Chapter One - The Double Vision of Language


The Whirligig of Time, 1925-90

I begin with a date. In 1990 The United Church of Canada, founded in 1925, reached an age often associated with superannuation. Only a minority of its members now recall church union, and there are still fewer who acquired, as I did, their elementary religious training within the pre-union Methodist church. In Methodism, even of the episcopal variety to which my family belonged, there was an emphasis on religious experience as distinct from doctrine and on very early exposure to the story element in the Bible. Such a conditioning may have helped to propel me in the direction of a literary criticism that has kept revolving around the Bible, not as a source of doctrine but as a source of story and vision. It may be of interest to explain what effect I think this has had on my general point of view on the world today, apart from the peculiar features of what I have written.

History moves in a cyclical rhythm which never forms a complete or closed cycle. A new movement begins, works itself out to exhaustion, and something of the original state then reappears, though in a quite new context presenting new conditions. I have lived through at least one major historical cycle of this kind: its main outlines are familiar to you, but the inferences I have drawn from it may be less so. When I arrived at Victoria College as a freshman in September 1929, North America was not only prosperous but in a nearly hysterical state of self-congratulation. It was widely predicted that the end of poverty and the levelling out of social inequalities were practically within reach. In the Soviet Union, on the other hand, the reports were mainly of misery and despair. The inference for general public opinion on this side of the Atlantic was clear: capitalism worked and Marxism didn't.

Next month came the stock market crash, and there was no more talk of a capitalist Utopia. By the mid-thirties the climate of opinion had totally reversed, at least in the student circles I was attached to. Then it was a generally accepted dogma that capitalism had had its day and was certain to evolve very soon, with or without a revolution, into socialism, socialism being assumed to be both a more efficient and a morally superior system. The persistence of this view helped to consolidate my own growing feeling that myths are the functional units of human society, even when they are absurd myths. The myth in this case was the ancient George and dragon one: fascism was the dragon, democracy the maiden to be rescued, and despite the massacres, the deliberately organized famines, the mass uprooting of peoples, the grabbing of neighbouring territories, and the concentration camps, Stalin simply had to fit into the role of the rescuing knight. This was by no means a unanimous feeling - among Communists themselves there was a bitterly anti-Stalin Trotskyite group - but it extended over a good part of the left of centre.

That cycle has completed itself, and once again people in the West are saying, as they said sixty years ago, that it has been proved that capitalism works and Marxism does not. With the decline of belief in Marxism, apart from an intellectual minority in the West that doesn't have to live with it, the original marxist vision is often annexed by the opposite camp. Going back to the competitive economy that Marx denounced, we are often told, will mean a new life for the human race, perhaps even the ultimate goal that Marx himself promised: an end to exploitation and class struggle. Hope springs eternal: unfortunately it usually springs prematurely.

The failure of communism, or what has been assumed to be communism - it was more accurately a form of state capitalism - is apparently a genuine failure, but it would be silly to return to the 1929 naiveté. Marxist economies may be trying to survive by making extensive reforms in an open-market direction, but capitalism only survived the last half-century by abandoning the more nihilistic aspects of laissez-faire and making equally extensive reforms in a socialist and welfare-state direction. For all the see-sawing between nationalizing and privatizing, the permanent effects of the Roosevelt revolution in the United States, and parallel revolutions in Western Europe, make it impossible to put any confidence in back-to-square-one clichés.

In capitalism there is both a democratic and an oligarchic tendency, and the moral superiority of capitalism over communism depends entirely on the ascendency of the democratic element. Most citizens in North America, at least from about 1945 on, were only subliminally aware of living under a capitalist system: what mattered to them was political democracy, not the economic structure. Similarly news analysts today put their main emphasis on the growing disillusionment with all forms of ideology in Eastern Europe, and the emerging feeling that systems do not matter: it is only freedom and dignity and the elementary amenities of civilization that matter. The view of Hegel that history was progressing through conflicts of ideas toward an ultimate goal of freedom was reversed by Marx into a view of history that identified the conflicting elements with materialistic forces, especially instruments of production and the class struggle over their ownership. Through a good deal of the twentieth century, it was generally assumed, even in the non-marxist world, that Hegel's main contribution to philosophy was in getting his construct stood on its head by Marx. But now the original Hegelian conception is being revived, and the revolutions of our day are sometimes seen as manifestations of an impulse to freedom that may put an end to history as we have known it.

