When Symbolism isn’t Symbolic

970 - Batman

A few weeks ago I listened to an episode of This American Life with an unfortunate title: Batman.[1] The title, which really doesn’t set the right tone for the episode to follow, refers to Daniel Kish, a blind man who taught himself to echolocate as a child. He gets around the world relatively unaided (including, for example, riding a bike) by clicking and then listening to the echoes. This ability has made him world famous, but it really shouldn’t be so unusual.

And perhaps the most chilling thing is the fact that most blind kids will intuitively start clicking or snapping or stamping to test out their environment with sound. But they are so often discouraged that they never get the chance to develop their skill to the level Daniel did.

They are discouraged, of course, because clicking or snapping repetitively isn’t conducive with normal social expectations. Thus far the tale is sad, but it is not unusual. The idea that social conventions can be repressive isn’t unusual. But it’s not just the freedom to break with social convention that allowed Kish to develop his talent. It was also having a mother who, in ways that seem cruel or uncaring, treated Kish more or less as though he could see even though he couldn’t. Kish says:

From the fifth grade on, I walked to school almost every day. I had to cross major streets. I participated in extracurricular activities. I made my own breakfast. I made my own lunch.

His mom also let him climb trees and, as mentioned earlier, even ride a bike. This unsupervised exploration was just as dangerous as it sounds:

I used to have this game, get to the top of our road and yell, “Dive bomb!”, and I would ride insanely fast down the road. And everyone would have to scatter. Well, one day, I did the dive bomb thing, and as I was screaming down this road, bang. I just collided into a metal light pole.

There was, as he put it, “blood everywhere.” This injury was only one of many very real and very painful accidents that were all a part of Kish learning to navigate his world independently. The risks and costs that his mother allowed him to take as he grew up make you think carefully about the nature of a love. Would a more protective, conventional approach have stripped Kish of his independence?  Or is it a manifestation of a greater, but less recognizable love, that is the reason that Kish can, though blind, see?

This brings me to the second revelation of this story. Later on in the episode, we are introduced to a former sociology professor named Bob Scoot who wrote a book called The Making of Blind Men in which he claimed that blindness is primarily a social construct.

And this brings us to the title of today’s post: how should we interpret a claim that seems to be unbelievable? That natural approach is to see it as symbolic: the inability to see is, of course, not a social construct but the conventions we have built up around that have created a kind of learned helplessness that is disabling above and beyond sightlessness in a way that is metaphorically like blindness. This ability to re-interpret a plain statement as symbolic or metaphorical is an important aspect of being able to communicate with other human beings: not everything is literal. Learning to correctly recognize exaggeration, sarcasm, and allegory is a part of growing up. But it’s possible to learn these lessons too well and come to a point where we so firmly associate de-literalization with maturity that we miss out on deeper, literal truths.

The deeper, literal truth in this case involves a a German neuroscientist at Durham University named Lore Thaler. Thaler, who “studies vision in the rain—literally how the images we see are constructed,” asked several echolocators like Kish to  can echolocate to “look” at various objects using their echolocation. While they did this, she used microphones placed in their ears to record the precise echoes.

Next, Thaler put the participants in fMRI machines and played back the audio. When she watched the brain scans while doing this, she found that “even though for decades scientists assumed that the visual cortex goes dark when you are blind, Daniel’s was lighting up like a disco ball.”

It is at this point that we must grapple with the fact that everything we think of as vision—the light coming into eyes, interacting with rods and cones on our retina, being encoded as electrical impulses and sent to the brain—has essentially nothing to do with the subjective experience of seeing. Everything that makes up our experience of sight happens in the brain, and it really has nothing to do with the eyes at all. Or light, for that matter.

One easily understood example of this is the science of wiring video cameras directly into the brain. It’s easy for us to understand that in this case a person without eyes could see by having the video camera act instead of the eyes. After all, cameras are a lot like eyes in some sense. But there’s really no reason that a video camera would need to be restricted to the same segment of the electromagnetic spectrum as visible light. Why not go into the ultraviolet or infrared? And, once we’ve imagined departing from conventional models of vision that far, why use the electromagnetic spectrum at all? Why not, for example, using sound waves?

According to Thaler’s research, the parts of Kish’s visual cortex that are associated with motion, texture, orientation, and shape were all working. The only parts that didn’t were those associated with color and brightness. So I’m not saying that vision is identical in blind people who can echolocate very, very well. But it is close, based on the scans. And not just the scans. They did the obvious thing next: they found someone who went blind late in life and then learned to echolocate. And they asked him point-blank, does he see? Brian Bushway, who didn’t lose his vision until he was 14, replied that with his echolocation, “Things are real. I mean, it’s as real as looking at it.” In other words, “once he learned echolocation, the world around him, although blurrier and colorless, appeared again.”

It is incontestable that an attempt to read the scriptures literally will fail to grasp their intended meaning because, to use one of the simplest examples, a narrative form like a parable is not literal. But it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction. Our clever ability to analyze and deconstruct texts can also be taken to extremes. If we are too quick to deliteralize, we may end up “looking beyond the mark.”[2]

The highest guide to understanding the scriptures is to follow the same Spirit by which they were written. However, I have never found myself so awash in an abundance of spiritual insight that my own reasoning and resources were rendered superfluous. And so I augment the highest and dearest approach with every other tool available. There is value in being naive. Let us be childlike. There is value in learning and careful reading. Let us show our reverence for the scriptures with the sweat of our brow. Above all, let us be too simple, too clever, and too stubborn to be corralled into an either/or approach to the scriptures.


[1] Quotes in this post come from the transcript.

