An Example of the Failure of Literalism

I recently listened to G. Sungaila present a paper at the 3rd International Scientific Conference of the Lithuanian Society for the Study of Religions, entitled, “The Influence of Gnosticism on the Images of Afterlife in Eastern Christianity.” (The presentation was recorded on Oct 23, 2015 and can be found on YouTube.) The title is a bit misleading because it is essentially a critique of Seraphim Rose’s doctrine of the afterlife.

[Rose is a controversial figure in American Orthodoxy. Giving him a fair hearing is beyond my capability. I will instead refer anyone interested to his entry on the Orthodox Wiki which seems fair and informative.]

In the end Sungaila dismissed any clear connection to Gnosticism. Rather he proposed that Rose’s real problem was that he was far too literal. The various fathers that he studied and quoted were fond of what Sungaila calls allegorical language. (I would be more inclined to call it poetic imagination than allegory.)

According to Sungaila, Rose was so literal that he came away from the fathers believing they taught a literal spatial heaven and hell wherein the heaven is literally up there and hell down there. He believed that demons are somehow corporeal and literally try to grab on to dead people as they ascend to heaven and drag them down to hell. If that’s true, that’s really weird.

But as all you poets out there know, that’s the problem with strict literalism: it almost always ends up being really weird.

Language is terribly limiting. Our perceptions can soar, but when we try to put it into words, our perceptions are circumscribed by the words. The poetic imagination, on the other hand, can free language to soar as far as our perceptions.

Conversely, the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, can “speak” directly to our nous (that untranslatable Greek word that typically gets translated as “mind” in English, but is better understood as our innermost being) in ways that our nous can understand perfectly but our intellect simply cannot grasp. This means that on the surface level of facts and discourse, truth can be a bit slippery because the actual truth of the matter is expressed “thus” by me and “so” by you. In such a circumscribed environment, literalism is a dangerous business.

In this context I will remind you again that there are only three people given the title “theologian” in the Orthodox Church and they’re all poets or have a strongly poetic sense: John the Theologian (John the Apostle, author of the 4th Gospel), Gregory the Theologian (Gregory Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian fathers), and Symeon the New Theologian (a Byzantine monk). Poetry is the only language that can come close to express the mystical reality of our experience of God. Literalism? Not so much.

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