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Metaphorical Imagination

April 26, 2011

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.”[1]  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.”[2]

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.

  1. 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.”[3]  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.
  2. 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.”[4]

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.[5]  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.[6]  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.


[1] H. A. Williams, “Forward,” in W. H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1977) xi.

[2] The Mind of the Maker 4th Ed. (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1941), 19.

[3] 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).

[4] The Model of Love, (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 10.

[5] See Janet Soskice’s “social theory” of metaphor in Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985).

[6] The term “indwelling” is borrowed from Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (The University of Chicago Press, 1958).

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2011 11:47 am

    Thanks for these rich thoughts on the metaphorical imagination. When you mention that Christians use metaphors to speak of God based on their trust in the community, how do you envision that this corresponds to the place of Scripture in forming the metaphorical imagination? To what extent is Scripture a norm, and do you think there is the possibility of Scripture correcting the metaphorical imagination as passed down by tradition?

    • Jim Watkins permalink*
      April 26, 2011 1:38 pm

      Thanks for your questions. When I say that the metaphorical imagination can speak truthfully about God through its trust, or responsible commitment to, the wider Christian community, I am assuming that this is a community interpreting the scriptures and tradition. I think that scripture and tradition are authoritative for our metaphorical imaginations, but in a qualified sort of way. I would want to make a distinction between metaphors that are authorized by scripture and those that are fitting to scripture. I do not think that scripture presents us with a closed set of metaphors for our use, but that its authority is of a kind that encourages the development of new metaphors. But I think that these new metaphors need to stand in a relation of fittingness to scripture and tradition. So, as a norm for the Christian’s metaphorical imagination, we can talk about scripture negatively as limiting the sorts of metaphors that are appropriate, but we can also talk about scripture positively as encouraging the development of other metaphors for our language about God.

      Theologically, I think that this is rooted in the incarnation. Some have used the incarnation to argue for a theology that is purely ‘from above’ (i.e. God enables and determines what we can say about him). But I think that this misses the point of the incarnation. Just as the union of the human and divine in the incarnation is not a unilateral determination of the human by the divine, so the incarnation does not imply a divine self-revelation that determines human language about God. Rather, I think that the incarnation shows that God willing enters the fullness of human experience, and this also entails an entrance into the messiness of human language, which is very socially and historically conditioned. Seeing the incarnation this way suggests that the human participatory element in our language about God (such as the use of and construction of metaphors) is both necessary and valued.

      Here is a quote I found from an essay by Trevor Hart (one of the contributors to this week), that I think speaks powerfully to the relationship between the incarnation and human language about God: in the incarnation God “does not lift us up out of our creatureliness, elevating us to some deified state in which we are able to contemplate divine realities directly, from a ‘God’s eye’ perspective. This means, of course, that we cannot ignore or circumvent the familiar and ordinary associations that words and realities taken up into the service of divine revelation have for us. We begin, and remain, within the sphere of the human in theology.”(“How Do We Define the Nature of God’s Love,” in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer, 98-9).

  2. April 26, 2011 1:35 pm

    Jim – this is really a very helpful approach — tying meaning and imagination to community. George Steiner, in REAL PRESENCES, counteracts the prevailing hermeneutic of suspicion with a theory about metaphor, imagination, and inter-subjectivity in which he builds on the tradition of “courtesia” — the habit of intellectual hospitality that believes in the other, looks to the other’s potential contribution to what almost must be a shared enterprise: meaning.
    Without that elemental communal act of looking to the other to supply something lacking in one’s own perspective, without the belief that the other holds some piece of the puzzle of meaning, we have no possibility of culture. Metaphor is that gamble on transcendence that believes the other will “get it” and take the metaphor to the next level — a level further up and further in, the ultimate destination of which is communion.

    • Jim Watkins permalink*
      April 26, 2011 1:42 pm

      Bruce, thanks for bringing George Steiner into the discussion. Yes, I think that trust — really our capacity to love — is at the heart of all human knowing. I like the way that you put it: “the habit of intellectual hospitality that believes in the other.” I’m sure that approaching a text, or any work of art for that matter, with an intellectual hospitality would do much to counteract postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion. Thank you for your comment!

  3. Paul Weinhold permalink
    April 30, 2011 11:29 pm

    Hi Jim. Here’s a thought that I had while reading your post. You wrote:

    “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.”

    I. Can some things be known without the use of a metaphor?

    A. If so, then how do you know when a thing to be known is the kind of thing known by a metaphor or by some other way?

    B. If not, then how does mathematical or geometrical knowledge involve trust in a metaphor?

    • Jim Watkins permalink*
      May 2, 2011 10:16 am

      Paul, thanks for your questions, and sorry that I wasn’t able to reply sooner.

