Religious language is by nature metaphorical. It is metaphorical to a greater degree—and really in a different sense—than language in any other realm. Thought and language are limited because they deal of necessity in relations, i.e. events are comprehensible only in relation to other events. In everyday language, signs are made to correspond with phenomena. The word cat, to use a very simple example, stands for a particular kind of animal. The word is not the animal, so of course the language is metaphorical in a rudimentary sense. But the animal is limited and conditioned, just as language is, so the correspondence gives rise to what we usually call literal truth, or facts.
The basis of religious thought, on the other hand, is an intuition of reality as eternal and absolute. When we follow logic to its end, we realize that the limited and conditioned and finite, which describes all events, could not be so unless reality itself is unlimited, unconditioned, and infinite. However, the intuition which forms the basis of religious thought is not the result of logic. Rather, it springs from the fundamental ineffability of self, or what I prefer to call subjectivity. Subjectivity itself, the very fact of experience, seems ungraspable, only approximated in language, because it is the context or background of all knowledge. We intuitively connect this with an idea of the eternal and absolute.
All of our primary emotions become involved with this basic intuition. Experiencing reality nakedly, prior to the formulation of ideas, involves awe, wonder, love, and fear. The predicament of thought is to be newly alive, experiencing the world and struggling to gain knowledge of events in their relations. If subjectivity was immediately graspable, if we could pick it up and examine it like a rock, there would be no sense of wonder, nor would any knowledge be possible. The human being is limited and conditioned, yet intuits the unlimited and unconditioned—the mind exists at this meeting point between the contingent and the fixed.
Let us call this ineffable subjectivity soul—despite the misunderstandings and misconceptions that the word will occasion. Reality itself, the infinite and eternal, is of necessity impersonal. But when I say “reality itself” I am performing an abstraction, as language requires me to do in any explanation. This “reality itself” is in fact not separable from events (i.e. the finite and conditioned); indeed it is the very essence of the absolute to be not separable. The impersonal, so to speak, includes the personal.
The word God (and its equivalents in other languages) can be used as a generic term for the absolute, unconditioned, infinite and eternal nature of reality. Philosophers and theologians have used it that way. However, it first arose as a symbol of the personal, the eternal as a person, in effect as the soul of the world. Every aspect of the human experience contributed to this—gods and spirits (and later, God) reflect every human capacity you could name.
Religious thought is important and valid because it allows access to meanings, to the soul’s understanding of itself, the world, humanity, life, and death. I’m not referring only to instrumental meanings such as “How does this work?” or “What is this made of?” but to meaningful expressions of the entire range of experience, especially including emotions. Religion became the basis for the social order because it was the primary access point for meaning, a sort of map of human life and all its purposes and feelings, including pains and enjoyments.
The boundary between metaphorical truth and literal truth was never completely clear. It was always determined by the necessities of the moment. We didn’t really become conscious of the distinction until the rise of scientific thought forced us into some kind of awareness. Religion in its social function—as the foundation of the social order—projected everything onto a “literal” reality conceived as external to the soul. God was believed to be an existing supernatural being, a creator external to the creation, and an authority to be obeyed. The mythology of religion—its symbols and narrative traditions—was believed to represent actual historical events.
But the curious thing about all this was that the meaning of religion and mythology, its significance for the soul, can only be metaphorical. Outside of practical instrumentalities, “literal” truth has no meaning. The struggle between science and religion in the West was, and is, a political struggle. Religious institutions relied on fixed belief systems in order to maintain an authoritarian social order. Scientific reasoning threatened that because it offered freedom from preconceived belief systems. When religion claimed literal truth for itself, it staked its fortunes on unfruitful ground. It committed the error of misplaced absoluteness—asserting that the limited (mythology, scriptures, symbols) was absolute, while at the same time proclaiming that the absolute (God) was limited (an external being).
