The revelations that founded an ancient religious tradition are historical: they take place in time, and insofar as they are intelligible to us, have a literary "form." They have a context, they are determined by events. Transcendent as a prophet's visions may be, they are transfigured versions of the real world the prophet sees, and they are expressed in the language the prophet speaks.
Human truths are not like mathematical ones. They are so complex as to be inseparable from their historical setting, and they can only be understood through historical means. Any attempt to separate the eternal from the temporal results, not in abstractions, but in platitudes — usually moral ABC's.
Thus the great and foundational revelations of our faiths are meaningfully accessible to us today only through their historical documents. There is no alternative way to the original inspiration. Without the text, all is lost. Paleolithic and Neolithic religion, despite the great light shed on it by a rich archaeological and artistic record, and the parallels that can be drawn with contemporary archaic societies, are lost to us. Lascaux and Willendorf can only be understood in the most general terms, and only a fool or a knave would claim to possess their esoteric secrets. The same is true of scriptural truth: it requires learning, it cannot be simply intuited.
Nor can it be seriously maintained that an authentic connection to a spiritual tradition can be accessed through prayer, meditation, medication, inspiration, ecstasy, or any other text-free means. Though such activities may be rich in personal results, and may enhance scriptural knowledge already possessed, of themselves they impart nothing of value as regards any religious tradition.
Americans in particular are susceptible to self-delusion on this head. The American genius for fresh insights and new beginnings is here frequently misapplied. The Zen masters many Americans admire as examples of spontaneous religious insight are nothing of the kind. Their apparent disregard of tradition is the outcome of the most scrupulous study of a long and literary heritage. Nor were Moses, Isaiah or Jesus naive exponents of native crazy-wisdom. Nor was Whitman for that matter, to cite the most successful of the American prophet-bards. And, to bring matters home, even an individual of great faith, moral distinction and mystical gifts, with no better access to the tradition than a middling acquaintance with an adequate translation, will have little of value to say in relation to the tradition.
George Fox, despite a remarkable familiarity with the King James Version, was otherwise rather an ignorant man, and his religious writings are only interesting as explications of his particular style of Quakerism: their value as regards Christian tradition is slight, and as regards the tradition of prophecy, which he claimed to continue — negligible. Ibn Arabi, who was unquestionably a great mystic, despite being on the most intimate terms with Allah, offers few observations on Biblical tradition that are not shallow, because Mohammed dismissed the Old and New Testaments as "forgeries" and set them inaccessibly outside the Islamic canon. On the other hand, Aquinas, a man of vast learning as well as tremendous literary, philosophical and mystical insight, demonstrates throughout his writings a precise grasp of Old Testament concepts that is rarely if ever met even today in scholars of Judaism and Early Christianity. He may fairly regarded as a profound continuator of the most ancient Hebrew prophetic tradition.
All this by way of repulsing the claims, universally encountered among "believers," that emotional piety, by itself, is somehow superior to a clear and intellectual understanding of the texts. Though a purely academic grasp of the texts yields a severely limited connection with the tradition, a purely pietistic approach yields no connection at all. Without a real grasp of the written tradition, piety is not religion at all, it is just sentimentality directed towards religion.
An esoteric chain of transmission is likewise inadequate to connect us to the great religious traditions of the past. The claims of the Buddhist and Catholic Churches to primordial holiness and insight, passed on from generation to generationi, are simply wishful thinking, Traditions may last relatively unchanged for even hundreds of years, but only on the condition that no great changes occur in the physical circumstances of those who continue them. Changes in technological level, contact with other cultures, not to mention wars, plagues and spontaneous innovations, all disrupt, often irrevocably, the flow of tradition. A little exposure to Paul, Aquinas and Descartes, or for that matter a comparison of the Dhammapada with the Heart Sutra, will explode the myth of unbroken tradition. The notion that an oral and personal tradition is likely to preserve the essentials more scrupulously than the literary succession is untenable. If it were true, a recapitulation of the original beliefs would at some point in the course of a millennium resurface in the literary record.
