An open letter to my Christian friends
In this note I want to talk about Interpretation. (Literal vs Metaphorical)
The main difference between my self and most Christians it seems is that most of them take a very traditional, literal, historical interpretation of scripture and I do not.
However I do think the metaphorical translation is not only the only way the bible is actually true (only true as poetry) but I also think the metaphorical translation is the original intention of the tradition. Proving these points "that the bible is not literally true" or "that the original intention was a metaphorical translation" are not what I am going to be talking about in this particular note. My main intention in this note is just to try and explain what a metaphorical Trans-Rational interpretation of scripture looks like and why I favor it to the literal historic orthodox translation.
I was raised Christian and for a very long time the traditional, literal, historical interpretation of scripture was very important to me as well. Which is why I had a very hard time dealing with the fact that if Scripture is to be taken as literal fact, then it is factually, historically proven wrong, unreliable, and self contradictory. (I could say so much about this, and give so many examples that it's hard to even know were to begin.) I have already written a few notes on the main issues as I see them but that is not what this note is about.
It is important to understand how things actually work because truth is important to how we live our lives. It's made even more extreme if our immortal souls are at risk as is claimed. If we don't question our ideas we just wind up looking at the world through our limited and culturally embedded perspectives without realizing it and taking someone else's word for it when it comes to what is true. Everything we know has been communicated to us. Stop and think about that for a moment.......
In almost every human tradition we project our anthropocentric understanding onto "God" or the absolute. We say "God must be some kind of all-powerful man that did all of this for a reason", when it is really us that do things for reasons. This is what we know about, Men having projects, and we can only think in terms of what we know. Someone once said that "If horses created Gods they would look like horses". - In this way man was not created in Gods image. "God" was created in man's image. The bible represents "God" that way because it is written from a (bronze age) mans perspective.
God is a name, and a concept that has evolved out of a context, and we have made all kinds of images to represent this idea.
I would define "God" as the transcendent mystery of all things, beyond all categories of thought.
God is not a thing, and we only have ever experienced this worldly things. We can't understand the mystery transcendent of all things. so the only way to talk about this mystery is to talk about it in "things" because that's all we understand. So we talk about "God" in poetry, stories, and images we understand.
Mythology is the finger pointing at the stars. But don't get caught in the finger, or you will never see the stars, and that is the whole point of pointing. Religion is the edge. - Metaphors about the transcendent. But don't get stuck on the image. Your ultimate image, name, or concept of God is your ultimate boundary from God. In that way your conception of "God" (if you have one) is a mental idol.
The truth shall set you free.
These myths are to tell us how to BE in the world and give us strength and humility in the face of ignorance, fear, and greed. They give us the possibility to try to live in love and authenticity which can be beautiful, and it can be a very helpful way to give people a chance to start over. We all need that.
The temptations of Christ teach us how to have courage and live for all embracing compassion and truth, even in the face of death or materialistic greed. Jesus is the example. The 3 temptations of Christ are not about a historical time when Jesus was being tempted by a real devil. It is about how we are all tempted in our lives and how if we take Jesus's example we can know for ourselves how to live now.
Think about "The Tortoise and the Hare". If you understand it literally you will get all the facts but none of the meaning, and since the facts are not true you are now just confused. You got the details but you missed the point. If you understand it as poetry you will understand that its not a story about a real event, a race, a tortoise, or a hare at all. It's about you and your life and how you are going to live. it's about perseverance, hard work, patience, and dedication.
Did you know that many of the original hebrew scrolls had pomegranates on the ends to represent the different levels of meaning and the different ways we can understand and relate to this living word. Living meaning not static or absolute but changing and evolving with the time and cosmology. Still relevant if you can read it in spirit/christ and not a simple, easy answer, reductionist, literal, historic, materialistic, reading from the perspective of the flesh. If you read it in that literal way not only is the cosmology way out of date but also many of the fact claims are proven wrong, are self contradictory, or are plagiarisms/adaptions/assimilations of other cultures myths.
2:7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory:
Here we see that the truth of God is "hidden wisdom". The truth of God is a "mystery".
2:10 But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
2:13 Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
In other words to take the bible literally or to read it in the flesh is foolishness. It should be read in spirit as metaphor.
