The Problem of Metaphor in Religion

One natural fault line concerning our use of language to make truth claims is to see them as being either analogical or discursive, which translates into either figurative or literal. This distinction is not given enough scrutiny, I think. It is inclusive, meaning all attempts to state truths fall into one or the other category. It is also exclusive, meaning the distinction between categories cannot be blurred or bridged. We can never take literal language figuratively without adding to its meaning more than was intended by the speaker, effectively changing the truth claim. Nor can we take figurative language literally, for to do so would either distort the speaker’s claim or diminish it. The exclusivity of these terms is a problem for those wishing to make religious truth claims.

When we attempt to make our declarations about truth, goodness, or beauty directly and precisely, we use language in the simplest and most accurate way we are capable of. We avoid stylistic flourish in favor of plain nouns and verbs. Think chemistry textbooks and Form 1040 instructions. The purpose of using language literally is to communicate with clarity and simplicity some truths about reality.

 But that effort is freighted with two crippling difficulties. First, language is a blunt and crude hammer with which to drive in the nail of our meaning. Francis Bacon’s warning about the subtlety of nature and the crudity of the language we use to address it comes to mind here. One of the glories of science is its cooption of the only infinite language available to the human mind, numeracy. Compared to the precision of mathematics, ordinary language seems sadly amorphous, which only becomes a problem if we care to state our declarations about reality accurately and carefully. And that introduces the second and more comprehensive difficulty in our use of discursive language, for all that we attempt to say in our literal truth, goodness, and beauty claims can be seen as a kind of comparison, with language standing in for the reality it attempts to capture. To use language literally is to attempt a one-to-one correspondence with the reality we speak of, and even leaving language’s crudity aside, that correspondence is awfully difficult to reach, and even more difficult to verify. This 1:1 correspondence is the holy grail of discursive language. To know we have it is to speak truth. The effort to accomplish this seemingly impossible task is undertaken each time we make a truth claim, something we do a thousand times daily. Most of our truth claims are of this simple, literal, discursive variety. “The cat is on the table.” “I left my umbrella at the market.” That kind of thing.

 A third difficulty arises when we speak literally about what might be called private reality, as opposed to the common reality available to all of our perceptions. To say “I am hungry” is quite literal, but because the verification is not available to all, we may call this kind of literal declaration a coherence claim, as opposed to the correspondence claims in the preceding paragraph. The only difference is their mode of verification or justification, a subject I tackle in depth in my book, What Makes Anything True, Good, Beautiful? Challenges to Justification. Our coherence claims are justified not by any attempt to establish a 1:1 correspondence to the facts of reality but instead by their logical consistency with an internal schema of truths we have already embraced, a coherence called the virtual circle. Though truth claims justified by one’s virtual circle may be discursive, they are not verifiable by someone outside the perceptual wall of her own mind.

 The distinction between correspondence and coherence also holds true for the other kind of language we use in making our truth claims, called figurative or analogical language. But the task here is even more difficult. For every use of such language establishes not one truth claim but three. For example, should I say, “The cat is on the table,” I am claiming a literal truth, one verifiable by direct perception, either mine or yours (I leave aside for the sake of simplicity for the moment modernist questions about the reliability of perception and postmodern issues with the adequacy of language).  But if I should say, “The cat on the table looks like a sculpture,” I am now saying three things. (1) that the cat is on the table, presumably in some pose; (2) that sculptures are cat-sized and table-sitting; (3) that a true relationship pertains between the pose of the cat on the table and sculpture, the claim to be verified by experience [the sight (of the cat) and memory (of the sculpture)]. The sentence about the cat on the table looking like a sculpture is called a simile, which you may remember from your poetry classes as being a comparison using like or as. Not all attempts at truth-telling through figurative language attempt this kind of relationship, but all require the same kind of “unpacking” in order to grasp their truth claims. This is why one definition of poetry is “intense, compact language.” To grasp its truth claims, we must expand what has been compacted, make literal what has been said figuratively. That process changes the truth claim.

 Now bear in mind the exclusive nature of the categories of literal and figurative. This exclusivity demands that the purpose of poetry is precisely to avoid being literal, that unwrapping its figurative truth claims is distortional and destructive to the poet’s intent, which is to use language to approach the inexpressible, to speak coherence truths, to use the blunt hammer of language to suggest rather than to define discourse. I am certain that no literary critic would claim that an exegesis of a poem could ever capture its meaning.  I am more interested in the opposite problem, which is the use of figurative language by religionists to make the opposite claim: that the analogical language they use somehow communicates a correspondence truth that then somehow becomes literal. This claim violates the “exclusivity clause” separating the two kinds of language.  But even if the intent of religionists’ use of analogical language is not to claim a literal truth, they face a more basic problem. If every use of figurative language contains not one but three separate truth claims as illustrated in the cat/sculpture example above, religionists face an insurmountable obstacle in regard to the inevitable second truth claim in their analogies. They cannot know what they claim to know.

