Look where the finger points… not at the finger

March 30, 2010 at 9:33 pm (myth and metaphor, science, Unitarian)

I read this interesting article on theological diversity within UU. I am gradually beginning to see past the shallow, literal meaning that I’ve always understood religion to have, and this article helped.

The author makes a comparison between religion and scientific modelling similar to the one I made once:

The human response to experience is to make a conceptual model, to construct a model of the universe that gives the relevant human experience a plausible and familiar context. But the experience is primary, not the model. And the experience is already experienced in metaphor and image. We, therefore, talk about all of this already at two levels of remove from the primary experience. This can be useful, if done in full awareness of what we are working with. But finally, it is almost inevitably wrong!

Theology, or religious language, is not only about the description of human experience. Its use and purpose is also to evoke particular human experiences. The first we have called religion. The second – the evocation of religious experience – we have lately been calling spirituality. But in neither case is it appropriate to get hung up debating the truth or falsehood of the conceptual models and metaphors. … Look where the finger points. Not at the finger.

The whole article is interesting but here are some selections that I particularly liked:

Theological language speaks about human experience, there being nothing else humans can speak about. That human experience is mappable in (theoretically) an infinite number of ways. And, as the semanticists are fond of reminding us, the map is not the territory. No single map of human experience can catch all the nuances. All language is an abstraction from experience. Every abstraction leaves something out. Each is in-and-of-itself wrong, at least to the degree of being incomplete. The only complete mapping would be recapitulation.

Theological languages, images and symbols are metaphors, or at least – participate in the limits of metaphors. We humans have a tendency to draw inferences from our metaphors without bothering to check the inference against the experience back of the metaphor. Multiple metaphors tend to lead us into fewer inappropriate inferences.

Among the purposes of a religious community is to keep its members spiritually alive and growing. At least in our tradition, we do not assume that there is some “it” you can get and quit. Due to the limits of human knowing, it is always incomplete. Tomorrow’s experience may prompt change. The community most likely to keep us alive and growing is not one in which we all agree; but rather one that tolerates, affirms, even cherishes the broadest, richest diversity. Not because there is no final truth, but because there may be and our own incompleteness suggests we may not have it yet. Not because it does not matter what you believe, but because it does and the only way to keep belief alive and growing is to be free to actually believe what you do believe. And even someone who is quite wrong may have something to teach me.

This does not mean that religious language is above critique. Only that no particular language is given privileged status merely because it is that particular language. We should, indeed, debate the adequacy of our language. Clear thinking will give us better description, more likely to be heard well and rightly, and better evocation of the intended experience.

Religious surrender is not to a language or belief system, nor it is mere credulity… [It] is to put my attention on that in my life where transcendence – the more-than-me and what pushes me to become more than me – is experienced as breaking in.


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Mythological truth: religion as a relationship

February 10, 2010 at 9:25 pm (myth and metaphor)

I was thinking about how conversion to a religion is a bit like getting married.

The decision involves several aspects:

Is this person’s/religion’s values, aims and beliefs compatible with mine?

Are we a good fit? Does the relationship “work”?

How do I feel about the person/religion?

No-one gets married thinking “I can always get a divorce if I change my mind”. Likewise no-one converts to a religion thinking “I can leave it if I change my mind”. Because religion and marriage are things that you grow your life around… extricating yourself from them after many years of investing yourself fully in them is painful, stressful and disorientating. No-one wants to have to go through that.

Some relationships progress quickly to marriage because it is clear to both people that they are a good match. This is partly a matter of actually finding a good match, but also a question of personality – some people are more decisive and other factors like that.

Other relationships might spend several years in limbo, never quite being sure if they want to commit long-term or if they could do better with someone else.

Some people fall in love, elope, and then split up a little while later because it wasn’t based on any real substance. Often this shocks people around them who believed them when they said “this is it” and “he’s the one”.

Some couples keep falling apart and then giving it another try, time after time, never quite being able to completely cut the tie even though it’s clearly not functioning for whatever reason.

When I think over all the stories I’ve read of people choosing religions, I can see parallels for all these types of relationships.

I can only conclude that religion is a relationship. In choosing a religion, you are choosing to marry yourself to a world view. Regardless of how you came to the decision, your commitment from then on has little to do with whether that world view continues to stand up to evidence, and everything to do with a personal attachment to it. You will only let go of it if you no longer love it, because it no longer works, or you discover aspects of it that don’t match your more deeply-held values and convictions. People could show you all sorts of reasons why it’s not true, and it might make you uncomfortable, but it won’t have any real impact. In this sense it is irrational… in the same sense that any relationship is irrational.

