There have been some interesting responses to my essay “No Literal Truth.” One reader pointed out that it is an essential aspect of Christianity that the resurrection be taken literally rather than “just” metaphorically. More generally, 2 Peter 1:16 makes a central point clear: “For we do not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
It seems to me that, taking Christian belief on its own terms, the reader was absolutely right. There are two points that I need to make about this. The first is that my statement “All meaning is transmitted by metaphor” is not the same as the reductive idea that “such-and-such event in a religious scripture did not actually happen, but is in fact only a metaphor.” The question of what happened and what didn’t is, on the one hand, a matter for scientific investigation, and on the other—the other being in the context of a religious tradition—strictly a matter of belief. But I maintain that the meaning of such an event is accessible to the believer only through the power of metaphor. The reality of which the believer believes only gains significance because, subjectively, it has meaning for him, e.g., in Christian terms, it has meaning for the soul, such as salvation or blessedness.
If we just take the resurrection as fact alone, without metaphor, there is no meaning beyond the fact that someone defied the law of nature by rising from the dead. That’s what you might call “a curiosity and a wonder,” a singular and incredibly unusual event. But what, I ask, does it have to do with my soul? Christian theology would answer me by going on to explain the significance of this event for my soul, and in this metaphor inevitably will be the means. It’s not enough to say that the resurrection promises that we will all rise from the dead too, if we believe that Jesus is Lord, because my resurrection from the dead would also be a “curiosity and a wonder,” but with a questionable significance for the soul. So we’re all resurrected and we’re still ignorant, limited beings. So what? In other words, the actual theology involves a change in the soul, and this change cannot be explained through any plain, objective expression (i.e. “literally”) but only through metaphor.
The point is that metaphor has been degraded to the status of a word indicating “unreal,” “not actual,” or “not true.” So when religious people insist on the literal truth of their scriptures, they are buying in to a view of life that considers human experience to be unimportant and accidental compared to the existence of the “outside” world. Instead of accepting that subjectivity is an inherent aspect of existence, they deny it in favor of the same objective standard maintained by science. They end up hoisted on their own petard, because science is consistent in its reliance on facts, while the religious people put belief before facts.
The resurrection is a good example. I think everyone would agree that the resurrection would not be considered remarkable if we saw such a thing every day. People didn’t need science to tell them that to rise from the dead would be an unprecedented feat—a miracle, in fact. If everyone were rising from the dead all over the place, Christians would have no reason to mention that Jesus had done it. It is characteristic of a miracle that it goes against the observed laws of nature. And yet, after Christianity became the dominant religion in the West, and its doctrines became the status quo, any doubt about the possibility of such a miracle became heresy. We see today that fundamentalists are offended when someone challenges the possibility of the resurrection. If they were consistent within themselves, if they understood the nature of miracles, they would calmly expect that most people would not believe. This isn’t to say that they wouldn’t attempt to persuade people to believe, but instead we see indignation that someone would have the temerity not to believe. And I think this proves not only that what passes for belief is often only the assumption of an inherited cultural tradition, but also that such belief is confused as to its own nature.
I happen to think that belief in and of itself falls short of the truth concerning spiritual experience, that it is essentially a mental operation that doesn’t change anything unless something deeper is touched—what I call “meaning”—that transcends thought and language. But that’s another essay. Here it’s important to understand that the attempt to divorce metaphor from religion is essentially an unconscious betrayal of the foundations of religion in favor of a soulless view of reality, a reality that is purely “objective” and has no room for poetry or the experience of transcendence.
My second point is more practical in nature; in fact it’s political. By stating my view that the “literal truth” is not spiritual, I do not thereby declare that fundamentalists should be outlawed, persecuted, prevented from practicing their religion, etc. I make a distinction between discussions of a philosophical nature regarding religion and discussions about the legal and political implications of religion in society. I believe that the American founders got it right by forbidding both the establishment of religion and the prohibition of its exercise. Everyone should be allowed to practice any religion they want, and express any religious belief they want. But the demagogues who seem to have hijacked a good portion of the church in
The demagogues have taken the position of victims, claiming that secularists are ruining the country. There are millions of churches in this country freely practicing their faith. There are thousands of Christian radio stations. The claim that Christians are being persecuted is ludicrous and pathetic on the face of it. What it really amounts to is a demand for a theocratic system of government rather than the one established by the founders.
I am intellectually opposed to fundamentalist religious belief. I also believe in the absolute right to be a fundamentalist if that’s what you choose. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, don’t extend the same courtesy to me. The current leadership, at least, seeks to use the force of law to deny my rights. It is this attempt to undermine the Constitution, to break down the wall of separation between church and state, that I strongly oppose, not the mere existence of an opposing viewpoint, which is inevitable.
There will never be a time when everyone is going to believe the same thing. To try to achieve that has led, and will continue to lead, to nothing but destruction. That’s why the American tradition of tolerance and separation of church from matters of state is so wise, and must be preserved if we are to remain free.