Ever since the western world fell in love with the scientific method in the 17th century, a fundamental confusion began working its way into how we think. Truth came to be identified with facts; myths came to be thought of as lies; and the methods of the hard sciences came to be regarded as the only paths to our knowledge of reality.
And yet, to understand what religion is all about, all of these presuppositions need to be challenged. Let’s start with what we mean by true.
Truth comes from the old English treowe, which indicates something that can be trusted. The German cognate of our word true is treu. But treu does not mean factual; this German word refers to something you can rely on, or someone who is trustworthy, faithful, or loyal. Ein treuer Freund is a loyal friend, not someone who really exists.
The wise people in the ancient Celtic world were called Druids. The two elements of the name, dru and id, go back to the old Indo-European language, meaning “oak-seer”. The Gaelic word for oak is dara; the Greek word for oak is drus. And (w)id is the root of see, as in the Latin word vid-eo.
What the Druids saw, what they knew, were not facts but reliable truths about reality’s deepest secrets. And these truths were true because they could be trusted. They were as reliable as the strong oak trees in their forests.
So in the thought world of these ancient people, the fact that my office has one window is not true; it’s merely factual. But my trust that Jesus reveals the divine reality is true. When Jews affirm that the Torah reveals the divine reality, that affirmation is true. When Muslims affirm that the Qur’an reveals the divine reality, that affirmation is true.
When Jews celebrate Passover, they are showing their trust in the most important myth in the Hebrew Bible, the exodus event and Sinai. This is the myth of being freed up from slavery and being freed up for a covenantal relationship with God. And whether or not these events as described in the Torah are factual, they are nonetheless true.
When Christians celebrate Easter, they are demonstrating their trust in the most important myth in Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus. And whether or not the body of Jesus came out of a tomb or lives now only in the earthly elements into which it has been transformed, the myth is nonetheless true.
A myth is not true because it once factually happened. A myth is true because it always happens. This is why the rabbis said that truly to celebrate Passover, Jews must understand themselves as escaping from slavery and standing at Sinai. And truly to celebrate Easter, Christians must experience in themselves the transition from death to life.
As I heard one biblical scholar say: “All of the Bible is true and some of it happened.” In other words, the basic spiritual message of the biblical texts, to love God and our neighbor, is always and forever true.
Ironically, this is where atheists and fundamentalists make the same mistake. They both confuse truth with factuality–the atheists claiming that the facts are false, while the fundamentalists claim that the facts are true. But they are both wrong, because they both fail to see the nature of religious language, whose purpose is not to communicate fact but to communicate truth.
And since the truth communicated by the sacred traditions is beyond the world of facts, it must use the language of myth. And a myth puts a metaphor in narrative form, like the Passover/Sinai myth or the Good Friday/Easter Sunday myth or the central Muslim myth of Abraham walking around the Ka’ba, the myth celebrated by Muslims when they make the Haj.
The Hebrew word mashal can refer to a proverb, a parable, an anecdote, or an allegory. In each case, however, we find a metaphor. Something is like something else. God is like a shepherd, a father, a king, a rock, or a mighty fortress. And these metaphors bring us as close to the mysteries as we can come. They bring us closer than any definition can.
But the secret of understanding a metaphor is to handle it lightly. God is not really smelly and dirty like a shepherd; nor is he male like our fathers; nor does he generate offspring like our parents; nor does he sit on a throne like a king; nor is he made of granite like a rock; nor does he have a drawbridge like a fortress.
I was at a conference where Dominic Crossan was asked if he believed that Jesus was the Son of God. “Yes”, he responded, “and I also believe he’s the Lamb of God—but I don’t believe he’s white and wooly.” Not to understand metaphor, not to understand poetic language, means being barred forever from the realm of truths taught by the great religions. And it is sad to realize that both fundamentalists and atheists stand side by side outside the gates of that transcendent realm.
If you’re telling a joke that begins with the words: “These two guys went into a bar..” and someone interrupts to ask the name of the bar, not only should you not bother to finish the joke but you should take out paper and pen and ask the person to sign a statement promising that they will never open the Bible.
Why? Because the person asking where the bar is will also ask where the Garden of Eden is, where Noah’s ark is, where the Tower of Babel is, where Jesus’s empty tomb is, where Muhammad’s footprint is, where the Buddha’s tree of enlightenment is, and where Arjuna’s chariot is.
But asking those questions can never lead us to the truths that religion can teach us. They are based on the false assumption, so natural for so many of us, that the true and the factual are the same.
And once we understand that they are not the same, we will also understand that the evidence for these truths is not at all like the proofs derived from the methods employed by the hard sciences.
One of my faculty colleagues told me that he was an atheist. I asked him what it would take to change his mind. He said that he would need a scientific proof. I explained the confusion behind that kind of expectation. I suggested that if he wanted to know the truth of the divine reality he should take a sabbatical and spend some time in a monastery where he can walk in the woods, sing sacred chants, read sacred texts, meditate, and marinate in silence. He must listen to the admonition in Psalm 46:10 to “Be still and know that I am God.”
And to know in ancient Hebrew did not mean to know facts. The word was a synonym for sexual intimacy. So we read in the words of the King James Bible (Genesis 2:1) “And Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived and bare Cain.” The biblical phrase Daat Elohim (the knowledge of God) does not mean knowing facts about God but experiencing intimacy with God. And that’s who a mystic is, one who experiences the divine.
So to know anything about the real nature of religion, one has to understand all those “m” words—mysteries that are not problems; methods that are not those of the hard sciences; meaning that is not factual; metaphors that disclose meaning; myths that are true; and mystical ways of knowing that are not scientific.
By Ron Miller
April 28, 2011