There is No Literal Meaning (Transcript)

Jonathan PageauSymbolic World Icon
November 7, 2023
This post is a transcript of a video published in September 2019.
Thanks to Heather Lee for the transcription and JP Marceau for the edition.

One of the problems I run into when talking to people about symbolism is the whole literal versus metaphorical idea. I’ve talked about this a little bit before, but I want to dive into that problem and show that, in fact, it isn’t very much of a problem once you realize that there is no such thing as “literal”.

Now, of course, I already hear a bunch of people screaming: “No! He’s saying that the Bible didn’t happen, that everything is just a metaphor!” No, actually I’m trying to break that duality. I’m really trying to destroy it, because it is really not useful in understanding how meaning occurs and how things manifest themselves.

When I say that there’s no such thing as literal, what I mean by “literal” is this strange, pervasive idea that is still here in the West, it seems, that there is such a thing as a direct description of something. That there is such a thing as a description of something which is not bound up in meaning and which is not bound up in narrative or in imagery. That there is somehow a meaningless description which is not already imbibed in meaning. You get that all the time when you talk to people. In terms of the Bible, especially, people will argue over whether or not the descriptions in the Bible are literal. To be honest with you, at this point in my life, at this point in my understanding, I don’t see what that even means. I can understand from the way that people talk about it what it is they seem to be inferring; that it is somehow a neutral description of reality that doesn’t already have value or meaning inlaid in it, but I don’t understand how that is possible. Because, when you describe something, no matter what it is you describe, you need to have a purpose. You need a frame in order to talk about something, because – as I’ve said many times – reality is too big. There are too many details. If I describe a series of events, I will do it with a purpose, to make you understand something. I have to focus my attention on something because, around the event I’m describing, there are a million other events going on that I’m not describing. And the question is: why am I describing these events and not describing those other events?

This already undermines the notion of literal. For example, if I’m telling a story about someone and I’m not talking about the folds in their shirt, or I’m not talking about the fact that they cut themselves shaving in the morning, I do so because those events are not relevant to what it is that I’m trying to get to. They’re not part of the purpose for which I’m describing something. Now, depending on the purpose for which I’m describing something, I will use different types of language. The idea that somehow, in this scientific sense, accuracy is always desirable is, of course, completely wrong. It is completely absurd, because accuracy can also fall into an indefinite amount of detail.

Let’s say that I am describing a fight and I want you to understand what happened. I could use language that is extremely accurate. I could say something like “The guy put his left foot in front of his right foot.  And then the other person’s right hand came at this speed towards his face and he slightly flinched. When the fist hit his face, he displaced so many hairs and so many pores and so many tissues in his cheek were disturbed, and then his head moved three centimeters to the left and then it moved four centimeters backwards….”  I could go on and on and on, and I could describe extremely accurately the event. But, as I’m describing it accurately, I’m not getting to the purpose for which I’m describing the event to you.

Rather, I could say something like “The guy got smashed. His ass got whooped!”  I could use all of this hyperbolic language in order to help you understand what happened in the fight, and in the end, my hyperbolic language – the fact that I’ll use exaggerations, figures of speech and all these different ways of talking about reality – will end up being truer to the purpose that I have in describing the event than if I were accurate in describing it.  That’s extremely important to understand, especially if we’re looking at stories in the Bible. Each story in the Bible, each book in the Bible, has different ways of describing things, based on the purpose for which they are described. There are different styles, different ways, different analogies which can be used in order to help you understand the reason why I describe something. So, the very idea that you can somehow get to this literal description of reality is extremely problematic. It’s not useful. Rather, it’s better to understand the purpose for which a story is being told.

Even a scientific theory is never literal in the sense of a neutral description of reality. When you do a scientific experiment, you have to frame that scientific experiment in extremely narrow terms because otherwise there are too many details. Thus, if my purpose in a scientific experiment is to prove something about water, I will not give you descriptions of trees or descriptions of rocks. No, I will talk about the thing that I’m trying to describe. Therefore, that frame will be extremely narrow. I will use a certain type of quantifiable language in order to describe the phenomena that I am explaining to you, and the purpose is so that you can understand the mechanistic causes that bring it about, so that maybe you can reproduce it mechanistically.

