Metaphorical Truth

by Jesse Galef -

If a story didn’t happen, can it still be useful? I first started thinking about this question in college after taking a Hebrew Bible course with professor Bart Ehrman.  Evidence points to most of the Bible being historically inaccurate. As Ehrman presented argument after argument for why the stories in the Bible couldn’t be taken literally, he took pains to mention that even if the stories didn’t happen, they might be “metaphorically true.” Most of this post won’t apply to the hardcore religious people who think everything in the Bible is literally true, addressing instead the liberal Christians who, like Ehrman, talk about ‘metaphorical truth.’

But how can a false story be metaphorically true?  That’s the question for my second Cafe Inquiry discussion group, held tomorrow at 7PM.  If you can make it, you should come by!  It’s in the CFI-DC chapter right by the Eastern Market Metro (map).

Marcus Borg, author of Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally describes the concept in question well:

By “metaphorical approach,” I mean most broadly a nonliteral way of reading biblical texts. A metaphorical reading does not confine itself to the literal, factual, and historical meanings of a text. It moves beyond to the question, “What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?”  p. 37f.

I take ‘metaphorically true’ to mean that the story’s implications can be accurate whether or not the details giving the impression really happened. One example Ehrman gave was that of George Washington and the cherry tree, in which the young George said the famous words “I cannot tell a lie.” The lesson of the story is that George Washington was an incredibly honest man. Though the account was later found to be a complete fabrication, we have other historical information to support the claim that Washington was a very honest man with great integrity. I could understand if someone wanted to say the story didn’t happen but is still metaphorically true.

If the story were factually accurate, then we would have some evidence that the lesson is true: we could say that in that case, George Washington behaved honestly.  Factual stories act as evidence of their own lesson.  But when a story didn’t really happen, it becomes nothing more than an assertion. The author – Parson Weems, in the case of the cherry tree myth – wanted us to believe that Washington was an honest man and wanted to express that assertion via a fictional story. He might be speaking from authority, having combed through historical accounts. But unless we want to simply trust that the author is telling a truth, we need outside evidence to judge whether this factually inaccurate story has the saving grace of being metaphorically true.

When we acknowledge that the Bible is nowhere near historically accurate, it loses its power to act as evidence.  This is where the practice of cherrypicking interpretations sometimes comes from. Liberal Christians who aren’t tied to the literal meaning of the text have to decide for themselves what ‘metaphorical truth’ to glean from each passage, making sure to conform their understanding to what they already believe.  Instead of drawing knowledge from the text, they’re bestowing their own meaning onto the stories.  The Bible is no longer a source of truth; it’s merely a reflection of preexisting opinions.

Often the lesson of a biblical story cannot be supported by any other evidence we can gather.  Borg presents a metaphorical interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew:

In presenting the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew echoes the story of Moses’ birth. Just as the life of Moses was threatened by Pharaoh’s command that all male Hebrew babies be killed, so Jesus’ life as an infant is threatened by King Herod’s command that all male infants in the area of Bethlehem are to be killed. Matthew’s meaning is clear. Jesus is like Moses, Herod is like Pharaoh, and what is happening in and through Jesus is like a new exodus. (p. 197) [emphasis mine]

He can’t possibly be openly using fictional stories of the Jesus’ birth to justify some meta-narrative comparing Jesus to Moses, can he? If they didn’t happen in reality, the stories can’t be used as evidence for an argument about reality.  IS Jesus in some way like Moses?  Matthew sure wants us to think so, but should we take his lesson to be metaphorically true?  Show me the slightest bit of real evidence that Jesus - the person, not the character in fictional stories written by Matthew – was like Moses.   There is no historical evidence that these events happened.  There is no historical, outside evidence to back up the overarching “lesson” that Jesus was somehow like Moses.  The nativity story in Matthew is an excellent example of a story which is neither factually nor metaphorically true.

It’s even worse when people make decisions on how to live their lives based on acknowledged fictional stories.  So much intellectual thought has gone into the fruitless (pun definitely intended) discussion of original sin, sacrifice, and redemption.  Borg gets so close to figuring it out

So I began to take seriously the likelihood that Adam and Eve had not been real people. But if that likelihood turned out to be true, what were we to make of the story of the first sin, commonly called “the fall,” in the Garden of Eden? If “the fall” was not historical, how (I wondered) would this affect the Christian story of universal sin, our need for redemption, and Jesus’ death as the necessary sacrifice?

… before he withdraws into metaphorical interpretations of Genesis.  Recognizing that “the fall” never happened should abolish any silly notions of “universal sin, our need for redemption, and Jesus’ death as the necessary sacrifice.”  There’s simply no reason to believe that babies are inherently born sinful, that we need redemption, or that executing an innocent man can absolve others of this imagined sin.