An eternal and omnipotent God, a being who created the universe and is separate from it, is literally impossible. Any separate being exists in space and time, and is therefore limited. All the arguments have been demolished centuries ago. To argue about it with a “believer” today is to simply repeat what has already been proven.
But once you realize the metaphorical nature of all religious thought, its validity becomes apparent. Mythology is an imprint of the soul, inclusive of the entire range of experience. It presents contradictory symbols and narratives, just as human beings present them. Spirituality proper is the art of the soul’s apprehension of the eternal and infinite. It has many facets. In its intellectual aspects, it deals with infinity—the realization that all contingent events are ultimately obviated (or subsumed, as it were) in reality’s nature as eternal. In its emotional aspects, it deals with divinity—the transcendent nature of love, or as the Sanskrit perhaps more accurately characterizes it, ananda (joy, bliss).
God is a metaphor for the soul, for the ineffable character of subjectivity. It inspires devotion and worship because human beings desire and seek the personal, as they desire and seek their families and loved ones. The truth was frankly spoken already in the ancient Indian texts known as the Upanishads: Brahman (God) is Atman (Soul). Buddhist philosophy took things a step further by throwing out ontology altogether, a conclusion which is far more accurate and less prone to error than any theistic system, but too difficult for many people to understand. Buddhism ended up replacing the personal aspect of divinity with the Buddhas themselves, human objects of veneration that took on a supernatural aura while remaining benign. It would seem that the need for the personal aspect could not be denied.
This is the great secret of religion. It’s an open secret, but a secret all the same. It has been suppressed in the major Western religions (and to some degree in the Eastern ones as well) because it threatens the authoritarian social order. In the old days, the esoteric and the exoteric tried to co-exist, which in practical terms meant that the mystics had to be careful not to say certain things or they might get burned at the stake. Most religious institutions, at least in the West, have lost access to their own meanings, they’ve lost their power, as a native American might say, and increasingly rely on force.
Fundamentalists seem to think that they’re competing with science for the souls of men. Actually they’ve already surrendered the power of their own traditions—their literalism constitutes a confession that their “faith” is only a narrow set of beliefs about the world, beliefs that are contradicted by the free use of reason. In terms of the soul, in terms of the meaning and significance of life as apprehended by the soul, it is of no account whether the stories of Adam and Eve, or Noah, or any narrative, are historically true. Whatever significance these stories may have for someone, it would be in the nature of a symbol, of poetry that creates meaning. Religious institutions have elevated scriptures to the status of idols, calling them the “word” of God. If we rely on a book to tell us what to believe, then we are absolved (in truth, prevented) from engaging in the direct encounter which spirituality demands. This is very convenient for authoritarians. With book in hand, they can assume an infallibility that they ascribe to God while destructively practicing it on others.
What science has revealed concerning the nature and extent of the universe is astounding and, in a very real sense, inconceivable. We can say the words “billions of galaxies,” but we can’t form any real conception of it. In contrast, the covert mythologies of the literalists are generally small and tidy, with man at the center of things. It is not our awe or our wonder that is threatened by this new information—only our pride.
Those who seek to live a spiritual life today, and at the same time to honor their own ability to think freely, are faced with a necessity that is different, or at least more imperative, than in previous eras. We must see through religious symbolism and mythology; we need to explicitly acknowledge its metaphorical nature and its fundamental connection to self, to what I have been calling soul. We will always need spirituality and mythology. Religion is not going away. But we need to recognize its metaphorical nature if we are to continue to experience meaning in our lives.
The political history of humanity, which is intimately entwined with the history of religious institutions, is a tragic one because it is marked with oppression. This reflects an inner struggle. Humanity has continually subtracted itself from its understanding of reality. We have refused to honor, or even acknowledge, the unity of experience and nature, mind and world, soul and reality. Listening to our fear, we have maintained a wall between an imagined divine “other” and our finite and limited being. But this is the very wall that our intuition of the eternal, the very basis of our religious yearnings, is meant to break through.