But when we’re describing an event, that’s not always the reason we’re describing it. And that’s why using figures of speech can sometimes be more effective and more powerful than using just quantifiable language. Now, if I use figures if speech or I use analogies to describe something, does it mean that I’m not describing an event? Of course not. Of course I can still be describing an event despite the fact that I’m using different ways of explaining it.

Now, the stretch that I’m asking you guys to make is very important. The Christian way of describing reality is that the world is made by Logos. The world is made by meaning and purpose.  The very cosmology in which Christianity exists excludes the idea that there could be some kind of neutral reality that exists at the bottom somehow and is not informed by meaning, by Logos. The Bible itself describes the Creation process as a process which is full of meaning and purpose. I don’t understand how, despite that, people can somehow still have this weird idea of this neutral reality which exists underneath.

The world of Christianity is a meeting of Heaven and Earth. It’s a meeting of patterns, Logos, meaning, purpose, and this potentiality which is there at the bottom. Maybe people don’t like the word “potentiality”. You can use another word. St. Maximus talks about Logos and Tropos; that is, this notion of purpose and meaning, and then the particularities of something. Those two have to join together and that is a little mini incarnation, you could say. It’s not an incarnation in the same way that Christ is Incarnated, but it is analogous to the Incarnation, in the sense that an invisible meaning and purpose joins an indefinite particularity. And that meeting together, that’s where reality exists. That’s where the world, where life, where all of these things are. And once that starts to break in our thinking, a lot of things become less problematic. A lot of things become less difficult to deal with, because one of the problems is that people – let’s say they’re reading the description of Creation – seem to want to get to this neutral event. They somehow think that they can access this neutral event behind the story. You don’t have access to that, you know? You can’t get to it because it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist on its own. The events that happen, as they are described, are this framing, this coming together of meaning and particulars.

What we have is the story. Especially when we’re talking about something like the Creation story or these ancient stories that have been around for thousands of years. What we have is the story. To try to somehow get to what is behind the story in this neutral manner is not the right way to go. People think that somehow, through archeological methods or through historical methods, they can get to what is behind the story in Genesis, but it’s a futile trip. And it’s especially futile if you think that, once you get there, what you’re going to get from using archeological methods, or using these different new scientific ways of breaking down the text into all these different sources or whatever people come up with in the modern world, is somehow truer than what the story is offering you. You’re not going to get that. And once you understand that, a lot of things are going to free up in your mind. A lot of problems are going to go away.

One of the examples that I like to use is the example of the prophecy that Elijah is going to come before the Messiah. There’s this prophecy in the Old Testament which said that Elijah is going to show himself before the Messiah. So, when Christ is there, the disciples ask Him about this prophesy. They ask Him what’s going on. And Christ tells them that St. John the Baptist is the Elijah that was to come before the Messiah. He says, if you’re able to receive this, that is what happened. Now, the question that is posed is: did Elijah come before the Messiah? The answer is: yes! Elijah did come before the Messiah. That Elijah was John the Baptist. You see what I’m doing there? I’m not trying to get to this weird, literal, neutral reality behind it. I’m trying to show you how Christ can quite easily take this prophesy and show that it’s actually a pattern of reality which is manifesting itself. Here is the manner in which it manifests itself: Elijah and John the Baptist come together as this pattern. Did Elijah manifest himself before the Messiah? The answer is yes.

Now, that is the answer that I will give to everything. Did Adam and Eve fall in the garden? Yes. Did Adam and Eve eat the apple in the garden? Yes. I have no problem saying that all of these things are true and that they are the best description of that event and the best description of that reality. I’m not trying, in some weird, scientific sense, to get behind the story and find out what it is that “really” happened; I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have no idea what it is that you think you’re going to get to. That story is the story that was given to us as the description of this extremely important event. As to the question of how to describe that story: that’s it. That’s the story we have and that’s the best way to describe that event.

