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It’s a metaphor!

it is a metaphor!In Orthodox liturgy the deacon often proclaims, at important points, such things as, “Wisdom! Attend!” Or just, “Wisdom!” Or “Let us attend!”.

Maybe we live in an age that we need to have the deacon proclaim, from time to time, “It is a metaphor!

We seem to have moved into a time where people have agility with metaphors except when it comes to religion, spirituality, theology. In the very area where metaphor is strongest and most prevalent – people regularly treat the metaphorical literally. They thereby destroy the metaphor – and misproclaim the very truth that the metaphor points towards.

So. At your next celebration of liturgy: “It is a metaphor!

That might help prevent dialogue deteriorating into the level one too often finds, where atheists see Christianity as:

The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

And where Christians see atheism as:

The belief that there was nothing and then nothing happened to nothing. Then nothing magically exploded for no reason and created everything. And then everything rearranged itself into self replicating bits for absolutely no reason and created dinosaurs.

Also see “apophatic“.

God and Fox News

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34 Responses to It’s a metaphor!

  1. Very amusing and sadly true, Bosco. Those are both brilliant definitions/descriptions of the misunderstood “other”. Perhaps we lose our sense of metaphor (and humour) because religion (or non-religion) (and, additionally, sport) are areas of our lives that we take so seriously. Perhaps we don’t trust metaphor with matters of life and death and crave a literal certainty. But having a deacon make frequent reminders is a good idea in the short term 🙂

    • Your connection to humour is helpful, Julianne. It has been well said IMO about both the post-modern and the catholic that these use humour with what they hold most dear. Blessings.

  2. I have little more to say than that I fully agree. The cartoon reminds me of a growing belief in the danger of theology to the enchantment of the mystery,

  3. Oxymoron: Fox News.

    *

    The word metaphor can literally be translated back to the Greek as ‘after bearing…’, as a type of illumination and explanation around a subject.

    I think much of Judaism and Catholicism has been based around the same intellectual structure, and so theology is not merely a fixed set of knowledge as much as a living reworking of ideas best supporting spirituality and sacred writings in each contemporary setting.

    Metaphor.

    However religion is often overtaken by politics and commerce.

    *

    Jesus uses metaphor extensively, though in my experience people are quick to re-interpret him in the US.

    After listening to one person’s sermon detailing ‘all you have to do is believe and be saved, nothing you can do on this earth will redeem you’ I asked him ‘how does that fit with Matthew 25 and Jesus’ own clear definition of the righteous?’

    -‘It doesn’t really mean that.’

    *
    Really…

    I’m no Greek scholar but I can read that.

  4. So… this gives me the heebie jeebies (sp.?) a little bit. In the west, we tend to think of metaphor in a reductionist way, as in, “Oh, that’s only a metaphor… those silly ancient near-easterners who wrote the Bible!” In fact, that kind of thought is pretty ingrained into our culture. I guess I would rather call it “analogy” because rather than reducing our liturgy to metaphor, it opens it to a greater understanding. It certainly is a metaphor, but it has so many layers of reality that we can barely begin to grasp. At the very least, our liturgy enacts the inherent truth of service to God. It doesn’t “mean” something, like a metaphor does, it “does” something. It’s kind of like… if we lived in a 2-dimensional world existing entirely on a single plane (i.e. circles, squares, etc., but no cubes or spheres), and all of a sudden a sphere passed through our reality. We would have no concept of what it was. We would see a dot, that would become a tiny circle, expand and grow, then begin to collapse again, until it was only a dot, and then it would disappear. The sphere is a greater reality than a circle, but we would only be able to experience that reality through the circle we could comprehend. That is what we do in our liturgy: we make “circles” that allow us to fully experience the greater reality of God as He exists in our midst. So yes, it’s metaphor, but it’s also really, really real. It’s bigger than metaphor. And I’m afraid that a deacon crying out “It is a metaphor” might send the wrong message to our westernized church. I’m sure you see where my heebie jeebies come from. What we probably need more than anything is a greater understanding (and more teaching) in the church about what the liturgy enacts, and why ritual is important for humans in terms of seeking and experiencing God. Thank you for working to that end! Good article–thank you for such a thought-provoking piece!

    • Oh, and much of my thoughts on this are taken from the work of Nathan Jennings, a liturgy professor and scholar (thanks, N!). Much appreciated! (And I hope I didn’t accidentally misconstrue them!)

    • Thanks for your helpful comment, Perry.

      First: we need to overcome what you describe as the way that is ingrained in our Western culture. We need to forbid the use of the words, “just”, “merely”, “only”,… We need to have loud alarm buzzers going any time someone says, “it is just a story”, “it is only a metaphor”, “it’s merely a parable”,…

      Secondly, thanks for helping me clarify: my post is primarily talking about the words we use – not the liturgical actions per se. I need to think longer about the relationship between liturgical action, sign, symbol, gesture, etc. and metaphor.

