METAPHORS FOR KNOWING GOD
by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca), Kingston, Ontario, March 2006
Philosophers now know that all scientific language is metaphorical. For me a turning point was the essay by Douglas Berggren, "The Use and Abuse of Metaphor," The Review of Metaphysics, Volume XVI, 1962-63, pages 237-258, 450-472). Sallie McFague (Te Selle) went on to explain that metaphorical thinking "is the way human beings move in all areas of discovery, whether these be scientific, religious, poetic, social, political, or personal" (Speaking in Parables, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1975, p.58). That means that the metaphors, both of science and of faith in God, must be evaluated, not as true or false but for their usefulness.
Throughout the Bible the Triune God is described by a wealth of astonishing metaphors :
Each of these metaphors are designed to help us explore and discover, so this list is not meant to be taken as items of literal fact. Faith may begin by adopting one metaphor, such as God is my Father, or my Forgiver. But it grows as we accept more and more of these metaphors as ways of seeing how God can relate to us in any situation that we face.
When we feel unjustly accused, we claim God as the Judge who will do right in that situation. As enemies are ready to attack us, we hold up the Shield of Faith. We can hide in our Fortress. And when the battle begins, we know the Lion is on our side. Terrified we cling like a little child to God as our Mother. When burdened with guilt and failure, we look to him as the Forgiver. In times of spiritual deadness, we let the Vine fill us with sap. If we don’t know what to do, we address him as our Wisdom. Then we expect him to Guide down the right path. Sometimes we are ready to serve our King and Lord of lords, and we ask what is the next task he has in mind for us. We take risks in his Business, rather than hide our talent in the ground. And as we admire the beauty of the nature around us, we find ourselves praising the Artist. One of the greatest experiences is making music and singing the worship songs that he delights in.
It is easy to see that a church community lives by the metaphors that it shares in its liturgy, and preaching, and songs. Another religion is recognized by metaphors that we do not share. We don’t have hymns about our Mafia Godfather, Terrorist Commander, Jihad Leader, Inquisitor, or Money Lender. Nor does it appeal to lose all our desire in God as our Nirvana. For the atheist the only metaphors that make sense are those of the working out of the great god chance in a mechanistic universe.