Without external verification of the story’s lesson, the most we can do is make claims about the characters in a fictional world.  Humans in the fictional world of the Bible have “sin”.  Jesus in the fictional account of Matthew is like Moses.  It boils down to mere literary analysis –  which can be useful in sparking new thoughts, gaining insight into the author’s point of view, and exploring the fictional world of the literature.  But it isn’t useful for telling us truths about reality.

Fictional stories that are independently determined to be metaphorically true – like the story of George Washington – can be fun and interesting ways to teach a lesson without giving real evidence.  Any lessons implied from fiction are basically arguments from authority (“trust me, this fictional account teaches something accurate”).  If a person has utter faith that the Bible is accurate and divinely inspired, then they’re putting their trust in that authority.  Any lessons taught through the medium of fictional stories must be metaphorically true, because they come from a trustworthy source.  I happen to find the evidence against the notion overwhelming, but that’s a topic for another day.

What’s your take on the metaphorical approach to factually inaccurate stories?

(photo © Adrian van Leen for openphoto.net CC:PublicDomain)

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • http://walkinghometo50.wordpress.com Mister Roy

    I find your argument appealing. But… where might ‘truths about reality’ legitimately come from? Lived experience, peer-reviewed scientific texts? Or are truths inaccessible, or a flawed concept? You seem to be saying not only ‘the Bible is just literature’, but also ‘…and literature is pretty meaningless too, except as another person’s subjective view’. Hardcore!

  • kenneth

    I look at this in two lights:
    1)the fables from Aesop were not true stories, yet they do indeed impart knowledge and wisdom. It isn’t necessary for a story to be true in order to pass knowledge or insight.
    2) The bible (and other holy books) is not meant to teach us facts or wisdom, it instead tries to convince people that they need it and it’s message to “survive.”

    The problem arises when someone feels the need to convince you of a “truth,” such as you being a lowlife, scumbaggy, reprobate, and uses such a book as proof. They have based their opinion of the truth on this book, which they then try to justify by calling it metaphorical…except when it isn’t of course…

  • http://www.thoughtcounts.net thoughtcounts Z

    This seems to be the ultimate “mixed metaphor” — metaphorical sometimes, literal others. As someone with a fair amount of creative writing experience I understand what it means for fiction to be “true.” It can say something about the human condition, or about our shared values as a society, for example. But you can’t say, “This is metaphorically true” (maybe there was no man named Jesus walking around telling parables and living in exactly this way, but the parables still convey good lessons), and then suddenly switch to act as though some part of the metaphor is factual (e.g., those lessons are good, so let’s all worship Jesus now).

  • Ron in Houston

    I’ve got to get over how impressed I am that you took a Hebrew Bible course with Bart Ehrman before I can answer your question.

    I think metaphorical truth is akin to factoring in an author’s intent to a story. I really believe that whatever bronze age goat herder first told the story of Adam and Eve intended it to teach about human nature rather than to be a factual statement of truth.

    It’s subsequent manipulative people who want to use religion to control others who then say you MUST believe it literally.

    The problem is that a lot of the metaphorical truth in the New Testament is used in what I’d call a very cynical and self serving fashion. It was used to “sell” Jesus to different groups with competing agendas.

    So, I guess the question for me is why is the author trying to sell me this metaphorical truth.

  • cathy

    The problem is that religious people want us to view the fictional (not lit. true) stories or the bible as somehow more useful and worthwhile than other fiction. You might just as well study the moral lessons of the hobbit as those of the new testament. Some fiction stories can make us have interesting thoughts/observations about ethics, others suck. It is up to biblical proponents to tell us why the hell we should take stories about things like magic haircuts or retribution against lippy children via mutilation by bears as somehow ethically relevant.

  • Acitta

    When it comes to considering the metaphorical meaning of myths, you can’t just look at the Bible in isolation. Different cultures have similar myths, though the names and details might be different. I would like to recommend the work of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/users/peterson/MOM/mom.htm). He proposes that myths have similar structures across cultures because they relate to neurological structures. It has to do with our neurological response to the unknown. Primitive man was surrounded by the unknown and the unknown could be dangerous but must be dealt with. Myths and cultural rules are a way of codifying the known. They try to show how to behave in all situations. Culture is represented mythologically by the Great Father. It is impossible to create rules for all possible contingencies, though, because the unknown outstrips the known. The unknown, represented mythologically by the serpent and the Great Mother, always impinges upon us. This creates fear. The Great Hero, the dieing and reborn god, is the one who confronts the unknown, defeats the dragon, and thereby makes the unknown into the known and renews the culture. The Jesus myth is a derivation of older myths of the Great Hero. Creation myths are about the known being generated out of the vast unknown. The fall is the story of the development of self-consciousness. All of these myths were not developed to describe reality in the way a modern scientist develops a theory. Pre-scientific people did not see the world objectively, but rather as a place where everything had meaning. Anyhow, Peterson ties all of this to the scientific studies of brain neurology.

