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Transmission of the Teaching

Transmission of the Teaching

Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson discusses in general terms the ways in which religious traditions perpetuate and define themselves via sacred texts, oral traditions, ritual, liturgy, preaching, and works.

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Hello, welcome. The question that this lesson will address is how are various religious traditions transmitted through the ages? We will identify different forms and methods of transmission that serve to perpetuate religious tradition and their teachings. One of the most universal means of transmission is oral tradition. A good example of this is in Christianity, with regard to the life of Jesus Christ.

There was no written record of the life of Jesus until 20 years after his death. Therefore the story of his life, all of his teachings, and the story of his death, and the story of his resurrection, all depended upon individuals and communities sharing the word, or words, that they had heard and remembered in addition to their experiences.

So Christianity as a religious tradition, developed and identified itself along these lines of oral tradition. Every religion has oral tradition as a part of its foundation. And in Christianity these stories as they were told and later written down, became known as the Gospels, the four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Together they form the first part of the Christian Bible, the New Testament. And in a service or a religious teaching, the words of the Bible are generally referred to as scripture. Now let's take a look at how oral tradition moves into written form to become a sacred text in some of the other religions.

Oral tradition as we just said is a major part of most religions. And in the case of Islam it forms a central foundation in its teaching. It is believed that the prophet Muhammad, the historical figure Muhammad, was visited by the angel Gabriel with the words of God, Allah. These words form the central sacred text of Islam, called the Qur'an. It is believed that Muhammad had direct communication with Allah. He had a divine revelation. The words from Muhammad's mouth were written down on the spot, a case of oral tradition and sacred text being almost simultaneously formed.

The other central text in Islam is called Hadith. And it's a collection of sayings and actions and teachings that are attributed to Muhammad, and they were written down only after his death. And in the Judaic tradition it was Moses who had direct contact with God. And these words of God were written down as the Torah, or the five books of Moses, the Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament.

However, concurrent with the written Torah, there is the oral Torah, believed to have been given to Moses at the same time. The oral Torah provides definitions, explanations, and instructions of the written Torah, and is passed from generation to generation. Eventually it was written down and preserved in the form of the Talmud, a central, sacred text in Judaism.

Moving further east now, oral tradition is also a significant part of the Buddhist tradition. The oral teachings of the Buddha are known through the sutras, translated as the threads that hold things together. The sutras are often memorize or enchanted by Buddhist monks. And they form the central sacred text in Buddhism called the Pali Canon. The Poli Canon also contains explanations of the direct teachings of the Buddha.

However, oral tradition doesn't necessarily stop when it is written down. There's a dynamic interplay between the oral tradition and the sacred text. And to understand that we need to look at other forms of transmission that support this relationship between the original oral tradition and the sacred text. When we hear the word tradition, we often think of history and something that stretches back in time.

And this is often the case, but in order for a religious tradition to be alive and to be present in a culture, in the community, in order for a religion to be alive today, certain practical methods of transmission have to be engaged. In order for the public to have access to the sacred principles of a religion, certain communication methods have to be used.

The public engagement with oral tradition and sacred text takes place in the context of a religious service, known as the liturgy. The liturgy is a communal recognition of the tradition and is expressed through prayer, storytelling, readings, readings from sacred text, singing, ritual silence, and other more celebratory rituals, like a marriage ceremony for example.

Every religious tradition has its own expression of liturgy. But there are forms of transmission that are held in common. Preaching, for example. In Buddhism one method of preaching is done through Dharma talks, discussions, readings, and insights into the human condition. And in Christianity a preacher delivers a sermon, which is a public teaching that includes references and readings from scripture, advice, guidance, and encouragement to the congregation or gathering of faithful believers.

Preaching gives us the best example of how oral tradition and sacred text support and depend upon each other. Another example of a universal way of transmitting a teaching, is in the form of works, the idea of generating a positive intention and actually acting in the world in a beneficial way, according to a teaching.

For example in Christianity, in the sacred text there are many references to helping the poor. And in Buddhism there are many references to generating compassion and extending that out from the practitioner to the world, to individuals, and groups. And the term is Metta, loving-kindness. And it's a very conscious practice to help the practitioner not only attain enlightenment, but also to help others and alleviate suffering in the world.

The oral traditions of sharing the teachings, the lessons and the codes of conduct with references and readings from sacred texts, is therefore extended and perpetuated through the support of the liturgy. These more direct methods of communicating a religious teaching are called didactic approaches. Methods like Dharma talks, preaching, and sermons.

In Christianity the most traditional form of didactic instruction is evangelism. Evangelism is a didacting method of preaching the Christian gospels with the goal of persuading the listener or audience into the Christian faith. The intention is to convert non believers to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. And when conversion includes services or material benefits, evangelism is called proselytism.

The word evangelism and proselytism don't actually appear in the Bible, but rather evangelist, referring to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and Saint Paul, especially who traveled throughout the Roman Empire preaching the gospel and establishing churches has he went. Evangelism then, is a form of persuasive instruction unique to Christianity and Islam.

The reason for this is that in these two religions it is generally believed that non believers will somehow suffer in some way in the afterlife. Judaism on the other hand, doesn't have a tradition of evangelizing or proselytizing. For Jews their belief that Jesus is not the Messiah is firmly held and established. It has a very long history and there's nothing. There's no news to report, so to speak. As in Christianity, with the radical appearance of the divine in human form.

And similarly in Buddhism, there is no tradition of evangelism. If conversion were to occur, it's usually the result of Buddhist monks who demonstrate their beliefs and principles-- the beliefs and principles of their tradition through their behavior and through a peaceful exchange with people. In Christianity and Islam, the practice of evangelism reaches far back to the earliest roots of the oral tradition.

It's prescribed in scripture and of course is still today a very common method of persuasive conversion in some Christian and Muslim communities. But we're going to end the lesson today by mentioning two methods of transmission that are even more universal within Christianity and Islam, and across all religions.

Religious holidays and religious observances. The recognition of important holidays and observances that mark historical events allows the faithful to observe certain codes of conduct that are contained in the teachings. When a family, a community, a culture, gathers together and shares and re-tells the stories of their religion, that tradition is brought into the present, continually extending the line of transmission.

  • Evangelism

    The attempt, usually through persuasive speech or writing, to convert non-believers to one's own religion--typical of most sects within Christianity.

  • Liturgy

    The manner in which a particular religious group conducts public worship.

  • Didactic

    Instructional, intended to educate.

  • Proselytism

    The attempt by one or more members of any religious group to persuade others to become members of that group.

  • Oral Tradition

    The practice of teaching important religious or other doctrine verbally, without writing them down.

  • Scripture

    Any text held in reverence by any religious group.

  • Preaching

    The act of transmitting moral or other teachings to those already within the same religious group--contrast with evangelism.