The Divine Metaphor

The crucifix in the parish church of St. Ulrich in Rohr im Gebirge, Austria. / Kyle Walker

Eight weeks ago, I fell for a woman in my hometown with whom I have religious differences. She’s a Christian with an evangelical background. I’m an agnostic atheist [1] with a history of aggressive anti-theism. We’ve spent weeks going back and forth about the wisdom of interfaith relationships, now trying to parse this verse or that philosophical argument, now trying to understand what makes the other person tick. One of my ‘doctrines’ in particular is a persistent confusion, and that is my stance on what I’ve previously called “the divine metaphor.”

God as metaphor—not only does this perplex my crush in Albuquerque, a close Baha’i friend of mine also had no idea what I was talking about. So I’ve decided to give a more complete description of what I mean by this. I’ll say at the outset that I came to this formulation in an effort to satisfy two objectives. Those are (1) to adequately describe the full variety of religious experience and (2) to render discussion possible among those who disagree about the literal nature of the divine. So to begin with, “God is a metaphor” should not be taken as an exhaustive characterization of the divine—I make no claims to exclusivity for my beliefs. I happen to believe that the divine is only a metaphor with no literal content, but others may agree with me about the metaphorical nature of the divine while simultaneously maintaining that there is a literal nature as well. In other words: Reasonable people can disagree here.

But what do I really mean? There are three facets to my contention that God is a metaphor: the anthropological, the philosophical and the theological. The anthropological facet could also be properly called the methodological because it dictates the appropriate means of gathering data about who or what God is. It is the first rung of the inquiry insofar as it decides what is an appropriate source of information about the divine and what is not. The philosophical facet applies the traditional philosophical tools—analysis, dialectic and experiment—to the sources. The theological finally makes claims about the entity—God—discussed in the sources.

Before beginning in earnest, it may be worthwhile citing a major theological authority, one who makes a similar claim, merely to demonstrate that the problem is very much alive in the theological literature. The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich wrote in 1957:

God is the fundamental symbol for what concerns us ultimately. Again it would be completely wrong to ask: So God is nothing but a symbol? Because the next question has to be: A symbol for what? And then the answer would be: For God! … In the notion of God we must distinguish two elements: the element of ultimacy, which is a matter of immediate experience and not symbolic in itself, and the element of concreteness, which is taken from our ordinary experience and symbolically applied to God. [2]

Tillich’s version—God is a symbol—bears obvious similarity to my contention that God is a metaphor. But we’ll also see that his version, in which the “element of ultimacy” is assumed, isn’t wholly adequate to describe the diversity of which the idea of divinity admits. Which diversity is the subject of the first, anthropological facet.

Every Source

Scholars and believers have conflicting motivations. A scholar of religion will generally want to consult all available sources that bear any relevance to her inquiry. [3] A believer will be satisfied considering only the sources elevated by the tradition to a position of authority. My question about the divine is a general one, posed outside the strictures of a specific tradition. There is no defensible reason to limit ahead of time what sources are worth consulting. Every seeming reason arises only inside of a tradition, and such arguments almost always form a circle. “The only reliable source on divinity is X, because only X articulates true beliefs about the divine.” One must then ask of course how one knows those beliefs to be true. And the answer to that question is usually, “Well, X says so.”

Consider the Abrahamic religions. There the traditional view is that knowledge of the divine comes from the divine itself. This disclosure receives the name “revelation.” In this view, a specific sacred text is usually taken to be the major authoritative record of divine disclosure. Sources which disagree in any major part with the authoritative record are thought to be unreliable or downright wrong. My method reverses this assumption. Rather than taking the texts themselves as objects of revelation, brought into this world by the divine will, I take the texts as the outcome of the simple formula “person + revelation,” where revelation now refers to any experience that someone feels compelled to account for in terms of the divine. The texts are the result of humans processing their experiences. They’re just like their counterparts in other disciplines like history.

