Jim Watkins is the featured artist editor of, and a regular contributor to, Transpositions. His PhD research at the University of St Andrews explores a comparison between divine and artistic creativity. He lives in St Andrews with his wife and two sons.
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“The theologian … is no different from the poet or dramatist. All of them must write in blood.” Human experience is an indispensable aspect of our language about and knowledge of God. Christians often use metaphors to bring their relatively known experience to bear upon the relatively unknown nature, character and actions of God. For example, we say things like ‘God is a father,’ ‘God is my rock,’ and ‘the Lord is my shepherd.’ We do the same thing when we talk about other aspects of reality, but sometimes Christians become uncomfortable when we use metaphors to talk about God. At some level, however, metaphors are unavoidable. Dorothy Sayers puts it bluntly: “To complain that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time; man measures everything by his own experience; he has no other yardstick.”
And yet we still might want a more positive assessment of why Christians should use metaphors when they talk about God, or anything for that matter. I can see at least two important reasons why the metaphorical imagination is an important component of Christian devotion.
- Metaphors avoid reduction to a single propositional statement. Metaphors are indirect and recognize that God is beyond human categories because they contain the whisper “and it is not.” God both is and is not a rock. God both is and is not a father. For this reason, interpretations of metaphors are often rich and multivalent.
- Metaphors are often rich in unforeseen insights and suggest new questions for consideration. For example, the metaphor “God is a father” is complex, and so a host of questions about love, discipline, adoption, etc. are raised that in turn enrich our understanding of scripture, tradition, and ultimately, of God himself. It is important not to literalize metaphors because, as Vincent Brümmer argues, we need metaphors that “break down our mental set and thus enable us to see those features of the world which we have been conditioned to overlook.”
At this point, we might raise an objection. If metaphors are always tentative, and if they lead to multiple interpretations, how do we know that metaphors refer to something real? In response to this objection, it is tempting to retreat and say that the metaphorical imagination is merely icing on the cake; we only need it until we find a more straightforward way of talking about God. Or it is tempting to give up any claims upon an external reality, and to look at metaphors pragmatically, as merely a means by which we orient our values and lives.
Both of these responses are deeply unsatisfying. There is another way to respond to this objection that has been called critical realism. In this response, we let go of absolute certainty about the object described with metaphors. Instead, we recognize that all knowing involves an essential element of trust. On this view, Christians can claim that metaphors about God are aiming at something real because their use of metaphors is, in part, dependent upon their trust in the wider Christian community who have come before them, and who have worshipped God with the bodies, souls, minds and even their metaphorical imaginations. It might be said that when Christians speak of God using metaphors through their trust in the Christian community, they are “indwelling” their religious tradition. It is by standing or dwelling in the Christian tradition—by exercising responsible commitment to and trust in other Christians—that the Christian’s metaphorical imagination can make claims that truly and truthfully speak of God.
 H. A. Williams, “Forward,” in W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977) xi.
 The Mind of the Maker 4th Ed. (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1941), 19.
 See Janet Soskice, “Knowledge and Experience in Science and Religion: Can We Be Realists?” Physics, Philosophy and Theology, eds. Robert J. Russell et al (Vatican City : Vatican Observatory, 1988), 173-183; Sally McFague, Metaphorical Theology (London: SCM Press, 1982).
 The Model of Love, (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 10.
 See Janet Soskice’s “social theory” of metaphor in Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985).
 The term “indwelling” is borrowed from Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (The University of Chicago Press, 1958).