Belligerent Arguments concerning Metaphor

23 Aug

My college roommate and lifelong friend Justin McCain just moved to Charlotte to lead worship at Center City. We still fight like 9 year old children. At some point in each argument, we both belligerent and start tossing the equivalent of “my dad can beat up your dad” type jabs at each other. Our latest bout was on the topic of language and metaphor (with my level-headed wife moderating and acting as the voice of reason and sensibility). My argument was that metaphor is the backbone of language. A word only makes sense in relation to other words. You can’t define a word without using other words. We run into the limitations of language all the time. We try to verbalize feelings of love or suffering and our words fail us. Sure, we can use scientific precision with our words. We can attempt to take out all fluff–bare bones communication. It won’t work for long. Soon you’ll realize your need for metaphor. I dare you to stand at the base of a giant mountain and attempt to explain it without the help of metaphor. Try explaining falling in love without it. Attempt describing the birth of your first child without eliciting some other image or comparison.

If our words fail us with what we naturally experience on earth as humans, how much more so in relation to the Divine–the God who spoke the universe into being with his words. The God who is wholly ‘other’ yet intimately present. The God who is beyond time and space. Even that preposition (beyond) lacks the punch needed. In, over, above, through, within. All these were used by the Biblical writers. We hear statements regularly about God that are not literally true but are used to make an analogy to his nature. This is nothing new. When Biblical writers found themselves at the base of the mountain called God they created beautiful imagery to explain what they saw, felt, heard, and experienced. Take, for instance, a phrase we’ve talked about at Center City during our prayer series, “God bends down to listen.” This statement is called an anthropomorphism in Theology. The term is used for when we attribute human characteristics to a fully ‘other’ God. God doesn’t literally bend down to listen–that would assume he had a spinal column and couldn’t hear well. This gives us a picture of the Divine Father bending over to hear his children speak. It is a beautiful image. The use of this metaphor isn’t wrong, it is simply incomplete.

Any metaphor is by nature limited. You can only hang on to a metaphor for so long before you realize its limitations and move to another. The understanding of God will not fit into one metaphor. In fact, it won’t fit into a million. Our only chance at nearing closer to understanding is to elicit the use of many metaphors. A great example of this can be found in the Psalms. In Psalm 23 David uses the imagery of the Lord as shepherd. David also refers to God as a rock and a fortress. Isaiah calls God a potter. Metaphors aid us in explaining the Inexplicable.

So, is God father, lover, friend, bridegroom, rock, fortress, potter, king, cornerstone, lion, or shepherd? Yes.

Devour scripture this week and find a new metaphor for God that you’ve never pondered. Get a fresh image of God and worship Him for it.

In the end, Justin decided that he was merely arguing about the definition of metaphor (which I believe proves my point even more because I was arguing the limitation of language).

I win.

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