  • Revyloution

    I always thought it was ironic that Parson Weems lied to show how honest Washington was.

    Teaching through parable and metaphore is a very popular meme throughout the history of man. I’d like to point out the recent advances in neurology, and how it can explain the power of metaphore in changing our perspectives.

    The discovery of motor neurons showed how humans are able to pass on knowledge by showing how something is done. Digging further into the motor neurons, we find the biologic explanation for empathy. Not only can we learn to replicate the actions of others by watching, we can also understand how someone else feels by observing too.

    I imagine that the brain function that allows you to feel pain watching someone else get injured is the same function that lets you imagine what the characters in the story The Emperors New Clothes feel. We can teach strong moral lessons through metaphore. And learning those lessons that way bypass the painfull and expensive ‘learning through experience’.

  • Angie

    People interested in the metaphorical truth of myths might enjoy Rollo May’s book, THE CRY FOR MYTH.

  • Sue D. Nymme

    The Greeks believed that there were two paths to truth: logos (logic) and mythos (lore). They were complementary; both were useful.

    Some truths are easier to convey via tales than by data.

    I’m not saying that the Bible stories do or do not fall into the mythos category, but this concept is useful to non-literalist Christians. (And, I daresay, to the rest of us).

  • David D.G.

    The Bible never was a source of truth; it’s merely a reflection of preexisting opinions.

    There. Fixed that for you. ;^D

    Without external verification of the story’s lesson, the most we can do is make claims about the characters in a fictional world…. It boils down to mere literary analysis – which can be useful in sparking new thoughts, gaining insight into the author’s point of view, and exploring the fictional world of the literature. But it isn’t useful for telling us truths about reality.

    EXACTLY! Thank you! Basing one’s morality on the mythology in the Bible makes no more sense than basing one’s morality on the contents of Greco-Roman, Norse, or any other mythology (or even, for that matter, the canon of any series of fictional stories). One does not derive “truth,” whether factual or moral, from fictional sources. Rather, it works the other way around: One uses fictional sources to illustrate one’s understanding of these truths. The Bible’s many contradictions simply make it even easier than most other such sources for anyone to find something that illustrates his preconceived notion of “truth.”

    ~David D.G.

  • Aj

    Creation myths like the one described in the Jewish book of Genesis, told by people who were deeply ignorant, were meant as genuine attempts at historical accounts. Creation myths read as attempts by deeply ignorant people to create a historical account. Creation myths of cultures are believed by the majority of people in those cultures. Some parts are rejected by some people in a culture if they are found to be illogical or contrary to evidence, but the rest of the untrue claims are still believed. This is a God of the gaps mentality, religious beliefs reside in gaps of knowledge, ever decreasing gaps thanks to scientific inquiry.

    Creation myths are historical accounts that happen to be untrue, for people who are emotionally invested in the authors being true in meaning, this is not a big deal. People can still use a book that is deeply mistaken as a metaphor for themselves, but that is not enough for the theist who has attributed the authority of truth irrationally onto a book. For these theists, it’s imperative that they must irrationally believe that if passages of the Bible are not literally true, the author must have meant metaphorically. This is an utterly dishonest way of determining the meaning of the authorship.

    We can’t know whether a metaphor is true without external verification. It’s possible religious texts could contain metaphorically true statements, and arguments for the utility of religion usually include this. A selfish gene is a metaphor, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t describe the natural world accurately. I don’t think anybody with any sense can objectively say religious texts have been a good way of conveying metaphorically true information.

  • Jer

    My take is this: stories have power. Power to illustrate and power to educate. The stories in the Bible were put to paper for specific educational/propaganda purposes and delving into what those purposes were can tell us more about what our ancestors were like psychologically and may give us some insight into ourselves as well. What lesson was the writer of Jonah trying to teach? What about the writers of Job? What about the writer of Matthew? Of Mark? What is the underlying thing they were trying to teach?

    On the other side of the coin – those same stories and how we read and retell them can tell us a lot about ourselves as individuals as well. Stories speak to us as individuals, and as long as we know that we’re imposing meaning on a story as much as the original author did, we can find out a lot about ourselves in how we react and how we interpret them. (This is where I think a lot of religious folks of all stripes fall down – they find a personal truth about themselves in their reading of the Bible and they mistake it for a universal truth about the world).

    That’s what I think “metaphorical truth” is – we need to get at the purpose for the story and understand that, and by understanding that we can understand more about ourselves and our world. That’s not just true for stories in the Bible – it’s true for all stories.

  • Alexis

    I’ve often wondered what was going to through Mason Weems mind … hmmm, kids just aren’t being honest these days. How can we encourage them to tell the truth? I know, we’ll tell a lie about our great hero George Washington! When they hear our lie about his great honesty, they’ll be sure to emulate him!

  • Jamie

    This made me think of “The Uses of Enchantment” by Bruno Bettleheim as one perspective (along with Rollo May).

