Truth…is at all times an open secret, but is as a pillar of light [only] to those able to receive and profit by it, and to all others but one of darkness and unintelligibility. [T]he vital secrets of life…protect themselves even though shouted from the housetops, because they mean nothing to those as yet unqualified for the knowledge and unready to identify themselves with it by incorporating it into their habitual thought and conduct.
--W.L. Wilmshurst, The Meaning of Masonry
The Bible is the inerrant…word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc.
--Jerry Falwell, Finding Inner Peace and Strength
The sign is always less than the concept it represents, while the symbol always stands for something more than its obvious and immediate meaning.
--Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols
Both read the Bible day and night, But thou read’st black where I read white.
--William Blake, The Everlasting Gospel
In the last chapter we saw how our paradigms influence how we perceive reality. Now it’s important to also understand the extent to which they have, and do, influence our ability to understand written words.
We like to think that the meaning of words is obvious, that they can have only a single interpretation. But writers, poets, lawyers and even Bible scholars know this isn’t true. As Professor Bart Ehrman has noted:
In the ancient world there was no more unanimity about how to interpret a text than there is today. Indeed, if the meaning of texts were self-evident, we would have no need of commentators, legal experts, literary critics,[theologians] or theories of interpretation. We could all just read and understand. People may think that there is a commonsensical way to construe a text. But put a dozen people in a room with a text of Scripture, or of Shakespeare, or of the American Constitution, and see how many interpretations they produce. (Lost Christianities at _____.)
Words are ultimately symbols of ideals, having no meaning in and of themselves. As Plato once noted, the word “beauty” is meaningless except to the extent that it is able to inspire in the reader or hearer some conception of the ideal of beauty. And, two people cannot carry on a conversation about beauty unless that word, beauty, inspires in both of them a substantially similar conception of the same ideal.
The process of learning a language is therefore the process of attaching, through the development of paradigms, certain ideals to certain words such that each word comes to effortlessly represent in the mind of the reader (or “hearer”) ideals far more complex than the word itself. This is why dictionaries must use many words to explain the meaning of one, but even in doing so they are not capable of capturing the fullness of the ideal. For example, reading the definition of “beauty” doesn’t fully convey the same understanding of the ideal as experiencing something beautiful. And some words defy definition altogether: Consider Justice Potter Stewart's famous statement that he cannot define “pornography”, but he knows it when he sees it.
In short, words are merely symbols of an ideal, though they can never fully encapsulate it.
To convey more complex thoughts, word symbols are organized in logical order following universal rules of grammar to form complete sentences. When written, sentences are then organized into paragraphs and paragraphs into chapters and chapters into books, all conveying an ever more complex series of ideas. However, the most complex ideas, those that defy conventional explanation, are only be communicated, if at all, by the use of figurative language. For purposes of this book, “figurative language” is the use of words to convey ideas that differ from the ordinary, literal understanding of the words used.
Through figurative language, the writer is often able to more closely approximate in the reader’s mind the ineffable ideal that he’s trying to communicate. Figurative language works in this manner because it requires the reader to interpret the words outside of their normal, everyday meaning, forcing us to construe them without the benefit of normal paradigms. Whereas reading words literally is largely an effortless exercise for literate persons, understanding them figuratively requires some thought. One very simple example of this idea is found in the Gospel of John, 8:12 where Jesus says:
I am the Light of the world. He who follows Me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the Light which is Life.
In reading this verse, even the most Literalist Christian wouldn’t contend that Christ was suggesting that he is truly the “light of the world” in a literal sense (i.e., that he is the Sun), or that to “follow” Jesus we must actually walk. We immediately recognize this scripture as figurative language, or symbolic speech, where the words “Light” and “dark” and “walk” have meanings other than their ordinary ones.
When we read figurative language, our unconscious paradigms are brought to light by failing us—they no longer serve to explain the meaning of the words. Rather, we must go beyond them to understand the author’s intent. As Carl G. Jung recognized, “…we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend. This is one reason why all religions employ symbolic language or images.” (Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols, at 4). It’s also the reason why poetry is often able to convey a truer understanding of an ideal than prose: The infinite, transcendental concepts of art and religion defy encapsulation in mere words.
Light is the universal symbol for the mystery of consciousness and life, and darkness for unconsciousness and death. When Jesus says, “He who follows Me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the Light which is Life”, he means simply that he offers his followers expanded consciousness,or enlightenment.
