The reason a Gaudiya Vaishnava cannot be a literalist is because a literalist is always an unconscious dualist. As with all seekers of Truth, we hold that "when one's ultimate concerns are relative truths, that is called idolatry." (Paul Tillich) In other words, it is misplaced and misguided faith.
The literalist may appear to be unitarian who has resolved the problem of duality, but in fact he has a big unacknowledged Jungian "Shadow". Therefore his views are unsynthesized. This is why I say his position will ultimately collapse on its own contradictions.
We are acintya-bhedābheda-vādis. Acintya means paradox or mystery. Acintya-bhedābheda is not about artificially throwing up one's hands and saying, "It is all one anyway!" it is about the experiential and conscious synthesis of A and ~A. Experience gives intuitive knowledge, consciousness comes after rational processing.
The word acintya simply means that when we are in the realm of Divine Truth, specifically in the area of Divine Personhood and non-Personhood, the two are simultaneously equal due to the inconceivable nature of that Divine Truth.
Acintya is fundamentally a "faith" position. It is about the intuitive understanding that God is the seat where all contradictions are reconciled. Even though that realm, being archetypal, is ultimately inaccessible except through symbol.
Greta Christina, an atheist blogger, recently wrote an article in what seems to be an ongoing debate, "Faulty arguments religious people use against atheists debunked". She takes the basic position of objecting to any belief in the supernatural, whether it is God, the soul, spirits, ghosts, karma, or anything else, which is her definition of religion.
I do not at this time want to enter into a debate with her arguments, which on the whole are strong. My basic position is that religion is attributable to human functioning, both in the individual and collective psyches, but that it, like so many other percepts, must be purified by rationality and behavioral and moral reform (i.e. sādhana). So I do not find it surprising that most religion in the world is literalist and fundamentalist, arising from the lower guṇas of tamas and rajas.
This insight that religion has manifestations in the material qualities, which go from the very worst of human mentalities to the very best, can be found in the Gītā and Bhāgavata. Some form of faith follows humanity from its least evolved to its most elevated condition, for it is part and parcel of its very nature. What this means for rationalist absolutists needs to be considered.
Some religions are definitely worse than others in their capacity to produce evil consequences and ineffective social outcomes (take Afghani Islam as an example). If defending religion means defending these manifestations of the chthonic and basest inclinations of human civilization, then one is certainly in a difficult position vis-à-vis those who believe it to be a vestige of the primitive. But something similar might be said of almost any phenomenon – food, sex, interhuman relations and dealings, etc.
Human beings are meant to evolve, to seek betterment in all their endeavors including the religious. It is possible to understand religious phenomena without recourse to deities or supernatural beings, so that even atheism falls within its scope. As is so often the case, it is a question of definitions. But that is not for this article.
And if human life is about evolving to the highest states of being and experience attainable, then we must discard the baser forms of religion even as they proclaim their absolute verity. The Bhāgavatam itself is unequivocal, not only in calling out false religion, but in pointing out the many disguises that false religion takes.
svabhāva-raktasya mahān vyatikramaḥ |
yad-vākyato dharma itītaraḥ sthito
na manyate tasya nivāraṇaṁ janaḥ ||
Those who are completely immersed in the material nature are done a great disservice when they are told to engage in reprehensible activities in the name of religion, for such people will never respect any restrictions that are placed on these acts once they have been approved as valid religious duties. [BhP 1.5.16]Though I would not like to think that Mahaprabhu’s devotees could similarly be rājasika or tāmasika, the possibility is certainly there. The elimination of all the guṇas is the process of purification that every sādhaka undertakes. And the lower guṇas are in fact enhanced by superficial literalism, because such superficial understanding is not compatible with Truth.
If one examines the Gītā's definition of knowledge in the mode of ignorance (18.20) you can see a bit of what is meant.
Though Greta Christina makes her base definition of religion "belief in any supernatural beings" (which for her includes the soul) and argues that therefore all religion is equally wrong, she does seem to allow for degrees of bad. But like most atheists, she scents victory when liberal defenders of religion like Karen Armstrong (whom she calls “the queen of vague theology”) redefine God in a way that most religions would view as a kind of atheism. Richard Dawkins similarly calls pantheism a kind of “sexed up atheism.”
On the other side of the coin, when Hare Krishna devotees or any true believer hears, "We need to go beyond the literal concept and start thinking symbolically," they immediately respond in shocked abhorrence. Most devotees are afraid to abandon the literalist viewpoint, wondering what on earth will be left of their religion if they do? “How will I be true to my spiritual master, who demanded not only that I accept every word from his mouth as gospel truth, but the shastra also?”
The Bhāgavata says, bhayaṁ dvitīyābhiniveśataḥ syāt, “Fear comes of absorption in dualistic thinking.”
Karen Armstrong is trying to synthesize her religious experience with her abhorrence of the irrationality in the Catholic belief system as well as in other religionsm, what to speak of its obscurantist attitude to women and sexuality -- the two seem to go hand in hand.
I feel the same way. I think it is incumbent on devotees to use their rationality. But it is a perverted and dishonest rationality when the mandate is to "prove scientifically" the literal truth of ancient religious texts. This is the game fundamentalist Christians or a Michael Cremo are playing when they use science selectively against itself to disprove evolution. What do they have to put in its place? Literally interpreted myths, nothing more. Do they have the remotest capacity of proving those things scientifically?
The beginning of our autocritique has to start with humbly accepting that a lot of the shastra is fanciful stories that are meant either to moralize or just entertain.
Then the next step is to make a rational analysis of what is meaningful and an honest assessment of what is effective in the spiritual practices one is engaged in and why.
A big problem for most Vaishnavas, whether in ISKCON, the Gaudiya Math or orthodox sampradayas, is that most of them have a vested interest in controlling the message and keeping a dogmatic consistency in order to maintain their institutional strength or their individual psychological integrity.
What this results in is an imbalance, a repression of such honest examination of the belief system, which then results in the growth of the Shadow: "That which cannot be named." As this repressed aspect of the psyche is pushed further into the unconscious, it results in ugly behaviors that subvert the institution in more powerful ways, undermining its stated goals of stability, truth and happiness.
An organization with a shared or communal Shadow tends to fascistic type behaviors -- rigorous discipline and demands for obedience on the one hand, and rejection, hatred and punishment of the nonconformist. The strongest evidence of the Shadow is projection onto perceived "others" -- atheists, materialists, Mayavadis, karmis, Sahajiyas -- the list grows ever longer. And thus the potential for evil grows.
It is a mechanism that has its own dynamic. It becomes something quite insidious, when insiders no longer honestly believe their dogmas, but use them for what can usually be reduced to their own personal benefit, power, prestige and material comfort, all of which are bestowed by the institution.
By traditionalist standards, I will no doubt be closer to an atheist than a "true bhakta" (as one devotee intimated), but I in fact think that I am just a tad closer to the Truth than I was when I was an unquestioning follower. For me, the so-called "true bhakta" is one who is just starting on the path and has not really even begun to start inquiring into what is intended by jñānam advayam.