The Meaning of Water and Wine

Chris Dierkes

Chris Dierkes (aka CJ Smith). 29 years old, happily married, adroit purveyor and voracious student of all kinds of information, theories, methods of inquiry, and forms of practice. Studying to be a priest in the Anglican Church in Canada. Main interests: military theory, diplomacy, foreign affairs, medieval history, religion & politics (esp. Islam and Christianity), and political grand bargains of all shapes and sizes.

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132 Responses

  1. Jay Daniel says:

    Chris, I appreciate the time you took with this. But I think you are the one who missed the point of the exchange. HH believes that God intervenes in this world and literally performs miracles. Whether it’s multiplying loaves and fishes, turning water into wine, or, most critically for his faith, rising from the dead after three days, HH believes that God did not simply wind the universe up and let it run. RD thinks this is preposterous (I think his final statement in that quote is pretty disengenous considering he knows enough about HH to consent to an interview with him).

    The wedding at Cana was just an example of an event that only has a supernatural explanation. The thing is, you’re crazy if you think either one of them was there to have a debate about the theological meaning of the story. I don’t know why you think any of your post would have the least bit of interest to RD, or anyone else who does not believe that “God sometimes turns water into wine.”

    So yes, you are right that the supernatural conversion of water into various complex esters, alcohols, sulfites, sugars, etc. is not the main point of the story. But the possibility of that happening WAS the point of the conversation.Report

    • mark in reply to Jay Daniel says:

      I’m with Jay. Dawkins was arguing not with the real meaning of this story, but with how it is understood by fundies, namely, that some of the water molecules in those jugs were turned into ethanol, sugar, and the other things in wine.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Jay Daniel says:

      Sure that was the point of their conversation. My point is that you shouldn’t use The Bible to make arguments for which it has nothing to say (in either direction). If they want to have that argument, fine, have it. I think it’s completely moronic, but they are free to be stupid if they so desire. Just don’t poach when going on this particular hunting expedition if you catch my meaning. And that goes for both of them.

      My point was that their conversation was stupid and a complete waste of our time. It’s like having an argument about whether the #5 is blue or pink. Its just totally senseless.

      In the background of Dawkins is the idea that The Bible has to mean what a Hugh Hewitt think it means. It has to mean that, it clearly isn’t possible (supernaturalism), therefore religion is stupid. All of which is predicated on the false assumption that there is only one reading–a reading which I made abundantly clear is our false reading imposed on the text–to The Bible.

      Dawkins is an epistemological materialist. And Hewitt rather stupidly lets Dawkins decide the terms of the debate. The Bible assumes a non-materialist worldview (which is entirely different than Hewitt’s materialist supernaturalism).

      iow, Underlying this whole thing is a conflict of worldviews that are never discussed, far deeper and more profound than “rationalism” versus “supernaturalism.”

      Of course to ask for such intelligence from either of these gentlemen is a bridge far too far.Report

    • Irene in reply to Jay Daniel says:

      I strongly agree to the truth in his explanation. People will hear what itching ears want to hear… Choose to see wine to drink and merry… Verses gospel goodness about Jesus crucifixion. People misinterpret this verse to justify their drinking to quench their thirst n miss out on the wonderful wedding feast in Revelation 21:9.Report

  2. Chris Dierkes says:


    If you read say The God Delusion you’ll see that Dawkins has really no other conception of how to read The Bible. The reason he asked a question like that is (as I said) because its a perfect under handed tossup for him to make his ideological case against religion. It leaves one with the impression (intended I think) that if you are religious you have to believe Jesus literally turned H20 into Wine.

    It’s a shell game. All he’s done is hid the ball of other possible ways of reading/understanding. Though in his case, I don’t think he realizes that is what he’s done.Report

    • Herb in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

      “It leaves one with the impression (intended I think) that if you are religious you have to believe Jesus literally turned H20 into Wine.”

      Chris, I get your point…but I reject it.

      The atheist is not the one responsible for leaving this impression. Nope, the REAL culprit is the fundamentalist.Report

  3. Bo says:

    Yes, the water into wine story is a metaphor for the resurrection, and, in fact, the whole Gospel of John is better understand as an extended dissertation on Christian Salvation than a biography. But I’m not sure where you’re going here. What then does believing in The Bible mean? The very underlying concept of Christianity* is that something miraculous actually happened, and because of that, something equally miraculous can happen to you, and not in the metaphorical sense. So what if the water to wine is a metaphor? It’s not metaphors all the way down; the subject of that metaphor, the Resurrection, which is every bit as impossible as turning water into wine, is an actual, literal belief.

    * if you’re not Bishop Spong or one of the nuttier UnitariansReport

  4. Jay Daniel says:

    Chris, would you be interested in talking about what you mean by the Bible’s “non-materialist worldview”? I take you to mean that the Bible is pre-modern, which for your purposes, has two consequences: first, the Bible’s authors would not have viewed the world through the lens of scientific materialism, whereby — barring the miraculous — matter has certain chemical attributes and which operates according to consistent physical principles. Second, the Bible’s authors conveyed truths which they believed to be important primarily through myth and symbol. Is this correct?

    If my summary is even close to what you are trying to say, I would still disagree that a meaningful chasm exists between Hewitt’s understanding of the story and that of John’s audience. Whether or not the “transubstantiation” of the water to wine is itself the point of the story, the story exists in the context of a worldview in which such things happen. One substance became another, and in the Bible, stuff like that doesn’t happen unless God intervenes in the world (usually through a prophet — and we can argue about outliers like the witch at endor elsewhere). Biblical authors may not have understood such events as “supernatural,” (occurring above our outside the regular course of nature) but that’s only because they didn’t draw such bright lines between the natural world and God’s activities. Moreover, John unquestionably believed and hoped to convey that Jesus was the ultimate example of God entering into the regular world to intervene. But that is no easier for a scientific materialist to believe than it is to believe that Jesus really converted H2O into C2H6O.

    I suspect I dislike Hewitt as much or more than you do. But I think you are being unfair to him on this point. I doubt 1 Christian in 10,000 would correctly understand the story in the context of 1st century biblical narrative. But really, who cares whether the author’s audience would have understood the miracle in the same terms as Hewitt? Our framework through which all of us understand the world has irrevocably changed in the last 2000 years. John’s audience still would have seen it as the story of a miracle and as a sign of both God’s power and Jesus’s authority. And it would have believed that God really could do such things, even if this particular story was merely a vehicle to convey truths about Jesus.Report

  5. Katherine says:

    Thank you for this. I never thought of reading the Water into Wine story that way, but your explanation makes a lot of sense.Report

  6. mark says:

    OK, the water-into-wine story was a fish in Dawkin’s barrel (jug?), used to make a point. And being Dawkins, he was offensive about it. Neither guy covered himself with glory here. But is that story really not representative of faith in general? Think about it:. is faith the ability to believe the unprovable? Maybe Dawkins in a more reflective mood would say that our ability, and even desire, to believe what we’re told, in the absence of evidence and/or presence of tons of counter-evidence, is the real problem. Then his picking on a miracle story is kind of an anti-parable: and easily-graspable illustration of the problems created by our capacity to follow without thinking.Report

  7. Will says:

    Dierkes –

    This was some epic war cleric smiting. Well done, sir.Report

  8. Sam M says:

    Dunno. I went to Catholic school. We learned… and it was important that we understood… that the water actually turned into wine. Which was NOTHING. Because we also learned that the bread actually became the body of Christ during mass. I used to say things like, “So why isn’t it bleeding? Why doesn’t it look like meat? Or do you mean it’s the whole body? Why doesn’t it look like a little Jesus?” TO be fair to me, I was in second grade. Still, it was understood that the meaning was extremely literal. And to say that the bible is “literature” or a “metaphor” was to invite charges of closted Episcopaleanism.

    The people I go to church with think the water became wine. That Lazarus was dead for three days then wasn’t. That Jesus came back and could walk through doors, but Thomas put his fingers in the wound. Etc.Report

  9. Chris Dierkes says:

    Mark, Jay, Bo

    I’ll respond to all of your questions (which are all pretty close to another).

    The simplest (though not easiest) answer is that The Bible, and this applies especially to the Gospel of John, works on the level of awakening into God. Traditionally called mysticism or spirituality. In the language of John’s Gospel, the way to realize love is through ultimate sacrifice and that this the doorway beyond fear (and therefore into eternal life). Jesus says explicitly in the text repeatedly that the true disciple will become one with him and one with God the Father in the Spirit. But that works at a level beyond our normal dualistic minds.

    At that level, the dualistic level, there is really is no final answer. I generally recommend reading The Bible as literature. What Tillich called de-literalization (instead of Bultmann’s de-mythologization). The concept of the resurrection is a little unique and that would require a whole other post.

    And as regards, faith means trust. The basic faith version in The Bible is trust in a Creator and Savior/Sustainer. Science can’t really answer either way relative to those two. Which isn’t to say that people can use trust in those ideas as some kind of political weapon or that they have to “respected” or treated special or something.

    Trust doesn’t have to mean literal understanding in all kinds of various events. So to Jay’s comment, it is true that the ancient world had a cosmology that assumed there was some heaven above earth and that the two worlds intermingled. Messengers come down from heaven to earth, gods come down, other gods ascend. It wasn’t considered “supernatural” by our understanding of that term. All of that, heaven and earth was considered one unit or cosmos. It was “natural” in that sense for their to be a two-way street both up and down.

    Now we live in a world without that cosmology. There’s a choice to either say religion is therefore done with or ask whether it is possible to hold onto other elements (consider still of ultimate importance) without that cosmology. Same can be said for ethical elements in The Bible.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

      “our normal dualistic minds”

      Up from dualism! Yes we can! Many do.Report

    • rob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

      to consult St. Augustine who wrote in the 5th century (i.e. a long fracking time ago) that if science comes up with a different naturalistic account of the world than the Bible offers, then you go with the science (WITH THE SCIENCE) and read The Bible for other arenas of truth (e.g. moral, spiritual, cosmological).

      While I’d certainly agree that one will only really understand the bible (or another text, generally) by reading it in the manner that it was intended to be read, I’m pretty sure that Augustine did not intend for anyone to discard a literal understanding of the resurrection, whether of Jesus of Nazareth or of the body of believers in general. It’s all well and good to be in Tillich’s camp, but surely in doing so you ought to acknowledge that you’re talking about a rather rare minority position (historically, not just at the moment)?

      Also, I think Dawkins and Hewitt are getting hung up on a relatively minor issue (why worry about water and wine when you’ve got the rather more impressive miracle of resurrection to debate?), but it seems a bit harsh to chide them for debating a misinterpretation when their interpretation (that the bible records historical events, and makes the claim that some of them are supernatural) is the historically dominant interpretation.Report

    • Mr. Prosser in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

      This is one of the most interesting posts I have read here and I would very much enjoy an essay on the resurrection. If possible, please do not wait until Easter. I agree and have long held the opinion of Tillich that it is more important to de-literalize than to de-mythologize. At the risk of sounding too simplistic and pop culture-like (ala Campbell) the universal myth is important here.Report

  10. “You can read the story this way and learn a great deal, you can learn to walk its own world, in a humanistic way, without having to confess that this is the religious truth of your soul.”

