The Literal and Figurative as Subsets of Religious Speech

I am working up a longer post on this topic, but for now, consider this statement attributed to Francis Collins, Obama’s nominee for Director of the National Institute for Health National Institutes of Health:

…he thinks the presence of the divine can be directly observed, even if it cannot be measured and tested…

Now, I would prefer a direct quote, and know that Collins’ words may have been slightly different, but I’m going to provisionally take it as stated.

When a scientist says that something is “directly observable,” but nonetheless “cannot be measured or tested,” I am inclined to think that they are not using the word “observe” in a literal way. At least they are not using it to mean, “available to the five human senses or to instruments designed to extend the human senses beyond their normal reach.”

Rather, I suspect that the word “observe” is being used as figurative speech: a metaphor, a figure, a kind of poetry. I should add that I do not consider figurative speech to be a kind of window-dressing to literal speech: a figurative utterance has cognitive uniqueness; it signifies in a way not reducible to literal speech. For example, the figurative utterance

The stars are in blossom, the moon is in flower

is not simply reducible to some literal paraphrase like, “There are many stars out, and the moon has waxed to full.” The figurative speech (Tolkien, by way, from the final chapter of The Hobbit) means uniquely: it signifies something that no other utterance can quite match. That something is not “testable or measureable,” but it is something private, a something that unfolds between the text and the individual hearer. Therefore, it is not ultimately shareable, though productive conversation on the work might be shared.

I want to say that religious claims should be divisible into two kinds: literal claims that submit to “testing and measurement” (this would include religious claims about the age of the earth, the nature of sexuality,  and so on), and figurative claims that have the status of works of art (which might also mean to effect public opinion and policy, but after the fashion of Huckleberry Finn or the Corporate American Flag rather than in the way of a scientific discovery or a poll). When we say, “God is love,” or “God answers prayer,” or “God acts in history,” we should be able to make a clear accounting as to the literalness or figurativeness of our speech, submitting the former to “testing and measurement” and the latter to the rather different critical norms of art.

Ultimately, I have hopes that this line of thinking may help introductory students in religious studies to systematize and clarify the claims they make in collaborative discussion.

Thoughts on these reflections in progress?

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3 Responses

  1. These are great thoughts, particularly about the irreducible quality of figurative language. I think that your goal is good but I wonder if it will founder because most people would find that very premise about the irreducibility of figurative language counter-intuitive. There is a common privileging of what you refer to as “literal” language in western culture and I’m not sure if you’ll be able to by-pass that cultural inclination with ease. It’s an idea worth pursuing to be sure, and it would be interesting to hear how it turns out.

    • Hi Colin,
      Thanks a lot. I couldn’t agree more with you: the misconception about figurative speech, with the resultant privileging of literal speech as more true, is the cultural bottleneck. (Also, I rush past it in this short post.)

      I suspect that my best audience at this early point of my reflection is one that already is prepared to value figurative speech as cognitively unique (albeit not testable and measurable in the way that literal claims about the world are). If those folk are willing to divide speech not into “science and religion” but into the “literal and figurative,” then I think a good start is made.

      Thanks again, very much!

  2. I think Collin has an important point about our cultural valuation of literal over figurative speech, but that may be why this conversation is so important to intro students. It may be an important step in helping students realize that when we speak of a bible passage or a theological statement as figurative, it does not mean that we are tossing it aside as fictional, exaggerated or unimportant. In many ways it goes alongside the hurdle of re-claiming words like mythology and argument.

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