The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Bite-Sized Metaphysics (Series 122)

[The previous series, 121, can be found [url=]here. This series, 122, picks up with the topic arrived at the end of the previous series. An index with links to all parts of the work as they are posted can be found here.]

[This series concludes Chapter 11, “‘On’ Metaphor”]

[The previous series ended with this: “If we believe in God, and if we believe we have communications from Him, then we can trust (given we have already established those other notions) that He is giving us true and useful information of some sort, and so we could reasonably attach great authority to the communication. But it will still be up to us to figure out what exactly is being communicated, and why, and to what degree later information may alter our perception of what is being communicated to us by God.”

[Entry 1 for “an unwanted level of religious complexity?”]

I realize this introduces what is perhaps an unwanted level of complexity for Jews, Muslims and Christians (like myself) who would prefer a straight-up straight-out reading of Scripture at all points. I am no different; but I also ought to ask myself whether the designs and intentions of God should perhaps be given some priority to my own wishes, on this matter!

And, as a Christian at least, if I do consider our scriptures to be in any useful sense historically reliable (which, as it happen, I do), then I have my answer about God’s actions on this subject. The man I believe to be God Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, rarely gave a ‘literal’ answer to any question, and the information he (or, rather, He) communicated to His followers was not always exactly what His followers thought He was telling them. Evidently, He did not even intend that His listeners would understand Him instantly! He expected them to work it out themselves; and sometimes the greater impact of what He said had to wait until His followers had other data at hand.

Or, as another example, if scientists (atheist or otherwise) now replace what we would call the ‘scientific’ details of the Genesis creation story (or stories) with more detailed information, then I think I am not working against God’s own ‘modus operandi’ to seriously consider whether their theories help us understand better what God may have had to colorfully abbreviate for the sake of His original audience. If I flatly refuse to take modern science’s attempts seriously, because God ‘would not’ tell our distant ancestors a story which was anything other than the pure ‘literal’ truth and could not be added to in understanding; then in taking that superliteral stance I would be (as far as I can tell) implicitly denying the divinity of Jesus–because that is not the way He worked!

[Entry 2]

So if we Christians think Jesus was (and is) God, then yes: God might give us information in this metaphorical, not superliteral, fashion. It remains to carefully check, on a case-by-case basis, to see whether He has done this or not. If I take seriously the message of the Hebrew prophets to Israel, as reported in the Hebrew scriptures, then God evidently communicates very often to us in this fashion: the truths of His messages have to be worked out to some degree by us, and later events and knowledge might bring expanded meanings (fully intended by God) to old communications.

(As with most contentions, there is a danger of heresy here; but by acknowledging the act of reasoning involved in the process, at least we won’t be hampering our ability to avoid or reverse heresies.)

The preceding few paragraphs probably won’t be very interesting to my sceptical reader–I still have a large and chewy wad of inferences (metaphorically speaking!) to successfully draw before I could fairly expect it to mean much to you–but the point I am trying to make for this chapter is that recognition of metaphor is not necessarily (or even usually) a means of explaining away religious propositions. Even in our own commonly shared ‘mundane’ experiences, metaphors usually mean more than they appear to say, not less.

[Entry 3]

The reality expressed by a metaphor can be (and often is) further along the lines that the metaphor itself represents, precisely because metaphors are shorthand ways of adequately (although somewhat inaccurately) expressing our ideas, to ourselves and to others. As in my solar system example, or the example of my book in your hands, one single perception or expression taken by itself may be perniciously misleading; but multiple perceptions of the same event or object will (almost by default) provide us with a better composite ‘picture’ of what we are trying to think or say, correcting misleading perceptions but very rarely overthrowing completely our entire idea about the concept or object. You can often find authors (like myself) putting this strategy to use with illustrative analogies: different practical examples of the same principles allow us to provide for a richer and fuller understanding of the actual object or condition or idea we are trying to express to you.