    The Bible should be seen in the context of storytelling and mythmaking. The Old Testament is a series of stories that were originally shared through oral traditions and were then codified. It reflects some people’s experience and not others’.

    I agree that when you read any story you should be careful to compare it to experience and to sources outside the Bible you find are truthful. And it can be (but not necessarily) dangerous to take a verse, a saying or one sentence from any source and build your actions upon it.

    I happen to think something like Thou Shalt Not Kill is catchier and lyrical than Don’t Kill, but I would hope no matter how we hear it in our heads, when the time comes, we have a rationale for taking the life of a fellow human being.

    I accept the fact that people refuse to even read the Bible based on limited experience or on the quality of stories in movies based on it. Lord of Rings same thing.

  • flawedprefect

    Adam and Eve has no more historical truth than the Aboriginal dream time myths of a giant rainbow serpent as a creator god; The historical Jesus is just as real as the historical Buddha, or Romulus and Remus (ie: NOT).

    But the there ARE pretty good morals to be found within (tho we often put emphasis on the archaic and more abusive parts); likewise, there are good bits of Harry Potter we could all learn from, or the Cosby Show, for that matter.

    That’s the power of myth, allegory and storytelling: we frame fables and tales around moral truths – it’s been this way for most of human history.

    That some of the teachings of holy texts say horrid things (on slavery, misogyny, etc), Jesus did say “love one another as I have loved you” let’s not forget; Buddha did say “the cause of all your suffering can be found within yourself”. but it doesn’t matter if this was not a real person talking – the truth within that phrase is something we should follow anyway, regardless of race, religion, gender or age, and many do, without believing the speaker of these truths existed.

    Isn’t that what being atheists really means? That we can be good because we realise these truths are self-evident, and don’t need divine teachers to speak them to us, and threaten us with damnation if we don’t respect them?

  • Autumnal Harvest

    When we acknowledge that the Bible is nowhere near historically accurate, it loses its power to act as evidence. This is where the practice of cherrypicking interpretations sometimes comes from. Liberal Christians who aren’t tied to the literal meaning of the text have to decide for themselves what ‘metaphorical truth’ to glean from each passage. . . The Bible is no longer a source of truth; it’s merely a reflection of preexisting opinions.

    I’m continually amazed at atheists who choose to buy into fundamentalist propaganda that fundamentalists just read the Bible without cherrypicking, and that it’s only liberal Christians who “interpret” or cherrypick. Since the Bible contains multiple contradictory messages, there’s no way to “just do what the Bible says” without picking and choosing. The fundamentalist refusal to admit that they’re just following all the (contradictory) messages in the Bible is so obviously wrong that I can’t understand why any atheist would endorse it – except that I suppose it makes it easier to attack Christianity if you can claim that the only true form of Christianity is fundamentalism.

  • http://lagunatic.wordpress.com/ Lagunatic

    This topic has too many words and not enough boobs. Real boobs, not metaphorical ones.

  • Jeff Dale

    @ Autumnal Harvest:

    Liberal Christians who aren’t tied to the literal meaning of the text have to decide for themselves what ‘metaphorical truth’ to glean from each passage.

    The fundamentalist refusal to admit that they’re just following all the (contradictory) messages in the Bible is so obviously wrong that I can’t understand why any atheist would endorse it – except that I suppose it makes it easier to attack Christianity if you can claim that the only true form of Christianity is fundamentalism.

    Actually, it sounds to me like the author is acknowledging the fundamentalist attitude by addressing this issue to the liberals. I would argue along these lines, diverging from your point:

    The fundamentalist refusal to admit that they’re just following all the (contradictory) messages in the Bible is so obviously wrong that it can only be maintained with double-think: they decide to hold immovably to a position that’s demonstrably and blatantly false, then hide that decision from themselves. But the liberals aren’t tied to the literal meaning of the text, either because they recognize the contradictions or because they judge some passages to be immoral, and so they have to decide for themselves what “metaphorical truth” to glean.

  • Aj

    Autumnal Harvest,

    I’m continually amazed at atheists who choose to buy into fundamentalist propaganda that fundamentalists just read the Bible without cherrypicking, and that it’s only liberal Christians who “interpret” or cherrypick. Since the Bible contains multiple contradictory messages, there’s no way to “just do what the Bible says” without picking and choosing. The fundamentalist refusal to admit that they’re just following all the (contradictory) messages in the Bible is so obviously wrong that I can’t understand why any atheist would endorse it – except that I suppose it makes it easier to attack Christianity if you can claim that the only true form of Christianity is fundamentalism.

    I’m continually amazed at atheists who choose to buy into religious apologist propaganda. Jesse Galef is talking about literally believing stories describing events, not about commandments. I haven’t met an atheist that says fundamentalists don’t cherry pick or that the only true form of Christianity is fundamentalist. You’re full of shit and you know it. Drop the straw man, read and comprehend, then perhaps you’ll be less amazed.