[2] Jacob 4:14

11 comments for “When Symbolism isn’t Symbolic

  1. Fascinating stuff. I wonder if this would help to explain Jacques Lusseyran’s memoir, “And There Was Light,” in which he talks about going blind before the age of 8, but insists that he could see–just not with his eyes. Or something. I found it difficult to wrap my brain around, but he might be describing something like this. It’s a great memoir, btw, check it out.

  2. Awesome story about blindness. Thanks for talking about the story of Daniel Kish, I had never heard of him before. Also, I had no idea what echolocating was, but now I think I have a better sense of its meaning.

    The highest guide to understanding the scriptures is to follow the same Spirit by which they were written

    How do we determine which spirit in which they were written? Might delusional and deceptive be termed as spirits of writing? For instance, might we consider the possibility that early Hebrew scribes wrote the story of Noah and the flood either with the intent to deceive other members of the Hebrew nation or because they were under a delusion about nature and history? We have modern-day examples of people who seem to deliberately deceive others in the name of religion, Sri Sathya Sai Baba being a prime example. While alive he performed all sorts of magic tricks, which have been exposed by rationalists and skeptics, giving naive followers the impression that he possessed supernatural or special spiritual powers. I have every reason to believe that fraudsters existed in the past, some of whom may have written things which they duped others into believing was holy writ. Also, might schizophrenic be appropriately termed as a spirit of writing (maybe a subcategory of delusional)? No small number of human beings suffer from schizophrenia (according to schizophrenia.com, about one percent of the human population). Might a person writing down words that s/he claimed were divine revelations have been undergoing a schizophrenic episode?

  3. You bring up an interesting point about missing out on some of the beauty of the writing if we look beyond the mark. I think this is entirely possible. However, I think the tendency within our religious culture is to do the exact opposite much more frequently. We miss out on the reality of how God can interact with us personally because our traditions focus on the miraculous and mythical.

    Humans want to tell tall tales, especially about the divine. Yet my personal experiences with God are much different than many of the miraculous scriptural accounts. I can’t prove that any one of these scriptural accounts didn’t literally happen, but through scientific discovery and textual criticism we are learning so much that deconstructs the legendary stories that scriptures contain.

    Are you recommending that I naively continue to perpetuate many of these myths just because I risk missing out on the narrow possibility that God perhaps did defy natural laws and intervene in some inexplicable way? I think it’s better to acknowledge the likelihood of fabricated stories, and to focus on realistic ways that we can connect with God today, and not so intently focus on retaining fantastical narratives of the past.

  4. Nathaniel, although I agree with your general observation, the risk that CES will abruptly abandon its penchant for scriptural literalism in favor of an approach that emphasizes metaphor and symbolism is remote (i.e., your odds are better with the PowerBall lottery).

    Literalism’s appeal is intoxicating because it obviates the need for thinking and sidesteps the vexing problems of nuance, ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty. It is safe to assume to that scriptural literalism’s siren song will continue to enchant the church as an institution and the lion’s share of its members for many years to come.

  5. While CES has adopted literalism in places I think we should be careful. It doesn’t adopt literalism everywhere and where it adopts literalism shifts with time. I tend to find the literalism category as largely misleading. The question is more what presuppositions it reads certain passages with.

  6. Interesting. When I started reading this, I thought the topic would be temple symbolism. How much of that is symbolic vs. literal? Do we construct symbolism to explain away literal interpretations that are extremely problematic?

  7. A rhetorical reading of scripture combines the literal and the symbolic. It provides richer understanding by encouraging us to see, at once, interwoven literal and symbolic meanings. Any text that is not rhetorical is likely to be of little consequence. A good example of a rhetorical reading is this article on Nephi’s killing of Laban.


    The article argues and illustrates that virtually every detail in Nephi’s account of this event serves the rhetorical purpose of affirming Nephi’s (versus Laman and Lemuel’s) right to rule. God declares in 2: 22 that Nephi will be made a ruler over his brothers. Then as chapter 3 opens, both Lehi and God (through lots) give Laman an opportunity to demonstrate that he is worthy to be king. Laman fails and at the end of the chapter uses a rod, symbol of royal power, to beat Nephi and Sam. An angel stops the beating and declares that Laman has forfeited his right to rule. Immediately thereafter in chapter 4 Nephi leaves, alone, to get the brass plates. As the article shows, details in the slaying narrative frame Nephi as God’s chosen leader by echoing Moses’ slaying of the Egyptian and closely matching David’s slaying of Goliath. Nephi acquires the sword of Laban and the brass plates, which become preeminent symbols of sovereignty among the Nephites. Bearing the plates/law in his arms like Moses, Nephi leads captive Israel (symbolized by the slave Zoram) out of bondage, into the desert beside the Red Sea, and on to the Promised Land. Nephi and Zoram make a covenant that signifies the covenant all Nephites make with their king.
    The article argues that any event includes thousands of details that could be incorporated into its narration. Thus, the literal details can be selected and arranged (as in this case) to communicate through the literal a particular symbolic meaning. The force of this story, especially for its original and most important audience, flows from the fact that literal events bear such clear symbolic/political meaning.

    Fellow Mormon and eminent professor of literature at the University of Chicago, Wayne Booth, was an especially influential advocate of reading texts rhetorically.

  8. Ironically, progressive blindness forces me to see more. But in vision, as with so much sense-data, what my brain perceives and interprets is what really matters – what I “see” is not what I see.

  9. The only approach to the scriptures institutionally that leaves room for personal revelation is some form of literalism. I would prefer that my spiritual insights not have to be tested against some in vogue “non-literal” reading. Of course I am sure that if this makes it out of moderation someone will remind me that I am being simplistic.

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