Freedom alone, however, is far too abstract a goal. As Heine said, freedom is a prison song: those who care about it are those who have been deprived of it. History tells us that, ever since Adam's six hours in paradise, man has never known what to do with freedom except throw it away. Involved in the Christian conception of original sin is the perception that no human society is likely to do anything sensible for longer than the time it takes to break a New Year's resolution. Despite this, I think there is a real truth in the notion of an impulse to freedom, but it needs to be placed in a broader and more practical context.

Human beings are concerned beings, and it seems to me that there are two kinds of concern: primary and secondary. Primary concerns are such things as food, sex, property, and freedom of movement: concerns that we share with animals on a physical level. Secondary concerns include our political, religious, and other ideological loyalties. All through history ideological concerns have taken precedence over primary ones. We want to live and love, but we go to war; we want freedom, but depend on the exploiting of other peoples, of the natural environment, even of ourselves. In the twentieth century, with a pollution that threatens the supply of air to breathe and water to drink, it is obvious that we cannot afford the supremacy of ideological concerns any more. The need to eat, love, own property, and move about freely must come first, and such needs require peace, good will, and a caring and responsible attitude to nature. A continuing of ideological conflict, a reckless exploiting of the environment, a persistence in believing, with Mao Tse-Tung, that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, would mean, quite simply, that the human race cannot be long for this world.

The Cold War gave us a Soviet Union upholding an allegedly materialist ideology, at the price of chronic food shortages, sexual prudery, abolition of all property except the barest essentials of clothing and shelter, and a rigidly repressed freedom of movement. The United States offered vast quantities of food and drink, indiscriminate sexual activity, piling up of excessive wealth and privilege, and a restless nomadism - in other words, full satisfaction of primary concerns on a purely physical level. An evolution toward freedom, however, is conceivable if freedom is a primary concern, if it belongs in the context of enough to eat and drink, of normal sexual satisfaction, of enough clothing, shelter, and property.

The immediate concern of freedom is still a physical one: it is a matter of being able to move about without being challenged by policemen demanding passports and permits and identity cards, and of not being excluded from occupations and public places on the ground of sex or skin colour. I should explain also that when I speak of property I mean the external forms of what is 'proper' to one's life as an individual, starting with clothing and shelter. These also include what may be called territorial space. A Hindu hermit meditating in a forest may need next to nothing of clothing and shelter, and no possessions at all, but he still needs space around him.

The United States, Japan, and Western Europe have been much more successful in achieving stage one of primary concern: as compared with the formerly Marxist countries, they are more attractive and more comfortable to live in. But the legacy of the Cold War is still with us, and not only does an adversarial situation impoverish both sides, but both sides catch the worst features of their opponents. We have seen this in the McCarthyism that imitated the Stalinist show trials, the McCarran act that imitated Soviet exclusion policies, and the interventions in Latin America that imitate the Stalinist attitude to the Warsaw Pact countries. Something at the very least, is still missing.

Primitive and Mature Societies

When Jesus was tempted by the devil to improve the desert economy by turning stones into bread, he answered, quoting Deuteronomy, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by prophecies as well. That is, primary concerns, for conscious human beings, must have a spiritual as well as a physical dimension. Freedom of movement is not simply the freedom to take a plane to Vancouver; it must include freedom of thought and criticism. Similarly, property should extend to scientific discovery and the production of poetry and music; sex should be a matter of love and companionship and not a frenetic rutting in rubber; food and drink should become a focus of the sharing of goods within a community. I pass over the violence, the drug addiction, and the general collapse of moral standards that accompany overemphasis on the satisfying of physical wants, because one hardly needs to be told that they are the result of a lack of spiritual vision. The obvious question to raise next is, What is the difference between the spiritual aspect of primary concerns and the secondary or ideological concerns just mentioned?

I think the difference is expressed in two types of society, one primitive and the other mature. A primitive or embryonic society is one in which the individual is thought of as primarily a function of the social group. In all such societies a hierarchical structure of authority has to be set up to ensure that the individual does not get too far out of line. A mature society, in contrast, understands that its primary aim is to develop a genuine individuality in its members. In a fully mature society the structure of authority becomes a function of the individuals within it, all of them, without distinctions of sex, class, or race, living, loving, thinking, and producing with a sense of space around them. Throughout history practically all societies have been primitive ones in our present sense: a greater maturity and a genuine concern for the individual peeps out occasionally, but is normally smothered as society collapses back again into its primitive form.