The Interpretive Challenge
One of the great challenges in interpreting any document is to know when figurative (poetic) language is at work, and when more literal language (prose) was intended. Unfortunately, distinguishing literal from figurative language in a document is not as simple a task as one might think. Whether the author intends to speak figuratively, or literally, or both is not always as clear as it was with Jesus’ saying above. And, as with everything else in life, our paradigms unconsciously influence our interpretation. Furthermore, if we are not very, very careful, our unconscious paradigms can be manipulated!
In his best-selling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell chronicles the extent to which our day-to-day lives are controlled by our unconscious mind and, as a result, the extent to which we can be unconsciously manipulated through, among other things, a process known as “priming.” Priming is simply preparing the unconscious mind in advance to view something in a particular context. The reader can gain some rudimentary sense of the powerful effect of priming by engaging in the following experiment:
On a blank sheet of paper, write down the first three sports that come to mind followed by two words associated with each sport:
(e.g., tennis—ball and court)
Now, clear the mind for a second and take a moment to write a brief one sentence definition of the following four words:
Now, consider that each of the above words have multiple unrelated definitions. For instance, the word “ball” can describe, among other things, either a spherical object used in many sports or a formal dance. However, I can state with almost complete certainty that the first definition, maybe the only definition, of the above words that came to the reader's mind was sports-related. The reason is that, before asking for a definition, I had “primed” the reader’s mind to think about sports.
If instead I had asked the reader to imagine a feast in a King’s palace complete with servants, music and dancing, and then I had asked for a definition of the same four words listed above, the definition provided would have almost certainly been different. Rather than defining “serve” in its tennis context, the reader would like have thought of waiters at the feast serving food. Rather than defining “court” as a surface upon with athletic events are played, the reader likely thought of the members of the King’s official entourage. Rather than defining basket in basketball terms, the reader likely thought of a woven container holding bread or perhaps flowers. Rather than thinking of a football or baseball or basketball, the reader instead almost certainly pictured ballrooms and ballgowns.
Why? Because, I manipulated paradigms through the process of priming.
Priming in the Bible
In light of the above discussion of priming, consider for a moment how the order of books in the New Testament primes our minds to interpret them in a certain way. One would think, and the layperson may even assume, that the books of the New Testament are presented to us in chronological order—that is, the order in which they were written by their various authors. Read chronologically, we could understand who said what when, and we could easily discern evolving trends within Christianity during its early years--i.e., how the Christian understanding of Jesus evolved over time, becoming more complex and taking on legendary accretions. Ordered chronologically, we would likely first read the letter of James, followed by the authentic writings of Paul, then likely Mark, then Matthew, then Luke, and Acts, etc. And, read in this order, the Bible tells a very different story than that which we have previously been primed to receive by reading the quasi-historical gospels first, as we shall later see. We would notice, for example, how the four gospels become ever more elaborate as the later ones add legendary accretions to the accounts of the previous authors.
To illustrate this point, consider that the authentic letters of Paul, among our earliest Christian writings and predating the gospels, place very little emphasis on Jesus as an historical figure. Paul seems to know nothing about the historical events of Jesus’ life—events that were, if Literalists are to be believed, essential to the meaning of Christianity. For example:
Have we noticed that Paul seems to know nothing of Jesus’ supernatural birth? Jesus was, says Paul, “descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:3,4). Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, at 81.)
As Bishop Spong recognized, our earliest Christian writings do not mention God’s impregnation of a virgin, nor do they mention Jesus’ earthly mother or father. If we had only Paul to read, we would conclude that Jesus was simply, at least by birth, an ordinary descendant of David. (As a side note, notice how Paul curiously emphasizes that Jesus was only designated “Son of God” by virtue of his resurrection, not at birth, or at his baptism, or “in the beginning” as other Christian writings indicate. We will return to this later.)
Professor Robert Eisenman has also noted the scarcity of historical, biographical material offered by Paul:
Only two historical points about Jesus emerge from Paul’s letters: firstly, that he was crucified at some point—date unspecified (I Timothy 6:13, which is not considered authentic, adds by Pontius Pilate), and, secondly, that he had several brothers, one of whom was one called James (Galations 1:19). (Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, at xxiii.)
In fairness, I would add that Paul does also mention Jesus’ resurrection, but the extent to which he considered this an historical fact, as opposed to a spiritual one, is subject to considerable debate, as we shall see.
