How not to heresy

I got caught up this morning in a piece on the ABC titled “Why should we believe unbelievable religion?”

So what does he make of the feeding of the multitude tale, when Jesus reportedly fed 5,000 with five loaves of bread and two fish?

‘In my view nobody at the time would have read that particular miraculous feeding literally,’ says Tacey. ‘In other words, they sat at his feet, he provided spiritual nourishment and it was as if they were fed with loaves and fishes, and then there were 10 baskets full in the end to collect.’

It’s one thing to find such an interpretation more satisfying or credible than the miraculous version, and I can sympathise with people for whom the standard interpretations of Christianity seem insufficient.  But despite the caveat “in my view”, I bridled at the subsequent “nobody at the time”. Unless by “in my view” the speaker means “I prefer to believe that…”, it strikes me as insufficiently humble for someone explicitly breaking with a long-standing tradition to not maintain the weakness of their own position.

After all, the root of ‘heresy’ is ‘choice’; why not own up to it as a choice, instead of trying to pass it off as the obviously and self-evidently preferable, more intelligible, and more spiritually rewarding interpretation?

Yet for all their efforts to disentangle the historical Jesus from the web of mythic stories about him, have these scholars offered Christians a Jesus they can believe in?  If miraculous stories involving Jesus are merely reworked stories about Moses, do they leave Christians with a more appealing focus of faith?  Tacey thinks not.

‘They’re the ones who I think are in danger of ending up emptying Jesus of all his spiritual significance, so that he simply becomes a community health worker or something like that,’ he says.

Of course: my personalised heresy that I developed in the context of a post-Christian society and my specialised and eminently democratic skill-set as a professor of literature with a background in Jungian psychology is in every way superior to the interpretations favoured merely by the credulously devout of the past twenty centuries.

It makes perfect sense that a professor of literature might find more meaning in miracles as metaphors than in miracles as miracles. However, it is one of the more intriguing aspects of Christianity that it embraces the supposed dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, binding the two together in a great and unfathomable mystery.  It is, for instance, by no means novel to read into the feeding of the five-thousand a metaphor of spiritual food. Indeed, as the short form of the forthcoming Corpus Christi sequence states:

In figúris præsignátur, Cum Isaac immolátur: Agnus paschæ deputátur Datur manna pátribus.

It was prefigured in types: when Isaac was immolated, when the Paschal Lamb was sacrificed, when Manna was given to the fathers.

It’s not that tradition doesn’t recognise the metaphors, just that it doesn’t hold with the modernist certitude that metaphors must only be metaphors, that an event can’t be both real and symbolically meaningful at the same time. It is, ironically, a much less nuanced perspective to hold either that the miracles have no greater significance, or that they are so full of significance that they can’t possibly have happened.

Personally, I don’t understand why some people are so wedded to the conviction that miracles cannot have occurred as they are claimed to have occurred. What’s the big deal? It’s as though they’ve been told that faith itself must hinge on belief in second-hand accounts of miracles, and hence find themselves riven by existential doubts, like a born-again Christian trying their hardest to feel appropriately saved.

Skepticism alone doesn’t account for such doubts.  A skeptic is free to doubt the existence of miracles, but they’re equally free to doubt the staid pseudo-skepticism that insists that miracles are not possible. Again, it shouldn’t be such a big deal to admit the possibility.  What kind of person has a world-view and identity contingent on the insistence that the biblical accounts of miracles are false?

I won’t pretend to understand people’s emotional or ideological baggage around miracles – whether they’ve been force-fed a false piety, or long to rehabilitate their spiritual life in the good graces of some kind of anti-supernaturalist clique.  Listening to the broadcast itself, Tacey contrasts his parents’ view of the bible as a “history book” with his own eventual discovery of it as “a long sacred narrative poem”; but he makes somewhat inconsistent references to his own perspective being on the one hand “not for everyone”, while on the other hand claiming that “official” Christianity has erred in taking any of Jesus’ teachings literally.

The irony is that Tacey extols the ability to live with uncertainty rather than having everything nailed down, yet in his discovery of metaphoric scriptural interpretation turns adamant that a metaphoric interpretation is the only valid one.  He accepts that Jesus did exist and was crucified, but that his life was subsequently converted into a metaphoric or parabolic story in its own right, and eventually converted by literalist Western Europeans into a series of lies told for God.

Tacey doesn’t see this interpretation as diminishing Christianity, but perhaps only because he is in the grip of a false dichotomy: the scriptures are either literally true with no metaphoric significance, or they are metaphorically true and not to be taken literally.  Yet as far as I am aware, there exists a substantial orthodox tradition of viewing the scriptures as true both literally and metaphorically.  In fact you could go so far as to say that the tying together of spiritual significance with real events is kinda the whole point of Christianity.










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