Literal and Metaphorical Truths

In religion some things are literal, some things are metaphorical, and some things are both. I share a little diagram I’ve found helpful for organizing my thoughts around different combinations of the literal and metaphorical in religion.

I wanted to share a little diagram I put together a few years ago in a conversation with some friends about religion. I’ve found it a helpful way to organize some of my ideas and I’d like to capture it here so I can refer to it in the future. One of the fault lines that runs between what we could call orthodox and unorthodox, or conservative and liberal religious belief runs between literal and metaphorical interpretation. It is orthodox and conservative to interpret scripture literally. And it’s unorthodox and liberal to interpret scripture metaphorically. Or so the thinking goes. It’s not for no reason at all that this idea occurs. There’s something too it. And rather than disagree with it altogether I would just like to add more to it, but still with the end result of proposing a more complex picture of the possibilities.

One way I like to think of this is as an array of possible positions along two axes. One axis is truth. The other is interpretation. Along the truth axis things can be literally true or false. Along the interpretation axis things can be interpreted literally or metaphorically. This produces four combinations, four quadrants. I’ll through each of these.

As a quick technical note, I’m going to be using ‘metaphor’ in a less precise and careful way than I probably should do, but I’m doing it anyway. ‘Allegory’ might be a better word for some of these things but the popular use of ‘metaphor’ is common enough that I won’t worry about it.

The first quadrant is for those things that are literally true and are interpreted literally. So we could say, sweeping some complexity under the rug, that an orthodox, conservative believer would have more things in this quadrant than other people would. The Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the global Flood, Noah’s Ark are all literal, historical truths and are to be interpreted literally. And I just mention those ones first since those are things that more unorthodox, liberal believers might not put into that quadrant. For me this quadrant includes things like the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ. I believe these are things that are literally true and, in the case of Christ’s resurrection, actually happened. Those are the two big doctrines of greatest theological significance. But I also include lots of other stuff that may not be quite as significant but does happen to be literally true in my opinion. So for example, a lot of historical and political stuff in the Bible, the names of the different kings in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, their relations and conflicts with other nations, their conquest by other nations, the rule under the Neo-Babylon and Persian Achaemenid Empires. All that stuff is pretty much accurate. Those may not be as important theologically and it’s stuff like that where I’d say literal interpretation is actually not as interesting as other interpretations. More on that later.

The second quadrant is for things that are literally false and are also interpreted literally. So a skeptic might put many of the same things into this quadrant that an orthodox, conservative believer would put in the first. So for a skeptic the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the global Flood, Noah’s Ark are all to be understood literally and they are false. In a way the conservative and skeptic can be closer to each other in expectations than either is to the liberal. For my part there’s not much that I would put into this quadrant. And the things I would put here aren’t especially interesting. So for example, there are passages in Joshua and Judges that talk about mass destruction of Canaanite cities by the Israelites were archeology has found either or no evidence or contradictory evidence of those conquests. That’s historically interesting but not all that theologically important. Except I guess insofar as the violence in the mass violence in Bible might be exaggerated in some cases, which could impact our understanding of God and his expectations. So there’s a possible example. But there’s not a whole lot more that I’d put in that quadrant.

The third quadrant is for things that are literally false and interpreted metaphorically or allegorically. And this is where a lot of religious liberalism focuses or distinguishes itself. Scripture tells of Adam being created out of earth, Eve being made from a rib, or just in general that there were only two human individuals that gave rise to all of humanity. In the quadrant we can allow for the possibility that even if these things are not literally true they have metaphorical truth or metaphorical interpretation.

The story of Adam and Eve is one of the most fruitful and powerful stories in all of human history, not least for the variety of interpretations it can accommodate. Originally it may have been principally about the origin of human mortality, i.e. human death. Humans had to be mortal otherwise they would have rivaled God or the gods in power and dominion. But stories like the Adam and Eve story are not limited in their meanings, even by their original historical contexts. This story has also come to symbolize the fallen nature of humanity, these deeply-rooted but destructive instincts we have.  There’s a joke that Original Sin is the most empirically verified Christian doctrine. Certainly plenty of evidence, so that interpretation speaks to us. I think we can all relate to Paul when he said, “for what I want, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do” (Romans 7:15). I also think the story of Adam and Eve is a wonderful narrative device to think about growth, maturation, and all the struggles that come with that.

