We must get past language to meaning, a point literalists tragically miss.
Kenneth Burke comments in The Rhetoric of Religion (page 15): “Since ‘God’ by definition transcends all symbol-systems, we must begin, like theology, by noting that language is intrinsically unfitted to discuss the ‘supernatural’ literally. For language is empirically confined to terms referring to physical nature, terms referring to socio-political relationships and terms describing language itself. Hence, all the words for ‘God’ must be used analogically–as were we to speak of God’s ‘powerful arm’ (a physical analogy), or of God as ‘lord’ or ‘father’ (a socio-political analogy) or of God as the ‘Word’ (a linguistic analogy).”
Burke goes on to discuss “negative theology.” By that he means that, although we can say nothing positively about God (for the reason given above), we may assert negative aspects of divine being. Thus God is “infinite” (without end), “immutable” (unchanging), “eternal” (timeless), “omniscient” (is not limited to partial knowledge), “omnipresent” (not limited to any place), and “supernatural” (above nature).
Christianity purports to reveal God to us through divine actions. Take, for example, the incident of Christ walking on the waters of the Lake of Galilee. If we understand this as an empirical truth, then Jesus exercized an extraordinary personal power at that time and place. If, however, we understand this as a rhetorical truth, then Christ was revealing to humankind what power we humans have when we believe in God’s presence to Him and for us: why, as Jesus comments, we may even move mountains.
In the previous interpretation, we confront an historical incident about Jesus; in the latter, Christ bequeathes to us a mythological symbol of the power of faith. It comes down to this: Does the New Testament seek to reveal Jesus as God such that we may proclaim by analogy what Jesus is not, or does the New Testament open God’s plan for us to live in and by Divine life? Put another way: Is the “Good News” of the Gospel that Jesus is God, or is it that God loves us so much that we live in His Spirit?
You could multiply the ambiguous examples. Does the pregnancy of the virgin, Mary, reveal an empirical fact of God’s power, leading us to a recognition of a fecund “virgin” and “virginity” without “knowing man”; or does this rhetorical truth teach us the expected result of openness to God’s presence in our lives? The official church hangs on to the former and, therefore, declares, that being a virgin for Christ outranks being married (just like working as a Galilean carpenter trumps laboring on a Detroit assembly line). Or again: Does the Resurrection account record as empirical fact that Jesus still lives, or does it symbolize that through belief in Him we will never die? The hierarchical church asserts the historical fact. This proves the divinity of Jesus. In its interpretation we know nothing about Him except that He surpasses the natural (i.e is supernatural). And we better follow Him because He has the power either to reward or to punish us forever. But if we interpret it as a mythological truth addressed to us, and not about Jesus, then we are being urged to be brave in the hope of God’s life coursing through our veins even in the worst of times. Should we spend our energy, therefore, defending Mary as never having had sexual intercourse and Jesus as spending no more time in the tomb than three days, or should we rather hear in these symbols God’s word to us about our lives? I know what I believe and why. Do you?