A lot of the difficulties facing modern Christians come about because, without even knowing it, they have completely taken upon themselves the kind of modern, scientific view of the world as being the highest reality. I remember hearing, when I was younger, a Protestant tell me that “science is just the mind of God”. Well, it’s a serious problem to engage the world that way, because then you always end up trying to get behind the story, trying to find some scientific description behind the story. Well, it’s not there, because science is not the first degree of reality. Science is great, and it’s fine to fly airplanes, to make medicine, etc. It’s wonderful and it works and it does what it’s supposed to do. But it is not, first of all, the only way to describe reality and it is not the best way to describe reality if your purpose is to show people how to live. It’s not the best if your purpose is to help people understand events that happened so long ago that it’s not even possible to connect to the reference points in a scientific way. That’s why we use story tropes in manners that are best suited to describe those events. Because of that, it is extremely problematic to say that there is this weird opposition between literal and metaphorical.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who somehow think that the metaphor is going to save them as well; that classifying something as a metaphor is going to somehow get them out of trouble. This is particularly true of Communion. I’ve seen it happen so many times now in YouTube comments. When I talk about Communion and the fact that this is truly the body and blood of Christ, someone shows up and writes “No, no, no – it’s not! That would be such a weird, cannibalistic thing. It’s just a symbol, just a metaphor. Christ is saying, ‘this is a metaphor for My body and blood.’” By saying this, these commenters believe that, somehow, they’re getting out of the problem.

Well, you’re not getting out of the problem. First of all, I will not grant you that it’s “just a metaphor” – that is such a… anyways, we won’t get into that. But let’s say that I did. Let’s say that I granted that to you. Let’s say that I granted you the fact that it’s just a metaphor. How are you getting out of the problem? You’re saying “Oh no, it’s so disturbing – this idea that we would eat the real body and blood Christ!” But you think it wouldn’t be disturbing to eat the metaphorical body and blood of Christ? Why is that not as weird and as disturbing as saying that it’s real? I’m going to be a bit disturbing right now, but let’s say that some weird cult came up with a ritual where they eat the feces of someone. Or, say that they have a kind of inverse Satanic communion where they eat the feces of their master. And then someone ways, “Oh, no, no no!  We’re not really eating the feces of the master. It’s a metaphorical eating of the feces. We just make this bread in the form of feces and then we eat it, you know? It’s just a metaphorical eating of feces.”

Why is that less weird? Why is that less disturbing? Why is that less of a problem? It would be best for you to face the mystery of Communion rather than try to skirt around it and avoid it by saying that, somehow, because something is “just a metaphor”, it’s meaningless. It’s not! I keep joking around, and my brother and I always say that there is no such thing as literal and there is no metaphor. That’s not how things work. It’s not that simple. You can’t just throw something away and say that “Oh, that’s just a metaphor.” Well, there’s a reason why you’re using that metaphor, even if it’s just a metaphor. There’s a reason why you’re using those words and that purpose, even if it’s just literal. These terms are not useful to help us understand how meaning occurs and how things unfold.

In terms of Communion, to deal with this problem of the body and blood, you need to understand that it’s neither literal in the scientific sense, nor is it a metaphor in the modern way of understanding metaphor. It is something that is symbolic in the way that I’m trying to explain. By the bringing together of elements and this joining with a spiritual essence, that is how reality functions. You could get to the same understanding, for example, when we say that the Church is the body of Christ. Is that literal or is that a metaphor? Well, it’s neither of those. It’s not literal and it’s not a metaphor; it’s a symbolic truth.  It’s actually a symbolic truth which can help you understand what a body is – how a body comes together and manifests something which is above it – something spiritual.  Anything that is a body is always an accumulation of parts.  Just because you visually see those parts close together in your perception doesn’t mean that they aren’t parts which are also separate from each other. In your body, there’s a lot of space between your molecules. If you think that the relative amount of space between your molecules is not bothersome but the bigger amount of space between the members of the church is somehow problematic so that can’t be a body, well, yes, it can be a body! The accumulation of people can be a body, just like the accumulation of your molecules can also be a body. And the way in which that happens is neither literal nor is it a metaphor. It is symbolic. It is the unity of multiplicity which appears to us, shows us the spiritual essence, the Logos, the purpose which makes us engage with something as one, as a unit.

So, I hope that’s a little bit helpful in understanding why, if you guys engage me with that type of language – the literal, the metaphorical, all of that – it is not useful to help you understand the world. I will talk to you guys again very soon.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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