Not long ago I was watching a documentary on The History Channel and one of the interviewed scholars noted that Biblical literalism— interpreting the words of the Bible as literal rather than metaphorical— is a modern invention. The scholar noted that this way of reading the Bible only dated back to the 20th century.
We most strongly associate Evangelicals and conservative Christians with a literal interpretation of scripture, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that modern atheists and agnostics also discuss religion within the framework of Biblical literalism, and their rejection of faith—our rejection as I was raised a good agnostic Unitarian—is a rejection of a literal interpretation, which is easy to attack as irrational and anti-intellectual.
The God that atheists do not believe in is the one described literally in the Bible’s pages. They reject miracles because they cannot be scientifically or historically true. They point out the contradictions from one Biblical story to another. If they contradict, then there cannot be “truth” in them.
It is popular among secular humanists to reject the supernaturalism of Christianity while praising the historical Jesus as a wise teacher. (Who can really argue against “blessed are the peacemakers”?) Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to take this approach. He literally cut his Bible apart and excised the miraculous and mythic. The resulting “Jefferson Bible” was a collection of the scientifically and historically believable sayings and events in the life of a human Jesus.
But what he edited out, along with the myths, was the powerful symbolism—the art of the imagination, the metaphorical understanding of the nature of life. In Jefferson’s Bible there were no angels, no wise men and no resurrection. There was, as Stephen Prothero wrote in “American Jesus,” a son of a carpenter who “did little more than wander around Galilee delivering pithy moral aphorisms.”
Back in 1982, Dr. Conrad Hyers wrote an article for The Christian Century on the topic of Biblical literalism and the lost art of thinking symbolically, he wrote:
The early ethnologist R. R. Marett is noted for his dictum that “religion is not so much thought out as danced out.” But even when thought out, religion is focused in the verbal equivalent of the dance: myth, symbol and metaphor. To insist on assigning to it a literal, one-dimensional meaning is to shrink and stifle and distort the significance… Religious expression trembles with a sense of inexpressible mystery, a mystery which nevertheless addresses us in the totality of our being.
The literal imagination is univocal. Words mean one thing, and one thing only. They don’t bristle with meanings and possibilities; they are bald, clean-shaven. Literal clarity and simplicity, to be sure, offer a kind of security in a world (or Bible) where otherwise issues seem incorrigibly complex, ambiguous and muddy. But it is a false security, a temporary bastion, maintained by dogmatism and misguided loyalty. Literalism pays a high price for the hope of having firm and unbreakable handles attached to reality. The result is to move in the opposite direction from religious symbolism, emptying symbols of their amplitude of meaning and power, reducing the cosmic dance to a calibrated discussion.
There are different ways of understanding “truth.” There are scientific truths, mathematic truths, historical truths and then there are the other kinds of truths: the poetic, emotional, artistic and mythological truths. These are truths that are best revealed through parables, metaphors and art. Powerful imagery matters. The stories we tell matter.
We have, for example, been telling stories of death/destruction and rebirth throughout time and across cultures; from the floods of Gilgamesh and Noah to the resurrection of Jesus. These stories have been passed along from generation to generation because of the deep spiritual truths they contain. Thus they have the power, not only to spark our imaginations, and provide us a cultural context for art and expression, but also to bind us together with other human societies throughout time.
I contend Jefferson had it entirely backwards when he took the scissors to his Bible. If you had a choice between losing all evidence of the historic person of Jesus or losing the story of a being who was resurrected, then Jesus would be the much smaller loss. Fortunately, we have both the “pithy aphorisms,” the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus which continue to inspire and the tales of miracles and wonder and even if it is one of the least accurate translations from a scholarly standpoint—we can still respond to the poetry of the King James Bible.
We have the capacity to explore the world with science and reason, and the intellect to use those tools to make the world a better place. Our rational minds and the scientific method need not be incompatible with a sense of wonder or worship. In our celebration of rationality, let’s not forget the other birthright we have as humans—the ability to think and communicate symbolically—the ability to share powerful stories and to find truth and meaning in them.