As is always the case along the quest for ‘God’, I soon come across the footprints of other, better writers and thinkers who have got there before me. I wanted to think about the way in which metaphor and symbolism reinforce the language of any faith system when I accidentally came across the following paragraph by a theologian writing late in the 19th century:
“Symbols are the only language suited to religion.
It would be an illusion to believe that a religious symbol represents God in Himself, and that its value, therefore, depends on the exactitude with which it represents Him. The true content of the symbol is entirely subjective: it is the conscious relation of the subject to God, or rather, it is the way he feels himself affected by God.
From this point of view we may see in what religious inspiration psychologically consists. Neither its aim nor its effect is to communicate to men exact, objective, ready-made ideas on that which by its nature is unknowable under the scientific mode; but it consists in an enrichment and exaltation of the inner life of its subject; it sets in motion his inward religious activity, since it is in that that God reveals Himself; it excites new feelings, constituting new concrete relations of God to man, and by the fact of this creative activity it spontaneously engenders new images and new symbols, of which the real content is precisely this revelation of the God-spirit in the inner life of the spirit of man.
The greatest initiators in the religious order have been the greatest creators of symbols.” (August Sabatier. Outlines of a Philosophy of Religion based on Psychology and History. 1910. Chapter 4, Section 6 Symbolism)
If we accept that metaphor and symbolism help faith, not hinder it, then certain parts of scripture and Christian teaching become easier to understand. A good example is provided by Jesus’ parables (the purpose of which is set out in Matt 13:10-17). Like drama – which is another art – they provide us with the means pictorially and helpfully, to discern the truths and frailties of human behaviour. As such, they should be treasured as windows through which we can see and evaluate aspects of that interaction between ourselves and ‘God’ (any concept of which) and modify our beliefs and stance accordingly.
This is all very well, but – to speak only about Christianity – the more we scan scriptures for the lodes of meaning running through the parables, sayings and incidents we have inherited, the more difficult it becomes to subject the great narratives of our faith to such examination without seeming to undermine them, and thus our faith, in some cases (not others) quite disturbingly.
The first of these great narratives, however, is the one least likely to cause this kind of offence. About the Nativity, the late Marcus Borg wrote “the stories of Jesus’ birth are myths in this sense [that is, “symbolic narratives and not straightforward historical reports”]. Along with most mainline scholars, I do not think these stories report what happened. The virginal conception, the star, the wise men, the birth in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn and so forth are not facts of history. But I think these stories are powerfully true. They make use of rich archetypal religious images and motifs to speak of Jesus’ significance.” (The God we never knew. 1998. Pp101-102).
Similarly, on another of the great narratives, Borg said that “Easter need not involve the claim that God supernaturally intervened to raise the corpse of Jesus from the tomb. Rather, the core meaning of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced after his death, but in a radically new way: as a spiritual and divine reality.” (op cit, p93). I intend to return to this particular trope at a later date.
I assume that these ideas formed part of earlier theological teaching of Biblical demythologisation, by Rudolf Bultmann and others.
Another of the great narratives of Christianity, Pentecost, celebrating the Holy Spirit’s gift of tongues 40 days after Easter (in Acts 2), seems to me to be a quasi-symbolic depiction of the apostles’ realisation that their mission now was to go out and spread the Good News. The story is written in a highly theological register but with persuasive touches of realism which must have been experienced during an actual incident and recalled later by eye-witnesses (Peter’s insistence that he is not drunk, for example). Again, here, there is nothing in the interplay between symbolism and ‘what really happened’ to cause us to doubt or reject the basic meaning of the story and so lose the message.
With the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Salvation narratives, however, we enter altogether more difficult terrain, where the allocation of story-telling editing here and meaning-laden metaphor there, realism and symbolism, has to be set out with exceptionally careful handling. Here the quest for God is really put under pressure. [To be continued]