the paradox of “literal interpretations” (and how to stop trying to be perfect)

Whether I say what to focus on or what not to focus on, that is saying what to focus on. One cannot focus away from something without first focusing on it, right?


tongue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, “I command you to stop being perfect.” This command implies that there is a pre-existing state of perfection as the primary presumption, and then that there is some other alternative (unspecified) as the secondary presumption.
So, we might focus on language for a moment. I am reminded of the following translation of an ancient scripture:

“…Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.7All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, 8but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

9With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10Out of the same mouth doth come forth blessing and cursing; it doth not need, my brethren, these things so to happen.”

James 3:5-10


Indeed, it is optional for a mouth to pour out words of both blessing and cursing. For instance, a mouth could remain shut!

We may notice that the above translated words are full of poetic and metaphorical language. In fact, all language includes a degree of poetry and metaphor, but spiritual language tends to be among the most poetic and metaphorical, loaded with mythological parables and allegorical myths.
Ironically, spiritual language also tends to be one of the most popular subjects for fanaticism and fundamentalism. Notice that many large groups can gather around specific interpretations as the best literal interpretation. For a while, I have noted the irony of the phrase “literal interpretation,” because the process of interpretation is inherently personal.
The term “literal interpretation” is in fact a relative term, contrasting such interpretations with  more “faithful” interpretations which may be called “figurative interpretations.” Literal interpretations tend to miss the value of the larger message while figurative interpretations tend to retain the value of the larger message. Consider this example:

Imagine that I am talking to a 7 year-old child who is familiar with riding a bicycle about how pilots fly airplanes and I

child on a bicycle

child on a bicycle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

am comparing it to riding a bicycle. I say that there is a device for steering, similar to the handle bars of a bicycle. I also say that there is a control for increasing speed, rather like the pedals of a bike. And, finally I say that there is an instrument for decreasing speed, like the hand brakes on the handle bars of a bicycle.

So, because the child may understand all of my references, they may think that they also understand how to fly an airplane. However, what if they do not actually even know what the word airplane means? What if they have never actually seen an airplane at all? Or, what if they have seen an airplane, but they did not know that the label “airplane” applied to that particular type of vehicle?
Now, to make this example a little more realistic, consider that the child that I am speaking to does not know English very well. Maybe they learned to speak some other language. Maybe they are blind or deaf. Whatever the specifics, the issue is that they understand how to ride a bicycle, but they are just learning the new word “airplane.”
The idea of comparing “airplane” to “bicycle” is to present airplane as another type of transportation similar to the linguistic category “bicycle.” Of course, the child may not know the word “transportation” either. So, the child is told that airplanes are a lot like bicycles (people steer them, speed them up, and slow them down) and, most generally, people can use airplanes to get from one place to another faster than walking.
Now, imagine that this 7 year-old child is asked to identify some objects that they have never seen before. The objects are clearly identified as being useful for moving people from place to place and it has a steering instrument, an accelerator, and brakes. The child is shown pictures of a helicopter and a submarine and a blimp and a boat. All of the pictures have the various instruments displayed and identified for serving the functions of steering, accelerating, and braking.
Linear-pull brake, also known by the Shimano t...

Linear-pull brake, also known by the Shimano trademark: V-Brake, on rear wheel of a mountain bike (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The child is asked “which one of these is the airplane?” The child could say “I do not know,” which would be typical of a certain level of intelligence. The child could confidently say “all of them,” which could indicate a lower level of intelligence, or the child could even just pick one of four objects like it is a guessing game, but with no sense of certainty.
The child is being asked to label something. Labeling something is an interpretative process. Interpreting can also involve multiple languages (translation), plus if one of the linguistic sequences is hundreds or thousands of years old, that can make translation even more “interpretative.”
So, I later hold up a photograph of an airplane and say to the child “anyway, this is an airplane.” The child responds, “that cannot be an airplane. That is just a little flat photograph. It does not even have any steering device!”
And that is an example of a “literal interpretation.” Of course, the child is right that the photograph of an airplane is not an airplane but is only a photograph. However, the literal interpretation can also lose ALL of the value of the communication. The point of showing a photograph was of course to indicate what an airplane looks like.
An optional to the airplanes portal

An optional to the airplanes portal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, when people focus on literal interpretations of scripture, that can reveal a general lack of comprehension of the subject matter. For instance, the point of the above quote from the Christian Bible that “the tongue also is a fire” is not a literal statement. In English, it is not literal. In Greek or Latin or anything else, it is not literal.
In fact, those who “believe” in “literal interpretations” are warned about throughout spiritual texts of all ages and in many spiritual teachings that are oral rather than written. Some might go so far as to say that a literal interpretation is  “a fire, a small spark that can set off a raging wildfire of arrogance, corrupting congregations and sending them in to hells of confusion and animosity.”
Mastery of language is like a “miraculous sixth sense.” Those who lack a mastery of language do not know what they are missing, like a person who has always been blind cannot fully comprehend the advantages of the ability to see.
And so it is written that “many will see the signs, but few will recognize them. Many will hear the sounds, but few will hear the message within the sounds. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”
The land of the blind is a reference to being in the midst of those who are blind to the reality of what language is and how it functions. The land of the (metaphorically) blind is where we have been all along.
For instance, consider how many people believe that a particular medical condition is incurable just because someone who does not know how to cure it says “it is incurable.” There are a long list of “diseases” (or perhaps a more precise term would be “nutritional deficiencies”) that have been widely considered “incurable” by the high priests of the empires of official government-approved science, but then were later recognized as easy to “cure” (prevent, remedy, etc). In fact, “witch doctors” have long identified the “cures” to the high priests of medical “science” which were dismissed (or ridiculed, censored, or simply criminalized).
So, back to the original question in the title of this composition: how does someone stop being perfect? First, they pretend that words are “the measure of reality,” rather than just symbols to represent patterns of reality. Then, they identify some set of patterns as “inherently right” and some other set as “inherently wrong,” then notice some of those “wrong” (or “evil”) patterns within their own present or past, and then finally identify themselves or label themselves or relate to themselves as “wrong” or “evil” or “imperfect” or “needing to become perfect” or “needing to compensate for their guilt and shame.” In other words, to “stop being perfect” is entirely a verbal (intellectual) process.
How does someone “start to be perfect?” Simply discontinue the worship of the idolatrous idea of imperfection or corruption or evil. Turn away from evil, like turn away from the very idea of it.
Or, you could “try” to stop being perfect, but fail totally. That might require a bit of a sense of humor, though. 😉
“To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and without faith, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” Titus 1:15
“I am conscious of this, and am certain in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is corrupt in itself; but for the man in whose opinion it is unclean, for him it is corrupt.” Romans 14:14

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2 Responses to “the paradox of “literal interpretations” (and how to stop trying to be perfect)”

  1. transformationtruths Says:

    Metaphores, symbols and poetic words phrases are certainly all through the scriptures. A literal interpretation considers those all the time as being functional and part of literal interpretation activities in translation and interpretation. What is up front on this method has to do with the necessity of consideration as one is faced with such words that those words or phrases have to be taken in that manner. If it is not a necessity then the normal usage of the words translated are to be considered in their normal usage and train of thought.

    If that wasn’t a law or rule of understanding and interpretation of our language, we would have everything we said having “no real” meaning at all.

    Thanks for your comments.

    • jrfibonacci Says:

      For the one who seeks external authority or authorities, there are many who present some form of authority. For the one who knows authority, the seeking of authority may be irrelevant.

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