The reason for this is that we all belong to something before we are anything, and the primitive structure has all the vast power of human inertia and passive social conditioning on its side. Fifty years ago, the great appeal of Marxism to intellectuals in the West was that it renewed the emphasis on primitive social values, providing a social gospel with the right answers in what purported to be not only a rational but a scientific system. Many conservatives of that time preferred a similar structure that some Roman Catholic intellectuals believed they had discovered in Thomist realism; people who simply hated human intelligence turned fascist. In the United States only a minority wanted to buy any of these nostrums, but the Americans had their own primitive mattress to sleep on, the American way of life, with all its anti-intellectual cosiness.

What I am expounding may be called a bourgeois liberal view, which throughout my lifetime has never been regarded as an 'advanced' view. But it may begin to look more central with the repudiation of marxism in Marxist countries, the growing uneasiness with the anti-intellectualism in American life, and the steadily decreasing dividends of terrorism in Third World countries. The ascendant feeling in Eastern Europe now is that a collective ideology is no longer good enough for human dignity. What triggered the feeling, we said, was the failure of communism to provide the physical basis of primary concern: food, possessions, and free movement. Even on the physical level, primary concerns are still individual: famine is a social problem, but it is the individual who eats or starves. But the spiritual form of these concerns is the sign of the real failure.

The spiritual form of primary concern, then, fulfils the physical need but incorporates it into the context of an individualized society. The ideological or secondary concern may be the same in theory, but its subordination of individual to social needs constantly frustrates, postpones, or circumvents the fulfilment of the primary ones. Where there is no awareness of such a distinction there are often arguments, in cultural circles particularly, contrasting socially engaged and activist art, where every book or film or picture is or should be a political statement, with introverted or ingrown creativity that concentrates on subjective feelings. The antithesis is false because it is an antithesis: in a mature culture it would disappear.

I said than an adversarial situation like that of the Cold War impoverishes both sides. The one adversarial situation that does not do so is the conflict between the demands of primary human welfare on the one hand, and a paranoid clinging to arbitrary power on the other. Naturally this black-and-white situation is often very hard to find in the complexities of revolutions and power struggles, but it is there, and nothing in any revolutionary situation is of any importance except preserving it. When we see it, we can realize that the difference between ideological and spiritual concern is, among other things, a difference in language. Before I can clarify this point I must turn to the confrontation of primitive and mature social impulses in the history of religion.

Religious organizations are much more bound than the better secular ones to what I have called the primitive form of society, the supremacy of social authority over the individual. It frequently appears to be practically an element of faith that the interests and reputation of the church as a social unit must take precedence over the welfare of the individuals within it, a faith rationalized by the claim that the two things are always identical. Church authorities appeal to a revelation from God, or a corresponding spiritual power beyond the reach of revolutionary uprisings, of which they are the custodians and definitive interpreters. In many respects the twentieth-century Cold War repeated the later stages of the situation that arose with the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Then, a revolutionary movement, at first directed mainly toward a reform of abuses in the church, showed signs of expanding and breaking open a tightly closed structure of authority that claimed exclusive and infallible powers in both spiritual and temporal orders. What was centrally at issue was reformation itself, the conception of a church that could be reformed in principle and not merely through modifying the corruptions that had grown up within it. The Reformers thought of the church as subject to a higher criterion, namely the Word of God, and as obligated to carry on a continuous dialogue with the Word while in a subordinate position to it.

Established authority reacted to this movement as established authority inevitably does. The Council of Trent gives an impression of passing one reactionary resolution after another in a spirit of the blindest panic. Yet the Council of Trent succeeded in its main objective, which was to persuade Catholics that post-Tridentine Catholicism was not only the legitimate descendant of the pre-Reformation church, but was in fact identical with it. The logical inference was the claim of a power of veto over the Bible, a position set out in Newman's Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, where a historical dialectic takes supreme command in a way closely parallel to the constructs of Hegel and Marx.

