“It’s Only a Metaphor”

“None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable , you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you — even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition.”

Thus Neil Gaiman opens one of the latter chapters in the novel, American Gods (p. 551). It’s clever as an ironic bit of storytelling in that it plays with a typical, modern approach to belief in the gods, as only so much metaphor, right before it launches into the rest of a narrative about a battle of the gods.

Of course, much of our popular view of metaphor and religious belief is confused as well. You find this both in popular and academic contexts. Often when someone says something like, “It’s a metaphor, don’t take it literally,” they don’t mean, “well, be careful misinterpreting that particular figure of speech.” What they end up meaning is something like, “it’s only a metaphor, don’t take it too seriously, or as reality.” To call something a metaphor is to say it is only a florid way of saying something that, if we really wanted to understand as it is, we ought to express in a more straightforward, literal fashion. Like, say that of the sciences.

LewisNow, the problem with that view is one C.S. Lewis pointed out long ago in his essay, “Is Theology Poetry?” when dealing with the charge that much Christian Theology is only so much un-purified metaphor.

We are invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol. The reason we don’t is that we can’t. We can, if you like, say “God entered history” instead of saying “God came down to earth.” But, of course, “entered” is just as metaphorical as “came down.” You have only substituted horizontal or undefined movement for vertical movement. We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial.

Nor are we Christians alone in this disability. Here is a sentence from a celebrated anti-Christian writer, Dr. I. A. Richards.

“Only that part of the cause of a mental event which takes effect through incoming (sensory) impulses or through effects of past sensory impulses can be said to be thereby known. The reservation no doubt involves complications.”

Dr. Richards does not mean that the part of the cause “takes” effect in the literal sense of the word takes, nor that it does so through a sensory impulse as you could take a parcel through a doorway. In the second sentence “The reservation involves complications,” he does not mean that an act of defending, or a seat booked in a train, or an American park, really sets about rolling or folding or curling up a set of coilings or rollings up. In other words, all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.

We could dispute some of Lewis’s parsing, but the fact of the matter is the language of science is typically shot through with metaphor. Any good science writer who is paying attention to what’s going on will admit as much metaphor and analogy is involved in the models used to describe the more theoretical reaches of physics (think of the now-defunct String Theory) as there is in the doctrine of Eternal Generation.

What’s more, much of our “literal” language is littered with the detritus of metaphor that has died and been forgotten. For example, we speak straightforwardly about the “leg” of a chair on analogy with the “leg” on an animal or a human. What was once a notable metaphor has become “literal” by being lexicalized through regular use. Again, this happens in science: think of the language of an electrical “current” that “flows.”

This brings us to one of more important points Janet Martin Soskice makes in her work Metaphor and Religious Language. The use of metaphors has an important role to play in extending language, as one of the ways where we supply terms where one is lacking in our vocabulary. Metaphors can extend, not only our vocabulary, but our way of conceiving reality by suggesting “new categories of interpretation” which lead us to think of “new entities, states of affairs, and causal relations.” This is why metaphors are so useful, not only in the hard sciences, but in conceiving social, political, and, yes, even theological realities.

I’m barely scratching the surface of the discussion of metaphor, but my point has simply been to note that labeling some bit of language “metaphorical” is not say it is “less real,” or, “not referring to anything out there.” Yes, they can be terms of art, literary dressing, and so forth. But all the same, metaphors are useful in everyday language, the language of science, and in theology insofar as they are reality-depicting. Metaphors are not a distraction from clear thinking about a matter, or a way of distancing us from understanding the truth of the world. Instead, they can be a way of perceiving and understanding them in a more adequate way than we could otherwise.

In which case, when we hear the phrase, “God is our father,” it’s not so much a choice between deciding whether or not its true or only a metaphor. Rather, it’s about deciding whether the metaphor is a true and good one, and if it is, in just what way. And for Christians, this is where Scripture is our guide. Reading the Bible attentively allows us to see God’s own deployment of metaphorical language for himself, attuning us to the ways he wills to be understood and known.

Soli Deo Gloria