I was raised as a Roman Catholic. But my parents, and the priests and religious brothers who were in our house literally on at least a weekly basis all understood that something that is metaphorically true is no less true than something that is literally true. I understood, for instance, that someone who might be “A bright light” wasn’t someone you switched on to read in the dark. But that did not reduce the value of the person’s gifts or make it less true. Alternatively, someone who was “a pain in the neck,” was not a physical pain to be treated with an aspirin but an irritation on a psychological or social level.
Metaphorical truth on the religious level was no less elevated. My favourite biblical metaphor was the injunction not to bury one’s talents, but to use them. It never occurred to me that I was being exhorted to go out and literally bury something in the ground. And if it had, the idea as I reached adulthood would have appeared childish, if not downright silly.
In many cases, metaphors are far more powerful than literal truth. My wedding ring, for instance, is the most valuable piece of jewelry I own. It’s not the most valuable in terms of money, but in terms of what it stands for – a lifetime commitment from a man who loves me. I remember someone who put her hand on my shoulder when I spilled hot oil onto her legs when I was taking a roast out of the oven. I was aghast. “It’s all right,” that gesture said. It was a metaphorical truth I still remember.
I remember these things because metaphors so often convey an emotional depth that literal fact does not. They convey a strength and significance that gives them an endurance.
In this context, I think much of modern Christianity, including the Roman Catholic Church, robs its followers of its greatest gifts by insisting on literal interpretations of so many of its doctrines. We’re coming up to Christmas, a feast of immense metaphorical potential. Is it less powerful if there was no literal birth in a stable? no star guiding three kings with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh? No angels calling the shepherds to the manger? Is it less powerful if Mary was not literally a virgin? Any parent with their newborn child in his or her arms knows that gold and singing angels are not literally needed to make those moments any more profound.
In truth, if so many biblical and doctrinal truths were understood as metaphorical truths, we would not in the modern world find ourselves so often scoffing in disbelief. Instead, we could ask what the metaphorical meaning of the doctrines might mean, rather than struggling with the conflict between religious teaching and science, or the ridiculous conclusions so often required by a literal interpretation.
We could listen to the music, we could look at the art, we could listen to the stories and the poetry and be transformed by their beauty and hope. And yes, their truth.
Yes, Virginia: there is a Santa Claus.