Although religious partisans often want to claim a kind of special status for religion, it makes more sense to pursue the study of religion in a manner analogous to the study of the other areas of human endeavor. Scholars of war, politics and art almost always expand, rather than restrict their reservoir of sources by including everything that either (a) claims to be talking about the subject or (b) involves many of the questions usually considered in that field of inquiry. I think we should research the divine in the same way: Any source that talks about God(s) or seems like it might be talking about God is fair game. That’s not to say that they will all be equally valuable. Nor is it to say that, in the end, a complete and synthetic vision of the world religions is possible. But we should be certain that we use appropriate means for deciding which sources are valuable, not excluding sources just because they haven’t been canonized or because they don’t fit comfortably inside a particular tradition.

In other words, we have no right to place the visions of Isaiah, Daniel or John ahead of other reported theophanies simply because they appear in the Christian Bible and others don’t. They may be more relevant because of their greater influence and vintage, but the appropriateness of any particular “revelation” is relative, not absolute. For my purposes, it is not the case that some experiences of the divine are “true” and others “false.” Instead, some are more or less useful according to independently established criteria. Those criteria can be literary, historical, ethical, philosophical, and so on, anything except dogmatic.

As an example, consider the novel VALIS by Philip K. Dick. Dick claims that in the early 1970s he experienced a theophany in which a vast intelligence revealed itself to him. VALIS is an autobiographical novel in which that intelligence beams information into the mind of Dick’s alter ego, Horselover Fat, by means of a pink laser and an art house film. Here’s an excerpt from one of Dick’s many digressions on encountering God:

Lurking, the true God literally ambushes reality and us as well. God, in very truth, attacks and injures us, in his role as antidote. As Fat can testify to, it is a scary experience to be bushwhacked by the living God. [4]

So far as I know, this novel has never been referenced by a theologian, but for my purposes it is an ideal candidate—not in spite of its oddness, but (in part at least) because of it.

The anthropological facet of this discussion resides under a guiding metaphor that one might call the Sprawling Russian Novel Principle. The relevant sources include everything ever written by human beings concerning the divine, which, when brought together, can be thought of like a massive modernist novel, a fragmentary masterpiece riddled with disagreements and unexpected harmonies. Human disagreements about the divine need not mean that one side is right and the other wrong—the novel considered as a whole may reveal something else entirely about that disagreement.

But without an immediate caveat, it may seem that I’m propounding a kind of naive universalism, which says that behind the seeming diversity of the world religions is a secret unity. But to the positive step of my religious anthropology—opening up the library to every possible source—there is a negative step, necessary to avoid any crude reduction of religious diversity to an anemic unity. The negative step occurs in the philosophical facet, to which I now turn.

Two Dangers

At this stage one must make a decision. We’ve opened the doors to a vast wealth of sources and we’re ready to start comparing them. Two dangers now appear. I’ve already mentioned the first. It would be intellectually dishonest to collapse all of the religions into one ur-religion. The other danger lies in assuming that no common ground exists, that the religions not only offer different messages, but that those messages are incommensurate. These two dangers represent opposing poles. But when one deviates from the one extreme, the other offers itself as a plausible alternative. Don’t go there.

The Sprawling Russian Novel Principle implies a certain approach to the sources: it posits a kind of unity in the human experience of the divine. In order to imagine the sources as a fragmentary masterwork one must imagine them together in some kind of whole. This is just one sloppy misstatement from the false belief that the messages of the major world religions are somehow “the same,” a belief commonly adopted by well-intentioned scholars and laypeople as a default extension of liberal tolerance. [5] Although one must posit a unity of some kind, one must never allow that supposition to eclipse the self-evident diversity of ideas about the divine.

