I got some emails from self-described Biblical literalist creationists objecting to my calling such literalism “naive.” I’ve been pondering whether there’s a better word for it but so far I’m stumped. I guess you could characterize creationism simply as “Biblical literalism” applied to the Genesis creation account and leave out the disparaging adjective “naive.” Certainly I meant no offense to anyone and I regret it if offense was taken.
The reason I hesitate to retract, however, is that there’s a kind of literalism that I find very attractive and that isn’t naive though it can be maddeningly hard to pin down. In Jewish tradition, the Biblical text is regarded as only the briefest, most cryptic distillation or crystalization of the infinitely vaster body of oral Torah — the orally transmitted tradition held to go back in some of its streams to the revelation to Moses at Mt. Sinai or even earlier — to Adam or Abraham. Much in that tradition consists of narrative threads or fragments much wilder than anything in the Bible itself.
For example? I was talking last night with my wife about the legend or myth or tradition (whatever you want to call it) that in the end of days, the righteous will enjoy a festive meal in a sukkah (tabernacle) constructed from the skin of the sea monster Leviathan. They will dine on the meat of the Leviathan.
At this image, cynics will snicker. Religious rationalists will harrumph, “Well, it’s only a symbol!” I find these two responses depressing, dispiriting, empty. They’re not my way.
In the Jewish Orthodox world, such traditions are contemplated in a charming but strange way, without asking if they’re meant to be understood literally. Jews who are simple in their faith — which is not a bad thing! though it’s not me either — have no problem assuming that the story is a true forecast of things to come in as literal a sense as the weather forecast that predicts autumn rain in Seattle, but even more certain.
Judaism sure appears to treat ideas like these as if they were literally true. At the end of Sukkot last week we said a farewell to the sukkah that we had spent the previous week eating and otherwise dwelling in. The formal farewell includes a reference to the future feast in the sukkah of Leviathan.
I don’t know what to make of such things but I love to think about them at a level of detail that could be called literalist and that mere symbols don’t usually merit. They are incredibly stirring. I hold out the hope that shimmering just beyond the edge of my ability to grasp, there lies some spiritual reality to which the “symbol” points, a quite literal reality that exceeds my power of expression as it exceeds that of human speech and writing in general.
That’s not a symbol as a rationalist would hold, where the figurative image simply alludes to some drab moral or lesson or other. Is there a better word than “symbol” for what I’m grasping toward? Your thoughts, please.