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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Facts, Metaphor, and Truth (2 of 5)

In the previous essay I made the case that Genesis 1 uses metaphorical rather than factual language. That begs the question of why. The most obvious answer is that the facts (assuming that evolution is factual) do not lend themselves to a truthful answer. In our scientific age we have come to equate truths and facts, but that is part of the modern myth and has little to do with reality.

As a Christian I know that God created the universe and made humans in his image. But the facts, apart from divine revelation, could easily point us in a different direction. (The reason this is actually a vital reality will be addressed in the next essay.) Richard Dawkins (the scientist who is an atheist) and Douglas Adams (the deceased novelist who was also an atheist) babble on and on quite gleefully about how evolution by means of natural selection proves there is no god.

Here I will focus on Adams (who was raised Anglican) for moment. Adams had his facts right, but the Anglicanism of his youth was of an existentialist variety that didn’t deal well with reality. (That in itself is a long story. Both the British Rational Realist Theologians – Tom Torrance, Alister McGrath, etc. – and Pietist Evangelical Theologians – John Stott, etc. – do an excellent job of dissecting and offering a post mortem on that era and wing of Anglicanism.) The modern Western myth of self-directed humanity throwing off the shackles of superstition by relying on scientific facts interpreted in an utterly natural (ie, anti-supernatural) manner seemed the obvious choice when the only other option known to Adams was existentialist Anglicanism.

Besides, atheistic science avoided the whole sticky mess of morals that religion quite impolitely spends a lot of time harping on. Evolutionary biology, along with the naïve belief that it disproved Christianity was perfect for someone like Adams who wanted to be both intellectually rigorous and morally ambiguous.

And this illustrates the problem with facts qua facts. Instead of lending themselves to the truth, they lend themselves to whatever ideology is preferable this decade. As Disraeli observed about a particular species of facts, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

And this brings us back to the metaphorical language of Genesis 1. The Hebrews were competing with some powerfully convincing stories about how and why everything got started. The Babylonians and the Egyptians had compelling stories about gods and demi-gods and sentient creation all battling for pre-eminence. Along with being exciting, these stories explained bad weather, good crops, and the divine right of kings – everything an ancient empire needed to thrive.

Of course, as the late Douglas Adams might have said, the whole thing was bullocks! Complete rubbish!

So the question is, how does one communicate the truth of the matter in this context? How does one convey that there is one God (in contrast to a pantheon), who is Almighty (in contrast to the rather tame, ableit mean-spirited gods of the ancient world) and created a creation that is in harmony with God (in contrast to the deadly fights between the gods and the earth itself in the ancient myths)?

The answer is Genesis 1. The story is simple and yet mind-boggling in its magnitude. It’s far more compelling than a science text , even a science text written by the inimitable Richard Dawkins. And most importantly, it’s true. And the reason it’s true has specifically to do with the fact that it is metaphorical. Because of the author chose poetry, he was able to mean far more than he ever said in these gloriously simple words. And that is the power of poetry and the essence of truth.

Evolution, Metaphorically Speaking (1 of 5)

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origen of Species, I’m going to come out of the closet (on this blog, anyway, most everyone who knows me personally and cares about this sort of thing already knows): I’m an evolutionist.

This admission is only meaningful in the context of my history. I grew up in the Bible Church, complete with a Bible College education, and in that tradition, taking evolution seriously is definitely “Runnin’ with the Devil.” (For that matter, the fact that I like that song well enough for its title to come to mind in this context is probably a second indication that I’m runnin’ with the devil … be that as it may.)

But here’s the curious thing. I’m not an evolutionist because I think the scientific proof is so overwhelming. I’m not a biologist and I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs, but from what little I know, it seems there are some serious holes in the finer points of evolutionary theory. (In fact, I’ve heard evolutionary biologists say just that.) Rather, I’m an evolutionist because I think it fits the Bible far better than any creationist theory currently extent.

I began to suspect six-day creationism in Bible College, and specifically when I was taking Hebrew and Hermeneutics classes (ie, the science of interpretation) at the same time. One of the basic principles of hermeneutics is that we shouldn’t try to make a text same something the text itself doesn’t want to say. This is especially true in the realm of poetic texts.

It (hopefully) goes without saying that not all biblical language is intended to be literal. For instance (and this one is utterly obvious), David says that if it weren’t for the Lord, his enemies would have swallowed he and his troops alive (Ps. 124:3). They must have been big enemies to swallow the troops whole!

But there’s more to metaphorical language than the mere point that it’s not to be read literally. Metaphorical language (of which poetry is a type) has the ability to say more than is written on the page. To understand a passage that’s intended to be metaphorical in a literal sense is to remove the truth from the passage. To illustrate, I turn to Ezekiel.

Ezekiel says God is going to remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26). In this case, Ezekiel is dipping into a whole trajectory of Hebrew poetic language. At the simplest layer, the will (a vague concept) is spoken of by referring to the heart, a bodily organ. Does the human heart literally control the human will? Nope. But, the heart becomes a concrete way of speaking about the nebulous concept of the will.

Once this metaphor is established, a metaphor within a metaphor is possible: the vice of stubbornness is talked about as a “hardness of heart.” It’s now a very small step (and poetically stunning) for Ezekiel to take this to a third level and make the idea of a hard heart utterly concrete (yes, the pun was intentional) when he calls stubbornness, “a heart of stone.”

In short, poetic language is not literally factual, but because of the emotional freight that poetic language can carry, it becomes far more true than a merely factual statement. The truth of “I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” is far deeper than the truth of the factual statement, “I will turn your stubbornness into obedience.” It’s a far deeper truth because it means more than it says (to borrow a phrase from Michael Polanyi).

Many centuries later Jesus would teach us that we are, quite literally spiritually, dead and the Holy Spirit can make us spiritually alive. Once we know this truth that Jesus taught, it’s easy to see that Ezekiel was pointing forward to this in his poetic language, and if Ezekiel would have forgone poetic language and stuck to the facts, saying, “I will turn your stubbornness into obedience,” that conceptual leap from Ezekiel’s prophecy to Jesus’ fulfillment could never have been made.

That’s the power of poetic or metaphorical) language. Truths that can never be quantified can be spoken with poetic language. And if we fail to recognize poetic and metaphorical language where the author intended it, we essentially deny the truth of the passage by diminishing the truth.

At least that’s what Mr. Gehman, my Hermeneutics teacher hammered into our heads.

While Mr. Gehman was pounding home this point in Biblical Hermeneutics class, I learned in Biblical Hebrew class (and saw clearly with my own eyes) that the Genesis 1 creation account, if not a poem in the strictest sense of the word, is written in a highly stylized and poetic form. (If you fail to recognize the poetic structure, the text is kind of weird.) You can click here to see an overview of that poetic form.

Way back then, under the unintended tutelage of Mr. Gehman and Mr. Parkhurst, I began to doubt the obviousness and biblical proofs for creationism.

And then somewhere along the line I read Gen. 1:11, 1:20, and 24 literally (instead of figuratively, as the Creationists do), and I had an aha! moment about proof-texting and the danger of allowing our assumptions to blind us to what the text says. “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures …'” (v. 20). “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures …'” (v. 24). Literally (if literalism is a practice you value), God didn’t create the living creatures, he told the waters and the earth to bring them forth. Curious.

If these curious observations were the extent of the matter, the fact that I’m an evolutionist would be insignificant. But changing how one reads Gen. 1 changes how one sees other passages in scripture. And that’s where this whole evolution question gets interesting. But that’s another essay.