Due to my Protestant upbringings, I have trouble wrestling with things in the Bible as allegorical. Where exactly is the line drawn? Am I at fault, on a scientific basis, to take everything in the Genesis account literally? How does one pick and choose what is real and what is allegory?
I suppose the short (and unsatisfactory) answer is spiritual discernment.
I also struggle with this stuff, especially as related to things like evolution. And I think this issue is a significant one, but that's why we have the obligation--or should I say the blessing?--to listen to what knowledgable and God-inspired men have said down through the centuries. Sometimes a passage will be literal, sometimes not... sometimes it will be interpreted in three separate ways with equal validity. It is pointed out sometimes that prophecies often have two meanings--an immediate one, and one for the distant future. For all we know a passage might have twelve meanings. Or twenty four. Of course, that doesn't mean that all interpretations are valid: there are orthodox ones and then there are ones that we're pulling out of thin air. There may be one central and overriding meaning to a Scriptural passage, sure; but then there might also be other interpretations, which may be orthodox and helpful, but shouldn't take away from the main understanding of a passage.
Over the years I've come, mostly because of my skepticism, to see it as not about literalism vs. allegory vs. typology vs. [etc.], but rather, what can God say to us through the passage? I don't mean that in a "private interpretation" sort of way, but rather, what is God saying to us through the guidance of the Church (and by Church I also mean her tradition, which also means not just texts, but icons, liturgy, etc.)? Take for example Gen. 3:21: "Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them." Seems like a simple enough verse. They were naked, God gave them clothes. End of story. Yet this phrase "coats of skin" appears in the Fathers, not just talking about clothing, but also when they are discussing the anthropological ramifications of the fall. What was perhaps originally a simple phrase became an image and theological rallying point for all sorts of ideas. Did the author or authors of Genesis, or Jesus, or the Apostles, see profound anthropological meaning in this term? I dunno. But the Fathers did. It's not about whether they took the passage literally or not, but rather what they saw there in the depths.
I've read, and I believe, that Orthodox hermeneutics are not based on reason and understanding so much as insight and discernment. The mind is used, of course--after all, one of the things that being made "in the image of God" means is that we are rational and able to think. Still, if we let our mind have too much importance, at least when it comes to certain topics, then we can often go astray. Consider, for example, the quotes of St. John Chrysostom on the use of reason
. He speaks of how reason and logic can't penetrate into certain areas of truth and reality. Might we not also say that there is a middle ground, though, where reason can help, but is merely one tool among many?
Don't think of it as: "I'm going to pick and choose based on what I think is right." Think of it more like: "I know that I play a part in understanding the Bible, but I'm going to try to understand a passage according to the wisdom given to the Church, which, for all it's flaws, is nonetheless guided by God". God can, of course, guide each of us individually, yet when left to our own devices we are probably more prone to error. But when we have twenty centuries of insights to dig through, we can probably understand a bit more clearly how to understand this or that passage. (And again, this is not to make any Church Fathers/Mothers infallible, but simply to say that the consensus patrum can be trusted, and certainly trusted more than our own thoughts. ... if only I could apply that to my life!