Who can deny the central role of metaphor in religious language? From the allegories in the Bible, to Greek mythology, to the parables of Jesus, to the songs in the Vedas, the use of metaphor is pervasive. Today the issue of metaphor in religion has become particularly important. Cutting edge theologians like Borg and Spong have deliteralized much of scripture and instead propose that even some of the seemingly critical “literal” claims of scripture be interpreted metaphorically. The question that many ask about this approach is if the metaphorization of religious claims strips religion of its content and identity? Or is metaphor really the life blood of religion throughout the centuries?
Here’s the etymology:
1533, from M.Fr. metaphore, from L. metaphora, from Gk. metaphora “a transfer,” especially of the sense of one word to a different word, lit. “a carrying over,” from metapherein “transfer, carry over,” from meta- “over, across” (see meta-) + pherein “to carry, bear”
To “transfer, carry over”. But what does this mean? Recent neuroscience suggests that brain processes rely heavily on pattern matching (i.e. analogy). We recognize a face as a face because of neural prototypes that are created as humans experience reality. As we experience reality in all its complexity our brains create a multidimensional complex of patterns that correlate to the dynamics of reality. This mechanism allows for drawing correlations between neural patterns and how reality works. Now this dynamic might seem to be more literal than metaphorical but in reality it is not. Prominent linguist George Lakoff in “Metaphors We Live By” and “Philosophy in the Flesh” makes a strong case that most language is metaphorical. When someone says, “Life is a river” they don’t mean that literally, but the invocation of that metaphor activates many neural trajectories where similarities between our understanding of a river and life can be drawn. Even simple language utilizes the metaphors from what we experience. One example Lakoff gives is a glass of water. From that experience we understand containment, up, down, full, empty, degree, etc. From that simple metaphor we can develop an enormous number of concepts. When I say I am full after Thanksgiving dinner I am invoking a metaphor. A metaphor is a short hand way of invoking the meaning of those neural trajectories, “carrying over” the complex meaning of what a river means to what life means. The power of the metaphor is this ability to analogize from one set of meanings to another. From a neural standpoint it offers that ability to not only draw correlations between concepts but to also activate the emotive systems that offer a sense of value and power. So it seems that at the very basis of our cognitive and emotive systems metaphor plays a crucial role.
Metaphors do not just come out of thin air. Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that language ensues from “forms of life”. Language emerges from the environment that an organism finds itself in, be it physical, biological, ecological, psychological, or cultural. Accordingly metaphors reflect our perceptions of self, the world, and relationships in the world. As Plato and others claim there is a unity of being and knowing. So what does this all have to do with religion and theology?
What it means is that religious language will of necessity be metaphorical. Paul Tillich said in his systematic theology that the only non-metaphorical or non-symbolic thing we can say about God is that God is Being-Itself. Everything else will of necessity be metaphorical or symbolic. Accordingly the rebuke, “It’s just a metaphor” is ill conceived. This is particularly true for religious language because that language “carries over” from the depths of reality itself. Our language concerning ultimate reality can only be developed within our experience as human beings and within the “form of life” we are given. If Tillich (mystical a priori) and Calvin (sensus divinitatus) are correct then a fundamental aspect of our “form of life” is awareness of the divine. We as humans have the ability to perceive and interpret the divine presence in the world. That perception and interpretation, however, does not occur in a vacuum. It is informed by both religious experience and the progressive knowledge of the cosmos. As such the religious metaphors that arise will be reflected in what I call an “informed intuition”. This religious intuition arises deep within our being, but is also informed by all other aspects of ourselves and culture. Accordingly the metaphors of religion will not remain static, but also change and even perhaps deepen as our form of life and the context of that life changes. This has always been true for religious language. One has only to look at the history of religious thought to see the metaphorical changes from animism, polytheism, monotheism, non-theism, and contemporary religious thought.
Metaphors are like all things temporal. They speak to us within the context of our day in language that is meaningful to us. If they are transparent to the depth of reality they have the power of that participation. If that language loses it’s power, new metaphors will rise to take their place. The sacred is unrelenting in grasping and shaking us. The noumenous is ever present and finds its way into our cultural minds in ever newer ways. Metaphors are powerful. Is it any wonder that the stories and examples presented in sermons often touch adherents more profoundly than theological explications.
If the metaphorization and re-metaphorization of religious sentiment is not only inevitable but necessary, then the real threat for religious relevance is not the use of metaphor but its rejection (even though metaphors are used to reject it). To reject the importance of metaphorical language and its power to participate in the divine is to stall spiritual growth and understanding. It creates a static climate where the power of God to speak in each age is truncated and demonized. It stems from, I think, the fear of uncertainly. With something so existentially important are religious belief, change can be a very scary thing. But that need not be so. This only occurs when that which is preliminary is elevated to the absolute. This is a form of idolatry and will eventually be destroyed. The destruction of idols is an essential feature of religious and spiritual evolution. It is only when the preliminary idols are crushed that the divine emerges all the more fresh and powerful. If metaphors are powerful it is because they are transparent to the divine. That is why metaphors fade away or are morphed into more powerful ones. The history of religion is littered with metaphors that no longer carry any power. The Spiritual Presence insures this. In the final analysis if one deeply believes in the benevolence of God and his love for creation, there is no need to fear a change in religous language or sentiment. In fact, if that faith is embraced, it should be all the more exciting that the Spirit of God continues to move in the world and in each of us. Accordingly for those who feel at peace with their place in God’s life both the ancient and new metaphors that speak to the divine offer no real threat to one’s relationship to God and instead offer another opportunity for spiritual growth.