There was also, of course, the argument that basing the church on justification by faith alone would lead to the chaos of private judgement and subjective relativism. What is important here is not the validity of such an argument but the fact that the main Reformed bodies tended to adopt it. When it came to establishing the Word of God as an authority, the Reformers themselves could only become the accredited spokesmen of that authority. And so the real reformation towards a more mature society of individualized Christians was betrayed by Protestants as well as opposed by Catholics. A historian might see the Lutheran and Anabaptist movements as primarily emphasizing different aspects of reformation, but Luther himself showed the same enthusiasm for killing off Anabaptists that, in the twentieth century, Communists showed for killing off Anarchists.

Many of the greatest spirits of Luther's time, such as Erasmus, looked for a movement toward a far greater spiritual maturity than either Reformation or Counter-Reformation achieved, and tried to hold to the standards of a liberalism that would transcend both the Roman Catholic status quo and its Lutheran and Calvinist antitheses. But for Erasmus, or for Rabelais, there was no attraction in a more hardened and sectarian version of what was already there.

So both sides took the broad way to destruction, with the bloody conflicts of civil wars in France and Germany, along with a war of Protestants fighting each other in Britain. In the course of centuries the adversarial situation gradually subsided into a cold war instead of an actual war, which, however, did not eliminate, any more than its counterparts have eliminated in our day, endless persecution within individual nations. This cold war situation lasted roughly until our own time, when Vatican Two and ecumenical movements in Protestantism have begun to show how out of touch such antagonisms are with both the conditions of contemporary life and the spirit of Christianity. Religious parallels to the current political demands for greater individual autonomy sprang up in the more liberal Protestant circles in the nineteenth century and are now breaking into Catholicism on all sides, though still officially inadmissible to the upper hierarchy.

In the course of time the movement begun by the Reformation did achieve one major victory: the gradual spread throughout the Western world of the principle of separation of church and state. Something of the genuine secular benefits of democracy have rubbed off on the religious groups, to the immense benefit of humanity, and depriving religion of all secular or temporal power is one of the most genuinely emancipating movements of our time. It seems to be a general rule that the more 'orthodox' or 'fundamentalist' a religious attitude is, the more strongly it resents this separation and the more consistently it lobbies for legislation giving its formulas secular authority. Today, in Israel and in much of the Moslem and Hindu world, as well as in Northern Ireland and South Africa, we can clearly see that these religious attitudes are the worst possible basis for a secular society.

This principle applies equally to the dogmatic atheism and the anti-religious campaigns that Lenin assumed to be essential to the Marxist revolution. I was in Kiev during the celebration of the thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine, and it was clear that seventy years of anti-religious propaganda had been as total and ignominious a failure there as anything in the economic or political sphere. In short, any religion, including atheism, which remains on the socially and psychologically primitive level, in the sense I have given to the word primitive, can do little more than illustrate Swift's gloomy axiom that men have only enough religion to hate each other but not enough for even a modicum of tolerance, let alone anything resembling charity.

Michael explains to Adam, in the last book of Milton's Paradise Lost that tyranny exists in human society because every individual in such a society is a tyrant within himself, or at least is if he conforms acceptably to his social surroundings. The well-adjusted individual in a primitive society is composed of what Paul calls the soma psychikon, or what the King James Bible translates as the 'natural man' (I Corinthians 2:14). He has, or thinks he has, a soul, or mind, or consciousness, sitting on top of certain impulses and desires that are traditionally called 'bodily.' 'Body' is a very muddled metaphor in this context: we should be more inclined today to speak of repressed elements in the psyche. In any case the natural man sets up a hierarchy within himself and uses his waking consciousness to direct and control his operations. We call him the natural man partly because he is, first, a product of nature, and inherits along with his genetic code the total devotion to his own interests that one writer has called 'the selfish gene.'

Second, he is a product of his social and ideological conditioning. He cannot distinguish what he believes from what he believes he believes, because his faith is simply an adherence to the statements of belief provided for him by social authority, whether spiritual or temporal. As with all hierarchies, the lower parts are less well adjusted than the upper ones, and 'underneath' in the restless and squirming body, or whatever else we call it, is a rabble of doubts telling him that his intellectual set-up is largely fraudulent. He may shout down his doubts and trample them underfoot as temptations coming from a lower world, but he is still what Hegel calls an unhappy consciousness.

