Before we dive into metaphor, there are two words that are needed in our theological tool-belt.
Univocal and Equivocal are important 2nd tier vocabulary words that radically transform the conversation.
Folks who hold that language is univocal tend to think that language is representative and exacting – that a word represents that which it stands in for and is exact in its ability to execute that function.
Folks who hold that language is equivocal tend to think that language is expressive and thus any word or concept expresses that which it stands in for and is inexact in its ability to do so.
If you believe language is representative (univocal), then you will say that these symbols (words & pictures) represent that which they reference. Getting this right is essential because otherwise you are talking about something different that what is intended.
If you believe that language is expressive (equivocal), then you will say that language is both inexact and it is malleable. We do the best we can with the language/concepts/word pictures that we have but in the end they are both perspectival and provisional (it depends on where you stand and the words always stand in/substitute for the concept).
Here is how our Pocket Dictionary defines it:
Metaphor, metaphorical theology: A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that has an accepted, literal meaning is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or similarity between them. Metaphorical theology holds that God can only be spoken about through metaphors. Thus we must use metaphors to name our experience of God (the “Transcendent”); consequently, God can be described only in relational terms (that is, through the relational language of metaphor). Furthermore, metaphorical theologians, such as Sallie McFague, generally claim that such metaphors are culturally conditioned representations created by the mind as we seek to make experience intelligible.
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 856-860). Kindle Edition.
Obviously we use word pictures to talk about God and God’s work. There is no shortage of examples in the Bible from a rock to a King, from a mother-hen to a dove, from a lover to a judge… and lamb. We use analogies to talk about God and God’s work.
The question arises (post-enlightenment) when we begin to expect language to be exacting and representative. We do the same thing with the narratives of scripture when we hold them to the standard of newspaper reports and instruction manuals.
I fall squarely in the equivocal camp and think that all of our god-talk is expressive and provisional. As we come to understand more about God and God’s work in the world, we will come greater understandings and bigger revelations.
We do the best we can with the tools that we have.
This only becomes an issue when someone latches onto one a word-picture and insists that God IS a father. They mean literally and ontologically… which is impossible.
God being a ‘father’ is not exact and representative – it is a metaphor, a word picture. Jesus is saying that he relates to God as one relates to an ‘Abba’ daddy figure.
Which brings us to our second topic: metaphysics
Metaphysics: The philosophical exploration into the ultimate nature of reality lying beyond the merely physical (meta = beyond). Metaphysics deals with *ontological concerns, that is, with questions about what constitutes something as “real” or as having “being.”
Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 860-861). Kindle Edition.
The important thing to understand about meta-physics is:
- Unless you are a reductive-naturalist (that everything is physical) you have a metaphysic.
- Metaphysics is how you explain the world (or universe) beyond what is seen and measurable.
- A 21st century christian is not limited to the metaphysics of the ancient world that the Bible was written in.
- The Copernican revolution (away from the Ptolemaic geo-centric world view) has seen cascading effects of de-centering both earth and thus humans from being central to everything.
- This is why some have found a Process world-view a valuable alternative that incorporates scientific discoveries into views of the world and universe.
When one tackles metaphysical concerns, it is helpful to first have in place a notion of language (univocal v equivocal) and of metaphor when it comes to using word pictures and symbols to help us understand the world and human experience and existence.
Tell me how you are using language – then let’s talk about what is going on beyond the physical world.
Artwork for the series by Jessi Turri