Wednesday, May 26, 2010



What do the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Virgin Birth have in common? Answer: both tell the truth through symbols or metaphors. I recently saw products sold on television by talking lizards and turtles. When I was growing up, there was a gasoline commercial with a Tiger exclaiming, "You have a Tiger in your tank!" There is hardly an advertisement that does not exaggerate or use outrageous symbols to sell their products. Why? Because ordinary images do not convey the depth of feeling desired by the speakers.

That is the same reason all religious systems and stories use such images or symbols. Ordinary language is not big enough. Love is another example. Which captures the feelings of a lover speaking to his beloved? "You fill my heart with a universe of stars," or, "Being in your vicinity sends energy signals down thousands of dendritic nerve endings, causing massive amounts of oxytocin and serotonin to leap across synapses, flooding my bio-neurological system with chemicals that create pleasurable sensations in my brain and body."


One can believe in advertising without taking the images literally. One can believe in his religion without taking the images literally. Belief is not compromised by some event not being literal or rational. Humans live and communicate on different levels. On the literal level, we might say, "The house is on fire," and you would call the fire department. On the poetic level, Bruce Springsteen might sing, "I'm on fire," and we would know he was filled with sexual desire. On the spiritual level, when we read in the Book of Acts, "The Spirit fell upon them with tongues of fire," we understand that they had a passionate and powerful message to share. The fact that their tongues were not actually on fire does not make you an idiot for believing the story means what it says. Similarly, with something like the virgin birth, one does not have to believe that a young Jewish girl was inseminated by God in order to become and remain a Christian. The symbol is bigger than the literal meaning. Let me give an example:

Many years ago, as a young irreligious college student, I was reading the Bible out of curiosity. I wanted to see what had happened to my parents who had become Christians. On the third night, lying in my bed, reading through the Gospel of Matthew and the Passion story, I closed the Bible and turned out the light to sleep. I do not exaggerate when I say that a compulsion filled my mind and body with an urge that said, "Believe!" To this day I do not know what it was, but I folded my hands and prayed, "I believe." My world changed as I was "born again." That phrase, "born again," was used by Jesus in the Gospel of John to describe a profound spiritual awakening. He used the phrase while speaking to a religious teacher named Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a literalist, was puzzled by Jesus' statement. Nicodemus asked, "Do you mean that a man can enter into his mother's womb and be born again?" He could not get that Jesus was using a symbol or metaphor to describe a profound psycho-spiritual shift that affects one's whole life. The experience was literal, but the language was limited to an analogy that could at best approximate a dynamic spiritual conversion. Like most religious literalists, Nicodemus obsessed about the meaning of the words rather than the divine encounter and subsequent new life.


I suspect that if Jesus had said to Nicodemus, "I was born of a virgin," Nicodemus would have asked. "You mean your mother was impregnated by God Almighty?" I suspect, based on the way Jesus answered in John 3, he would have said to Nicodemus, "How can you, being such a smart theologian and lover of God, not understand what I am saying? I am trying to convey that the Source of a human's spiritual origin is God Almighty, not one's earthly parents."


Two kinds of people will be troubled by what I am writing: First, atheistic rationalists who call religion false because religious people speak of impossible events like walking on water, turning water to wine and virgin births. Second, theistic rationalists who cannot believe in their religion unless everything occurred literally. The common denominator for both is rationalism which is defined as "the principle of accepting human reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct." Many modern religious believers are rationalists. This is ironic because the very people they often criticize as being without faith are secular rationalists. True spirituality is beyond the literal. When one encounters the realm of Spirit, it actually cheapens it to drag the experience down into ordinary human events.

I will conclude by saying that just as it is possible to believe in advertising while knowing that neither lizards nor turtles talk, it is possible to believe in the religious or spiritual world without taking the new birth, virgin birth or a thousand year millennium literally. Another irony is that those literalists who pride themselves in their literal theology are often spiritual empty and devoid of joy. Why? Because they have made their own mind the center of truth, limiting God to a very, very tiny little world of facts and evidence.

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