Metaphors and God

Let’s talk about metaphors. You might not have thought about metaphors since the last time you took an English class in high school or college. The discussion was likely regarding something in a poem. In case that was some time ago, here are some examples of metaphors:

Conscience is a man’s compass. Vincent Van Gogh

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players. Shakespeare

As blind as a bat;
As quiet as a mouse; and
A heart of gold.

In Metaphors We Live By, linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson write:

“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.” Lakoff and Johnson

Lakoff and Johnson argue that most of what we communicate is in the form of metaphors—an important point when considering descriptions of God. So, God the father is a metaphor to help us understand God and God’s creation. God the father points to one of the sticky aspects of metaphors: some of them are so common, so universal, that we do not hear or read the words as metaphors. We read and hear them as fact. We read God the father as God is the father to the exclusion of God the mother. This is a significant point that we will return to throughout these posts.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a metaphor this way:

“a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money).”

Sallie McFague, a professor at Vanderbilt University, addresses metaphors from a theological perspective. In Models of God, she writes:

(the use of metaphor) “is an attempt to say something about the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, an attempt to speak about what we do not know in terms of what we do know.”McFagur

The bible uses dozens of metaphors for God, some of them more properly labeled similes and some of them titles. For today, we will consider a short list of them.

• Advocate
• Hen
• Rock
• Eagle
• Father
• Son
• Fountain
• Rising Son
• True vine
• Mother Pelican

The metaphors make McFague’s point: fountains, hens, rocks, eagles, and so on, are all familiar to most of us. They give us a hint of the unfamiliar God—the one who is more than humans can describe.

There is a large range of images in this abbreviated list—a more comprehensive list will be in a later post. As we begin to consider the possibility that all of our descriptions of God are metaphors, the importance of understanding the notion that we do not have one word or image that can capture the dynamic and mysterious nature of God. It also becomes important to understand that the metaphors we use to described God are significant. They can expand or contract our image of God; they can expand or contract who is made in God’s image; and they can expand or contract who among us is the object of God’s love.

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