Reflections on “Symbolic vs. Literal Interpretation ” on YouTube by Jonathan Pageau


Jonathan Pageau, whose work is featured above in a cropped image, is a Canadian – in fact the only Canadian – Orthodox icon carver. He carries on an ancient tradition of of stone icon carving, and his subjects and their presentation will be familiar to those who know Orthodox Christian art, which to has remained thematically consistent for many hundreds of years (the nuances of the individual artist are subtle, but if you are interested in further investigation of that aspect, one resource I highly recommend is the Tarkovsky film Andre Rublev). Pageau is also a man who is infusing new life and interest into adopting the Christian faith. At a time in our history where the repercussions of the loss and lack of faith and a connection to the transcendent has become obvious to many, this is a critical time for this kind of revivification.

As examples, more popularly known religious teachers sharing this concern and creating ways for people to reconnect with Christianity in the modern world include Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and  Thomas Keating – who represent the New Contemplative movement. I suspect Pageau’s and other Orthodox practitioners’ work will soon, join their ranks – but from a different angle, appealing to people seeking a more traditional and evocative route, rather than a focus mainly on the meditative and mystical elements of the New Contemplatives, who do so partially through an adoption of Buddhist practice and concept of non-dualism, in addition to an exploration of the early Wisdom traditions. Orthodoxy has a capacity to allow a full participation in the living symbols of Christianity, acknowledging and being captivated by the ever-present, transcendent patterns that these symbols represent.

This commentary pertains to Jonathan’s video above, which was released last week. I had meant to comment on it earlier, but it took me a while to have the Eureka moment. What Pageau is saying in this video is of incredible significance, because it is exactly the sort of gem that if someone is willing to make a serious effort to understand will transform comprehension of and appreciation for how the Bible ended up conceptually – and increase understanding as to how true narrative builds on itself and transforms. The implications of this informational commentary are numerous, but two that I can name are: the Bible contains the oldest and therefore, most archetypal and important stories that help us understand our relationship with being, and the symbolism is far richer and deeper than is commonly perceived. A true understanding of the dynamic of this symbolism can breathe a necessary new life into religion so it can be practiced in a meaningful and living way (rather than dead and confusing ritual and dogma) in the modern world.

Pageau indicates a pattern in perception of a certain, necessary degree of isolation of inputs in terms of the magnitude (infinite) of possibility of experience. Attention serves this purpose in order for us to take in the facts. Memory retains these moments of attention in the stream of experience (which is in fact, driven by attention). Attention and Memory co-create necessary symbolism to mark meaning out of infinite possiblilities. The retrospection of memory sorts out the moments of attention and “backtracks”, if you will, to the symbolic points of attention in memory, finds their synchronous relationship,  and using this back and forth “feedback”, thus creates a narrative full of meaning and symbolism. Considering eons of this process, layering and building on itself, gives some clue as to how the Bible has come to be perplexing on the surface, but as deep as anything human culture can possess.

The resultant narrative is such, that if you were to articulate the germane elements, can be understood universally, as the pattern we all have of organizing limitless information undergirds that and all real narratives. Anyone can then place the material into their own pattern recognition faculty and get what you’re talking about (he contrasts this with a random, intolerable stream of narcissistic consciousness which is chaotic and meaningless). This ongoing, moment-to-moment pattern of symbol-making “makes the world a magical place”, as it allows us to live our lives, if we choose to do so, ensconced in beautiful symbolic meaning rather than nihilistically adrift in chaotic randomness.

The dynamic pattern of life is absolutely persistent from the dawn of consciousness. “It is older than God”, says the Tao. It should not be necessary to be a Christian to appreciate that this is the case. Therefore, for a non-Christian, and even from a scientific perspective, the meta-narrative of the Bible – formulated by the meeting of events of man’s evolution of consciousness and the meaning of these events to the narrative history of humanity – results in it being one of the most, if not the most useful sources of understanding of the history of religion and society and of the sciences of sociology, psychology, and any number of ways we understand what it is to be a Human Being. The problem is, as is often pointed out on the JBP circuit these days, the prevailing rationalist/materialist viewpoint in science, academia, and with the educated, policy-making and culture-dictating elite misses, possibly tragically, the forest that holds the trees we examine. Instead, the Bible is considered a jumble of proto-science superstitions, and religion is explained away by the New Atheist mouthpieces for this societal strata as an unnecessary anomaly, a parasitic meme or what have you.

Do you believe literally in the Resurrection? This is a question that confounds Pageau in terms of its implication as, “Is there a man in the sky or isn’t there”? To approach such a question with simplistic duality is the materialist or fundamentalist choice most of the West has come to view religion.  Fr. Richard Rohr has stated, “we whittled Jesus down” to be so small. The Resurrection story is not a one-time documentation of  a magical occurrence akin to something you might see in “Bewitched”; rather it is something unnamable that has such deep significance for humanity and the pattern of being that it can’t be analyzed. To attempt to do so from a “forensic” point of view is almost surreal in its pointlessness. It is such a meaningful “event”, that it persists archetypally in all manner of cultural expression, as alive today as ever, and continually informing us of the true nature of our relationship with being.

I have been following ways in which religion can come be reborn in the modern world for some time now. As examples, among these investigations include the those ideas of the teachers previously mentioned,  as well as the notion of an “emergent” God, as outlined in, A God That Could be Real (2015) by Nancy Ellen Abrams. I also previously began to investigate the existence of the “Religious Mind” as gene-culture development, which I derived from Jon Haidt’s thrilling exploration of morality, The Righteous Mind, which makes a viable case for the existence of such. Even Sam Harris, the most popularly influential of the New Atheists, has not been able to deny his own religious nature and has found himself immersed in one of the oldest extant spiritual practices – Advaita Vedanta (and its accompanying rationale Waking Up). Pageau’s evaluation of the timeless and infinitely deep nature of Biblical symbolism is an important piece of the puzzle to find the spirit we seem to have collectively lost, and beautifully parallels with Peterson’s world-shaking assessments.


Here is a link to Pageau’s article that he mentions in the video.






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