A colleague of mine, Ken Kovacs, reminds us of the dangers of “literalism”:
Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty. Literalism is 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. It’s 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 for 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 onemeaning, 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. 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 defense 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 against the very world they say they care most about and try to defend and preserve, the world of religious faith.