To draw parallels and affinities between the media of art on the one hand and of religion on the other is, I suggest, a useful approach. Applying it, one common factor is immediately evident in both.
In art, for instance, there is a clear distinction between the object ‘as it is’ and the object as it is perceived (Plato’s allegory of the cave and the writings of Kant and many others refer). Moving this over to religion opens up all sorts of revelation.
But this is the principle at its simplest. As we have noticed, religion has over the centuries been adept at creating hosts of diverse representations in order to affirm, however inadequately (because they can never be perfect) that there are many different facets to the creeds on offer. These representations come and go in response to promptings from the host culture.
The Paschal Lamb, for instance, draws its imagery from a context in which agrarian societies think it best to offer sacrificial gifts to ‘God’. That sort of imagery works well enough when people perceive it as normative through the prisms of their community’s histories, habits and assumptions. Where this perceptual congruity starts to fail, however – to become less and less useful or convincing – the more troubling and intrusive it becomes.
At its base, this phenomenon is yet another manifestation of the struggle to define the object satisfactorily; it is, rather, a longing to be able to do so. In this arena, any metaphor can be pressed into service, and, if it still ‘works’, recognised and accepted for what it is: a way of seeing that seems right and proper and fit for purpose, however distant it may be from everyday reality. Meaning in one sense rivals another. As Pascal noted, “Quand la parole de Dieu qui est véritable est fausse littéralement elle est vraie spirituellemente. Sede ad dextra mei : cela est faux littéralemente, donc cela est vrai spirituellemente” (Pensées, 272).
In their heart of hearts, most believers know that this duality, whereby the existent and the perceived reinforce each other, amounts to a differentiation between truth and reality but is in no way unacceptable religious discourse. When we sing Rock of ages we know that we are not referring to any kind of big stone. But can we get past all the metaphors? Is non-realist language the only medium available to us?
How far can we go along this path before getting into trouble?
The Bible is, as many have recognised, full of metaphor. It is the only way it can ‘work’ as it were as a stream of living water from which we draw the language we need to interact with the divine. But to what extent are we ‘allowed’ to do this?
This threatening question is precisely what fundamentalists condemn. Always on the look-out for wrong interpretations of scripture, they see that permitting us to regard the Creation story as an allegory rather than factually accurate is to inflict careless damage on the literalism that guarantees, as nothing else can, the validity of the Bible as the ur-text of our faith. The Adam and Eve story must be protected because if it is not, then the way is open to the heresy that some parts of the Jesus story are metaphorical: if that word means ‘untrue’ (it doesn’t) then that is an unacceptable undermining of the major elements of Christian doctrine.
So it is at this point in the quest that we must think about Jesus. Ah, Jesus (to be continued)