I really like how Rev. Michael Dowd talks about Day language (rationality) and Night language (poetry). In his note "Death: Sacred, Necessary, Real" he explains it like this:
"My formal training for becoming a United Church of Christ minister culminated in an ordination paper that I wrote and then presented to a gathering of ministers and lay leaders. Titled "A Great Story Perspective on the UCC Statement of Faith," my talk stimulated a host of comments and queries. A widely respected minister posed a question I shall never forget. "Michael," he began, I'm impressed with your presentation and with the evolutionary theology that you've shared with us. However, there's a little boy who lives in me, and that little boy wants to know: Where is Emory?"
Emory Wallace, a well-known and beloved retired minister, had for nearly three years guided me through my ministerial training. He died suddenly, at the age of 85, just a few weeks before my ordination hearing.
"Where is Emory?" My mind went blank. I knew I needed to say something -- after all, this was my ordination hearing -- so I just opened my mouth and started speaking, trusting the words to come. My response went something like this:
Where is Emory? In order to answer that question I have to use both day language(the language of rational, everyday discourse) and night language (the language of dreams, myth and poetry). Both languages are vital and necessary, just as both waking and dreaming states of consciousness are vital and necessary. Like all mammals, we cannot survive without dreaming. It is a necessary function of our brain. Sleep is not enough; we must be allowed to dream.
We, of course, know that day experience and night experience are different. For example, if you were to ask me what I did for lunch today, and I told you that I turned myself into a crow and flew over to the neighborhood farm and goofed around with the cows for awhile, then flew to Dairy Queen and ordered a milkshake -- and if I told you all that with a straight face -- you might counsel me to visit a psychiatrist. However, had you asked me to share a recent dream, and I told the same story, you might be curious as to the meaning of that dream -- but you wouldn't think me delusional.
So in order to respond to your question, "Where is Emory?" I have to answer in two ways. First, in the day language of common discourse I will say, Emory's physical body is being consumed by bacteria. Eventually only his skeleton and teeth will remain. His genes, contributions and memory will live on through his family and through the countless people that he touched in person and through his writings -- and that includes all of us.
But, you see, if I stop there -- if that's all I say -- then I've told only half the story. In order to address the nonmaterial, meaningful dimensions of reality I must continue and say something like: "Emory is at the right hand of God the Father, worshipping and giving glory with all the saints." Or I could say, "Emory is being held and nurtured by God the Mother." Or I could use a Tibetan symbol system and say, "Emory has entered the bardo realm." Any or all of these can be considered practically real, rather than factually real -- that is, true within the accepted logic and understanding of mythic night language."
I find that to be a pretty good explanation. We speak in and through relative value systems so "truth" can only be referenced in the context of particular culturally created meaning matrixes and symbol sets.
For example even something as obviously objectively true like 2+2=4 is only meaningful if you understand mathematics and it's sets of symbols. Math is a Relative value system. So is English etc.
Integral philosophers often say "The map is not the territory" when talking about the way we speak about truth. This is true when talking about objective reality and so how much more true does it have to be in reference to Absolute Truth and Ultimate Mystery.
Words are not the things in them selves. Our words can't hold the truth of the things right in front of us. How can they even begin to hold the truth of God?
This is why when it comes to absolute truth I am a Hard Agnostic.
Not just "I don't know" but "It can't be known, and if you say you know you are wrong."
Another way I have seen it that I like is:
He who thinks he knows, doesn't know.
He who knows he doesn't know, knows.
Referencing the Absolute in relative cultural terms is known as "qualifying the unqualifiable" and it is basically considered to be a fallacy or a self contradictory move.
In the earliest version of Judaism and Christianity It was thought that God was a mystery beyond the ability of man's mind to even comprehend.
In the OT when God is asked what his name is God say's "Before Abram was I AM" which is not a name. Back in these days it was thought that if you knew a God's name you could call him and thus have power over him. This God is saying "I am that which cannot be named" or "I'm not telling" and this is the God I know. Many people feel "God", call it by different names, have similar experiences, and claim to know contradictory things about it.
For me when it comes to versions of Christianity I prefer the more mysterious contemplative versions of the Tradition especially modern Integral/Evolutionary Christianity. For more info check out my note:
Stages Of Christianity and 2nd tear, Integral, or Evolutionary Christianity:
I think WWJD is about as close as most christians get to a good practice or truth.
Normally Christian Orthodoxy is not humble or honest about what it knows to be true. It wants to claim to have found the true name and image of God, and the true word of God. No mystery here at all. "Do this, say these words, pay 10% and your in." This whole orthodox religion is just a perverted version of "Christianity" adopted and adapted with political intentions by Constantine and the Roman Government for control. (you know, the people who would throw Christians to the lions as a form of public entertainment.) - If we know them by their fruits it's obvious that what followed in the inquisition and crusades was perverted religion as a tool for power. Not to mention it's a mishmash of different ideas put together/self contradictory.) All that is just easy answers and false hope for gullible people who are too confused and too busy or lazy to research the mystery for themselves.
