Dr David Tacey...
In this commentary Dr David Tacey presents a view that will challenge many of your traditional ways of understanding sacred scripture and our concept of religious "faith". This commentary is part of a series preparatory to the videotaping of a number of conversations between four writers, Eugene Stockton, David Tacey, Peter Todd, and Kevin Treston who have been exploring fresh ways of thinking and talking about the Numinous and Theology/Spirituality today. We will be recording those conversations on Sunday, 17th November here in the Blue Mountains, and we are extending an invitation to readers of Catholica who would like to be part of the studio audience for the recording. (Click the banner at the bottom of this commentary if you would like to be involved — be quick the available places are filling fast.)
Beyond Literal Thinking in Religion
by David Tacey
Taking it seriously does not mean taking it literally. ...Carl Jung
As a young child I used to believe that the miracles and wonders of my natal faith were literally true. My parents inculcated this view and I tried my best not to disappoint them. Some of the children around me questioned what was taught in the churches, but I plugged my ears and did not want to listen. I knew that faith was important to my family and my role in the family, and I did not want to lose it. I was required to believe in the Word of God and this included literal adherence to the 'words' of God. If the Bible said Jesus had a virgin birth or a physical resurrection, I was expected to accept this without questioning and not doubt God's ability to perform wonders. These mysteries were to be read literally and to become the cornerstones of my faith. I clung to this faith until about 15, when it began to dissolve during the course of my education. It is little wonder that what is called 'faith' is in short supply today, if it is based on such a misunderstanding of an ancient text. Believing in impossible events is not faith but credulity, and leads us not to God but to superstition.
To read the Bible literally is the error of both popular and dogmatic religion. I would refer to literalism as the 'original sin' of religion. It is what philosophers would call a 'category error', as it mistakes the purpose and intention of these ancient stories. It is an exercise in misreading, because mythological motifs are turned into factual accounts and treated as history. It seems incredible to some, but few believers ever ask: To what literary 'genre' or category does the Bible belong? How was it written, and how should it be read? How should it be understood in the context of its first-century culture? As a specialist in literature and myth, these questions interest me greatly. However, I only arrived at these questions as an adult, when I was trying to win back a faith that I was forced to reject as a teenager because I could no longer believe in its literal form. I have since come to realise that almost no-one can believe it in its literal form, so why does the church persist?
When I was 15, my sister, a few years older than me, decided that religion was a fraud. I found her position audacious, and she offered me books that had convinced her to throw it away. She said our family was behind the times to the tune of about a hundred and fifty years, and she said 'all thinking people are atheists now'. I was reminded of her comment recently when, stuck in traffic, the car ahead of me had a bumper sticker which read: 'I think, therefore I am – an atheist!' This is the terrible fate of religion in our time. It puts itself in opposition to the thinking mind. As a result, it loses ground with the educated classes who remain as keen as ever to throw it out. Religion is facing oblivion in its current forms, and despite the rear-guard measures of some religious leaders most traditional forms of Christianity are destined to collapse in the near future.
What will happen after this collapse? Does anyone care enough to rebuild a new faith based on metaphor and symbol? I care, and I am trying to rebuild it, imagining that the collapse of Christianity has already occurred. Nothing seems able to bring the Christian faith back from the edge of the abyss, and perhaps it needs to fall into the abyss, so that change can occur.
I sometimes fantasise that the churches will apologise to the world and confess that they made a wrong turn a very long time ago. I imagine waking up one morning to the headline: 'Sorry, we made a big mistake and need to make it up'. No, I am not thinking about child sexual abuse, but about literalism. The churches are dying, and everyone knows why, but no-one seems to want to address the elephant in the room: that the faith is not 'true' as conventionally believed. To gain supporters these days, the churches rely on the following of the uneducated, and on those who are prepared to swallow the miracles and wonders and a lot of supernatural machinery. I saw through the supernaturalism of religion over forty years ago, but at that stage did not have the education or courage to say anything about it. I have waited forty years for the chance, and now I am ready. The churches have failed to understand that the scriptures are primarily poetry and myth, not history. They have misread mythology as metaphysics and we have been stuck ever since with a religion that few can believe in.
