Metaphorical religion and real pets

OK. I’m not sure what genetic or cultural influence got hold of me in early childhood, but I have never been able to take things – especially religious things – literally. One of my earliest religious memories is of attending some Church of Scotland service as part of school. I must have been six and I was fixated on the Crucified Christ before us, especially the nails in his palms. Through a bit of disturbing spontaneous visualisation and imagination I figured Christ couldn’t have been nailed by his palms – such a method would not hold his weight. It must have been his wrists or ropes were applied or something. I spent most the service poking my own palms and wrists back and forth and concluding there was something about the centre of the palms that the wrists did not have. That was why the statue showed Christ nailed in the palms. But really it must have been the wrists.

So I am always looking for the meaning of things rather than the literal denotation (astrologers will point to my quintuple Piscean ‘nature’). To quote Joseph Campbell:

All religions are true, but none are literal.

Others however have different views. Take the literalist Christian belief in the Rapture. This modern Christian concept holds that true believers in Christ will be whisked upwards into heaven (bodily) before a seven year tribulation period. There’s a wonderful American Dad episode all about it. Actually there are different opinions among Christians – some think the whisking will occur during or at the end of the period of tribulation.

I read all about this when I was 15 in an awed and amazed state. I was given some books and tracts on the subject by one of the ‘popular’ girls in school and read them mainly to see what she thought. However, even the possibility of hanging out with a popular girl and potential ‘benefits’ did not sway my mind and I rejected the lot as interesting but essentially hokum. Over the years I have watched several predictions of the Rapture come and go but not the belief itself. Apparently millions of Americans believe the Rapture will occur in their lifetimes. Eh gads.

Today I came across a most amusing consequence of belief in the Rapture; pets aren’t included. Being owned by a saved Christian does not mean Rover or Moggsie will be magically snatched upwards along with them. Many Christian ‘authorities’ are clear on this, after all: “the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth.”

So what will happen to Mary’s beloved pug once she is up in heaven watching the world go to hell in a hand basket? After all the Rapture can happen at ANY time – we need to be prepared. Enter Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA who describe themselves as “the next best thing to pet salvation in a Post Rapture World”. Isn’t that nice? 🙂

For a modest fee this group of free-thinking atheists promise to take care of your pet while you’re up there with all the other WASPs. It seems like a joke, but it’s not. Apparently these folk think the Christians are wrong, but if it turns out they are right they’ll honour the contracts and look after the pets. For seven ten years, anyway.

How wonderful is modern literalist Christianity? How delightful is free enterprise? Can we get a better sense of just how wrong-headed beliefs can go when we take things literally? It’s almost as if a group of magicians and Cabalists pooled resources to launch a rocket to Yesod in order to explore the astral plane.

Now much of this is down to literally believing religious language and scripture. To quote C.S. Lewis from most interesting blog post by Andrew Brown:

Compare “Our Father which art in Heaven” with “The supreme being transcends space and time”. The first goes to pieces if you begin to apply literal meaning to it. How can anything but a sexual animal really be a father? How can it be in the sky? The second falls into no such traps. On the other hand the first really means something, really represents a concrete experience in the minds of those who use it: the second is mere dextrous playing with counters, and once a man has learned the rule he can go on that way for two volumes without really using the words to refer to any concrete fact at all …

Religious, mystical and magical language, like poetry, needs to be non-literal and metaphorical. Otherwise it does not speak to us, does not move us and does not provoke ekstasis. Years back I attended a couple of Unitarian inspired services that attempted to be clear and ended up with language like ‘the supreme being transcends time and space’ and which moved and spoke to no one. The proto-group soon withered and died and we went back to our own religions that spoke to us, albeit through ridiculous language and bad poetry. Of course we can take this too far: 🙂

However, as soon as we seek literal meaning in religious language or scripture we are on a slippery slope. It ends wherever we choose it to end. For over one hundred American Christians it ended with a reduced bank account and a bunch of atheists who can’t believe their luck. 🙂

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12 comments

  1. Murray · January 13, 2010

    You just *have* to see this- http://www.quizopolis.com/forum/showthread.php?t=116

    Thanks for another thought provoking post and for reminding me of the dogs go to heaven debate 🙂

  2. Joel · January 13, 2010

    Interesting points Peregrin…

    however the idea of Father being a sexual being is a little Westernised don’t you think? I feel it would be more accurate to suggest that the term ‘Father’ can be taken both in a literal sense and as a ‘type’… perhaps even occuring simultaneously as a dialectic that serves to reveal a deeper truth about this understanding?
    Cross-culturally, the term ‘Father’ holds a much broader meaning as well… this allows for adoptive scenarios, uncles, non-blood kin etc as well as the reference to being an ‘author of creation’ to things such as Freud being the ‘Father of Psychology’ and so on.
    While the mother archetype is well celebrated for giving birth to planted seed, the Father archetype is by literal meaning the one who has sown it and therefore naturally predetermines the outcome (ie- in humans it determines the sex of the child for example). I think this is more in line with Judaeo-Christian understanding discussed here.
    Further, referring to the above statement: Compare “Our Father which art in Heaven” with “The supreme being transcends space and time”… I think a vital point is also missed here; one term of reference is ‘relational’ in exchange, the other is non-relational. I believe this is intentional and i would imagine would resound with some of your own Cabalist understandings of the ‘known/ unknown’ faces of God? Once again the point being made with respect to Judaeo-Christian traditions is that God is highly relational here, and therefore referred to as ‘Father’ as opposed to some distant, judgemental being ‘up there somewhere’ (as my neighbour constantly informs me as the ‘truth’!).