    Wow, what an idea.Report

  11. Thanks for the detailed exgesis (which, not being a Christian, I had had no clue about). But the Hewitt-Dawkins conversation seemed to be of a common type: party one insists that religious belief means complete biblical literalism, party two accepts that definition since it helps his case that religion is foolish, and the world winds up a bit stupider.Report

  12. Francis says:

    “I think we can all agree it’s not about molecular bonding.”

    Would that that were true. Just how many Christians agree with your interpretation?

    As one of a number of atheists/agnostics/apatheists (apathy + atheism) who hang around this joint, I think you’re giving way too much credit to the way that Christianity is practiced in this country. I was raised High Episcopalian (New England boarding school and all) and 99% of the practice of religion as I saw it was rote symbolism. I can still recite the Nicene Creed even though I haven’t been to church in 20+ years. But really, now, just how many of the laity around this country actually think about the language of Nicrene Creed, and how many understand what it means? None?

    As Dawkins and PZ Myers keep pointing out, there are two Christianities in the US and UK. A minuscule percentage of the population understand that the faith as it was orginally developed was an apocalyptic version of Judaism which has been bastardized into meaninglessness since the Enlightenment. Everyone else just goes to church on Sunday and interprets the lessons of the Bible in light of their modern experience. Maybe that’s not what Christianity should be, but that’s what Christianity is.

    Fighting over evolution, miracles and homosexuality appear to be the defining characteristics of a large portion of modern American Christianity. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.Report

  13. Michael Drew says:

    So the story’s a metaphor. Is God?Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Michael Drew says:

      The letters G-O-D are certainly a metaphor or more simply just a pointer. Following the apophatic theological tradition, it’s actually in a sense more correct to say Not God. As God is not what we conceive God to be. As Dionysius said, God is Beyond Divinity.

      It might be better to talk about God as a location or a verb (God-ing) rather than a static entity.Report

  14. Herb says:

    I’m glad other commenters pointed out that Dawkins was referring to the belief that Jesus literally turned water into wine, rather than misinterpreting the bible in an equally egregious way as Hewitt.

    But then I see this:
    “My point was that their conversation was stupid and a complete waste of our time. It’s like having an argument about whether the #5 is blue or pink. Its just totally senseless.”

    Is that why you went on this exegesis? You mean, I wasted all this time reading this interesting blog post for nothing???

    I disagree. It’s not a waste of time. In fact, if exegeses like this were more common, rather than the ignorance perpetuated by the Hewitts of the world, then it would be totally senseless.

    But when you have a lot of folks trying to teach this nonsense in science class, trying to form public policy around it, then it makes a lot of sense to bring it down a notch. Kudos to Dawkins for doing that.Report

  15. Ryan says:

    I’m with Bo, Jay, etc. This is a very well-written post in defense of absolutely nothing. The vast majority of Christians believe that Jesus literally turned water into wine, and so what the Bible actually says about it is basically irrelevant to a discussion of Christianity.

    If your argument is that Christians manifestly don’t know how to read the Bible properly, though, I’m on your side. The worst crime ever committed against that book (which is a pretty fine read) is the religion that claims to “follow” it.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Ryan says:

      The “vast majority of Christians” eh? You guys have statistics on this? Some numbers we could reference? As far as I know lots of Christians actually view miracles and parables as analogous events. As symbols and signs. The Catholic Church believes in the literal meaning of the Bible, but does not preach the literal interpretation of every single story. These gross generalizations that “every Christian” etc. etc. are based not on any evidence but on your own preconceived notion of what Christians are like. Just because the fundamentalists are the loudest of the bunch does not mean they represent the majority.Report

      • Ryan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Okay, fine. But as Jay and Bo have pointed out, Christians believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead. That is a core belief of Christianity and if you don’t believe it, it’s hard to see how any major denomination would accept that you are, in fact, a Christian.

        Whether they also believe Jesus literally turned water into wine may be open to dispute (I think it’s definitely not – if you don’t think most Christians believe that, I submit that you have met virtually no Christians, which seems unlikely – so I’m calling nitpickery, but whatever). That said, assuming that you can dispel the argument between Dawkins and Hewitt with this little exercise is still wrong. Point: missed.Report

      • rob in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        The Catholic Church believes in the literal meaning of the Bible, but does not preach the literal interpretation of every single story

        Yes, but it (and, historically, most branches of Christianity) does preach the literal truth of the resurrection, and once one accepts the truth of the resurrection, the literal truth of the remaining events is of marginal importance. Defining “Christian” is a rather difficult thing, particularly on the margins, but a rather basic and common measure is “agrees to the Nicene Creed,” and assenting to the Nicene Creed (rather than merely confirming its historical importance) requires either (a) lying or (b) accepting the literal truth of resurrection.Report

        • Chris Dierkes in reply to rob says:

          re: nicence creed.
          again not true (see above comments of mine).
          The Creed assumes an ancient cosmology–a three-layered cake view of the universe. You have to go “down” to hell, “up” to heaven, or down from heaven to earth.

          Obviously heaven isn’t up above the clouds and hell is underneath the ground (if there is heaven or hell).

          The Creed states that the functions of the Divine are (in order): Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier. Or more properly qua personhood of the Divine: Source, Word, and Spirit. Since it’s a Christian text, the Savior is identified as the Eternal Word of God made flesh in Jesus. And then all the rest is a function of that cosmology.

          You could still believe in the Trinity without having that cosmology. Or grasping that it was said in the way it was because that is how their world was structured. Someone could then try to I suppose “update” the Creed relative trying to maintain what that person believes to be the core (an interesting question) while revisioning the cosmic backdrop to it.Report

          • rob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:


            I’m not sure which part of my comment you think is not true. Sure, the ancients understood any number of things differently than we do (among them, cosmology and the chemical reasons water doesn’t naturally turn into wine). And the Creed certainly is intended to encapsulate the Christian understanding of the relationship between the three persons of God. But the words (crucified, buried, resurrection of the dead) added in 381 to the Nicean creed weren’t added because the literal and physical aspects of resurrection were perceived as unimportant or negotiable, and so I think it still performs the function I thought it did: indicating that, historically, belief in literal resurrection is a core belief for Orthodox Christians.Report

            • Chris Dierkes in reply to rob says:

              Well, not to sound like I’m playing games here (‘cuz this is serious) but what does a literal resurrection mean?

              As Origen said (in the 3rd century), what about the Christian martyrs who were eaten by the lions? In the literal resurrection will they be half human-half beast?

              This would be I guess a post for another day but is literal resurrection the same thing as resuscitation of a corpse?

              Augustine called his text The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Interesting that the word literary and literal are so closely tied. But his “literal” reading of the text involved all kinds of symbolism.

              To wit re: the resurrection, The Gospel accounts don’t really agree among themselves. At one point he’s eating fish and another he’s walking through walls. Not exactly a return to status quo ante death existence.

              To further muddy the waters, maybe they are trying to describe a literal symbol?Report

              • rob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

                Not exactly a return to status quo ante death existence.

                This is not an answer to your questions, but that’s rather the point, isn’t it?

                what does a literal resurrection mean?

                This is more of an answer: Bodily. Not exclusively symbolic, nor exclusively metaphorical. Supernatural. Present physically in a way that is similar (but not identical) to the way that you and I are present at the moment. That is not to say “not mysterious”, as any miracle is (by definition) bound to be mysterious.

                I realize that there is a good bit of debate and variance within historical Christianity on the consequences and interpretation of the resurrection, particularly with regards to future resurrection, but there is a certain core which cannot be done away with without stepping outside the tradition. I think Ryan D. already said well what I’m trying to say:

                A spiritual interpretation without physical resurrection is explicitly rejected elsewhere in the New Testament as theologically insufficient, and even if you want to quibble with that, you can’t realistically object to the fact that this is what the church has believed about Jesus since the first century. You can deny the physical reality of the Resurrection if you want, but doing so makes you something other than a Christian in the orthodox and historical useage of the term. You certainly can’t expect to be admitted as a member to any historically orthodox tradition.Report

              • rob in reply to rob says:

                And you’re welcome to step outside that tradition — it’s perfectly legitimate — but to do so and then criticize people who are trying to have a conversation (however borish) about that tradition for not talking about the tradition in the way that your minority position would ask them to seems unfair. Not that I enjoy defending either Dawkins or Hewitt…Report

              • Chris Dierkes in reply to rob says:

                bodily is still a question of which body. or what is meant by body. Paul said we would have glorified spiritual bodies. He had no more idea than you or I as to what that might mean. I believe materiality is redeemed. How that looks or what that shows up as, I have no clue.Report

              • rob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

                He had no more idea than you or I as to what that might mean.

                Except that he claims (in 1st Corinthians) to have encountered Christ in the same manner as the other apostles, post-resurrection; and even if one interprets his encounter as not being with a bodily Christ, he certainly had access to men who had encountered the bodily Christ before his ascension. So I’d say he had a rather better idea than you or I…Report

      • Jay Daniel in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        E.D., Is this really the approach you want to take? I am not sure why you are so committed to being aggressively contrarian here. Polls are taken on stuff like this all the time. Blog commenters shouldn’t appeal to their own credentials for authority, so I won’t try to prove to you that I know what I am talking about, but if you are going to dispute a readily verifiable assertion, you should know what YOU are talking about. Here are some statistics:

        This taken from Richard Dawkins’ own site:
        Among Americans (the poll was not limited to Christians):
        — 69 percent of adults believed Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana.

        According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who self-identify as CHristian has hovered around 80% for 15 years:,2061,Survey-finds-most-Americans-believe-Jesus-born-of-virgin,Toledo-Blade

        Assuming that there are not a significant number of non-christians who believe Jesus turned water into wine, I’d say 7 out of 8 constitutes the “vast majority.”

        Some more statistics:

        Eighty-five percent (85%) of Catholics believe Jesus rose from the dead along with 86% of Protestants and 97% of Evangelical Christians. Eighty-nine percent (89%) of Catholics also think Jesus was the son of God. That view is shared by 90% of Protestants and 97% of Evangelical Christians. Finally, 87% of Catholics, 95% of Protestants and all Evangelical Christians surveyed believe that Jesus Christ walked the earth.

        Overall, 82 percent of Americans believe in God, according to a recent Harris poll, which also revealed that 73 percent also believe in miracles.

        Don’t be so quick to assume the “fundamentalist” position is the marginal position. Many other commenters have identified what I see as the problems with Chris’s post (i.e. arguing that just because the miracle in a bible story wasn’t the point of the story, it isn’t relevant to a the discussion of God’s direct intervention in the affairs of humans, which is a central and necessary component of nearly every strain of christianity). But I’m noticing a lot of self-conscious idiosyncracy around here. It feels like I’m 20 and back in a college religious studies seminar.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Jay Daniel says:

          Two things.

          Maybe three.

          Aggressively contrarian? Me? Hmmmm….

