you're reading...
Christianity

Christianity: Literal or Metaphorical?

Yesterday, I tried to demonstrate how the essence of the Christian message is abhorrent when it is stripped of fluff and psychological manipulation.  Today I want to explore an objection I received via Facebook.  (If you aren’t my friend on Facebook, it’s Hamby Dammit. )  In a nutshell, it goes like this:  The Christian message is not about a literal reading of the salvation plan.  It’s a metaphor for love and sacrifice.  “True Christianity™” is about interpreting the Bible in a way that focuses on the love of God.

I know it’s tempting to just toss this aside, but let’s think critically about the possibility that the heart of this objection is valid.  Maybe the Christian message is only abhorrent when it’s taken literally.  Maybe the correct metaphorical understanding of the salvation story creates the holy grail — a story that offers good moral guidance and is easily understood as “good” without any fluff or manipulation.

Where do we start?  Let’s take the basics of the story:

  • God became human
  • God was killed by humans
  • God came back from the dead
  • If anyone believes this story, they get to go to a happy place forever.
  • If anyone doesn’t believe this story, they get sent to a horrific torture chamber forever.

So…

Um…

Hmmm.  I admit that I’m not the smartest person on the planet, but I’m no dummy, either.  I’m having a very hard time coming up with what this might represent that is an obvious good and moral instruction.  What might God becoming human represent in terms of moral concepts?  Identifying with lesser life forms?  It’s not that, because God claims to be all knowing.  He already knows what we’re like.  Being willing to live in a less than perfect form?  To experience pain?  Well, I suppose that’s nice, but the literal story is that God created earth and that it was exactly the way he wanted it.  So what’s great about creating an environment full of pain and then experiencing it for an eyeblink while the creation is stuck in it for its entire lifetime?  I can’t think of a good moral lesson there.

Maybe I’m trying too hard.  Let’s just put it in the form of a moral lesson.  If someone has power over you, and lets you hurt him, but survives the hurt,  then goes away, you should ummm… believe that he did it, and then good things will happen to you. How’s that?

Not especially morally uplifting in my book.  Let’s try again, with something even simpler.  If someone sacrifices something for you, you should love them for it, and then good things will happen to you. Well… it’s not bad.  Sacrifice for the good of others is generally regarded as a good moral act.  Being grateful for sacrifice is also a good thing.  But can we say it’s an “ultimate truth?”   Is being grateful for sacrifice important enough to justify an entire religion?

Ugh.  I need to tell you that I’m not being snarky here.  I’m honesty trying very hard to think of a good moral message from the salvation story.  This is a big deal.  Hitchens and Harris claim that there’s nothing in Christianity worth keeping.   They catch a lot of shit for saying so.  But if they’re wrong, we should be able to produce evidence that they’re wrong… right?

There’s a huge fundamental problem with this exercise.  Whatever good moral message we come up with, we’ve got to overcome a Brobdingnagian obstacle — the literal story itself.  The literal reading of the salvation story is abhorrent.  So whatever good moral message we derive from a metaphorical reading of it has to be so obviously and monumentally good that it justifies hiding it in such an awful story.

Is that even possible?  Beyond that, what can we say about a god who chooses to convey his monumentally good message in a story that gets used for centuries of oppression, repression, and abuse?  Is the act of disguising such a beautiful message in any way good?  Is there anything beneficial in hiding the message instead of making it obvious?

Ok… we’re really digging a deep pit.  I’ve got one more idea.  Since we’re treating anything as open to metaphorical interpretation, perhaps God himself is a metaphor.  Can we make this into a good thing if we treat literally everything as metaphorical?  If there is no god, and there is a great moral message in Christianity, does that save it as a religion?

I really don’t think so.  What possible benefit is there in hiding a moral message?  Actually, that’s the crux of the matter.  Moral instruction is there to make us better people, right?  So anytime we have the ability to tell people something morally wonderful, and we hide it, that’s bad, right?

