The Literal(ist) Divide

When we look at the history of the Orthodox Church and its subsequent sweeping victory over nearly every other religion of its time…we have to dig into the logic behind it. What made Christianity so powerful – so compelling?

Orthodox Christianity established itself as a religion rooted in fact, history, and tradition. Ancient Rome had a crowded spiritual marketplace and would not accept it any other way. It was easier to sell a religion, and its king, that was historical rather than metaphorical.

However, it isn’t fair to say that ancient Orthodox Christians were driven entirely by political ambition. Were they politicians and propagandists intent on establishing an authoritarian religion, or were they just trying to stop themselves from getting fed to lions? I’m willing to argue the latter.

Nonetheless, the establishment of the Orthodox Church paved the way for Empire – and why? Because it established itself, from the beginning, as totally literal.

Here is where the divide begins. The Gnostic reads Scripture with attention to metaphor, abstraction, and mystery. The Literalist takes Scripture to be the actual word of God and reads it as historical non-fiction.

Irenaeus of Lyon was an early church father and renowned heresiologist – what we refer to as a “patristic source” of early Gnostic discourse. He wrote extensively, and passionately, against the Gnostic church in his text Against all Heresies (c. 180 AD).

His writings give us a clue into the widespread popularity of Gnostic thought. After all, the Apocryphon of John was produced in Egypt…while Irenaeus wrote from Gaul. This means that during the first centuries, Gnostic texts were known at least from Egypt all the way to France!

Through his many parables, Jesus was a master of metaphor, as all good teachers should be. Metaphors are mysteries to be mined while literalism is the lowest level of meaning. What is literal cannot be dissected; it cannot carry us beyond what we can see.

By the time spiritual traditions become fixed, it is a sign that they have succumbed to literalism. If God is greater than all human thought, then no revelation can be definitive. This can be upsetting, because to criticize religion is to challenge matters of faith. Yet we do not apply such deference to politics, science, or philosophy!

A mystic would argue that it is not possible to read anything – let alone the Bible – literally. To start, unless we can read ancient Greek or Hebrew, we only ever read watered down translations. Of those translations, dozens differ. So which of those should we take literally?

Reading is inherently interpretive. We assign meaning to everything we read, regardless of the author’s original intent. Words are expressions of thought, which comes to us in symbols. That acknowledgment alone is more unifying than any single denomination of faith!

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