Monday, April 25, 2005 [This entry was originally posted on this date. Blogger refuses to believe that this posting exists so I'm re-posting now in larger typeface. I wanted to enlarge the original, but it won't come up when I feed in that date.]
"... the language of religion, including most of the Bible, is necessarily figurative or symbolic and therefore the literalist, who by definition, lacks imagination or poetic insights, is the least religious of men." (from THE DARTMOUTH BIBLE, 2nd Edition, p. xl)
I'm always troubled when I discuss atheism or religion with fundamentalists because they're so sadly dead and plodding and unpoetic. They don't know what they're missing. Oh, they're emotional enough, writhing in the clutch of their Jesus experience, but they are also like frothing pit bulls who won't let go the seat of his pants. As to any larger feel for the visionary Universe, they get nothing. Their god is a puppet maker who whittled humans from mud and who never left earth. Their god has no imagination. He's a petty choirmaster who punishes them or the choirmaster's wife who gives them milk and cookies.
Never mind that in every encounter with the details of science, fundamentalists have, throughout history, lost in the courts of time. You would think that, therefore, they would embrace a less literal interpretation of their big book and take up a poetic and symbolic interpretation.
Christian and Muslim fundamentalists are more alike than they are different when it comes to a contrast with most rational Americans. They are ever people of the law rather than people of the spirit. As Thomas Merton writes, "One cannot apprehend a symbol unless one is able to awaken, in one's own being, the spiritual resonances which respond to the symbol not only as sign but as 'sacrament' and 'presence.'"
I've lost much of my own poetic spirit with the ravages of time. A certain ability to concentrate my consciousness seems to have declined, but, still, I recall how spiritual and painful is the truly poetic way of experiencing reality. The poetic and symbolic way challenges the petty laws of the literalist and allows doubt to flourish. In the brief passage I quoted above from the Dartmouth Bible, I found for myself an explanation of the literalistic problem which I have never forgotten, and then, recently, Joseph Campbell explained further:
"The symbols of the higher religions may at first sight seem to have little in common," wrote a Roman Catholic monk, the late Father Thomas Merton, in a brief but perspicacious article entitled 'Symbolism: Communication or Communion?' "But when one comes to a better understanding of those religions, and when one sees that the experiences which are the fulfillment of religious belief and practice are most clearly expressed in symbols, one may come to recognize that often the symbols of different religions may have more in common than have the abstractly formulated official doctrines.
"'The true symbol,' [Merton] states in another place, 'does not merely point to something else. It contains in itself a structure which awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself. A true symbol takes us to the center of the circle, not to another point on the circumference. It is by symbolism that man enters affectively and consciously into contact with his own deepest self, with other men, and with God. God is dead . . . means, in fact, that symbols are dead.'
"The poet and the mystic regard the imagery of a revelation as a fiction through which an insight into the depths of being—one's own being and being generally—is conveyed anagogically. Sectarian theologians, on the other hand, hold hard to the literal readings of their narratives, and these hold traditions apart. The lives of three incarnations, Jesus, Krishna, and Shakyamuni, will not be the same, yet as symbols pointing not to themselves, or to each other, but to the life beholding them, they are equivalent. To quote the monk Thomas Merton again: 'The symbol is an object pointing to a subject. We are summoned to a deeper spiritual awareness, far beyond the level of subject and object.'
"Mythologies, in other words, mythologies and religions, are great poems and, when recognized as such, point infallibly through things and events to the ubiquity of a 'presence' or 'eternity' that is whole and entire in each. In this function all mythologies, all great poetries, and all mystic traditions are in accord; and where any such inspiriting vision remains effective in a civilization, everything and every creature within its range is alive. The first condition, therefore, that any mythology must fulfill, if it is to render life to modern lives, is that of cleansing the doors of perception to the wonder, at once terrible and fascinating, of ourselves and of the universe of which we are the ears and eyes and the mind. Whereas theologians, reading their revelations counterclockwise, so to say, point to references in the past (in Merton's words: 'to another point on the circumference') and Utopians offer revelations only promissory of some desired future, mythologies, having sprung from the psyche, point back to the psyche ('the center'): and anyone seriously turning within will, in fact, rediscover their references in himself." (from MYTHS TO LIVE BY, Joe Campbell, pp. 265-266)
"All God's children are not beautiful. Most of God's children are, in fact, barely presentable." —Fran Lebowitz (She spends lots of time looking in the mirror too.)