The error crops up most easily whenever one excludes certain sources without cause. For instance, it would be more than a little difficult to maintain that Christianity and the cult of Dionysus feature the same message at bottom. Remember, Dionysus is the God who once tricked Pentheus, the prince of Thebes, into cross-dressing and spying on the secret rituals of the Maenads, who tore him to shreds in exchange. But Euripides’ Bacchae, which relates this tale, is typically excluded from the ranks of relevant sources on divinity. The Bacchae pictures the divinity as dangerous and wild; Dionysus transgresses rather than establishes boundaries. He is unconcerned with human well-being and rather delights in disrupting Theban society, in showing his victims how fragile their grip on the world truly is. Something further from the “good news” of the Gospel is hard to imagine.

The Bacchae also serves to illustrate the limitations of Tillich’s approach. Dionysus does not represent the ultimate—as in the highest, the thing of greatest concern—but the totally other. Dionysus, who first appears in Thebes in the guise of a foreigner, is truly alien, not only to the Thebans specifically but to humans generally. Tillich plots the spectrum of the holy on primarily one axis: inferior-ultimate, which corresponds roughly to finite-infinite and demonic-divine. For him, faith becomes idolatrous when it aims at the finite or the inferior. But Tillich ignores the Dionysus Effect—Dionysus must be worshiped not because he represents the most high but because he threatens that which the Greeks valued above all else: the social order. The Greeks bring Dionysus into the social order to sterilize his alterity, not to give due honor to the infinite.

Tillich’s hierarchy of faiths—healthy faith in the ultimate above idolatrous faith in the finite—owes much to the Platonic strain in Christian theology that always privileges the greater over the lesser and ignores other features of divinity as explored in other traditions. Although divine beings usually hold great power over humans, and although they are usually “above” us in some sense, it does not follow that the only, or even the primary salient feature of the divine is its ultimacy (in a moral sense) or infinitude (in a metaphysical sense). Ignoring the many dimensions to divinity represents a weak version of the second danger described above, that of assuming that the various religions are incommensurate. It treats some visions of divinity as automatically inadequate because they aren’t Platonic or Jewish enough—they don’t always identify divinity as such with the “most high.”

The Number Fork

Of the two dangers, the first is more salient in our case. Fundamentally, the question at the heart of the second, philosophical stage of this inquiry is what I call The Number Fork. That is, here we must decide: is the divine One or Many? At first this seems like a theological question, and indeed it is most often posed that way. But let me rephrase the question in such a way to remove its theological baggage: Is the concept of the divine to be analyzed as one concept or as many? In all of our many sources on divinity should we make an analytical assumption of unity or diversity? It’s worth noting now that answering with “Unity” does not imply naive universalism, which is a belief about the content of religions. The Number Fork poses a meta-religious question. The question is not, “Are we saying the same thing?” but “Are we talking about the same thing?”

It will be obvious that The Sprawling Russian Novel Principle as good as implies an answer to this question: Yes, we are. We are talking about the same thing, but we’re saying different things about it. The human discussion about things divine displays topical unity and substantive diversity. But this answer is also provisional. Nothing about the inquiry or the sources implies topical unity. I am making a supposition concerning the nature of the conversation. My supposition cannot be proven, but one can produce pragmatic justifications for it.

For one thing, we’re usually comfortable grouping together large bodies of literature under one topical heading. We talk about war literature, erotic or romantic literature, and so on. We often assume that the human experience of certain matters (death, love, hatred, loss) is sufficiently uniform at most times and places to make intercultural comparison not only possible, but profitable. I tend to think that this assumption is well justified much of the time. Although it may not be so simple to outline a universally applicable definition of “religion,” it does seem fair to posit a topical convergence in the sources. Something prompts humans to discuss the divine or the holy—the fact that this something is incorporated into social practices in wildly divergent ways implies nothing about the unity or disunity of the basic experience.

Moreover, the sources often refer to one another. Biblical scholars have outlined probable cross-cultural influences on every phase of Judaism. Early Christian thinkers and writers depended a great deal on philosophical beliefs well established in the Hellenized Mediterranean. Even without explicit references to other traditions, it is often possible to identify how one tradition borrowed from another. That such interfaith transmission takes place bolsters my supposition of topical unity.