Those who have questioned religion in the past have often done so out of malevolent impulses. A new tradition of 'celebrity atheists' deals with the mysteries of the Bible with contempt, dismissing them as lies. Most atheists see themselves as clever, but rarely stop to consider if they are misrepresenting what they are rejecting. Those who believe in the Bible and those who attack it are caught up in the same illusion that it is a work of historical documentation. Believers see it is history, an accurate depiction of things that happened, while unbelievers see it as falsification, a cooked up version of things. Both are suffering from the same malaise, the curse of literalism. The similarity between theists and atheists has been a source of ironic humour among numerous scholars. One of them is the scholar of mythology and literature, Joseph Campbell:
Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.
Many believers and non-believers lack imagination. They do not realise that myth and metaphor are the primary carriers of the life of the spirit. Jesus knew this: he was a visionary poet who spoke in metaphors, and all of his teachings were metaphorical, and told in parables, which are extended metaphors. This should have been the key to realising how his own life would be recorded: in parables and metaphors. As John Dominic Crossan has said, it is extraordinary how fiction by Jesus grew to become fiction about Jesus. The scriptures are like dreams, and just as it would be silly to interpret dreams literally, so we kill the scriptures by unimaginative readings. To read these texts literally, to take them as history, is not faith, as the churches have insisted, but a form of misreading. Faith, I will argue, is different.
I haven't time in this talk to present all the scholarship and background on which my conclusions are based. You will have to wait for my new book, which is called, It's a Metaphor, Stupid: Beyond Literal Thinking in Religion and Life. However, I will include here a brief quotation from the Irish American Biblical scholar, John Dominic Crossan:
My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally. They knew what they were doing; we don't.
Like Crossan, who is a former Catholic priest, I work in this field not to debunk religion, but to try to make it more credible and solid. I am not to be counted among the debunkers, but I aim to try to return religion to its roots in mythos. The scriptures are a form of mythos which have been misread for centuries as works of logos or history. Karen Armstrong is another fine scholar who works tirelessly in this field, in defence of mythos. Bishop John Spong has done a great deal to popularise the notion that scriptures might be read as myth and poetry.
By claiming to be fact or history, religion has become a false comfort to believers, while it is regarded as a laughing stock by others. But these 'others' are now the vast majority of educated people in our increasingly secular societies. Secular people are starving for spiritual nourishment, but they cannot take on conventional religion for all these good reasons. The central problem facing religion today, in my view, is how to restore significance to metaphor, and dignity and value to myth. Then and only then can religion recover its status as sacred poetry, rather than parade as false history. Atheists don't like it when scholars place religion on a basis of mythos, as they are not able to dismiss it so readily. Believers do not like mythos either, because they see it as demeaning to refer to the stories of religions as myths. To them, this means they are untrue. It is apparently a serious body-blow for religion to accept that its basis is myth and not history. The loss of power and prestige involved in this shift is enormous. The churches have preached humility for centuries, and now they have to discover it for themselves. But there is a difference between humility and humiliation, and the transition from fact to myth is made more tolerable if we try to understand what myth is.
Without myth, there is no spiritual life. This is why, in the West, we find secular society without a spiritual life, and religion often has no spirituality either. When myth becomes hardened into dogma, the spirit dries up and civilisation is stuck in a lifeless place. Spirit requires poetry and myth for its expression. Logos has so completely won the battle against mythos that myth has been relegated to the dustbin and claimed to be false. Tom Harpur is illuminating on this point:
Mention 'myth' or 'mythology' to the average person, and he or she will assume you are speaking of remote, insubstantial, irrelevant matters. In our culture, the word is synonymous with, at best, fairy tales and, at worst, outright lies and deception. If you pay attention, you'll be amazed at how often you'll read or hear someone say, 'It's only a myth'. It is of paramount importance that this disastrous distortion and misunderstanding be met head on.