And do we really think these ideas about our concepts of God and heaven are even good? They sound like club house rules written by primitive ethnocentric people.
If you are going to forgive everyone why not just forgive everyone? Why put the condition of recognition on it? And why eternal punishment or reward? I am born worthy of eternal punishment and torture? Really? That is crazy! It is also a powerful manipulation because it creates a huge false dilemma (eternal damnation) that only it can save you from. Not only save you, but saved into a perfect heaven of bliss, no problems, and all your family reunited forever. Given that choice who wouldn't want to be a Christian? Some people are joining up just as fire insurance. (They say "There are no Atheists in a fox hole", and even Darwin supposedly converted on his death bed, when no one was looking, just to be sure.) Remember in the OT there was no afterlife. "From the womb to the tomb." It's only in the NT that we need salvation to save us from Eternal suffering. Not only why create hell and have such a black and white standard but how is that a good standard by which to judge people? When you look at the story from the outside it just seems insane.
After contemplating all of this and when presented with "The Problem of Suffering" especially of the righteous and innocent (which I am not going to explain right now. I am assuming you have heard of it) one is just left wondering "How is it that I am smarter and nicer then God? - This perfect being by definition." Which is not an arrogant claim but a sad claim. Most everyone I know is nicer then an OT God. Most people are not racist as just one example....
When pressed with this question of "Really? How is THIS (insert horrible thing, the holocaust, 911, right down to what even feels like deep injustice and loss in ones own life like the sudden loss of a loved one or child, rape. etc.) How is this a part of Gods perfect plan? Everything happens for a reason? Perfect plan? This personal God must be powerless, he doesn't care, or he is a mad man!" (and don't even get me started on Job. Read Job and tell me you think God is a nice guy.)
The only way I have seen Christians try to explain the problem is just to say that "God is mysterious". Usually they retreat into faith, but in this case it is mystery. After all the bold claims break down that is still the only honest answer at the end of the day. - I don't know.
Yes. I think God is mysterious. Maybe we should just have left it at that in the first place instead of acting like we know absolute truth. God is more mysterious and complex then bronze age men could even begin to speak about let alone comprehend or explain. Their depictions of God as a cruel, jealous, malicious tyrant is unintentionally childish, pornographic, blasphemous, profanity that withers in the face of True Absolute Ultimacy. - That is why for the Gnostics an experience of this transcendent mystery was beyond their ability to communicate and you just had to experience it to understand it. (That is why they didn't have a cannon or dogma) Even when you did experience it it is so powerful that it blows past your senses ability to process and you are just left with a hint of "Gods" awesome Power and a MUCH better understanding of mystery beyond your ability to fathom or make claims about.
Like sex: One can try and explain it but the only way to really understand it is to do it. You can know all the info or knowledge and not really KNOW what it is.
So that is not to say that we should throw these texts out, just that we should understand them in their cultural, historical, psychological, and metaphorical context because when read as a set of facts from the outside and taken literally it just seems like a crazy worldview. Unfortunately for many it is. It was for me and it took me a long time to really understand it all in context.
I had to study a lot of other books outside the bible (psychology, philosophy, science, comparative religion, history, etc. etc.) and I had to really dig, ask a lot of questions and do a lot of research. I am still on this path and probably always will be.
My experience was confusing and hard to deal with at first. It's hard to dismantle your worldview and learn you where misled. Many people are hurt by feeling misled. Many become Atheists and fight against the tradition that hurt them. I felt like this for a while, but I kept on digging and found deeper truth in parable and myth, in many cases more important truths in my life then many scientific facts or theories.
Beyond Rationality is Trans-Rational poetry. It's not as flat as a purely rational analytic factual or literal historical read. This mental capacity for metaphor is not something young children have developed yet. This capacity is Trans or Post rational because it is born out of rational thinking and transcends and includes rationality. Metaphor maybe non rational but it's not prerational nonsense. Metaphorical truth can be deeper in many ways cross resonating within pools of interconnected interrelated layers of deep meaning and multiple entendres of inflection that could all be explained rationally if one wanted to take the time to do so. The reason it works in such a profound way is because the human mind is prone to narrative. That is how we communicate. With stories, tails, poems, myths, and symbols. Always. (Even now I am stylistically juggling, refining, and organizing these symbols and stories into 1 coherent unfolding story to try and talk with you about these ideas about truth, goodness, and beauty. Making claims and judgments using relative poetry from an inter-subjective mythology.)
