Ask the Religion Experts: How do you tell what parts of your religion should be taken literally and which parts are metaphorical?

Ottawa, Canada - JACK MCLEAN is a Bahá’í scholar, teacher, essayist and poet published in the fields of spirituality, Bahá’í theology and poetry.

We may distinguish the literal from the metaphorical by first identifying three applicable areas from the Bahá’í Faith: (1) Bahá’í history; (2) ritual laws; (3) the sacred writings and teachings. First, since its inception on May 23, 1844, in Shiraz, Iran, with the prophetic declaration of the Báb (1819-1850), the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder (1817-1892), Bahá’ís are fortunate that this youngest of the world’s religions has been born into the full light of history. Massive historical records, including photographs, eyewitness accounts, newspaper reports and government documents have recorded the birth and development of the Bahá’í Faith. Here we are not dealing with the metaphorical, but with the story of what really happened. Second, although relatively few ritual laws exist in the Bahá’í Faith, we should not interpret these laws metaphorically but literally. When Bahá’u’lláh prescribes ablutions with one of the obligatory prayers, he does not mean that water should be reduced to just a symbol signifying purity. He means that you should wash your hands before praying. Third, regarding the sacred writings and their teachings, whether in their ethical, spiritual, or theological dimensions, these teachings should be taken in their plain sense. Of course, all sacred scripture has a large metaphorical dimension. Whenever poetic symbolism is present, we should attempt to discover the inner meaning underlying such symbols. Mystical writings present special challenges. Some passages in the Bahá’í writings may be literal and metaphorical at the same time. For example, here is the cornerstone of all Bahá’í teaching, the oneness of humanity: “The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch … S o powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 288). Aside from the spiritual and existential truths of Bahá’u’lláh’s statement, anthropology, biology, and even medicine all demonstrate the unity underlying the various races despite their cultural differences. But he expresses poetically the literal truth that humanity is one race through the metaphor of the tree, its leaves and branches. If we reflect upon this symbolism, further evidences of the truth of his statement will come to mind.

Rabbi REUVEN BULKA is head of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa and host of Sunday night with Rabbi Bulka on 580 CFRA.

Let’s tackle this question by way of illustration. One of the more well known components of Biblical justice is the well known rule of compensation “An eye for an eye ...” (Exodus 21:24).Taken literally, this means that if someone pokes out another person’s eye, then the court will order the perpetrator’s eye to be poked out. The Biblical verse extends this form of justice not just for an eye. A tooth, a hand, a foot, a burn, a wound, a bruise — all come under the same judicial punitive umbrella.But taken literally, it makes no sense. How do you assure that the burn, the wound, the bruise, is exactly the same for the felon as for the victim? [Note] Or that the hand is cut off at the exact same place, or the foot? And that the victim’s foot or hand is the same size as that of the victimizer? What about a tooth? Knocking out the tooth of someone who has only one tooth to start, and then in retaliation knocking out one tooth from someone who has an entire set of teeth does not seem fair at all.The Talmud is even more graphic. Suppose the victim had sight in only one eye, and now is rendered blind through losing the remaining eye. In punishing the attacker by poking out one eye, we have not rendered that person blind. [Note] Or consider a case in which the attacker has only one eye, and knocks out the eye of someone who has two eyes. The victim still has the sight in one eye, but in punishing literally, the offender will be rendered blind. All this by way of proving that the literal understanding makes no sense, and could not have ever meant what is suggested. That being the case, why does the Bible use what is apparently misleading terminology? For no other reason than to convey that this is the punishment that is deserved, even if it is not the punishment that is administered.In the end, We understand the Bible to mean that the punishment is financial restitution. That is simply because the literal interpretation makes no sense, and would be the very antithesis of authentic Biblical values.Use this principle as your guide to what is literal and what is metaphor.

Rev. RICK REED is senior pastor at the Metropolitan Bible Church in Ottawa.

Let me respond by asking you a question: “How do you know which parts of the newspaper are to be taken literally and which parts are metaphorical?” Let’s say you read a piece in the sports section that says one of the Blue Jays’ starting pitchers was “missing the plate by a mile.” Next you read an article in the business section that reports that, according to the Canadian Fuel Consumption Guide, a certain new hybrid vehicle averages “60 miles to the gallon.” Should you take those statements literally or metaphorically?The answer comes from knowing a variety of factors. We intuitively consider things like idioms (“missed it by a mile”), cultural expectations (news reports are supposed to be accurate), and genres of writing (an editorial differs from a news report). There are similarities when reading the Bible. When Christians read the Bible we consider the contextual and cultural clues given in a specific passage. When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:48), we understand that He’s using a metaphor to speak of spiritual nourishment. But when the Bible says Jesus ate fish with His disciples after His resurrection (Luke 24:43), the context indicates that we are to take this literally; Jesus’ resurrection was a physical resurrection and not just a spiritual one. When Jesus promises that all who trust in Him will experience resurrection (John 11:25), we are to understand this literally as well.As Christians, we are to base our beliefs on what the Bible teaches. So it is vitally important that we understand the Bible accurately. As a general rule, it’s wise to read the Bible with a literal interpretation unless contextual and cultural clues indicate otherwise. The Bible is not a newspaper, but it certainly does contain good news.

