Look. I get it. As a young teen in a Lutheran church and school all the way through elementary, with youth group for the next several years, I was immersed in a culture of faith. My hand written, in cursive, report on evolution in the fifth grade caused a stir, and I didn’t understand exactly why, but I do remember that it mattered. I remember the first time I saw Lucy, an Australopithecus displayed at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, and the emotional response it created. I also remember sitting in confirmation classes, asking my pastor how the six days of creation lined up with evolution and how he could possibly explain dinosaurs. Shortly thereafter, he asked my grandmother to not bring me back. That was the beginning of the end of my church going days. He couldn’t answer my questions, and I knew there were truths that conflicted, so I went down a different path.
That path is one I shared with others whom I believe to be just as ethical and moral as many that do not share the path of religious obedience to behavior. I joyfully read Richard Dawkins and Steven Hawking. Decades later with the advent of the internet, my YouTube feed reacted and created an algorithm full of atheists “destroying” ideas and people, mostly lead by Christopher Hitchens. It was self-satisfying and rooted in solid arguments and scientific evidence. I was mentally superior to those fools blinded by what Karl Marx called “the opium of the people.” I was awake. There was and never has been anything missing from my life. No gaping hole in my heart or soul that yearned to be filled. I had great friends, continuously pursued education and travel, and married my best friend with whom I started a million dollar family. But I stumbled onto something that challenged and eventually completely changed my perspective. Someone who answered the questions my pastor could not.
I couldn’t tell you how I originally found them, but I came upon some lectures by a clinical psychologist who produced a series on the psychological significance of Bible stories. I was instantly hooked. Never had I heard such relevant, deep, and practical explanations for the stories I grew up with. There was biology, psychology, and history all tied into the explanation of the texts. They explained the “Why?” behind the symbolic curtain I was never told was there. Previously, I was taught that six days was six days. Adam was simply the first human made by divine intervention and Eve was next. The only reason we have different languages is because of a curse God laid down at the Tower of Babel when humans got too impressed with themselves.
It’s no wonder, in a world full of scientific achievements, a young person would question such a shallow interpretation of the human experience. But it was not just these lectures that changed things for me.
Coincidentally, I had just joined a book club focused on the Canon of Western Civilization. The purpose of the group is to guide interested readers, in chronological order, through the great books that underlie Western thought. I don’t ever remember reading Homer, Plato, or any of the Greek tragedies in high school or even in college, but the content itself is not as important for this point as the manner in which we take lessons from it. During the seminars on the books, we discuss the Greek Gods, the individual characters, and the symbolism in the stories. It provides a rich discussion and understanding of how deep literature can be. And it made me ask this question: Why is it not only normal, but expected for us to dissect the great literature of our culture, up until we read religious literature, and suddenly everything is literal?
It seems to me that my atheist heroes are wrong about the Bible for the same reasons Christian fundamentalists are.
But I didn’t stop there. It would be a bad idea to change your outlook on humanity simply by listening to one lecture series. So I kept going and found several more speakers, authors and professors of literature who were focused on many religious stories. Even though they all had some different opinions, one thing was consistent. Literal readings of these works are missing the point.
“If you think that the metaphor is itself the reference, it would be like going to a restaurant, asking for the menu, seeing beefsteak written there, and starting to eat the menu.” — Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
But why bother? Now that we have science, and its advantages are so obvious, what’s the point?
However well we have leveraged our capabilities for logic and reason, science only tells us what is true of the objective world. It does not suffice, at least not yet, as a tool for understanding the human experience. It does not give us a pathway for understanding the contradictory and conflicting lessons of life, which in part is why religious and mythological lessons often seem contradictory and conflicting, as human life is characterized as such.
Science is great at describing the structure of the stage, but not the story imbedded in the play itself. And yes, there are many non-religious articulations of great ideas, but as social creatures, we learn and imbed ideas through story more so than we do through simple lists of proposals. There is a natural inclination for humans to imitate as a means of admiration, which makes personifications of behavior better suited for conveying and imbedding ethical and moral suppositions.
This is why the global film industry was worth $136 billion in 2018 and Star Wars in part defined a generation. This is why my family that never attends church sits around the dinner table discussing Game of Thrones and why they admire Ned Stark. These stories contain the personifications of the human traits we most admire and fear. Maybe it’s time we separate these tools and understand their purposes, even as they overlap and work together, are completely different.
Science is great at describing the structure of the stage, but not the story imbedded in the play itself. There is a natural inclination for humans to imitate as a means of admiration, which makes personifications of behavior better suited for conveying and imbedding ethical and moral suppositions on a grand scale.
I now wonder how many curious minds out there are missing out on such rich, deep stories about humanity because their religious leaders steer them away from those questions, or our academic institutions are slowly deconstructing the literature of our past. What could I have known about the human condition twenty or thirty years ago that I missed out on because my church leader wasn’t equipped or willing? Why are so many religious people holding onto what feels like a literal and simple version of such a complex group of ideas?
As we lose touch with the roots of the “Why?” behind our culture, how are we to defend it against new, possibly catastrophic ideas? Without understanding tested ideas and the testing process itself, how will we know the new ideas are any good? How do we even know if they truly are new ideas? The answer to why things are the way they are cannot be, “Well, that’s just the way it always has been.” Our culture today is too smart for that.
Without understanding the arc of knowledge, we lose the wisdom of millions of humans who have gone before us, and with that, part of our own humanity. It’s important to not only understand but fully articulate the importance of ancient wisdom.
Humanity’s stage has changed, but humanity has not.
Now as we become more technologically powerful is the time to dive deeper, to embrace the symbolism, expand the content, and to articulate the practicality of our ancestors’ messages. With great power comes great responsibility and we will need wisdom to wield it and reign it in. We’ll need to update our literature for people who ask cutting and difficult questions, because those are the people whom we need the most to understand.
I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself a religious person now much less a Christian, as these symbols and myths cross cultures and time, but I do understand the depth of knowledge and wisdom we are abandoning as we walk away from these texts, and am worried that our fickleness will end in cutting off the roots to our success at our peril.