Readers are invited to add thoughtful responses in the comments at the end
At the time of the Inangahua Earthquake in 1968, even Christchurch swayed around a bit in the middle of the night. In the daily newspaper of the time there was the story of a Christchurch couple reporting that their four year old daughter who had been sitting on the toilet at the time could be heard calling out, “God, stop shaking the house …. At least until I am finished!” With our modern understanding of earthquakes and movement of tectonic plates we can smile at this simplistic image of a God personally interfering in this way, but historically there is plenty of evidence to suggest that at one time the metaphor of God, as the divine arranger of such matters was a standard belief. Even today “Acts of God” is only now beginning to fall out of favour as a term used by insurance companies. And perhaps we might also reflect that at that religion has had no monopoly on barmy ideas. Back in the days of the bible there were equally quaint scientific ideas about how the world and nature worked and many of these have lasted for centuries.
Just as today we are born into communities with preferred customs and values histories, in an age when tribes were much more insular, religion was seen as a way of reflecting the life values and practices at a tribal level. When we talk of the religion of the Jews – or the Greeks – or the Maori, we are seeing different ways of coping with the need to express a common approach to the perceived friendly and unfriendly powers which were such an essential part of their world and asserting a common belief system as part of a feeling of belonging. Seeking guidance for what we understand to be vital ultimate values and providing a focus for a coherent outlook on life appears to have been a part of the aims of religion for most major groupings of humans but in practice the individual expression varies. It is salutary to remember that for most, the chosen religion is more commonly what people have been born into rather than something they have individually chosen to work out for themselves.
There is a sense in which theology shares its methods and progress with science. In science the metaphors, theories and new developments in understanding are assessed in terms of how they stack up against what can be observed and tested. Metaphors are valued in science if they give new and helpful ways of learning more about the natural world. They are also discarded or sidelined when more useful metaphors emerge. Thus a physicist given the metaphor that light is particles might set up experiments to see what new phenomena can be tested and observed following this metaphor. Another physicist might be more interested in working with an alternative metaphor like the wave nature of light. Each new theory or metaphor might have real limitations which cause it to be superseded as new measurements and understandings are come to be better understood, but the value of the metaphor for its time is in terms of new advances in knowledge. Thus John Dalton’s theory of the atom was helpful for a while even if it is now well and truly replaced by modern atomic theory. Newtonian mechanics was considered the best and even the only way of describing motion prior to modern relativistic physics, spontaneous creation of life was OK until the genetic concepts provided a much better model, and gods quarrelling in the clouds are now well and truly put to rest as an explanation of thunder.
In theology we can see historical evidence that our ideas of the concept of God are no more fixed than the scientists’ early understanding of the universe. Indeed science has forced us to reassess many of the earlier cherished theological ideas. The pillars holding up the flat Earth and the four corners of the earth as the work of the Divine architect are now seen as quaint vestiges of the past as is the notion of a personal tribal God with exclusive local interest who can be carried around in litter in a ceremonial Ark of the Lord. No doubt the notion of tribal gods to be appeased made perfect sense in an age where in the absence of evidence to the contrary this might at least explain the vagaries of nature and offer a possibility of some little control. God is wrath has also had to be rethought. Holding prayer meetings to placate a vengeful God and chalking a cross on the door may have once been the only way of dealing with the mystery of the black death, but microbiology has reshaped this course of action for both scientists and theologians. It would be a singularly obtuse theologian today who would insist on a theology which lined up with pre-scientific model of the universe because it happened to be recorded as part of the contemporary religious literature of the day when that day was more than two thousand years before scientists were able to establish firm alternatives.
The case for using metaphors to describe God is partly forced upon us by the extreme limitations of our secure knowledge about the nature of God and even the nature of the Universe itself. The human setting of religion provides a further set of limitations. Thus for example we might be attracted to the notion of a God of love or Jesus providing a human example of the nature of God, because most of our interactions are restricted to human interactions and we lack the knowledge and wisdom to understand what we are trying to convey when we talk of God in a general sense. As the knowledge increases, while we can highlight various features of that which we call God by using metaphor, we should never make the mistake of equating our metaphors with a complete description of God as the ultimate force behind the Universe. After all it would take some gall to claim such omniscience when even the best of our scientists have such incomplete understandings of the nature of the Universe and still less about what it even means to talk of creation.