          #2 – Even if most Christians believe Jesus turned water into wine, that says absolutely nothing about their understanding of that story’s meaning. Indeed, it says nothing at all about their fundamentalism. One can believe in it happening while at the same time believing it stands for something greater, deeper, etc. In fact, the question would probably be misleading in the first place, since it is likely not “Do you think the water-to-wine story is analogous to some deeper meaning?” but instead “Did Jesus turn water into wine?” which would very likely receive a “yes” by just about everyone since, you know, that’s the story. The question isn’t prying for some deeper meaning.

          And #3. Look – the very basis of Christianity relies upon the death and resurrection of Christ. If you don’t believe that, you’re really not a Christian. I don’t care how liberal you may be, how unorthodox you may be, but if you don’t believe in the single-most essential part of Christian belief, what point is there to even being Christian? I’m not sure how 85% of Catholics believe it. How do the other 15% account for calling themselves Catholic?

          Here’s a #4 for good measure. Richard Dawkins is an ass. His entire project is despicable. Agree to disagree is a much better approach. For one, just as I cannot prove God’s existence, neither can he prove God’s non-existence. That’s simply the truth. He can go all Cartesian and try, but in the end it’s little more than a publicity stunt. And at times, I really do believe that Dawkins is little more than an attention-whore, in it for fame and fortune and a sense that he is a great and brilliant man.

          I don’t begrudge anyone their atheism or set of beliefs. I begrudge this sense of superiority and arrogance. It’s unattractive and pointless.Report

          • Ryan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            I’m just going to pipe up in defense of Dawkins. He isn’t an ass. He’s a guy who has to live in a world where we take things that are patently stupid seriously – and then, not only that, but we actually make rules to govern other people’s lives based on this patent stupidity. I guarantee Dawkins wouldn’t spend so much time talking about how incredibly ridiculous Christianity is if Christians weren’t constantly telling us we need this or that rule because God said so. The minute Christians shut the f— up about their stupid religion and stop cramming it down his (and my) throat, atheists will gladly agree to disagree.Report

            • Ryan in reply to Ryan says:

              And I know not *all* Christians do this, blah blah blah League of Ordinary Gentlemen contrarianism pearl clutching boo hoo.Report

              • Chris Dierkes in reply to Ryan says:


                That’s true. I don’t always give enough credence (i.e. belief/trust) to the New Atheist crowd for fighting a battle I’m generally on their side with (i.e. no creationism in schools) but not entirely charged about undertaking. They would do better in my opinion though to stop with this argument, which I find nonsensical and based on just their opinion I guess without much in the way of real experience, that so-called liberal religious people are creating some kind of cover for fundamentalism. As well as then making the argument that they (The New Atheists) know what real religious belief must be–and therefore accuse others who claim themselves to be religious to not be “really” religious. Which is kinda screwy since they are by admission not religious people. And in some cases, like Hitchens explicitly (and I think Dawkins implicitly) anti-theist as opposed to simply atheist.Report

          • John Howard Griffin in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            For one, just as I cannot prove God’s existence, neither can he prove God’s non-existence. That’s simply the truth. He can go all Cartesian and try, but in the end it’s little more than a publicity stunt.

            The responsibility for proof is not Dawkins, for he is not making extraordinary claims of the supernatural.Report

            • Chris Dierkes in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

              That’s true in the case of Hewitt’s theology. What frustrates me is in this debates, supernaturalism is assumed to be the only theological option relative to religion/belief.Report

              • John Howard Griffin in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

                If we confine the discussion to Christianity, what other theological option can there be (relative to religion/belief) other than supernatural?

                Christians claim that a certain person was the son of THE omnipotent creator, who created everything, including reality. If that isn’t supernaturalism, then what is it?

                From my perspective, the proof rests on those who make extraordinary claims. Not just Hewitt, but anyone who claims to believe in an omnipotent being that created everything – God, Jehovah, Buddha, Shiva, Allah, et al.Report

              • Chris Dierkes in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

                The only reason said position is de facto assumed to be supernatural is because of how since the modern era, the West has defined what is natural. Natural being methodological atheism.

                There’s nothing inherently un-natural given some forms of human experience–e.g. we come into exist not of our own power–that there would be a transcendent source. Our lives continue and therefore there is a projection that there might be salvation.

                Transcendent source is not the same as interpreting that to mean a literal giant being up in the sky or something literally manipulating and making things happen.

                I mean we learn The Big Bang happened at a certain point in time and was the start of the universe. Inevitably someone is going to ask, “What happened before that?”

                Of course, I don’t think that’s “proof”. But it’s not insane. It need not be un or supernatural.

                What I think would be natural would just be to say we have no idea and either option (naturalistic atheism as well as naturalistic belief) are legitimate possible interpretations.

                In the context of public discourse/education, I don’t think that means religious people get to claim some special respect they deserve or the fact that they say Book X says Y therefore it must be Z. I think it would be fine to study religion as a human endeavor in public schools. It could be taught in an agnostic manner relative to all those larger “is it right/real?” kinda stuff.

                Science similarly should be agnostic relative to ultimate origins, since that isn’t its territory. Which again is different than saying that therefore any option should be on the table. And from there to a reference to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.Report

              • John Howard Griffin in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

                I’ll start with: I mean we learn The Big Bang happened at a certain point in time and was the start of the universe. Inevitably someone is going to ask, “What happened before that?”

                Science has not only asked that question, it has attempted to answer it – Brane Theory (part of M theory). But, let’s continue to a point. Can we stipulate that in the explorations of theology and philosophy that we are best served by the Scientific Method (or something similar), as opposed to some other method of logic and exploration? If we can, then we must incorporate Occam’s Razor.

                Regarding your abstraction to symbology of all Christian beliefs, OK. Let’s take that route. None of Chrisitan beliefs are “true” in a literal sense. Even “God” is a symbol for the basic human experience that there are some things that are “unknowable” and that we come from a place we do not understand and go to a place we do not understand.

                As such, how can I take any of the professed “beliefs” of Chrisitanity seriously? If it is all symbology, then it is unimportant, for there is no way of “knowing” whether my, or your, or his, or her interpretation of that symbology is “true” in a meaningful sense. I can believe whatever I want.

                So, everyone has “their reality”. This concept leads to the destruction of religion and science, and the empowerment of “blind faith”. In this case, “faith” can be whatever you want it to be and it is just as arguably “true” as anyone else’s.

                This is the antithesis of the Scientific Method. However, it does fulfill Occam’s Razor. There is no way of knowing therefore all knowing is equivalent.

                That seems a to diminish my idea of “faith” even more than it already was diminished. It seems pointless to have any beliefs if everything is symbology that I will never be able to really understand. Though I (and everyone) will, of course, delude myself that I understand.

                Regarding “science…should be agnostic relative to ultimate origins, since that isn’t its territory”, this has been the argument against science from believers for a long time. I think it comes ultimately from the feeling (of the believers) that their position is very weak. Much ground that once belonged strictly to Religion (or “faith”) has been lost to science. Many areas that were originally “off limits” have been enclosed within modern Scientific theory. “Stop looking at the man behind the curtain!” they yell. The thing about science is that it leads in uncertain directions, and you cannot point to anything and say with any certainty “THAT lies beyond the purview of Science”.

                You have a well thought, reasoned and exquisite take on these matters, in both your post and your comments. In the comment above, are subjects worth spending several bottles of good brandy or scotch discussing over the course of a long winter. With my emaciated responses, I do not do justice to the depth of the topic, your article, your comments or your intellect on this fine subject. Fine work, sir.Report

      • mark in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Yes, but you do recognize that, in America at least, the question “Do you believe” means “do you believe what is says in the Bible”. I think the other commentor is on safe ground assuming that most folks who consider themselves believers, do so on the grounds that they believe what it actually says in the Bible. When in church, I’ve never noticed any lack of conviction in the pastor’s voice when telling us that the water changed into wine, the man rose from the dead, there was a virgin birth, etc., in fact I think the physical reality of these things is absolutely central to the faith, at least as it is preached.Report

  16. So if the vast majority of Americans did not know that 2 + 2 = 4, an essay showing that to be the case would, as well, be a defense of “absolutely nothing”?

    One of the main purposes of writing, still in this “post-modern age” blah blah . . . is to EDUCATE. Cheers to Dierkes for this essay. Let’s have more of ’em.Report

    • Ryan in reply to Matthew Dallman says:

      The difference is that 2+2=4 is the sort of thing that is both demonstrable in semi-scientific fashion and, you know, useful. If 2+2=4 were the sort of thing you could conclude after reading a book, and represented one of several possible interpretations of a text, and the vast majority of people subscribed to a different interpretation, then I might say writing an extremely long blog post about how other people don’t get it and you’re so much smarter/better at reading books about what numbers equal when added together is both pedantic and beside the point.Report

    • I agree with Matthew here. Cheers to Dierkes for a fantastic essay and more of ’em please! We do need more good, theological lessons. Too many people Christian or not have too little understanding in this area.Report

  17. Actually, it is not different much at all. There are certain literary facts at play in the Water Into Wine parable, and Dierkes is higlighting them (demonstrating them “semi-scientifically” to use your parlance). Try reading closer next time; he actually spells this out.

    “Useless and beside the point”? Right, because changing people’s mind, or suggesting an alternate interpretation that people may over time accept as truth, never happens in this world. Ever.Report

    • Ryan in reply to Matthew Dallman says:

      Except the “facts” here are easily disputed. By a lot of people. That’s the difference with the 2+2=4 example. It would be very hard to find a convincing counterargument. Whereas, in this case, the text more or less *says* Jesus turns water into wine, and it’s only through a much closer reading (which, incidentally, I support) that we find another way to interpret that passage.

      Also, yes, beside the point. As Jay and Bo (and others) point out, whether Dawkins and Hewitt have correctly interpreted this passage or not doesn’t actually matter. It remains the case that Christians believe God/Jesus can do things that are scientifically impossible; Dawkins does not. Saying, “Oh, good sir, I do believe you have misread this sentence here, indubitably” doesn’t change anything about the argument. It’s just pedantry.Report

  18. One can no easier dispute literary facts than arithmetic facts. Dierkes pointing out the literary facts (call it “plain meaning” if you like) within the parable is important because it moves one closer to understanding the truth of the parable. Your premise is weak: because some percentage of people disagree about what a parable is about, it is pointless for someone like Dierkes to pen an essay based on research to disclose what in fact a parable is about, on the plain meaning level of literary facts.

    And, by the way, continue on with your insulting “all Christians believe whatever they need to in order to support my argument” all you like. That sort of gross generalization is ignored by thinking people.Report

    • Bo in reply to Matthew Dallman says:

      This webcomic seems apropos. That said, the main problem with this whole line of argument is that the water-to-wine story being a metaphor for the resurrection and being literally true are complementary, not opposing, concepts.

      As an analogy, imagine if you had attended the wedding referred to. If you had actually been there when Jesus turned water into wine, and then you read the Bible, it would be a convincing metaphor for your salvation. But if you had been there, and specifically remembered Jesus hadn’t turned water into wine, the falseness of that claim in your mind would instead form a very good metaphor for the falseness of Jesus’ resurrection. That’s why Christians overwhelmingly believe that the water to wine story is literally true, even knowing it’s also a metaphor for Jesus’ resurrection.Report

    • “One can no easier dispute literary facts than arithmetic facts.”

