Why Biblical literalism keeps us away from the truth, and where the scriptures reveal they are symbolic.
The Bible has suffered some real image problems in the last century – this ancient mystical book which was written to liberate man from the miseries of his human condition, has instead been used to suppress, shame, and assault him. The book which contains the famous pronouncement that; ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone’ (John 8:7), has ironically become the stone hurled at fed-up and beleaguered sinners everywhere. And it’s no wonder that puts people off – it’s a bloody heavy book.
It’s strange, isn’t it? That the same book which advises us that we are not to judge other people, is used precisely as the very means by some people to do just that. That the same book which repeatedly calls for us to love one another is used by certain groups to spread hatred. Why is it that some people open the book and see love, where others see hate? Why is it that some people read its words and hear poetry and wisdom and truth, where others hear nothing but contradiction, barbarism, and outright lies?
The answer, as always, can be found in perspective – or interpretation, to put it another way. That’s one of the strange and wonderful things about this book – it is not like other books. It is a mirror which reveals what is in your own heart.
I am writing this blog because I think it is now time for us to reclaim this ancient mystical book, which is full of esoteric wisdom, psychology, and spiritual truth for those who have eyes to see. This amazing book, which has been appropriated for politics and control, was designed for everyone to guide them on their spiritual journey. This is not a book about politics or religion, it’s a book about YOU! It contains the key to understanding life, love, your body, and your relationships with yourself, the world, and the creator. It is a sacred text of mystical poetry, and its message is one of hope and joy beyond comprehension.
So, let us begin.
There are two big problems: literalism, and translation. This post focuses on literalism. If the Bible is a book of spiritual truth then we must read it spiritually, which means looking beyond the superficial story and searching for the implied meaning. One of the main tenets of the Bible is that humanity is to ‘overcome’ the world. But what does this mean? It means the goal of man is to awaken to the illusory nature of the material world, and through development of his spirituality overcome it. It means he is to discover that both the truth and the value of life lie in the things he cannot see – love, compassion, joy, and truth. He is to ‘put away childish things’ – the silly trinkets and toys of the material world that we drool over – and grow up. We are advised to cast off the heavy shackles of the world and its burdens and demands, and through spirituality become light and free.
This is the key message of the Bible – that there is a great and awe-inspiring creative being in the universe which we call ‘God’ who most men are too blinded by self and materialism to see. It teaches that those who are to catch a glimpse of Him may only do so by looking beyond the physical and material to a greater reality. If God is transcendent, then we must transcend or go beyond the obvious to catch a glimpse of him.
When a writer or a filmmaker gets to work on a story, they usually have a message in mind that they would like to impart on their audience. The set, props, costumes, actors, and script are all things the directors use to communicate a deeper message. People don’t always understand what the films they love are really about, but this does not mean there is no deeper meaning. George Romero’s famous zombie-flick Dawn of the Dead is seen by many to be a just that – a horror film about zombies. But the film, which features a mass of ‘undead’ trying to eat the brains of a few living people hiding in a shopping mall, is actually a scathing critique on consumerism. The action is merely a conduit for the deeper meaning. And so it is with life, and so it is with the Bible. If we wish to see God, we must stop focusing on the drama and the set and the costumes, and instead think about what the underlying meaning is.
Every night when we go to sleep, we dream dreams. Most people cannot make sense of their dreams, because they speak to us in a strange and mysterious language of symbols that the rational mind can hardly comprehend. Throughout the Bible stories, God speaks through dreams. In Genesis, the profane and worldy Pharaoh cannot understand his dreams, but Joseph who is one of God’s ‘chosen people’ (spiritually awake) is able to understand what the dream means, because he understands that the language of symbols is the language God uses.
“Indeed God speaks once, Or twice, yet no one notices it. “In a dream, a vision of the night, When sound sleep falls on men, While they slumber in their beds, Then He opens the ears of men, And seals their instruction.
The great mystics of the ages have understood the importance of dreams, and many of our most profound divine insights are gleaned from them. Indeed, Carl Jung, the famous founder of analytical psychology claimed that; ‘We have forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.’ St Augustine thanked God for not making him responsible for his dreams.
But the dream, which we do not understand, also symbolises our life. When we do not realise the truth – that the physical world is an illusion, and that spirit (God/love) is reality – we remain spiritually asleep, or ‘dead’ (which actually means separate). ‘Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.’
For the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets), and covered your heads (the seers). And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”
When we are ‘asleep’ in the carnal world, we are absorbed by its drama, but cannot make sense of it. We ask ourselves, ‘Where is God?’, and we do not understand why things happen to us. But when you understand the language of symbols you realise that God communicates with us all the time.
And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.”
So we must learn the language of dreams – this is God’s language, for ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17:21).
The thing is, literal interpretations of the scriptures just don’t make sense. The Bible tells us that God commanded all manner of horrific atrocities – including the mass murder of men, women, and babies (which I will discuss in more detail in another post) but it also tells us that ‘God IS love’. How can this be? The answer is that these stories must be read symbolically – the physical is only useful as a means of revelation of the spiritual.
Given the right data, a computer could discern the who, what, where, when, and hows of history, but it could not even come close to the why. It takes a human to do that. Understanding why requires both human intelligence and emotion; empathy, intuition, and insight. These stories are more concerned with human psychology than human history, and become meaningful only when we learn to read between the lines. Does God express or reveal Himself through history? I would argue that He does, but I would also argue that whether or not these events literally took place is beside the point, because ‘truth’ like God, is transcendent. Truth, in the philosophical sense, exists independently of physical matter. So where events are present, they are only a means to an end. The end is life and truth; full union with God and liberation from illusion.
