Posts Tagged ‘metaphor’

To draw parallels and affinities between the media of art on the one hand and of religion on the other is, I suggest, a useful approach.  Applying it, one common factor is immediately evident in both.

In art, for instance, there is a clear distinction between the object ‘as it is’ and the object as it is perceived (Plato’s allegory of the cave and the writings of Kant and many others refer).  Moving this over to religion opens up all sorts of revelation.

But this is the principle at its simplest.  As we have noticed, religion has over the centuries been adept at creating hosts of diverse representations in order to affirm, however inadequately (because they can never be perfect) that there are many different facets to the creeds on offer.  These representations come and go in response to promptings from the host culture.

The Paschal Lamb, for instance, draws its imagery from a context in which agrarian societies think it best to offer sacrificial gifts to ‘God’.  That sort of imagery works well enough when people perceive it as normative through the prisms of their community’s histories, habits and assumptions.  Where this perceptual congruity starts to fail, however – to become less and less useful or convincing – the more troubling and intrusive it becomes.

At its base, this phenomenon is yet another manifestation of the struggle to define the object satisfactorily; it is, rather, a longing to be able to do so.  In this arena, any metaphor can be pressed into service, and, if it still ‘works’, recognised and accepted for what it is: a way of seeing that seems right and proper and fit for purpose, however distant it may be from everyday reality.  Meaning in one sense rivals another.  As Pascal noted, “Quand la parole de Dieu qui est véritable est fausse littéralement elle est vraie spirituellemente. Sede ad dextra mei : cela est faux littéralemente, donc cela est vrai spirituellemente” (Pensées, 272).

In their heart of hearts, most believers know that this duality, whereby the existent and the perceived reinforce each other, amounts to a differentiation between truth and reality but is in no way unacceptable religious discourse.  When we sing Rock of ages we know that we are not referring to any kind of big stone.  But can we get past all the metaphors?  Is non-realist language the only medium available to us?

How far can we go along this path before getting into trouble?

The Bible is, as many have recognised, full of metaphor.  It is the only way it can ‘work’ as it were as a stream of living water from which we draw the language we need to interact with the divine. But to what extent are we ‘allowed’ to do this?

This threatening question is precisely what fundamentalists condemn.  Always on the look-out for wrong interpretations of scripture, they see that permitting us to regard the Creation story as an allegory rather than factually accurate is to inflict careless damage on the literalism that guarantees, as nothing else can, the validity of the Bible as the ur-text of our faith.  The Adam and Eve story must be protected because if it is not, then the way is open to the heresy that some parts of the Jesus story are metaphorical: if that word means ‘untrue’ (it doesn’t) then that is an unacceptable undermining of the major elements of Christian doctrine.

So it is at this point in the quest that we must think about Jesus.  Ah, Jesus (to be continued)


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As is always the case along the quest for ‘God’, I soon come across the footprints of other, better writers and thinkers who have got there before me.  I wanted to think about the way in which metaphor and symbolism reinforce the language of any faith system when I accidentally came across the following paragraph by a theologian writing late in the 19th century:

“Symbols are the only language suited to religion.

It would be an illusion to believe that a religious symbol represents God in Himself, and that its value, therefore, depends on the exactitude with which it represents Him. The true content of the symbol is entirely subjective: it is the conscious relation of the subject to God, or rather, it is the way he feels himself affected by God.

From this point of view we may see in what religious inspiration psychologically consists. Neither its aim nor its effect is to communicate to men exact, objective, ready-made ideas on that which by its nature is unknowable under the scientific mode; but it consists in an enrichment and exaltation of the inner life of its subject; it sets in motion his inward religious activity, since it is in that that God reveals Himself; it excites new feelings, constituting new concrete relations of God to man, and by the fact of this creative activity it spontaneously engenders new images and new symbols, of which the real content is precisely this revelation of the God-spirit in the inner life of the spirit of man.

The greatest initiators in the religious order have been the greatest creators of symbols.” (August Sabatier.  Outlines of a Philosophy of Religion based on Psychology and History.  1910. Chapter 4, Section 6 Symbolism)

If we accept that metaphor and symbolism help faith, not hinder it, then certain parts of scripture and Christian teaching become easier to understand.  A good example is provided by Jesus’ parables (the purpose of which is set out in Matt 13:10-17).  Like drama – which is another art – they provide us with the means pictorially and helpfully, to discern the truths and frailties of human behaviour.  As such, they should be treasured as windows through which we can see and evaluate aspects of that interaction between ourselves and ‘God’ (any concept of which) and modify our beliefs and stance accordingly.

This is all very well, but – to speak only about Christianity – the more we scan scriptures for the lodes of meaning running through the parables, sayings and incidents we have inherited, the more difficult it becomes to subject the great narratives of our faith to such examination without seeming to undermine them, and thus our faith, in some cases (not others) quite disturbingly.