Presenting the analogies as arguments, of course, is a conclusion-killing gaffe. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between the two situations; but even the abstract concept of those two situations illustrates the principle I am trying to get across here: metaphors are about something else–usually something more than the metaphor (by itself) implies. When the metaphors are mistaken for the something else in its entirety (or much closer to its entirety), then a faulty foundation is laid for whatever may follow afterward.

This is one reason why we humans make so many mistakes: the field for error can be very wide, especially when we are mistaking a piece for the whole. But we must be careful, following the same principle, not to automatically toss away every attendant proposition if we discover that someone has mistaken a false image for reality. And this brings me to Lewis’ third point:

3.) "Thought may be in the main sound even when the false images that accompany it are mistaken by the thinker for true ones."

[Entry 4; next to last for this series of entries]

I may have my visual proportions mixed up in my necessary mental image of the Earth’s proximity and size compared to the Sun; but I can still work the math and get it right. I may get some answers that consequently don’t look right compared to my mental image; and of course that may be a clue my associative impression needs improving! But generally speaking it would be fallacious of an opponent of mine to attempt to refute my orbital mechanics calculations by reporting that they don’t match my mental impressions, even if I happened to believe the content of those mental impressions (not realizing the content of both ideas must be exclusive). My opponent could use one of my concluded beliefs (A) to correct another related belief of mine (B), and he might rightly fault me for trying to hold both at once; but he could also be wrong to use the falsity of B to argue the falsity of A.

Lewis uses the example of a little girl who thinks that poison, in any given substance, is “horrid red things”. She really believes that if she separated the poison out of ‘poisonous’ solids and liquids, the poison would really look like, and be, horrid red things. But an enlightened adult who attempted to refute her claim that lye is poisonous by correcting her false belief about what ‘poison’ looks like, would still be in for a nasty shock if he drank it! Indeed, with a little investigation he might have discovered that she did not believe lye poisonous because it contained horrid red things (which she knows she cannot see in the lye), but because her mother (who may have sufficiently accurate reasons for saying so) has told her the lye is poisonous and she trusts her mother. She imagines, and so thinks, the red things are in the lye, not because she can see them, but because she already believes the lye is poisonous; therefore it must (as far as she is concerned, mistaking her associating mental imagery for the truth) have those horrid red things in it somewhere.

The little girl’s imagery is mistaken; but it also turns out to be, upon fair examination, ultimately of little importance to the issue at hand: whether lye really is poisonous. If she was corrected about the nature of poison, it would probably not (nor should not) affect her belief about the toxicity of lye. She would know more, and in knowing more she would not necessarily be refuted in her core belief.

[Entry 5, finale for this series of entries]

Lewis puts this into religious practice with the example of the story of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. We do not know whether the original promoters of this story believed in a sky palace with God on a throne (they may not have–Jewish apocalyptic can be shown to be quite abstract with relation to Jewish metaphysical belief); but the imagery can stand for something other than this without gutting the main point of their proclamation.

Indeed, the type of event which Christians (or trinitarian Christians anyway) claim happened here–one aspect of the Incarnated God departed from this physical Nature after beginning a drastic change in it, to a new (and superphysical) Nature which shall be progressively made out of this ‘older’ one, while verifying His identity as the basic Action of what I have been calling the IF–is not something that by its character would be easily perceivable or understood. If this did happen, I would not (nor should not) be surprised in the least if God allowed the witnesses to see the images they eventually reported–that would be the type of image which they (and millions and billions of people after them, even to this day) can understand, in principle, without training in formal metaphysics. It gets all the salient points across; and allows the expansion of detail for fuller understandings of the same event.

A facetiously simple sceptic might say that she will believe the Ascension if we ever discover a 1st-century Palestinian sandal in geosynchronous orbit over Israel. But that is not the type of evidence that I necessarily expect from the story. It is not (as far as I can tell) that kind of event; so I don’t expect it to leave that kind of evidence.

This leads into the question of what kind of evidence a proposed supernatural event (such as the Ascension) might be expected to leave; which in turn shall bring up the question of possible and plausible relationships between Nature and Supernature (should Supernature exist).

Next series: evidence and the burden of proof]