      Of course you can. Arithmetic and logic are the least indisputable of all facts, more evident even than the most basic observations of our senses, such as the sun rising every day. And on that spectrum, the meaning of a literary passage is even further out.

      I don’t necessarily disagree with you that Chris is “moving” us to a “closer” understanding of the parable, but the use of dynamic terms like these just underscores the point that we haven’t yet arrived at this truth in any way like that we have for an arithmetical fact. And that almost anyone would say we never will.

      I do disagree that Chris is disclosing “what in fact a parable is about”. He is giving his interpretation of it, which may be a very good one, but that is not a fact in the way I ordinarily understand that term. I’m pretty sure that one hundred years from now 2 + 2 will still equal four. I’m very much less sure that Chris’ particular interpretation will stand the test of time. Even quantum mechanics might be gone by then.Report

  19. Bob Cheeks says:

    “The strength of the Gospel is its concentration on the one point that is all-important: that the truth of reality has its center not in the cosmos at large, not in nature or society or imperial rulership, but in the presence of the Unknown God in a man’s existence to his death and life.”
    Eric Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” CW, Vol. 12.Report

  20. zic says:

    We are in the dreamworld of God here.

    And Man is the dreamer.

    Random musings here.

    The water. Let’s talk about the water. Would it have been safe to drink, or filled with nasty pathogens that made people sick? (My question comes from working at Plimoth Plantation many years ago; we were taught beer, both large and small — meaning low-alcohol — were consumed instead of water because folks in Europe got sick when they drank water. The fermentation process purified the water.) Beyond the alcohol-induced spin, was wine from God because, while you might get a hangover, you wouldn’t get cholera or dysentery?

    Curious about the broken legs, too. My suspicion it’s based on butchering (leg bones are, in general, the most useful for making gelatinous stocks, and need to be ‘broken’ to be most nutritious.) A broken leg on a carcass is of man for worldly things; an intact leg is for ‘walking with god.’ And imagine the miracle of a broken leg that heals well enough to let its owner walk again! (She turns her head, shakes her fist in denial at the angry ski mountain visible out the window. It is a great consumer of legs; potential producer of holy men.) Is the theater cliche, “break a leg,” rooted in this somehow?

    When I was a child, my dad used to sing “You are my Sunshine.” It becomes a love song when you’re grieving a lover’s death; it became one for me when my husband recorded it with his jazz trio for me, a tribute to my sorrow after my father died. But my favorite example of this strange ‘hear one thing, mean another’ tendency is the Police’s “Every Breath You Take;” a total stalker song that I’ve even heard used as a love song in movie tracks.

    But it does get to the point of my musings; we hear what we need to hear. For each generation, each person even, the meaning of the dream changes in answer to psychological need. Water into wine.

    This a.m., I’m joyful I don’t have broken-leg dreams.Report

  21. Ryan Davidson says:


    While I generally agree with you on the theological interpretation you propose, I think you’re actually missing something pretty big. Which is that unless you take a materialist position like RD, there isn’t any reason to think that Jesus didn’t literally turn water into wine, while the text does provide at least some reason to think that this is, in fact, what happened.

    I also think you’re playing a shell game of your own. Sure, whether or not the water at Cana was literally turned into wine or we choose to adopt your interpretation (there’s no reason we can’t do both, by the way) is probably not that important. Because you’re right: the point of the story is largely the spiritual transformation of the human heart wrought by God through the work of Christ. Okay.

    But the orthodox conception of that work does hinge on Jesus literally, physically, rising from the dead. A spiritual interpretation without physical resurrection is explicitly rejected elsewhere in the New Testament as theologically insufficient, and even if you want to quibble with that, you can’t realistically object to the fact that this is what the church has believed about Jesus since the first century. You can deny the physical reality of the Resurrection if you want, but doing so makes you something other than a Christian in the orthodox and historical useage of the term. You certainly can’t expect to be admitted as a member to any historically orthodox tradition.

    My question for you then is this: if you’re going to admit the physical reality of the resurrection… what possible reason could there be for not admitting the physical transformation of water into wine? Certainly the former seems to be a much bigger deal than the latter. You can’t be an orthodox Christian incontinuity with the historical church without believing in at least one miracle, so why stop there?

    It is this that HH etc. are reacting to. The real issue isn’t the significance of John 2, it’s the significance of John 20. So your rather admirable piece of theological work–which I largely agree with–rather misses the point. Since I can believe everything you say and that the water was literally changed into wine, why shouldn’t I?Report

  22. Alex Knapp says:


    I’m at work so I can’t go into too much detail, but the Chruch Fathers of the early centuries would have considered your reading of John to be heretical and verging on Gnosticism. Now, I’m of the opinion that John was written by Gnostics or perhaps proto-Gnostics, so I agree with a good deal of your interpretation as the intent of the author. However, in the early Christian theology that became the Catholic Orthodoxy, the events in John are akin to the events in the Synoptic Gospels, and the changing of water into wine was most definitely understood to be a literally true event.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Alex Knapp says:

      I think it can be viewed literally and figuratively. You can read the story as true but at the same time having a truer meaning. Or you can read it as just a story, but with a truer meaning. It doesn’t make much difference. As people are pointing out, compared to the resurrection, these miracles and signs are all small potatoes.Report

      • Alex Knapp in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Of course you *can* read it either way. I’m just saying that Chris’ reading is not the traditional way to read it. In fact, I personally think there’s a lot of merit to his interpretation. But Chris is implying that this is how most Christians *do* read it and how it was *meant* to be read that that’s simply a false understanding of mainstream, orthodox Christian theology, both now and in the early Church.Report

        • Chris Dierkes in reply to Alex Knapp says:


          That’s not right. My emphasis on the physicality of the Crucifixion is what tethers this to the orthodox tradition. Gnosticism is predicated ultimately on a denial of the physical, or an absolutizing of the spiritual (understood as non-physical) over the physical. I think you’re confusing my criticism of literal with physical or incarnational. Or as the Church Fathers would say there were multiple meanings (or levels of meaning) to a text. The plain meaning, the moral meaning, and the spiritual meaning. I was playing with the first and the third.

          But the point about the blood of the divinity transforming the blood of the human is absolute classic orthodox Christianity.

          St. Athanasius: “God became human so that humanity would become God.”Report

  23. Andy Smith says:

    “The thing about the Gospel of John (if I can call it that) is that it is built on its densely layered and cross-fibrous symbolic world. It employs the repetition of certain key words to create an inner (”secret” “esoteric”) meaning. None of which has to do with whether or not Jesus actually literally turned water into wine.”

    “The third day for those of you with eyes to see and ears to hear is a reference to the resurrection. Big things tend to happen in the Gospels (and The Bible more generally) on the third day.”

    “Weddings function in the Jewish tradition as a metaphor for heaven. So we have the person already referred to as the Son of God come down from heaven, a reference to the resurrection, and a marriage feast (code for the coming kingdom of God), so we know glory is about to happen.”

    “The blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus is the blood and the water of God (again according to the logic of this story) that births a son or daughter of God. Like the amniotic after-birth of Divinity. The water transformed into wine for the wedding is a sign of the human flesh that is transformed into Divine Flesh in Jesus.”

    Chris, interpretations like these are fascinating. But the very fact that they are fascinating tends to undercut your argument, IMO. The fascination lies precisely in the fact that these ideas are new to a lot of people. But why should they be? If, as you strongly imply, this is not simply your opinion on how the Bible should be read (nowhere in your post do I see a modifier like, “according to one interpretation, that I personally favor”), but definitely the way it has to be read, why is this not generally known and accepted? Why are not most people who call themselves Christian aware that this is the way the Bible is supposed to be read? Surely they are not, because, again, if they were, your post would not be considered particularly novel.

    Here are some other questions I think your post raises:

    1) Why is there so much opposition to mysticism from the Catholic Church? If these references to another level of being are definitely what the Bible is really about, then the Church hierarchy ought to embrace mysticism, in all religions. It ought to see that if it is really serious about finding common ground with other religions, the esoteric core is where that common ground lies.
    2) Why is there still so much resistance by the Church to birth control, to homosexuality, and to other “worldly” views that have nothing to do with realizing higher consciousness? Since our sexual behavior is largely irrelevant to the pursuit of higher consciousness, why does the Church continue to make such a big deal about it?
    3) Why cling to metaphors that might have been appropriate to the lives of people two thousand years ago, but which tend to become confusing today (in a modern, scientific society, the wine into water myth invites precisely the kind of skepticism that Dawkins expresses)? There are other ways to expresses these relationships that do not runt he danger of conflicting with science, even if the conflict is only apparent. I can understand revering the Bible as a historical record. I cannot see using it as a modern day guide to realizing higher consciousness.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Andy Smith says:

      Why are not most people who call themselves Christian aware that this is the way the Bible is supposed to be read?

      It’s inevitable that “most people” will not be well-educated on topics they largely nevertheless agree with. Like science or technology, theology is a deep subject, with lots to understand and learn. Like most people who accept scientific facts but hardly understand the entirety of them, believers accept religious views without fully understanding them. If the world were populated with the vast majority of people perfectly well read in every subject, certainly that would be a very good thing. But it’s not in the nature of the world or humanity for this to be so. Most people don’t have the time.Report

      • Andy Smith in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Sorry, E.D., I don’t think that’s a good comparison. Very true that most people are not up on the details of science (I’m a scientist, and find it hard to keep up on details of areas outside mine), but large numbers of people do have some basic understanding of the scientific method (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be qualified to sit on juries and sift evidence of a crime, e.g.). You can have some basic understanding of the method without knowing a lot of details about what has been discovered or hypothesized.

        In the same way, you can be familiar with the general distinction between literal interpretation and metaphor, without being familiar with the details (though ironically, most Biblical literalists are probably very familiar with the details). We’re talking about the big picture–believing wine into water literally, vs. believing it is metaphor. You don’t have to be well educated to understand this distinction, and to favor one side or the other (or both). (Or if you do have to be well educated, it is a kind of education very different from simply acquiring vast amounts of knowledge about details. Not a matter of not having enough time). Yet as I repeat, most people who call themselves Christian do not seem to understand Chris’ point that Biblical passages are loaded with metaphors. I do not hear them say things like, “I’m not up on the exact interpretation, but I do understand that all these passages are not meant to be understood literally, but really are references in some way to realizing a higher state of consciousness”. Unless I very much misunderstand Chris, this is what he is saying, and this view, though I think it would be a breath of fresh air for the Church, is in a very small minority.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Andy Smith says:

          Again – I think this is little more than your perception of things. Nothing statistical points to this idea that “most Christians” don’t read the bible with some sense of symbolism and metaphor. I know lots of Christians who do. At a certain point we run into your anecdotal or speculative interpretation of a population vs. mine.Report

          • rob in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            Or, since Christianity is a tradition which contains authorities who can reasonably be said to speak for large portions of the whole, we could see what they have to say about the relationship between literal truth and metaphor (as Ryan Davidson said, the basic relation is understood to be that the metaphors are given meaning by the literally true resurrection…).Report

          • Andy Smith in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            So I say they don’t and you say they do. But someone above provided actual poll data indicating large majorities of Christians do believe in the literal truth of certain events. And without appealing to any polls of the Christian masses I can say very definitely that the Church hierarchy is not sympathetic to the notion of realizing higher consciousness. They speak out against it time and time again.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Andy Smith says:


      I should have made clearer this was one reading not the only one.