RADHIKA SEKAR holds a PhD in religious studies and taught Hinduism courses at Carleton and University of Ottawa. An aspiring Vedantin, she is a devotee of the Sri Ramakrishna Mission.Hindu scriptures have always been more concerned with the metaphysical than the material aspects of their times. The ultimate goal of life is moksha (freedom), which is achieved only through intuitive knowledge. Thus the emphasis has always been on spiritual discourse rather than literal facts.The Vedas, the most ancient texts of the Hindus (1500-1000 BCE) are a compilation of the revelations and spiritual insights of various sages. Thus they are called sruti (revealed). Metaphysical in nature, they reflect on the origins of the cosmos, the proclivities and workings of the human mind and the path to bliss. The second group of texts, called smriti (remembered or heard), represent faith, traditions and cultures of the Hindu civilization. They comprise the legends and folklore of the two great epics, (Itihasa), myths (Puranas) and a vast body of texts called the Dharmashastras — the socio-legal codes of caste Hindus that now form the basis of Hindu Civil Law. While Vaishnavism tends to take the scriptures more literally, sects like the Smartas and Vedantins encourage the philosophical interpretation. Composed by mystic poets, they are predictably highly metaphorical; the Kathopanishad describes the human psyche in terms of a chariot pulled by five horses, the Taittereya describes “five sheaths” that cover the soul, the Bhagavatham speaks of the “city of nine gates,” and psychic power is described as a serpent coiled at the base of the spine. Even the great battle in the epic Mahabharata is seen as an allegory of the inner struggle. Swami Vivekananda pointed out that Hinduism does not compel belief — the emphasis is in realizing, not believing. The interpretation of scripture therefore will vary and change according to the spiritual development of the interpreter.

Rev. GEOFFREY KERSLAKE is a priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Ottawa.

The Catholic Church teaches that we have two reliable sources for the truths of our Christian faith: Sacred Scripture (the Bible) and Tradition (the continuous teaching of the Church handed down by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and their successors). In order to understand our faith, we need both of these sources working together. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine wellspring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move toward the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age.” (CCC n. 80) The teaching authority of the Catholic Church, exercised by the Pope with bishops in communion with him, is called the Magisterium. It allows us to authentically preserve and pass on the truths from Scripture and Tradition entrusted to the Church. Faith and reason thus work together in the believer to teach us the truths of our Catholic Christian faith. There is a popular misconception that faith and reason are opposed to each other, whereas really they are both valid ways of knowing that need each other in order to function well. Blessed Pope John Paul wrote in his encyclical Faith and Reason: “the Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason ‘mutually support each other’; each influences the other, as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding.” (Fides et Ratio, n. 100) With the trustworthy help of the Church, we are able to understand, appreciate and communicate the truths of the faith.

KEVIN SMITH is on the board of directors for the centre for Inquiry, Canada’s premier venue for humanists, skeptics and freethinkers.

In my youth I attended the United Church, and even though I never bought their goods I continue to have a respect for that liberal institution. As such, I remain, arguably, a cultural Christian and my response is based on that faith. There was a time when religion was taken as the literal truth, of possessing morals and ethics that one must follow if you wanted to live in eternal bliss with your creator. Fear of punishment by death allowed these beliefs to remain relatively unchecked for centuries.

The Enlightenment ushered in human rights, democracy and scientific advances. Where the faithful used to literally believe eating a fruit caused the fall of humanity, this genesis created a generation of cherry pickers, who dissected the literal parts of the Bible from the metaphorical. Some parts of their Holy Book have been sentenced to silence. The majority of religious followers squirm when Leviticus is discussed, acknowledging its tenets would be illegal in modern democracies.These moderate Christians realize their religion is no longer an accurate account of the world but their need to believe forces them to re-interpret it. I have more respect for the literalists. At least they have the courage of their convictions to live and die by the ancient rules set forth by God. These devout followers of Christ are most certainly guaranteed their rightful place in Heaven, although their unquestioning faith does present problems in this life. Despite what is written in the Bible, in democratic countries, women, and increasingly homosexuals, have gained equality and slavery is no longer tolerated. This begs two questions: is the Bible, taken literally, or re-interpreted metaphorically, a relevant moral guide today? Why is any of it accepted as true if it needs to be adjusted to conform to secular values?

Rev. RAY INNEN PARCHELO is a novice Tendai priest and founder of the Red Maple Sangha, the first lay Buddhist community in Eastern Ontario.

Religion, as used here, suggests historical information, texts, activities and teachings. Buddhists don’t take every detail as either literally true or simple metaphor. Within the Buddhist tradition, many details are taken as historical. Our founder, Shakyamuni, was an actual Indian prince (550 BCE). Researchers have tracked down his modern relatives, the Shakya clan. Biographical locations are identifiable and still accessible. Buddhist spiritual giants such as Milarepa, Shinran, Saicho and Kobo-daishi have well-documented lives. However, like other ancient lives, these are subject to debate, study and revision. This is not to say that every single detail of Shakyamuni’s life is taken as fact. The fantastic drama of his birth, for example, is not assumed to be history, any more than details in the life-stories of Alexander the Great, George Washington or Confucius. We must acknowledge a much different East Asian orientation to history, as compared to modern Europe. Life-stories were seen as teaching devices, not factuality.Further, this either/or frame is incomplete. Two levels of meaning should be added — ritual and myth, since they are neither just history nor just metaphor. Some define myth as archaic, embarrassing pre-science. This misses the point of why humans, even today, cultivate mythology. Mythology is more than simple metaphor. It is the construction of an alternative history for inspirational and educational value. Myth is not history, nor is it meant to be. Myth is complex and universal human storytelling, which may intersect factual history, but its purpose has little to do with establishing scientific certainty. We Buddhists have our mythologies, and these provide invaluable shared stories, which inform and inspire our practices.Finally, details of religious practice, including historical data, can have important ritual meaning. Again, some dismiss ritual as primitive and disposable, however, it too is a universal human activity that has an irreplaceable role in our lives. A prime example might be any number of Buddhist pilgrimages that are based on verifiable historical events, but whose greatest value is in connecting the pilgrim with the original path-walker in a space that transcends historical time.