Myth points to the realities of the spirit, which can be expressed in no other way. In Shakespeare's words, myth 'bodies forth / The forms of things unknown'. Myth is our only way of making sense of the unknown. Myths are not empty or hollow: they point to something beyond themselves, to what I would call spiritual reality. There can be no final descriptions of ultimate reality, because it is unknown to us and beyond the reach of our minds. We can only manage interpretations of it, and this is the role of myth. We need to try to befriend myth again, and realise it serves our need to make connections with the world beyond the senses and reason. But to have mistaken myths for facts is a colossal error of religion. If it wants to recover power it will have to be via the power of myth, its true domain.
Two of my favourite scholars of religion are Alvin Kuhn and Northrop Frye, both Canadians. Kuhn argues that 'Myth was the favourite and universal method of teaching in archaic times'. This is the point overlooked by believers and unbelievers. In their first-century context, the scriptures were written in the preferred mode of the time. It is ludicrous to imagine that these writings, distinct from others in their period, were aiming for historical accuracy. The notion of historically accurate reporting had not yet been invented, but nor was it seen as desirable or revelatory. Frye said that if much of the New Testament seems fantastic or unreal to us it is because it is not even operating in a realist mode:
When the Bible is historically accurate, it is only accidentally so: reporting was not of the slightest interest to its writers. They had a story to tell which could only be told by myth and metaphor: what they wrote became a source of vision rather than doctrine.
The Bible is, with unimportant exceptions, written in the literary language of myth and metaphor.
The Biblical narratives were written as vision, he says, but are misread as doctrine. If we awaken our capacity for poetry and ambiguity, we might be able to regain some of their original meaning. As Frye put it: 'myth is paradoxical and says both "this happened" and "this can hardly have happened in precisely this way"'. The basis of myth is in the metaphorical 'as if'. Myth presents things as if they happened in this way, even though we know they did not. But to the poetic eye, to the imagination, they might have happened as symbolically depicted. It takes time and effort to read the Bible. The notion that anyone can pick it up and understand it without prior learning is wishful thinking. It cannot be read like a series of articles in the daily newspaper. It has nothing in common with journalistic reporting, and its nearest equivalents today would be visionary poetry or mystical writing. But it is written in a mode in which myth overshadows history, because in its context mythos was viewed as the language of truth. Logos had not yet been established as a discourse in its own right – that came with the rise of science and reason.
The bare facts are not enough to get at the truth. Truth requires the elaboration of facts and the power of metaphor and myth. As Spong has said, our response to miracles and wonders should not be, 'Did they happen?' (a logos question), but 'What do they mean?' (a mythos question). A miracle is not something that happened, but something going on in what happens. It is a level of significance seeking to make itself felt in poetic images. The images symbolically draw out and hold a deeper layer of meaning. A miracle is thus not an event, but something astir in an event; its spiritual potential or possibility.
Thus the New Testament does not say that Jesus was born out of wedlock to an unmarried Joseph and Mary, but says it was a virgin birth announced by angels and ordained by God. It says this because Jesus grew up to demonstrate such love and mercy as to suggest that his origins must be divine. Such an inspired life was not only the will of human beings or social circumstance, but must have been the will of the divine. If eyewitness reports had recorded the birth of Jesus there would have been no angels, no wise men from the East, no guiding star or holy signs. It would have been an ordinary event, the birth of an illegitimate son to a somewhat startled and embarrassed Joseph and Mary. The scholars tell us that it most likely did not take place in Bethlehem and nor did it happen on December 25.
If, in the ancient world, the life of an important figure in history or legend was narrated by scribes, they would typically refer to the birth of this figure as a 'virgin' birth, as a sign of his or her divinity. There were hundreds of instances of virgin births recorded in the ancient world, going back thousands of years before our common era. The Greeks were not the first to have virgin births, or goddesses born out of the foamy sea, or out of the head of Zeus. Such extraordinary births were universal across the ancient world, from Egypt to Turkey to Crete. James Frazer's multi-volumed The Golden Bough records many of these instances, and makes us realise that a virgin birth was an accepted literary trope at the time, a way of designating the holiness of a person who impacted the world in a significant way. It was while reading The Golden Bough that I began to realise that the faith I had rejected could be reclaimed by re-reading it as myth. The notion that Jesus' virgin birth was historical is absurd when we set it in its context and realise that such ideas were legion. Without any knowledge of context or genre we are more likely to respond to this birth either as a supernatural event or as a piece of nonsense. In point of fact, it was neither.
