Sacred Texts as Literature

Diversity, Interfaith DialogueChristianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism—these are the religions we explore through reading portions of their sacred texts in my course ENG 390 – Sacred Texts as Literature.  The Bible for Judaism and Christianity, Al Qur’an for Islam, The Bhagavad-Gita for Hinduism, The Dhammapada for Buddhism, and the Tao de Ching for Taoism.  This isn’t an exploration seeking to prove that “all religions are the same.”  Similarities are profound, yes, but so are the differences.  I am Christian.  Though I am this very imperfectly, I believe absolutely in the resurrection and lordship of Jesus Christ.  But I also have a deep love for all religions and believe that they can enrich each other even across their most profound differences.  For example, Christianity and  Judaism—and Islam, too—are so-called “historic” religions. For them historical “fact” is crucial, and with this comes the primary importance of “presence.”  The so-called “Eastern” religions focus more on “absence,” thinking the hard facts of this world less important than the emptiness that lies behind it, the Void out of which everything comes.  The very first verses of the Bible even make it clear that God creates out of this Void, and the famous 11th poem of the Tao te Ching helps us see that “emptiness” makes many things truly useful:

Hollowed out,
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.

Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.

Emphasis on emptiness can help those of the history-centered religions enter into a more profound encounter with God through silence, and the disciplines it takes to cultivate emptiness can help Christians, Jews, and Muslims gain more discipline in their own faiths and develop a quietness and calmness at the core of their beings—something these religions do preach.  They are short, however, on disciplines that will get us there.

Go Here for a copy of a recent syllabus.  (Link goes live when a copy is available.)

The syllabus usually begins with the normal stuff—my contact information, the texts for the term, etc.—but soon begins grappling with the impossibility of the task: five major religions, five major texts, or parts of them, in only ten weeks.  Note the addenda as well.  There’s a “multicultural” version of the Genesis creation story, some cartoons, and a beautiful essay by Karen Armstrong which turns our usual notion of the place of faith on its head: you don’t first have faith, then because of that embark on a religious quest; rather, faith is the result of embarking on that quest.   I hope this particular quest, to understand the nature of texts deemed sacred, doesn’t result in a kind of intellectual neutrality.  I believe commitment to a faith is still one of the most important dimensions of our lives.  But though a committed Christian, I have come to believe more and more that this commitment must include a growing respect, even love, for other religious traditions and their central texts.


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2 Responses to Sacred Texts as Literature

  1. nicholas says:

    Hello, I came across your website as I was googling “religious texts as literature.” I was wondering if you have a syllabus handy for this class you took. Or better yet, if you have any lectures notes available. This topic greatly intrigues me but it’s hard to find anything on it other than the bible as literature. Please let me know if you can. Thank you.

    P.s. if you happen to know of any good resources to guide me in the right direction, I would appreciate that as well.

  2. Richard Guzman says:

    Dear Nicholas Sismil — The course ENG 390 – Sacred Texts as Literature is my own course I’ve taught about every three years for 40 years at North Central College. I’ve just re-posted the syllabus for it on my TEACHING page. Scroll down to the COURSE MATERIALS section and click on the syllabus link for this course under the LITERATURE category. The best resource is Philip Novak’s The World’s Wisdom, listed on the syllabus. No, there isn’t much that covers sacred texts as literature per se. My approach was largely teaching people to read texts using the techniques of several, well-established literary theories like New Criticism, Reader Response, etc. These techniques are outlined in the syllabus. Hope this helps. — rrg

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