      Your analogy with spheres and circles etc. is drawn, for those who are unfamiliar with it, from the wonderful novella flatland – an important piece, both for mathematicians…

      and theologians. 🙂

      Blessings.

  5. Thanks, Bosco, for an elegant exposition of a key concept. If all religious language points beyond itself to an inexhaustible mystery, the danger for those who get out of the habit of acknowledging its metaphorical character is that they will form their own idea and stick it in the place God ought to be and then defend it tooth and nail against all comers — a temptingly gnostic and profoundly idolatrous process

  6. Very though provoking, Bosco. Now the thing, for me, is do I have to make a choice? Do I have to choose between the metaphor and the literal? Is it a case of either/or? For me it isn’t. Much of the mystery of Christianity is found in the startling and/both-ness of its truths. Both literally true and also metaphorically true at one and the same time. Both the post-modern interpretation and the Catholic interpretation are true; the hard part is for the believer to enter into the struggle to see, and accept, the truth in both, and not condemn those who only hold that one or the other is true.

    With God it seems to me it is always and/both never either/or. I guess just She’s like that in the way He does things.

  7. Good stuff and a timely reminder, especially given some of my recent exchanges with atheists (some rather angry ones at that) on fussbook: have just been told, for instance, by someone who claims to base his assertions upon “scientific rationale” that the Bible is a book of children’s stories that deserves no more respect than Aesop’s fables. All too often, it seems, we find ourselves talking past one another rather than conversing with one another…

  8. Exactly:

    ‘Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

    And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:

    For this people’s heart is waxed gross ( grown callous)…’

    Look forward to an oxymoron & spirituality piece.

    My favourite would have to be Saint Paul’s ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.’ Can imagine what a holy mess a theology without metaphor could make of that in a sermon!

  9. In my decade of being Orthodox I’ve become convinced that the West could do almost as well listening to atheists as it would listening to the Orthodox.

    The God they claim not to believe in bares striking resemblances to a number of gods I, too, do not believe it.

  10. I tend to agree with Greg about the both/and. I think a lot of the analogy, metaphor and parable may be true on more than one level – yes in our universe these things are poetic and the meaning is often hidden in mystery, but in a deeper, spiritual universe they may be true literally.

    I’m reminded in Physics how a photon (and also electrons and quarks and other subatomic particles that make up all matter…) displays properties of both a particle and a wave simultaneously. Matter is an expression of energy, and in the beginning God said “let there be light.” (note: my reading of quantum physics is only as a curious amateur and I may be mistaken in my interpretation of the theories).

    • Thanks, Claudia. I could go with Greg on the both/and, but could not see at the time of his comment and am still not sure how to follow him on the literal. I think we would need to look at specific examples. The power of metaphor is precisely to enable both/and; to see a truth from a variety of sides; to have truth at different levels. I cannot see how a metaphor becomes literal at some deeper level. That something can be modelled by a wave and a particle is important to me – but at the point that we say it is literally a particle, don’t we destroy the truth rather than present it? There are those who do this with religion also. I think I need to work towards a future post on this 🙂 Blessings.

      • Some things are real. They are true. Or at least we beleive it so. Our splendid but tiny minds and impoverished language can’t express them even partially let alone fully. Therefore we use metaphor to express these realities in ways in which we can grasp some fleeting, transitory realisation. (And then spend all our energies debating the metaphor rather than the reality it presents)

      • “…say it is literally a particle, don’t we destroy the truth…?” Surely it depends on what extra meaning “literally” has? I should be able to say light is a particle and to all intents and purposes it behaves as particles, without falling into the trap of saying it therefore cannot be a wave. For a relatively short while, scientists struggled with the duality, and would have likely to say “well, if it is a wave too, it has to be a wave of particles”, but then they accepted the truth was bigger than their preconceived ideas and the layers of assumptions that tend to go with old ways of defining things. After that acceptance they could get on and quickly made valuable breakthroughs. Notice how very much longer it takes for concepts of duality to be accepted in religion!

        Perhaps a new word, devoid of preconceived notions, is required for “significant truths” whose truth is more than merely historical fact or metaphor; it can even be what isn’t stated (what didn’t Jesus read from the scroll in Luke 4? Who wasn’t at the pool at Bethesda?).

  11. Taking your liturgical suggestion seriously, Bosco, I think it would be better if the deacon’s admonition took the form of a scriptural quotation. Do any of the following renderings of Galatians 4:24a sound fit for proclamation in the liturgical assembly?

    KJV: “Which things are an allegory!”
    NRSV: “Now this is an allegory!”
    REB: “This is an allegory!”
    NJB: “There is an allegory here!”

    For Latin traditionalists: “Quae sunt per allegoriam dicta!”

    And for our friends in the East: “ἅτινα ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα”

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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