The virgin birth and physical resurrection are wonderful myths, but they are myths and not facts. There is no virgin birth in the earliest gospel, Mark, and even St Paul refutes the idea of a physical resurrection, but few read his letters carefully. People don't want to read him carefully; they prefer illusions to close reading. See 1 Corinthians chapter 15, and read Brendan Byrne and Peter Carnley on the resurrection: it was, of course, a spiritual, not a physical event. Resurrection is a matter of faith, not a resuscitation of a dead body. On the whole, religious people do not take the 'spiritual' dimension seriously enough – they often seem to want everything to be reduced to the physical, betraying a lack of spiritual awareness. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote: 'Take care not to interpret physically what is intended spiritually.'
Naturally biblical scholars and historians have known these facts for many years, but somehow they never filter down to the common folk in the wider community. The churches have constructed themselves as bastions of literalism and have done little to help the lay public develop its sense of spirituality. Instead, they have kept the people infantile, by confusing faith with belief. The churches have blocked our spiritual maturation by not properly educating the clergy, who have been conditioned to imbibe a mind-numbing literalism. Some intelligent clergy see through the charade, but they keep quiet to keep hold of their jobs. Even today it seems that clergy know little or nothing about hermeneutics, that is, the art of interpretation, and read ancient texts as if they were history books. This is painfully evident in those clergy who arrive here from countries which are less educated than ours; their literalism is mind-crushing and embarrassing to Australian congregations. There can be no surer way of ensuring the demise of religion in Australia than by attempting to bolster it by such means.
The concept of 'faith' has to be reconceived in light of the findings of the new Biblical scholarship and the study of religions. Faith has been fused with belief. In a sense they are opposites, because faith does not ask for evidence or proof, whereas belief is shattered when evidence is produced to the contrary. But what has been called faith is often nothing more than credulity—a willingness to believe that improbable events took place. This is not faith, but literalism. True faith is not thinking contrary to our senses, not a work against the intellect. Faith involves the capacity to experience transcendence, and to see God in all things. Faith allows us to see the presence of spirit in the most unlikely places, and to be open to the possibility of the transcendent in the mundane. Faith enables us to see the virgin birth, the feeding of the five thousand and the resurrection as spiritual possibilities in the here and now. It is not about believing in the supernatural, but believing in the deeply natural.
The supernatural infrastructure of religion belongs to an outmoded way of seeing the world, and the sooner it collapses the better. God is not a being in the heavens, but, as Paul Tillich said, following Heidegger, Being itself. Jesus is not a supernatural being, as I was taught as a child, but someone who lived in the presence of the divine. The supernaturalism has been added by legend and myth- making. God and Jesus need to be experienced in new ways, and the literalised forms of the past have reached their use-by date. As philosophers put it, our age has experienced the collapse of the metaphysical, due to science and philosophy. The wonder is that these literalised myths lasted as long as they did, since they flew in the face of common sense. But when archetypal images take mythological form, they have enormous suggestive power and can suspend the judgement of the rational mind. The spell of Christendom has long been broken, and we exist in the 'afterwards', having to pick up the pieces and make sense of that strange dream that was literalised religion. The danger we face today is that as the mythic forms of religion go down, the sense of the divine might go down with them. The so- called Death of God is nothing other than an death of the old mythology that carried the divine in the past. Everything has to be reworked and understood anew.
