I've Talked About Politics; I Might As Well Talk about Religion!

Warning 1: This post involves positive ruminations about religion. If religious discussions make you uncomfortable, don't read it! If you think all religious people are dopes, don't read it! If you want to write comments about how corrupt and/or blind religious people are, I would suggest a different blog that actually discusses religious people in those terms.

Warning 2: This post deals with the "scriptures are just good stories/metaphors that help us learn about life" approach. This post disagrees with that approach. If you have (1) leapt to the conclusion that I am a rampaging fundamentalist or (2) think anyone who accepts scriptures as more than metaphors is a fool, the remainder of this post will simply annoy you.

You have been warned!

I consider the "scriptures are just good stories/metaphors that help us learn about life" approach to be barely more tolerable than the "everything in the scriptures should be taken literally" approach. The one opens religion to navel-gazing and warm fuzzies while the latter simply moves theology into missing-forest-for-the-trees territory.

Religion rests on a leap of faith, a leap that is not merely metaphorical or good-hearted or instructive but is, in the eyes of the world, completely irrational and incomprehensible. Paul spent most of his missions and letters trying to teach people the doctrine of (literal) physical resurrection whilst they very literally laughed in his face (and occasionally did worse things): a literal physical resurrection was too simplistic, childish, wishful, ridiculous, unbelievable and, frankly, corporal, get outta town, Paul.

I obviously don't agree with such detractions. Here's why: if I wasn't religious, I would be a materialist. I have never understood settling, belief-wise, for the non-physical, nice-sounding instructive metaphor rather than the real, if unlikely, physical claim.

I don't believe that accepting a real, if unlikely, physical claim places me in literalism territory, mostly because I'm not a big fan of either/ors. For example, to get really controversial, I don't accept either the metaphorical explanation of the beginning of the Bible (the creation story isn't talking about the actual creation but rather about the importance of nature in our lives!) OR the literal perspective which presents the first two chapters of Genesis as some kind of Douglas Adams' self-help manual: How to Create a World in Six Easy Steps.

I believe Moses received a vision from God about the beginnings of the universe? the world? humankind? the Israelites? Something. Moses then wrote down that vision. What he wrote down was later rewritten but the essence of what he wrote can still be found in Genesis.

In other words, Moses saw something. God wanted him to see it. Moses wanted us to know. That's a pretty good starting point for me. It's real.

Now, I'm not saying it's real in the "I can prove it through court records" sense. I know I can't. I'm saying that, to me, the reality of a man talking to God and seeing something important about humankind is much more interesting and intense and worth believing in than literal statements or metaphorical philosophizing.

Okay, now that I've talked about Genesis, I'm going to talk about the Book of Mormon, so if the Book of Mormon and/or Mormonism in general makes you squeamish, you can stop reading.

I believe Joseph Smith found and translated the Book of Mormon. That's what I believe.

This is what I think: I think that, like all translators, much of Joseph Smith's own personality and perspective crept into what he translated but the essence of the original text is still there. As a lifelong student of folklore, fables, and myths, I think the Book of Mormon reads like nothing ever written (which isn't to say that similar motifs don't show up in folklore, fables, myths, the Book of Mormon, and, for that matter, the Old Testament). I also think the original writers of the books in the Book of Mormon were, like the writers of the Old Testament, individual and imperfect, however inspired. That is, I think they were real, and I think their reality matters (they weren't carbon-copy modernized characters who simply exist, textually, to make us thoughtful about our own conditions).

Now that I've said all the above, here is my point: Faith is faith is faith is faith. I have no proof for any of the above. From a secular, scientific point of view, what I claim and prove in the classroom or secular arena must involve observable/provable evidence. But in my personal life, what I observe simply isn't enough for me; hence I am religious and believe in stuff that I can't see or prove. Yet I still believe it is real. Or, rather, I believe in it because I believe it is real.

And once I believe in its reality, I'm going to believe in it the way I believe rain is wet, my cats are nuts, and English composition matters. I'm not going to believe in it (just) because it makes me feel good or because it sounds lovely or because it teaches me important lessons about life.

Real things matter. I'm not sure I can convince anyone that they matter who doesn't already agree with me that they matter. Still, the reality of God--God as a being, not an ethical construct--matters just like the reality of history--as a series of events, not an academic construct--matters. (My main beef with literalism is that literalism so often doesn't take in the full essence of the reality.)

Which doesn't mean, I should reiterate, that I expect people to believe in the actuality/reality of the Book of Mormon or the Old Testament or the New Testament. Just, trying to find middle ground by claiming that well, it doesn't matter whether any of it happened because there are good wholesome metaphorical truths in the scriptures . . . that isn't middle ground to me.

I really am one of the fools.

NOTE: I realize I am juggling two definitions of "reality" in this post. On the one hand is the argument that everything in the Bible "really" happened--which I actually don't believe. However, I do maintain that the "historical" personages referred to did exist: Abraham, Noah, Moses, etc. (those individuals who matter to the historical narrative). At some point real records were made concerning their deeds, however corrupted or fragmented those records later became.

On the other hand, I don't think Job really existed; I think he is a literary construct. And I'm not completely tied to Esther having been a real person although I think it would be a pity if she wasn't (such a great story!).

Even arguing the existence of various Old Testament personalities poses a problem, however, because I don't think there's anything to be gained by arguing, lawyer-style, that X person existed, ergo the scriptures are "true." I am arguing rather that the stories of the Old Testament are grounded in real events within a historical context (i.e., they were gathered after everybody moved to Babylon for a couple of centuries). They are more than metaphorical lessons and contemporary (for the time) inventions.

Which brings us to the second definition of "reality," which is that the stories point to other/greater realities. This sounds suspiciously like metaphoricalizing, except I am arguing that the realities the stories point to are the actual realities they claim to point to. The creation story is pointing to something that has to do with creation, not to the metaphor of birth. Paul's letters regarding resurrection are pointing to a resurrection, not a metaphor about having a fresh outlook on life.

Basically, I'm arguing that there is a difference between saying, "These people may have existed and what they have to say should be taken seriously" and saying, "What does it matter? It's just a story to make people feel better and give them hope."



a calvinist preacher said...

If you haven't already read it, you might enjoy Robert Alter's book "The Art of Biblical Narrative" (Basic Books, 1981). Note in particular the 2nd chapter and its discussion of historicized fiction/fictionalized history.

With the exception that I do not accept the Book of Mormon (please, don't look so shocked by that), I agree with you. The Bible is true, in that it is concerned with truth - a truth that is larger than the mere reality discernable by objective, materialist, sensory means. Indeed, it is that truth which makes the more objectively discerned reality possible.

The difficulty with both metaphorists and literalists is that they both seek to ground the Bible in the immediate and material, thus subjecting the sacred text to that which is subordinate to it and in effect destroying or ignoring its claim to truth.

Kate Woodbury said...


No, I'm not shocked :) I've just posted regarding morality as an abstract concept that brings together larger, supernal truths with "the more objectively discerned reality." I like that phrase!