It is in this sense that I (tentatively) understand the concept of “mythological truth”, as presented by Reza Aslan, Karen Armstrong, and Howard Jacobson. It’s not that anyone sets out to believe in a non-literal way. It’s just that if you’re really honest, you will admit that’s the only option left to you if you want to carry on the relationship with religion after its basis – the things you believed in literally when you entered the religion – has been taken apart and deconstructed. It’s like you’re saying, “I know it’s not really true, but I’m invested in it and it’s working, so I’ll keep going with it”. So then there is a need to come up with an alternative definition of truth – it’s not literally true, but it’s true in some other sense.

Although I can cope perfectly well with mythical and allegorical content in scriptures (e.g. the creation story), I’d find it hard to see the basic tenets of the religion as allegory and still find the religion credible. God either intervenes in history or he doesn’t… God either sends messages through prophets or he doesn’t. I can’t really get my head around the idea of truth being relative or subjective. Belief is subjective, yes, but surely truth is not?

And I think most believers – by far – are literal believers. I know I said here that I thought the literalists might be a minority, but I was wrong. People generally do believe literally, even if they don’t follow through with it. (There is an inner contradiction that some people are perfectly happy to maintain – believing something is the word of God, but not reading it, not understanding it, not applying it. I think this is exactly why I tend to be all-or-nothing – I dislike contradiction.)

Maybe it’s something I just need to think about more and read about more.  Maybe if I am comfortable with religion containing myths and allegory, then I can somehow extend that comfort to the point that all my literalism melts away.

I’ll finish the post with some excerpts that describe all this better than me.

Here is an interesting bit from Howard Jacobson’s article:

“I like the idea there is this one God, not to be obedient to, although he wishes obedience and insists obedience, but to be in a perpetual argument with. One of the great scenes in Genesis is the wrestling with the angel, and I think that’s how you read if you love the Bible. It’s a wrestle, and you’re wrestling with something that’s very, very personal.

God changes as the Bible gets rethought and rewritten, but in the Creation, God is almost there. In the very first pages, he’s walking in the garden with Adam and Eve. He’s there. He’s a presence. You can talk to him and deal with him, and that’s thrilling.

I feel proud that my Jewish religion is so rooted in philosophy and argument. Everything is up for constant refutation, endlessly being argued about and criticised. We are like no other religion in the way we subject our holy works to scrutiny. Nothing is so holy that it can’t be criticised, and re-understood, and reinterpreted. The Bible is about infinite reinterpretation.

You can’t disagree with a God, unless you start with a God. That’s the other important reason to have a God, so that you can disagree and reject him if you like. But you can’t reject something that wasn’t there in the first place.”

There were some interesting comments on that article, referring to both the article and the TV documentary it supplemented; I’m not sure I’m allowed to repost them here but I’ll risk it. First, some comments that express the view that I would like to understand but can’t quite:

“I have been studying Genesis in recent years and agree with him wholeheartedly that it is a marvelous work of literature. That doesn’t mean that its religious significance is diminished for those that require it. We have always learned great moral and human lessons from literature. It is probably important not to take it too literally and to enjoy the imagery that it invokes.”


“It sometimes feels that the world is split and will never be put back. Some of the comments here fill me with despair. The ‘religious’ and the ‘atheist’ comments here are a fine example of this split. Both seem to lack any sense of the doubt and uncertainty that’s required to live honestly in this world. Its not that the religious or the ‘atheist’ need to understand each other better, its that they both need to be in a different place altogether.”


“I was deeply moved by this programme. You expressed with great power and poetic vision what these wonderful texts have to say. The difficulty with the two extremes it seems to me is that neither of them understands metaphor, which is the only language available to express the experience of entering these depths. The result is a mutual blindness and a kind of spiritual desolation or aridity in atheists and fundamentalists alike.”


Secondly, some comments that express the sceptical voice in the back of my head:

“I suppose I feel emotionally rather as Jacobson, as someone who was bought up a Baptist and who, though an atheist, feels a strong pull to ‘religion’, to the holy. However I found the programme infuriating in Jacobson’s unwillingness to admit that his position is practically identical to Dawkins’ and that his pull was effectively simple sentiment, and – worse – expressed in a mock-pious manner that made my skin crawl”


“Well, so much for an invitation to see the Emperor’s new wardrobe. Is the tremendous new insight simply that we clever social creatures like to tell stories, and that we are gullible enough to believe them against all facts?”


I have to admit it seems to be surprisingly easy to suspend disbelief. I still talk about God even though I’m unsure of God. The Big Brother housemates could communicate with a talking tree and keep a straight face.

