ISAIAH 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
    and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
    the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
    the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
    “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
    He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
    but it shall be for God’s people;
    no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
10 And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

The utopian vision of a future paradise on earth has given inspiration to song and poetry in every culture on earth. As things appear to us now – and as they’ve appeared to every generation since the dawn of humanity – there is conflict, turmoil, crisis and hardship mixed in with the ecstasies of our life in time.

But as is the habit of mind, human beings have not been satisfied with the idea that this has always been the case, or that it will forever be the case, or that this mixture is the truth of reality deepest down.

Resolutions have arisen, predictably, which posit a perfect state of harmony and goodness either at the very beginning, and from which we have fallen; at the end, towards which we are presently progressing; or in the foundational essence of pure being, when we may enter by a more mystical path.

The evolution of religion itself has advanced through these three, and in that very sequence – first looking back to a paradisal garden, then ahead to a heavenly city, and finally inward to the place that is no place, to the kingdom of God within.

In the modern West ever since the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the critical position taken by rationalism has been that all of this talk of religion is nothing more than fantasy and wishful thinking. The truth is that reality is a mixture of good and evil, and we must simply and responsibly accept this fact – if we must judge at all.

                                                                                                   

A disastrous oversight of Western rationalism concerning the validity of poetry, art, symbol and story, both as products of the mythic imagination and basic elements in the language of religion, was the importance of taking these not literally but metaphorically. Once the metaphor of Isaiah’s mythic paradise is reduced to nothing more than an actual state of affairs in the near or far-off future, the prophet’s vision collapses into becoming a mere prediction – an easily falsifiable prediction, in that case.

We understand now that such a chain of mistaken judgments was necessitated by the logical commitments early in the rise of rationalism. Truth needed to be based on evidence, evidence needed to be measurable and accessible to the detached observer, and conclusions needed to be consistently verifiable through repeated experiments. The (mythological) language of religion passes none of these tests, and was therefore dismissed as an unreliable source.

But metaphors by their very definition are word-images not intended to be taken literally. In its root meaning, metaphor is that which carries the mind across the boundary of mystery that contains our present knowledge, for the purpose of touching and exploring ultimate reality in terms of what we do know.

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