Fundiementals 2 – Description vs. Meaning

Continuing from the last post, in which I talked about how worked up fundies get about The Truth, and why I think we should all relax. Here’s another reason I think we should all relax.

In the last post, I started with the example of a conversation I had with a Very Concerned Relative, who was interpreting some Bible passages for me. To review, where the verse says “The Father wants worshipers who will worship in spirit and in truth,” she (with the help of her denomination) interpreted that to mean “having the correct information.” I would be “in truth” only when I had studied and acquired the correct information (read: the correct doctrines.) (Read: her doctrines).

In my experience, fundies across the board seem to define “truth” very narrowly as rigid accuracy about scriptural doctrines (Christians, Jews, etc.), and/or specific philosophical interpretations of material facts (atheists). To fundies, you are “in truth” if you are “right” or “correct” in your knowledge and consciously held beliefs. You are “in truth” if you understand the correct information – about creation, about evolution, about end times, about ritual cleanliness, about sin, about science, whatever. Whatever their cherished notions about the nature of reality, you are “in truth” if you agree with them. And only if you agree with them. Otherwise you’re a poor, deluded bastard.

A word here about science, because I know I’m going to get my butt kicked if I don’t make this distinction right now. Rigid accuracy about correct information is COMPLETELY APPROPRIATE to the scientific method. It’s necessary. I am NOT saying that evolution and creationism are equal and competing scientific theories about the origins of the universe. I am NOT claiming that we should all be able to bring the Bible into laboratories and conduct our experiments according to Levitical law. I’m NOT claiming that in science, you need to respect pseudo-scientific claims that have nothing to do with material reality. In science, which deals with the nature of the material, observable universe, it is necessary and appropriate to be ruthlessly accurate about the material, observable facts.

My only point is that in spirituality, it’s not. In fact, and I haven’t fully thought through the implications of this statement, science might be the only domain in which it is appropriate to apply a standard of ruthless accuracy. If you are approaching spiritual and scripture texts from a standpoint of needing to achieve ruthless accuracy, then you are approaching them with a very modern, scientific mindset, and not in the spirit in which they were written. In science, “truth” about material facts is very important. It is precisely in spirituality where the kind of “truth” that becomes important is not about having correct, literal information at all.

Spiritual truth is about trying to nudge up against the more elusive aspects of the human experience in a way that gives meaning and narrative to the bare facts and bewildering pain of existence. Scientific truth can accurately describe the mechanism of a natural disaster, but it is spiritual truth that helps you grieve; it is spiritual truth that helps you come to grips with the bare thorn of real life. Science asks “How does it work?” Spirituality asks “What does it mean?” (metaphysically). And even if you answer the “What does it mean?” question using scientific observations, the question itself is not native to science – science deals with the physical, not the metaphysical.

A brief digression here. I know many atheists cringe and back away from the word “spirituality,” but I’m trying to use it in a very broad, broad sense. I’m sorry I don’t have a better, more neutral word to use for shorthand. I could call it “the framework of beliefs, attitudes, habits, and interactions through which you perceive, interpret, and create meaning in your life.” Or to put it another way, your “spirituality,” in the sense in which I am using it, is how you choose to interact with the facts of your life and let them inform and change you (or not). It’s your way of being in the world. It’s how you ask and answer the eternal questions, “Who am I?” “Do I have a purpose?” “How will I make my life meaningful?” “What would it mean to live my life well?” “What are the best ways to interact with those around me?”Even if you answer the questions by negating the idea of purpose, selfhood, ultimate meaning, etc., the fact that you even asked and answered the question indicates a particular framework, or spirituality, as I am calling it in shorthand.

Back to applying a scientific lens to a spiritual text. A quote here from Richard Rohr:

“Pure literalism in fact avoids the real impact, the real message. Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text. Willful people use Scripture literally when it serves their purposes, and they use it ‘figuratively’ when it gets in the way of their cultural biases; willing people let the Scriptures change them instead of using them to change others.”

In science, literalism and accuracy are king, and they should be. In meaning-making, literalism becomes too small. Consider these three statements:

1. The animate life that we observe today on earth evolved over millennia out of the raw materials of earth, from simple one-cell organisms into increasingly complex forms. Eventually, in billions of years, the sun will expire and the earth will no longer support life.