      Why is this not well understood. Well for one thing these allusions are all predicated on deep familiarity with the Hebrew Bible. When The Bible divided into Old and New Testaments there was a serious flaw in Christianity. Old was considered passe. In the medieval church liturgy all of the readings essentially for the entire year were from the New Testament. Luther got into this argument that the New Testament was about love and the Old Testament about servitude. He basically adopted a heretical position called Marcionism.

      The references are not footnoted or cited in the New Testament. The “New” Testament would better be thought of as the Part II or The Epilogue. It’s a re-telling or a re-imagining of Part I through the character of Jesus identified with the character of Yahweh. (Harold Bloom has a really good book on this subject if you are interested called Jesus and Yahweh).

      So we don’t hear the intended references. We would have to re-train ourselves how to hear it in a manner closer to the way it was originally preached. As an example, when a NT writer cites one line from the OT like, “This was to fulfill what was said …..” what they actually were doing was referencing a whole section, potentially even whole cycles of stories, using the one line as a synecdoche.

      Later (mostly Gentile Christians) didn’t know this practice and took it mean only a specific reference to that one line. So for example, when the Prophet Isaiah is quoted that “The young woman shall conceive and bear a son” the whole story is meant to be read and understood in this context. Not just that one line extricated from the rest of the context. When you do the latter, then you get into this habit, common in Christianity of “Look the prophets predicted Jesus.” Huh???

      As to points about mysticism and religious institutions, well control. Mystics are dangerous people. The Roman Catholic Church is still built off the medieval aristocratic age. In Teilhard’s language, it’s trying to hold onto an age in which humans are subordinate to the biosphere (which is why birth control is banned).Report

  24. John Howard Griffin says:

    The theological education of this article aside, it seems to be missing a fairly large point (my many years of Jesuit education says to me).

    That point is: which stories in the Bible are literal truth and which are parables trying to teach a moral/ethical/theological lesson?

    Throughout the ages these 2 lists (“literal truth” and “parable”) have constantly changed as new science and theological arguments/epiphanies undermine the items on the “literal truth” list and force someone to come up with an explanation that the story is really just trying to teach us X. The “literal truth” list becomes smaller and smaller over time – approaching zero at some future date.

    To the Jesuits that taught me, EVERY SINGLE “STORY” IN THE BIBLE is a parable. None it is “literal truth” except the concept that Jesus is the Son of God and was resurrected from the dead (something no human has done before or since, according to the Jesuits).

    But, the part that always bothered me about taking this view is: if all of the New Testament is filled with parables, then why should I believe the underlying premise of the whole thing (that Jesus was the Son of God and was resurrected from the dead)? The book is just a book of stories, but I’m supposed to take “on faith” something supernatural?

    Carl Sagan and Mark Twain covered this a long time ago.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
    – Carl Sagan

    It [The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.
    – Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

    But, the religious never want to really address these two good points.Report

    • But, the religious never want to really address these two good points.

      This is a strange claim, given how much time religious people spend addressing evidence for the veracity of their claims, in both sophisticated and unsophisticated fashions. That doesn’t mean you have to accept their evidence (sounds like you don’t), but “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is hardly something that hasn’t occurred to ‘religious people’. You’re familiar with the concept of a “crisis of faith”, right?Report

      • John Howard Griffin in reply to rob says:

        Spending time addressing evidence for the veracity of their claims (in both sophisticated and unsophisticated fashions) does not equate with “extraordinary evidence”.

        I have yet to see ANY “extraordinary evidence” that shows that a human being died and then 3 days later was suddenly alive – not to say any evidence of supernatural abilities. The only “evidence” I have ever seen on this subject from the faithful is “The Bible says it, so it must be true”. That is not extraordinary evidence.Report

        • Spending time addressing evidence for the veracity of their claims (in both sophisticated and unsophisticated fashions) does not equate with “extraordinary evidence”.

          True. But your claim was that “religious people don’t want to address the questions”, and saying that their evidence doesn’t meet your standard hardly indicates a lack of desire for it to do so.

          The only “evidence” I have ever seen on this subject from the faithful is “The Bible says it, so it must be true”. That is not extraordinary evidence.

          No, it is not, at least without consideration of how other things (first century culture, both Roman and Jewish, outside historical commentary, personal experience) bear upon the text. Which is why considerable ink has been spilled explaining why the text itself might be considered extraordinary (one recent example). Again, you can reject those explanations, but your claim was that the religious aren’t interested in offering them.Report

          • John Howard Griffin in reply to rob says:

            My standards of proof do not matter. What matters is that the proof – whatever it is – must be extraordinary, huge, earth-shattering, irrefutable. People do not want to address this issue with earth-shattering proof, because they do not have earth-shattering proof. And, so the discussion always devolves to “well, you just have to believe.” To me, this lacks a seriousness to show irrefutable proof. Perhaps they want to find irrefutable proof, but after 2 millenia of looking, you would think that people would start to admit that there isn’t any.

            Again, you can reject those explanations, but your claim was that the religious aren’t interested in offering them.

            The religious aren’t interested in offering extraordinary proof, just proof. The argument that “you have to read the Bible in context of the historical times and reference other historical works (basically Josephus) that prove that some things REALLY HAPPENED!” is an oldie but a goodie. This one’s been trotted out (and disproven) more times than I can remember.Report

  25. Jaybird says:

    Here is my problem with this interpretation:

    Let’s pretend that we are Christian slaves in the catacombs and we just heard that our friend watched his children being eaten by lions before he was put to the sword by a gladiator as he knelt and prayed and that the Romans in the stands were cheering.

    When we hear this story of Jesus, what is our interpretation?

    Let’s say that we are one of the Patriarchs discussing the split of what is to become the Orthodox Church and what is to become the Catholic Church and we hear this story of Jesus. What is our interpretation?

    Let’s say that we are a peasant during the black plague and we go to the church and the priest tells this story of Jesus. What is our interpretation?

    Let’s say that we’re a poor migrant during the 1930’s dustbowl and a minister tells this story of Jesus. What is our interpretation?

    And now it’s 2009.

    It strikes me that this interpretation is, well, novel. That is more likely to set off warning bells in my mind than give me comforting thoughts.Report

    • E.D. Kain in reply to Jaybird says:

      But Jaybird, it really just depends. While the masses take one course, the philosophers and theologians may take another. They may operate on separate paths that from time to time cross – wisdom and understanding thereby dispersed, if not cultivated by all at once. The work of St. Thomas or St. Augustine has been extremely important, even if not all Christians at all times were privy to it. This is not a matter of all or nothing.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Nor am I saying that it is a matter of all or nothing.

        But if a Biblical Scholar comes up with an interpretation that is novel 2000 years after this stuff happened when, up to that point, there was a different (even “simpler”) interpretation, for my part, I see the game being given away.

        Which is not to say “YOU NEED TO CHANGE!” as much as “you know what? I don’t need to change”.Report

        • John Howard Griffin in reply to Jaybird says:

          For what it’s worth, I think you’re making a very important point, Jaybird.

          Happy Friday everyone.Report

          • Chris Dierkes in reply to John Howard Griffin says:


            JHG is right, that is a good point. So good that I added an extra update in the post (check it out) responding at some length to that point.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

              Chris, I appreciate that particular argument.

              From what I understand, Melville had to have all of the symbolism in Moby Dick explained to him afterwards (he was surprised by all of the stuff people found in there that he didn’t intend).

              I mean, when I read Moby Dick and Ishmael is clinging to the coffin (sorry, spoiler) and I hear that Melville didn’t mean that to be anything more than a “what would float? Huh, Queequeg’s coffin (whoops, bigger spoiler) would, let’s use that”, I laugh. If you ask me, that is one of the most powerful symbols in the book. Melville didn’t mean it.

              But, you know what? It’s there. It’s there like a punch in the nose.

              So, please understand, I am *NOT* saying that your interpretation of the story of the Wedding at Cana is wrong.

              Please understand, however, that I see it as relatively recent (though, I suppose, those arguing that it has gnostic echoes have a point as well). It’s the fact that this interpretation is so new and has a whiff of “well, of course all those other interpretations before were unsophisticated” (whether or not there is a spoonful of sugar attached) that makes me say that you are clinging to the coffin of Christianity after the whale of modernity has smashed the ship of your forefather’s religion.

              If you know what I mean.

              Perhaps you don’t see it that way. (I don’t intend to be offering free psychoanalysis either.)

              But, please understand, from here it strikes me as an interpretation that is so informed by the modern mindset that the spark found in the original is lost despite claims to the contrary. I’m stuck with just another dead messiah on Golgotha and, if you count the skulls up there, you might be impressed by the sheer number of those that belonged to someone who was totally going to save the world.Report

  26. James says:

    You can always tell when an issue lies close to the ego for someone, they start falling back on statistics. Gotta keep things “concrete,” right? I mean really does that even matter in this instance? It’s totally a periphery issue. I don’t know about you folks, but I stopped trusting statistics a long time ago.Report

  27. mark says:

    Somehow we’ve gotten into a fascinating discussion of how properly to understand and approach the bible, one that I’ve found very interesting. To get back to where we left our heroes – they’re debating whether it makes sense to understand the bible as it has been understood for many generations, and is still held to by millions of people. A rough guesstimate would be 20% of Americans, and a higher percentage of the many heavily Catholic countries sharing our hemisphere. Don’t shoot me, that’s a guess and even if I’m way, way off, it’s millions upon millions of people. Now, they think that those water molecules were reformed into something else, let’s not kid ourselves: are the leaders of their religion serving them well?Report

  28. Bob says:

    Not only did the Lord turn water into wine, but really a fine vintage. (Wine Spectator gave it a 98.) The bridegroom is suitably shamed by his servant, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” What lesson is being taught?Report

  29. mark says:

    I’m sorry, I know it seems like I’m trying to hijack this post, and after this I’ll desist. 1) Is Hewitt the idiot Dawkins thinks he is for believing that the water molecules were changed into wine? Never mind whether Dawkins is an effective proponent of his views, I think we all know the answer to that one. And 2) if the wise elders of the church now believe nothing of the sort (as I read above) and haven’t since Augustine, then why haven’t they passed this on to their flocks, who, presumably, might benefit?Report

    • John Howard Griffin in reply to mark says:

      Re: 2) Religion is about faith and belief, sure. But, it’s also about control. And money. It is not about honesty or truth, in my opinion. The books that were included in the New Testament were chosen to tell a tale that humans wanted told, for there are some conflicting (and dangerous?) messages in the other gospels.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to mark says:


      because like just about every pursuit, development in religious faith goes from more literalized to more subtle mature forms. the common trend (represented by this argument between Dawkins and Hewitt) is either to A)stunt development and stay in a literalized form of faith or B)keep developing and think that religion only exists in that immature form (an understandable view given its dominance) and therefore jettison religion altogether.Report

  30. Bob says:

    Why only the cognoscenti? Good question.

