Although I have a read a good portion of the Bible, I have spent little time reading the holy books of other religions. I have read a bit of the Bhagavad Gita as for some reason it was sitting around in my doctor’s office waiting room for awhile. It’s actually kind of an interesting book. I science fiction book I had recently read made several references to the Upanisads and the Dhammapada and so I’ve been perusing those books. It has been interesting reading how other ancient cultures viewed the world. When you read things from the point of view of somebody from those times, when so very little was known about the world, you can appreciate the contents even though from the perspective of today much of it is nonsense. There is wisdom to be found there as well, and I found many similarities between the Bible and the Upanisads in terms of the moral lessons it was trying to teach. There are many possible stories that can teach the same lesson, and it seems pretty clear that even when you suspect they are trying to be literally true, it still represents a best guess, and that what they were really trying to do is find a way of communicating impressions and feelings about the universe even if their literal attempt of an explanation was incomplete.
Recently I was in my local coffee shop working and a group of women sat at the table next to me and they were having a Bible study together. Although I’d say more than half of the time they were just giggling and talking about things unrelated to the Bible, they did focus on their planned lesson. Of course this is typical of many Christians in which they have some guide that hand selects of few important verses to focus on so that the entirety of the narrative is not read by the follower. Like the Upanisads, I expect many church leaders recognize the irrelevance of much of the Bible and would rather not have discussions about many of the passages in the Old testament especially. Anyway, what was interesting is that when they contemplated the words of a specific verse they would often relate it to experiences in their own life. As I could not help but overhear, it was fascinating to me how the verses containing some wisdom seemed to be already known by the women, because life lessons had already taught them it was true. Nevertheless they didn’t seem cognitively aware and put the cart before the horse. “Look at the wisdom of this book, it is telling me something I already know…genius!” I think if you are led to believe in the inspiration and greatness of the word of God, it’s hard to think of it as anything but that. If the wisdom in the pages matches your own experience then this will only give you more respect for the book.
Now it’s not to say that people don’t discover wisdom from holy books. I am listening to a podcast right now where they are discussing some of the main problems in the field of social psychology in terms of how the work is performed. One of the main critiques of social psychology is that a field it has actually become too obsessed with the creation of little experiments for the purpose of following the scientific method and almost forcefully trying to demonstrate it’s scientific rigor. Social psychology is the study of the individual in a societal context and so they ask, why all these experiments, when none of these controlled situations are actually found in a social context? It’s a valid point. The hosts of the podcasts were arguing that what is missing from social psychology as compared to other scientific disciplines is scores of observations. They use the example of Tycho Brahe the famous Dutch astronomer, who really didn’t come up with anything novel on his own, but what he did have was mounds and mounds of careful observations of the stars and planets. Johannes Kepler was his student and came along and came up with his 3 laws of planetary motion. It is Kepler’s genius that is recognized today, but he certainly could not have come up his laws without all those observations. Just as Darwin could not have come up with the theory of evolution without all his observations on the Galapagos.
Astronomy is one of the oldest disciplines because there is little to do at night but look at the stars. It occurred to me that once you had civilizations and had a certain portion of the population doing the farming, a few who could afford to live a life of leisure had little to do during the day but observe humans. It seems no surprise to me that wisdom would be found in ancient texts based on many years of observations of people. Many of us figure things out on our own simply by paying attention to life and taking time to reflect and introspect. There was no formal scientific method back then, and we certainly aren’t using it in our everyday lives when we come to a conclusion like “Hey, maybe I’m spending too much time worrying about things that are out of my control. I would be happier if I focused on the moment.” This is the kind of good stuff we come up with through our experiences, and it seems to me that many of the scholars who wrote religious books were simply story tellers, weaving important moral and ethical lessons into the stories based on their observations of how people behaved and what consequences or rewards befell them. Whether they were joyful, fulfilled, empty, or anxious. Most of them I think were simply people who were observing constantly and coming to some conclusions about how to live a better life.
Pay attention, look inward, and talk to others for their stories. There is wisdom to be found in holy books, but the good news is that you also have a decent chance of figuring it out on your own.