Nowhere does Paul, our earliest Christian author next to James, mention Bethlehem, nor any of Jesus’ many miracles (other than his resurrection, which Paul may have understood figuratively), nor the substance of Jesus’ teachings, nor any of Jesus’ many travels, nor any of him many parables, nor how long Jesus lived. Although Paul never hesitated to quote liberally from the Tanakh (i.e., the Old Testament) when explaining his theology or arguing his positions, he never, ever--not even once--quotes the earthly Jesus, even when quoting a "saying of the Lord" would have cinched his argument conclusively. Such omissions are simply inexplicable if Paul was indeed aware of the "history" contained in the gospels. Clearly, he wasn't.
The point is that if Paul’s letters, which predate the gospels, were placed before the gospels--that is, if we were to read the gospels through the “lens” of Paul rather than reading Paul through the “lens” of the quasi-historical gospels-- Christianity may have come to conceive of Jesus’ significance as more spiritual and symbolic, dare I say Gnostic, than historic:
Placing Paul’s writings accurately in Christian history as antecedent to any other part of the New Testament leads us to wonder just how much we have distorted Paul’s meaning by unconsciously allowing the Gospels to color Paul’s words. (Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, at 81).
Our minds have been so shaped and informed by the Gospel content that we do not recognize how frequently we read Paul through the eyes of the Gospels. We need to embrace the fact that none of Paul’s first readers read him this way, for in their lives there were as yet no Gospels. To interpret Paul accurately we need to put ourselves into that first-century pre-gospel frame of reference and to hear Paul in fresh and authentic ways. (Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, at 96.)
Regrettably, the order in which the books are placed in our Bibles is designed to prevent us from doing exactly that. As we shall see, Paul’s writings presented Literalists with a major problem, and they therefore went to great lengths to “spin” or even alter Paul’s words to bolster their their views. Stacking the deck by curiously ordering the books of New Testament was just the beginning of their efforts to “literalize” Paul.
And finally, not only have the books of the New Testament been arranged to prime our minds to interpret the Bible in a certain way, but the Old Testament as well. For instance, in Jewish tradition, the books of the Tanakh (the Old Testament) were arranged in three sections—the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings, in that order. However, when compiling the Old Testament, Literalists reversed the order of the Prophets and Writings so that the Old Testament would end with the prophecy of Malachi that God would send Elijah, and the New Testament would begin with Matthew quickly introducing John the Baptist, who was widely viewed by ancient Christians as Elijah reincarnated to prepare the way for Jesus, thus fulfilling the prophecy. Such an arrangement as proven effective, if a little too convenient.
Thou Read’st Black Where I Read White
But I digress. Back to our original question: How do we know when to interpret a Bible passage literally and when to interpret it figuratively? How one answers this simple question determines for the most part whether one is a Literalist or not. Despite the fact that, as Jung noted, religious literature has, in all time and all ages and in all cultures, made dramatic and beautiful use of figurative, symbolic language in it’s attempt to convey the mystical, spiritual experience that religion offers, Literalists, led by their orthodox forbears, view the Bible as primarily a book of history. Consequently, they seek to understand the Bible first literally and historically, and they only consider a figurative interpretation when the literal, historical one fails them.
On the other hand, Literalist opponents have always emphasized that all religious literature is by its very nature figurative and symbolic. They argue that the experience of God cannot be captured in one literal word, or in a thousand. Consequently, one should seek first to understand the figurative meaning of each passage, and only accept a literal interpretation at face value when such a simple understanding was obviously intended by the author and does not hinder the figurative meaning of the text.
To paraphrase William Blake, both Literalist and non-Literalists read the Bible day and night, but one reads black where the other reads white. Literalist stick to the “black letter” of what is written, while non-Literalists “read between the lines” in an attempt to decipher the symbolic, spiritual meaning of the text.
But, who is right?
