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Metaphor and Theology

October 12, 2009

I have been writing some introductory level stuff on theological language… here is my work to date.

Metaphor is a way of doing things with words. It is basically descriptive but can occur in the context of doing things like commanding e.g. ‘Cast out those whitewashed tombstones’. It is the way language is  ‘stretched’ in new ways. Thus the primary difference between metaphorical and literal use of words has to do with the standard way words are used. Metaphor occurs as a novel comparison against a background of more familiar usage and it is only against that background that metaphors arise. To put it another way; the meaning of a term in use is dependant on a tradition of shared ‘literal’ usage. If it were not so we could not communicate.

It is from this common base that language can be stretched. From a scientific point of view it is by means of metaphorical stretching that new discoveries are made and shared. Inasmuch as these discoveries are shared and prove fruitful the metaphorical becomes, in time, literal. The literal is thus a graveyard built on the bodies of shared metaphors, but it is also the soil in which new metaphors arise. Where there is contest about what is true (say for example, when it is contested whether smacking is violent or not), this is also a contest about whether certain ways of speaking/writing should be regarded as literal. This is not to say that all common literal usage is true, just that those who do not contest these usages also do not contest their bearing on the truth but rely on it.graveyard640

The question of what one can say literally about God includes the question about which metaphors are a valid and fruitful extension of the current usage. It may also be a question about the validity of currently accepted literal usages. However, the notion of a metaphor loses all meaning without the background of literal usage – as, for example, when people say that “all language about God is metaphorical”. The theological meaning of ‘metaphor’ thus occurs at the intersection of two issues, namely, the issue of how language changes over time and the issue of how language relates to reality, and in particular to God.

The Christian tradition assumes, consistent with the monotheism of the Hebrew tradition and its Trinitarian transformation in the early Church, that God is not of the same order as the universe. In the words of Herbert McCabe [cit]: “God and the universe do not make two.” God is no ‘thing’, either comparable to and over against the world, or within the world. God is that on whom the world depends for existence.

It is not that nothing can be truthfully said of God, but that God’s kenotic (see Philippians 2: 6-8) self-manifestation is the starting point of Christian claims to speak of God truthfully. When it comes to contested language and the question of a new metaphor, the reference-point lies in God’s own self-disclosure. Thus theological language is not defined by the continuum between literal and metaphorical language, but by the mystery of the relation between God and the world. To speak christianly of God (and thus to mean by ‘God’ what Christians mean), whether metaphorically or literally, presupposes two things. Firstly, it presupposes a perspective informed by participation in God’s life as Trinity in the world. For Christians our point of contact with God, and so meaningful speech about God, lies in the process of salvation by Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit. This is the experience which grounds our existence. Secondly, to speak christianly of God presupposes an understanding that any emerging ways of using words (i.e. metaphor) is always qualified by God’s ever greater dissimilarity from creation. This is what theologians mean when they say that theological language is analogical rather than, say, necessarily metaphorical.

Of course in saying that theological language is analogical before it is either metaphorical or literal we are talking about descriptive language. However, names, properly speaking, are not descriptive. They coordinate a point of reference. For example, the question of whether I am truly Bruce is similar then to the question of whether God is truly Father. It depends on whether that’s what people call me (or God). It does not follow that God is being described as ‘a father’ any more than it follows that I am being described as ‘a bruce’. The question of which metaphors can be applied to God should be clearly distinguished from the question of how we call God by name.

In the case of descriptive language, the most widely and ecumenically accepted way of describing the being of God is that God is Trinity. This is, we could say, the standard accepted usage and the most literal way of talking about God. This language arose out of reflection on the theological significance of Jesus who called the God of Israel, Father. Thus the whole question of talk about God finds its most complex issue at the point where the gender-transcending (rather than multi-gendered or trans-gendered!) God is named. It is complicated primarily because God is also described in scripture (metaphorically!) as a father (‘our father’) and so likened to other fathers, and only more rarely and obliquely as ‘mother-like’.

In summary then, the fact that God is Trinity – a conclusion arising from the significance of Jesus and his relation to the one he called Father – is a starting point from which Christian descriptive language about God begins. The doctrine of the Trinity is ‘the literal’ in relation to which all God-metaphors are metaphorical. This history and its corresponding naming process cannot be left behind. What we can do is learn to distinguish carefully between a name and all language which is descriptive of what is named. To do this is to begin to do Christian theology.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    December 14, 2009 2:33 am

    Hi, I am from Australia.

    Perhaps it is time to take Real Acausal God out of the closet (where He/She has been tightly locked away by what is usually religion) created by language whether “theological”, philosophical, or metaphorical?



  1. Dietrich by the path … « P e r ∙ C r u c e m ∙ a d ∙ L u c e m

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