    “The idea that some of Jesus’ miracles did not happen and were written to shore up Messianic interpretations of the Hebrew Bible has been common in academic circles for decades [centuries?]. But for many of the faithful it will come as almost as much of a shock as the thought of Jeffrey Archer being the propagator of this new ‘truth’”.

    But another good question provokes the faithful, was it wine or grape juice? Ahhh, theology!Report

  31. Bob Cheeks says:

    Of course I’ve enjoyed the ‘comments’ here, particularly those clever lads and their embrace of gnosticism.
    The Gospel is as Voegelin described it: “…neither a poet’s work of dramatic art, nor an historian’s biography of Jesus, but the symbolization of a divine movement that went through the person of Jesus into society and history.” The gospel stands as one event in the on going drama of revelation.
    In the “in-between” of existence lies our choice: we may choose to deny the self and evil or we can deny the Logos and the “Unknown God.” It ain’t complicated.
    In the end, one ‘knows’ God when the symbolization of truth and all those higher things we yearn for are, as Voegelin said, filtered through the ’eminent’ truth of existential consciousness.Report

  32. Socrates says:

    In the interview Dawkins says this:

    “Why the book of Genesis, not any other origin myth of which there are thousands all over the world? ”

    Brutal. That’s really the heart of it, I think.

    I am not an atheist but I don’t know of any convincing or coherent answer to his question (Hewitt doesn’t even make an attempt, of course.)

    And once you even start down the path of “the Bible must be read as metaphor” I think you’re in very deep trouble. Where do you stop, exactly? How do you know where that is?

    Why choose one as true? You can even include the Big Bang if you like, since I think it’s just as mystical as all the other creation stories (isn’t that what makes them thrilling?)

    At least science has the guts to put her cards on the table, is open to vigorous debate, and is willing to adjust beliefs to new evidence.

    At one point, Hewitt seems to think he has Dawkins, asking what came before the Big Bang. But every creation story fails equally on this question. Why choose one over any other?

    The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.Report

    • Bob in reply to Socrates says:

      “And once you even start down the path of ‘the Bible must be read as metaphor’ I think you’re in very deep trouble. Where do you stop, exactly? How do you know where that is?”

      This does seem the ultimate slippery slope.

      While I would like to see the argument that Chris offers as preferable to a literal reading of the wedding miracle I can’t. Chris is well stepped in the theology he puts forth but ultimately, as a Christian, must acknowledge Jesus as God, dying for our sins to gain our salvation. Certainly such a being could change water into wine. Wouldn’t it be easier to just stick with the original story and speak from authority, “for The Bible tells me so.”Report

  33. Socrates says:

    And by the way.

    I was raised Lutheran and I went to Christian school. Nine long years of daily Christian theology. Bible reading every single day. Church and Sunday School every Sunday. Memorize the Catechism. Confirmation. Lather, rinse, repeat. So I know whereof I speak.

    Not once was there ever ANY hint, whisper, intimation, or clue that the Bible was metaphor. I’m quite certain this would have been an epic scandal.

    So I just don’t believe that Christianity is taught this way – that the holy book is mythology.

    Gee, maybe they figure that, if the Bible is “metaphorical”, the brain-washing doesn’t work.Report

    • mark van cleve in reply to Socrates says:

      Right, Socrates. And even questioning something got you knitted eyebrows. ‘Um, the Pharoah wanted to let them go, and then the Lord changed his mind, and then the same Lord punished his people, over and over……?” The original post, miles above, posited that the Dawkins/Hewitt argument was just plain stupid because all the smart kids know that these things are illustrative metaphors, intended to teach us lessons, but my reply is that the Dawkins/Hewitt argument is only stupid and benighted in a world composed only of the cognoscenti. In, ah, THIS world it is still, all these centuries after Augustine, the most common debate about religion: is all that stuff true? Surely the original poster has noticed that there are school boards attempting to water down the teaching of biology (and even geology in some places) and that there are many Americans who believe the earth is 4000 years old, etc. I’m sorry to have say this, but Dawkins/Hewitts’ argument is timely and vital.Report

      • Chris Dierkes in reply to mark van cleve says:


        yes you can say the argument is timely and vital insofar as it is the most common one (on both sides). agreed. but if other options aren’t offered, ones that I think very persuasively show the limitations of both sides, then that argument will always be the dominant one. that argument needs to be dislodged. which is a separate point from whether creationism should be taught in public schools–it shouldn’t. I’m completely with Dawkins (and whoever of whatever stripe who agrees) on that one.Report

  34. Michael Drew says:

    Dawkins asks rather than assuming whether Hewitt believes the molecules turned. He then expresses surprise if not shock at the affirmative response. It seems clear then that Dawkins is perfectly aware that there is, and perhaps favors, a less literal interpreation. I don’t see how another conclusion but that can be drawn. I understand Chris would prefer that the question Dawkins asked not ever be asked, but plainly more than enough people (not just Hewitt) have that kind of view of Scripture/Gospel/the word to merit exploring that view. That type of belief is what Dawkins is interested in, and it’s his right to be. It’s perfectly understandable that Chris doesn’t like that Dawkins doesn’t pay more attention to the interpretations he favors, but unfortunately Chris’ enlightened view is far from dominant among believers. He has a lot of educating to do to get actually-exiting belief to the point where what Dawkins is dealing with is actually a straw man.

    For more on exactly this question, see this:

    • Bob in reply to Michael Drew says:

      “…but unfortunately Chris’ enlightened view is far from dominant among believers.”

      Why do you find Chris’ view enlightened? What is your criteria for making such a judgment?

      If Jesus is God couldn’t he easily change water into wine, or bring Lazarus back, or feed the multitude with limited provisions? If one accepts the oogedy-boogedy (and I’m guessing Chris does) that God sent his Son, God, to redeem fallen man all else is easily believed. Swallow that original and believing in the wedding miracle is a piece of wedding cake.Report

      • Mark in reply to Bob says:

        Hey, but cmon that oogedy stuff is not polite. The religious guys are being respectful; lets do the sameReport

      • Michael Drew in reply to Bob says:

        Take it up with Chris. I find Chris’ view more enlightened than literalism. That said, I find his that because Dawkins chooses to focus on the literalism that actually abounds in the world, he therefore must be unaware that metaphorical interpretations don’t exist or is incapable of understanding them to be unsupported and therefore unfair and mean-spirited.Report

  35. Bob says:

    1. “Take it up with Chris.” Why should I take it up with Chris? Did he call his views “enlightened?”

    2. “…Dawkins chooses to focus on the literalism….” Actually you are wrong, Hewitt focused on the literalism. Hewitt ignored any metaphorical interpretation. Please read the interview again you will see your error.Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:


      As to the charge of oogedy-boogedyism
      re: “that God sent his Son, God, to redeem fallen man all else is easily believed”

      You’re making the same “mistake” (maybe that’s too strong a word, assumption?) that Dawkins does. If you ask me do I believe God (the Father) sent God the Son to redeem then for me the question would be, how do you think I would believe that (if I did)? Or more simply, “what do you think that means?”

      ‘Cuz there’s lots of being heavy-laden terms in that statement: redemption, God (Father), God (Son), sent.

      The Nicene Creed states that the Son is actually an Eternal Word, Light from Light, etc. “Begotten not made”. Begotten not made means two things: 1. not made in the sense that normal humans are made (i.e. through procreation). 2. Begotten meaning arising from. But not in the way that we normally conceive of Fathers and Sons. So Son is here metaphor.

      It also represents (as per the earlier statement of eternity and Godhood) not manifesting in the normal course of cause and effect (hence redemptive). An act of pure graceful manifestation.

      It’s more a negative statement–a beyond Sonship in the language of apophatic theology (the tradition I’m more aligned with). It’s metaphor or symbol that then leads beyond metaphor and symbol into contemplative silence.

      In that sense yes I believe it. But no I don’t believe there’s (oogedly-boogedly I presume) some real thing-y being ego-blob called God who spawned an offspring who is catapulted from some literal above earth heaven literally down to earth, like Superman. (Actually Superman is a re-telling of a literal reading of the Gospel of John but that for another day).Report

      • Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        First, I certainly do not take umbrage at having you point out my mistakes, especially if I am in the company of Dawkins. But I’m uncertain what my mistake is. Is it that I think a lot of Christians, a la Hewitt, believe in a literal interpretation of the Gospels?

        Second, I would like to turn to the proximate cause of this mini-thread.

        A few comments up M. Drew opined he found your views enlightened. I asked how he came to think so. Implicate in my question was a rejection of his view. I find neither your interpretation nor Hewitt’s literal interpretation of the water into wine story enlightened. Both of you ultimately hang your hat on God. For Hewitt the story literally shows the power and majesty of Christ, Christ actually changed the molecular structure of water to wine. For you the story is a metaphor that demonstrates a lesson.

        You write, “Weddings function in the Jewish tradition as a metaphor for heaven. So we have the person already referred to as the Son of God come down from heaven, a reference to the resurrection, and a marriage feast (code for the coming kingdom of God), so we know glory is about to happen. We are in the dreamworld of God here.”

        So, I say, you both have your eggs in God’s basket. Neither point of view reaches enlightenment for me.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to Bob says:

          Fyi, as most here know, my eggs are most definitely not in God’s basket. Also, Dawkins mist definitely does choose to focus on literalism — the link to the paper I provide above cites exactly where he says that it is literal belief in the religions’ explanations of the world that his book is targeted at. That is what makes Chris’ contention that Dawkins pretends other views don’t exist unfounded.Report

          • Chris Dierkes in reply to Michael Drew says:

            I’m not sure he really understands what goes into those other views re: The Bible. At least he’s never shown me (and I’ve read a good deal of his writings on this subject) any understanding. He did after all call theology the study of leprechauns. Which I’m not totally against btw, just that it (imo) betrays a real denigration or at the very least lack of understanding of the place of literature, mythology, and symbolism.Report

            • Michael Drew in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

              The charge you just leveled is almost ridiculous on its face. A “lack of understanding of the place of literature, mythology, and symbolism” is not in evidence and I would think an Oxford don (or whatever his rank) might get the benefit of the doubt that he has some understanding of such things. What he does exhibit is a lack of acceptance that those things can legitimate a belief in non-material beings. In other words, if you were to posit that the Bible, all stories about God in all religions, etc. were literature and myth and nothing else, but that they nevertheless retain awesome power within the human family and should, I think he would accept at least the descriptive part of that statement. The fact that he chooses to focus on those who take such stories to be the revealed word of a real but nonmaterial entity doesn’t begin to show he lacks an aprreciation of the important of literature, myth, or symbolism. He just isn’t required to aim his focus in a particular direction in order satisfy you that he has an understanding of these things. Perhaps his understanding of them is indeed inferior to yours or others’, but that is not the claim you make (if I understand it correctly). To me the fact that he asks Hewitt whether he believes the story in a literal way and then expresses surprise that the answer is yes, and also that he specifically states that he is not addressing nonliteral interpretations of religious myth in his books clearly shows that he is well aware of them. He may not pass your theology exams, but that is far from proof of a lack of understanding of the place of literature. He would I imagine respond to you that he does understand the place of literature, sees the Bible as such, and is attempting to return understanding of the Bible to the place that literature should hold in society.Report

          • Bob in reply to Michael Drew says:

            “Fyi, as most here know, my eggs are most definitely not in God’s basket.”

