The Truth Spectrum

pngA 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.

The Truth Spectrum

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.


  1. Have you really trademarked your Truth Spectrum?? I like it! It’s chewy (as in a lot to chew on) and interesting! A possible thing to consider as you refine it, though, is that Catholics aren’t all that encouraged to read the books their faith is based on. Or at least I don’t recall ever being encouraged to. I didn’t go to Catholic school and can’t speak for all Catholics, but the general drill is that Bible passages are pre-selected (a whole year of readings laid out in advance, I believe, and the same ones read in Catholic churches all over the world), read aloud at Mass, and interpreted by the priest in his homily. Also, there are lots of prayers. Anyway, at this point it’s all comparative literature to me, and the source texts don’t enter into my place on the Truth Spectrum that much. The Hebrew Bible and New Testament are sociologically and historically interesting to me, but not to be taken literally in any way, except (in the case of the NT) to confirm that a person named Jesus of Nazareth did exist and is reported to have said some interesting things. But metaphorically, they are not more important or resonant to me than a lot of other books I’ve read (Or, I should say, have read parts of!), and wouldn’t be the first ones I’d turn to in search of an instructive story. What my mother always called the “smells and bells,” on the other hand,–ie: the physicality of a Catholic church–the statues (especially of Mary), incense, music, the act of kneeling to pray, etc.–still have the power to move me, and always give me a tiny inkling of what it might be like to have faith. Anyway, good post and cool graphics, and I hope you don’t mind my rather long, two-cent contribution!

    1. Yes, you’re right–it’s not so much a “holy text” thing as it is a catechism thing, right? I just don’t know enough about Catholicism to throw it into an essay. Watch out–next time I’ll check with you first. Is it true, though, that the Pope IS interested in text–that Catholics have to go by where HE (or the official church) is on the spectrum–not where they are personally?

      Smells and bells. I’m totally blogging on that concept. I will credit your mom, of course.

      I used the Canva for the graphics–free and easy. I mean, I still spent longer on it than I should have, but it was fun.

      1. Haha. No need to check with me–I’m definitely not an authority! And I kind of went stream-of-consciousness on you there, and was having comment remorse, so thanks for replying! I wasn’t correcting you so much as I was just struck by how my own lack of faith came from somewhere other than really examining the books, even though I did do that a bit (and found nothing to convince me to go back) in college.

        Yes, I think the Pope, cardinals, etc. would have to be interested in the text, but the Catholic Church is also theoretically guided by the Holy Spirit and able to use the text more as a launching point if so moved, I think. A lot of (most?) practicing Catholics have learned to live with the dissonance between what they actually believe/how they live (using birth control, for instance) and what the church says, and choose to work from within to try to effect the changes they would like to see if that’s important to them. It’s an uphill battle, to be sure, but one that’s suddenly seeming potentially easier with Francis at the helm! Strangely, though, transubstantiation is not one of the things that I’ve ever really heard Catholics quibbling about, even though it’s hard (impossible, in my mind) to read about the last supper and NOT think metaphor! Actual body and blood? Really??

        I’m sure my mom didn’t coin the term smells and bells, but it IS great. And actually, after I commented before I was thinking that you did write something already–about being in churches in Europe with the kids this summer?–reflecting on that feeling that was really good. Okay, I better stop now lest I cause myself more remorse! Will have to check out Canva–Thanks!

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