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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 elaborated, 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 boy 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 actually 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 about electricity must stop talking about plumbing and start talking about electricity because electricity is not plumbing.  Obviusly, the textbooks about plumbing must do the same with regard to using electricity as a metaphor for plumbing.

Thus, the "it's a metaphor" counterargument actually does have a basis in reality that gives it strength and validity.  However, because it has inherent strenth, it has immense power to generate real damage if wielded inappropriately.   One has to use it carefully.  Being aware that this counterargument had validity, I knew that if I was going to use symbiosis as a metaphor for the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, then I would have 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 invalidly treat it as a metaphor.  In this case, the "its a metaphor" counterargument, if accepted, would not lead to the avoidance of error, but to the avoidance of truth.  One could argue that an invalid application of "its a metaphor" is not fatal based on a prudence argument that it is better to be ignorant of a truth (which is not fatal) than embrace error (which is fatal).  However, the prudence argument is actually a two-edged sword and can be turned around, for it obviously would be prudent to know the truth about a situation or phenomenon that leads to the rejection of the error that is currently believed to be true about that same situation or phenomenon. 

In other words, if the actual truth is being invalidly regarded as a metaphor, then it stands to reason that either a metaphor is being regarded as the truth (the very thing the "It's a metaphor" counterargument is supposed to prevent!), or the existence of the truth as a true reality is being denied.

We should be honest and say that this is often the case, not only in matters of religion, but in a lot of many other areas of human endeavor as well.  People tend not to like hearing or giving an answer of "I don't know" to important questions posed to them, especially if they feel they need to be regarded as experts in the field of the question being posed.  They may be honest in trying to give an answer to the question, but they can be honestly wrong if the truth is actually unknown.

Misapplied Metaphors and The Realities They Represent

To illustrate the possible errors and problems that would arise from mistakenly regarding a truth as a metaphor, imagine an absent minded professor or instructor who walks into a classroom and starts teaching about electricity by using plumbing as the metaphor for electricity.  As he proceeds, the students display signs of becoming more and more puzzled, stumped, and stymied in their understanding.  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 was using 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 its employment is intended to illuminate (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 that creates confusion, not understanding or competence. 

Another stumbling point of treating a reality as if it was a metahor 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.  "Fluff" so to speak.  However, if we mistakenly apply plumbing as a metaphor to itself, then all the parts apply.  Nothing is invalid.  There is no "fluff".  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 (when they actually do) will cause confusion and as much misapplication of the lesson as taking a metaphor too far.  In such a case, we are telling a non-truth because we are taking an actual aspect of reality and representing it as a non-aspect that has no reality.

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.  The "Its just a metaphor" argument is a necessary part of this edge that give it its sharpness, for I am inclined to think that a lot of the "heresies" and "schisms" in the Church (past and present) 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.  (A related problem is cited by C.S. Lewis in his book "The Abolition of Man", where one specific principle that has to be interpreted within a context of a set of related and compensating principles is exalted and made the chief truth in light of which all others are interpreted, and which all those other are not permitted to judge or moderate.  The book itself is Lewis' attempt to address the beginnings of what we now call deconstructionism.)

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". 

So is Symbiosis a metaphor, or is it the truth?  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.  No big deal, for all metaphors have limits, and Symbiosis-as-metaphor would not be an exception.  However, if I claim that Symbiosis is not a metaphor but an accurate description of reality and the actual way the Divine interacts with repentant humanity, then the conflicting scriptures need to be addressed with more effort.  They may require admitting that the critics are correct and that I must give up my belief that Symbiosis is a biblical doctrine, returning it to being a (very 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 live it or 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 also 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.  We can't really say that Jesus or the Disciples would have called what was happening to them "symbiosis", because the term did not exist until the 19th century to describe a biological reality that they did not notice or recognize in nature.  On the other hand, to argue that what they were experiencing was not Symbiosis because they didn't use a greek word of modern construction to name a phenomenon wasn't even noticed by anyone back then is to be quite unreasonable.  Ancient peoples of different cultures did not use the word "eclipse" to describe the imposition of the moon directly between themselves and the sun, but we would be rightly criticized of malevolently reading of their accounts if they described phenomenon that fits the description of a solar eclipse while maintaining that they had not witnessed an eclipse, giving as a reason that they had not used our word "eclipse" in their accounts to describe it!

And there is a further implication to realizing the difference beween a metaphor and a truth: a metaphor is intended to be a teaching aid to foster understanding of the truth, and so should be discarded for another if it fails in its purpose of aiding the understanding of the truth.  However, if the supposed "metaphor" is the truth, then dropping it if you do not understand it is not an option: you have to follow it, no matter where it goes or how difficult the process of understanding it happens to be.  To put it another way, the usefulness of a metaphor is derivative, in that it is only useful if it helps one to understand the truth, while the truth is intrinsically valuable in itself, independent of the metaphors used by people to describe that truth.

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