mormon than in the Old Testament and sees Book of Mormon prophets who look back to Moses and forward to Christ employing it consciously and skillfully.

Mormon readers in particular will find this book, fifth in a series sponsored by BYU’s Religious Studies Center, a worthy successor to its predecessors. Like Deity and Death and Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, it is the result of the combined efforts of a number of individuals—Mormon and non-Mormon—who have sought to learn more about the dimensions of religion. This volume’s focus on the sacred scriptures of the world adds a distinctive contribution to what can be discerned about religious belief and experience by carefully studying the structure and contents of the “literature of belief.”

No attempt has been made in this introduction or by individual authors to come to any final conclusions other than to make this plea: whether in the sutras of Buddhism, the revelations on the banks of the Jordan, or the prophetic experiences in the Sacred Grove of New York, there are voices that need to be heard and understood.

The alert reader will no doubt detect areas of similarity or even agreement in these voices. But comparative efforts such as this also highlight important differences on issues like the meaning and purpose of life, the nature of God and man, and their proper relationship. As Latter-day Saints we are taught to seek continually for greater insight and knowledge on these matters.

Studies such as this can obviously assist us and need to be evaluated both for their helpfulness and for their scholarly contributions. In fact, we look to the scriptures for sanction in pursuing such projects. The Doctrine and Covenants records the Lord’s admonition to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (D&C 90:15). But in the same scriptures, he also cautions us that if we are to learn the truth about such matters we need to “seek learning, . . . by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). Simply put, study such as this not only teaches us about other people, places, and things but directs our attention to the deeper things, to questions and concerns that can have eternal value for us. To paraphrase the Prophet Joseph Smith, the issues raised and dealt with in this book are “of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out.”[4]

For those who will make the effort, the rewards can be great indeed.

M. Gerald Bradford

The University of California at Santa Barbara

Notes

[1] The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: New American Library for Mentor Books), p. 42.

[2] The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (1962; reprint ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1977), pp. 13–14.

[3] Masks of God, p. 13.

[4] Teachings of the Prophet foseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), p. 137.