The Language of Religion

Here’s one reason why I choose to regard the language of religion as metaphorical rather than literal. If we insist that all biblical stories must be regarded as ‘true’, we invite energetic but fruitless disputes with those who insist that they be regarded as ‘untrue’. If, however, we consider these stories to be metaphorical, such inflexible polarisation between ‘truth’ and ‘untruth’ ceases to be an issue. What we’re then saying is that they can happily be both ‘trueanduntrue’. Let’s consider the following.

I recall being taught (a very long time ago) in primary school, about metaphor. The stock example (which may yet be the same if metaphor is still in the curriculum) was, “the camel is the ship of the desert”. That is ‘untrue’. A camel has no sails or propellors, no funnels or rudders, and doesn’t travel across water which in any case, in deserts, is in very short supply. But we all know that it istrue’; that just as ships carry people and goods across oceans, so do camels across deserts. There’s nothing here we need argue about, and I take the same approach to biblical stories. 

Although I can no longer accept the ‘traditional’ view of ‘God’, I continue to believe in a transcendental reality, though I can’t ‘know’ very much, if anything, about ‘it’. I like Jordan Peterson’s approach, when he says he chooses to live “as if” God (however understood) exists. Similarly, I choose to regard biblical stories “as if” they are ‘true’, which they indeed are from a metaphorical perspective. To me, whether or not there’s fact or history behind them can be an invitation, if wished, to open-minded discussion, but never closed-minded squabbling. What most importantly matters is whether or not we can agree about what these stories ‘mean’.  

Let’s consider a biblical example I’ve written about before – that of Jesus changing water into wine. Just as holes can be picked in the literal idea of a camel being a ship, so with this story. There were, we’re told, “six stone jars, each large enough to hold about a hundred litres”. Correct my arithmetic if I’m wrong, but that equates to 600 litres of wine which, in terms of modern wine bottles (75cl), would fill 800 of them, or 66 crates of a dozen each, with half a dozen bottles left over. Did Jesus really pour that amount of extra fuel on an already potentially boozy bonfire?

I think too many readers fail to appreciate how much humorous overstatement there often is in the teachings of (and stories about) Jesus. He was a ‘man of the people’, with excellent communication skills – profundity expressed with homespun simplicity and clarity; playful exaggeration to provoke the ‘double take’ that suddenly shines an unexpected light; and a crowd winning dash of good humour. That’s how I read this story. If literally ‘true’ it would, to me, look more like a gratuitous conjuring trick than a sign of ‘serious divinity’. It would, in any case, go against one of Jesus’ own sayings – “A wicked generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it.”  

In sum, if this story were ‘literally’ true, for myself, I would find no practical relevance in it. It would be a ‘one-off wonder’. It wouldn’t entice me to pray, in the name of Jesus, over a bucket of water in the hope of its being turned into succulent sauvignon blanc or piquant pinot noir. Instead, being metaphorically ‘true’, it suggests to me that it’s possible for the ‘water’ of our day-to-day experience of living to become more like ‘wine’, and contributing to that would be contemplation of many aspects of the lifestyle and teachings of Jesus. Though a man of his time, many of his ideas, attitudes, values and standards, and how he lived these out in practice, are timeless. Approached with a focus on, not the literal, but the metaphorical, this story has lots to say to every person, and to every time. 

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