Actual Event or Metaphorical Story?

In response to my review of Avatar, here’s what a reader named Michael asked me:

Hi Carl,
I read your article on the movie “Avatar.”  You wrote that grace is one of the best elements of Christianity.  That statement led me to wonder whether you view the life and death of Jesus as an actual historical event or if you see it more as metaphor for love, sacrifice, etc?  I grew up in a very conservative, evangelical denomination, who would I think say that Jesus is the best element of Christianity.
This is something which I struggle over:  is the atoning work of Jesus an actual event or is it a metaphorical story meant to direct me to God and to grace?
I know that is a big question.  Thank you for any feedback you can give me!

First of all, I certainly hope that no one is going to take potshots at me because I talked about grace but not Jesus in my review. I do know there are some Christians who love nothing more than to point out how other Christians are wrong. I’m not accusing Michael of doing this, but he suggests that the church he grew up in had that kind of culture. And I’ve known churches, and individual Christians, like that as well. Let’s just say for the record that my describing “grace” as characterizing “the best elements in Christianity” was not meant to slight Jesus in any way. In fact, I would trust Jesus to understand that I was writing lyrically and poetically, and not trying to make a hard and fast doctrinal statement.

Now, on to the heart of Michael’s question: “Is the atoning work of Jesus an actual event or is it a metaphorical story meant to direct me to God and to grace?” Forgive me for copping out here, but I simply don’t know. I don’t believe anyone knows. This is the frontier of faith, and we each must decide just where our Kierkegaardian leap will take us. For many people, the leap of faith to believing in the historicity of the Gospel story is both possible and deeply, spiritually satisfying. For many others, that kind of a leap is not possible — but choosing to believe in the story on a metaphorical or mythic level is.

As I said above, many Christians like to point out how other Christians are wrong. So it is certainly tempting for the literalists to attack the mythicists, and vice versa. Meanwhile, as long as we spend time arguing over this, the hungry remain unfed, the naked unclothed, the homeless unsheltered.

I admire those who can with simplicity of faith simply assent to the Christ story on an “eggs-is-eggs” literal level. I am not one of them. It would be wrong for me to simply pretend to be someone who I am not. Likewise, I admire those who have such keen intellects that they are able to parse out the many philosophical, epistemological, and hermeneutical issues that surround the question of faith in the Christ story. Likewise, I am not one of them either (I am a bear of little brain). Again, it would be wrong for me to simply pretend to be someone who I am not.

So I am enough of a “questioner” to be unable to accept the simple, literal story at face value, but I lack the intellectual prowess to really understand all of the issues that scholars and philosophers and theologians have raised in response to the Christ story. So, what am I left with? I’m left with what I have called on this blog, “holy agnosis.” In other words, I am comfortable with saying “I don’t know.” I don’t know if the Christ story is historically true or not; I do believe that at this late date it is not historically verifiable, so I know that only by faith can anyone accept it as true. Likewise, I don’t know if the Christ story is only “true” on a mythic or metaphorical level. It seems to me that those who object to the mythical or metaphorical reading of the Christ story fall into two camps: those who reject Christianity altogether, and those who believe that if you do not accept the Gospel as literal, historical fact, then you cannot be a Christian. Since I am in neither of those camps, I am perfectly happy if people find faith and meaning through a mythical or metaphorical approach.

So I think, in all honesty, my holy agnosis leaves me somewhere in-between the literalists and the mythicists. While I cannot simply assent to the literal reading of scripture, intellectual honesty forbids me from saying it cannot be true. For all I know, it is. My faith simply hangs in the not-knowing. And in that not knowing, the mythic or metaphorical approach functions as something like a safety-net. If I hang my faith on Christ, for me this means that either Christ is truly resurrected in the flesh, or else the Christ story has powerful mythic meaning regardless of its historicity. When I hold both of these contingencies together, it is enough for me to say “yes” to the call to believe.

I know that this answer will not satisfy either the literalists or the atheists. What I think these categories of persons have in common is an idolatry of certitude. They all demand solid, unyielding answers. I believe that God in God’s wisdom has given us a gift far more precious than the “solid answer”: the gift of mystery. I’m sorry that this is so frustrating for those who idolize certitude. But it is what it is.

Mysticism and the Divine Feminine: An Interview with Mirabai Starr
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Pentecost and Ecstasy
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Michael

    Thank you for that response Carl. I am definitely one of those who idolizes certitude. However, I can see truth in your understanding (or non-understanding!) of the Mystery. This has been a lesson for me within the past year and a half: resting in the grace and love of God even though certitude regarding the Christ has not been there.

  • Yewtree

    Carl, I really admire your honesty about your uncertainty, your holy agnosis.

