A couple of months ago, a satirical Internet post quoted the Pope as saying that the church no longer believes in a literal Hell.
I bought it for about four seconds—enough to say, “What!?!” rather than “Yeah, right”—because there was something so lovely about the way it was expressed: “Hell is merely a metaphor for the isolated soul, which like all souls ultimately will be united in love with God.”
Sweet, don’t you think? That’s what I thought.
But then I remembered the Truth Spectrum™.
The Truth Spectrum™ is a highly regarded measure of religious attitude that I just made up. It has nothing to do with whether your scriptures are true. It just measures how true you believe them to be.
It’s simple, really.
“True!” You believe your Holy Text to be literally true. To put this in (seasonally appropriate) Passover terms, that means you believe God actually appeared to Moses “in a blazing fire out of a bush” and started talking to him (Exodus 3).
“True in a sense.” You believe your Holy Text to be true, but sometimes figurative or evocative rather than literal. “The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:21–22)? OK, maybe not. But the parting of the Red Sea represents the power of God, which permitted the Israelites to escape from Egypt, against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“There is truth in this.” You believe that your Holy Text contains some historical, scientific, and even ethical errors. But you can ignore those and focus on the wisdom to be found there: the psychological truths of, for instance, how the oppressed sometimes resist their own deliverance, “their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9), and how great leaders are sometimes reluctant leaders: “Please, O Lord, make someone else your agent” (Exodus 4:13).
“I can make some truth from this.” You believe that the text in question is fictional, but still useful. As far as you can tell, Exodus is about one people’s escape from slavery so they can go have slaves of their own (see Leviticus 25). But you feel the resonant imagery and dialogue—“Let My People Go!”—can still help you teach your kids about liberation movements and human rights.
“Bullshit!” You believe you should teach your kids about liberation movements and human rights by talking about, um, liberation movements and human rights. No need to sift through ancient, patriarchal, sectarian, demonic mumbo-jumbo. “Every first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle” (Exodus 11:5).
That’s it. That’s the Truth Spectrum™: from simply “true” to simply not.
Since this is a spectrum, one doesn’t necessarily land squarely on one of these spots. For instance, you might think I would be standing smack in the “Bullshit” camp, but you’re forgetting I majored in Comparative Literature; I can make truth from anything. And sometimes it’s useful to have a place to start.
Even so, I stand a notch or two farther to the “Bullshit” side than where I started. People move over time. And so do peoples. A majority of Greeks at some point probably thought Zeus actually turned himself into a swan. Even then, I’m sure there were people crying, “Bullshit! Leda made that up.” One should never assume that everyone in a certain era is at the same point on the spectrum. All the way back in the 12th century, Maimonides said of Genesis, “The account given in scripture is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal.” In other words, “true in a sense.”
Maybe one day the Catholic Church will officially move from “True” to “True in a sense,” but right now—though individual Catholics around the world may waver—it’s sticking with literal miracles and a literal Hell and the literal transformation of a cracker and a sip of wine into the body and blood of Christ. Not a symbol or reminder of Christ—his real flesh.
Now that’s taking a stand against metaphor.