For reassurance, he looks around him at the society which reflects his hierarchy in a larger order. A society composed of natural men is also a hierarchy in which there are superiors and inferiors, and if such a society has any stability, one draws a sense of security from one's social position, even if it is 'inferior.' Disoriented inferiors, of course, are the social counterpart of doubts, and also have to be trampled underfoot. It is easy to see why the two most influential thinkers of the twentieth century are Marx and Freud: they are those who called attention, in the social and individual spheres respectively, to the exploitation in society, to the latent hysteria in the individual, and to the alienation produced by both.

Inside one's natural and social origin, however, is the embryo of a genuine individual struggling to be born. But this unborn individual is so different from the natural man that Paul has to call it by a different name. The New Testament sees the genuine human being as emerging from an embryonic state within nature and society into the fully human world of the individual, which is symbolized as a rebirth or second birth, in the phrase that Jesus used to Nicodemus. Naturally this rebirth cannot mean any separation from one's natural and social context, except insofar as a greater maturity includes some knowledge of the conditioning that was formerly accepted uncritically. The genuine human being thus born is the soma pneumatikon, the spiritual body (I Corinthians 15:44). This phrase means that spiritual man is a body: the natural man or soma psychikon merely has one. The resurrection of the spiritual body is the completion of the kind of life the New Testament is talking about, and to the extent that any society contains spiritual people, to that extent it is a mature rather than a primitive society.

The Crisis in Language

What concerns me in this situation is a linguistic fallacy, the fallacy that relates to the phrase 'literally true.' Ordinarily, we mean by 'literally true' what is descriptively accurate. We read many books for the purpose of acquiring information about the world outside the books we are reading, and we call what we read 'true' if it seems to be a satisfactory verbal replica of the information we seek. This conception of literal meaning as descriptive works only on the basis of sense experience and the logic that connects its data. That is, it works in scientific and historical writing. But it took a long time before such descriptive meaning could be fully mature and developed, because it depends on technological aids. We cannot describe phenomena accurately in science before we have the apparatus to do so; there cannot be a progressive historical knowledge until we have a genuine historiography, with access to documents and, for the earlier periods at least, some help from archaeology. Literalism of this kind in the area of the spiritual instantly becomes what Paul calls the letter that kills. It sets up an imitation of descriptive language, a pseudo-objectivity related to something that isn't there.

In the early Christian centuries it was widely assumed that the basis of Christian faith was the descriptive accuracy of the historical events recorded in the New Testament and the infallibility of the logical arguments that interconnected them. This pseudo-literalism was presented as certain without the evidence of sense experience, and belief became a self-hypnotizing process designed to eke out the insufficiency of evidence. The rational arguments used were assumed to have a compulsive power: if we accept this, then that must follow, and so on. A compelling dialectic based on the excluding of opposites is a militant use of words; but where there is no genuine basis in sense experience, it is only verbally rational: it is really rhetoric, seeking not proof but conviction and conversion. It is seldom, however, that anyone is convinced by an argument unless there are psychological sympathies within that open the gates to it. So when words failed, as they usually did, recourse was had to anathematizing those who held divergent views, and from there it was an easy step to the psychosis of heresy-hunting, of regarding all deviation from approved doctrine as a malignant disease that had to be ruthlessly stamped out.

I am, of course, isolating only one element in Christianity, but cruelty, terror, intolerance, and hatred within any religion always mean that God has been replaced by the devil, and such things are always accompanied by a false kind of literalism. At present some other religions, notably Islam, are even less reassuring than our own. As Marxist and American imperialisms decline, the Moslem world is emerging as the chief threat to world peace, and the spark-plug of its intransigence, so to speak, is its fundamentalism or false literalism of belief. The same principle of daemonic perversion applies here: when Khomeini gave the order to have Salman Rushdie murdered, he was turning the whole of the Koran into Satanic verses. In our own culture, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale depicts a future New England in which a reactionary religious movement has brought back the hysteria, bigotry, and sexual sadism of seventeenth-century Puritanism. Such a development may seem unlikely just now, but the potential is all there.