 Let us first examine their intent, so as not to be guilty of distortion or setting up straw men. When religionists say that “God is our Father,” or that “Hell is a place of fire,” or that angels fly, is it possible they are using language with a literal intent? That certainly seems unlikely, but if they are, then these correspondence truth claims can be examined and proved false without effort. It is much more likely that such claims, numerous as they are in all of the world’s religions, are meant figuratively for two reasons: first, that like poetic language, religious language deals with matters of weighty majesty and second, that language is attempting to illuminate facets of reality that are metaphysical and therefore simply not available to literal language.

 Such matters are always difficult for correspondence truth claims to address because of the problem of specification: there is simply nothing for the claim to correspond to in ordinary reality. No cat. No table. No umbrella. No market. Now this is a real problem but not an insurmountable one for correspondence to address in regard to some issues. Take justice, for instance. One cannot point to it or find its literal presence in the world, yet we can claim its correspondence existence if we accept one premise: that there is something common in human reasoning when applied to experience that extracts conceptualizations of justice so that when you and I discuss that concept, our minds are focusing on a similar if not identical conception. Now the nature of that commonality is a matter of some dispute among philosophers and will be the focus of next week’s entry, but I hope you will agree that whatever it is, we think of it as literal and not figurative. After all, we think of justice and indeed all conceptualizations as real things we have access to even if they only exist in the human mind. But such is not the case with religious concepts. Religionists claim they reference real, if metaphysical nouns and verbs. But because of the problem of specification, they can only be approached analogically. Therefore, they claim, we know their truth through figurative language.

 Only we can’t. In any analogy, metaphor, simile, parable, or direct comparison, I have access to the two things I am relating. Should I say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a city on a hill,” you may infer that I am asserting the same three truths that I assert when I say the cat on the table looks like a statue. You must assume I know not only the specific ways in which these two terms are similar, but just as importantly, that I am aware of the ways in which they are different. This is not one of David Hume’s analytic statements, which are tautological. I am saying a is like b, not that a = b. The figurative part of the language is that I am establishing a relationship. Were I stating a definition or a tautology, I would be speaking literally. So while every analogy reveals a similarity, it also mandates some unspoken difference in the two terms that the speaker knows even if he doesn’t say it. The two terms, alike in some respects, are also known to be different.

 But religionists are quick to acknowledge that this level of knowledge of likeness and difference is beyond their ability, which is why they resort to figurative language to begin with. They are attempting to reach out and grasp the infinite and make the mind of God amenable to puny human understanding. That sounds admirable, but the effect is anything but.

 For the congregant must make sense of the analogy in what must be an incomplete way. Granted, she grasps part of the comparison. She knows what a father, an avatar, a lamb, a black stone, and a shamrock are. What she doesn’t and cannot know are the accurate relationships they have to the spiritual beings they attempt to illuminate. After all, that is the purpose of the comparison. So “in good faith,” she seizes on the part of the comparison she does know. The temptation to literality in these cases is natural, but denied by the exclusivity clause dividing the figurative and the literal.

 So what is the damage? Take the simplest of examples. We are told, “God is our Father” or “God is love.”  We are attempting to understand this mysterious omniscient and omnipotent being, so we fasten on the “father” and “love” side of the metaphor. We know how fathers love their children, and we assume the purpose of the metaphor is to attribute the same love to God, our heavenly father. Then, quite naturally, we look around us and confront the infamous problem of evil that has caused so many to lose their faith.  But our problem is not that there is evil in the world but that its existence is incompatible with our understanding of how even a loving human father would act toward his children. Rather than relinquish the metaphor and acknowledge, as C.S. Lewis did, that God’s love must be in many ways unlike human love, we cling to the metaphor and either reject the obvious evidence, embrace yet another divine mystery, or give up faith. But if the use of figurative language to illuminate God leads to such confusion (and ultimately to mystery anyway), isn’t it advisable to simply avoid the metaphor in the first place and say we really have no idea what we are talking about?

 Now there are two possible counterarguments that I can think of to this critique. The first is to claim that the use of figurative language in religion is identical in intent to its use in poetry. We are not meant to take these metaphors as anything other than an approach to the unapproachable. As the great hymns lift the heart, so should these poetic devices lift our minds not to a greater understanding but to a deeper contemplation and insight into divine mysteries. This hogwash does a disservice to language, the human mind, and the sincere faith of religionists. It means nothing. There is a moral theory called emotivism that claims all of our moral truth claims are merely noises of approval or disapproval, merely interjections. These metaphors are neither poetry nor song. They are correspondence truth claims about the reality we all share. To see the universal use of figurative language in religion to be a spur to greater confusion rather than clarity is hardly a service to the faithful. The other counterargument is worthy of a respectful hearing. It is simply that the speaker does know both sides of the metaphor because of divine revelation. So the kingdom of heaven really is like a mustard seed. The claim of divine inspiration in regard to figurative language shares the issues of revelation and authority I have addressed in an earlier post, with one added proviso: even if the speaker fully understands the truth claim she makes because of divine inspiration, the listeners still face the obstacles mentioned above.

 As a postscript, I should mention that Thomas Aquinas addresses the issue of metaphorical language in Book One (I,9) of The Summa. I have considered his arguments in formulating my own.

 Enjoy a good week!

 S. Del





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