This is how I understand my own role in this time of transition. My job is to try to build a bridge between the unbelieving head and the believing heart. I agree with atheists and thinkers that God appears to be dead, at least as he had been conceived in the past. After Auschwitz and the Holocaust, no one can believe in an all-powerful, omniscient, interventionist God. God exists, in my view, but not in the old ways in which we have imagined him. The triumphalist, all-conquering and victorious images of God and Jesus have to be seen through for what they are: the product of popular folklore and legend, inspired by the all too human desire for absolute certainty and assured success. But we cannot aspire so high anymore; if we want God and Jesus back, after they are unravelled from their inflated and popular packaging, we have to accept them as weak, suffering and vulnerable.
At this point I turn to poets, mystics and visionaries who claim that after 'God' dies, we need to look around and within us for the new places in which God might be found. In my view it is only the form of God that becomes outworn, not the spirit. I have, as yet, no idea which religions will survive the present crisis. It is too early to tell. But I have no doubt that faith will survive in some form, but clearly not in the forms of the past. I fear for Christianity, because it has invested so much of itself in a vision of history that can no longer be sustained. After all the unravelling that must take place, it does contain, in my view, a kernel of truth, and that kernel is that God and the spirit of Jesus do exist, but not in the comforting clichés that we have indulged for centuries. To see this deeper existence of the holy, we cannot look with ordinary eyes, but only with the eyes of mystics. This is why Karl Rahner said 'The future Christian will be a mystic or he [or she] will not exist at all'.
My journey toward a poetic or metaphorical faith has involved three stages, which correspond to my development. First there was literal belief in the statements of religion, encouraged by uneducated but sincere parents and a naïve faith community. This was followed by a short period of atheism, fuelled by university education at the hands of left-wing, anti-religious academics. But the atheism of the universities did not suit me; it is a sickening desert as I am by nature religious. So I had to go through, and outgrow, the atheism that my sister advocated as the way forward. As an adult, I have recovered faith, but it is completely different from the naïve gospel I received as a child and that most churches continue to promulgate. I would call the third stage, faith without reliance on belief.
In this stage, I feel that God exists and there is a spiritual world, and I can attend some religious services and involve myself in the rituals and liturgies. I can participate in the symbolic life of religion, but I cannot, and do not, read aloud or with any confidence the creedal statements that the faithful are supposed to accept. I refuse to be confined by what the institutions ask us to believe. I read the miracles and wonders as symbols of the regenerative and life-producing mystery of the spirit: the virgin birth, for me, is a symbol of the spirit's ability to generate new life from itself, and the resurrection a symbol of the spirit's life beyond our physical death. These symbols are 'true' for me as symbols, but not of course as facts.
What I have experienced in my life is outlined in James Fowler's classic work, The Stages of Faith. There is faith beyond belief, there is maturity in the spirit beyond the kindergarten or primitive level of faith. There is a pathway beyond the wilderness of atheism and unbelief, although it seems that we often have to endure the torments of the wilderness on our faith journeys. What I see around me, especially in the university environment in which I work, are people stuck in the second phase: they can't believe, they have switched off, and have thereby deprived themselves of a spiritual life. This is a high price to pay for rejecting the errors of literalised religion. The churches have a great deal to answer for in terms of their systematic misrepresentation of the spiritual life.
Since I am here today talking to a group of progressive religious thinkers, I want to point to another common error or mistake, as we make our difficult journeys toward a deeper faith. Many progressive people, such as yourselves, have long realised that the scriptures are not to be read literally. However, this has not necessarily yielded a deeper faith, but merely an intellectual realisation. Some people say: oh, they are not facts, but metaphors, and it falls flat. If not viewed through the eyes of mysticism, that is, as metaphors pointing to living spiritual realities, these metaphors fail to yield their depth and transformative power.
For many thinking people, the old literalism has fallen away, and is replaced by nothing except a barren intellectual understanding. Jesus is no longer a supernatural figure, or a son of God, but merely a decent kind of bloke, a local community worker. Such people have reached a partial enlightenment, in which the metaphorical is conceded, but it does not actually convey any spiritual power. The metaphors are not alive, not spiritually 'true', but seen as literary adornments or decorations.
