There was a concept I shared with you a long time ago now, that I wish to revisit. It is about poetically or metaphorically interpreting the Bible. It certainly is a common claim that certain passages need to be viewed in a less-than-literal light. These passages include that of Genesis’ creation myth and Noah’s flood most commonly, as well as the plagues of the Egyptian pharaoh and even Lott of Sodom. But the reason for this distinction is weak at best. I have heard it said that if one develops the right relationship with God one will come round to His way of thinking (said the abusive spouse…). What this means is that if I develop the right kind of relationship with God I can pick the passages I can defend, and dismiss the rest. This reasoning—I just understand that this passage is non-literal—isn’t robust and is an invite to view the entire Bible as a metaphor.
If The Creation and The Fall and The Flood and The Plague as are metaphors, why isn’t The God? The distinction seems to be arbitrary, so let us run with the idea that the Bible is a poem to be interpreted. I have read the Bible cover to cover, and I’ve revisited the highlights many times. Having lived with an English Literature student (in fact, having dated one for many years and co-authored her essays to the point of collaboration and plagiarism) I am confident this is a proper method. And so I’d like to give a brief summary of my conclusions, under the conclusion Christians have given to me: the passages are non-literal.
The idea that the passages are non-literal and that the words are elastic does introduce a poignant question: if I accept the Bible on the terms I outline here, am I “Christian”?
God is a metaphor for human understanding, both scientific and moral. God is not a “Him” that exists, but instead God is a metaphor for human advancement of ideas. In the terrified infancy of humanity people clung to faith and that is the origin of God’s insistence on faith (i.e. beliefs without good reasons). As human infancy progressed, so did the Bible; the New Testament is devoid of spoken-from-a-burning-bush God, but instead a material God: Jesus. The immaterial God of the Old Testament gets a smaller part, a metaphor for the metacognitive function of needing to see things to believe them. All the time, God and Jesus are a metaphor for what goes in the human mind; having a material Jesus instead of an immaterial God is a metaphor for the greater demands to ‘know’. “God”, as the religious see Him, does not exist. Even seeing God as a “Him” is an echo of the early man-dominated human ego, where it is patently absurd to try to assign a gender to the concept that many religious people hold; what is a gender if it can extend to the immaterial?
As an icon for scientific understanding, The Creation Myth was largely deemed literally true. But the Christian creation myth is nothing special among the plethora of preceding creation myths. I have heard it argued that the Christian Creation Myth is more inclusive—talking of herbs and light and separating land from the sea and night from day—but despite its talk of reptiles and mammal, bacteria and marsupials get no mention at all. The document is entirely limited to an antecedent understanding. The Genesis account of The Creation also outlines a metaphor for human understanding of light (existing without a sun) and ecosystems (also existing without a sun).
I have before considered the benefits of starting society completely afresh. I pondered the possibility that society has many scars now—near-inherent educational failures, support and care cracks for people to fall through, failure to take responsibility or to recognise behavioural disorders, self-entitled behaviour—that are not likely to heal. When one has made such a judgement about their society, Noah’s Flood becomes a metaphor for what the solution is. That genocide, and God—it’s cause—, work fine in metaphor for starting again but when taken literally are morally abhorrent.
If we move on to the murder of the Midianites and the Canaanites, it works better when it is not considered a command from an ‘all moral’ Being, but instead as the best moral ideas of a society at the time. The God-commanded wars of the Old Testament, the commands to “utterly destroy”, are reminiscent of the tribal mentality, summed up by Pol Pot: to kill a plant you must take it up at the roots. But perhaps it was not God that told them to do, but instead the best moral intuitions of the time for a response to the atrocities committed in those towns. God is merely the metaphor. And since then we have better utilised measured responses to crime, diplomacy and non-violent conflict resolution.
Consider that there was not a Jesus, and he did not die on a cross and we do not have to accept Jesus’ death to be forgiven. If Jesus’ entire life is a fiction that acts as a metaphor for an ever progressive understanding of morality, as we learned to turn the other cheek and to love thy neighbour and to allow he without sin cast the first stone then there are other ways to look at the tropes of his life. The death of Jesus Christ, by my model, is not a belief you hold to be saved, but instead a metaphor for society coming to terms with forgiving those that trespass against them, along with the other moral teachings of Jesus.
In the broader picture, God does not judge us or command us. Instead, God is the symbol of the human ability to manage their own affairs and judge themselves so. This is the human legal system and prison. The Bible is not a moral message for us to walk away with and nor is it documenting Jesus’ or God’s existence. Instead the Bible uses Jesus and God as a metaphor to take a snapshot of various points of human understanding in our infancy. It is a narrative that is meant to be expanded upon, and progress is meant to be made. Where the religious literalist says what God has done gives Him dominion to prescribe what is moral, my metaphorical reading says we should progress the idea of what is moral with a greater understanding of people, and let scientific discoveries permeate into that.