The situation may be observed over a far shorter period, and in a more pertinent area, in regard to the Hebrew Prophets, who operated as a kind of guild in the time of the Books of Kings, and whose flow of inspiration, in traditional form, ceased with the exile to Babylon. The chain of esoteric transmission was there indisputably broken, in the midst of the most august religious tradition of the west. Thereafter the transmission of prophecy was taken up again, but this time in a literary tradition, by authors who evinced both the indirectness and the authenticity of their inspiration by writing an Apocalyptic literature, like the Books of Enoch, which the authors ascribed to persons who lived in primordial times. The presupposition of Apocalyptic literature is that the ancients must be gone to for esoteric initiation: the access to those ancients, and the outcome of it, is entirely literary. The society as a whole of post-prophetic Israel shared this opinion: they no longer looked to, or even looked for, prophets, but attended to the teachings of persons expert in the religious literature. Nor did Jesus owe anything to an esoteric transmission. Jesus' credibility did not depend on his miracles and exorcisms, which merely placed him in the ranks of wonder-workers, who were little better than popular entertainers. Nor did he or his followers claim his and John's actual connection Essenes — which the New Testament is at some pains to conceal. It was his teaching, his compelling insights into scripture, that made him a considerable figure. Esoteric transmission is not sufficiently durable to survive history. Written tradition patently is.
All this is not to say that one needs only the skills of a philologist to draw nigh unto the God of the Bible. Though such skills are prerequisite for any authoritative teaching, they are in themselves far from adequate. Even if one possessed the Q source in full, and had the Aramaic to read it, one would at first be confronted only by a possibly fascinating but probably unappealing Jesus whose ideas, as he presented them, were rarely applicable in the modern world.
Much of what he has to say would only be of value to fill in details of his historical context: the circumstances and beliefs that defined him and his contemporaries.Some of the ideas most important to him, such as his teaching on divorce, would strike us as quaint at best. But amid much context one would surely find some archetypal and trans-historical content of his teaching, the images and philosophic insights which still speak to us with vivid reality,as in the Sermon on the Mount.
But supposing we correctly identify the passages that can speak to us. It will take poetic power to translate them into a form that can, without injury to the original meaning, be immediately understood. In selections then, Isaiah or Jesus can still speak directly to us, and this is the utmost that scholarship can perform: it makes possible a vivid, real, but one-sided contact with the tradition. The prophet speaks, and where possible, we hear .
A possibility for genuine dialogue with the tradition comes through figurative or metaphoric reapplication of verses, revalorizing them with a meaning they did not originally contain, but which is a legitimate expansion of their original sense and intent. And this is a miracle no purely academic skill can perform. As an example, consider this passage in Isaiah 24, which describes a deadly heat visited on the land in recompense for the people's sins,
The land is bleaching under the sun, pales as if sick with sorrow,
the world wears out, dries up, discolors,
noble, commoner, all fade under the heat.
It isn’t just the time of year — it’s the time of reckoning!
The land was desecrated under its inhabitants!
They broke God’s holy law, they twisted the statutes,
till the Eternal Covenant, the promise that the rains would fall
in season, the agreement between heaven and earth, was annulled.
That’s what kindled this heat! Do you dare expect you’ll see clouds again?
That’s why hot haze eats at earth like a curse.
The guilty with their land are drubbed under sunlight.
That’s why the world burns all punishing summer, why so
few still walk these streets of endless August.
which the KJV renders thus:
4) The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughtie people of the earth doe languish. 5) The earth also is defiled vnder the inhabitants thereof: because they haue transgressed the lawes, changed the ordinance, broken the euerlasting couenant. 6)
Therefore hath the curse deuoured the earth, and they that dwell therin are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left. Isaiah 24
(The KJV is literal to the point of opaqueness: to make the verses intelligible I had to weave the commmentary into the translation. At this distance in time, one cannot always translate word-for-word; one must translate idea-by-idea.)
This was by no means a foretelling of global warming, yet if one were to apply it to the impending eco-catastrophe it would be so appropriate to the original sense and intention of Isaiah's words that it would be fair to say that here Isaiah lives and speaks anew. This is genuine dialogue with scripture, and evidence that God can still speak to us.
A third possibility exists. We can simply project our ideas onto the text, without much regard for the original meaning. Here the tradition does not address us, neither do we converse with it. Rather, we speak one sidedly to it. Though of course this is merely play: such clever quotation of scripture does not allow us to peer through the lens of tradition, but merely to admire our own reflection on its surface.
Scholarship is of course not a prerequisite of faith or a good and living religious practice. But those who presume to preach the word of God had best have done their homework first. Neither robes and pompous titles, nor the arrogant humility of the "sharers of feelings," nor the desire of the congregation for flattering psychological pap excuse ignorant exposition of the word of God. But just such profanation is nowadays the rule. And this preaching of ignorance is the first object my ministry attacks.