Don Cupitt of Cambridge University and his 'Sea of Faith' movement are exponents of this outlook, with which my own position is sometimes confused. I am nothing like Cupitt, but if comparisons are to be made, I am much closer to Spong. Cupitt and his followers have seen through the literalism, are progressive and unconventional, but not spiritual. His thirty books about his journey into post- Christianity and unbelief is a testimony to the dangers that await us as we leave the guideposts of the past. If we leave the conventions, we have to find reliable guides to steer us through the dangers, but Cupitt succumbs, in my view, to all the perils: intellectualism, rationalism, reductionism, relativism. His books are lifeless and barren, and his 'sea of faith' is permanently at ebb tide. To reach the third stage, faith without belief, one has to become mystical, not merely intellectual. Without the mystical, God cannot be redeemed, but remains an odd piece of the old mythology which needs to be discarded. I meet large numbers of ex-Catholic priests and ex-Protestant ministers who are in this state, and I find it terribly sad. They think they are on my wave-length but they are not. They abandon the old magical thinking – having outgrown it – but cannot cross over to a spiritual perception. There are, as yet, no institutional channels to help them make the journey.
At the mystical stage, one experiences the metaphors as alive, numinous and saturated with meaning. One sees through and beyond the metaphors to the spiritual realities to which they point, and this has an enlivening and transformative effect. Too many 'progressive' people do not experience the power of metaphor. They are still, dare I say, emotionally attached to the old position that says that something is real only if it is historically true. The metaphorical is a poor consolation for the loss of the historically-based revelation, complete with miracles, wonders and a supernatural God. Their faith is dependent on signs, and when the signs dissolve there is not much left. Jesus warned against this: he saw the need for supernatural signs as an expression of a lack of faith. In Mark we are told that the Pharisees called for signs:
To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, 'Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.' Mark 8:12
Like Jesus, I sigh deeply when people ask for a miraculous sign. Still today the Pharisee in us, that is, the literal thinker, asks for a sign from Christ, proof of his virgin birth or his physical resurrection. And the churches say: proof is to be found in the gospels. The faith of those who rely on such wonders, according to Northrop Frye, 'remains on the psychologically primitive level'. As the psychologist Carl Jung put it, 'Miracles appeal only to the understanding of those who cannot perceive the meaning'. Whether the miracles actually occurred as stated in the scriptures is beside the point. The real point is: what do they point to? What do they mean? How am I to realise this metaphor or symbol in my life, in my consciousness of myself and my relationship with God?
The problem is that we have to make this leap of faith by ourselves, there are no props to rely on. The historicity of the scriptures is in grave doubt, the authority of the literal-minded churches is in doubt, and we are left in an existential situation that few Christians can cope with, because they are used to being supported, or bolstered. We have to do it for ourselves, and many are unable to cross over to the other side. In Matthew, Jesus says 'Unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'. We are asked to 'become' as children, which means that we are to recover the gift of imagination, which children have in plentiful supply. If we don't achieve a second innocence, and look upon things through the eyes of imagination, we have no hope of entering the kingdom, that is, of experiencing the world as a spiritual cosmos. However, the churches have asked the faithful to remain as children, not to become children, and this is what is killing religion today. We are not allowed to grow up, which means asking questions and doubting the literalism that may have been appropriate for us as children. What we need is a religion that is prepared to grow up, so we can grow up with it.
There is every possibility that as the literalised mythology of religion goes down, people will feel betrayed, angry and deceived. They will experience a disillusioned enlightenment without passion. We see this despondency in children who discover that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny do not exist. There is emotional loss and mourning, as well as embarrassment for having believed in the first place. Many Christians are dealing with this despondency at the moment, and they are getting no help from the institutions which call on them to return to literal belief. People need as much help as they can get to deepen their faith, to understand the difference between mere belief and faith, to understand that the spiritual does not need to be propped up by the metaphysical, or by the historical, but that we have to kick away the props to faith and take the leap of faith into the unknown.
Religion is not about belief, but faith, which means seeing things differently, through the eyes of vision. Hence Frye asserted: 'The less we believe the better, and nothing should be believed that has to be believed'.
Dr David Tacey. This paper was originally delivered as a talk to a meeting of
What are your thoughts on this commentary?