Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Metaphors: or why we should avoid being too clear

Metaphor is often seen as an inferior means of communication, used by poets and others (= theologians?) who are hesitant about being 'precise', and in need of a more 'literal' or 'direct' paraphrase. But to think so is to misunderstand how language works. There is no 'pure' metaphor-free language behind the images of the poets (and theologians). We don't need to get behind or beyond metaphor (an aim at once impoverishing and impossible), but to enter into them more imaginatively, more carefully, more attentively. Very often, what passes for 'clear' communication is simply a collection of the dried carcasses of old metaphors. An obsessive desire for clarity can sometimes arise from an unwillingness to hear anything new, a desire to be told only what I already know, a fear of opening my eyes.

"[W]hen the New Testament speaks of the life, and particularly the cross, of Jesus as a sacrifice, a victory and the justification of the sinner, may it not be that we encounter no ‘mere’ metaphors but linguistic usages which demand a new way of thinking about and living in the world? Here is real sacrifice, victory and justice, so that what we thought the words meant is shown to be inadequate and in need of reshaping by that to which the language refers.”

– Colin Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement, 51-52.

13 comments:

Nick said...

Byron. Lakoff and Johnson (in "Metaphors we live by", University of Chicago Press, 2003, - first published, 1980) would argue that all language is metaphorical. It's certainly hard to envisage how you could have any kind of rich theological discussion (or any decent discussion for that matter) without recourse to metaphor.
Nick

byron smith said...

Nick - great to hear from you! Hope you're well. I totally agree, which I why I mentioned the impossibility (not simply undesirability) of avoiding metaphor.

Nick said...

Well Byron, you know: "long time reader, first time commenter". BTW - I liked your carcasses metaphor. Subtle way to prove your point.

bigdog said...

Hello Byron.
I like this post, it floats by boat. Metaphors can become cliches where you can say anything but mean nothing or anything. This can be fun but is generally just lazy and I am sure mirrors a lack of thought.
Sometimes however metaphors can be a device which deliberately obfuscates or allows for meaning to more dependent on the reader/hearer than the author. This is just plain frustrating and sometimes borders on untruthfulness. I fear that this can be what happens at things like Lambeth (just an example) where statements are made not so much to capture and convey truth, but to allow for the widest possible positions. I fear I have strayed into another field here, but maybe that is the nature of the beast...

Anonymous said...

And you'll remember, Byron, CS Lewis's musings that encourage us to see the metaphor 'round the other way' -- that Jesus is the true bread such that everyday bread is somehow a shadow or illustration of his reality. This may be another take on your advocacy of entering the metaphor more vividly rather than seeking to 'decode' it.
(And hello to you too, Nicholas!)
Greg Anderson

Emergent Pilgrim said...

I have just finished reading Marcus Borg's "The Heart of Christianity"(part of an ordination reading list) in which I found his argument about metaphor extremely helpful. He argues that "metaphorical narratives, they can be profoundly true, even though not literally factual" (p.50). I think this makes some Christians nervous however, I find it a rather liberating approach especially when preaching from the Old Testament in a context that has for many years been very "anti" old testament because "how could the God of the Old Testament be the same God as the New Testament?

His use of metaphor as a bridge to sacrament is also very compelling and surprisingly pastoral.

Nick said...

Hi Byron et al.
Good ole CS Lewis and his (not so) closet Platonism. But he is on to something here and I wonder if metaphors do point to the TRUE reality - for some things (eg bread, marriage etc).
And, emergent pilgrim, in this respect metaphors function, I think, like parables, in that they can point to a truth, while not themselves being true. Metaphors and parables really are "cut from the same cloth" (to use a metaphor).
Cheers, Nick

byron smith said...

Greg - exactly, which is what the Gunton quote is getting at.

Bigdog - I'm not sure that it is simply metaphor that opens the door to polyvalence (and ambivalence). Did you have any specific examples from Lambeth in mind? By the way, sometimes leaving broad room in a joint statement is a good thing, because it is not crucial that we all understand everything in the same way. And sometimes it is a sad, but honest, admission of the low level of agreement achieved.

Emergent Pilgrim and Nick: yes, I've read some of Borg's stuff on "Scripture as parable" and though I think it is very useful in some cases (e.g. the creation accounts), people get nervous when it seems to be implied that this is true of all Scriptural events (e.g. resurrection).

Mark Stevens said...

Yes I must admit that was one of the challenges I faced when working i through. I.e. If I believe this about the OT what happens when it come to the NT? Is it possible to use a literary metaphorical approach while still holding onto the the events of V/birth, Resurrection etc etc? When I read the different accounts of Jesus' life I see a metaphorical approach. In this way it may not be "literal" but it remains true (not in Borg's sense but rather in a historical sense)? The gospels have then used these events in a metaphorical sense to shape the first century communities of faith. Does this make sense? One of my frustrations with the book was his "either or" approach to Christianity.

byron smith said...

Yes - when it comes to resurrection (at least) it's quite possible (indeed necessary) to have both/and.

Annette said...

well, this is encouraging since i have just spent quite a bit of time looking at this metaphor-issue in relation to "the voice of conscience" - looking at how dominant the courtroom metaphor has been in traditional understandings (e.g. Kant's) and at Heidegger's critique of the tendency of this "picture" to produce reductive and impoverished understandings of the phenomenon. Perhaps ironically then, in H's eyes, attentiveness to metaphor (esp. "old" ingrained ones) is aimed precisely at being more 'precise'! (or rather, more 'primordial'/faithful to the phenomenon as it shows itself - in excess of the limits of those traditional metaphors)

Mark Stevens said...

In terms of interpretation I think it is also important to hear first and foremost what the metaphor meant in its original context. This is where Borg seems to deviate. He says we can understand the historical and then listen for the metaphor as it relates to us. Where as I would understand a biblical approach to seek to understand the metaphor as it was originally intended. Does that make sense?

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