For the last fifty years I have been studying literature, where the organizing principles are myth, that is, story or narrative, and metaphor, that is, figured language. Here we are in a completely liberal world, the world of the free movement of the spirit. If we read a story there is no pressure to believe in it or act upon it; if we encounter metaphors in poetry, we need not worry about their factual absurdity. Literature incorporates our ideological concerns, but it devotes itself mainly to the primary ones, in both physical and spiritual forms: its fictions show human beings in the primary throes of surviving, loving, prospering, and fighting with the frustrations that block these things. It is at once a world of relaxation, where even the most terrible tragedies are still called plays, and a world of far greater intensity than ordinary life affords. In short it does everything that can be done for people except transform them. It creates a world that the spirit can live in, but it does not make us spiritual beings.

It would be absurd to see the New Testament as only a work of literature: it is all the more important, therefore, to realize that it is written in the language of literature, the language of myth and metaphor. The Gospels give us the life of Jesus in the form of myth: what they say is, 'This is what happens when the Messiah comes to the world.' One thing that happens when the Messiah comes to the world is that he is despised and rejected, and searching in the nooks and crannies of the gospel text for a credibly historical Jesus is merely one more excuse for despising and rejecting him. Myth is neither historical nor anti-historical: it is counter-historical. Jesus is not presented as a historical figure, but as a figure who drops into history from another dimension of reality, and thereby shows what the limitations of the historical perspective are.

The gospel confronts us with all kinds of marvels and mysteries, so that one's initial reaction may well be that what we are reading is fantastic and incredible. Biblical scholars have a distinction here ready to hand, the distinction between world history and sacred history, Weltgeschichte and Heilsgeschichte. Unfortunately, there is as yet almost no understanding of what sacred history is, so the usual procedure is to try to squeeze everything possible into ordinary history, with the bulges of the incredible that still stick out being smoothed away by a process called demythologizing. However the Gospels are all myth and all bulge, and the operation does not work.

As the New Testament begins with the myth of the Messiah, so it ends, in the book of Revelation, with the metaphor of the Messiah, the vision of all things in their infinite variety united in the body of Christ. And just as myth is not anti-historical but counter-historical, so the metaphor, the statement of implication that two things are identical though different, is neither logical nor illogical. It presents the continuous paradox of experience, in which whatever one meets both is and is not oneself. 'I am a part of all that I have met,' says Tennyson's Ulysses; 'I am what is around me,' says Wallace Stevens. Metaphors are paradoxical, and again we suspect that perhaps only in paradox are words doing the best they can for us. The genuine Christianity that has survived its appalling historical record was founded on charity, and charity is invariably linked to an imaginative conception of language, whether consciously or unconsciously. Paul makes it clear that the language of charity is spiritual language, and that spiritual language is metaphorical, founded on the metaphorical paradox that we live in Christ and that Christ lives in us.

I am not trying to deny or belittle the validity of a credal, even a dogmatic approach to Christianity: I am saying that the literal basis of faith in Christianity is a mythical and metaphorical basis, not one founded on historical facts of logical propositions. Once we accept an imaginative literalism, everything else falls into place: without that, creeds and dogmas quickly turn malignant. The literary language of the New Testament is not intended, like literature itself, simply to suspend judgement, but to convey a vision of spiritual life that continues to transform and expand our own. That is, its myths become, as purely literary myths cannot, myths to live by; its metaphors become, as purely literary metaphors cannot, metaphors to live in. This transforming power is sometimes called kerygma or proclamation. Kerygma in this sense is again a rhetoric, but a rhetoric coming the other way and coming from the other side of mythical and metaphorical language.

In the Book of Job we have the rhetorical speech of Elihu, defending and justifying the ways of God; then we have the proclamation of God himself, couched in very similar language, but reversed in direction. The proclamation of the gospel is closely associated with the myths that we call parables, because teaching by myth and metaphor is the only way of educating a free person in spiritual concerns. If we try to eliminate the literal basis of kerygma in myth and metaphor, everything goes wrong again, and we are back where we started, in the rhetoric of an all-too-human effort to demonstrate the essence of revelation. The reason for basing kerygma on mythical and metaphorical language is that such a language is the only one with the power to detach us from the world of facts and demonstrations and reasonings, which are excellent things as tools, but are merely idols as objects of trust and reverence.

