Hard Going and Simply Rational talk about metaphor, analogy and symbol and their religious significance.


SR: In the last conversation we had, you mentioned metaphor. You said that metaphors always break down. What did you mean by that? And what possible relevance has metaphor to religion?

HG: Metaphors and symbols and images are used to point to what is true. Metaphors come precisely where science and rationalism (not reason) ends. Metaphors, images and symbols are used extensively in the Bible to point to God and to spiritual reality.

SR: So they’re just stories. There’s nothing concrete behind them. Nothing real.
Dùn Chàrlabhagh / Dun Carloway
(Photo: M. Caimbeul) 

Science truth and metaphorical truth

HG: I would argue the opposite. Science is always provisional. Today’s theory, is in tomorrow’s junkyard. The true story, using metaphor, image and symbol is true for all time and, hypothetically, true for all persons.

SR: I agree that science is always provisional, because it deals with facts; it faces up to the evidence of the senses, but, on your own admission, you deal with stories. Is that not just what people call fiction, or mysticism? A story, after all, can be true or false.

HG: If a person makes a story their own, it can be very true. I’m talking here about religious or spiritual stories. Jesus is always using metaphors and stories to give us spiritual truths. The story of the prodigal, or lost son is an obvious one. It has multiple levels of meaning, because there have been countless people in that situation. Each situation will be the same but different.

SR: What about people who don’t have a father? Single parent families, for example.

HG: There you are, you’re taking the thing literally. All talk about God has to be by analogy. The lost son represents the human being, the father represents God. He is compared to a kind father who will accept the son back home.

SR: So the analogy could have been that of a mother?
Lochs War Memorial
(Photo: M. Caimbeul)

Is God unknowable?

HG: Yes, I suppose so. The father represents the caring nature of God. We’re totally creatures of time. Remember Dooyeweerd’s 15 aspects. All metaphors and analogies have to be part of these aspects. We can’t get outside time except through the aspect of faith. God is not an object of our time world. He is in eternity which escapes definition by the categories of time.

SR: Are you saying that God is unknowable?

HG: Yes and no. He is unknowable except in so far as he reveals himself and he has revealed himself progressively in the Bible, and he reveals his true nature finally in Jesus Christ.

SR: So is that a story too?

HG: Yes, a story but also a story made flesh.

SR: How do you mean?

The living metaphor

HG: Well, there’s metaphorical truth, as we saw, but there’s also the truth of the agent acting out the metaphor. When the person acts, the metaphor becomes a living metaphor. When a person acts out a story or metaphor it takes in the whole of that person’s life.

 SR: So Jesus was acting for God?

HG:  Yes, and in a sense he was God. He was God enfleshed. The cross is a symbol of what he did, but also a living reality.

SR: It’s hard to believe that God would let himself be killed by those he had created. I mean, that goes against all common sense. It’s counter intuitive. The all-powerful creator of the cosmos being hung on a cross, letting his creatures kill him.

The paradoxes of the cross

HG: Yes, but notice what follows. There are various paradoxes. Total apparent weakness is equal to total strength. Humility is the chief power, not the power of earthly authorities. Forgiveness is stronger than overcoming someone by force. Denying the ego, the false self, means possessing all that’s important. Losing everything, and relying totally on God, you gain everything. His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and he knew it all the way.

SR: Most people will say what your saying is crazy. After all, there’s a lot to worry about in life. There’s your family, your possessions, all the things one really cares about, not to mention your career. Even Paul says, is it in 2 Thessalonians, that one should work for one’s living. You say, lose everything.
Dùn Chàrlabhagh Public Toilets
(Photo: M. Caimbeul)

Metaphor and the inner life

HG: Your phrase ‘really cares about’ is what matters. To have a family and a job are obviously good things but the state of one’s heart before God is what really matters. Jesus often uses metaphors and parables to talk about the inner life because metaphors point to something real but invisible happening within, i.e. the God – human relationship. So he talks about his disciples being the ‘salt of the earth’ and the ‘light of the world’, ‘knock and the door will be opened to you’ and so on.

SR: A lot of people don’t believe in God so they’re not going to ‘knock’.

HG: Very true, but just because some people might not believe there is oxygen in the air, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As you know, they wouldn’t be alive without it, even if they are ignorant of its existence.

SR: That’s an analogy, isn’t it? Rather subtle! I’ll have to think about that one.