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Supplanting the supernatural with the ultranatural

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 10 June 2015

David Tacey is Emeritus Professor of Literature at La Trobe University. The point that Tacey makes in Beyond Literal Belief: Religion as Metaphor is correct: insistence on the historical accuracy of biblical texts is a barrier to faith. Belief cannot be equated with faith. Indeed, relying on evidence for belief does not put us in the way of the Spirit. Thus:

Literalism kills spirit because it takes the mythic forms as fact, failing to see that such forms cannot encompass the spirit of God, which is beyond form.

Assent to the articles of faith may be a way of reminding us about the faith but assent, belief, does not come close to being transformed by faith.


Tacey is also correct, in my opinion, in his refusal to countenance the existence of the supernatural. His statement: "The spiritual is ultra-natural, not supernatural." rings true. Thus he concludes that descriptions of biblical miracles are means of conveying the ultra-natural.

Tacey argues that Scripture must be read poetically or metaphorically and he gives good examples of mostly New Testament texts where this is obviously the case. For example, the appearance of Jesus after his death on the road to Emmaus in the gospel of Luke (24:13-35) is obviously a story about His presence in the Church as teacher and in the breaking of the bread in the celebration of the Eucharist. The logic of it is that it is very unlikely to be both an historical account and a conscious metaphor. He emphasises the role of the imagination in understanding such texts.

Once the imagination is functioning, we don't need the miracles to be literally true, because as soon as we perceive their meaning they have performed their function.

Tacey says some sensible thing about idolatry from a psychological point of view. He rightly, in my opinion, sees that one of the most dangerous idolatries for Christians is the making of Jesus into an idol. The result of this can be a crippling of the psyche because the self is smothered, as it is in all idolatry. This is one of the evils of religion.

However, the weaknesses of the book are many and fatal. We find a tirade against literalists, theologians and the Church that are overemphasised. For example we find the following:

The bible was written in a code language that few have cracked, a symbolic register that was systematically misinterpreted.


This is an example of many such sweeping statements that condemn the Church and its theologians. Whether he does so in order to make his case seem more dramatic or he is ignorant of contemporary biblical and theological scholarship I will let the reader decide. There are many sweeping claims that the church has been wrong about the bible and that theologians have supported literalist exegesis. The dividing point for Tacey seems to be between individual thinkers and the councils of the Church:

The early church fathers were not literalists and had a sophisticated understanding of symbol. The theologian Origen (185-254) said scripture was symbol, and its words and stories merely the outward "images of divine things." While the early Church councils moved in a literal direction, intellectuals in the early church were philosophically minded and did not counsel literalism.

This is a completely unjustifiable statement. We might note that the ultimate achievement of the councils of the early church was the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. In doing so it had to ignore various verses in the New Testament that would have suggested a subordinate Christology and a disabled doctrine. A literalist reading of Scripture could not have arrived at the doctrine that is the crowning glory of Christian theology in whose name we worship each and every Sunday.

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This is a review of Beyond Literal Belief: Religion as Metaphor by David Tacey, Garret Publishing.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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