    Back on topic/ While I in many ways agree with what you propose here, I also can’t help but ask the logical (and thousand century old question!)…

    “what IS literal (or real) then?”

    You see, if we are to agree with respect to all religions that “none are literal”, are we not affirming the worldview of atheism and it’s various exclusive myths by default to be literal? like any fundamentalist religion, this is a prime argument made by many atheist beleivers- that THEIR world view is literal, can be proven and is therefore the ‘truth’; all others being faith based on fantasy.

    To my knowledge, no worldview has yet been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt… but isn’t this the point? One actually requires faith to believe in any belief system!
    Why not entertain that my ancestoral spirits came alive and shaped the earth at a time when it was soft? Why not place my belief in a being who can create the entire world in a literal sense by bare words alone? It is just as far fetched as believing the entire universe created itself; that a junk yard became alligned in such a way, at such a time, that a Boeing 747 was eventually created??! As with the Father dialectic… why can’t literal and non-literal coexist here?

    With respect to the thousands of American Christians and the various predictions made of the rapture throughout the centuries; perhaps a read of Matthew 24…?
    42″Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

    Modern literalist Christianity is not special, and like all of us is futile in attempting to predict anything- in fact the text above is clearly about NOT being able to! When one is denied knowledge of knowing the future, a beauty takes place- for it forces them to live in the moment and discover who they are and where their place is in the world. It becomes relational once again… to others, to creation, to the creator.

    After all, if I knew when the whole ‘shibang’ was going to happen, what’s to stop me living my usual smug ways, cashing in on a Christian pet care centre and then with my new found fortune, convert over at the last moment…?! ; )

  3. Peregrin · January 14, 2010

    Hi Joel,

    Great to have your comments and ideas here 🙂

    Mmm. Actually the way I see it, the statement by Joseph Campbell is NOT affirming the worldview of atheism. Atheism denies a transcendent reality, where this statement affirms a transcendent reality. It also says however, that this reality cannot be literally expressed within the temporal mundane realm of shared space-time. I think the difference is that atheists would say that, since nothing is literally expressed, therefore there is nothing. But Joseph Campbell is saying the exact opposite.

    “what IS literal (or real) then?”

    I think, and in no way am I being facetious, God only knows.

    I guess then I am agreeing with you on the need for faith or deep trust, or cleaving in any belief system, as we ultimately we cannot know. A secular materialist has as much faith or deep trust as she goes through her daily life expecting and trusting her reality as any religious person. Awareness of this is seldom admitted by the non-religious though.

    If I understand you correctly I am also in agreement with one of the ‘functions’ of Biblical prophecy you refer to: we do not know when the Son of Man will appear, we do not know when the end of the world may happen, so we need to get our acts into gear now. This is functionally equivalent to Buddhist and Rosicrucian daily meditations on the uncertainty of death leading to increased action, praise and thanksgiving each day.

    When Rapture or literalist Christianity helps such awareness I applaud it. When it scares the bejesus out of 15 year girls I am not so sure. When it promotes, which I have seen several times, ideologies which ignore environmental protection since the end times are about the start anyway, I find it disturbing. And the idea of bodily assumption into heaven just presents a big bull’s eye to the atheists and anti-religious folk out there.

    Would love to talk all this through, sometime 🙂 Thanks.

  4. David · January 14, 2010

    I remember having an argument with my father about the rapture when i was a kid. It went along the lines of me asking him why we don’t die of asphyxiation if we take our bodies with us up to heaven. He said “well heaven isn’t space”. My reply was something of a question saying “well the bible depicts heaven to be above, and several times refers to space as the heavens, therefore that must be where we go if we take everything completely literally”.

    I have eventually given up on even trying to rationalize within myself why some people view things this way. It simply makes my head hurt. Its a shame really, I enjoyed laughing at the absurd ideas some people have made and tried to justify as true through other mutually exclusive concepts.

    David

  5. pete madstone · January 14, 2010

    Egads! How does such a short word succeed so well in this place – no other word could do better.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Arcad · January 15, 2010

    Care Fra Peregrin,

    I find this amazing. And it is a pretty good idea from the Atheists. – For a modern Lutheran Protestant, the idea of that Rapture is rather weird – at least in Germany. I had longer discussions with Jehova´s Witnesses about it and my, that was demanding. I also remember amazing discussions with my Grandma about whether the bible is to be taken literal or not (“well, why would it say 7 days when it was a few million years then???”). Oh my…

    In L.V.X.

    Arcad

  7. Lavanah · January 16, 2010

    But even the most literal minded Christian has trouble when reading The Song of Songs (most likely known to him as the Song of Solomon). The very thought of a literalist trying to explain that makes me grin.

  8. Peregrin · January 16, 2010

    Hello Lavanah,

    thanks for this. It made me grin too. 🙂

  9. Murray Barton · January 16, 2010

    Just came across this quote from HH Dalai Lama which reminded me of this thread

    “Anything that contradicts experience and logic should be abandoned.” ~His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

  10. Dromedary Hump · January 23, 2010

    Hi,
    Just to correct an error in your post about our service.

    Our $110.00 (US) contract fee covers the subscriber’s pets for ten years, not seven.

    Regards,
    Bart
    creator / co-owner Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA

  11. Peregrin · January 23, 2010

    Hello Bart,

    thanks for this correction; i will modify the post accordingly. Good luck with this very innovative enterprise 🙂

  12. Dromedary Hump · January 23, 2010

    Peregrin,
    You’re most welcome. And thank you.

    Stay well,
    Bart
    / Dromedary Hump

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