The first of these great narratives, however, is the one least likely to cause this kind of offence.  About the Nativity, the late Marcus Borg wrote “the stories of Jesus’ birth are myths in this sense [that is, “symbolic narratives and not straightforward historical reports”].  Along with most mainline scholars, I do not think these stories report what happened. The virginal conception, the star, the wise men, the birth in Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn and so forth are not facts of history.  But I think these stories are powerfully true.  They make use of rich archetypal religious images and motifs to speak of Jesus’ significance.” (The God we never knew. 1998. Pp101-102).

Similarly, on another of the great narratives, Borg said that “Easter need not involve the claim that God supernaturally intervened to raise the corpse of Jesus from the tomb.  Rather, the core meaning of Easter is that Jesus continued to be experienced after his death, but in a radically new way: as a spiritual and divine reality.” (op cit, p93).   I intend to return to this particular trope at a later date.

I assume that these ideas formed part of earlier theological teaching of Biblical demythologisation, by Rudolf Bultmann and others.

Another of the great narratives of Christianity, Pentecost, celebrating the Holy Spirit’s gift of tongues 40 days after Easter (in Acts 2), seems to me to be a quasi-symbolic depiction of the apostles’ realisation that their mission now was to go out and spread the Good News.  The story is written in a highly theological register but with persuasive touches of realism which must have been experienced during an actual incident and recalled later by eye-witnesses (Peter’s insistence that he is not drunk, for example).  Again, here, there is nothing in the interplay between symbolism and ‘what really happened’ to cause us to doubt or reject the basic meaning of the story and so lose the message.

With the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Salvation narratives, however, we enter altogether more difficult terrain, where the allocation of story-telling editing here and meaning-laden metaphor there, realism and symbolism, has to be set out with exceptionally careful handling.  Here the quest for God is really put under pressure. [To be continued]



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So it is that in the quest for ‘God’ – or for any other meanings to explain our multiple predicaments – the arts discharge a major role (wittingly or not) deploying metaphor with which to do so.  “A poem, a play, or indeed a great painting has the power to change our perception in ways that we may not be able to explain logically but that seem incontestably true” (Karen Armstrong. The case for God.  London, 2009 p17).  In fulfilling this mission, artists can draw upon vast stores of symbols, each embodying its own meanings.  This happens on many different levels and intensity of emphasis.

I’m aware, of course, that large landscapes of philosophical enquiry into these phenomena have already been explored, most notably in France where semiology and connected ideas have long predominated in the academy.

We don’t need semiotics, however, to tell us that religions, always striving but chronically unable to achieve total connectivity with ‘God’ through art and language (See Quest for God 1-3), have particular need for analogy, metaphor, simile and symbolism to fall back on. An observable fact in the world today is that so many people refuse to believe this.

Yet it is obvious.  Religious discourse – scripture, elucidation and commentary – is saturated with metaphor.  As an example I have used before, let’s stipulate that when Christians talk of the ‘Lamb of God’, they are not referring to an actual sheep. They mean a person who has been, and is, treated symbolically as a sheep (Isaiah 53:5).  Similes abound in the Bible: “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness” (Psalm 102:6).  Like other poetry, word pictures like these blur the line between the real and the analogous.  Under pressure by science and technology, with its hunger for precision and realism, the modern age has largely – but not altogether – lost sight of this principle.

Literalism or ultra-realism in religion is, at best, an irritant; at its worst, it can be a curse.  According to Keith Ward, fundamentally “it is a rather modern movement that only really began to exist after the rise of science in the sixteenth century” (What the Bible really teaches (2004) p100).  It’s a frame of mind, or paradigm that holds onto the idea, based on the certainty allegedly achievable by scientific enquiry, that the more realistic something is, the closer it is to its truth or actuality.  It’s a way of seeing that privileges the logos (enthralled by facts and predominantly masculine) over the mythos (more obeisant to emotions and predominantly feminine).

Failure to recognise symbolism for what it is can be highly misleading.  It’s fundamentalists’ biblical literalism that sends explorers up Mount Ararat looking for the remains of Noah’s ark, or arranges museum displays that show human beings anachronistically cohabiting with dinosaurs.

Previous generations have had comparatively little problem in recognising the ambiguity and nuance inherent in metaphor and symbolism. In Judaism, this willingness to tease out multiple meanings is a familiar and fruitful approach called midrash.  It is a stance that is not just permissible but essential.  How can we evaluate the various meanings sure to be found contained within a given piece of scripture if we insist that there is always only one?

Fundamentalists abhor the appearance of ambiguity in all this (hence their insistence that the Bible nowhere errs).  They fail to see that contesting literalism does not mean diluting the message.  Reinterpretation of the ancient texts and recognising the layers of symbolism in them is a never-ending exercise of testing of our assumptions and perspectives about “God”. It is not damaging the inherent meaning of the material, but the opposite.

Nevertheless, as theologians have long recognised, there are serious problems with this approach. [To be continued]



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