"What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms -- in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. We still do not know where the urge for truth comes from; for as yet we have heard only of the obligation imposed by society that it should exist: to be truthful means using the customary metaphors - in moral terms, the obligation to lie according to fixed convention, to lie herd-like in a style obligatory for all..." - Freidrich Neitzsche
Many people want the whole world to adhere to their cultural traditional way of REFERENCING truth. This has been the violent ethnocentric theme that Orthodox Christianity is based on. In the Beginning Orthodox Christianity was the LAW and not only where pagan temples destroyed but also competing translations of Christianity. This demand: MY JESUS! MY SYMBOL! THIS PARTICULAR ONE! NO OTHER!
Neitzche is not denying that truth exists He is just saying that we only have poetry to reference anything and we take our local systems so literally that we can't even see that our words are not the things or the world, the map is not the territory, and there is more then one way to reference the absolute or talk about the good life.
In the bible I feel I have found powerful truth in a living word with coded language that I previously couldn't see from my culturally historically limited perspective. I couldn't see the deep poetic truth through my untrained eyes of flesh or my literal interpretation. Now the text is more alive and relevant to me and my life here and now then ever before. I am in the desert being tempted. Am I going to pick up my cross daily, die to my ego, and let my body be the hands and feet of christ in service? My body as a temple, etc.
Different cultural traditions have different symbolic languages of talking about these universal ideas in local cultural ways. I think to really understand any religion you have to understand other religions so you can understand and compare similarities and differences, The symbols both hide and reveal deep truths. The more religious traditions you know the more you can see cultural variations on universal human themes. Getting stuck in one traditions language is like always referring everything back to Star Wars. Star Wars is great but what about the Matrix? Luke, Neo, Not the same but metaphorically very similar and yet the inflection is diffrent. Every tradition has symbols and stories that can tell us much about life, as well as how humans, even with the best of intentions, can do both beautiful and horrible things while grasping at eternity, stuck in time, in a human body/mind. The bible shows me all the time what it truly means to be a living person with a limited culturally biased and historically bound perspective. This also teaches me compassion and forgiveness as well as patience and trust in development and impermanence.
"In some respects, science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed!”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” – Carl Sagan
"The truth shall set you free." Jesus said "seek and find", not conform to tradition. That was the opposite of what he was about. (For example: Thomas got the most profound experience because of his doubt.) Jesus was a man who stood up to tradition, and hung out with the people that the so called "holy men" condemned and called unclean. He told them God loved them and that we are all part of the body of christ and he called us to live like that too. To eat together as family. That is what I think it means to be a christian. - To live for and as the body of christ, to realize the christ in yourself, others, and the world, and manifest Gods will ON EARTH as it is in heaven. (If you take that message out of it's cultural symbolism in many ways that is what Buddhism is talking about in it's own way too. Only using different cultural symbols/myths, 500 years earlier.)
21 “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles? 23 Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!
And if you read a bit further you get this:
Matthew 25:31 to 46
31 "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. 37 Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee? 40 And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me. 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. 44 Then they also will answer, Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee? 45 Then he will answer them, Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me. 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
So what is heaven and how do we get there? It depends not only on how you translate the text but also which text you read. Some say we get there "based on works" and as above "not all who say "lord lord" will get into heaven", some say "If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9, Luke 12:8 etc.)
Also for the Gnostics (the original Christians) Heaven and Hell where psychological positions not real places to go:
The Gospel of Thomas 113: His disciples said to him, "When will the kingdom come?"
"It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, 'Look, here!' or 'Look, there!' Rather, the Father's kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don't see it." - Jesus
They have eyes but don't see, ears but don't hear, ect. (many places)
These ideas are very similar to the ways Buddhists talk about understanding their relationship to life through training and focusing their minds and intentions.
Heaven/Nirvana = AtONEment /Unity with God beyond Ego/ Surrender
Hell/Samsara = Separation from God/Ego (thus the relation between egoic pride and "the fall")
Here is an Integral Christians explanation of sin:
“Sin is the refusal to realize one’s radical interdependence with all that lives: it is the desire to set oneself apart from all others as not needing them or being needed by them. Sin is the refusal to be the eyes, the consciousness, of the Cosmos.” —Sallie McFague
Much Love to you all. Thanks for reading.
For more info on Trans-Rational, Metaphorical, Night Language interpretations of mythology and religious traditions check the following links: