Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Metaphors: Imagining the Divine

M H Maasdorp

From the very earliest days of the Church, Christians have struggled to envisage the Divine. The result has been a collection of metaphors some of which over two millennia have been reified to the point of becoming a matter of orthodoxy. Many of these metaphors seem to have lost much of their impact. The challenge now is to develop new metaphors knowing full well that they are a human construction we use to imagine a God who is beyond all description.

Whatever else is said about the Divine, a general conclusion over the ages has been that God is "the Absolute" or the "Ultimate". A problem then arises because that which is absolute can't by definition be known. For example, I can describe in detail the entire course of a mighty river and yet know nothing about the rain which gave rise to it. In the same vein, I can describe the entire universe and still have said nothing about that which is more than everything - that is, about the ultimate or absolute.

How then can we talk about God when we know full well that the Divine is beyond all human comprehension? It turns out that this impossibility has not prevented us from trying to imagine what God might be like if knowledge of the Divine were possible.

This involves using what is technically called a simile. "The train rushed past us like a tornado" is more expressive than "The train went past  at 105 kilometers an hour". Similarly the author of Deuteronomy writes that "God is like a flaming fire" (4.24).

Another device is a type of simile called a metaphor [1]. The word "like" is removed from a simile and the subject is linked with a word picture as though the picture and the subject were a single thing. "Time is like a river" is replaced by "The river of time". We recognise, of course, that this is not literally a river in the sense that the Amazon or the Ganges are rivers.

In summary; a metaphor is a figure of speech containing an implied comparison, in which a word or phrase ordinarily used of one thing is applied to another. Metaphors are a human means of imagining God; or, to put it more plainly, a means of imagining what God would be like if we could only find out.

Not everyone realises that the earliest Christian metaphors for the Divine were lifted from the Hebrew Bible. For example:

God the father.  This is a powerful picture which has endured for millennia. Although it is widely used by Christians, it actually derives from the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy 32.4-6)

God the king. The Hebrew Bible portrays the Divine as powerful in the same way that a king exercises power - to protect, punish, inspire and regulate (e.g. Malachi 1.14).

God the counselor. A king turns to important people for advice about affairs of State (e.g. Isaiah 9.6).

The gospels contain metaphors which try to convey the importance of Jesus. Some of the best-known examples are in John's Gospel:

Bread which gives life. In a time when the vast majority of people lived from hand to mouth and from one perilous year to the next, this was a particularly apposite image (e.g. John 6.35).

A good shepherd. In first century Palestine, the shepherd walked in front of his flock, leading them either to pasture or back home to safety; whereas in other cultures the shepherd drove his flock before him. The shepherd's task is also to protect his flock from wild animals and rustlers (e.g. John 10.11).

A light for everyone. In earlier times nights were dark except for a small oil lamp or candle indoors. Predators, both human and animal, are most active during the hours of darkness (e.g. John 8.12).

Most of the New Testament metaphors are still in use today. However, many city dwellers find these metaphors no longer as striking as they once were. Very few of us are shepherds or know anything about shepherding. And today we light our homes and cities so that total darkness is not something familiar to a substantial majority. Even fatherhood is losing much of its ancient meaning as gender roles change with the movement of populations from country to city.

The decline of traditional Christian metaphors can be illustrated well by the metaphor which presents Jesus as the exemplary leader. That is, we are all disciples whose task it is to be as much like Jesus as possible. The culmination of this metaphor in the Church was the Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis in the early 15th century. Since then the Imitation has been published many times and translated into dozens of languages. Its influence has been enormous, perhaps more so than any other Christian book except the Bible.

However, changes in the cultures of Western societies over the past few centuries have substantially weakened the leader metaphor.

First, philosophers and others in the 19th and 20th centuries began to emphasise individual autonomy in place of external authority. They were perhaps epitomised by Immanuel Kant who wrote:

There can be nothing more dreadful than that the actions of one man should be subject to the will of another. [2]

Second, the broad conclusion of many critical scholars and historians is that the gospels do not contain enough information to construct even a basic biography of Jesus. That is, Jesus is a template for our lives in only a skeletal way (metaphorically speaking). Much of our lives must be lived without the help of his example.

Third, an important if not central doctrine of the Church worldwide is that Jesus could not and did not sin. If Jesus was sinless, any attempt by ordinary people to imitate him would seem to be doomed to failure from the start.

If this and other Christian metaphors are losing or have lost some of their impact, what is to be done? Can we evolve other metaphors or must we stick with the old ones? If we do find new metaphors for God and Jesus will they be somehow inferior? Will they have the authority given to traditional metaphors by dint of their ancient origins?

In the year 2000 Charles Henderson noted that some users of the Internet had begun talking about their experience online in spiritual terms [3]. Might it be that this is an evolving metaphor, destined to replace older ones? Does it in fact provide humanity with "... a new window through which to look upon the Infinite"?

Henderson makes the following points:

Can the machines which comprise the Internet be used as a metaphor related to God as spirit?

In the case of the Internet, it appears that assumed natural boundaries between the human and the mechanical may be breaking down. Is humanity somehow devalued by this close association?

The Internet God cannot now easily be perceived as the remote unmoved mover of a stable and enduring tradition. Rather, as it grows and develops, this Internet God is a partner who continually inspires us to grow, change and learn.

The Internet, far from being utterly new and strange, actually began millennia ago with the adoption of writing and alphabets. To move from a printed "Word" of God to the Internet is neither an impossibly long step nor incongruous.

The use of this potential metaphor is in its very early infancy. Henderson continues:

If then, the Internet is a good metaphor for God, it will not betray us by becoming a new, more powerful, opiate, but will continue to draw us out, beyond ourselves, and beyond whatever it is that Internet is now or ever could become, to that which actually is the Web of God's own creation. In the end, God may in fact be that Web greater than which none other can even be conceived.

But even if Henderson is substantially correct, parts of the Internet contain material which is at its best degrading and at its worst foul. What other horrors lurk in the recesses of the Deep Net, accessible by only by the more skilled? And what impact does this negative aspect of the Internet have on its potential use as a Christian metaphor? Only time will tell.

Examination of traditional metaphors for possible negative aspects proves revealing. For example, does the metaphor of God as Father include the abusive, violent father endured by so many children throughout the ages? It seems that when we adopt a metaphor, we usually perceive it as reflecting only its positive aspects. God the King is not a tyrant; Jesus the bread of life only nourishes and does not poison.

Traditional metaphors in addition often can't cope with aspects of modern life which are very far removed from older cultures. As a result some new metaphors have crept unannounced into use. An engineer may value the metaphor of God as a Cosmic Watchmaker who put the universe together, wound it up, and then left it to its own devices. God for some scientists may become the Designer of a chance-driven, self-organising system in which life emerges naturally and then constantly evolves towards greater complexity [4].

It seems then, as traditional metaphors lose their potency, a grove of sapling Christian metaphors is springing up - often unnoticed and often treated as weeds by the guardians of the ancient forests planted over the years by the Church. As Christians seek to preserve them at all costs, the traditional metaphors become more and more literalised (reified). The literalised metaphor is, in effect a fossil; it is no longer linked to the living changing world we all know.

The metaphor which is frozen in stone can now be used as a determinant of orthodoxy. An example is known as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Trinitarian formula consists of three metaphors combined - God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. Instead of being left free to convey meaning, the metaphors are linked to elaborate verbal formulas, assent to which is still required of Christians.

In contrast, the development of new metaphors for the Divine involves risk and revision. Some metaphors will live, others will not. Some will be meaningful to a narrow range of people; others may even become universal. Whatever the case, they will usually derive from important elements of a culture, or from particular aspects of individual lives. And as human perceptions and cultures change, so will Christian metaphors we use to imagine the Divine.

The process of seeking out new metaphors has long since begun.

The Ground of Being  This metaphor, no doubt somewhat distorted and simplified, has evolved from the work of Paul Tillich. He argued that if we identify God as a being then God must be a creature. So we have to speak of the divine as the ground of being, that upon which all reality ultimately rests.

Mother, Lover, and Friend  Sally McFague proposes that these three metaphors replace the traditional Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Gravity  An adventurous attempt at a new metaphor is to express the Divine as the mysterious force which pervades all of nature. We don't know what it is, but we can describe its effects and we are all subject to it. It is that fundamental force which holds the universe together.

   This metaphor is an example of one which would probably have meaning only for a small group - those who have been through the process of psychotherapy.

Energy  The word "energy" is used freely by scientists. Its effects can be described and measured, yet nobody knows what it is, except that it is the foundation of all matter. Even String Theory, purporting to mathematically describe the fundamental nature of all atomic particles, talks about "strings" (metaphor) and "energy" (an unknown something) when using ordinary language.
Time will tell if these and other embryonic metaphors for the Divine will last long enough to replace the rich store of traditional metaphors. At any rate, it would seem as though Christians present and future have the challenging task of envisioning new metaphors if they are to make any substantial impact upon others.
[1] The word symbol is sometimes confused with metaphor. A symbol is a material object which is used to represent an abstract concept. For example, different countries use different flags, each a conventional symbol for the abstract notion "our nation".

[2] Quoted by Bertrand Russell in The History of Western Philosophy 1946
[3] The Internet as a Metaphor for God? in Cross Currents Spring/Summer, 2000, Vol. 50, Issues 1/2
[4] Ian Barbour, Philosophy, Science and Divine Action, Shults, Murphy, and  Russell, 2009