Seems obvious to me.  Can anyone think of a problem with this reasoning?

Discussion

27 thoughts on “Christianity: Literal or Metaphorical?

  1. I think the objection of “True Christianity” is just a variant on “No True Scotsman”.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman

    It just denies everything bad about Christianity is even Christianity in the first place like an all purpose super duper get out of awkward situation free card.

    Christianity morality is based on the edict of divine authority. Take that away and it really has no actual arguments for morality. Which is why Christians often assume atheists are completely immoral.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | July 21, 2010, 9:22 pm
  2. Hamby says:
    “Ugh. I need to tell you that I’m not being snarky here. I’m honesty trying very hard to think of a good moral message from the salvation story”,

    PG says:
    Hmmm, Perhaps it would be difficult for a morally bankrupt Atheist to find any moral message from the salvation story.

    Let me help you out Hamby, Here are a few Salvation story moral messages:
    Love
    Compassion
    Patience
    Justice
    Forgiveness
    Meekness
    Humility
    kindness
    sacrifice
    courage

    Perhaps this explains why most of your blog writings dont reflect any of these moral messages..

    .

    Posted by PG | July 22, 2010, 1:20 am
  3. PG, I know this is a hard thing for you, but you see, I’m not looking for a list of nice moral things. I want to know how the Salvation Story illustrates a moral message that justifies the brutality of the story itself.

    Let’s start with something easy. Explain the first one. What’s loving about creating a being and then torturing it forever if it doesn’t believe a story that sounds like a fairy tale?

    Posted by hambydammit | July 22, 2010, 1:26 am
  4. Actually I’d like to focus on the idea of “justice” in Christian theology.

    It clearly states that good people don’t go to heaven and bad people don’t go to hell.

    Believers go to heaven and non-believers go to hell.

    That’s it. Everything else is really a non-issue. Oh sure, there are recommendations on other areas of how you are to live as a believer. But none of it is really a determining feature of eternal punishment or reward. If you believe you go to heaven. Period. That’s the only required stipulation.

    I can’t see anything called justice in that idea.

    Posted by Watcher | July 22, 2010, 7:38 am
  5. So we should all be:
    Love
    Compassion
    Patience
    Justice
    Forgiveness
    Meekness
    Humility
    kindness
    sacrifice
    courage

    Because that worked out so well for Jesus. Oh wait, that’s their point. He’s in heaven, but not for any of those reasons. And none of them are gonna get you any closer to heaven either. Those are qualities of the person Jesus, not moral lessons learned from the myth.

    This is why Christianity is a religion, and Roman/Greek religion is called mythology. A few thousand years from now, our descendants will be studying yet another form of mythology, with new “God” figures like Jesus, Mary, Joseph, etc…

    Posted by Alex Hardman | July 22, 2010, 10:04 am
  6. Precisely, Watcher! (Oh, nice to hear from you. Been a while.) The simple point of this entry is that liberal Christians are fond of citing the value of the moral allegory in the salvation story. I’m at a loss for understanding what’s moral about it. In the world of abstract thought (sorry, PG, you’ll have to sit this one out, buddy) it’s fairly easy to create analogy from mythology. Gee, here’s X person in Y situation and they perform Z action. Good things happened to them. The moral lesson is “When in Y position, or one similar, one ought to perform Z.”

    So… the lesson of the salvation story seems to be: Morality is irrelevant. When you have power over another person, you ought to impose bizarre standards of belief on them and punish them if they don’t conform.

    Sounds like a shitty system of morality to me.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 22, 2010, 1:18 pm
  7. Hamby ,

    C.S Lewis said
    “The “problem of pain is atheism’s most potent weapon against the Christian faith.”

    While this is true, its is still only a philospohical issue and not one of science.

    You have stated countless times that your Atheist beliefs are predicated on science and not philosphy.

    Typically Atheist resort to focusing on Philosophy and this issue of pain when they have no objective evidence of “No God”.

    In your case, you resort to this issue of pain over and over again.