            In case there is a misunderstanding I want to make clear that the “both” above points to Hewitt and Chris. I’m well aware that your eggs reside elsewhere.

            Another point. I was sloppy in saying, giving the impression, that enlightenment was final. That was wrong. I will say that positing a god of some sort as a departure point on a quest for enlightenment seems a poor choice to me. And specifically to the point at hand, both Chris and Hewitt do rely on some notion of God to explain the goings on at Cana, and I find both unenlightened.Report

  36. Michael Drew says:

    I did originally say “Chris’ enlightened view.” If we see enlightenment as a process and not a point of arrival, then his view is enlightened vis-a-vis Biblical literalism, that was what I meant. One can become enlightened on a question without reaching a state of perfect enlightenment on it. “I have been enlightened by a wise teacher on points I had hitherto been profoundly deluded about, but I see that I have much to learn and much enlightenment on the self-same points yet to gain.” That sense of the term enlightenment.

    And I say take it up with Chris, because if he himself won’t stand up for his views as enlightened, then plainly I would retract and reconsider that assessment. I can’t speak for them as well as he can.Report

  37. Can’t help but notice the many examples of dismissive views people have taken towards the interpretation Dierkes offers, as well as those (gasp!) having Christian beliefs at all.

    But then again, Dierkes took dismissive views of both Hewitt and Dawkins, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. So I guess he had it coming to him, unfortunately.

    Would that in discussions of religion and textual interpretation, people would have enough restraint to cease the dismissals of that which with they disagree. But I know asking for that is “a bridge too far” for some people who either suffer boredom at work, in-between classes, etc., and need to vent, or simply have so little time for views seemingly against their own they must forceably eject them via fist-pounded assertions based upon their relativistic skepticism. And do so again, and again, and again.

    Again, cheers to Dierkes for providing an excellent means of rumination and meditation, that of the symbolic meaning of the water-turned-wine. Could have gone without the subsequent “update” listing all the smarty people he wants us to know he’s read, but I’m sure mileage varies on that one. Easy enough to ignore.Report

  38. “If we sip the wine, we find dreams coming upon us out of the imminent night.”

    —D.H. LawrenceReport

  39. Bob says:

    Christopher Hitchens on biblical stories as metaphor. (Via Sullivan)

    Read the entire piece at

    “Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just ‘metaphors.’ He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he ‘allows’ it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.”Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:


      I’ve had a pretty bad week (today especially), so I’m in a feisty mood. So if I go a little overboard here, chalk it up to that.

      But basically you are going to have to come with something harder than this pathetic Hitchens quotation. That is some weak s–t friend.

      How many flippin’ times have I said that a guy like Hitchens imports an entire philosophical outlook and view of what theology should be, all the while simply deciding that his version of those is the way it is?

      Re-read that quotation of Hitchens in light of what I just said. Thank you for proving my point.

      Particularly annoying is his bullshit scare quotes around metaphors. F#@!ing Westerners have this stupid inane philosophical arrogance that metaphor and symbol are unreal things. Only a materialist like Hitchens (his roots are in Trotsky-ite thinking) would so denigrate metaphor. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

      Our entire linguistic structure is metaphor. The word structure there in that last sentence is a metaphor.

      “He [Wilson] is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God.”

      What does that mean? Very staunchly?

      Could someone define how he (Wilson and/or Hitchens) understands state of sin beyond just saying he believes it and then assuming it means one and only thing and that we all already know what that one thing (both of which are wrong assumptions btw)?

      How does the death deal with such redemption? What does redemption mean (to him)? How does he understand the nature of Christ and Christ’s relationship to Jesus of Nazareth?

      Oh yeah and answer said questions without the use of ‘metaphors’ (do metaphors count as oogedy boogedy?).

      Kind of hard given that A)redemption is an economic metaphor B)state of sin is a legal metaphor C)Christ and rebellion are both political metaphors (or if you prefer theological analogs drawn from the world of politics).

      It’s not that I’m imposing metaphoric readings on top of the thing. The thing is itself already the metaphor itself.

      No one believes anything metaphor-lessly. They just don’t realize they do and confuse their metaphor for material concreteness versus real existing symbol. Or in the case of Hitchens he just decides one camp within the religious traditions/communities “really” believes (according to his pov which is never defended or argued to foundationally only assumed and then argued from onto everyone given his ideological commitments) and remains totally clueless.Report

      • Bob in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        Chris, I hope you have a better week.

        But the point is beyond dispute, interpretations of biblical stories vary, from the literal to the metaphorical. Hitchens seems to like that ‘ol time religion.

        And do you *not* “import” meaning to your interpretation of Christianity? I will readily admit I do.Report

        • Chris Dierkes in reply to Bob says:

          Of course I have an interpretation. I’m just saying everyone should be honest about what their underlying principles/guiding worldview is.
          Hitchens is either unaware of his and/or lacking transparency as to what it is (as well as not willing to take others into consideration).
          Here’s mine.

          Though in shorthand form I say (and others as well) say literal vs. metaphor, that’s really not correct. What we call literal readings in the contemporary sense are really metaphoric (or at least analogical) readings that are bringing our sense of the modern world onto the text. Especially the notion that things are true only if they happened. It’s in a certain sense a non-literal “literal” reading. What the “literal” camp (of today) really is a reductive reading. It’s a reading that’s attempting to get out of The Bible a didactic truth qua propositions that are simply not in there. The Bible is (in terms of its truth claims) a mostly liturgical text which proclaims certain elements of praise and worship not propositions in a typically modern European sense of the word.

          I just happen to think that modern Western definition of what is true/real is a very limited one. I think The Bible (as well as other great religious texts) offer an alternative/complementary truth openings. (Aletheia as Heidegger understood the term). And that if the western scientific ethos is left unchecked/unbound by these other truth arenas, then the world goes to pot as everything becomes instrumental in value and eventually gets used up.

          In fact, as Northrop Frye said the literal reading of the Bible was metaphor. That is, the plain sense reading actually is metaphor. The “very staunchly” Wilson type reading requires a number of backflips and epicycles and explain aways that are wildly out of grounding from the text.

          Metaphor again doesn’t mean ‘not true’, it just means metaphor. Since I am of the linguistic school that all language is inherently metaphor, Frye’s assessment ends up being a tautology of sorts (the Bible is metaphor because it’s linguistic) but at least he gets that language (i.e. metaphor) is the water it swims in.Report

  40. mark says:

    Chris, not to double-team, and I don’t want to piss you off, but I get the impression that for some theologians the collision between objective reality and belief has produced an understanding of the Bible as metaphor. No argument there. It just really seems, though, that the Church teaches the miracles stories as being true, in a sense you may find old-fashioned: that they actually happened, in the same way my teakettle actually boiled. Those reliquaries aren’t venerated because they’re extremely acute metaphors, right? Nor are the saints canonized for especially revealing metaphors. No, the teaching of the Church is that all that stuff actually, truly, really friggin’ HAPPENED: now, if it is actually to be understood as metaphor, then folks who have a molecular belief in water-to-wine are mistaken, period! Not only mistaken factually, but missing the true, real, deep significance that they were intended to get! So I don’t see anything wrong, other than the boorishness, with Dawkins’ telling them ‘oh no it didn’t’, but I do sort of see something wrong with the Church letting its flock down so spectacularly as to continue to insist in the literal reality of all those stories.Report

    • Bob in reply to mark says:

      But mark, I’m sure that those that teach the my “tea kettle boiled,” literal version do so with conviction. They really do believe Christ turned water into wine. And given their starting point, Jesus is God, why should they not believe it? I believed it at one time. And when I came not to believe it was not because I said “God could not turn water into wine,” it was because I came to reject the notion of god, and particularly the loving and personnel god preached by the church.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to mark says:

      Well, the way the story is written, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to a more modern interpretation.

      Mary comes up to Jesus. “Dude”, she says, “They’re running out of wine.”
      “Woman!”, He says back. Then he says something else. I just wanted to focus on the “Woman!” part. I will call my wife that when I go home today.
      He tells the servants to get some jars of water.
      They get some.
      He turns the water into wine.
      A guy comes up and says “Dude! Normally people serve the best wine first and bring out swill once everyone is good and drunk. You have saved the best wine for now!”

      It’s difficult for me to read that story as, really, a story of the transformation of the soul found when one begins to fully explore one’s relationship with God. Why? Because of the little details like the guy coming up and discussing how to best manipulate winos at a wedding. “Nobody cares what the second glass tastes like!”

      Now, if Jesus told a story about how the kingdom of heaven was like a man who went to a wedding where they ran out of wine and he turned water into wine and everyone got really, really drunk… well, you’d answer, OF COURSE IT IS.

      As it stands, the viewpoint that Jesus didn’t tell parables but was, Himself, the parable…


      We’re back to me not seeing any reason to change my life.Report

      • Chris Dierkes in reply to Jaybird says:


        I dealt with the woman and the parable issue in the piece. The short version is there are no parables in the Gospel of John, nor is Jesus a parable. It deals in signs. And Jesus is a sign. Signs create conflict, light/dark, understanding/misunderstanding, which are themes that run through the whole thing. Also the story doesn’t need to say “The kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet…” because everybody already knew that simile that all you have to do is have a story about a wedding banquet and people would get you were alluding to heaven.

        All of which ties to your point about the story not lending itself to a contemporary interpretation, which of course isn’t its intent. Of course you can read it with solely through our lenses as moderns and say it doesn’t meet our standards therefore it has nothing to say to us (which is also what Dawkins in his way is doing, only through the argument about epistemology and science). I’m arguing that’s a rather superficial read. Or at least reductive one.

        A better way I think is to try (as best as we are able) to get a sense of how that world was constructed and whether it has anything to critique or perhaps complement or enlighten or give new perspective on relative to our world. (That was the note about Gadamer’s work in Update II).

        I think our world is sufficiently screwed up enough to warrant some self-examination and vision casting in another direction.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

          If all I am doing is reading Jesus the way I read Aesop, Buddha, and Dr. Wayne Dyer and I can pick and choose what the moral *REALLY* is… I’m afraid that I am, once again, left unimpressed.

          Why Jesus and not The Celestine Prophecy? Why Jesus and not James Redfield?

          Why is Jesus one iota more interesting than Oprah?Report

    • Chris Dierkes in reply to mark says:


      You raise some good points. It’s probably I think more correct to say that the ancient church simply lived in a world where all these kinds of thing happened. They didn’t believe in them anymore than say you or I believe in money.