The Bible Speaks to the Issue
Well, interestingly enough, the Bible itself weighs in on this very issue and, where it does, it tends to support the Literalists’ opponents. Numerous Bible passages explicitly warn against a literal interpretation of scriptures, and none that I can find specifically demand it. Consider, for example, these passages:
How can you say, We are wise, and we have the written law of the Lord [and are learned in its language and teachings]? Lo, the truth is, the lying pen of the scribes has made of the law a falsehood [a mere code of ceremonial observances]. The wise men shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken. Lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord, and what wisdom and broad understanding, full intelligence is in them. [emphasis added] (Jeremiah 8:8-9)
The letter kills, but the spirit brings life. (2 Corinthians 3:6)
[W]hen we are among the fully-initiated—spiritually mature Christians who are ripe in understanding [i.e., pneumatics]—we do impart a (higher) wisdom [that is, the knowledge of the divine plan previously hidden]…. (1 Corinthians 2:6)
[We set] these [higher] truths forth in words not taught by human wisdom, but taught by the spirit, combining and interpreting spiritual truths with spiritual [i.e., figurative] language. But natural, non-spiritual man does not accept or welcome or admit into his heart the gifts and teachings and revelations of the Spirit of God, for they are folly (meaningless nonsense) to him; and he is incapable of knowing them –of progressively recognizing and understanding and becoming better acquainted with them—because they are spiritually discerned and estimated and appreciated. (1 Corinthian 2:13-14) [parenthetical added]
In addition, Jesus himself spoke in esoteric, cryptic parables that even most modern readers find difficult to decipher. Jesus made clear when his audience was supposed to read more into his words than their obvious literal meaning by saying: “Let those with ears to hear understand!” Jesus used this “ears to hear” language repeatedly in the gospels to signify that that his words have figurative meanings that those within his inner circle should grasp. Consider, for example, Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43; Mark 4:9, 4:23, 7:16; and Luke 8:8, 14:35.
Finally, consider that in the Gospels, especially John, Jesus repeatedly chastises those who take his teachings literally—who take his words at their ordinary meaning rather than trying to grasp their figurative, spiritual significance. Witness, for example, his conversation with Nicodemus starting at John Chapter 3, or his conversation with the Samaritan women at the well starting at John 4:10, or his teaching about “flesh and blood” at John 6:50, or his many other conversations with his sometimes dense disciples. In instance after instance, Jesus rebukes those who seek to understand his words in the ordinary sense. He even goes so far as to call those Jews who insist on doing so sons of the devil:
Why do you misunderstand what I say? It is because you are unable to hear what I am saying—you cannot bear to listen to My message, your ears are shut to My teaching. You are of your father the devil. (John 8:43-44)
There is a lesson in all of these admonitions, one that the Gospel writers were not-so-subtly trying to convey but which Literalist have ignored for centuries.
The Paradigm Of Historicity Primes Our Minds to Overlook the Figurative
Despite the Bible’s repeated warnings to avoid strict, literal interpretations, centuries of teaching based upon the Paradigm of Historicity have primed generations of Christians to construe most passages as literal. Let’s consider for now just a few of the general ways in which the Paradigm of Historicity has shaped our our interpretation of the Bible for centuries.
First, consider how the Paradigm of Historicity makes us want for the Bible’s infallibility. As previously discussed, if the Bible contains any error, how can we be assured that the history it describes does not also contain error. And, if this history is called into question, then the conclusions of Atonement Theology, which depend on it, are likewise dubious. For Atonement Theology to survive, most Literalist feel compelled to defend the Bible’s perfection.
But is the Bible perfect? We will spend a great deal of time on this issue in the second part of this book. Suffice it to say for now that Literalist have attempted to reconcile many discrepancies in the Bible, discrepancies that are easily explained by the fact that its books were written by different people at different times with different agendas, by developing the doctrine of “divine inspiration”—that is, the belief that the Bible writers were all possessed by, or under the influence of, the Holy Spirit when writing their respective books. Said another way, Literalists believe that while various persons were used as instruments, it was actually God who did the writing.
This doctrine is curious for several reasons. One is that many Literalist acknowledge that we don’t know who wrote some books of the Bible (e.g., Hebrews, or even the gospels for that matter), nor can we determine exactly when many of them were written. Therefore, to assert that an unknown author writing at an indeterminate time was nonetheless certainly under the influence of God’s spirit requires a peculiar type of faith.
Another is that the doctrine of divine inspiration causes us to interpret the Bible in an unnatural and extraordinary manner. Where we would see obvious contradictions and inconsistencies if we were reading any other book, the doctrine of divine inspiration causes us to see “common themes” and a “sequential revelation” when reading the Bible. For example, rather than reading Paul and James as disagreeing about whether salvation is the result of faith or works, Literalists develop a rather convoluted interpretation that attempts to synthesize the two positions. After all, since God wrote both the books of Paul and the book of James, and he could not have contradicted himself, this synthesized interpretation, no matter how strained or contrived, must be the one intended by God all along. Eureka!
