Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1


by William Jackson

Who am I?

Why am I here?

What should I do?

We often take for granted the means by which we orient ourselves in the world surrounding us. The way we get our bearings becomes second nature. The brain processes information using a variety of complex strategies to record, reshape, and use information. Storytelling is one such strategy. Ever since language began, people have used narrative to organize human experience, to orient life in the cosmos. Narrative is part of humanity's brilliance.

Narrative in its broadest sense means not only stories, but also the recital of accounts, information, and teachings, including scriptures--the framework of worldviews as told in the words of authoritative texts. In this sense scriptures--Hebrew, Christian Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, and others--are largely narratives. Each master narrative is a scenario orienting people to some sort of order. Today we can see how the narratives that govern lives can be critiqued from a culturally relativistic perspective. In this pluralistic age some people may choose for themselves the narratives by which they live their lives.

William Jackson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, holds a Tibetan prayer wheel with a Buddhist scripture inside. --credit

Is the use of narrative a strategy we should out-grow? For the six billion people on the planet now, the debate is far from over. Scriptures are examples of narrative par excellence--they tell origin stories, they offer expositions of teachings, injunctions, lyrics, and wisdom. Why is narrative in all its many forms so ubiquitous? Where is a coherent life that is not shaped by some story? Scriptures can be seen to function as "attractors," dynamic system patterns channelling human energies, reminding people of their place in the scheme of things. They channel the passions. It is possible that the predisposition to create order through narratives is hardwired into the brain, as some researchers say the capacities to learn language are.

At their worst, scriptures can be used to promote unthinking, irrational behavior. At their best, sacred narratives serve as revered repositories storing religious wisdom. They help articulate the reasons of the heart. Thus they seem to mirror life and generate order. They provide recognizable structures (enduring answers about life's meanings) yet allow some flexibility for new inter-pretations and applications as needs arise. They store information about ideals and make the meanings available and applicable to a great variety of situations by different people over the centuries. They are kept relevant by commentaries, new translations, and adaptive reiterations.

Though in the past century in the West some old notions were shaken as science grew and new information (such as the age of the earth) was discovered, we are still learning what it means to be a person, still gaining a better understanding of what the earth is. Therefore, we need to update our understanding of the role of the scriptures that, for so long, have oriented so many human lives. We need to assess anew the importance of scriptures, their meaning in human life. We need to understand better the processes by which we elevate them to authoritative positions, and what is involved when they are lowered or lessened in status. Perhaps because modernity treated scriptures shabbily, fundamentalists now uphold them with a vengeance; the pendulum swings both ways.

By all accounts, even the most secular or cynical, scriptures have been and still are very important in human history. Yet the term "scripture" is an umbrella term sheltering a crowd of different examples--wherever we turn in this field we find variety and surprises, not uniformity. A Buddhist's concept of "scriptures" is different from a Christian's. Though we know more now about history and anthropology, have more and better translations from original languages, and may be in closer contact with others, each discovery brings more questions to explore. Fortunately, an impressive array of scholars is researching scriptures at IU. These faculty members represent a rich spectrum of diverse views, findings, and foundations for promising future work in this area.

Common to all these researchers' projects is an awareness of how scriptures shape believers' identities. Scriptures offer a royal road of inquiry into the worlds of self and meaning, which humans have arrived at in their adventurous wanderings on the planet. As Islamicist William Graham writes: "What is ultimately significant about scripture as a concept and a reality is its role in expressing, focusing, and symbolizing the faith of religious persons and their communities around the globe, both for the faithful themselves and for the outsider who seeks a glimpse into another world of faith and discourse." These IU scholars inquiring into issues of scriptures help us to see ourselves better and to understand other segments of humanity--to glimpse the common features and the differences.

In this time of accelerated change, of devotion to science and technology, The Macintosh Bible is often cited, but the Holy Writ of the past is still very much alive. With all the research the modern age has accumulated, people still feel growing pains of alternating pride of knowledge and power, and dismay at ignorance and chaotic change beyond control. Humans continue to face mysteries in the universe that were already long in existence when our ancestors first appeared on the scene.

W. C. Smith, a scholar of comparative scriptures, noted that "our inherited conceptions of the human in relation to the world must for our day be enlarged . . . . What we have in scripture is one more clue to help us wrestle with the puzzle . . . . Scripture's role in the past poses a challenge for the future: how may we hear the voice of the universe, however finitely, and find ways to think about it, and to talk to one another about it, and to be motivated to order our life so that we may live in tune with it."

Global communications, international scholarship, and translations have set the stage for greater understanding, but for all the high-tech sophistication, the glut of information, the texts on the World Wide Web, and the ability to travel, people generally have not come to terms with issues of the nature and importance of scriptures. Despite our savvy, the nature of scriptures--their power and vitality to inform lives, shape thoughts, expressions, and behaviors--is still hard to grasp. Sometimes inspiring, sometimes appalling (as when used to justify bigotry, violence, slavery, etc.), scriptures are dynamic, changing the shape of lives and history in ways still only partly understood.

The constellation of scholars represented here, when we consider their efforts and concerns as a whole, offer us a challenge. They set us on the path of wondering: "What is a civilization-founding scripture, and how does it remain significant? How can we begin to better under-stand the implications of scripture's global pervasiveness? What new awareness of common bonds and possible cooperation might grow out of respectful encounters with the sacred texts of others?" In any case, these scholars remind us that story is essential, it is part of what makes us human. The unfolding story of humanity, including the revelations of science, is far from over. dingbat

Return to the Table of Contents