Monday, June 06, 2005

The Figurative Illusion

Thomas Bushnell and (I think) Suzette Haden Elgin are having a sort of long-distance discussion about "literalism" in religious language, though I think neither of them really means that, um, literally.

English is a language which combines at least two different heritages of figures of speech. From its teutonic roots, we get a love of kennings, from its latinate roots, a love of rhetorical devices. Together they give us a tongue in which "figurative" speech is part and parcel of nearly everything we say. (I count at least 3 figures in the last sentence alone.) I'd count this sort of "figurative" speech as actually "literal" in the sense that it requires no especial decoding to comprehend.

When we talk about biblical language, it is common to talk as if it were figurative in the general sense of requiring this analysis. This is an exaggeration. Given the evolution of English in a Christian environment, it is only natural that biblical figures of speech become ordinary idioms. These become literal in the sense I used above.

Now, Genesis 1, if it is figurative, is so in a bigger sense this. I'm not too happy about the word "myth" as a term, but it does express what is going on here: instruction about the fundamental nature of the universe. If it is a literal recounting, it is so in addition to this teaching sense.

In the New Testament the problem becomes more serious. A Christianity in which Jesus' physical body remains dead and decaying in some grave is a different Christianity from ancient tradition in which that body is once again alive (albeit transformed radically). The second is "literal" and the first is not. There are, however, two complications.

First, there are the parables. As with Genesis 1, the most important point isn't the narrative itself, but what it is trying to say about God. There are those who deduce their way through their notion of Jesus' perfection to endorse the narrative truth too, but I am not impressed. The one place where it might have some real impact is in the attempt to work out what the next life is like from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

The second complication, and the one that 20th century theologians tended to play with, is that in talking about the passion narrative the evangelists use a lot figurative language in the sense of a sort of theological idiom. Perhaps the biggest bugaboo is the word "rise". There's a real theological dispute behind all the argument about the word, but it's confounded by several factors. First, when people start talking about a "three story universe", the image in their heads is really from The Divine Comedy-- an unabashedly poetic and figurative work. Prior tradition doesn't consistently present such a picture, as for instance in the medieval iconography of Christ the Geometer (again, a poetic work). I think it can at least be argued that scriptural use of rising and falling is more or less idiomatic.

The other problem is that the words that people talk about using instead also are figurative idioms. Take, for instance, Tillich's use of the word "ground". (OK, the translation of Tillich.) It has a dozen primary meanings in the dictionary, never mind its appearance in countless idiomatic phrases. Their derivation from the literal meaning of the surface and substance of the earth suggest connotations of fundamental support-- good-- and unchanging stability-- bad.

That leads me to the suggestion that what most people would call a "literal" reading, I would call perhaps a "naive" reading. That is, they readily sort out the idioms and poetry and the parabolic language quite naturally, and while they may not be able to verbalize it they have a pretty good-- and consistent, with a certain limit-- notion of which is which.

The limit within they are consistent is of course their interpretational tradition. The literalist tradition is that which is confrontational about various issues against another viewpoint which is not naive. To keep this post from turning into a book, I'll cut off here with the observation that being knowing can, unfortunately, lie in knowing what isn't so.

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