Scribbling on a Sacred Text

I am at an interfaith conference at the moment on the theme of the environment. We just had a speaker who expounded a Sufi Muslim idea of creation as the “writing of God”. There seems to be some parallel here with our Christian idea of the “two books” of revelation, the “book of Nature” and (of course) the “book of Scripture”, and with the Jewish idea of the integral place of the Hebrew language and script in God’s creating work.

But it brought to mind an image for me. I was once a professional librarian. Librarians love books. They buy them new and pristine and put them on the shelves where they look all nice and pretty. AND THEN: people come to use them. They open them, break their spines, write in them, spill coffee on them – all in the process of READING them. Some librarians never come to terms with this reality.

Of course, on the other hand there are some VANDALS (who deserve to be hung by their thumbs from the highest bookshelf) who tear out pages, rip off covers, deface the book etc. etc. The most extreme form of this crime is book burning. We will say no more about these base individuals.

But as an image for the “writing of God”, ie. the Created World, it is not a bad one. There must be a balance between the extreme fastidiousness of those (rare and few) librarians who have a phobia of people actually using their nice new books, and those vandals who actually destroy the books. The Book of Nature is there to be read. In the process of reading a book, the book begins to look different. Handling a book modifies it. Sometimes it doesn’t look so pretty. But it has a purpose. That purpose cannot be served if the book is left on the shelf untouched – neither can it be served if the book is destroyed or made illegible.

There is a balance here. It is focused on the purpose of the book. The book is to be read. The “writing of Creation” exists for human beings to read it. But woe to him who defaces it, and obscures the “writing” and its Author.

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3 responses to “Scribbling on a Sacred Text

  1. Matthias

    I read somewhere that Bacon called the Bible ‘THE BOOK OF GOD’S WORD” and the natural world which he studied -and gave us the Baconian method of science investigation- The Book of God’s Work

  2. Peregrinus

    It’s a wonderful image.

    A few thoughts:

    The language you use, David, treats us as something external to the “Book of Nature”; something which acts on it from outside by reading it, turning down the corners of the pages, breaking the spine, or whatever. But of course we’re not external; we’re part of the book. Only God is external to the book. This lead to two conclusions.

    First, how we regard ourselves, how we deal with ourselves, the people we become, is as much a part of “how we treat the book” as is how we treat others, how we treat the environment, etc.

    Secondly, it’s not correct to say that “the writing of creation exists for human beings to read it”. It exist for God to read it. Not just us, but everything that God creates, He creates for His own delight; He creates because that is what is to be God.

    We can read the writing of creation, of course, and we must, if we are to fulfil ourselves and if God is to delight in seeing us become who we are called to become. Indeed, reading it is part of being made in God’s image, and of becoming more like God. But to say that it exists for us, I think, contributes to the mistaken perception that we are something apart from it.

    On a separate point, I’m a little wary of a “book of nature/book of scripture” dichotomy, and of the Baconian language to which Matthias points us which distinguishes between God’s Work and God’s Word. This seems to me to arise out of, and feed into, a dualistic worldview which contrasts the spiritual (God’s Word) and the material (God’s Work).

    In Genesis we see God creating things by naming them, and I think this points towards an important insight; God’s Word and God’s Work are the same.

    If we insist on separating out God’s Word from God’s Work, it’s easy to take a Platonic view and see the revelation embodied in scripture as being the abstract ideas and understandings which lie behind, and are expressed by, the words of the scriptures. In this way we see God’s Work revealing his material creation, and God’s Word revealing his spiritual creation – the ideas and understanding to which scripture refers.

    The Jews would have been puzzled by this. For them, scripture is not a means by which we express, record and remember ideas that have been revealed to us. Scripture itself is itself revealed to us. Hence the importance, for Jews, of the language of scripture (Hebrew) and the reverence with which scriptural books and scrolls are treated. (The books and scrolls are not themselves revealed, of course, but they embody revelation in a much more immediate way than we will understand if we regard the abstract ideas as the revelation.) And Islam, of course, has inherited all this from Judaism.

    What we do with the revelation of scripture us up to us. We can, if we choose, take a fundamentalist approach and assert that, because scripture refers to the four corners of the earth, therefore the earth must be square (or, at least, a four-sided figure). That’s a very unsatisfactory way of “reading” scripture, though; I think we must understand, as your book analogy makes clear, that the “reading” we are called to is a more active interaction with scripture than that. This example also illustrates the pitfalls of reading scripture apart from reading nature; if we read scripture together with nature and nature together with scripture we will hardly fall into the error of thinking that the world is a four-sided figure.

  3. Louise

    There are any number of books which ought to be burnt IMO. And I cannot get over the mania about breaking spines. As far as I can tell one cannot read a book without breaking or in some way damaging it’s spine. Or do I not understand what that entails?