Here are some excerpts from the prologue of Reza Aslan’s “No God But God”:

“Religion, it must be understood, is not faith. Religion is the story of faith. It is an institutionalized system of symbols and metaphors (read rituals and myths) that provides a common language with which a community of faith can share with each other their numinous encounter with the Divine Presence.”

To that I say – yes, but that seems to me like a universalist, outsider’s point of view on religion. Religious believers generally do not see it that way. But since he is reform-oriented, maybe he is pushing this view to try and help reduce the fundamentalism fuelling what he calls the clash of monotheisms. I think it’s an ambitious aim! He continues it in the following passage.

“…we must never forget that as indispensable and historically valuable as the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet may be, they are nevertheless grounded in mythology. It is a shame that this word, myth, which originally signified nothing more than stories of the supernatural, has come to be regarded as synonymous with falsehood, when in fact myths are always true. By their very nature, myths inhere both legitimacy and credibility. Whatever truths they convey have little to do with historical fact. To ask whether Moses actually parted the Red Sea, or whether Jesus truly raised Lazarus from the dead, or whether the word of God indeed poured through the lips of Muhammad, is to ask totally irrelevant questions. The only question that matters with regard to religion and its methology is “What do these stories mean?”

The fact is that no evangelist in any of the world’s great religions would have been at all concerned with recording his or her objective observations of historical events. They would not have been recording observations at all! Rather, they were interpreting those events in order to give structure and meaning to the myths and rituals of their community, providing future generations with a common identity, a common inspiration, a common story. After all, religion is, by definition, interpretation; and by definition, all interpretations are valid. However, some interpretations are more reasonable than others.”

I guess I don’t understand why he says that myths inhere legitimacy, and all interpretations are valid. If I’m honest, it seems like this is a polite way to deny the literal truth of religion but still respect others’ literalism. When Paul Merton visited the temple of rats in India and was invited to drink the milk from where the sacred rats were drinking it, he declined, horror and discomfort all over his face… but he still managed to say to the camera, “he believes in this, so it is true, it is real”… and yet somehow I couldn’t believe he really meant it.

What do you think? Do you understand this non-literal approach to religion?

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Idolatry is the best we can do…

December 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm (Christianity, God, Islam, myth and metaphor)

… and we ought to just be honest about it.

I have read the first two chapters of Karen Armstrong’s “A History Of God” and I am already blown away. I was actually quite alarmed when I first started reading, because it begins with the words: “In the beginning, human beings created a God…” I suspect this, and my title, will alarm some of my readers too. But please bear with me. There is a very important point to this and while it may threaten religion, it does not in any way threaten belief in God.

It’s easy for us, with our modern fully-evolved theology, to say that the concept of a single transcendent creator is totally different from pagan worship of created things. I used to think that the knowledge of a creator is primordial and natural to our consciousness, but it turns out the early ideas about God(s) even in the Hebrew tradition actually had nothing to do with creation. I still think spiritual insight is natural and inborn. But it leads people to experience and express reality in very different ways.

The God that Abraham and his immediate descendents encountered was called El and was quite different in nature from the God Moses knew, who was called Yahweh. El appeared to Abraham as a man, and wrestled with Jacob as a man. Yahweh on the other hand was perceived on Mount Sinai in the midst of what seems to be a volcanic eruption, and in a burning bush, and could not be seen directly. It is suggested in this book that these ideas or concepts or pictures of God had different origins. In a sense they were different Gods.

Also, a huge news flash to me – early Judaism was polytheistic! They believed in the existence of the other gods. The whole point of the covenant Yahweh made with Moses and his people was that they would forsake all the other gods and worship only Yahweh. This only made sense in a polytheistic context. If they didn’t believe in other gods, there would have been no need.

I always wondered how those Israelites could forsake God as soon as Moses’ back was turned and worship a golden calf. But they were just doing what came naturally to them; different Gods had different roles, for example some were warriors, and some were for fertility, and so they turned to whichever one they felt would benefit them. And they weren’t worshipping the calf itself, but using it as a symbol to invoke one of the Gods they believed in, much like how Muslims use the Kaaba. There was never any worship of overtly man-made things.

It took some time for their conception of Yahweh to evolve to the God that we know today: tawheed, a single transcendent creator.

And so the idea of one single unchanging God who has revealed himself to every prophet from Abraham onwards has been blown out of the water for me. Karen Armstrong drives this point home in the first chapter: throughout history we have always “created” our Gods, in a sense. We have expressed our sense of the divine through our human ideas. This is what I think the word “idolatry” actually means in her writing. And she says (emphasis mine):

Despite the bad press it has in the Bible, there is nothing wrong with idolatry per se: it only becomes objectionable or naive if the image of God, which has been constructed with such loving care, is confused with the ineffable reality to which it refers.