  • Neon Genesis

    “I’ve often wondered what was going to through Mason Weems mind … hmmm, kids just aren’t being honest these days. How can we encourage them to tell the truth? I know, we’ll tell a lie about our great hero George Washington! When they hear our lie about his great honesty, they’ll be sure to emulate him!”In all fairness to him, it’s not so much different than how adults today teach kids to believe in Santa Claus as a way of teaching them how to behave.

    Jesse Galef, if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend watching Joseph Campbell’s classic documentary, The Power of Myth which discusses these issues.

  • Stephanie

    FYI: Bart Ehrman is not a liberal Christian. He’s been an agnostic for the past 5 years. He’s an Atheist when it comes to the god of the bible. He used to be a fundamentalist then a liberal Christian. Just got done reading his latest book: “God’s Problem”, one of 5 of his that I have read. He’s my favorite author.

  • http://neosnowqueen.wordpress.com/ neosnowqueen

    I can gather truths from the Bible, such as “familial loyalty can be a great asset” from Ruth, and “sometimes it’s worth it to speak up” from Esther … just like I get “being unattractive doesn’t make you an ugly person” from Jennifer Murdley’s Toad. Fiction can provide great insights – into humanity as well as ourselves. But it would be stupid for me to live my life according to Jennifer Murdley’s Toad just because there is truth in the fiction. Similarly, trying to tell me to follow the Bible’s teachings because some of it holds metaphorical truth that can be useful in life is ridiculous. Especially since most of the good stuff from the Bible I also get from other places without needing to commit to religious trappings and divine worship.

  • Neon Genesis

    “Fiction can provide great insights – into humanity as well as ourselves. But it would be stupid for me to live my life according to Jennifer Murdley’s Toad just because there is truth in the fiction. ”

    Although you can turn Star Wars into a religion if you identify as a Jedi on the census.

  • Tony

    It has been mentioned by other before me but I think that it is possible to have a metaphorical truth taken from an obviously false story. An example is in Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare story. Anthropormorphic armoured reptiles and long legged leporids that can speak don’t exist, never mind the difficulty you’d have in trying to figure out a motive for this hypothetical contest, but the ultimate message that success comes with patient persistence, not with sprinting around in short bursts, is completely sound.

    It’s just that the bible makes it so hard to find those metaphorical truths. I mean what’s the message in the story of Noah’s Ark? Learn to swim?

  • Neon Genesis

    “It has been mentioned by other before me but I think that it is possible to have a metaphorical truth taken from an obviously false story. An example is in Aesop’s Tortoise and the Hare story.” Another example would be the parables of Jesus. The parables of Jesus are not factually true stories and nobody would argue that unless there was a real prodigal son that the parable of the prodigal son has no value to it and even Richard Dawkins still cherishes the parables of Jesus although he doesn’t live his life around them.

  • Richard Wade

    Once upon a time, there was a man who told stories. He made them up in his head. None of the events he described ever happened, and none of the persons he described ever existed, and no one ever did any of the things he said they did.

    But his stories had lessons about the folly of pride and vanity, the value of courage and loyalty, and the fragile strength of love. People who learned from his stories lived happier, more meaningful lives, because his false stories had truths about life.

    Once upon another time, there was another man who told stories. He carefully checked every fact for hard evidence to be certain every word was true. Every event he described really happened, and every person he described really existed, and they really did everything he said they did.

    But his stories had lessons about the folly of trusting anyone, the importance of caring only about yourself, the value of anger, the weakness of love and the strength of hate. People who learned from his stories lived bitter, frustrated lives, because his true stories had falsehoods about life.

    It’s not just in how we tell the stories, it’s also in how we listen. We should check the facts and demand the evidence. Then we should also listen for the truths about life hidden inside those factual stories, the truths that resonate with our hearts and help us to live happier, more meaningful lives.

    From true stories, we can choose to learn truths or falsehoods.

  • GribbletheMunchkin

    This is ultimately my problem with religious liberals like John Shelby Spong. Although their actual practice is infinitely preferable to that of fundamentalists, they don’t really have a solid message.

    If the bible is metaphorical and there is no historical evidence for Christ, then why believe in Christ? If it is merely metaphor, why place such a heavy emphasis on the bible and not pick and choose from all literature.

    Essentially if the bible is not a) literal truth OR b) based on real events but written by fallible men, why place any real emphasis on it at all?

    Christian liberals seem to not believe it the bible is literally true. Some also seem to believe that it does not describe actual events. If you believe neither, what on earth is the point? Why not pick up a copy of Frank Herberts Dune and pull moral messages from that?

  • Pseudonym

    A lot to respond to here, but I think I’ll single out one:

    He can’t possibly be openly using fictional stories of the Jesus’ birth to justify some meta-narrative comparing Jesus to Moses, can he?

