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The Limits of Metaphor

I pointed out in the Inaugural Essay that I initially viewed the symbiosis of Deus/Homo as a metaphor for that indwelling, and sought to determine the "limits" of the metaphor, but did not find any.  By "limit", I mean that an aspect of the metaphor is contradicted by Scriptures or has no support because an alternative interpretation is taught.  When that aspect of the metaphor is uncovered, the metaphor is said to "fail".  For instance, the metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ fails when one asks whether the Bridegroom has sex with his Bride (real bridegrooms do), and whether they have children (many real couples attempt to do so), and whether the Bride as Mother nurses the child (many real mothers do).  These aspects of the metaphor cause it to fail because we cannot find any scriptures that can be reasonably interpreted to support that Jesus, in the role of Bridegroom in the metaphor, does any of these things to the Church, which is the bride in the metaphor.  Paul used the metaphor to emphasize the necessity of the Bride being pure when presented to the Bridegroom.  John the Baptist used it to emphasize the importance of Jesus (Bridegroom) relative to himself (Groomsman) when it came to those who believed (Bride).

Another example of a metaphor that crashes and burns in spectacular fashion is that of the Trinity, whose "members" are named Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The leader of the Moonies proclaimed that the Christian trinity was incomplete because Father and Son implies a family, and the Mother is missing.  He then proclaimed that he had come to complete the "Trinity" of Father, Mother, and Son.  He naturally named himself as the Father, his wife as the Mother, and their somewhat stout child as the Son.  The mystery of the Trinity (a word not found in the Scriptures) is something that gives me headaches when I think about it, but it was Jesus who chose the words "Father" and "Son" to describe the nature of the relationship between himself and the Deity to whom he prayed: the source of failure is due to the metaphor being woefully inadequate when trying to describe the natural history of a being like Deus.  Despite the inadequacy of the labelling, Jesus felt strongly enough about what the metaphor did imply to acknowledge being God's Son to the Sanhedrin, thus committing blasphemy in their judgment.  I think it needs an operational treatment, which is the intellectual tool that Physicists reach for when all other methods of describing reality have failed.  (If you are using operationalism to approach a subject, you have not reached the bottom of the physicist toolkit barrel.  It IS the bottom of the physicist toolkit barrel.  If it fails you, there is nothing left to bring to bear on the subject.)

This discussion of metaphor is to emphasize the fact that metaphors have limits.  A metaphor is when you mentally apply your knowledge about one independent entity to help you understand another independent entity.  The metaphor fails because the two entities are different, having some properties that are the same and some that are different.  When teaching electricity, many textbooks appeal to plumbing as a metaphor, seeking to create a mental picture where the behavior of electrons in a circuit can be understood in terms of the behavior of water in pipes.  Ironically, when teaching plumbing, the textbooks appeal to the behavior of electricity in wires as a metaphor that helps one understand the behavior of water in pipes!  Each can serve as a metaphor for the other.  However, the metaphors have limits: water in pipes do not kill you in the same way that electricity can, so it would be fatal to treat electricity as if it really was like water in all respects.  At some time, the textbooks must stop talking about plumbing to start talking about electricity because electricity is not plumbing.

Thus, if I was going to use symbiosis as a metaphor for the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then I had to find the limits so that, if any were fatal, I could warn my hearers of where the metaphor failed, so they wouldn't have false ideas and be led into unwise actions.  However, if Symbiosis is not a metaphor, but the actual thing that the Holy Spirit is doing, then an entirely different set of problems arise if we continue to treat it as a metaphor.

To illustrate this, imagine an absent minded professor or instructor who walks into a classroom and starts teaching by using plumbing as the metaphor for electricity.  As he proceeds, the students become more and more puzzled.  The professor becomes irritated: How could these people not understand plumbing? 

Then he realizes that the class IS the plumbing class. 

What was the professor's problem?  He thought he was teaching electricity, assumed that the students needed help in understanding it, and used plumbing as a metaphor.  However, the students were not learning electricity, but plumbing.  Their reality was being taught as if it was a metaphor, and not the real thing. 

Why would there be confusion while the professor was using the metaphor?  Because good teachers use phrases like "in the same way", "like", and "is similar to", to ensure that the metaphor (plumbing) is distinguished from the thing being taught (electricity).  They are code phrases that a responsible teacher would employ to remind their students that the metaphor is not exact and is intended as an aid to understanding the real thing.  However, if the thing being used as a metaphor (plumbing) is actually that thing being taught (plumbing), then all those "code phrases" to distinguish the two are not only unnecessary, but are a distraction. 

Another point of confusion is a bit more subtle: if we're using water and plumbing as a metaphor for electricity, then there are some aspects of plumbing that do not apply to electricity, and to avoid confusion, we'd have to say that "those parts don't apply here".  That is, there are parts of the metaphor that are "incidental" when applied to the target of the metaphor.  However, if we mistakenly apply plumbing as a metaphor to itself, then all the parts apply.  The parts that we say "don't apply here" when it comes to electricity DO apply when it comes to plumbing, and saying that they don't will cause confusion and as much misapplication of the lesson as taking a metaphor too far.

Thus, we see that metaphor in scripture is a sword with two edges.  We are familiar with the edge that warns about taking a metaphor too far, and  I cited just two examples at the beginning of this page.  I would think that a lot of the "heresies" and "schisms" in the Church come from not rightly dividing the word of truth by fixing excessive attention on a specific metaphor and taking it too far into inapplicable areas.  Rightly dividing a scriptural metaphor means figuring out which parts apply and which parts are incidental.

However, there is the other edge, which is declaring a reality a metaphor:  Because it is known that some parts of a "metaphor" do not apply, declaring a reality a metaphor allows someone to say that something that is part of that reality is "incidental".  If that "incidental" is actually a critical part of the metaphor, then the whole point of using the metaphor to teach that critical point is lost, as well as the critical point needing to be taught.  If it is discovered that the teaching is not metaphorical, then all the points could be critical, including the one declared to be "incidental". 

If I was using Symbiosis as a metaphor, then where the thesis conflicts with scripture, it can be passed off as incidental if I have problems reconciling it.  However, if Symbiosis is no longer a metaphor, but regarded as real, then the conflicting scriptures need to be addressed with more effort.  They may require the thesis to be rejected, returning it to being a good metaphor.  They may require a new way of looking or dividing the scriptures, which may be good or bad, depending on how it is done.  It may require tweaking how to apply Symbiosis, which is a good way of improving how we teach it.

Thus, you see why I hesitated when it came to transitioning from "Symbiosis is a metaphor of ..." to "Symbiosis is ...": There is potential for heresy that must be guarded against.  But there was a potential for seeing truths that had been hidden because they had been ignored because they were dimly understood in those days, and thus are considered "metaphorical incidentals" today.

And once you see a truth, you have to follow it, no matter where it goes.

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