This is where it gets really interesting. She goes on to tell how in around 622 BCE, when the idea that there really is only one God was developing, King Josiah violently suppressed worship of the other Gods. At this time an ancient manuscript was discovered which basically became Deuteronomy, part of the Torah. (It is hinted that this was not so ancient actually. 😉 ) The result of this discovery was that the history of the Exodus – Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land – was revised, to include all the nasty stuff about wiping out the Canaanites because they worshipped Gods other than Yahweh. This new intolerant slant, this belief in being a chosen people favoured by God, was a reflection of the ethos developing at this time under King Josiah. She says about the violent events of the time:

This wholesale destruction springs from a hatred that is rooted in buried anxiety and fear.

Isn’t that fascinating?

It makes me think of, “the lady doth protest too much”. They hated other peoples’ expression of their sense of the divine, because in the backs of their minds, they knew that their own God was just that: an expression of their own sense of the divine.

Pagan polytheism was much more tolerant because the idea of another God did not in any way threaten a person’s own God or Gods. They could all be true. In the same way, universalism such as developed in Hinduism – the concept of an impersonal overarching reality that transcends everything including the gods – was very tolerant. In the first century CE monotheism reached that level of universalism too, in Jewish thought, where theology was considered a private matter and not dictated from some authority on high. But fundamentalism – the belief that your own particular ideas about God are totally right and that other belief systems are wrong – always tends to lead to intolerance and antagonism and ultimately, holy war.

Karen Armstrong suggests that it is perhaps a pitfall of having a personal God, that such a concept lends itself to the “election” of a chosen people. People can project their own egotistical desires onto a personal God in a way that they can’t for an impersonal ultimate reality. However, the concept of a personal God also seems to stimulate social justice in a way that didn’t happen in India for example.

I never really understood why in Islam associating partners with God is the biggest sin. Now it all makes sense. And this is why I am repelled from religion time after time: I prefer to express what I don’t know about God, than to be so sure of my own beliefs in unseen, unprovable ideas that I allow myself to feel superior or more enlightened than others.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the book!

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Historical story-telling in the Quran

December 20, 2009 at 8:47 pm (Islam, myth and metaphor, why I didn't convert to Islam)

I have been aware, for some time, that the Quran contains historical stories that compare to apocryphal Judeo-Christian sources. I do not think this was a coincidence.

I was always thinking that Muhammad knew those stories and God utilised the stories he knew already.

One possibility is that God was confirming only the parts of the story that were true – like including the angelic announcement to Mary, but not the part that said she actually conceived as a virgin (which I didn’t think made sense in an Islamic context). Leaving room for her to have married in the meantime and conceived naturally. The Quran often seems to subtly change the Biblical stories in ways that make them more credible. Having said that, I still have trouble with some of the stories, such as the ones that attribute apparent natural disasters to the wrath of God. I have written about that elsewhere and it is still not solved for me.

Another possibility is that the stories’ truth or falsehood didn’t really matter but they were being told in the Quran to make some other point. There are a lot of legends in the Quran, pre-existing legends, involving unrealistic things like talking birds, and Muhammad Asad interprets these as literary devices and not literal truth. But why wouldn’t God tell true stories, since He can? Why would He want to make it seem non-supernatural by using these popular legends?

The historical story-telling in the Quran is confusing and to be honest, seems like fragments of oral traditions. There seems to be only one continuous story and that’s Surah Yusuf. Why does that one get told in full and at length? I don’t know. Plus although it tells the story of Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah in several places, sometimes it says his wife was left behind, sometimes it says an old woman was left behind. Not a contradiction, but it makes it seem like these came from two different orally-transmitted traditional accounts.

It does not merely repeat pre-existing stories though – it definitely makes some changes. The major difference between the Quranic and Biblical accounts of the life of Jesus, for example, is the denial of the crucifixion (if indeed it is a denial – see my post on Jesus in the Quran for discussion on that). This caused me quite a lot of anxiety, because I don’t think there are any mainstream historians questioning the crucifixion event. We cannot build a time machine and go back to check if it really happened, but I definitely find it disconcerting that the Quran appears to depart sharply from the Christian accounts on this point. I could cope better if it said it was only the resurrection that didn’t happen, because this is disputed with the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus.

Another thing that bothers me about the account of Jesus is that it claims the Injil (Evangel, or Gospel) was a divine book like the Quran, given to Jesus (which has now been lost). The fact is, the gospel is the “good news” that Jesus’ disciples preached of salvation. Again, a bit of mental gymnastics required to convince myself that God spoke to Muhammad through his own (albeit flawed) understanding.

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