The great Catholic novelist, Flannery O’Connor, was admirably blunt. She once attended a party where non-Catholics discussed the Eucharist. Her host said that the Eucharist was a very good symbol but that was all it was. O’Connor famously replied, “Well, if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”
O’Connor’s objection was not that symbolism is useless or has no place in spiritual matters. Indeed, her stories are filled with it, vividly showing the working of God even among simple and grotesque people. However, she knew that the sacraments are different. The symbolism of the sacraments is made meaningful by the fact that they literally are the things they represent. If this fact were false, the sacraments would be worthless.
Symbolism has been discussed in the media recently because of the work of Dr. Jordan Peterson. He has become well known among both religious and secular people for his courage in the face of oppression, his strong defense of the traditional gender roles, his rich understanding of the importance of archetypes and stories, and his ability to speak intelligently on any subject. However, his discussion of religious matters is severely lacking because, like Flannery O’Connor’s host, he reduces factual truth to mere symbolism.
Peterson has spoken and written extensively on the bible, most notably in his series on Exodus, which is currently being released on YouTube. His work is unique in that he regards scripture with the highest reverence; however, he has refrained from stating that the fundamental truths of the faith are literally, factually true. When he has been asked about these beliefs, he rejects the straight-forward framework that these truths are about literal facts.
This rejection removes any moral nourishment that can be gained from the analysis of the meaning. Of course, there are elements of scripture that should be interpreted symbolically and not in the literal sense. In addition, there are spiritual senses, specifically the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses. But Jesus Christ, who was a literal, physical person, established a tangible Church which passed down and clarified his teachings. When we read these teachings which are written in the creed, the catechism, and encyclicals, there is no longer a question of what should be taken literally.
There is nothing wrong with a work of fiction being mere symbolism. Great works of literature, such as The Lord of the Rings or The Brothers Karamazov contain more truth than any actual event that has ever happened to most people. Even though the story, the characters, and sometimes the world don’t exist in a factual sense, they are more real because they have compressed the goodness, truth, and beauty from many people’s experiences into a single piece. However, the symbolism in Christianity is different from symbolism in fiction.
This difference can be seen in the emphasis that scripture, (the New Testament especially) places on specific historical figures and events.The gospels, written by four different individuals, agree with each other quite closely. To achieve that level of similarity, the writers would have to either be telling the factual truth or plagiarizing off a common source. That means that either they are accurate descriptions of literal events or the meaning they contain is the work of frauds. We can only learn from the gospels if they contain the gospel truth.
What about the Old Testament? It might naively seem that it is meant merely symbolically. It is true that many books were not necessarily intended to be journalistic accounts like the gospels. Christian writers dating back to the early Fathers of the Church have interpreted parts of the early books as symbolic and not literal. However, even these books do not have value if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead.
The whole of the Old Testament is filled with allusions that make no sense without the New Testament. Almost every book has seemingly meaningless references to things like mystical bread, an awe at the ark of the covenant, and water that drowns and gives rebirth. These things only become clear in light of the person of Jesus, the new ark of the covenant, whose death and rebirth allow us to be reborn in the sacrament of baptism and receive him in the Eucharist. Without the factual truth of the New Testament, the Old Testament is full of random meaningless interjections. This also is not a source that we can draw deep meaning from.
The whole of the bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is focused on a single event – the real, biological birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like the people of Jesus’ time who saw, heard and touched him with their physical scientific senses, we must choose between going all in on the literal truth of Christ’s resurrection, like the apostles who were almost all martyred for this fact, or going away, like the rich young man who couldn’t quite commit to following Jesus.
We can and should see the deep symbolism present in Christian scripture and tradition. Jordan Peterson does see this and his analysis on this subject is quite sharp. But to be of any use to anyone, this understanding requires an acceptance of the literal truth of Christianity. If the fundamental truth of the faith is merely symbolism, to hell with it.