One day in the garden called Eden, Adam and Eve decided that they were tired of all things being true, and that they would prefer to decide for themselves what things were true. To this day, they're still arguing about who exactly had this brilliant idea first, but for all intents and purposes, we can say that they decided it together.
At the moment they said to themselves "we have decided that these are the true and good things," all the other things became, by definition, false and evil.
And with that realization, Adam and Eve grumbled to themselves and left the garden. They weren't thrown out; they left of their own choice, because Paradise didn't match their expectation of a flawed world.
They left a symbolic world where all things were true, going instead to a mundane, literal world where it was necessary to choose truth on a case by case basis. This is what they wanted for themselves. They also were looking for the first Macy's store, needing clothes to cover their naughty bits. The literal world is much colder than paradise.
And that's pretty much where we've been ever since. We suffer because we reject symbolic reality, where one thing can mean many things; and insist on literal reality where one truth must exclude the others. I'd argue that the mantra of the suffering human condition can be summed up in these words: "This, not that."
From time to time, a few people have been able to look back over the river from Literal Land to Symbolic Eden. They are, by and large, the artists, poets and mystics, although they actually come from many vocations.
As I look at my bookshelf this morning, I see some evidence of these symbolic thinkers. One shelf up on the left is the Gnostic Gospel of St. Thomas, where Jesus is quoted as saying "heaven is right here in front of them, but they know it not."
The literalists, though, intent on their one reality, banished these words from the collection that went into the Bible, insisting that no, heaven had to be a tangible, real place that IS NOT HERE. Also: the flood REALLY HAPPENED. It didn't represent the symbolic truth of period catastrophe and re-creation.
A few books down is a collection of writings from Meister Eckhart von Hochheim, the 13th/14th century German Christian mystic. In one of those sermons, Eckhart says, in effect "forget that literal virgin birth stuff. What we should realize is that to experience God, the truth, we must empty ourselves and become virginal in terms of competing beliefs. We must all become virgins, if the infinite truth is to take root in us."
But the literalists of the day, insisting on their one truth, very nearly had Eckhart executed for the expression of these most logical symbolic truths. Nope, Mary WAS a virgin. And this IS Jesus' corpuscles you are swallowing. How dare you suggest symbolism.
On another of my bookshelves is a volume of collected works by William Blake, containing a poem where he says that holy joy becomes ours when we "see the world in a grain of sand, and eternity in an hour." Elsewhere he notes that "if the doors of perception where cleansed, we would see all things as they truly are——infinite." This is a perfect expression of symbolic life—living in a way where one thing means many things.
But the literalists, for whom an infinite universe is enormously threatening, have largely dismissed Blake as a diseased crackpot.
On the other shelf to the right of the window, there are all the books by Joseph Campbell. In The Masks of God Volume I, he makes the interesting observation that modern man has a more arid spiritual life than primitive peoples largely because we insist on literalness. The primitive tribesman doesn't really belief the spirit of his grandfather inhabits the tree standing outside the village; he doesn't really believe there are spirit voices in the sounds of water. But he finds that it makes him feel connected to the larger world, he finds the spirit of play nourishing to his soul, to enter into this playful "What if." The symbolic life is a more meaningful and rewarding life than a narrowly literal one.
Modern men, on the other hand, insist on that their beliefs must be more than beliefs, that they must be the one and only truth. No room for expansive symbolic truth, only the narrow literal pretense to truth. And their souls become spiritual deserts because of it.
When I scan my fellow modern men and women, I see something interesting. The happiest are those who have room for the symbolic life as well as the literal. I know a man once who recovered from serious mental illness—the kind that causes many to wind up carrying their belongings in a shopping cart. He acknowledges that he recovered when he found it possible to hold many realities at the same time. "I needed medical, scientific help, yes," he said. "But mine was also a psychological problem. And it was a religious problem. And a mystical problem.
"It wasn't one thing," he concluded. "It was—and is—all things."