Thursday, August 14, 2014

The metaphors of theology

Christianity (like other religions) is founded upon centuries of theological doctrine—e.g., the Trinity, the atonement, the virgin birth etc. And many of these doctrines that have been passed down are seen, especially by fundamentalists, to be unquestionable and infallible. Fair enough. But, the question can be posed regarding whether or not some (or many) of these doctrines are necessary, useful, and, more importantly for this specific post, univocal. That is to say, my point in this post is to ask “Can the meaning of these doctrines be pinned down unambiguously?”

Take the doctrine that I so vehemently oppose, namely, the inerrancy of scripture. Christians who adhere to inerrancy believe that God, in some sense, was behind the authorship of scripture and rendered the nature of scripture error-free. Ok, but if you ask an inerrantist exactly in what sense God “authored” scripture you run into problems. Did God himself take up a pen and a paper and write out the Bible? Of course not. But then how did it happen? Did God supersede the consciousness of the writer of scripture and control his mind? Some inerrantists will say yes, and some no. But, therein lies the ambiguity in the doctrine. How can we even promulgate this doctrine with certainty if the means by which it was carried out are extremely obscure?

This example can be multiplied over and over again: Was Jesus literally God, or only metaphorically God? And does Jesus have to be seen as God himself in order to be our Lord? Was the story of the fall really meant to be predicated of an original pair of humans, or is it simply a story that illuminates that humanity as a whole has “fallen”? Is Hell an everlasting torture chamber of fire, or is the language predicated of Hell mostly metaphorical, and Hell is a different place altogether? Etc.

My point regarding these examples is not that people disagree about doctrines, though this is an important periphery here. The point is that the language and concepts usually utilized about these doctrines is ambiguous and obscure. These doctrines are wrapped in so much metaphor, analogy, and mere approximations that it seems difficult to state some of them literally. The question of what exactly we mean when we promulgate a doctrine can always be posed, and clear answers are not always forthcoming. But, if this is the case, then can we really say that some doctrines are unquestionable and infallible? If there is so much semantic wiggle room with regards to a certain doctrine, then I don’t see how questioning or offering radical interpretations of said doctrine can constitute heresy.

Let it also be remembered that the doctrines that we have inherited from the Christian tradition were originally expounded by fellow humans; humans who share the same semantic and cognitive limitations as us. And those doctrines were based on those individual’s own subjective interpretations of scripture—interpretations that we still disagree on today. So, even though most of our doctrines have had a long line of tradition to back them up, this does little to help our confidence in their univocality.

All that being said, I do not mean to insinuate that Christian doctrine is useless and void. Far from it. It is through Christianity that I believe we come into the closest contact with God and Jesus, and I don’t believe that the metaphorical nature of doctrine negates this. What it should do, however, is make us more sensitive to the differences that our doctrinal interpretations produce. We shouldn’t be quick to put our own Christian denomination on a pedestal and proclaim that the other denominations” have it wrong”. We should realize that different interpreters necessitate different interpretations, and that we can still be fellow servants of God while harboring these differences.

No comments:

Post a Comment