Symbolism vs. Literalism

[Three Propositions]

It is probably safe to say that the major cause of error in religious belief is to take figurative or symbolic language literally as 'The Word of God'.   We see this principle particularly at work when it comes to the three major religions that had their origins in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Each considers their sacred books or book to have been inspired or given by God, sometimes in a way that is inclusive of their predecessors -- as when Christianity accepts the Hebrew Bible as "the Old Testament" -- or sometimes exclusively, as when Islam claims its Qur'an (Koran) both corrects and replaces the Jewish and Christian scriptures. 

The major cause of dissent within any of the religious traditions are arguments over books or passages are to be literally understood and so misconstruedFor example, the argument that has raged for years among Christians as to how to understand the creation stories in the Book of Genesis.  Fundamentalists insist that they be taken more or less literally.  Others see them as strictly symbolic.  Still others, for example, the Intelligent Design advocates, try to have it, to some extent, both ways.  So too, among Jews, similar arguments have long gone on over how literally all the prescriptions of the ancient Levitical laws must be followed.

In much the same way Christianity has increasingly become divided over the identity of Jesus.  Was he "the Son of God" in a literal sense as the early official Creeds made him out to be, or is his "sonship" to be understood in the Hebrew Old Testament sense, as a human chosen to be God's instrument for the benefit of humanity?  According to the first, literal understanding, one cannot call oneself a "Christian", even if one lives more in the spirit of Jesus and follows his example than those who insist on his full divinity. 

So too within Islam. Whereas history records a Mohammed who aimed to covert pagan idol-worshippers but who originally thought of Jews and Christians as fellow believers, many of those who claim to be Muslims today consider Jews and Christians as "infidels" who need to be forced to recognize the superiority of Islam.

So what has gone wrong?  How is it that the original meanings of these religious teachings get so twisted out of shape or misconstrued into inflexible dogma?  I think that it is safe to say that, psychologically speaking, the major reason for all this is human fear and insecurity, and the inability to live in faith rather than to live without the illusion of absolute certitude. Faith, by definition, is a loving trust in God, a readiness to be led, and to follow, the promptings of a God whose ways, even more his nature, remains incomprehensible. When genuine faith, at least in the biblical sense of the word, falters, it is at that point that its counterfeits, literalism and dogmatism are all too ready to take its place as substitutes for genuine religion.

R W Kropf 8/2/06                                                   

Literalism.doc   500 words  06-08-02.html