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. 🙂