As a writer, I am absolutely sure that even God herself couldn’t use the symbolic language that humans use to capture absolute truth.
Our language is just too subjective and too reductive to capture absolute truth. The only absolutely true statement I can make is “All is nothing and nothing is all.” While that is true, it really isn’t all that informative, nor does it do much to inform discourse.
“I am in the shadows my words cast,” Octavio Paz wrote. Words, at their very best just suggest truths rather than hold them. Symbol is not truth and truth is not symbol. They are not interchangeable.
It is wonderful that we, as humans, have symbolic language to use in the attempt to convey truths between each others minds. It seems to be unique to our species on earth, at least as far as we can tell.
Fundamentalist thinkers, though, want to believe that books can carry absolute, divine truths. They want to use the truth contained in their scripture to erase challenging ideas and beliefs, want the truth of their book to trump every challenge.
For every book of absolute truth, though, sectarian divides emerge between those who interpret the truth in one way and those who interpret it in another. Factions scream and pound each other as heretics for not reading the holy text in the correct way, in the way that they do.
Current interpreters drop the original context of the book to apply today’s meaning, then claim it was ever thus. For example, a historical review of how the Christian Bible was used to support slavery will reveal how interpretations always change to suit economic and political needs. Many of the Bible’s rules are ignored today, but others are still “Biblical,” usually with no clear rationale of difference.
Is the problem here that someone else’s interpretation of the book is wrong, bad and evil? Or is the problem that no text written in a human language can ever carry absolute, perfect truth?
For me, the best language can do is offer symbolic truth. It codes bits of truth as observed and flattened into symbol, artfully designed to code truth like shadow puppets code images.
I struggle to find truth the way an artist struggles to recreate a hidden world, using all the images, stories and artifacts they can find to try and create a three-dimensional model in their mind.
Using this strategy, though, makes people of the book crazy. They really, really want to believe in the promises contained in their book, want to believe that the magic spells written on the pages can be made real if only they become true, true, true believers.
Of course, the most common magic spell they crave is for eternal life, beyond death, pain and suffering. It is the promise of heaven beyond human frailty and corruption which seduces so many to climb out of real life and into the pages of a book.
I most recently saw this with a meeting of A Course In Miracles students who want to believe that the sickness the course can transcend is the sickness of the body, not just the sickness of the mind. In their “perfect” reading of the course, anyone who is physically sick in this world has brought it on by having an imperfect mind, the vagaries of biology, environmental factors, accidents and random chance be dammed.
For me, the plagues and pestilence faced when living in a finite world are the lessons we use to change our mind. We work to transcend the finite in a spiritual way that leads us to a better place. That place may be nirvana, or it may just be a place of peace as our body decays and fails, changing form around our more mature and centred spirit.
I have helped people through sickness, helped them through death, and the best I have ever been able to do is help them choose love over fear in the moments that they have available. The world we live in may be a shared illusion, down to the cancer that touches our lives, but that illusion has real opportunities for growth in it, chances to answer the call for love by choosing to come from our own love.
Imagining a world where we blame people for imperfect thought while their imperfect bodies are failing in various ways just seems cruel and unloving to me. Acknowledging that physical health challenges can help move us towards spiritual healing, pushing us to drop our small fear based choices in favour of larger ones and becoming more actualized in the process feels kind and hopeful.
Faith healing may be a very compelling dream, but in the end, every human body dies, and usually in a puddle of mess and pain. We cannot eliminate discomfort, we can only resist the suffering that comes from holding onto rationalizations, wishes and illusions when they no longer can serve us.
It is in life beyond life that we are released from the fact of pain and while many traditions have lovely models of what that will look like, nobody here holds the absolute truth about a world which exists beyond the limits of flattened, human symbolic language.
The challenge of telling eternal truths in modern language will go on as long as humans are human because human nature will continue to run through all of us while our symbolic systems continue to change and evolve.
I love books, but I cannot imagine one which contains perfect truth. This will always set me at odds with fundamentalists who want me to believe that their holy text is literally true, not just full of figurative wisdom. I have seen too many preachy preachers use fundamentalism to push the us versus them, good versus evil stories of separation to create earthly, political power to ever trust them.
The books can teach us, offering wisdom that has emerged as valuable through the ages, but it is our job to find the connections, comparing and contrasting to to tease out deeper and more essential meaning, those shadows authors were trying to cast using the limits of the words, images and metaphors available to them.
I can’t imagine how anyone, even God, can capture perfect truth in the fragile structures of human language. To me, truth is full of beautiful and profound tensions which shimmer and flow beyond the paucity of language. We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are, bounded by our own limits, and capturing that subjective sight is even more limited.
I understand why people want to crawl into books that seem to offer a path to a simple, healthy and peaceful life, people who really, really really want to believe that some kind of perfection can exist in the world if we just find the perfect scripture and just follow it slavishly enough. I understand why people dream of eliminating pesky shadows and living only in the answer rather than in the questions..
I just find that truth abides much more in the questions than in the answers, and it is in the dance of shadows & colours where the eternal can just be glimpsed.
One thought on “Of The Book”
Asking God to convey absolute truth using human language is like asking her to create the beauty of flowers using pipe cleaners. Impossible.