Back when moral insights and spiritual narratives were handed down by oral tradition, they could evolve with the culture in which they existed. As a group of people gained more new technologies and social structures, a better understanding of the world around them or a higher moral consciousness, the oral tradition changed. Some parts were emphasized and repeated often. Others not. Stories morphed into each other or fell away. New stories and precepts emerged, some that withered immediately and others that have been handed down in bits and fragments to the present.
When humans beings acquired written language, we gained much, but we also lost something. A book is outdated the moment it is printed. As religious scholar, Huston Smith, has said, “Exclusively oral cultures are unencumbered by dead knowledge, dead facts. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of them.”
Written language allowed our spiritual ancestors to record and pass on their best understanding of what was right and what was real and how to live in moral community with each other. But it also allowed this understanding to become static, frozen in time, developmentally arrested. The concepts and even the words themselves became holy. When “canonization” of some texts happened, meaning when authorities designated some texts as official, the related religion became more text centered and therefore more static.
This got worse with the advent of the printing press and widespread literacy. These advances brought many advantages but also had a downside. In both Christianity and Islam, widespread literacy was accompanied by waves of fundamentalism. Now American Evangelicalism, in particular the "Emergent Church" has mostly gotten rid of old theological and denominational structures altogether—allowing it to be more text centric than ever. Any ernest or charismatic man with an inerrant Bible can claim direct access to the mind of God. In an age of reason, what better golden calf than a book?
In the last five years, for the first time since the advent of writing, we now have the ability to create living texts, documents that evolve with us as we continue our quest for goodness and truth. Social networking software and wiki platforms allow us to co-create these documents. They allow us harness the wisdom of our ancestors and the wisdom of crowds in determining the answers to our most fundamental questions: What is right? What is real? What is the meaning of life? How should we then live? Together, using these new tools of research and collaboration, we have the power to sift through our received traditions, separating wheat from chaff or worse.
Knowing that all of our theological understandings are provisional at best . . . Knowing that our spiritual ancestors, like us, were blind men seeking to comprehend an elephant . . . Knowing that a static body of knowledge is either small or stale and that the spiritual realm certainly is not small! . . . Knowing all these things, we can once again set our spiritual understandings free to evolve with our communal needs and moral consciousness.
The Catholic council that canonized our modern Bible had few tools at their disposal as they tried to determine which of the many Christian writings were more sacred than others. They had no linguists, no archeologists, no computer, not even a printing press —just collections of writings that had been gathered together into “books,” some of which had been assigned authorship by famous men of God. They had little knowledge of prior religions or parallel religions. They had no knowledge of biology and little of geography and astronomy. They had little concept that human institutions are man-made or that they themselves were creating one such institution.
Today we have all of these and more.
Each generation has both the privilege and responsibility to sift through its received tradition and to ask: What of this is mere superstition? What of this is human construction—man putting God’s name on bits of culture or our own base instincts? And which parts reflect divine realities that lay beyond? The writers of the Torah accepted this privilege and responsibility as they selected among fragments of Sumerian and Akkadian religion, discarding some and reweaving others with new thread. The writers of the New Testament accepted this privilege and responsibility, borrowing from the Hebrew scriptures—Torah and Prophets and Midrash and from the surrounding mystery religions and that of the Greeks. They accepted their part in history and shaped the course of the future. Now comes our time to honor this heritage and do the same.