Over at Exploring Our Matrix, James McGrath has up a couple of interesting posts about “naïve” verses “conscious” literalism, particularly regarding the story of Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Luke 24:50-53), which are well worth reading:
At heart, the difference is as follows. Naive literalism involves someone (e.g. a Biblical author) treating something as factually true because he or she has no reason to believe otherwise. So, for instance, in the case of the ascension, why wouldn’t Luke depict Jesus as heading straight up into the sky? Presumably, had Luke lived today, he would have either described the scene differently, or mentioned dilithium crystals.
Conscious literalism means taking something written by a naive literalist, while having information (whether scientific or historical) that was not available to that ancient author, and deliberately choosing to ignore the more recent developments in our knowledge and understanding, and instead treat the naive literalist’s description as entirely factual.
This is an important distinction that must be kept in mind (along with the equally important point that ancient Jews, including our New Testament authors, were not opposed to creating seemingly historical accounts to make theological points), but I’m not certain that “conscious literalism” is necessarily illegitimate. It seems to me that much still depends on how we judge the trustworthiness and intentions of the one we’re reading. While it is problematic to insist on a “literal” reading of Luke’s ascension story, that doesn’t necessarily mean rejecting the basic details he gives; it can also mean asking if there was a real event at the base of this story, even if we question his (naive?) interpretation of it.
Just as it is problematic for a “conscious literalist” to insist that Jesus bodily travelled up to a literal heaven just past the clouds (does anyone actually believe this anymore?), it is also problematic to insist that the early Christians couldn’t possibly have seen what Luke claims they saw because that would mean Jesus was still floating out in space somewhere. This is merely another form of literalism.
After all, there are alternatives. Perhaps Jesus was (is?) physical but capable of translating out of our visible three dimensions (one might appeal to string theory with its 11 dimensions, or perhaps something like Hiro Nakamura moving through time, who knows? Perhaps this is what James is referring to in mentioning “dilithium crystals”? A warp-powered Ironman suit? Heh). I’m being facetious of course, but the point is that we’re talking about something (resurrection) that is completely beyond our experience. I doubt we’d do any better job describing it accurately than the New Testament authors have, even if it happened right in front of us. We’d use language and imagery from our own experience and texts–time travel, phase-shifting or some such thing–because it’s the best we can do. In the First Century the best they could do was talk about ascending to heaven/the sky.
For all we know Jesus really did ascend into the sky (then disappeared?) precisely because of the associations it would carry in the minds of first century Jews (deity, glorification, etc.). We might well consider it more plausible that the early Christians themselves created this story to express those beliefs about Jesus, but that is not a necessary conclusion. After all, something convinced them that their crucified leader wasn’t just taken to heaven non-bodily–like any other martyr–but bodily resurrected and bodily ascended. Whether the story is primary or secondary, “literal” or metaphorical, bodily resurrection was not what we should have expected them to believe about Jesus, so it seems a bit unlikely that they were completely “naïve” about accepting it. They adopted the belief for a reason, whatever that reason was.
The point is, we can’t really know what happened, but if we insist on certainty in such matters (whether as literalists or anti-literalists) we’ll never be able to accept that any highly improbable or miraculous event can happen.