2. Life has struggled mightily to survive against the dangers and emptiness of space, and its improbable success is overshadowed by the knowledge that in the distant future, nothing will remain of its struggle. (“A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – Macbeth)

3. Life was created by God in a pocket of His vast universe. He took his time molding it from stardust, and to dust it shall return. (“Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” – Ecclesiastes)

#1 is a scientific statement. It is literal and as accurate as our evidence and analysis can make it. Statements #2 and #3 are meaning-making statements about #1. They are interpretive. They make an evaluation about the metaphysical and/or existential and/or moral implications of the bare facts. They are spiritual statements. I’m not claiming that they are statements that you subscribe to, or that either of them is Ultimate Truth, I’m only using them as examples of possible meaning-making statements based on #1.  Neither are literal or absolute in their truth, and the most significant difference between them is that #2 is based on an idea of a closed system, whereas #3 is based on an idea of outside involvement (God). Despite this notable difference, both #2 and #3 come to more or less the same conclusion.

My book club read “Life of Pi” a few months ago, and there was a lot of discussion about the nature of truth, God, choices, belief, etc. The most problematic passage seemed to be the bit at the end (SPOILER ALERT) where the following dialogue occurs:

“I tell you two stories. In both stories, the ship sinks, my entire family dies, and I suffer.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”

…. “The story with the animals.”

“Thank you. And so it goes with God.”


We had a lot of discussion about what the author meant by this, and I should note that we did not come to consensus, but to me it meant precisely what I’m trying to say here – in both of my previous statements, the universe comes into existence, life flourishes for a while, and then it stops. Outside of these bald facts, you have no way of proving one way or another whether or not God was involved, so which story do you prefer? Which one offers more meaning to your sensibilities? Which one resonates more with your experience? Which one offers you the experience of transcendence? (And I’m not claiming that your answer to that question has to be the same as everyone else’s). When discussing the evolution of species from a biological perspective, by all means get persnickety about material accuracy.  When discussing things of God, or metaphysics, or morality, or in some other way a spiritual nature, material accuracy is less important than the story you tell about it. (Although, as an aside and counterpoint, even in Christian spirituality, a case can be made for letting science help tell the story.)

In fact, this point about stories is so important, I think I’ll give it its own post….

*Click to tweet this!



Filed under personal, religion

5 responses to “Fundiementals 2 – Description vs. Meaning

  1. Stephen River Smith

    Maybe it’s just my own natural inclination to say “To hell with the attending details, I’m focusing on one thing here, people…one damn thing at a time!!” You, on the other hand, seem to have the ability/gift to cover multiple bases simultaneously, as if you had a 360 degree, wrap-around view of the elephant…and you seem to do that without hurry or worry. Again, whoever you are, please continue your journey as it seems to be unfolding. I am a fan of it…indeed.

    • Stephen – I really wish more people would focus more on people and less on ideologies, although I’d have a lot less to write about. 😉

      • Stephen River Smith

        Do you ever wonder who you would be without that ideological bent of human nature and its universal ability to rule the day? There seems to be something in some of us that smiles at the very moment we groan…a strange satisfaction that gets us out of bed and into the fray? To me, the grand stage and scope of an ideology is no match, over time, to the relentless resistance of people like us. (May I include myself in this?) “No match” meaning something other than, something better than, mere intellectual superiority at the “least level of meaning”. Something, as you’ve said so well, that gives “meaning and narrative to the bare facts and bewildering pain of existence.” Love even the visceral SOUND of that statement.

  2. I think the 17c Quakers had it just about right. No one loved and believed the Bible as much as they did, but they said that it could not be interpreted in man’s own strength, but rather it’s true interpreter was the Spirit that inspired it. Thus they were prepared for parts of it to be mysterious, to be opened by revelation rather than purely by intellect.

    William Penn, the most intellectual of Quakerism’s ‘2nd wave’ (for want of a better term) regarded spirit and intellect as the sun and the moon, each lighting a different part of a 24 hour period, but the lesser shining by the reflected light of the greater. That’s another way of looking at it.

    • Lovely. I so often feel that your comments make each post more complete. I confess to being an enthusiastic but casual fan of Quakerism. I did not know of this particular articulation of their theology. Thanks for sharing!

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