It should go without saying that metaphor is not to be interpreted in a literal sense. At the same time the conveyed truth of metaphor goes well beyond literalism. Thus “The Lord is my shepherd” may well be helpful metaphor for those who wish to highlight the caring nature of the Lord but it is much less helpful if we were to insist that the Lord is a literal shepherd wielding a hooked stick and actually leading a grass consuming sheep like congregation. Similarly “Our Father Who art in heaven” is a wonderful way of acknowledging a need for a childlike relationship to what we understand to be a God of Love without falling into the trap of thinking that by so doing we are describing some sort of superhuman big Daddy watching down from heaven.
The metaphor that says “God is love” or perhaps “God is vengeance”…. Carries emotional identity beyond mere simile of “God is like…” This is why the selection of metaphor is also a statement of which aspect of God matters to the believer. This sense of identity can even mean an unconscious choice of life style. God is vengeance or God is anger conjures up the image of violent Jihad. “God is love” carries the implication that this is the central emotion to which the believer aspires. This implies a much more tolerant lifestyle than the one who believes God is “narrow way”.
Some of these metaphors of God like “God is love” may well find value in the improved actions and attitudes of the social group that focus on that aspect. This is regardless of how closely the metaphor corresponds to an objective description of the main spiritual force of the Universe which is effectively beyond the reach of current research. In any event acceptance of an injunction to be compassionate would have value in itself for the smooth functioning of many societies, without necessarily needing to be part of a description of the God behind the Universe.
It is not always clear if we are positing metaphors which describe aspects of the God who is, or if our metaphors have altered according to the imaginary God we would prefer. Accepting this is not necessarily heresy since we know history to show our knowledge about God has evolved from animism, through a tribal God and on to a modern set of nuanced theological statements – there is no guarantee that it will not continue to evolve. If for example scientists came to understand the reasons for and nature of the big bang, or if the scientists get to the point where the nature of religious effects on healing is understandable and even controllable, and if other life forms were discovered in the Universe – each such discovery would be bound to affect our understanding of that we call God.
The value of choosing from a variety of metaphors depends very much on our purposes. For example Jeremiah’s analogy (Jeremiah Ch 18) of God as the potter highlights the teachings that when we go wrong we can be remade or given a second chance. By taking the notion of a deformed vessel as applied to a whole nation, we are reminded that, as with the Israelites at their worst, as a whole nation we too can go wrong and may need reforming. At the same time the limitation of using the potter metaphor to convey this truth is simply that since pottery is now a small part of modern technology it may mean far less for the general public today than it did in the time of Jeremiah.
In the Bible we might read in one place of God as our Father but in others we might well read God is a king; with we humans as his subjects. Here we might note that while both mental pictures were entirely appropriate for the understanding of the day in the thinking of a society based on male leadership, these metaphors of Father and King are now being modified in contemporary theology to take into account the shift in the place of women in today’s society. Then in other places God is portrayed as a male lover; with his people (or the Jewish people) as his female lover. Again a wonderful analogy for the society in which the metaphor emerged but again a case might now be made for seeking metaphor that has more universal acceptance. Without this shift we might find our faith offering less to the current form of our community.
In New Guinea a few years ago, the local pastors and theologians seriously debated the question as to whether Jesus the lamb of God should be translated as Jesus pig of God. After all, lambs, singularly poorly adapted to New Guinea were virtually unknown. Most of the locals had never even seen a sheep. Whereas the pig was highly prized and totally understood as the most prized animal. “Lamb of God” communicated nothing and the metaphor unhelpful. Different communities and sub-sections within communities have different attraction for different metaphors.
In the early Christian Church the limitations of a single metaphor to describe the conclusions about God to that date led to adopting a more comprehensive metaphor as the Trinity. For those of us in the 21st Century while we might well see great value in the Trinity as a means of providing an intuitive picture of our God having at least these three dimensions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit we might do well to acknowledge that in reality we cannot see this as in any way coming close to a complete modern metaphor. The nature of an evolving profusion of interrelated life forms on Earth and a universe which is infinitely more complex than the simple tiny limited perception of our ancestors, gives the modern thinker more the impression of standing on the edge of a great abyss of the unknown than a certainty that the human-centric concept of Father says all that needs to be said. The Son, as the human face of God certainly moves us towards a clearer understanding of how to express what it means to put the Love of God in a human context and gives clear indication of the need to love our neighbours. Unfortunately some of Jesus teaching seems curiously inadequate in detail when it comes to dealing with modern ethical decisions. Even the Holy Spirit as the outworking of God today has had to undergo change as science helps us understand that many of the processes previously attributed to the spirit of an interventionist God who heals and punishes are now better understood in terms of the inevitable outworking of chemistry and physics and biology. While we know prayer can affect the state of mind and hence presumably have some effect on the biochemistry of the body via chemical reactions in the brain, many studies of the treatment of diseases such as the family of diseases loosely categorised as cancer show modern conventional treatment has a far better record of success in healing than prayer alone.
