“The knowledge of Truth as gained through the established creeds is like the knowledge of a town which one gets by studying it on a map. To see and know the town one has to take the trouble of actually going there.” –Meher Baba.
Meher Baba’s formulation is about as close to a perfect metaphor for the difference between literalism and actual spirituality as one could expect. Religious groups and individuals who cling to their sacred texts and proclaim them as literally true and binding are very much like a travel agent selling you a tour guide instead of getting you an actual ticket to where you want to go. Yet like all metaphors, and especially those pertaining to spiritual truths, this one is limited.
To extend the idea further, then, let us admit that there are many maps of the same town, and that each map is significantly different in key respects than the others. Each one also includes a bunch of material that may not be specifically relevant to finding one’s way around in this town, such as advice on sex, food, children, politics, family, and war; advice that is not only different in each map but often contradicts itself within the same map. On the margins of the map are written stories and legends concerning inhabitants of the town, of widely varying credibility and value. Finally, notwithstanding the confusing nature of the map in terms of the actual layout of the streets and buildings within it, there are practically no indications of where the town is located within the larger map of the world, which begs the legitimate question of whether the town exists at all or is merely an illusory destination invented in order to benefit the manufacturers of the map.
Even this amusing and complex metaphor, however, is ultimately too simple to encompass the real conflict between religious tradition and spiritual experience. The knowledge of Truth, with a capital T as indicated in the quote from Meher Baba, is not really like a town because a town exists in space and time and is therefore subject to all the conditions that characterize the phenomenal world. Truth with a capital T can be nothing else than reality itself, which is unconditioned since it constitutes the only absolute condition by which all relative phenomena can be. The human mind, and consequently religion, abstracts even this Truth into something separately immutable, when in fact if there were a separate Absolute over and above the conditioned world, this Absolute would be only another conditioned thing. The correspondence of language with the description of phenomena is practically effective, but as a description of reality itself, it becomes metaphorical in the most radical sense, a pointing or an indication that falls away as it is being uttered.
The main difficulty, I continue to maintain, is that Truth can only be intuited in the context of self, or to be more accurate, subjectivity. Humanity’s struggle with this intuitive awareness, which involves a struggle against it, is in my view the central story of organized religion. It is a political struggle in the sense that society became organized around the figure of dominant authority—the supposed separate Absolute known as the gods and later as God. The personal nature of this metaphor is significant precisely because the intuition of reality is always in the context of all experience, i.e. subjectivity, which is ineffable in its aspect of absolute context. The self as context for all experience corresponds to reality or Truth as context for all phenomena. Abstracting this into an authority separate from self is an unconscious process of alienation from ourselves and the psychological elevation of an all-powerful force existing in an “external” world. I believe that this alienation springs from the survival instinct and the fear of death unique to humanity.
The undoing of this alienation is the real goal of all spirituality. This fact is largely a secret because it runs counter to the basic organizing principles of the established creeds, which affirm the original alienation as necessary. To wake up to this Truth, then, as Meher Baba might put it, is to go beyond religion into actual experience. To return to the map metaphor, this is a peculiar case where once you actually reach the town, you don’t need the map anymore. You can throw it away, or you can draw on it as a source of metaphor in order to help others. Some things in the map may actually be detrimental to the goal, other aspects may be metaphorically potent. But the map has no ultimate significance—it crumbles and disappears like all things. Only reality itself is eternal.
Throughout history, teachers have stressed the continuity between religious tradition and spiritual experience as being to their advantage. I think that this policy has in many respects proven to be a failure. I’m aware of the risk that this statement is presumptuous, disrespectful, arrogant, perhaps even dangerously foolish. I still feel the need to make this statement on the evidence of history. Literalism, the use of the map as a way to organize a society through domination, has always constituted a threat to spirituality, and I think more so today than ever, when the wisdom traditions are increasingly scattered and powerless in the world. The proclamation of the Bible, for instance, as the so-called “Word of God,” is an excuse for every kind of cruelty and vice under the sun. Without requiring any spiritual experience, the mainstream Christian churches, and particularly the fundamentalists, simply rely on a book to allay their unconscious fears of death and limitation, while wildly projecting them onto the “enemies,” the people outside their clans. The same destructive idolatry occurs with followers of the Koran, the Torah, or any other book, even including books by secular ideologists who share with religious literalists the view of human beings as mere means towards some ideal end.
It has become necessary to proclaim openly that there is no scripture that is literally true, that all such scriptures are metaphorical, and are therefore only useful in a religious sense as metaphors for spiritual experience. As long as we ascribe supernatural origin to human writings, we succumb to an unbridled sense of pride and entitlement. It is a kind of blindness that we cannot afford as a species. Furthermore, the metaphorical nature of scriptures is not uniform—the metaphors are widely various and often conflicting, and it is impossible for one person to agree with all of their meanings at the same time. Far less is it possible for everyone to agree. Neither is it necessary—we need only recognize their nature as symbols of meaning.
The scriptures also contain material concerning the range of human action, history, and culture; ordinary metaphors, if you will, as distinct from spiritual ones. You may take them or leave them, but to insist that everyone take them is madness, and unattainable in any case. The Zulus say that Unkulunkulu was the the first human. The Israelites say it was Adam. Outside of mythology’s cultural resonance, by which a people weaves its identity through story, this matter has no importance for me spiritually. There is no stake involved in believing one or the other unless someone is trying to force my obedience to a central authority through an organizing myth. We must see through mythology if we are to be nurtured by it and not destroyed.
As long as humanity exists, there will be spiritual literature. There is no danger of that going away. But those who maintain the absolute authority of such literature are in fact doing a disservice to their own traditions, because such practices, such beliefs, sap the power from religious traditions and turn them into dead relics, monuments only to the human need to rule through fear.