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Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Oxymoron alert: my quest for God has thrown up an interim conclusion.  Where have I got to? There are several reasons for this lack of clarity 0r rather possibilities as to where we go to from here but let me single out two or three of them for closer examination.

The first interim conclusion is the obvious one: “God” does not exist in any sense available to us as humans.  The concept is not accessible through any of our processes of ratiocination, logic or philosophical enquiry.  This stubborn fact, which not long ago I heard enunciated in a sermon by a bishop, has been known for centuries, and in several traditions.  “The Tao that can be told [or spoken] is not the eternal Tao” is the very first statement in the Tao Te Ching.  Moses’ request to know God’s name is met with the enigmatic “I Am that I Am” (Exodus 3:14).  As Bonhoeffer puts it, “A God who lets us prove his existence would be an idol.”

So we are pushed back to the idea that everything in the multi-dimensional cavalcade we call religion is metaphor.  The ineffability of “God” leaves us no choice: we are compelled to acknowledge that everything in scripture is metaphorical, and should be accepted and read as such.

Where this leaves us with the need to parse seemingly related concepts such as ‘real’ or ‘true’ is for the moment unclear.

At first sight, this part of the interim conclusion is fatal to religion.  It seems to qualify, if not rule out, whatever we might think of as being the property of faith or belief.  It risks letting it become unbelievable, either instantly or over a period of slow decay into oblivion. But there are at least two ways round this objection.

The first one is to remind ourselves that what we seem to be asking for is something refracted through western, post-enlightenment concepts of actuality, including ‘science.’  But the problem fades away, as it were, eastwards from Jerusalem.  It is only the West that insists upon reification. The desperate demand for ‘reality’ in religion, which leads to such idiocies as the search of Mount Ararat for the remains of Noah’s ark, would be deemed absurd by any Buddhist, for example.  They would regard it as a pointless undertaking, mistaken from the start. This careering off the track, eventually ending up in crash ‘n burn fundamentalism we rightfully perceive, and rightly condemn, as crude ‘category error.’

This where logos and mythos become confused. It is the province of, on the one hand, believers who do not think about what they believe, and, on the other, non-believers who condemn faith as literally nonsense.

A second way round the metaphor difficulty is, paradoxically, to embrace it.  The Bible, after all, committed to enunciating ‘truth’, deploys galaxies of competing imagery. That inevitably incurs selection, preference and choice.  It also opens the door to a further recognition.  It is not difficult to find verses in the Bible which at first sight seem to be ‘better’, more ‘valuable’, than others.  Failure to understand this value-ranking of this or that scriptural text has potentially baleful outcomes: “The sacred literatures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain passages that, read literally, are capable of leading to violence and hate. We may and must reinterpret them“(Jonathan Sacks.  Not in God’s name.  London, 2015. Page 219)

Once you concede that each text, however puzzling, contains multiple readings and depths of interpretation (which is precisely what fundamentalists cannot accept), there is much to offer the modern pilgrim.  You don’t like talk of ‘Christ the King”?  Think about the Good Shepherd instead, or the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.  Each of these formulations, like so many others, offers access to “God” through the various metaphorical portals in religion’s iconostasis.  Every believer comes to his or her own accommodation of this devout variety, irrespective of what others happen to believe.  I have no desire to dedicate myself to, for example, the cult of the Sacred Heart or the Assumption of the BVM, but have no objection to others doing so.

So it is that the breadth and range of biblical iconography – from straight reportage (Acts 2) through exegesis and on to mystical sublimity (John 1) – frees us to look upon its central messages from any number of angles or perspectives.  As I have noted above, some of these we will subscribe to as being valuable, to us at least; others will repel; in almost every case we will ‘know’, to use a modern metaphor, which channel we are tuned into.

Children have no difficulty with any of this.  My little grandchildren read books and watch TV programmes that feature talking rabbits, singing flowers or emotionally troubled cars.  They don’t bridle at any problem of ‘reality’ in any of them.  Deep into imaginative play, they think nothing of designating an empty carton a spaceship and expecting you to join the masquerade.  It’s important to note, however, that they know, soon enough, what they are doing; they are perfectly capable of interrupting the game in order to make sure that you realise that it is indeed ’just pretend’ or, as my grandson offering reassurance puts it, ‘we’re only playing.’

A third interim avenue of approach derives from the undeniable fact that metaphors compete; the most obvious reason being that religious beliefs, like others (including science), evolve over time.  This is because they have to.  They cannot get out of sync with their host societies, or face being condemned as irrelevant, or worse.  In England we are presently seeing this in the Evangelicals’ disparagement of same sex unions.  This sort of perception – belief mutating – may be anathema to the traditionalist cardinals presently haranguing Pope Francis about divorced persons’ access to the Eucharist, but is grounded in evidence not all that difficult to find.

As in my Quest for God postings in recent weeks, we – or more specifically, we Christians – come to an ominous fork in the road.  If we accept that the tensions between contending interpretations of scripture can be enlightening, even where the text is difficult to understand or even repellent, and if so we also accept the idea of evaluating text and assigning ‘value’ to it, then what are we to do about the central pillar of the Christian faith, that “the mass of people will all be put right with God as a result of the obedience of the one man” (Rom 5:19)?  [To be continued]

 

 

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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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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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One of life’s greatest pleasures must surely be watching one’s first grandchild grow up.  Day by day, he shows beguiling signs of physical and mental development.  The fact that he can now do or say this or that new action or verbalisation is continually fascinating.  Most of all, I think, how wonderful it is to see the individual appear, in all his uniqueness and emerging personality.  There can never be anything quite like him, even a sibling; a new human being commanding our attention and respect.

For the individual to lay claim to this singleness, it is not at all necessary for him or her to be rich or famous in worldly terms.  All that he has to do is exist.  No matter who he is, I remember reading once, he will leave his footprints in the clay we all walk on, and they will be inextinguishable.  The universe knows who he is; who each one of us is.

As so often happens, the Bible gets there before us.  “And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them… [but] their name liveth for evermore” (Ecclesiasticus 44: 9,14).  The conviction that each one of us is known to the universe – that we can never live or die in secret – is the impulse propelling the perception that faith being essentially a human work of art tends to favour those parts of faith which acknowledge this intermingling of humanity and the rest of creation in particular ways, and celebrate it.  More than Judaism’s communitarianism of the people (Genesis 28:3) and Islam’s emphasis on the ummah, the collective, Christianity is attentive to the ever-shifting, often painful  balance between humankind and “God”.  The whole New Testament is a meditation, in various styles and different emphases, on this aspect of humanism, entranced by the concept of “God” appearing to us as an individual.

Our grandson can believe what he likes, of course, but I hope that over the years he will always be willing and able to exercise and celebrate his individualism, meshing with ours. We love him for it.  Day by day that interaction grows like a plant.

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Scripture

Change is a constant, we like to say.  Everything changes over time, even religion.  But not everyone agrees.  One of the great fault-lines in both Christianity and Judaism lies between those who have no problem with the idea that religions evolve and those others who emphatically disagree.  The two sides often misunderstand each other and so, fuelled by category error, the debate becomes ever more heated and less clear. (more…)

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