    One theme that I see a lot in this thread is a basic misunderstanding of the nature of mythology and how it differs from fiction (though there is some overlap, as someone mentioned with Star Wars).

    If two stories fit the same mythological archetype, then it’s valid to notice the parallel between them.

    But in this case, Borg is claiming something that’s even easier to justify: The author of Matthew is drew a parallel deliberately. Jesus is to Christianity as Moses is to Judaism. Why is this so hard to understand?

    Take, for example, the somewhat out-of-place story of Jesus’ escape to Egypt in Matthew 2. How can this not be an allusion to the story of Abraham and, later, the Israelites, both of whom had a similar geographic journey?

    One final thing, GribbletheMunchkin:

    This is ultimately my problem with religious liberals like John Shelby Spong. Although their actual practice is infinitely preferable to that of fundamentalists, they don’t really have a solid message.

    Surely this is inevitable. If reality is lacking in neat black-and-white answers, then any religion which is only composed of neat black-and-white answers is useless. Any religion which takes its cues from reality must have a place for ambiguity, flexibility and complexity.

  • Karen

    That’s what mythology is for.

    I can remember explaining to my oldest son that a man named Jonah lived in a whale until it found it’s way to an island where Jonah used to live and spit him onto the shore. I told him that it is a story in the bible that people believe is true, they believe it really happened and that it shows the miracle of god’s power. Wow. Their god is an amazing god indeed. Deities rock. But, who can use a story like that to further their understanding of life? Boring.

    But when I turned it around to show him that at times in our lives we are in a kind of stasis or stuck place and it can feel like we are bound to live in the belly a looming “whale” forever, but one day we find Ninevah and we’re home again. My son’s imagination learned to use this story (among others) to explain an emotional situation as a universal human experience.

    Yay mythology!

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    Might be better to use the term “mythological truth” rather than metaphorical. Myth is a very special kind of metaphor. One of elevated significance. In any case the problem arises when these myths are taken as literal (real, empirical, factual…) truth. I have always found it amusing that theologians had to invent a new kind of “truth” in order to validate the Bible.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    Oh yeah, theologian John Hick claims that a myth is true when it evokes the proper attitude, reverencing Jesus as God for example.

  • http://toothface.blogspot.com Luke

    Good discussion here. I like what Sue N. stated, “The Greeks believed that there were two paths to truth: logos (logic) and mythos (lore). They were complementary; both were useful.”

    It is best if we combine the two, like Galileo did when he wrote about his theories. Newton’s work was far more shattering to the church but because it was all formula and not accessible to the masses, Newton didn’t get in any trouble. Galileo, on the other hand, told stories based on his formulas first, then had the formula proofs in the back of the book.

    “can be fun and interesting ways to teach a lesson without giving real evidence.”

    Poetry is the first and IMO best teacher of humanity. We are a story people. We have to accept a lot of things on faith.. like history for example. How can we verify that something actually happened? Sure there’s archeology, forensics, etc. etc. But in the re-telling of history, what gets lost? Where does the bias of the historian come in? In otherwords, how factual are the facts?

    Story is not a “new” kind of truth as nomad claims… it is the oldest truth we have. one that encapsulates some of the facts with some of the emotion to convey a greater meaning to others.. one that hits you in the gut.

    it’s a very Western thing to want the “facts and just the facts.” it is not my belief that we ever just get ‘the facts.’ we also get bias as well.

  • http://liberalfaith.blogspot.com/ Steve Caldwell

    This idea isn’t original with me but is adapted from Greta Christina.

    “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” isn’t literally true but the metaphor of adolescence as gothic horror does give us insight into the human condition.

    The original series “Star Trek” isn’t literally true but the metaphorical roles of the Klingons and the Federation does give us insight into the dilema of the “Cold War.”

    The recent “Battlestar Galactica” series isn’t literally true but it does give us insights into the dilemas found in the Post-9/11 world we find ourselves in.

    I suspect that many folks (including religious liberals who talk about religion being “metaphorical”) would object to someone asking how is religion different from the metaphorical stories found in “Buffy,” “Star Trek,” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

    They may have a different meaning for the word “metaphor” when applied to religion (e.g. “of course it’s not literally true but I still sorta believe in it as if it were literally true”).

  • MountainHumanist

    Personally, I have derived a lot of inspiration, motivation, useful practices and other helpful things from a wide variety of fiction. Some of my “Bible teachers” include Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Adams, George Orwell, Haruki Murakami, Isaac Asimov, Jack Kerouac, etc. not to mention Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts to name a few.

    In order to derive any personal meaning from a myth, we first have to ask questions about the authors point-of-view. In the case of the Bible, the question is not really “What can I use to apply to my life?” directly from the text but “What did the author intend by writing this myth down? How does that relate to what his or her community was experiencing?” In examining the context of any ancient myth we may find common themes that were deployed to solve human problems that have existed since the dawn of human history.