Demonic literalism seeks conquest by paralyzing argument; imaginative literalism seeks what might be called interpenetration, the free flowing of spiritual life into and out of one another that communicates but never violates. As Coleridge said (unless Schelling said it first), 'The medium by which spirits understand each other is not the surrounding air, but the freedom which they possess in common.' As the myths and metaphors of Scripture gradually become, for us, myths and metaphors that we can live by and in, that not only work for us but constantly expand our horizons, we may enter the world of proclamation and pass on to others what we have found to be true for ourselves. When we encounter a quite different vision in, say, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Confucian, an atheist, or whatever, there can still be what is called dialogue, and mutual understanding, based on a sense that there is plenty of room in the mind of God for us both. All faith is founded on good faith, and where there is good faith on both sides there is also the presence of God.

The same thing is true of variations of belief among Christians. Some prominent cleric may announce, after much heart-searching and self-harrowing, that he can no longer 'believe in' the Virgin Birth. What he thinks he is saying is that he can no longer honestly accept the historicity of the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. But those stories do not belong to ordinary history at all: they form part of Heilgeschichte, a mythical narrative containing many features that cannot be assimilated to the historian's history. What he is really saying is that some elements of the gospel myth have less transforming power for him than others. His version of Christianity could never have built a cathedral to Notre Dame de Chartres or written the hymn to the Virgin at the end of Dante's Paradiso, but his version is his, and that is his business only. However, if he had been a better educated cleric he would not have raised the point in the wrong context and created false issues.

The Epistle to the Hebrews says that faith is the hypostasis of the hoped-for and the elenchos or proof of the unseen. That is, faith is the reality of hope and of illusion. In this sense faith starts with a vision of reality that is something other than history or logic, which accepts the world as it is, and on the basis of that vision it can begin to remake the world. A nineteenth-century disciple of Kant, Hans Vaihinger, founded a philosophy on the phrase 'as if,' and the literal basis of faith from which we should start, the imaginative and poetic basis, is a fiction we enter into 'as if' it were true. There is no certainty in faith to begin with: we are free to deny the reality of the spiritual challenge of the New Testament, and if we accept it we accept it tentatively, taking a risk. The certainty comes later, and very gradually, with the growing sense in our own experience that the vision really does have the power that it claims to have.

I use the word 'risk' advisedly: I am not minimizing the difficulties and dangers of an imaginative literalism. All through history there has run a distrust and contempt for imaginative language, and the words for story or literary narrative - myth, fable, and fiction - have all acquired a secondary sense of falsehood or something made up out of nothing. Overcoming this perversion of language takes time and thought, and besides, there are as many evil myths and vicious metaphors as there are evil doctrines and vicious arguments. But the author of Hebrews goes on to talk, in the examples he gives after his definition of faith, about the risks taken by vision, and he suggests that such risks are guided by more effective powers than merely subjective ones. Besides, we are not alone: we live not only in God's world but in a community with a tradition behind it. Preserving the inner vitality of that community and that tradition is what the churches are for.

I have been trying to suggest a basis for the openness of belief that is characteristic of the United Church. Many of you will still recall an article in a Canadian journal that emphasized this openness, and drew the conclusion that the United Church was now an 'agnostic' church. I think the writer was trying to be fair-minded, but his conclusion was nonsense: the United Church is agnostic only in the sense that it does not pretend to know what nobody 'knows' anyway. The article quoted a church member as asking, If a passage in Scripture fails to transform me, is it still true? The question was a central one, but it reminded me of a story told me by a late colleague who many years ago was lecturing on Milton's view of the Trinity. He explained the difference between Athanasian and Arian positions, and how Milton, failing to find enough scriptural evidence for the Athanasian position, adopted a qualified or semi-Arian one. He was interrupted by a student who said impatiently, 'But I want to know the truth about the Trinity.' One may sympathize with the student, but trying to satisfy him is futile. What 'the' truth is, is not available to human beings in spiritual matters: the goal of our spiritual life is God, who is a spiritual Other, not a spiritual object, much less a conceptual object. That is why the Gospels keep reminding us how many listen and how few hear: truths of the gospel kind cannot be demonstrated except through personal example. As the seventeenth-century Quaker Isaac Penington said, every truth is substantial in its own place, but all truths are shadows except the last. The language that lifts us clear of the merely plausible and the merely credible is the language of the spirit; the language of the spirit is, Paul tells us, the language of love, and the language of love is the only language that we can be sure is spoken and understood by God.

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