Writ Divine

Background And Aims

L. Rhodes

This being the first new blog I've launched since revamping the site, I thought it might be a good idea to make an orderly start and talk a bit about why I've made it and how I intend to use it. Comparative religion has been an interest of mine since one summer between semesters of high school, when I attended an academic program a hundred or so miles away from home and parents. We were given our choice of college courses, pick two, and the two that I chose wound up being formative. One was an introduction to philosophy, specifically the Athenian schools. The other was Old Testament literature. Both had the effect of teaching me how to question assumptions both personal and socially instilled, but the latter did so by unpacking the hidden history of a tradition that had received naively, as though its surface was coextensive with its depths. That class introduced me to source criticism and documentary hypothesis, to apocrypha and the process of canonization. It threw light on the difficulties and distortions that arise not only with translation, but also with sourcing ancient texts. In doing so, it permanently altered the way I understood religious tradition.

As soon as I graduated to college proper, I sought out a comparative religion course. My interest broadened to other traditions: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. I wound up majoring in philosophy, but continued to take elective courses in the religion department, as well as courses in the philosophy of religion. I wanted to understand religion's ubiquity: Why had it arisen in practically every culture since the beginning of recorded history? How did religious differences condition the role religion played in society? What were the commonalities that made it sensible to speak of religion as a discernible object of experience? And as I met other students who had been raised Jewish and Hindu and Muslim and Buddhist, I began to pay closer attention to the parts our distinct backgrounds played in our interactions with one another and our experience of the world.

I've long since left academia, but if anything, my study of religious topics has only intensified since. I continue to read widely on the subject, and increasingly my reading has led me back to the primary texts. Writ Divine is intended as a kind of workbook for organizing my thoughts as I begin a more concerted effort to read those texts. The essays posted here will be exploratory and impressionistic, built in part on the notes I take while reading, but also drawing in academic research as questions arise. For that purpose, I have the benefit of access to a large academic library, as well as a rapidly improving facility for digging up academic research online.

The background above ought to give you some sense of what to expect. My interest is both historical and contemporaneous — Why were these texts written? but also: How have they since been received? The first question certainly bears on the second, but I don't take it as given that modern adherents of any given tradition will believe as their ancestors did, or even ought to. Nor, for that matter, is belief necessarily the foremost concern in any given religious tradition. If anything, rite and ritual are the core of most religions. Often, the religious texts we regard as foundational are elaborations on ritual practices that appear to have preceded them in the historical record, and which tend to take precedence in day-to-day practice. Even where "correct belief" seems to hold pride of place in a given tradition, references to and recitations of the textual bases of orthodoxy almost always serve a ritual purpose.

Recognizing that, what I'm doing with this blog may feel like trimming around the edges, rather than cutting to the core of religion. Yet, the texts invariably document salient moments in the development of the community's relationship to ritual, and the passages that shift into focus during particular historical moments can tell us a great deal about the development of a religion over time, as well as its disposition at present.

The more immediate occasion for starting the blog is that I've decided to buckle down and start on a project that I've had in the back of my mind for ages: a full and thorough reading of the Bible. For the next year or so, that's likely to be the dominant theme. My aim is to put that in motion with a post on the overall plan of the reading. Look for that some time in September. In the meantime, though, you can expect a few posts on the Ramayana, which I recently read for the first time. And there will be readings from other traditions afterward, as well as, possibly, during breaks in the Bible project.

As always, if you have tips for ancillary reading, or responses to anything I've posted here, you can reach me on Twitter or via Mastodon.