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April 15, 2012

Question: How do you tell which parts of your religion should be taken literally and which parts are metaphorical?

 We may distinguish the literal from the metaphorical by first identifying three applicable areas from the Bahá’í Faith: (1) Bahá’í history (2) ritual laws (3) the sacred writings and teachings.  (1) Since its inception on May 23, 1844 in Shiraz, Iran, with the prophetic declaration of the Báb (1819-1850), the forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder (1817-1892), Bahá’ís are fortunate that this youngest of the world’s religions has been born into the full light of history. Massive historical records, including photographs, eye-witness accounts, newspaper reports and government documents have recorded the birth and development of the Bahá’í Faith. Here we are not dealing with the metaphorical, but with the story of what really happened.

(2) Although relatively few ritual laws exist in the Bahá’í Faith, we should not interpret these laws metaphorically but literally. When Bahá’u’lláh prescribes ablutions with one of the obligatory prayers, he does not mean that water should be reduced to just a symbol signifying purity. He means that you should wash your hands before praying. (3) Regarding the sacred writings and their teachings, whether in their ethical, spiritual, or theological dimensions, these teachings should be taken in their plain sense. Of course, all sacred scripture has a large metaphorical dimension. Whenever poetic symbolism is present, we should attempt to discover the inner meaning underlying such symbols. Mystical writings present special challenges.
Some passages in the Bahá’í writings may be literal and metaphorical at the same time. For example, here is the cornerstone of all Bahá’í teaching,  the oneness of humanity: “The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: “Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch…So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth” (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 288). Aside from the spiritual and existential truths of Bahá’u’lláh’s statement, anthropology, biology, and even medicine all demonstrate the unity underlying the various races despite their cultural differences. But he expresses poetically the literal truth that humanity is one race through the metaphor of the tree, its leaves and branches.  If we reflect upon this symbolism, further evidences of the truth of his statement will come to mind. 
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen April 15, 2012
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