There are also things in this third quadrant that are pretty uncontroversially allegorical, like parables. We need not suppose that the parable of the Prodigal Son is a historical account of something that actually happened. Although we might say that something like it has probably happened many times. Myths and parables being the kind of things that aren’t true at one specific time and place but are rather true in many or all times and places. Most of Jesus’s parables are meant to be understood in this way. This becomes pretty evident in cases where people try to take him literally.

“And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread. Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread? …How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? Then understood they how that he bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees.” (Matthew 16:5-8,11-12)

Jesus is actually kind of getting after them hear for taking things literally when it really isn’t appropriate. Something to think about if you’re tempted to give someone a hard time for taking something metaphorically instead of literally.

There’s also the classic example with Nicodemus:

“Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” (John 3:3-4)

Yeah, so he’s taking things way to literally there, right? Jesus was so inclined to figurative speech that it was actually pretty unusual and noteworthy when he did speak directly. His disciples even remarked on it: “His disciples said unto him Lo now speakest thou plainly and speakest no allegory” (John 16:29).

Nevertheless parable was Jesus’s primary mode of teaching and he even marked the ability to understand things on this allegorical and metaphorical level as a distinguishing attribute in his disciples:

“Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias [i.e. Isaiah], which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. (Isaiah 6:10) But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.” (Matthew 13:9-16)

It seems to have been important to Jesus that his potential disciples be made to think in a less literal, more metaphorical way, as a kind of productive trial; like this was especially conducive and even essential to the process of becoming a disciple.

The last quadrant is the one I find most interesting and it sort of cuts across the more intuitive conservative-liberal interpretative divide. The last quadrant is for things that are literally true but that have metaphorical interpretation. Pretty much everything in this quadrant could also go in quadrant one: a literal interpretation is just as valid. But for my part I tend to the metaphorical interpretations more interesting.

I like a perspective on metaphor I picked up from Biblical scholar Marcus Borg. He said his students would often be disappointed about metaphorical interpretations, thinking of them as only metaphor. He tried to get people to change their perspective, to see metaphor as not second-best, what’s left over after the literal is stripped away, but as something added to, more than literal. Theology is poetry plus, not science minus.

My favorite example in this category is the death and resurrection of Jesus. I believe this is a literal truth. But it’s the metaphorical take on it that I dwell on in my religious practice. Metaphorical interpretations are strongly encouraged in the Bible. Paul many times spoke of Christ’s death and resurrection as something that the Lord’s disciples should act out in their own lives, dying and being born anew into a new life.

“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:3-11)

Knowing that Jesus literally died and rose again is an important part of Christianity. But there’s a more-ness there. Something more than literal to it. And we’re missing out if we don’t pay attention to it. In pondering the death and resurrection of Christ there’s a corresponding process of growth in us that involves letting old things die and new things flourish. “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die it abideth alone but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). “Therefore if any man be in Christ he is a new creature old things are passed away behold all things are become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

I mentioned earlier that some of the political, historical facts of the Bible could have interpretations beyond the literal interpretations that could be more theologically interesting. For example, it’s pretty established and undisputed that the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Neo-Babylon Empire and then was under the control of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Lots of corroborating and extra-Biblical evidence for all that. But the Biblical prophets make more out of this than just the bare historical facts. To them these events were replete with theological significance and the story of Judah’s fall, captivity, and redemption turns into the story of a people and eventually into the human story. No doubt about it, the conquest was a disaster of monumental scale that included the destruction of the temple. This too is the human story. It happened not just in this particular time and place but also anywhere and everywhere, all the time. And the message of redemption is similarly universally applicable.

“For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. For this is as the waters of Noah unto me: for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth; so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee, nor rebuke thee. For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.” (Isaiah 54:7-10)

This is the kind of stuff that lies below the surface, literal level of things. And it’s just as important, sometimes more important than the literal matters of fact in religious doctrines. Learning to find and appreciate those deeper levels to things is a matter of, as Jesus said, having ears to ear.

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