Walkabout podcast – It’s like a metaphor
I realized I haven’t been trying hard enough to earn my Shrill and Strident merit badge, which is funny, because there are certainly enough subjects that reinforce my atheism which could be lambasted. So let’s delve into the use of metaphors in scripture. While this will largely apply to the abrahamic scriptures (meaning the christian and jewish bibles, torah, and qur’an,) at least some of it will be applicable to many, perhaps most, other religious scriptural sources.
Virtually every time someone dares point out the glaring inaccuracies within scripture, such as the shape of the planet or the ridiculous concepts of worldwide flooding or that bats are not birds, the idea that scripture (or at least some portions) was written metaphorically will be brought forth. Yes, of course an actual worldwide flood is silly, but the flood is simply a metaphor; this excuses the physical or logical flaws of god’s word by turning such passages into a literary device – still informative, just not intended to be literal. While I could save a lot of time by simply calling bullshit and moving on (and this is perfectly justifiable,) there’s no shortage of people who would claim I wasn’t being fair or considering all of the ramifications and nuances or some whinefest like that, so I’m going to treat this in merciless detail.
First off, metaphor is generally used one of two ways: as a device to impart some form of moral or behavioral guidance, like in fables; or as a method of disguising an abstract concept within the confines of a story. In many cases, it uses something familiar or compelling to get the reader to relate to the concept easier – in other words, a form of analogy. A character may appear to be just a person, when they are intended to exemplify a character trait instead; one relatively recent example is the character John Coffey from The Green Mile, not-so-subtly exhibiting the behavior (and initials) of jesus christ.
These two uses result in two different effects. The former (moral guide) is intended to produce acceptable behavior in a way that the reader can relate to, rather than, for instance, simply saying, “Don’t commit to one course of action without due consideration.” It is this way that scripture is usually claimed to be intended, because it underlies the purpose of scripture in the first place. The second usage, however, is more literary, since it presents a kind of puzzle, a discovery for the reader to make that demonstrates a certain cleverness in the construction of the storyline. Blade Runner is a metaphor about mankind’s self-examination into what defines us as a species. No, I’m sorry, it’s actually about evolution. My mistake; it’s about scientists playing god and flying too close to the sun… dammit, it’s a metaphor for something, anyway.
And that illustrates the point. The value of metaphor is lost entirely if no one can interpret it correctly. The very fact that theologians, religious authorities, and just devotees cannot agree on whether certain passages are metaphorical or not belies the claim that they could be – how many other metaphors are mistaken for historical events? And it should be noted that virtually none of it was claimed to be metaphorical in the slightest until science had irrefutably demonstrated that it was nonsensical in any literal form – this means the metaphor was entirely lost on everyone for centuries, making it the least effective literary device yet discovered. The consequence of this is any such metaphor, should it actually have been intended by a creator, could only gain recognition after we lowly mortals had discovered how the real world works, utterly destroying any purpose behind the metaphor. One might as well bury the treasure map with the treasure.
There are further reasons not to use metaphors at all. Few forms or passages of scripture are written in any literary style, or were even intended for general distribution – it wasn’t until the printing press came along that the vast majority of the populace even had access; before that, it was up to the holy men to present the information. Most passages simply chronicle the actions of figures therein, and refer to historical events. Not only is it confusing to intersperse a metaphorical figure or event with historical ones, it adds no value or deeper meaning and even contributes to the idea that (at least) portions are strictly fiction. Until the past two hundred years or so, people did not receive regular schooling that taught them real history, which could then be contrasted with The Red Badge of Courage; scripture was their sole (a ha ha) source of information, save for whatever local tribal tales were present. There was nothing to compare the metaphors against.
Using a metaphor for such distant and unknown events such as how the Earth began surpasses pointlessness and enters absurdity; what exactly would this be a metaphor of, and why would it work better than simply chronicling the actual event? What value can be derived from hearing that the planet was born from a ‘sky cow,’ or has a ‘sister,’ over simply saying that it came together from dust because of gravity? Imagine if physics were taught, not with measurements and experiments, but with two turtles named Force and Inertia. Aside from being condescending in the extreme, it lends nothing useful to the practice and produces confusion in the place of more direct explanations. What is Force pushing against when she tries to shove Inertia, and moreover, what is she using to do so?
We can even consider what was missed in such explanatory guides for mankind, such as microorganisms – wouldn’t it have been fantastic if germ theory had at least been hinted at? If the vastness of space wasn’t completely obscured by vague references to ceilings and insignificant points of light? If commonality of species was introduced instead of petty appeals to tribalism and ridiculous distinctions among people? If there really was a compelling reason to use metaphors, perhaps there were some useful applications that could have been selected instead. Mankind has spent centuries struggling with the rampant misdirection of scripture, from witch hunts to holy wars, chosen peoples to esoteric religious rituals, meaning untold thousands of lives revolving around, and eradicated because of, mere analogy.
It’s not like such usages were unknown when most scripture was written, either. Greek mythology could be said to display numerous examples, even if they were mostly about how the gods could get away with petty behavior while humans could not. Some fables go way back, and there are even distinct examples within the abrahamic scriptures themselves. The significant difference to be seen is that the examples are obvious, presenting clear connections to properties or traits which produce their effectiveness. I’ll even grant that things like the adam & eve storyline might be a metaphor that was lost to time. The problem arises when anyone doesn’t just stop there, but continues the idea through to the logical consequences; the serpent is a metaphor for, what, evil tendencies within mankind? Original sin doesn’t actually exist, it’s simply a method of communicating that we’re disadvantaged from the start? This isn’t a road that any religious person should encourage traveling down, since scripture fares even worse when examined closely, especially when combined with the message that things were created to be this way. We cannot commit mistakes if created by any being that knows all that will happen; we can only follow the script.
Finally, this is just another example of unevidence; no one can effectively prove metaphorical usage, or even give a convincing line of reasoning behind it. It is offered, instead, as a potential explanation of why scripture is so astoundingly inaccurate – an excuse that dodges the looming specter of fallibility. But as a potential explanation, it sits alongside other potential explanations as well, such as scripture being entirely fictional, and the probability of all such explanations deserves objective examination before any one can be favored rationally. Moreover, accepting the posit of metaphorical usage just to see where it leads produces nothing; no one has ever interpreted the metaphors underlying the end times, for example, though thousands of claims have been made throughout the centuries. The amusing aspect of this is, should anyone finally determine that their own solution to the arrival of armageddon was correct, it would be too late to be of any use.
So theologians should actually be grateful when accused of grasping at straws to excuse scriptural inaccuracies. The implication is much more benign than if we accept scriptural metaphors as intentional, which makes the ineptness, confusion, and generations of lives wasted to be purposeful; this means either a clueless creator, or a sadistic one (and that’s not the first time either has been proposed.) The conclusions remain the same, however: nature makes a hell of a lot more sense, and even produces real answers when examined.