As I teach an introductory class to world religions at Columbia Bible College, I find there is much to process beyond the often-overwhelming swath of general information one encounters in the history, beliefs and rituals of religions.
I approach studying religions with the goal of understanding. I desire a perspective on others and their beliefs that develops and maintains relationships, which inevitably leads to my own personal growth along the way. For those worried about extreme approaches to world religions - narrow-minded exclusivity (“I’m right, you’re wrong!”) or open-minded relativism (“We’re all right!”) - I’m attempting an engaged learning that sees the complexity of religious diversity and personal conviction as a relationship to be invested in, not a problem to solved.
One such area of diversity and conviction is found in the various ways religions approach their holy scriptures (e.g. the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita, Koran, etc...).
As a Christian, I take the Bible seriously. Yes, I’m aware of the tendency for evangelical Christians to idolatrize the Bible, unknowingly adding a fourth member to the Trinity in elevation of the “good book.” And at times we are so quick to claim biblical authority - “the Bible says so!” - that we forget to acknowledge the complex role and influence of tradition and history in determining how we interpret the Bible. By itself, “The Bible says so” is just too good to be true.
It’s with situation in mind that I’ve been considering the Hindu perspective on their scriptures. Hinduism splits their holy books into two categories:
1. Shruti: “revelation” - the foundational and earliest scriptures of Hinduism (e.g. Vedas)
2. Smirti: “tradition” - the additional scriptures and traditions of Hinduism (e.g. Bhagavad-Gita)
There is a dynamic relationship between revelation and tradition - both are needed to determine the meaning of Hindu faithfulness. For Hindu’s, prioritizing one (revelation) over and against the other (tradition) results in an incomplete religious expression. Considering the tendency to pit the Bible over and against tradition, the balance of Hinduism, while differing greatly from Christianity in beliefs, exhibits a revelation-tradition dynamic that is often missed in evangelical Christianity.
I asked my students two questions I think are worth continued reflection:
What are you naturally drawn towards, revelation or tradition?
How does the Hindu view of balance between revelation (Smirti) and tradition (Schruti) challenge or inform your view of the Bible?
Personally, I try to maintain a view of the Bible’s role and authority for my Christian life with a degree of openness and humility. I need to continually realize that I always bring a perspective to my biblical interpretation. As one who believes strongly that the Bible is in fact the “Word of God” and an “authoritative guide for faith and practice” such an approach recognizes the tension in discerning what the Bible actually teaches related to what I want it to teach (often derived from my own perspectives and traditions). The fact I’m a middle-class North American caucasian of Mennonite-evangelical belief and background will no doubt influence how I interpret the Bible. My tradition plays an important role in determining my interpretation of the Bible. In this sense there is a connection, and sometimes even a tension, between the Bible and tradition - faithfulness involves recognizing the dynamic connection between these two areas of our lives.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it (i.e. tradition), and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures (i.e. revelation), which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:14-17 NIV)