Metaphors Divine

The time has come to do a little theology. Its proponents usually define theology as the systematic search for the Truth concerning the divine. In my framework theology suffers a demotion. Rather than elaborate on any particular theory of the divine (e.g., that Jesus Christ is God, or that Zeus begat Athena), my theology concerns itself with the general concept of divinity. What then can we conclude now we’ve scaled the outworks?

As I said at the beginning, one of my ‘doctrines’ is that divinity is a metaphor. We can see with the help of the Sprawling Russian Novel Principle and the Number Fork that divinity is the master metaphor of the massive synthetic novel that human beings have produced in their millennia of talking about God. But it is a special kind of metaphor. Your typical allegory involves a one-to-one mapping of symbols in the story to features of everyday life, even if it also allows for more than one such mapping. The case of God is different.

No two accounts of God agree on who or what God is. It’s not quite possible to do as Tillich does and map the symbol “God” onto one feature like “ultimate concern.” It is a Platonic-Christian-Jewish conceit that divinity must always be central to human life and never ancillary, always benign and never malicious. [6] Rather than attempt such a specific identification of the divine with something in human life, I instead think of “God” as an empty symbol, without literal content, the primary feature of which is its availability, its openness to making connections. In other words, it is a special kind of metaphor.

It couldn’t have begun that way of course. All metaphorical speech is based on literal speech, drawing its meaning from the literal uses of words. “God” is that way, too. The word has and had literal meanings, once very concrete, now increasingly abstract (particularly in the Abrahamic faiths). It’s when you attempt to account for the diversity of actual beliefs concerning the divine that this new view comes into being. No one of the literal meanings of “God” suffice to account for that diversity. One begins to see talk of God as a meta-discussion, a means of grouping distinct ideas into meaningful wholes. But which ideas and what meaningful wholes depends on the religion and, when you get down to it, on the individual. Crucially, no actual use of the symbol “God” is without literal content. It always refers to one or another deity described in one or another text. But the higher symbol, the genus of which these particular symbols are species—that symbol is empty. The higher symbol, which for convenience we might label “GOD” is rarely if ever invoked in practice. I invoke it now as the the one “something” discussed in all of our sources. “GOD” represents the topical unity that I earlier supposed unites all human thinking about the divine.

Thus in each of the major religious traditions, we can think of divinity as the master metaphor for the idea or ideas central to the religion. So in Christianity, God serves as the master metaphor for love. In Judaism, God is the master metaphor for steadfast faithfulness. In Buddhism (those varieties that feature divinities), divinity is a metaphor for selflessness. A religion’s central idea isn’t always benign—the tragic worldview of the Greek poets turns divinity into a metaphor for order and chaos, with individual deities featuring as the master metaphors for other more specific ideas. Athena is wisdom. Ares is war. Indeed, the “god as metaphor” thesis is almost childishly obvious in many polytheistic religions. Yes, all of these traditions ascribe literal meanings to “God” as well, but the feature of divinity that is common to all the traditions is the function divinity plays at a symbolic level. Divinity always gathers in itself the idea or ideas that spell out man’s relationship to the world. Every version of divinity offers a different diagnosis.

One possible response to all this is to complain: Surely God isn’t “merely” a metaphor? Besides the injustice this does to the power of metaphors, it also misses the point of my argument. I say not, “God is only a metaphor,” but rather “God, whatever else God may be, is, as best as I can understand, a metaphor.” The unique path that I took through the universe did not bring me to a belief in God, and, as far as I can tell, the impending extension of that path won’t either. But that doesn’t mean that I should jettison all of the literature on divinity as something irrelevant to my life. Instead, foregrounding the metaphorical nature of divinity enables someone like me, an agnostic atheist, to talk about God with someone for whom God is something altogether different. It hammers theological distance into potential fellowship.

