Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Threat of Literalism


A Facebook recommendation from a friend of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina Bible Challenge group troubled me. He wrote,
"Something we all need to bear in mind: the 'Threat of Literalism.'"

He linked to a piece by a Ken Kovacs on the CatonsvillePatch (Catonsville, MD) From Feb. 14, 2013 which was begging for a fisk. The opening sentence is a dead give-away,

"No, not liberalism (I don’t ordinarily consider that a concern) – I’m troubled by literalism."
The writer does not define liberalism, but his lack of concern likely alienates a certain segment of his potential audience from the get-go. He next proceeds to define literalism with lots of scare quotes and perjoratives as follows,

"Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty. Literalism is an obsession (and it is an obsession) with what is actual, literal, with the 'letter of the law,' with the need to nail down (sometimes, literally) what is true and not true and then defending that 'truth' at all costs. It’s a way of being and believing that seeks to maintain a tight 'hold' on reality. It’s a way of being that is suspicious (maybe paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality, because for the literalist, for example, there can only be one interpretation of a text – whether it’s a religious text (such as the Koran or the Bible) or a secular text (like the U. S. Constitution) – only one meaning, only one way to be and one way to believe in this world."

That makes for a pretty frightening image doesn't it? Never mind that his definition of an idealized literalist creates a black and white, one way and only way to think, tightly held 'truth', and helps the writer turn his version of a literalist into the world's greatest bogey man...

"So, why is literalism such a threat? Because, quite simply, the literalist bent undergirds and stands behind the many expressions of fundamentalism (religious and otherwise) unleashing its toxic effluence throughout the contemporary public square."
It is so refreshing to read the non-toxic effluence of the liberated mind. Notice that he fails to define fundamentalism while equating literalism with fundamentalism.

"The unmitigated fact is that reality is infinitely more complicated and complex than fundamentalists will acknowledge, actually more than they are free to admit."
Add "simple minded" to obsessive and  maybe paranoid.

"Fundamentalism, especially the religious variety, is the very opposite of freedom. It’s a form of bondage."
Add masochistic to simple minded, obsessive, and maybe paranoid.
"It’s a defense reaction against the ever-increasing intricacies and challenges of the contemporary world."
Add knuckle dragging to masochistic, simple minded, obsessive, and maybe paranoid.
"Fundamentalism might be viewed, as one commentator has said, as a refusal to see beyond the vested and small certainties that do more to hold off the unknown, than give answers."
Add blind to masochistic, simple minded, obsessive, and maybe paranoid.
"As a result, fundamentalism and its bedfellow literalism have inflicted untold most damage against the very world they say they care most about and try to defend and preserve, the world of religious faith."
Fundamentalism and literalism are thus joined in a committed lifelong monogamous, covenantal, bed sharing relationship. A blind, masochistic, simple minded, obsessive, and paranoid  relationship perhaps. I wonder if they have a web site?

When a revisionist really gets going, expect them to pull out sayings from noted theologian "X" or distinguished professor "Y" in hopes this will lend credibility to their point of view (which is after all the "only one way to be and one way to believe in this"). So get ready to be taken on a ride,

James Hollis, Jungian analyst and writer, suggests that literalism is actually a form of religious blasphemy because it seeks to concretize (nail down, define) and absolutize the core experience of the Holy, of God – a God, if God, who cannot be controlled or defined; a God, as theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) insisted, who was Wholly Other, a God who remains ultimately a mystery. And a mystery is not the same thing as a puzzle (which can be solved); a mystery is always enigmatic and is therefore inherently unknowable. The German theologian Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769) reminded us, "A God comprehended is no God." Even for Christians who confess that Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God the world has ever known or will know (as I do), this does not mean Christians are free to say we have an exhaustive knowledge of God. Humility of knowledge is essential whenever we attempt to make truth claims. Thinking we comprehend the truth is a fantasy. I’m not saying the truth doesn’t exist or that it’s completely inaccessible; it just means we need to remember that our “hold” on it is always elusive.
Come on, can't you say something stronger than that about those psychos? Oh yeah, here it comes,
"Hollis, whose writings I admire and enormously respect, even argues that literalism is a kind of psychopathology in need of deep healing (redemption?). From his many years as a psychotherapist he has come to see that a way to gauge mental health and emotional maturity is the degree to which one is able to tolerate what he calls the triple A’s – ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety. The ability to hold these in tension – and not escape into literalism and fundamentalism, into strategies of avoidance – is a way to test our psychic strength. I can certainly resonate with this. The literalists (of all varieties) I have known and know (and love) have difficulty tolerating ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety. They use their faith or their political ideology to bolster themselves against, hide themselves from the triple A’s that define the human condition."

Change "maybe paranoid" to "definitely psychotic".

The reference to Barth has to be balanced by somebody who we can really trust and believe (not that we can trust or believe anybody or anything if we carry this argument out to its logical end). Let's see, who can we dredge up? I know, a pagan philosopher!
"Writing twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Protagoras (c. 490-420 BCE) might provide wise counsel to our troubled, conflicted age, and offer some hope: 'Concerning the gods,” he wrote, “I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what form they are; for there are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.'  We could all use a little more humility and intellectual honesty like his in the public square."

I can only hope that my fellow Upper South Carolinian Bible student sees the threat posed by the process of building intellectually dishonest straw men as an enemy. That process will create dangerous feelings of pride and self-confidence.

Those real enemies will not be as easy to topple. 


  1. Literalism. Lots of words, BS baffles brains.

    1. Yeah Phillip, it makes it hard to take the threat literally seriously.

  2. You completely missed the point of my piece. And the use of sarcasm is not an argument.

  3. Anonymous1:25 PM

    Dear Underground Pewster,

    Seems like SOMEONE is a little bit oversensitive and unwilling to consider the truth behind any of the things to which he is reacting. Please notice I say, "reacting," rather than "arguing against" or "disputing" Mr. Kovacs' points, since neither of those things happens in this response. Which is a shame, because I like your writing style, being a certified sarcastic person myself.

    1. Thanks Worthingtonpost,

      This site tends to take a sarcastic look at things, and I understand that some folks take a dim view of sarcasm.

      Their loss!