    So much for your “Abstract thinking” …

    .

    Posted by PG | July 24, 2010, 2:16 am
  8. PG,

    you do not seem to be getting the point of the blog post. No matter what Lewis thought about the problem of pain, the question at the moment is what is so morally great about the core story of Christianity. That’s it. God becoming human so he can sacrifice himself to himself in order to be able to forgive us for the “sin” of our imaginary distant ancestor would not get any more sensible even if you were right with your red herrings. Which you aren’t anyway.

    And we don’t need objective evidence for “no god” just as you hopefully don’t need objective evidence for “no Pachamama” and “no invisible goblins stealing my socks”. Hello? Burden of proof? Seriously, this is not rocket science.

    Posted by Alex SL | July 24, 2010, 3:26 am
  9. I don’t agree with C.S.Lewis at all on that.

    I think the failure of Jesus to return in the time frame he made explicitly clear is the greatest problem of Christianity.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | July 24, 2010, 9:38 am
  10. Athol,
    My Christian friends would tell you that your scriptural interpretation is wrong and that google is your friend!

    I on the other hands will simply repeat myself:

    “Typically Atheist resort to focusing on Philosophy …………………..when they have no objective evidence of “No God”.

    .

    Posted by PG | July 24, 2010, 2:20 pm
  11. There’s not much to interpret.

    ~ “I’ll be back within this generation”

    Telling me to Google means you don’t have even an inkling of an answer.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | July 24, 2010, 2:55 pm
  12. My Christian friends would tell you that your scriptural interpretation is wrong and that google is your friend!

    I on the other hands will simply repeat myself:

    Heh… Your Christian friends would have simply missed the entire point, which is that there is no possible good interpretation of the story. You, on the other hand, are simply being dense and annoying.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 24, 2010, 3:03 pm
  13. C.S Lewis said
    “The “problem of pain is atheism’s most potent weapon against the Christian faith.”

    While this is true, its is still only a philospohical issue and not one of science.

    Well, it’s not atheism’s most potent weapon against the Christian faith. Christianity is dismantled long before its theology becomes a problem, simply because of the total lack of evidence for the existence of any god whatsoever. Even granting the existence of a God, we never even get to argue against Christianity since choosing between potentially existing gods is an impossible task either logically, philosophically, or scientifically.

    So while Lewis’s arguments certainly carry some emotional weight, they presuppose premises which are… well… complete horse-shit. So, anyway…. why don’t you repeat yourself again. This is good reading for the theists with basic comprehension skills.

    Posted by hambydammit | July 24, 2010, 3:08 pm
  14. I don’t agree with C.S.Lewis at all on that.

    I think the failure of Jesus to return in the time frame he made explicitly clear is the greatest problem of Christianity.

    Hmmm… “The Greatest Problem With Christianity.” I honestly have a hard time coming up with one. Islam is slightly more repugnant doctrinally, but that’s a matter of convention, not potential. The problem of evil? The indistinguishability from other myths? The fact that the entire story is midrash? Complete lack of evidence for a historical Jesus? Jesus not returning? Doctrinal disagreements with established science? It’s hard to know where to begin.

    It would be hard to sit down and design a more fucked up religion. (Kudos to L. Ron Hubbard, though.)

    Posted by hambydammit | July 24, 2010, 3:11 pm
  15. Oh we could go to all that Hamby, and I agree they are all problems but we’ll always get agruments about experts and viewpoints and interpretations yada yada yada. Christians won’t believe you and/or simply reframe the conversation, or trump it all with “the Bible says”.

    I meant “problem” in the sense of the internal consistency of theology. Jesus return is absolutely key, as is the infallibility of Jesus and the Bible. So when you point the disconnects of these out, it’s like a software crash inside their head.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | July 24, 2010, 4:00 pm
  16. I think the problem with labeling this as the greatest problem is that it has presented itself as an unfalsifiable claim. Sure, you and I can read the Bible and say, “He said very clearly that he’d be back before the generation died,” but these are people who are perfectly happy saying that God meant “Billion Years” when he said “Day,” in the creation account.

