Note: This post is part of my "philosophy bites" series that expands my social media posts about philosophical topics into blog form. These are not academic essays with a plethora of footnotes and agonizingly constructed arguments, but I do hope they spark conversation. Please remember to share, like, and comment! The original instagram post can be found here.
“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” —John Dominic Crossan, Biblical Scholar
I’ve long believed that the way the West approaches religion is unintelligible at best and harmful at worst. So I was surprised when my research of early Christianity unearthed this reality: ancient Jews and early Christians alike had a very different conceptual model of religion. Because we read the same words they wrote, we believe we are experiencing the same stories. But in fact, a few key intellectual shifts in the last centuries have blinded us to a basic fact: Biblical stories were never meant to be read as literal or historical accounts (check out the excellent work of John Shelby Spong for more on this argument).
Taking just one example, the entire nativity story was written as a symbolic account of Jesus’ nature and destiny by making literary analogies with David and Moses (no one knew who Jesus was until he was 30 and started teaching). But the Biblical writers were not liars, as the people reading the accounts would have known the stories were not historically true (i.e. Herod killing babies would have been universally remembered if it actually happened and was not just a literary allusion to Pharaoh killing babies at Moses’ birth). Rather, they approached Biblical stories as symbolic illustrations of a real spiritual reality.
Religion attempts to describe the most immediate (and thus invisible) structure of consciousness. Religions describe truth, but only on the foundational level that precedes language, logic, and the material world (and possibilizes all these worlds). In its purest form, religion does not furnish facts, but frameworks, narratives, and conceptual schemas through which we may interpret facts. These frameworks and narratives often appear as symbols and archetypes.
But let me be clear: in our worldview that worships the material, biological, and objective, the “symbol” is often dismissed as a mere literary or artistic flourish. In truth, the utilization of symbol, myth, and metaphor is the only way to speak of foundational truths, and I agree with sociologist Mircea Eliade that religion is the existential science of foundational reality.
This is true not just for religion. Philip Ball warns of the dual necessity and danger of metaphors in quantum mechanics, “We can hardly talk about quantum theory at all unless we find stories to tell about it: metaphors that offer the mind purchase on such slippery ground. But too often these stories or metaphors are then mistaken for the way things are.” All foundational principles must begin with myth or metaphor. Or in the words of philosopher Alfred Lord Whitehead: all first principles are “metaphors mutely appealing for an imaginative leap.”
Was Jesus born of a virgin? This seems biologically unlikely and is impossible to prove historically, but I do not care either way. This statement interpreted “factually” has zero influence on my interior life, and the point of religion is inner transformation. So, to me, Mary is a powerful symbol of the role we all my assume: not to posit a deity who lives in the clouds, but to consent to God’s growth in your very own body. To birth God into the messy reality of an unjust and often hellish world. In the words of Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, “What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”’
This is simply one element of religious thinking, treated very briefly. There is much more we could critique, such as the existence or non-existence of certain deities.
But having briefly explored the nature of religious stories, what do you think? Are sacred books meant to be literal or symbolic? Does this change certain religious truth claims? Does it change the experience of religion?