    In reading myth, from the Rig Veda, through Genesis through Stephen King, we can identify methods that work to alleviate suffering and methods that do not.

    One thing that makes some forms of Buddhism attractive for me is the fact that the existence of an historical Buddha is really not that important. What is important is that there exist these useful principles that SOMEONE came up with.. That also mean that Buddhism produced many un-useful principles which can simply be chucked into the philosophical trash can with the rest.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    Story is not a “new” kind of truth as nomad claims

    It’s not that myth hasn’t been used since time immemorial to explain the world. That is obviously the case. Originally there was no competition. Truth was truth. But when the scientific method was developed it became clear that myth lacked empirical validity. In order to maintain its credibility theologists and mythophiles claimed that myth reflected an alternative to empirical truth. This is what was “new”: the presentation of mythological truth as a counter argument to empirical truth.

  • Shatterface

    Steve Caldwell: ‘“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” isn’t literally true but the metaphor of adolescence as gothic horror does give us insight into the human condition.’

    Bugger – exactly the examples I was going to use. In an age where you can’t move without seeing films, TV shows or novels about angsty teenage vampires it would be foolish to think that there wasn’t some metaphorical truth here without accepting the ontological reality of supernatural beings.

    I’ve no problem with the idea of metaphorical truth so far as it is understood to BE metaphorical truth.

    TV fans are happy with the concept and ethnographers acknowledge that we aren’t imprisoned by authorial intent but read our own meanings into the text. That’s a lesson Bible bashers need to learn: that whatever lesson they ‘learn’ is at least partly created by their own imagination not revealed to them by an omnicient author.

  • Aj

    Luke,

    Poetry is the first and IMO best teacher of humanity.

    Poetry is not a teacher, let alone the best teacher of anything. Poetry is the best expression of feeling we have, but would be meaningless to those without feelings. It does not teach, it allows humanity to absorb our shared experience.

    We have to accept a lot of things on faith.. like history for example. How can we verify that something actually happened?

    No, you choose to irrationally believe, Christian. Evidence is how we verify whether something happened. History is not like religion, it’s not wish-thinking and gullible acceptance of claims from authority.

    Story is not a “new” kind of truth as nomad claims… it is the oldest truth we have. one that encapsulates some of the facts with some of the emotion to convey a greater meaning to others.. one that hits you in the gut.

    Myth isn’t any kind of truth, it’s by definition a story that is false. Myths have very little fact in them if they have any at all. Using emotion to persuade people to believe your false stories is manipulative and evil.

  • Neon Genesis

    “In order to derive any personal meaning from a myth, we first have to ask questions about the authors point-of-view. In the case of the Bible, the question is not really “What can I use to apply to my life?” directly from the text but “What did the author intend by writing this myth down? How does that relate to what his or her community was experiencing?” In examining the context of any ancient myth we may find common themes that were deployed to solve human problems that have existed since the dawn of human history.”

    I think that even the immoral passages in the bible can be powerful moral teachings in one way as warnings to humanity about the dangers of absolutism and religious extremism. I think the bible is a more powerful and inspiring book if you look at is as being a collection of practically every human emotion all in one than as a perfect book written by a perfect deity.

  • http://toothface.blogspot.com Luke

    “This is what was “new”: the presentation of mythological truth as a counter argument to empirical truth.” -Nomad

    i don’t view the two as competing. this only happens if one has a literal understanding of the story, which is a recent pheonom, dating only to the late-1800s. it is almost absent in the Eastern circles of religion. same in the Jesuit and liberal circles within Christianity. I find, as well as Robert Krulwich from RadioLab, that science is best served in a story format.

    speaking of a literal understanding of things, I believe Aj has just that.

    Aj,

    I detect some hostility, have you been burned by religion? sorry that my comments some how offended, but i ask you to consider the following:

    Concerning Poetry: Poetry as teacher is anthropologically backed up. Most histories were written in poetic meter because they wanted ppl to be able to memorize and recite these stories. remember, we haven’t always enjoyed such a high literacy rate through our history. poems were recited around tribal campfires and this is very evident in places like Mongolia and China, even the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.

    Concerning History: i wonder at your perception that i somehow have “wish-thinking and gullible acceptance of claims from authority” when I question the very nature of history? “history is written by the winners” as the saying goes… we see this assumption in our own history books where Manifest Destiny is rarely questioned… colonial thought has affected the First Nations people.. ask them about how “accurate” our histories books are. or even the Zapatista’s for that matter. History isn’t as objective as we’d like to think it is.

  • Shatterface

    “history is written by the winners”

    I don’t want to fall foul of Godwin’s Law but I can think of several cases where history and the point of view of the winner are not mutually exclusive.

    History is not a text in the fictive sense of a TV show or a holy book. It isn’t judged by metaphorical accuracy, it is ultimately dependant on reality. Either events happened or they did not.