Reading these ancient mystical writings we must be careful to privilege the spiritual – taking a literalist approach elevates the physical over the spiritual, and elevates the things of man above the things of God. Literalism is not only erroneous, but morally problematic as well – because literal, fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible have resulted in countless wars, human suffering, bloodshed, and tragic loss of life.
…our adequacy is from God, who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:5-6
One of the key revelations of Jesus’s ministry was the symbolic nature of the scriptures – he knew that people were missing the point; ‘…for the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:14)
To further demonstrate this, lets take a look at a few of the things Jesus said about himself:
I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger.
I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture
I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.
Now, obviously, not many people would argue that Jesus was actually a loaf of bread, or a door, or a vine – he was speaking symbolically, and this is the key to understanding the Bible. The scriptures are concerned with the spirit, so we must view the scriptures through spiritual eyes and not physical ones if we are to truly understand them.
but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory.
1 Corinthians 2:7
God’s wisdom is a mystery – this means it is a puzzle, and there are hidden ‘keys’ to help us solve it. The Bible is a book of allegory – profound spiritual truths, hidden in stories. The ‘wise’ are the ones who understand this, and are able to understand the true meaning of proverbs and riddles:
Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles.
I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old
Indeed, Jesus himself spoke in parables:
So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’’
Let’s reflect on this for a second. Those who are ‘outside’ means those who are asleep spiritually – they only attempt to find meaning in the external, physical ‘world’ and do not go ‘within’ themselves to find truth. To these people, the scriptures will seem like nonsense, full of contradictions – and without this deeper spiritual context and understanding, they are. These are people who ‘see’ images but don’t perceive their symbolic (true) meaning; they ‘hear’ words, without understanding what they really mean. Those who are ‘outside’ themselves will not find the kingdom of god, because…
The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
It cannot be any more plain than that. The ‘Kingdom of God’ is not coming in any way that can be observed. It is not a political takeover, but rather something we experience within ourselves both individually and collectively.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Beware those who would use the Bible to preach anything but love. Remember Jesus words;
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
You will recognize them by their fruits.
Jesus states quite plainly here that the vast majority of people will not find the way – this means that the way most people are going is the wrong way. There are huge numbers of people attached to religions in the world today, but any religion or demonination which preaches anything but love, or condemns people and treats certain groups in an unloving way is in error. Remember, we are explicitly directed not to judge:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
Religion itself can be the very thing which draws us away from God – Jesus frequently spoke out against the religious leaders of his day, and it was ultimately religion that had Christ crucified. It is love that draws us closer to God, not religion. Jesus came not to enslave us with the arbitrary rules and regulations of religion, but to set us free from them.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Jesus directed us to test all teachers by their ‘fruits’. According to Paul, these ‘fruits’ of the holy spirit are identified as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Galatians 5:22) Paul continues:
…against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
A religious or spiritual leader who condemns and speaks divisive, chauvinistic words is not of the spirit, but is speaking from ‘the flesh’. Jesus himself warned us about the fate awaiting those who preach anything but love:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.
There is a war which has been endured throughout all history – a fierce battle raging within us each day. The Bible characterises this war as the struggle of the flesh (ego) against the spirit (soul):
the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.
To win the war, you must ‘know your enemy’. The flesh is rooted in fear and separation, the soul is rooted in love and unity, which is God. There is no fear when we walk in the spirit, because God IS love.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
1 John 4:18
The ego is the thing which keeps us away from love, and separates us from each other and from God. So how do we recognise the ego? Paul describes it thus:
the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.
The ego chains us to the material world and its dramas. We find the kingdom of God by learning how to sacrifice our carnal nature – which is ego. We will exchange fear for love, bondage for freedom, materialism for wisdom, self-centredness for self-sacrifice, and self-serving for serving others.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
You see, this is the big message of the Bible that Jesus was trying to teach us, and it’s so simple – that the path to God is unconditional love and self-sacrifice. God does indeed require a sacrifice, but it is not a slaughtered calf. It is sacrificing the ‘flesh’; the ‘beast’ within us (that is, our lower, ego-driven self or ‘carnal man’) by being willing to give up your ‘life’ for others:
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
God (love) did not punish Jesus (who was ‘one’ with love) for our sins (mistakes), Jesus ‘died for our sins’ (mistakes) to show us the truth – the way to life (love). He overcame the flesh by nailing it to the cross. For the rest of us, being crucified is not necessary: we are reconciled to God when we ‘overcome’ the carnal world by changing our thoughts – realising that we are all connected, that we need to love and take care of each other, and that the physical body is not who we really are.
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
1 John 4:8
For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
You will notice that no-where in the above quote does it say exactly what name you must call God, or how exactly you must conceive of God, what cultural tradition you must have, and what expression this must take. It says only to love God (be spiritual), and to love others, and to love yourself. Love is the answer – it really is that simple. Or difficult. As we will come to see, loving fully is one of the hardest things in the world, and it’s what we’re here to learn and do. I will end this post with Paul’s famous musing on the character of love – which is, to date, the finest description of its kind I have ever encountered:
The Way of Love
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
1 Corinthians 13:1-8
 The Symbolic Life (1953) also in Man and His Symbols (1964)
 To patient in Cambridge MA, quoted in Gerhard Adler ed Letters Vol I