    Personally I am sure that if the resurrection was literally true, then I would subscribe to Christus Victor theology rather than vicarious atonement, as it is much more humane; but I think that a physical resurrection from the dead is extremely unlikely. Therefore I regard it as a metaphor. Also, the story of Christ seems to draw on a number of similar stories about the death and resurrection of god-men (e.g. Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Orpheus), which clearly relate to the psychological aspects of the spiritual journey — the death of the ego and its rebirth in a new form that is more in balance with the rest of the psyche. On this level, the story is valuable; whereas, when taken literally, it seems quite harmful, especially when couched in terms of vicarious atonement or penal substitution.

  • Carl McColman

    Michael: I don’t think you idolize certitude, at least not anymore. Perhaps you have a part of you that wishes things were that cut and dried; don’t we all! That’s our place of deep existential insecurity. That’s the part of us to which Christ speaks when he says, “Be not afraid.”

    Yvonne: You’re right on target with the question of how we interpret the cross. I consciously tried to avoid poking at that hornet’s nest in my post; but I should figure that one of my many smart and thoughtful readers would stir it up for me. :-) Indeed, beyond the question of what we believe regarding the historicity of the cross and resurrection is the far more vexing question of how we interpret the Passion: what does it mean, what does it say about God, what does it say about us. My guide here is Julian of Norwich, who saw it strictly in terms of an expression of suffering love, without any sense of substitutionary atonement. But as you point out, many others see it quite differently.

  • lightandstorm

    I have the same feeling as you do in regards to being uncertain as to whether the story is literally true or not…although I lean towards no. But for me, that question doesn’t even really matter and is often a distraction. It keeps people holding on to a particular event in time and space, one that happened long ago. In that sense we are displaced from it, we are far away. It doesn’t have as much impact as it should.

    It doesn’t really matter to me whether people believe the literal aspect of it, but I do hope that the mythic message, the symbolism, the mysticism, and the existentialism of it comes through regardless. It is only when the strict adherence to the literal preempts the personal, universal, eternal message that I worry.

  • George

    Dear Carl, Thank you for what I found to be a very satisfying answer. Once that articulated pretty accurately my own feelings. It is a relief to simply say, I just don’t know, yet live a life of faith, hope, and love. I was born Roman Catholic and continue on this path in some way because, for lack of a better phrase, believes it makes me a better person and gives me an orientation to navigate life. I have wrestled with the dominant atonement theology of vicarious/substitutionary atonement for years, quite honestly coming to a head with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which for me was the death knell of any subscription to that theology. Love your post and blog.

  • Joe Rawls

    The Eastern churches see the Incarnation primarily as God uniting in love with his creation. The Atonement is certainly not denied or even shuffled off to one side, but the union of God/humanity and the overcoming of death through Jesus’ very bodily resurrection are of utmost importance.

  • Sue

    Holy agnosis, Batman. Thanks for this, Carl. I am finding this current period quite difficult. God feels SO far away, maybe not even there at all, maybe a once-illusion of a mind that needed some certainty.

    And yet even typing that, that’s not quite it either. What this feels like is a season. What’s out the other side of that? I do not know.

    Sometimes I wonder if a life lived on the edges of faith means that sometimes you almost feel like you’re losing it.

  • Jeff S.

    I really like your comment – “When I hold both of these contingencies together, it is enough for me to say “yes” to the call to believe.” I have a wife that hold more of a poetic viewpoint of the Bible and she believes wholeheartly in Christ love, life, death, and ressurection. I am learning a lot from her looking at the word of G-d from a different direction, one that is more mystical in nature, which doesn’t change one’s convictions but should enlighten ones mind and experience with G-d. As you can see I am a complete Jew by the way I traditionally don’t spell out GOD.

    Thank you for a good read.

  • Steve Hayes

    I find the either/or approach difficult. I agree with Nicolas Berdyaeve when he says

    Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept. It is high time that we stopped identifying myth with invention, with the illusions of primitive mentality, and with anything, in fact, which is essentially opposed to reality… The creation of myths among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real indeed than that of abstract concepts and rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language memory and creative energy of the people… it brings two worlds together symbolically.

    It is modernity that demands certitude from a “literal” understanding, but the myth also needs the concrete events.

  • Carl McColman

    If myth itself is “always concrete,” then why do you say that the myth “needs the concrete events”? That seems counter-intuitive to me. I fully agree with Berdyaev; and I am reminded of an Episcopal priest who once proclaimed from the pulpit, “If archaeologists found the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, I would still believe.” That is the heart of the mythic approach to Christianity. My either/or position, as I stated above, is grounded in an honest humility that says “I really don’t know,” and is intended less as a cop-out (although I know it looks that way) and more as a spacious willingness to choose faith even without “being sure.” I think arguing for certitude of the mythic reading of the Gospel can be just as deadening as arguing for only a literal reading of the text.

  • Leslie