Likewise, rather than seeing Jesus and his teachings as contradicting those of the Old Testament, Literalist adopt the rather contrived position that Jesus came to “fulfill the Old Testament scriptures”. They reason that the Jews have simply misunderstood their own religion and writings for some three thousand years. Taking portions of the Jewish writing completely out of context, Literalist see Jesus everywhere: They read him into Psalms. They read him into Jeremiah. They read him into Isaiah. If only the Jews would stop their arrogant and “rebellious” reading of their own holy scriptures, the Literalist argue, they would see the “obvious” references to Jesus as well. Again, because God wrote both the Old and New Testaments, and He could not have intended to contradict himself, Literalist argue that the traditional Literalist interpretation, which reconciles the Old and New Testaments (however inelegantly), must be the interpretation God intended. All other possible interpretations are simply heresy.
The Paradigm of Historicity also requires us to view each separately named person in the Bible as actual, separate historical individuals, thereby excluding the possibility that various persons are actually symbols for various aspects of our own psyche. For example, initiates into the “Inner Mysteries” of the pagan mystery religions understood that the central characters of their religious myths were actually representations of themselves at various stages of their own spiritual journey, the multi-step initiation process that we will discuss in detail later. The same is true of the characters in modern Masonic initiations.
Furthermore, it is a virtual axiom among psychologists skilled in dream interpretation that the various characters in our dreams often represent different aspects of ourselves. In fact, Jung and his followers, as well as many others, have identified certain “recurring actors” in the drama of our dreams who represent definite aspects of our personality, including the “shadow,” the “trickster”, and the “anima” or “animus”.
Unfortunately, the Paradigm of Historicity prevents us from contemplating any such figurative interpretations of the heroes of scripture. Since they are understood as actual, historical personalities, they cannot be understood symbolizing aspects of ourselves.
Likewise, the Paradigm of Historicity causes us to view the various acts of the Bible heroes as actual historical events, rather than as symbols illustrating the steps to spiritual enlightenment. Consider for example the teachings of Paul in Galations 2:20:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me….
Reading this through the Paradigm of Historicity, the Literalist would argue that there’s no way Paul is truly claiming to have had the same crucifixion experience as Christ because: (1) viewing the Gospels as a literal history book, Christ only died once, and (2) we know from the historical record (i.e., the Bible) that Paul wasn’t actually crucified with him. Thus, the Literalist argues that Paul is simply drawing an analogy between Christ’s literal crucifixion and Paul’s figurative one. They view Paul’s crucifixion as figurative, but Christ’s as literal.
But Paul makes no such distinction. As we shall later see, Paul views his crucifixion experience as equal to Jesus’ own. So, by contemplating the significance of the crucifixion story in other than historical terms, Paul may actually be understood as saying something like:
a) I had the same figurative crucifixion experience as Jesus’ figurative crucifixion experience. Our experiences were identical.
b) My old identity, my ego, was crucified (i.e., died a slow, painful death) by my increasing consciousness. I no longer identify with my crucified ego as myself.
c) My true self is the “Christ Within”. I’ll explain later just who and what this “Christ Within” is.
While this interpretation may seem quite strange to one conditioned by the Paradigm of Historicity to think in terms of history, it will make much more sense, and indeed will be quite compelling, in later parts of this book. It is only the Paradigm of Historicity that makes such interpretation seem so foreign at the moment.
Finally, the Paradigm of Historicity also causes us to view locations in the Bible as actual geographic places rather than stops along the spiritual path, or “way”. For example, Literalists must view the Exodus from Egypt as a one-time historical event from the actual country of Egypt. However, non-Literalist mystics from both Jewish and Christian traditions have for centuries understood “Egypt” in the Old Testament to be a symbol for “captivity”--that is, the condition of a person whose ego denies the influence of unconscious paradigms, who therefore is blind to them and who is, as a result, a slave to them. Similarly, psychologists skilled in interpreting dreams have long understood that the “places” within our dreams are often important symbols for other aspects of ourselves. For example, in dream interpretation, one’s house is typically interpreted as a symbol for one’s body, and a lake often interpreted as a symbol of one’s unconsciousness. Again, the Paradigm of Historicity prevents us from making any such similar interpretations of scripture, to society’s great loss.
To conclude, the Paradigm of Historicity has unconsciously controlled our interpretation of the Bible for 1600 years. It’s now time to move on to Part II of this book to learn all of the many reasons why we should dispose of this unhelpful paradigm once and for all.
(CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 4)