Saturday, November 27, 2010

Truth or Metaphor?

At an interview for a pastoral position recently I was asked about my interpretation of the Bible. The question was: “Is the Bible true or metaphorical?”  It is a great question, and I have been thinking about it ever since. 

The short answer I gave at the time was “Yes.” The long answer I gave was that it mattered what was meant by the word “true” and what part of the Bible is being interpreted. 

When Jesus said he was the bread of life, he was not saying he was composed of wheat and yeast. When he said he was the door, he was not saying he was made of wood and hinges. When he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, he may or may not have had a real event in mind. In any case it didn’t matter; he was trying to make a spiritual point not quoting a police report.

Pilate asked Jesus, “What is Truth?” For me truth is seldom either/or; it is usually both/and. Facts are true. So are metaphors, symbols and myths. They just communicate truth in different ways.

Does it really matter how truth is communicated? Does it matter if your dinner is served on a paper plate or fine china? I guess for some it does. But for me the food is what is important, not the delivery system.

Is history true? Yes and no. Any historian will tell you that there is no such thing as pure historical fact. It is all a matter of perspective and interpretation. The same event can be viewed from various perspectives. No one sees the same historical event exactly the same.

That is why there are four gospels in the New Testament and four different accounts of what happened at the Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.  Which one is true? The church has confidently proclaimed that all four are true, even though there is no way that the details can be honestly reconciled with one another.

Myths are true. Myth is truth that cannot be stated in historical or theological terms. Allegories and metaphors are true. The Bible has both. Everyone acknowledges that. It is just a matter of which passages you interpret historically and which you interpret symbolically and metaphorically.

In an ultimate sense all theological truth is metaphorical because all talk about God is approximation. Nothing we say about God is true in an ultimate sense. All theological language points to the God that is beyond the ability of our language to describe or our minds to comprehend.

"My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts," says the Lord. "And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” Ultimate Truth is beyond us. As Jack Nicholson said in "A Few Good Men," "You can't handle the truth!" The best we can do is utter earthly truths that point in the direction of Ultimate Truth. Anything more is mistaking the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.

Truth is metaphor. Myth, allegory and symbol are truth. But most importantly, truth is incarnation. Truth is best communicated in human form. That is why God became enfleshed in Jesus Christ. That is why the church is said to be the Body of Christ. That is the truth – no matter how you interpret it.

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