07 September 2006

Some realtively unformed thoughts on "literal meaning"

Thanks to another provocative discussion at the CH forums, I have realized that I have a difficulty getting over the word, "literal" when someone says, "I believe the Bible is literal" or "I take the Bible literally."
I know what they mean. They mean -- the Bible is true, inspired, infallible. But the word "literal" is so very difficult here.
The things is, language is, by its very nature, representative, which means that it will ALWAYS need to be interpreted. And though some might argue that, well, yes, of course, language is interpreted, but we all KNOW what words really mean, I would point out that all of us, at some time or another, have misinterpreted the language that is very clearly set before us. How many of us have read an email from a dear friend and missed the humor or sarcasm therein? Or how many of us have read a post by someone we don't know and have inferred something about their character or compassion by their writings?
When it comes to the Bible, I do believe the Bible is inspired by God. And I could even say that I believe that what God inspired is infallible -- without error. I believe it to be unquestioningly true. However, the Bible has been interpreted by fallible humans for over 2500 years. Even if we believe the Holy Spirit gives us the power to interpret, we are still human. We are still imperfect beings trying to glean from language, some of which has been copied and re-copied and translated and re-translated for over 20 centuries, a representation of God, who is beyond all human representation and comprehension.
And this -- this reminder that we can only grasp small glimpses of God in metaphors and representations -- this is what most of all, bothers me about the word, "literal." God simply IS NOT literal. God is beyond literal. God is beyond what humans can possibly conceive of as fact, meaning, truth, exactness, etc.
All of this is absolutely, unequivocally, not to say that the Bible is meaningless. It is FULL of meaning. I would just posit that the meaning is far greater than we will ever, ever, ever understand. God is revealed and is being revealed in our reading of the text, but we will never, ever get to grasp God's fullness until we are Home.
To say that the Bible can be understood "literally" seems to me to imply that we grasping it IS attainable. That if we just study and pray and dig enough, someday, we'll "get it."
What I personally find is that the more I study the Bible, the more I learn about the language, the bigger God seems. The bigger the process appears. The bigger the picture represented by the words. I begin to understand why Paul said, "now we see only in part, then we will see the whole."
So as I've been turning over these thoughts in my head and pondering the nature of this most instructive and revealing of books I think I've realized that, the more I read the Bible, the less and less "literal" it seems to me.
But, of course, that could just be this weirdo...


Anonymous said...

i want everyone i know to read this blog entry. lovely and articulate. no wonder you've been called to the ministry! :)
~liz (elizabeth_anne)

April said...

Thank you, Liz.