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Archive for the ‘Scriptures’ Category

My musings about God and Jesus Christ in my recent Quest for God series of postings must surely strike a chord with many other people.  But this sort of thinking gets short shrift in the Easter 2017 edition of the Catholic Herald.

The theme is resurrection from the dead. In attacking the belief “that the Resurrection was only an event in the faith consciousness of the disciples, however real, rich and radical that might be imagined,” Fr Ron Rolheiser stipulates that “to believe in the Incarnation is to believe that God was born into real physical flesh, lived in real physical flesh, died in real physical flesh and rose in real physical flesh.”

Fr Julian Large agrees: “The Ascension indicates that heaven is not merely some disembodied state of spiritual bliss but a real place where bodies exist.” (Where does that leave Job 19:26?)

I find these assertions fascinating.  They assume that the laws discovered by science these many centuries can be and are circumvented by divine fiat.  Where in our universe, for example, is a physical heaven to be found?  And where does this leave St Paul when he explains that the dead “are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies” (1 Cor 15:44)?

As such these statements of fact in the Herald are literally incredible in the post-Enlightenment sense.  To be precise, they are nonsense.  But they do not mean that the Resurrection and the Ascension didn’t happen.  They did, I believe, but in a metaphorical, symbolical way (I take this to be a valid layer of meaning in Article 6.660 of the Catechism) that represents an authentic article of faith.

I am comfortable with that, and shrug off Richard Ingrams’ remark in the same issue: “Anyone hoping to take comfort in [the explanation of the Gospel story as some sort of beautiful poetic “myth” which was not intended to be taken literally] is more likely to find it in the writings of progressive theologians or the sermons of renegade CofE bishops.” Ouch.  The renegades have my sympathy.

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If, like all scripture, the New Testament is soaked in allegory and metaphor, we are entitled to question a number of propositions, including the atonement theory, and their dependence on an anthropomorphic view of “God”. (more…)

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Who was Jesus?  That question, put by friend and foe, has been discussed, sometimes violently, for two millennia.  Despite Catholic doctrine, there is no easy answer.  The question comes up again and again.  Its difficulty lies in how we should regard the person at the central reference point of our faith. (more…)

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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)

 

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My personal search for “God” inevitably involves going over ground long since tilled by others.  Some of them and their findings I am aware of; many others, not.  That’s not a problem.  This is not an academic paper.  It is merely an opportunity for me to track my own ideas about this mystery, feeding on others’ work where it seems right to do so. (more…)

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At this point in my personal search for a “God” to believe in, I need to stop and review briefly where I have got to.  It’s the equivalent of ‘the story so far’; an opportunity to pause, take stock and look ahead.  What is becoming increasingly evident is that whatever I think I have discovered up till now has implications.  Some of these are bound to be trivial; others, not so.

This is the moment when the law of unintended consequences kicks in.  It is all very well coming to the provisional assessment that the “God concept” is too ineffable, too far beyond all our frames of reference to aver even that “God exists.”  If we couple this finding with the other one arising from this series of posts – that religion and faith need copious infusions of metaphor, allegory and symbolism in order to work properly – then we have to ask how far this can be taken before it poses a threat to core principles which we assume (if we are religious in any way) are essential components of our belief system.  To look at how this works in Christianity for example, we have only to compare the essentiality of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception with that of the central tenet of the Christian faith, that Jesus Christ died for our sins.  The one of these is, in my view, something we can take or leave; the other is very different indeed (to be continued).

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So it is that in the quest for ‘God’ – or for any other meanings to explain our multiple predicaments – the arts discharge a major role (wittingly or not) deploying metaphor with which to do so.  “A poem, a play, or indeed a great painting has the power to change our perception in ways that we may not be able to explain logically but that seem incontestably true” (Karen Armstrong. The case for God.  London, 2009 p17).  In fulfilling this mission, artists can draw upon vast stores of symbols, each embodying its own meanings.  This happens on many different levels and intensity of emphasis.

I’m aware, of course, that large landscapes of philosophical enquiry into these phenomena have already been explored, most notably in France where semiology and connected ideas have long predominated in the academy.

We don’t need semiotics, however, to tell us that religions, always striving but chronically unable to achieve total connectivity with ‘God’ through art and language (See Quest for God 1-3), have particular need for analogy, metaphor, simile and symbolism to fall back on. An observable fact in the world today is that so many people refuse to believe this.

Yet it is obvious.  Religious discourse – scripture, elucidation and commentary – is saturated with metaphor.  As an example I have used before, let’s stipulate that when Christians talk of the ‘Lamb of God’, they are not referring to an actual sheep. They mean a person who has been, and is, treated symbolically as a sheep (Isaiah 53:5).  Similes abound in the Bible: “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness” (Psalm 102:6).  Like other poetry, word pictures like these blur the line between the real and the analogous.  Under pressure by science and technology, with its hunger for precision and realism, the modern age has largely – but not altogether – lost sight of this principle.

Literalism or ultra-realism in religion is, at best, an irritant; at its worst, it can be a curse.  According to Keith Ward, fundamentally “it is a rather modern movement that only really began to exist after the rise of science in the sixteenth century” (What the Bible really teaches (2004) p100).  It’s a frame of mind, or paradigm that holds onto the idea, based on the certainty allegedly achievable by scientific enquiry, that the more realistic something is, the closer it is to its truth or actuality.  It’s a way of seeing that privileges the logos (enthralled by facts and predominantly masculine) over the mythos (more obeisant to emotions and predominantly feminine).

Failure to recognise symbolism for what it is can be highly misleading.  It’s fundamentalists’ biblical literalism that sends explorers up Mount Ararat looking for the remains of Noah’s ark, or arranges museum displays that show human beings anachronistically cohabiting with dinosaurs.

Previous generations have had comparatively little problem in recognising the ambiguity and nuance inherent in metaphor and symbolism. In Judaism, this willingness to tease out multiple meanings is a familiar and fruitful approach called midrash.  It is a stance that is not just permissible but essential.  How can we evaluate the various meanings sure to be found contained within a given piece of scripture if we insist that there is always only one?

Fundamentalists abhor the appearance of ambiguity in all this (hence their insistence that the Bible nowhere errs).  They fail to see that contesting literalism does not mean diluting the message.  Reinterpretation of the ancient texts and recognising the layers of symbolism in them is a never-ending exercise of testing of our assumptions and perspectives about “God”. It is not damaging the inherent meaning of the material, but the opposite.

Nevertheless, as theologians have long recognised, there are serious problems with this approach. [To be continued]

 

 

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