10 January 2008

What scriptures are about

Let's assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the wisdom expressed in a scripture can be stated in the form of a sentence, or proposition.

A proposition is a sign. The subject of a proposition (what it is about) is the object of that sign. What the sentence says about its subject is called the predicate of the proposition.

The object of any sign you can read must be something that you can direct your attention to. No sentence can tell you what its own object is. It can include a name for it, but that won't help unless you already know what that name refers to. The most it can do, without relying on some other (indexical) sign to designate the object, is to direct your attention by relying on your linguistic habits—that is, on some generic connection between words and your experience.

In the case of a scriptural sentence, the experience (the object) must also be generic in some sense. Scriptures don't tell you anything about isolated facts or minor details, but about some pervasive quality of life.

The more generic is the subject of a text, the deeper its meaning, the more it approaches the status of scripture. For a human reader, a story about Jesus is scriptural to the extent that ‘Jesus’ names a generic feature of human experience. A story specifying factual details about an individual named ‘Jesus’ who lived in a specific time and place meets the criteria for history, but not for scripture. What makes a reference to ‘Jesus’ scriptural, for you, is that you can read ‘Jesus’ as the name of a real presence in your life—a definite presence either remembered or anticipated, or (ideally) both. The same goes for ‘Buddha’, which is why the sutras say that his body pervades the universe. And the same for any mythic archetype. All genuine myths and sacred stories are grounded in universally human experience, which must therefore be your experience.

The interpretant of a scriptural sign, and thus its enlightening or life-changing effect, emerges from the reader's effort to clarify the real connection between its object and the rest of reality. In a proposition, that connection is the content of the predicate. But the effort is all for nought if misdirected to the wrong subject (object, referent).

When the sentence doesn't make sense, the reader has to consider that she may be directing her attention to the wrong object. You can't rely on your mental habits to tell you what the scripture is about, unless your habits are cyclic and self-correcting. In other words, the ideal reader's methods must be rooted in the self-organizing process of life itself.

But it would take a whole book to explain that …

No comments: