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Metaphorical Language

I am enjoying a new book given to me.  S. Brent Plate wrote A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects.  The subtitle is intriguing: Bringing the Spiritual to Its Senses.  It has been a challenge for me as a Quaker.  My own Quaker tradition, as it often gets interpreted, suggests that objects, things, ritual, etc. are not important.  I probably would have assumed that my five senses played little role in my own spiritual tradition.  This book is challenging this assumption.          

That is ok with me.  It would be pretty silly to assume things after we find out there is little basis for those assumptions.  Part of the reason for learning and experience is to gain a sense of the world and ourselves that is as close to reality as it can be.  Why would we prefer to live in illusion or delusion?  So I am open and engaged with the material.  I am reading the book very slowly; no need for urgency in this instance.           

Early on in his book, Plate introduces the idea of metaphor.  I like this.  I know metaphors use language appropriate to one thing to describe another thing.  For example, we might say something like “war is a chess game.”  Obviously war is much more serious than the game of chess.  But if we think of chess, we have an insightful way to imagine how wars are waged.  Chess is much more sophisticated and complicated than checkers.  Hence, it is a better way of expressing the complexity of war.           

Plate and I both know it is impossible to think about and talk about religion without metaphor.  I have never directly seen God.  I even doubt that anyone has.  So we search for good metaphors to describe the God we think we have “seen.”  It is already interesting how I have just used sensory language in this metaphor.  I talked about “seeing” God, but confessed that I have not literally “seen” God.  Seeing is a metaphor. Plate develops this insight in interesting ways.           

He places a great deal of emphasis on our physical existence---our embodied lives.  We are not spirit alone.  We are embodied spirits.  The physicality of our world and our own bodies are crucial to our perception and understanding of life.  Plate says, “Our bodily experience and engagement with physical reality is so permanent, so all-pervasive that our language can only come back to these most elemental interactions.”  Then he points to the metaphorical language we use that is drawn from our senses.           

One of his sentences makes this point in remarkable fashion.  He claims that “ideas are grasped or they might go right over our heads; good friends are close, but sometimes even our partner feels far away and we drift apart; some days we wake up feeling up and other days we are down, even though our height hasn’t changed.” As I type this sentence, I become amazed at how tied into our senses and the physical world our language is.           

Plate uses the image of a bridge to talk about how metaphor functions.  Metaphor builds a bridge from what we know to what we are trying to describe.  This sounds pretty sophisticated and, at one level, it is.  But on another level, it is actually pretty normal and simple.  Moat folks run around using metaphors all the time.  In fact, they may be using metaphors and could not define the word, metaphor, if you forced them to define it.  As such, metaphor has become such a commonplace in our speech, that we don’t even recognize it.           

I was rolling along nicely with Plate’s book.  I still had a kind of Quaker reservation.  I was still with him as he talked about the metaphorical language calling God Father.  I have done this a zillion times.  I know God is not a “real Dad,” but metaphorically it makes some sense to use parental language to describe the God I experience.  Then Plate pushes a little further.           

“But even the down-to-earth dimensions of religious discourse are based on our physical-sensual environment: Evangelical Christians gather to discuss their ‘walk with God’; the most basic prayer in Judaism begins with the sensual injunction, ‘Hear, O Israel…’; Quakers seek an ‘inner light…’  He just got me!  Apparently, my Quaker reservation is misplaced.    I know the phrase, “inner light,” is a metaphor.  But I never really thought about how it is drawn from the physical realm.           

I am enjoying the book because it makes me think.  It makes me more aware---aware of myself, my language and my world.  Language is revelatory.  I would claim I have experienced the Holy One as a “Light Within.”  Somehow that makes perfect sense to me.  It is a good metaphor.  The Light Within is a non-personal metaphor.  When I experience God in this fashion, I feel “enlightened.” Probably you have your own metaphorical language.           

So what’s the point?  Plate is helping me understand how I have to bridge my experience with some kind of language so I can tell you something about my deeper truths.  And you need to do the same thing.  I know language can be leading and misleading.  If I can be more careful, I am going to be an effective communicator.  That will help my teaching, my ministry and probably my life.

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