Things you can’t ask about symbols: False resolutions

Please excuse me while I argue with myself.

1. The Bible was written for the simple people of that time and used images and metaphors because that’s what people could understand.  We’re smarter, so we can discard that now.

You’re no smarter than the people who first listened to Moses.  If they needed images and metaphors, you need them too.

2. It’s all lies!  Silly fables!  Let’s just have done with it.

Even if this weren’t the word of God we’re talking about, that would be a silly thing to say.  Sure, it seems next to impossible that all the world’s animals really descend from those on the Ark.  Still, a story like the Flood, shared by peoples all over the world, has got to be more than just the product of some random storyteller’s imagination.  Perhaps there was some event that all peoples vaguely remember.  My suspicion is that every legend has some basis in fact.  But even if you don’t believe this, it’s pretty remarkable that this story is so widely shared.  If we assume nothing like what it describes ever happened, then it means either that lots of peoples independently keep recreating this story, or else this story has some sort of special appeal that it transmits quickly from people to people, even when they’re not much interested in other aspects of each others’ culture.  Either way, we have the sense that this story is some kind of given, an archetype not manufactured but discovered, a truth of the human imagination if not of natural history.  It is certainly worth getting to the bottom of.

3. It’s all well and good to say that Genesis is really giving us symbols of spiritual truths, but to be credible as anything but face-saving in the face of scientific disproof, you’d better be able to say exactly what the symbolism is, and why it had to be related in this way rather than plainly and literally.

If I could tell you exactly what the symbols say, then there wouldn’t have been any need for them, and they would ipso facto not have been necessary.  Symbols are not code for literal propositions; they exist to express truths and connections that can’t be expressed with literal propositions.

4. But the only reason you’re looking to chuck the literal–in the modern sense of that word–meaning is that you’re embarrassed by it.  The authority of the Bible doesn’t lead you to these weird interpretations, just the fact that you don’t believe what the Bible is telling you.  That means that, whatever you may tell yourself, there actually are authorities that trump the Bible for you.  Why not be honest with yourself?  If you can’t salvage your faith, at least preserve your honesty.

That’s mean.  Especially since I’ve already expressed my hunch that there is some historical kernel to all of this.  I don’t pretend to have any general principles to offer, but a guideline is to notice when scripture is expressing the inexpressible.  For example, Genesis begins with God about to impose form on the Earth, and the chaos of formlessness is represented (as it is for pretty much all peoples) by the primordial waters.  Now, in reality, formlessness is one thing that the human mind can’t truly conceive, because the way to think about anything is precisely to extract the form.  All our ideas about space, time, mass, and energy are formal aspects of material being.  And even after God forms the world, the primordial waters remain as a sign of whatever lies beyond the realm of intelligibility, a beyond about which, by its very “nature”, we can say nothing direct.  I suspect that all peoples retain this intuition that beyond the realm of order is a vast chaos, not a mere absence of being, but something active, always ready to crash in on the ordered realm, dissolving form and identity, destroying and renewing.  Thus the resonance of the story of the Ark, since indeed the ordered realm is conceived as itself a sort of Ark surrounded by the primordial waters.

Could it be true, that some physical, psychological, or social force of chaos once overwhelmed humanity?  If so, it could only properly be remembered by myth.

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7 thoughts on “Things you can’t ask about symbols: False resolutions

  1. My questions along these lines were answered by Edwyn Bevan in Symbolism and Belief (1938). He doesn’t propose anything that is altogether original, but to my mind he does a very good job of explaining why transcendental truths have to be explained in metaphors and images. His basic argument is that, for instance, Adam and Eve may not have been in a garden, but that we come closest to understanding what they were in if we think of a garden. This is the book that C.S. Lewis mentions as highly influential on his understanding of Christian symbols and myths, so you can find many of these ideas scattered about in Lewis, but Bevan puts it all in one place.

    With respect to (1), it seems obvious to me that we moderns are the simple folk laboring under severe epistemological limitations. A bronze-age shepherd did not know the content of modern science, but he certainly understood the form of a scientific proposition. He saw that one of his sheep was missing, he saw blood on the ground, he saw the footprints of a lion beside the bloodstain . . . he proposed that a lion had eaten his sheep (subject to final verification by observation of a lion actually eating a sheep). We moderns on the other hand assume that every metaphor and image can be “explained,” which is to say rendered as a prosaic paraphrase, which is a very primitive way to think. Very often the meaning of a metaphor or image is best received by contemplating the metaphor or image, not by translating it into a prosaic interpretation.

    I think this is also, in part, the answer to (4). A symbol is not “meaningless” if we are unable to articulate its meaning, to translate that meaning into a prosaic description of that meaning. In fact, such translations, being partial, are less meaningful than the symbol, and hence closer to “meaningless.”

  2. “Now, in reality, formlessness is one thing that the human mind can’t truly conceive, because the way to think about anything is precisely to extract the form.”

    Thanks for this. I never honestly understood that part of the Creation, and, well, that helps explaining why. Of course, I still don’t really understand the purpose of the chaos, and surely it cannot have eternality….

  3. Speaking of arks: Whether it rides out the flood or hides under a mountain to escape the radiation, an ark is a refuge. When one builds and then enters his ark, he is engaging in an exodus from the larger society. The monasteries were arks, too.

  4. And why should the moderns expect Scripture to be in form of scientific propositions?
    Salvation is a story, creation is a story and needs to be put down as a story.
    There is an error aboard that salvation is a matter of satisfying some criterion, thus is expressible in form of propositions. That Bible is mostly in story-form warns us against such an error.

  5. I do not mean to cheapen the discussion by nitpicking, but should you not have said that the chaos which overwhelmed the world was a legend? If the Heilige Schrift “Holy Writing” as the Germans call it relate this event then Noah was a real human just as the Arthurian stories are a legend because Arthur was a real man. As I understand it, Norse mythology is so called because Wotan/Odin and his daughters the Valkyrie et al have no reality at all.

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