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Ethics and Religion Talk: Is Study of Scripture an Obligation in Your Tradition?

Is study of sacred text a religious obligation? If so, why? If it is to deepen your faith, why are there so many Bible stories about people abusing and deceiving others and God? If it is to deepen your practice, what's the point of studying a passage referring to things we no longer do?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

For more resources on interfaith dialogue and understanding, see the Kaufman Interfaith Institute page and their weekly Interfaith Insight column at

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

While studying the scriptures is highly recommended to devotees, it is not required at all. One can be a devoted Hindu in a variety of ways. Many adherents base their beliefs and practices almost solely on what is transmitted to them within the family. Rituals, meditation, prayers, etc. often come down from grandparents and others.

You ask a good question about studying things that may no longer apply to how we live today. Hindu theologians and clergy, as a rule, insist that we understand the culture and mindset of ancient times; then adjust accordingly. For instance, when speaking at schools I often see that students are taught about Hindu life cycles. In ancient times, when one reached advanced age, the final years would be spent in a jungle hermitage. That really isn’t done much anymore. But the spirit of that practice can still play a part in our lives. We retire from work. Our family obligations are often not as demanding. And we can increase our study, devotion, and meditation time.

We would apply the same logic to gender roles, clothing, jurisprudence, etc.

Imam Kip Curnutt, Director of Religious Education and Associate Imam of Masjid At-Tawheed in Grand Rapids, responds:

The Quran, the holy book of Muslims, is an integral part of a Muslim's life. We hold that the Quran is the literal word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. It has been preserved in its original Arabic working for 1400 years and the mere recitation of its original wording even without understanding is a way of transcending the seen world and interacting directly with the Divine. We recite it during our daily prayers and so every Muslim must memorize at least enough of it to read during their prayers. Many Muslims in fact memorize the entire Quran verbatim. It is encouraged to recite the entire Quran once every 30 days and especially during the holy month of Ramadan. We also believe that its stories and calls to reflection bring the height of spiritual illumination and ethical guidance. Many times in my life I will be considering an action and I will remember a certain passage that will remind me that this is not the correct ethical decision to make. In that way, repeated reading of scripture allows us to become the voice of your conscience, constantly reminding you how to lead an ethical life. 

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

The simple answer to this question is yes. The question itself is too narrow.

The Roman Catholic Church provides a course of study for individuals discerning priesthood. The Program for Priestly Formation in the United States of America is now in its sixth edition.

The intellectual development of someone preparing for the priesthood focuses on four areas of study, liberal arts, philosophy, theology, and cultural preparation programs. Liberal arts emphasis is on human development. Philosophy provides a structure for learning and thinking. Theology, a word that comes from the Greek language, means “the study of God.” The cultural preparation program provides for learning languages, especially English.

The above allows individuals studying to become priests to deepen their relationship with God. The study of Bible Stories, of which there are many, lets one recognize how easily human beings fall into sin (deception of others and hiding from God). Only then may one call others to live virtuous lives focused on doing good and avoiding evil.

Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

I don’t believe that study of the Bible is a sacred obligation, but if one wants to understand a religion and follow its tenets, it’s an irreplaceable practice.

Yes, Biblical stories are complex and even troubling, particularly when they are not read in context, or with a studied awareness of the original language and how translation can alter original meanings. I believe the Bible is more descriptive than prescriptive. Its stories tell us about human interactions, both the health ones and the unhealthy ones. We should emulate the healthy ones! Stories of scripture tell us about God/human interactions, both when they bring healing and when they bring disappointment. 

When I read a passage referring to something no longer part of modern culture, I look for the deeper or primary meaning behind, or under the story. 

When we think the Bible has to be heard and followed literally, we become slaves to what is meant to free us for a life of love, justice, and peace. 

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

For Unitarian Universalists there is no religious obligation to study sacred text unless you are studying to become a minister. But even then, it is not a religious obligation but an academic requirement. Our faith encourages us to read from many religious sources. We find meaning and wisdom from a wide variety of thoughts. The Bible is one of many resources we use. UUs most often use the parables because they do stand the test of time and are still very much relatable to life today.   

The Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

With regard to the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, every Christian has a duty to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inward digest them” (Book of Common Prayer, 1549). The apostle Paul lays down this rule for every church and every Christian: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). Christian faith is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, using God’s Word; and it is sustained, increased, deepened, and upheld under trial by the constant study of the Holy Scriptures. The preaching of God’s Word is the central and most important part of Christian worship, and there is no fit substitute. David composed his great Psalm 119 in celebration of the truth, power, comfort and practical help of God’s Word in the life of a believer: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105). 

Christians need to know about the good and the bad of our religious forebears. The Bible gives a faithful and accurate account of their strengths and weaknesses, their achievements and failures. We learn valuable lessons from both. The obscure customs of ancient life require careful study and reflection, but the lesson often is, times and customs may change, but human nature does not.  The Bible also displays, from start to finish, the unchanging faithfulness of God: “He hath remembered His covenant for ever, the word which he commanded to a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8).

My response:

I find it interesting that three of the above panelists do not see Bible study as an obligation (Presbyterian, Hindu), or one incumbent upon lay people (Catholic, Unitarian). Judaism sees the study of Scripture as a primary obligation for all. Not memorization, as my Moslem colleague describes, but learning, primarily for the sake of discerning the principles and practices of Jewish behavior. And yes, there are stories in which we learn how NOT to behave, and there are passages that we study for the “reward” associated with learning, even though the specific practices are no longer relevant.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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