At best many of the older metaphors of God are helpful in setting up workable guidelines for attitudes and behaviours in some communities. It is hard to escape that some have passed use-by date as historical human constructs that offer little to our understanding of life in a wider context. Nor for that matter do our mental pictures necessarily allow us to extend our metaphors to keep pace with our new understandings as society develops and changes. Since humanity represents a very tiny sector of life on Earth and since even those in the various Judeo Christian traditions are now living with radical change, many of our earlier metaphors are probably too confining. Because Jesus was operating in part as a member of a prescientific community with a specific ethnic and religious background we would be unwise to assume that his recorded words are enough to guide us in all the new situations in which we now find ourselves. Now our world population has grown to the point where nature itself is under threat and where advances in science have brought into being a host of new ethical issues, if theology is not seen to evolve, it risks becoming irrelevant. This is why ecological questions, bioethics, justice in the face of technological advance, competition for diminishing resources, ethical questions about modern warfare, about trade imbalance, new health issues and population distribution and control should now be numbered among the issues for those seeking to have religion take its part in providing answers for the problems of today.
In our quest to understand how to use metaphors of God it maybe helpful to follow those Christian writers like Marcus Borg. Borg points out the related sets of metaphors are unconsciously but typically drawn together in clusters to shape our faith.
By using the father and king metaphors, authority is attributed to God. The father and lover metaphors both indicate a nurturing God and argue for mutual love between God and human kind. The aspect of protectiveness is implicit in the father, king, shepherd, and watchman metaphors. A causal relationship between God and we his people as among those brought into being are implied in the metaphors like the father, vineyard-keeper, potter, glass-blower, and smith. The father offering love on a conditional basis, the lover pursuing an obtuse people, and those who chose to respond to that love are metaphors which all present the relationship as between two beings which have a choice about the nature of the relationship. Marcus Borg in drawing attention to the clustering of metaphors is helpful because he highlights the various groupings and helps us understand how groups of Churches favouring certain clusters of metaphors come to have different emphases when it comes to social issues like war or homosexuality.
It is clear that the set of metaphors which go with a monarchical view of God of requirements….the king, the father, the law-giver and judge lead to an emphasis on the exclusivity of Christianity. The judge and enforcer sets up the requirements for us to adhere to the commandments – and those who don’t, fall into the other outsider group… presumably awaiting what some theologians like John Dominic Crossan call divine ethnic cleansing. The “us and them”. Some contemporary churches stress this monarchical view. Apart from the judgemental attitudes which may result from giving emphasis to this metaphor set, more positively it can also be argued that it contains useful ethical guidelines in the form of commandments which should benefit most societies. It has been frequently observed that those commandments formed the starting point for our legal system.
Other churches choose to stress the set of metaphors which fall under the caring label. Just as Jesus encapsulates the whole of the law by his statement that the law can be summed up in two commandments , love God and love your neighbour as yourself there is an implied hierarchy of caring metaphors. Possibly the best known central metaphor of the caring set is the God is Love definition, but in saying this we must allow for the gradual changes in meaning of language. “God is compassion” probably makes for a better modern translation of John’s original statement in that the word love has undergone consideration debasement over recent years. The compassion metaphor which probably wins more emphasis in the liberal theology camp is one that has a surprising contemporary feel to it in that it opens new ways of thinking of our neighbours who may well have different beliefs.
This collection of metaphors for God should give some sense of the richness of metaphorical thought in religion. Since this aspect of the Bible cannot be understood literally, it must be interpreted. Different denominations of Judaism and Christianity accept different interpretations of the Bible, each denomination, of course, favouring only its interpretation and favouring particular metaphors. The choice of metaphor as a means of emphasising what we deem important and helpful can help shape our Church, our society and our interactions, but just as important is the need to make sure our metaphors free us to progress in a changing world.