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Borg is an American theologian who sadly died this year. Many people of the question-asking sort like to read him, both in the UK and in the US. He provides credible answers to life’s great philosophical questions, and doesn’t insult our intelligence.
In another post, I’ve written about his 2 rival paradigms of early and emerging Christianity.
In his book ‘The heart of Christianity’ he contrasts literalist and metaphorical readings of the bible. Being a progressive Christian himself, and a university teacher, he favours the latter. But what role can poetry, myth and metaphor play in religion?
I’m far from being an expert on this – in fact I am completely ignorant. I am the product of the old British “Two cultures” education system, dissected so well in the novels of C.P.Snow.
From 16 to 18 you either did maths and science and end up an illiterate uncultured scientist, such as myself; or you did 3 humanities subjects in great detail to end up an innumerate artist. I think this extreme specialisation was imposed on the nation’s youth so we could keep up with the Russians in technology (ha ha!)
Anyway, I’m writing about metaphors here to sort my own ideas out. All I was ever taught was that similes contained “as” or “like”, and metaphors didn’t.
My dictionary defines metaphor as “a figure of speech by which a thing is spoken of as that which it only resembles, as when a ferocious man is called a tiger.”
Let me quote Borg wholesale:
“The emerging paradigm sees the Bible metaphorically, by which I mean its “more-than-literal”, “more-than-factual” meaning. It is not very much concerned with the historical factuality of the Bible’s stories, but much more with their meanings. It is not bothered by the possibility that the stories of Jesus’ birth and resurrection are metaphorical rather than literally factual accounts. It asks “Whether it happened this way or not, what is this story saying? What meanings does it have for us?”
Negatively, metaphor means non-literal; positively it means “more-than-literal”. It is not inferior to literal meaning, but is more than literal meaning.”
When the bible speaks of God as having hands and feet and eyes and ears, its language is metaphorical because obviously he doesn’t.
The exile in Babylon really happened, but the account of it gives it a more-than historical meaning. It became a metaphorical narrative of exile and return, abiding images of the human condition and its remedy.
In other bible stories there is little likelihood of the story ever having happened: the story is there to give moral guidance (etc.) So,
- the Genesis stories of creation,
- the garden of Eden,
- the expulsion of Adam and Eve,
- Cain’s murder of Abel,
- Noah and the flood,
- and the tower of Babel
are all metaphorical narratives: they can be profoundly true, even though not literally factual.
Here are 3 expressions of that idea :-
(1) “The bible is true, and some of it happened” i.e. its truth is not dependent on its historical factuality.
(2) “Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true.”
(3) An Indian doctor in London was asked by a patient if he believed in the elephant God on his temple calendar on the wall above his desk. He replied that while he prayed to Ganesh, the whole point was that he didn’t exist, i.e. he was praying to something behind and greater than this particular blue deity.
I guess Hindus could teach Christians a thing or two about metaphor.
One of the first Jews I ever met in my life (there apparently being none in the West Country town I grew up in) was a fellow student at Oxford. He was translating the book of Genesis out of its original Ivrit (Hebrew) into English verse. He found this book to be one of the most beautiful poems he knew and he hoped he could produce an equally beautiful English version. I had never thought of the scriptures as being poetry before, let alone beautiful poetry. This Jewish medical student opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the Greek scriptures (N.T.) as well as the Jewish ones (O.T.)
Here is what Borg thinks Genesis is about:-
- God is the creator of all that is
- The creation is good
- We are created in the image of God
- We live our lives east of Eden
- Something has gone wrong
- We yearn to return
Personally, as a hard boiled, cynical scientist, I reject these metaphorical meanings (and the literal ones too.) Although Borg admits that they cannot be demonstrated as true, he reckons they can be seen as the way things are. “As metaphorical narratives these stories invite us into these truths.”
OK, but frankly, I’d rather watch a non-religious TV documentary on the origin of life on earth!
Borg, M. “The heart of Christianity” HarperCollins (2003)