    We can prove that the earth is billions of years old. We can prove that we evolved. We can prove that Christian morality is stolen from naturalism. But we can’t prove that Jesus won’t come back tomorrow. And if he does, then we’ll have to suck it up and say, “Gee… he did mean ‘two thousand years’ when he said ‘generation.’ Well, I’ll be damned (literally).”

    Posted by hambydammit | July 24, 2010, 4:08 pm
  17. Well Jesus sure confused the 1st C Christians then, they must have misheard him. ;-)

    BTW I’m still laughing about the Kudos to Ron Hubbard line. LMAO.

    Posted by Athol Kay: Married Man Sex Life | July 24, 2010, 4:29 pm
  18. Well Jesus sure confused the 1st C Christians then, they must have misheard him.

    Which, ironically, is probably the biggest knock against the Christian God as a moral agent. If he’s so gosh-danged good and perfect, why is he incapable of saying what he means and making sure the proof readers do their job?

    Posted by hambydammit | July 24, 2010, 4:50 pm
  19. It would be hard to sit down and design a more fucked up religion.

    A well, I’d be careful with putting it that way. I am sure glad that the native Mesoamerican religions with their mass human sacrifice are no longer around. While the doctrine that we are all sinners from birth is disgusting, the doctrine that we have to kill thousands of prisoners of war every 52 years so that the sun will rise again seems worse. Still, among the religions that are going strong today, Christianity’s view of human nature is surely one of the most repellent.

    Posted by Alex SL | July 24, 2010, 10:00 pm
  20. Those are the same mesoamerican religions that used some pretty amazing science to predict the way the universe worked and build impossibly large/complex structures, something few “Christian” cultures of the times could do. They might have been crazy with the human sacrifice, but they obviously knew a thing or two about science.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | July 26, 2010, 10:42 am
  21. Not the point. And one wonders what they could have achieved if they had not limited themselves with all their superstition. Huge temple ruins are a nice thing to look at when you are a tourist 500 years later, but did their construction help the life quality of the masons?

    The same today, of course: what if all those Christians and Muslims invested the energy they put into praying into cleaning up the environment? The time they spend on memorizing holy tests into real, useful education? The money spent on mission work and temple building into empowering people and providing infrastructure?

    Posted by Alex SL | July 27, 2010, 12:48 am
  22. Sacrifice requiring gratitude changed the nature of the exchange. Instead it is services rendered for a previously agreed upon recommence (oops not really voted on properly, really).

    A gift the requires compensation. Hmmmm…not really feeling the Spirit of Giving at this time. I nominate Scrooge for a good gifting allegory.

    Posted by Dana | July 27, 2010, 1:12 am
  23. Apologies, we’re making the same point in variant ways. I was trying to say that despite their craziness, they embraced science, while these modern religions can’t even do that. I have to believe that given science telling them their crazy was wrong, they’d have given it up. Though, without evidence, they may well have not.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | July 27, 2010, 7:46 am
  24. Resurrecting this thread, two years late, with my take on the moral allegory of this story. I think it’s a powerful image of someone who voluntarily faced immense pain to help out people in need, and consequently lived on after death.

    If you were the kind of person who liked the idea of tackling the world’s problems, and the idea of self-sacrifice, the crucifixion image might inspire you to continue despite terrible misery and pain. You might consider your reward for this a small triumph in the face of death, because despite being mortal, you would be achieving something significant with your life rather than simply perishing and rotting away.

    Posted by Will Voelcker | October 19, 2012, 9:05 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Topic Summary: Christian Smackdown « Life Without a Net - July 24, 2010

  2. Pingback: What Does “Progressive Christian” Mean? « Life Without a Net - August 11, 2010

  3. Pingback: Liberal Hide And Seek: What’s the Belief? « Life Without a Net - August 14, 2010

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Me On Twitter!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 109 other followers

%d bloggers like this: