There is No Literal Meaning

I’ve transcribed this Jonathan Pageau video. I’ve made edits where the text was confusing, and to optimize this for reading (the video was improvised monologue). He hasn’t approved this transcription, but I’m confident it’s a good representation of the ideas he presents herein.

A problem I encounter when talking to people about symbolism is the literal-versus-metaphor idea.
But in fact, this isn’t a problem once you realize that there is no such thing as literal.
Now, of course, I already hear a bunch of people screaming “No! He’s saying that the Bible didn’t happen! That everything is just a metaphor!”
Not exactly. I’m trying to break that duality. I’m trying to destroy it, because it’s not useful in understanding how meaning occurs and how things manifest themselves.
Now, when I say there’s no such thing as literal, what I mean by literal is this strange, pervasive idea that there is such thing as a direct description of something. That there is such thing as a description of something that is not bound up some narrative or image. That there is somehow a meaningless description of something that is not already imbibed in meaning.
People will often argue that the descriptions in the Bible are literal. And these people talk in such a way that they infer there is some kind of neutral description of reality that is possible—one that does not already have some kind of value or meaning latent in it.
But this type of description is not possible. When you describe something (no matter what it is you describe), you must do so with some purpose in mind. You need a framework, because reality is too big. There are too many details. You have to focus your time and attention on some particular events and leave any number of the millions of other possible events surrounding some episode unsaid.
Now, this already undermines the notion of literal meaning. Because if, say, I’m telling a story and I don’t mention the folds in the characters’ shirts or the fact that one of them cut themselves shaving that morning, then I’m leaving out facts of what really happened. But that’s because they are not relevant to what I’m trying to communicate—they are not part of the purpose for which I’m describing that event.
Now, depending on the purpose for which I’m describing something, I will use different types of language to describe it. The idea that somehow accuracy in a scientific sense of the word is always desirable is, of course, completely wrong. It is completely absurd because accuracy falls into an indefinite amount of detail.
Let’s say that I’m describing a fight and I want you to understand what happened. Now, I could use language that is extremely accurate. I could say something like:
“You know, the guy put his left foot in front and then the other person’s right hand came at this speed toward his face, and he flinched slightly when the fist hit his face. He displaced so many hairs and displaced so many pores and so many tissues in his check were disturbed. Then his head moved three centimeters to the left and then it moved forward four centimeters,” et cetera, et cetera.
I could describe the event in extreme detail, but as I’m describing it accurately, I’m not getting to the purpose for which I’m describing the event. To do that, I use hyperbolic language, like “The guy got smashed! He got his ass whooped!” in order to help you understand what happened in the fight. And in the end, this hyperbolic language – these figures of speech, exaggerations, etc. – will end up being truer to the purpose for which I’m describing the event. Truer, in fact, than I would have been had I attempted to be perfectly accurate.
Now, that’s extremely important to understand—especially if we’re looking at stories in the Bible. Each story in the Bible—each book in the Bible—has different ways of describing things based on the purpose for which they are describing them. There are different styles, different ways, different analogies used in order to help you understand the reason for which one is writing the text.
So this very idea that, somehow, you can get to some literal description of reality is extremely problematic and it’s not useful. It’s better to, rather, understand the purpose for which a story is being told.
Even a scientific theory or description is never literal or neutral. When you do a scientific experiment, you must frame that experiment narrowly, because there are too many details. If my purpose in a scientific experiment is to prove something about water, I will not give you descriptions of surrounding trees or rocks, or a description of the cloud cover that day. Instead, I will talk only about the facts of the thing that I’m trying to describe—an extremely narrow frame. I will use a certain kind of language—quantifiable language—in order to describe the phenomena, with the purpose of you understanding the mechanistic causes that bring it about (so that, for example, you could then reproduce it mechanistically, too).
But mechanistic reproduction is not always the reason why we’re describing an event. To use figures of speech can sometimes be more effective and more powerful than then using this kind of quantifiable language.
Now, if I use figures of speech or analogies to describe something, does that mean I’m not actually describing an event? Of course not! I’m still describing an event—I’m just using different ways of explaining it.
The point I’m making here is that it’s important you know the Christian way of describing reality is that the world is made by logos. The world is made by meaning and purpose, and the very cosmology in which Christianity exists excludes the possibility that there can be some kind of neutral reality that exists “at the bottom,” somehow, that is not informed by meaning (or logos).
The Bible itself describes the creation process as a process full of meaning and purpose. That said, I don’t understand how people can have this weird idea of a neutral reality existing underneath the world of Christianity. The Christian world is a meeting of heaven and earth. It’s a meeting of patterns, logos, meaning, and purpose. And this potentiality there at the bottom—what St. Maximus calls logos and tropos, this notion of purpose and meaning and the particularity of something—means heaven and earth joining together in a sort-of mini-incarnation. It may not be an incarnation in the same way that Christ is incarnated, but it is analogous in that it’s an invisible meaning and purpose which joins a kind of indefinite particularity, and that meaning is where reality exists. That’s where the world where life—where all these things—exists.
Once this starts to break in our thinking, a lot of things become less problematic. A lot of things become easier to deal with, because one of the problems that we have is that people seem to want to know the neutral event behind the stories.
Let’s say you’re reading Genesis. You’re reading the description of creation. You want to get to this event that, somehow, you think you can access “behind the story”—what really happened. But you don’t have access to that. And you can’t get to it because it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist on its own. As they are described, the events that happen are this framing—this coming together—of meaning and particulars.
What we do have is just the story. Especially when we’re talking about something like the creation story or other ancient stories that have been around for thousands of years. What we do have is the story. If you try to somehow get to what is behind the story in this neutral manner is not the right way to read them. People do think that somehow they tried, through these archaeological methods or through these historical methods, to get to what is behind the story in Genesis But it’s a futile trip. It’s especially futile if you think that once you get there, using archaeological methods or these different modern scientific ways of breaking down the text—you’re going to get to something which is truer than what the story is offering you.
Once you understand this, a lot of things are going to free up in your mind. A lot of problems are going to go away.
One of the one of the examples that I like to use is of the prophecy that that Elijah is going to come before the Messiah.
There there’s this Old Testament prophecy that says Elijah is going to show himself before the Messiah. So when Christ is here, the disciples asked him about this prophecy, and Christ tells them that Saint John the Baptist is the Elijah that was to come before the Messiah. He says if you’re able to receive this, that is what happened.
Now, the question that is asked is “Did Elijah come before the Messiah?” The answer is yes, Elijah did come before the Messiah. Elijah was John the Baptist.
You see what I’m doing there? I’m not trying to get to this weird, literal, neutral reality behind it. I’m trying to show you how Christ can quite easily take this prophecy and show that it’s actually a pattern of reality manifesting itself, and that here is the manner in which it manifests: Elijah as this pattern of St. John the Baptist—those two come together. Elijah did manifest himself before the Messiah.
Now, that is the answer that I will give to everything. Did Adam and Eve fall in the Garden? Yes. Did Adam and Eve eat the apple in the garden? Yes. I have no problem saying these things are true, and that they are the best description of that event and the best description of that reality. I’m not trying to, in some weird scientific sense, get behind the story to find out what it is that really happened. I have no idea what we think we’re going to get. The story is the story, and it’s the best way to describe the event.
Many problems modern Christians have come from the fact that, that without even knowing it, they have completely taken upon themselves this modern, “scientific” description as being the highest reality.
I remember hearing a Protestant tell me, “Science is just the mind of God.” Well, it’s seriously problematic to engage the world that way. Because then you always end up trying to get behind the story to find some scientific description which you could find behind the story. But it’s not there, because science is not the first the first degree of reality. Science is the best or only way to describe reality. If your purpose is to show people how to live, or if your purpose is to help people understand events that happened so long ago that all your reference points are basically gone, we use story tropes and manners of describing that are the best way to describe that event. Because of this, it’s extremely problematic to say that there is this weird opposition between literal and metaphorical.
Now, there are other people who somehow think that the metaphor is going to save them. That saying that something is a metaphor is going to get them out of trouble.
This is particularly true of Communion. I’ve seen often that people bring this up when I talk about Communion—that this is truly the body and blood of Christ. Now, always, someone will show up and say “No, it’s not it the real body—that’s so disturbing because then it’s a weird cannibalistic thing. It’s just a symbol, it’s just a metaphor.”
Well, you’re not getting out of the problem that easy. First of all, I will not accord to you that it is just a metaphor. But I’ll entertain that idea for a second. Then how are you getting out of the problem? You’re saying that it’s too disturbing that we would eat the real body and blood of Christ, but it’s not disturbing that you would eat the metaphorical body and blood of Christ? Is that not just as weird and disturbing as saying that it’s real?
Consider this rather disturbing example: Imagine some weird cult came up with a ritual where they eat the feces of someone, or they eat they have a kind of inverse satanic Communion where they eat the feces of their master and then you know someone says “Oh no, we’re not really eating the feces of our master. It’s just a metaphorical eating of the feces. We just make this bread in the form of feces and then we eat it. It’s less weird that way.”
But is it really? Why is that less disturbing? Why is that less of a problem?
So rather than punt to metaphor, it’s best to deal with the mystery of communion rather than try to skirt around it and avoid it by saying that if something is just a metaphor, it’s meaningless. It’s not.
I sometimes joke say there’s no such thing as literal and there is no metaphor. Now, that’s not exactly how things work. But it true that we can’t just throw something away and say, “Oh, that’s just a metaphor.” Because there’s a reason why we’re using that metaphor, even if it’s just a metaphor! There’s a reason why we’re using those particular words and that specific purpose. Metaphor, literal—these terms are not useful toward helping us understand how meaning occurs and how things unfold.
Now, to deal with this this problem of the body and blood in Communion, and to deal with the idea that it’s neither literal in the scientific sense nor is it a metaphor in the modern way of understanding metaphor, we have to understand that it’s symbolic. It’s the bringing together of elements and joining them with a spiritual essence. That that is how reality functions.
You could get to the same idea, for example, when we say that that the church is the “body of Christ.” Is that literal or is that a metaphor? Well, it’s neither. It’s not literal and it’s not metaphor. It’s a symbolic truth that helps us understand what a body is—how a body comes together and manifests something which is above it, something spiritual. Because anything that is a body is always an accumulation of parts. And just because you can’t visually see those parts close together does not mean that they aren’t parts which are separate from each other.
In your body, for example, there’s a lot of space between your molecules. If you think that that relatively small amount of space between your molecules is not bothersome, but the relatively the big amount of space between the members of the church is somehow bothersome, that’s a problem. The church can’t be a body. But the story of the church-as-body shows us that yes, the church can be a body—an accumulation of people can be a body just like the accumulation of molecules that comprise your body. The way this happens is neither literal nor metaphor. It’s symbolic. It shows the spiritual essence—the logos—via stories of unity and multiplicity.
I hope this helps you understand that the language of literal and metaphor is not useful to help you understand reality.