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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Stories and Facts

[I wrote this over a month ago, but decided that it is worth putting onto the blog.]

The First Sunday of Lent, Cycle A, contains two very significant stories in Christian life. The first reading describes Eve and Adam’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the basis for the doctrine of original sin. The Gospel describes Jesus’ temptations. These two stories led to my reflections on the nature of stories and metaphors in Christian life.

Most people take stories as descriptions of actual physical events. It is only in recent decades that we have become more aware of how symbols and metaphors function in human understanding. In some ways there is no statement that cannot be described as based on symbol and metaphor.

Take, for example, our description of the ultimate particles that make up the atoms of our universe. Scientists describe these “particles” as either waves or packets. The very term “particles” is metaphorical. It makes us imagine something like a bread crumb or a grain of sand. A “wave” makes us think of bodies of water whose surfaces are moved by the wind. A “packet” suggests a self-enclosed object, something that you would put into the mail.

In fact, scientists cannot reconcile the fact that this elementary particle sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a packet, so they use both metaphors. They cannot avoid using metaphors to speak about what they are studying. Every scientific description is based on metaphors, and every scientific explanation is a story, a “fictional” description of what we think is happening. 

Example: “Cholera” is a disease that used to devastate cities (for example, Memphis in 1878). It reappears in conditions where sanitation is not provided, as in refugee camps. What causes the disease of cholera?

Scientists will talk about a “microbe,” which is a tiny living organism. All of those words, “tiny,” “living,” and “organism” are metaphors, based on experiences from our everyday lives.

Then scientists tell a story. The microbes live in mosquitoes. When a mosquito bites a person, the microbe is transferred to the blood stream of the person, and the result is cholera.

This is a fictional construction, a story. The actual event is far more complex. The microbe can be described in far greater detail, nowadays down to the level of its genetic composition. So can human blood be described in far greater detail, and how microbes “behave” in human blood.

Back to Adam and Eve

The Church accepts the theory (story) that the authors of the books of Scripture were human beings who were writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They were not providing scientific descriptions of events, or perhaps more accurately, they were not providing descriptions any more detailed than the everyday “scientific” theories of their time.

The traditional story developed from that original story is enshrined in later Scripture, for example, in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Adam and Eve “sinned” (a metaphor). They “disobeyed” God (another metaphor). This use of metaphor results in a story where God is like a human parent who gives orders to a child. When the child “disobeys,” the parent punishes the child. “Satan” tempted Eve.

Here is another way to read the story. God (the term is metaphorical, so metaphorical that Jewish custom forbade even pronouncing the Name) created humans and knew that they would be tempted to push the boundaries of any situation. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is a metaphor for human thinking and theorizing.

Applying this to our present human condition, I use two examples.

Nuclear fission. We have learned that by “splitting” the atom we can release immense amounts of energy. That knowledge (of good and evil) can free us from the problem of providing energy, or it can destroy our world.

Genetic engineering. We have learned that we can manipulate the genetic “code” that underlies all living cells. That knowledge of good and evil can provide cures for terrible diseases as well as genetic disaster for the whole human race.

God knew when God created us that we would not be able to resist pushing the boundaries. What happens when we push the boundaries?

We get hurt. Adam and Eve got hurt. They had to leave paradise (a metaphor). The inventor of dynamite thought that he was providing something that would end wars. The exact opposite happened.

God did not “punish” Adam and Eve. God created unfinished creatures, who would push the boundaries, get hurt, and have the possibility of living more fully as a result.

Admittedly this interpretation of the story is not compatible with Paul’s interpretation of it in Romans. But we can live with competing stories, just as scientists live with the competing stories about particles as waves and as packets. We can read the Adam and Eve story the way Paul read it, or we can read it as I just re-told it. My way of re-telling it seems more compatible with the kind of God that Jesus described as “the Father,” a God passionately “in love” with each human being.

Aside: the Adam and Eve story makes no mention of “Satan” or “the devil.” It is the “serpent” who tempts them. It is only later writers, like Paul, who identify the serpent with Satan.

Our problem is that, down through the ages, we humans have been too ready to translate our stories into descriptions of actual physical facts, “scientific” facts. We have not appreciated how stories function in  human behavior. I am struck, reading a medieval philosopher like Duns Scotus, how he accepted “angels” as beings every bit as real as the ground we walk on, and made what are in effect scientific statements about the world based on that acceptance.

Second Example: Jesus’ Temptations

The Gospel tells how Jesus was tempted by the “devil.”

I read this story as a description, by an author writing thirty or more years after Jesus’ death, of what his spiritual experience might have been like. I seriously doubt that Jesus actually described the three temptations to his followers as they are presented in Matthew and Luke. Matthew or Luke used “the devil” in somewhat the same way as Satan is presented in the book of Job. In that book, Satan seems to be free to hold conversation with God, almost as an equal. The devil in the Gospels is a more sinister character, but he plays the same role.

Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, to jump off the temple “parapet,” and to rule the world. There are various ways to interpret these stories. I like the interpretation given by John Shea.

Stones into bread. The devil is saying, “You are the Son of God. You shouldn’t be hungry. Go ahead, fix this situation.” (Application: none of us should experience hunger or other suffering if we are really God’s children.) Jesus’ reply: “I am hungry and I am still God’s Son.” Which means, we can experience hunger and other suffering and know that we are still loved.

Jump off the temple parapet. The devil is saying, “You can wow the crowds by dramatic performances. Go ahead, jump off that parapet and people will flock to you as a wonder-worker.” Jesus replies that he does not need either dramatic performances or the worship of crowds. His calling is to live among ordinary human beings, as an ordinary human being (“like us in all things but sin”). He will not overpower the crowds by performances, but will end up sharing the suffering and death that ordinary human beings suffer. He will thereby show how much God really loves us and is with us.

High mountain and ruler of the world. Here is obviously a metaphor. There is no high mountain from which anyone could see “all the kingdoms of the earth.” This is a temptation to power, the temptation to do good by using threats of punishment (which is what all good governments have to do). Jesus says, “No, I do not need power to do what I am called to do. I will approach people as one who is as powerless as they, so powerless that I will experience execution as a criminal.”


Much of the abandonment of religion in our times is due to the way that religious people have used traditional metaphors as descriptions of actual scientific “facts.” (I cannot resist calling attention to the word “fact.” Its origin is the Latin word “facere,” from which we get the word “fiction.”) A “fact” is really a “fiction.” It is a metaphor for something that we regard as unchangeable. But we know that no scientific theory is unchangeable. They thought that Newton had the last word on physics until Einstein came along.

This manner of reading Scripture goes back more recently to the theorists who call themselves “postmodern.” But sociologists had reached similar conclusions years before the postmodern literary theorists jumped on them. In the 1960s Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a book titled The Social Construction of Reality. The title says it all. “Reality” is a fiction created as we tell stories about our experiences.

The conflict between religion and science is largely based on a too literal religious reading of texts. Both religion and science rely on metaphor and story. They are just two different ways of describing human experience.