Christian Theology's Great Mistake
The fundamental mistake that I believe has been made in Christian theology, has been to read deep and complicated metaphysical ideas into the Bible. We have over-spiritualised it all. What do I mean?
Let’s use the example of “sin”. Say I sin by killing someone, what’s the result?
At one end of the spectrum, we have a tangible, physical result: The person is dead, I get put in prison, I possibly feel bad about it.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have an intangible, spiritual result: We can imagine a giant big fuzzy black cloud of spiritual “sin” that exists in some spiritual dimension and blocks my relationship with God.
We have a continuum:
This-worldly <--------------------> Other-worldly, Spiritual dimensions
What Christian theology has done is tended, over time, further and further to the right on the spectrum. Judaism was a very down-to-earth “this is how you should live, these are the rules you should follow” type religion near the left end of the spectrum. But over the centuries, as theology has developed and changed, Christianity has quite progressively and steadily moved further and further right. Bit by bit each individual theological concept has slid further right, and today when we read our bibles the terms invoke in our heads complicated abstract and theoretical ideas that we have been taught which happen in spiritual dimensions, rather than the far more tangible and practical ideas that happen in this world that they were intended to represent. It’s possible to trace these changes throughout the last 2000 years of Christian history and see this right-ward slide into the other-worldly and metaphysical, and finally see the appearance of the most abstract and theoretical system yet: Evangelicalism.
What does the theology we are taught today say? Our sin is an intangible spiritual force which creates a spiritual barrier between us and God, which must be removed before we can make it into heaven (a not-of-this-world place). Christ fixes this problem in a complicated theoretical way: His spiritual separation from God caused by the metaphysical transfer of sin onto him on the cross, etc. Looking at the continuum above, these concepts all fall on the extreme right end of the spectrum: Everything of importance happens in some spiritual dimension that we can only know about through reading it in the Bible. This, I believe, is simply a mistake. Over the centuries, as our reading of the bible has slid toward the right, we have moved further and further away from what the authors meant. They were writing about practical things, things they had experienced, and we’ve constructed a complex and theoretical theology that has only a vague relation to the actual world - everything of importance happens in some spiritual dimension somewhere out there.
Consider the following: “They went out of the house”
Now, you could read that and think that the house represents an enclosure in which sin spiritually entraps us, and that this phrase means that these people have escaped the spiritual clutches of sin. Or you could read it and think it means that some people left a house. It sounds stupid, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that we’ve been taught to do to our bibles. We have been trained to fill the words with as far to the right end of the spectrum meanings as is possible. We are happy seeing the Old Testament in the left end – when God “saves” Israel from her enemies, we see immediately the left-end meaning of a physical rescue from invading nations. Yet when we come to the New Testament we have been taught to change mental gear – if we see “saved” in the New Testament we pull out our complicated spiritual concepts of “salvation” and start stuffing those meanings into the words without thinking twice. Quite simply, we are deceiving ourselves if we do this, and we will misunderstand what the author meant.
Another distinction a lot of people are more familiar with is the
Literal <--------------------------> Metaphorical
distinction. We are generally taught today that "taking things metaphorically" is a cop-out, and that you've got to take the text literally. For example you could take the stories about Abraham, and either say "these are literal stories about a real person called Abraham", or say "Abraham is a symbol representing the Church... etc" and explain it away as metaphorical. But perhaps the lesson we should be taking for this is not to avoid metaphor, but to avoid over-spiritualising the text when there is plainly an every-day normal meaning we could be taking out of it - the lesson isn't to tend left on the literal <-> metaphor spectrum, but to tend left on the this-dimension <-> other-dimension spectrum.
Consider another example I see a lot: Paul's dying and rising with Christ passage in Romans 6. We can either take it literally and think that on some spiritual plane of existence that is somewhere out there in the aether our spirits which exist on that plane died and rose again in some sort of ethereal union with Christ. (I have seen plenty of people take this view) Or we can say that Paul is using a metaphor to describe the this-worldly fact that our lives ought to undergo a radical transformation when we become Christians (ie we change our behaviour). We have a choice of interpretation between literal & spiritual-realms versus metaphorical & concrete. A similar issue applies to many of the more theologically deep passages of the NT.
I find it interesting that our ingrained tendency toward literalism often forces our reading toward the spiritual end of the spectrum. I believe this is a mistake. A good rule is this: A reading that is at the concrete end of the concrete <-> spiritual spectrum is to be prefered over a spiritualised reading. The mistake has been to focus on the literal <-> metaphorical spectrum and insist on literalness. Metaphorical interpretation is only bad when it is clearly contrived, or leads to over-spiritualising. Literal interpretation is equal bad if it leads to over-spiritualising. When we read passages we need to think about the full meaning of our interpretation, and if we find ourselves inventing whole spiritual planes of existence then we are interpreting it wrongly.
We know Judaism was at the concrete end of the spectrum. We know scholars for years misunderstood Jewish apocalyptic literature because they took it too literally & spiritually, rather than metaphorically & concretely. We know by Occam's Razor (a philosophical rule that says "don't make theories that involve the existence of unevidence entities if you don't need to") that we ought not to posit the existence of entire planes of spiritual existence simply to explain a sentence that could quite easily be a metaphor for something concrete. So when we see "dying and rising with Christ", or "the blood of Christ cleanses us from sin", or "the righteousness of God", or "saved" or any of the other theological statements or terms in the New Testament, we ought to be careful not to get carried away imputing over-spiritualised meanings to them and look for the most concrete way to interpreting them, even if it involves ~gasp~ a metaphor.