Christianity must distinguish metaphorical from literal beliefs


RITE & REASON:God always remains unseen, unknowable and His existence unprovable, writes ANDREW FURLONG

WHEN IT comes to belief, those who place the emphasis on knowledge rather than on faith contradict the Christian tradition, which has repeatedly asserted that God is unseen and unknowable. Anything pertaining to the realm of God belongs to the world of faith rather than knowledge.

For me, this means that both Christian theology and Christian ethics contain an inescapable dimension of uncertainty.

At the centre of the Christian tradition, in my understanding, are two unprovable convictions: (a) that there is an ineffable reality at the heart of life whose essence is unconditional goodness and love; and (b) that the universe is part of a bigger purpose than just itself.

Alongside the uncertainty inherent in holding these beliefs is the uncertainty involved in affirming the unprovable values of the Christian ethical code, which is based on believing that God (if there is a God) created human beings with an inalienable dignity, and so they deserve respect and should respect each other.

The gospels support an understanding of Jesus as someone who believed in God and in God’s unconditional goodness and love.

After his death, Jesus’s followers created an idealised portrait of him based on his teaching and deeds. Using the metaphor of a son being the image of his father, they described Jesus as “God’s Son”.

It is Jesus, they proclaimed, who has revealed who God is.

The author of St John’s gospel put his theological understanding of Jesus on to Jesus’s lips in verse nine of chapter 14: He who has seen me has seen the Father.

Quite apart from whether people agree that this verse was not something actually said by Jesus, a recurring mistake is to take the word “seen” literally.

It is often forgotten that the goodness and love within the personality of Jesus, which was shown in his relationships and actions, did not prove what the character of God is or literally make it visible. For God always remains unseen, unknowable and His existence unprovable.

It is not just Christianity that is distorted by literalism. Millions of followers of the various religious traditions, which began in a pre-scientific age, need a greater understanding of theological language, and to recognize that it is metaphorical and makes use of myth in seeking to speak about God, who transcends the world from which our language arises.

If Christianity is to survive, after a long overdue revision, its adherents will need to pay attention (perhaps particularly through school curricula) to modern theological findings, and especially to the difference between beliefs expressed through language, recognised to be metaphorical and including myths, and beliefs held to relate to literal and historical truths.

A vast number of the stories that have been taught as if they are historical accounts are not historical accounts. Rather they are “faith stories” or “mythological stories”, created to explain what people have believed about the unseen God.

An example of such mythological stories would be the birth narratives of Jesus, with accounts of angels appearing to shepherds to tell them of the birth of a Saviour, wise men coming to pay their homage and following a guiding star, and the setting of the birth in Bethlehem.

Do those stories still speak with meaning and power today? Or perhaps we need, metaphorically speaking, to clothe the divine mystery afresh, by interpreting glimpses of goodness, compassion, selflessness, accountability, beauty and love in our human world and its environment as suggestive of the character of this mystery, as once belief in the myth of God’s saving son did.

Andrew Furlong is author of Tried for Heresy A 21st Century Journey of Faith. His website is furlong/