    Go down the relativity route and you might as well chuck science out too.

  • Aj

    Luke,

    I detect some hostility, have you been burned by religion? sorry that my comments some how offended, but i ask you to consider the following:

    No, thankfully I am one of the fortunates who has lived free of religion. I don’t get offended easily or think that you should feel obliged to care or even acknowledge if I were to be offended. I hope you detect hostility, for I am very hostile to bullshit, and you are projecting a lot of it. You obviously can’t see it, and your first guess for the reason for this hostility is evidence of your tolerance for bullshit. For you, it’s perfectly natural for people to base their beliefs on their emotions and allegiances.

    Concerning Poetry: Poetry as teacher is anthropologically backed up. Most histories were written in poetic meter because they wanted ppl to be able to memorize and recite these stories. remember, we haven’t always enjoyed such a high literacy rate through our history. poems were recited around tribal campfires and this is very evident in places like Mongolia and China, even the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh.

    A memory device is not teaching. Transference of dogma is not learning. Being able to remember and recite words is not an education. Is reading a book and writing it into an another teaching? Is writing down narration? Transference of information is not necessarily teaching.

    Concerning History: i wonder at your perception that i somehow have “wish-thinking and gullible acceptance of claims from authority” when I question the very nature of history? “history is written by the winners” as the saying goes… we see this assumption in our own history books where Manifest Destiny is rarely questioned… colonial thought has affected the First Nations people.. ask them about how “accurate” our histories books are. or even the Zapatista’s for that matter. History isn’t as objective as we’d like to think it is.

    You’re a Christian aren’t you? That’s a mixture of appeals to authority and wish-thinking. For this reason you feel inadequate even in the face of the social sciences. You dishonestly question the nature of history by ignoring its methods. History should be accepted or rejected on how well it is supported by evidence. We do not have to accept it on faith, history does not include an official body of knowledge, and is certainly not a set of competing mythological narratives. Historical method includes provisions for objectively analysing evidence.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    Luke,
    You may not view the two as competing but they do. Mythologically speaking Adam and Eve were real people. From the POV of science, they weren’t. The same for Christ’s resurrection. True according to myth. For science, not so much.

  • http://toothface.blogspot.com Luke

    “Go down the relativity route and you might as well chuck science out too.” -Shatterface

    And yet relativity is a scientific term is it not? I like Kierkegaard’s thought here: that without interest and passion, nothing has ever happened in history. while we may have standards for figuring out how “events happened or they did not” the reason for the historical event are 10 times out of 10, irrational. nor can we get at the “reason” for the passion without some element of mythos or subjective experience.

    “or I am very hostile to bullshit, and you are projecting a lot of it.” -Aj

    Everybody poops, Aj, I just try to be conscious of my stink. I don’t think you are yourself, as you’re acting like you are a being of pure reason. You’re not. You’re also changing definitions and challenging long held anthropological findings without really backing them up. I’d steer ya back to this story i posted in my first comment here.

    “Mythologically speaking Adam and Eve were real people.” -Nomad

    mythologically speaking, Adam and Eve were characters. you’re going literal in that comment. the point is not whether Adam or Eve was real, the point is what is this story saying about reality? the orthodox position in Christianity has been that this is how sin entered the world and we “fell.” You won’t find this thought in Judaism however… they talk more about how this is how suffering entered, or how this is how the world is supposed to be. Take the Tractate Sanhedrin which states that Genesis describes all mankind as being descended from a single individual in order to teach certain lessons. Among these are:

    1. Taking one life is tantamount to destroying the entire world, and saving one life is tantamount to saving the entire world.

    2. A person should not say to another that he comes from better stock because we all come from the same ancestor.

    3. To teach the greatness of God, for when human beings create a mold every thing that comes out of that mold is identical, while mankind, which comes out of a single mold, is different in that every person is unique.

  • http://agnosticism2010.blogspot.com/ nomad

    Luke,
    Badly phrased perhaps. The point remains. The two POVs do compete. Actually they completely contradict each other.

  • Pseudonym

    nomad, I think you’re missing Luke’s point.

    If you believe that Adam and Eve were literal first humans, this contradicts science. If you believe that Adam and Eve are characters in mythology that teach great moral truths, this may be wrong in many ways, but it doesn’t contradict science.

  • Pingback: Splitting fine homosexual hairs : Stochastic Scribbles

  • jimmy bass

    “Show me the slightest bit of real evidence that Jesus – the person, not the character in fictional stories written by Matthew – was like Moses.” what reference do i have to jesus the person not the character apart from the fictional stories. i thought this was about metaphor anyway. r u not missing the point? Matthew is conferring leadership on jesus, the leadership of his people through trials and tribulations. when moses led the 12 tribes of israel the metaphorical inference is that we are supposed to identify this with the whole of humanity. so it was with jesus and the 12 apostles. i don’t see whats incredibly subjective about that.. u did ask.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X