Epilogue: Speaking Godtalk

Long ago when I first encountered C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I wrote a polemic against that book’s many shoddy arguments entitled “Why I Will Not Engage With Theologians.” The upshot of that piece was this: Theology amounts to nothing more than a masturbatory exercise in validating one’s own assumptions about the divine, a topic nobody really knows anything about, so arguing with someone who insists on such navel-gazing is a waste of effort. The fact that I continue to write about religion and God shows clearly that this position didn’t truly stick.

What changed my mind? I wasn’t willing to simply ban certain topics from my conversations. To really avoid theological conversations, one would have to avoid people for whom theology is a live topic, people to whom it matters. Two friends with different religious beliefs might well be pleasant with one another, but if they can’t discuss matters of “ultimate concern” (Tillich’s phrase) to each of them, then their friendship is hardly likely to deepen. Both parties require facility in the language of ultimate concern, and when one or both of those parties believes in God then that language is Godtalk (to borrow a phrase from Philip K. Dick).

Although Godtalk is not the language in which I usually express my own concerns, it is a language I’ve felt compelled to learn so that I might share in the struggles and joys of those for whom it is a near-native tongue. And although I may never achieve fluency, it is better to make yourself understood with broken sentences than to keep silent out of pride. Refusing to talk to people with whom you disagree is hardly the mark of tolerance and it’s a definite sign that you don’t really care about those others. In my early days of self-conscious atheism, I prided myself on my tolerance—yet I dismissed religion as a hoax. Such an intellectual stance does not encourage true tolerance: there’s no reason to try to understand on their own terms people wrapped up in superstition and illogic.

Actual secular tolerance requires committed secularists to make a good faith effort to understand where religious people are coming from. Even if religious folk can’t—or won’t—reciprocate, committed secularists should do their best to learn Godtalk. Many of them make first steps in this direction for reasons that sting: secularists in communities dominated by religion (especially when that religion is fundamentalist) learn to deflect inquiries about religion either to avoid being outed among those who associate secularism with immorality or to defend their worldview in a hostile environment. This was how I made my own first inquiries into religion, the Bible and church history.

I had eventually to go further if I wanted to connect with religious sources in my work as a journalist. As a philosophy student in college, I came to a modus vivendi with the more theological texts in the curriculum. But all this could still have petered out in a narrow secularism that embraces its outsidership and turns inward, rejecting religion as a vast conspiracy or a popular delusion. Yet this became impossible with one simple happening. If ever you come deeply to care for a person with whom you disagree about God, it’s not enough to avoid talking about God. That, in fact, is a fatal error. Instead you must imagine that you understand the other—fully aware that you probably don’t.

[1] “Atheist” because as a matter of fact I don’t believe in God. “Agnostic” because I don’t claim certainty for that belief. “Atheist” describes the actual state of affairs concerning my beliefs. “Agnostic” describes my attitude toward that belief. Back.

[2] Tillich, Paul. The Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957. 47. Back.

[3] I use “religion” in the usual sense to refer to any of the various systems of belief and behavior usually thought to help human beings understand the divine. I take it for granted that Christianity is a religion in this sense, in spite of the popular insistence in some circles that Christianity is a “relationship” and not a religion. This belief is based on the false equivalence “religion = following certain rules,” rather than a holistic consideration of the many moving parts that go into the socially conditioned human experience of the holy. Back.

[4] Dick, Philip K. Valis. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. 72. Back.

[5] Stephen Prothero explores this false belief in his book God is Not One and in his essay “A Dangerous Belief” at the Wall Street Journal. Back.

[6] For instance, Athenian society valued civic participation and the pursuit of honor through political and military service over single-minded devotion to the divine. The gods were to be honored, but the purpose of human life was to achieve human ends. Humans who featured in divine plans were usually the worse for it. The exhortation to “love the the Lord your God with all your heart” or to “put God first” would have been utterly foreign to a Greek. Back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *