The Threat of Literalism

Kenneth E. Kovacs

No, not liberalism (I don’t ordinarily consider that a concern) – I’m troubled by literalism.

Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty.  It’s an obsession (and it is an obsession) with what is actual, literal, with the “letter of the law,” with the need to nail down (sometimes, literally) what is true and not true and then defending that “truth” at all costs. Literalism is a way of being and believing that seeks to maintain a tight “hold” on reality.   It’s a way of being that is suspicious (maybe paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality, because according to the literalist, for example, there can only be one interpretation of a text – whether it’s a religious text (such as the Koran or the Bible) or a secular text (like the U. S. Constitution) – only one meaning, only one way to be and one way to believe in this world.

So, why is literalism such a threat?  Because, quite simply, the literalist bent undergirds and stands behind the many expressions of fundamentalism (religious and otherwise) unleashing its toxic effluence throughout the contemporary public square and the Church.  The unmitigated fact is that reality is infinitely more complicated and complex than fundamentalists will acknowledge, actually more than they are free to admit. Fundamentalism, especially the religious variety, is the very opposite of freedom.  It’s a form of bondage.  It’s a defensive reaction against the ever-increasing intricacies and challenges of the contemporary world.  Fundamentalism might be viewed, as one commentator has said, as a refusal to see beyond the vested and small certainties that do more to hold off the unknown, than give answers.  As a result, fundamentalism and its bedfellow literalism have inflicted untold most damage upon the very world they say they care most about and try to defend and preserve, the world of religious faith.

The Jungian analyst and writer James Hollis suggests that literalism is actually a form of religious blasphemy because it seeks to concretize (nail down, define) and absolutize the core experience of the Holy, of God – a God (if God) who cannot be controlled or defined; a God, Karl Barth insisted, who is Wholly Other, a God who remains ultimately a mystery.  And a mystery, it’s worth saying, is not the same thing as a puzzle (which can be solved); a mystery is always enigmatic and is therefore in inherently unknowable. The German theologian Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769) insisted, “A God comprehended is no God.” For Christians to confess that Jesus Christ is the fullest revelation of God the world has ever known or will know (as I do), does not mean we are free to say we possess an exhaustive knowledge of God.  Humility of knowledge is essential whenever we attempt to make truth claims.  Thinking we comprehend the truth is a fantasy.  I’m not saying the truth doesn’t exist or that it’s completely inaccessible; it just means we need to remember that our “hold” on it is always elusive.

Hollis, whose writings I admire and enormously respect, even argues that literalism is a kind of psychopathology in need of deep healing (redemption?).  From his many years as a psychotherapist he has come to see that a way to gauge mental health and emotional maturity is the degree to which one is able to tolerate what he calls the triple A’s – ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety.  The ability to hold these in tension – and not escape into literalism and fundamentalism and other strategies of avoidance (such as addiction) – is a way to test one’s psychic strength. I can certainly resonate with this.  The literalists (of all varieties) I have known and know (and love) have difficulty tolerating ambiguity, ambivalence, and anxiety – and sometimes for very good reasons.  However, they use their faith or their political ideology to bolster themselves against, protect their fearful egos from, hide themselves from the triple A’s that define the human condition.

Writing twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Protagoras (c. 490-420 BCE) might provide wise counsel to our troubled, conflicted age, and offer some hope: “Concerning the gods,” he wrote, “I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what form they are; for there are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”  We could all use a little more humility and intellectual honesty like his in the public square and in the Church.



  1. So when Christ says that “no one can know the Father except through me” is he being literal or suffering from a mental delusion?

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