      We now live in an entirely different world, so only for us contemporary folk is there this great question of “belief” understood to be “did it really happen or not?” The whole movement of fundamentalism, which is very young (like 100 years tops) is simply a reaction to that trend. It doubles down on saying everything in The Bible happened as it is says. Which they claim is upholding the tradition but in reality is a totally modern and basically made up point of view. It’s certainly not the classical one.

      The Catholic position has been more to argue that certain specific things happened in a literal sense. I think most ignorantly the idea of The Fall/The Garden.

      So you are right in that sense.

      But as to the other examples (e.g. reliquaries), it’s more like there are various worldviews or worldspaces within which people live. How they construct their worlds. I think it’s more worldview clash than collision between objective reality and religious teaching. As objectivity is understood differently within each world. In other words, there’s no agreement to begin with on what is objectivity.Report

      • Mark in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

        hm. The ancient church lived in a world where these kinds of things happened… wait, it’s the same world, under the same physical laws, just a bit later. You mean they had a view of reality that accepted such events as being things that happened, right? A commonplace, as common as money is to us, so, no question regarding whether to ‘believe’ in them? Hm.

        You know, I think we might have to agree to disagree on what was the classical view of biblical reality. Unless you can point me to a source – I would like very much to read about how the intended audience of two millennia ago would have received the miracle stories. I would be fascinated to read a scholarly account of how literal interpretations of the Bible are a modern aberration from what was, before that, a widespread understanding of its nature as a collection of useful and instructive, but not necessarily literally true stories.

        I hope it’s clear that I don’t participate here just to be quarrelsome – my family includes a lot of believers, and so this is all of strong interest to me. I really want to understand belief.Report

        • Chris Dierkes in reply to Mark says:


          Your comments are very much welcome, so no fears there.

          Yeah, I meant they lived in a world where it such events were simply assumed to be real (whatever we mean by that term).

          Karen Armstrong’s book The Battle for God lays out the case that fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon and assumes (unlike traditional ways of thinking/believing) that what is real is what happens. What can be materially proved, dug up, scientifically categorized, etc. Her new book on the subject also covers this topic.

          Northrop Frye’s book The Great Code: Bible and Literature lays out the case the plain sense of the Scripture is metaphor and forms the basis of Western literature.

          Miracles. Technically The Gospel describe “wonder stories” or wonder events. They are a common form in ancient Near East. They are not “miracles” by our modern definition. Miracles is really language starting from the later Middle Ages and picking up steam in the modern period. It becomes conflated with rising new science and the idea of “Laws of Nature.” And whether said events contradict said laws. (David Hume of course wrote on this extensively).

          People who became “modern” believers said (often) yes, they did occur. They really did happen. People opposed said no.

          But neither position asks about the meaning of the story. The truth (or falsehood) of the story is thought to reside solely in whether it happened or not.

          Wonder stories, in sum, that when the divine enters the human sphere wonder takes place. Wondrous things happen. That was responsive to an era prior to a scientific medical system so usually the way in which that story is told is through bodily healings. This is still common in many places on the planet without such medical care systems. But the meaning can be extricated and understood separate from its application (if our world has shifted socially and materially).Report

          • Mark in reply to Chris Dierkes says:

            Well, I’ve got some interesting reading lined up there, thanks. I do enjoy reading Karen Armstrong. So: we now understand ‘real’ to mean ‘yeah, it happened, in a measurable, verifiable, dig-uppable way’. Before folks just accepted that miraculous stuff could happen.

            I mean, it has the ring of truth. Think about the world before science came with explanations. Hey, crazy stuff was happening all the time! A big flood would come for no reason, people would get sick for no reason, there was a night sky full of all these lights…. OK, the guy walked on water…. why not? I mean, has our perception of what is meant by ‘real’ changed, or have we just become more educated? To where we have explanations for so many things that we’ve developed a need for evidence? In fact, can you see a bit of that progression from the Old to New Testaments? The Old Testament God was quite an imp, and, you know, there were seven headed beasts everywhere. Seven or eight centuries later things were very different – it wasn’t this phantasmagorical world, but a recognizable world in which the odd miracle was performed. Could that just be the result of a different calculation of what would be believed by the audience?Report

  41. Mark says:

    I guess a lot of them do. And another lot of them probably engage in some sophisticated eye-rolling when the faithful are out of earshot. Either way, the teaching of the Church is clear: that sh** happened! Had there been videocams at the time, we’d have youtubes of the stone rolling way. That’s Hugh Hewitt’s understanding, according to Hugh Hewitt, and he probably speaks for the same 20% of Americans that believe George Bush did a great job. Which leads to why we should care: while humanity is engaged in a struggle to get out of the 21st century in one piece, our leaders are chosen, in part, on the basis of whether they believe the literal truth of what it says in the Bible – had Obama stood up and said, ‘you know, those wonderful stories have a lot to teach us, but taking them as literal truth is a big mistake’ – he would not be President now. At a time when understanding science may be the only thing that keeps us from going underwater, a large voting bloc believes in imaginary friends that will see them through any catastrophe. It seems to me the Church could do everyone a world of good by coming out and saying, look, folks, we’ve known since the time of Augustine that all those stories are to be understood as METAPHORS! And if the science says differently, you go with the SCIENCE! (OK maybe we were a little late on the whole Galileo thing. Never mind!)

    But we’re piling on Chris. Let’s let him up for air!Report

    • Bob in reply to Mark says:

      “And if the science says differently, you go with the SCIENCE!”

      Science can’t speak to this, if you can point to one reputable scientist that says science can *disprove* the water into wine miracle I would be very surprised. This is not the realm of science. Even Dawkins admits there is no proof that god does not exist, but there is equally no scientific proof that god does exist. Science is not a tool well equipped to speak on these matters.Report

      • Mark in reply to Bob says:

        Of course not, Bob. For that matter, there’s no way to prove that all of existence wasn’t created a moment ago, complete with false proofs of its prior existence. And yet, even knowing that, I believe things for which there’s evidence, and tend to doubt things for which there isn’t, and practice you might loosely call ‘science’. There’s lots of evidence that you can make wine by fermenting grapes. I’m more or less convinced it’s true. There’s none that water can be turned into wine by an act of will. So I don’t believe that – it seems really doubtful to me. Disproven? No. And my mind could be changed!Report

  42. Mark says:

    I’m about fifty pages into Armstrong’s The Case for God. She’s making the case strongly, though without footnotes, that fundamentalism, and its mirror, modern atheism, are fairly recent appearances on the religion scene. Convincing – I think, though, that their appearance can be most easily explained by the generally higher educational level we enjoy now, and very particularly the material success of the science-driven human infrastructure. We feel like we either have or soon will explain most physical phenomena – that, I would argue, is the recent development that has made some discard the Bible, some to engage it as metaphor, and some to, as Chris said somewhere above, “double down” and announce that every word is literally true, oh YES IT IS!.

    I’m not yet sure I’m with Chris in holding that the classical understanding of the Bible was always metaphor-y. It seems more likely to me that people with faith and education have learned to appreciate the Bible as metaphor, and seek to give their approach more weight by holding it to be the real ancient view. The reason the Fundamentalists seem new is that they never would have had to make their case before – there was no need for them to be vocal advocates for the literal truth of the Bible because that literality (?) was a generally accepted fact.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Mark says:

      I tend to agree with the last paragraph.

      If we see the Bible as having “poetic truth” rather than “literal truth” and we get down to “of course, Jesus didn’t *REALLY* turn water into wine, it was a metaphor” and “of course, Jesus didn’t *REALLY* rise from the dead it was a metaphor” you may eventually get to “of course, the deity isn’t *REALLY* an Abba figure, it’s a metaphor”.

      And metaphor upon metaphor leads you to God being something that you can’t *REALLY* have a relationship with but only a metaphorical one. Given, of course, that God doesn’t *REALLY* exist but he’s a metaphor.Report

    • Bob in reply to Mark says:

      The relative age of fundamentalism, a new phenomenon, makes for interesting discussion but what does any of that have to do with the merits of Christianity? Let’s give Chris his point, the main stem of Christianity has always seen the Bible as metaphor. The question then is – metaphor for what?
      Nothing is resolved by denying or quashing a literal reading of the water/wine story and embracing a metaphorical reading if we still place supernatural being in the tale. Substantially has anything changed? Religious folk can happily pick the literal or metaphorical.Report

      • mark in reply to Bob says:

        Sigh. Yes, I think Dawkins’ argument in shorter form is probably “It’s all nonsense”. And Bob, I hear your frustration with Chris’ and my discussion about the nature of fundamentalism: as long as Ol’ Oogedy is in there, it’s all a bunch of boogedy! But, you know, faith is different things to different people. For all of them, I think, faith arises from need, or maybe instinct would be a better word. Asking them to give it up would be like asking you or me to fall forward without throwing out our hands to stop our fall. If you assume that’s true, then you must realize that such a need is going to express itself in as many different ways as there are people. Some are easy to mock, though only an ass would do so. Many are insightful, and some seem so full of wisdom that I’m in awe. All that in spite of the fact that I don’t share the need, and at a fundamental level don’t ‘get’ it. I do not believe that there are supernatural beings monitoring our behavior and interceding in events with intentionality. But I’m starting to get that there are a lot of people of faith who don’t either. Given that this is such a powerful force in the world, and so important to many people that I love, the right course seems to be to question and learn.Report

      • Bob in reply to Bob says:

        Mark, I’m going to address the mocking point. I do mock religious thinking just as I mock racial or gay bigots as wrong headed. For me it is imperative to speak. I guess such a stance is what largely defines New Atheism, a term I detest. I’m sure you are aware of polls that rank atheist lower than gays as suitable to hold public office. Not a shocking result given the religious bent of the country. And personally not troubling to me given the fact that I am not seeking public office. But I do find such attitudes troubling for obvious reasons. Atheists are immoral and untrustworthy. They are unpatriotic to boot.

        Mocking has a long honorable history. I’m not student enough to mention ancient practitioners of it but certainly goes back to Greece and Rome. More recent American practitioners would include Mark Twain, H.L Mencken, Steven Colbert, John Stewart, P Z Meyers, Bill Meher. Lots of people mock lots of things. In a nut shell holding up to ridicule is perfectly OK by me. Not everywhere every time. For example I would not mock a religious wedding ceremony or funeral I might be attending, good taste would shut me up. But religion is to be mocked, I mean, just look at it. They can’t even get their stories together. My God!Report

        • Mark in reply to Bob says:

          Well alrighty then! I guess religion will survive, it seems pretty durable.

          It’s not like I’m pure as the driven snow on this one, either. When someone tells me I’ve devoted my life to ‘believing in nothing’, I tend to come back with something about imaginary friends. Sometimes, though, we unbelievers will say these things just in an attempt to get believers to understand how the whole situation seems to us: imagine that most people either believed or professed to believe in a flying spaghetti monster, and felt sorry for you because you didn’t. I mean, that’s it’s like at times, but if you illustrate it that way, people think they’re being mocked.Report