      In response to your first question, I would say that when human beings are knowing they are not always using a metaphor. I think I should have been a little more explicit that by ‘metaphor’ I am referring to a linguistic construction. So, by definition, all knowing that does not involve language cannot involve the use of a metaphor. That said, it may be that knowing often takes the structure of a metaphor; that is knowing may be similar to a metaphor. A metaphor is a linguistic expression that describes one thing in terms of another. I think that knowing may often take the structure of a metaphor because when we encounter something that we do not know we often borrow from our stock of known and experienced things to shed light upon the unknown thing.

      Because I answered in the negative, I am moving on to B. By suggesting that human knowing involves trust rather than certainty, I am suggesting that we let go of the idea that human knowing needs an irrefutable foundation on which to base itself. Much modern epistemology has been an attempt to find such a foundation. Rationalism (think Descartes) seeks some concept that is necessary, and empiricism (think Locke) grounds our knowledge in sense-data. If this foundation is absolutely certain then there is no sense in which we must trust that foundation. I do not think that our knowing needs an absolutely certain foundation, but rather the trusting, and yet critical, acceptance of a foundation, or perhaps better a set of presuppositions, that provides a framework in which our knowing becomes meaningful.

      In the case of mathematics, it would seem that our knowledge is absolutely certain because mathematics proceeds according to the laws of logic. But I think it is worth pointing out that mathematics is an abstraction from the empirical and lived reality of human beings. And if mathematics were ever cut off from this reality, as if it really existed without a physical universe, I think that mathematics would cease to be meaningful. I think that numbers are, at the end of the day, numbers of things.

      I hope that I have adequately answered your questions. Much of my own thinking about epistemology is shaped by Michael Polanyi’s book ‘Personal Knowing.’ I think he has much better answers to your questions than I do, so probably the best thing that I can do is refer you there. Thanks again for your questions!

  4. Paul Weinhold permalink
    May 2, 2011 3:17 pm

    Thanks for your response, Jim. I agree that some knowledge is not metaphorical, and I’d love it if you could help me work out a question regarding that proposition. I’m not setting anything up; I’d just like to know what you think.

    Some knowledge is not metaphorical, but how does one tell the difference between something that can only be known by a metaphor and something that I only happen to know by a metaphor?

    For example, it’s possible to define a lunar eclipse as the interposition of the earth between the sun and the moon, but it’s also possible to define it using a metaphor, such as the Hindu myth of Rahu and Ketu (http://www.sanskrit.org/www/Astronomy/Rahu.html). In the former case, one understands the real cause of a lunar eclipse, but in the latter case, one does not. So that would seem to indicate that a lunar eclipse is not the sort of thing that can only be known by a metaphor. Rather, it is the sort of thing that, at one point in human history at least, only happened to be known by a metaphor.

    So, to try the same question again from another angle: are there some things that can only be known metaphorically? If so, then how do we know that that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with?

    • Jim Watkins permalink*
      May 2, 2011 10:05 pm

      Paul, it appears that I answered question B, when I should have answered question A! Sorry about that. Multiple choice tests never were my strong suit. Thanks for restating the question in such an informative way.

      Just for clarity sake, let me first say that metaphor and myth are not exactly the same thing. There are a lot of distinctions that can be made between things like myth, model, metaphor, symbol, simile, sign etc. Nevertheless, myth and metaphor have some similarities, and perhaps those are what matter most for our discussion.

      Your example is an interesting one. You place a Hindu myth along side a scientific explanation of a lunar eclipse, and you point out that both are trying to explain the same thing: the lunar eclipse. You suggest that the scientific explanation “understands the real cause of a lunar eclipse” but the Hindu myth does not.

      This juxtaposition of myth and scientific explanation reminded me of an exchange between Eustace and Ramandu in CS Lewis’ ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.’ Ramandu is explaining that he is a ‘retired star’ who has fallen from the heavens. Eustace says, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” And Ramandu replies, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” The point of this little exchange is, I think, that scientific explanation and religious myth are not necessarily contradictory sorts of things. The methodology of science is limited in its scope, and so to know the way that things are we may need more than scientific explanation.

      I think that science offers us a very helpful methodology for knowing the way that the world is. Also, I think that modern science has provided us with a very convincing picture of the way that the world is. But I think that it is important to remember that even science often relies upon metaphors and models to explain phenomena. For example, scientists often suggest that it is helpful to think of a gas as a bunch of billiard balls bouncing around within a volume. Even here scientific explanation is making use of a metaphor.

      I am not sure whether there are things that can only be known through the use of metaphor. Again, I suppose that much depends on how one exactly defines metaphor. But I would prefer to think of metaphor as one helpful tool, among many, that we have for knowing the world. I think that the world is a very complex sort of thing, and that knowing it requires the use of at least as many tools that we have.

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