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Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology by Sallie McFague

Sally McFague is Carpenter Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Speaking in Parables was published in 1975 by Fortress Press, Philadelphia. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Dick and Sue Kendall.

Chapter 3: Metaphor: The Heart of the Matter

Metaphor is not first of all the language of poets but ordinary language. We use metaphors all the time in order to say some thing about things we know little about. 0. A child looking at a mountain stripped of foliage might say, ‘That mountain is bald," transferring her perception of her grandfather’s pate to the mountain. I. A. Richards says, "in the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, or phrase, whose meaning is a resultant of their interaction." 1. What happens in this interaction, as Max Black says, is that we use the conventional wisdom associated with one context to serve as the screen or grid through which. we see the other context. 

Suppose I look at the night sky through a piece of heavily smoked glass on which certain lines have been left clear. Then I shall see only the stars that can be made to lie on the lines previously prepared upon the screen, and the stars I do see will be seen as organized by the screen’s structure. We can think of a metaphor as such a screen and the system of "associated commonplaces" of the focal word as the network of lines upon the screen. We can say that the principal subject is "seen through" the metaphorical expression or, if we prefer, that the principal subject is "projected upon" the field of the subsidiary subject. 2.

Thus, for instance, when we call God "father" we use the commonplaces associated with fatherhood as the "smoked glass" through which we perceive God. That metaphor is emotionally charged is obvious -- the feelings we have about fatherhood influence our consequent feelings about God and vice versa. Or, to use a more mundane example, the objection that policemen have to being called "pigs" is derived from the feelings most people have about the commonplaces associated with pigs.

But metaphors are not only emotional; they are also cognitive, and here the issue is more complex. What, in fact, do we learn about the "principal subject" through metaphors? On the face of it, we seem to learn a good deal. To say God is "father" appears to be a direct assertion with no qualifications. Actually, however, what we know is the conventional wisdom associated with the subsidiary subject -- we know about fatherhood and about God only through the screen of fatherhood, or as Black says, "the principal subject is ‘projected upon’ the field of the subsidiary subject." From this point of view, metaphor belongs more in the realm of faith and hope than in the realm of knowledge. Ian Ramsay says that a metaphor arises in a "moment of insight"; thus in the parable of the Prodigal Son there must be something about the universe and our experience in it which matches the behavior of a loving father. 3. But all that we know prior to the metaphor is, at most, inchoate and confused; and it is only in and through the metaphor that we can speak of it at all. This is a crucial point, for it means that metaphorical "knowledge" is a highly risky, uncertain, and open-ended enterprise -- a maneuver of desperation, if you will -- in spite of the straightforward grammatical structure of a metaphorical statement. The risk and open-endedness means that many metaphors are necessary, metaphors which will support, balance, and illuminate each other. Thus, if one calls God father, presumably one could also use the metaphors sister, brother, or mother though not jailer, sorcerer, or murderer. The associated commonplaces of the first three fit together, but they do not fit with the conventional wisdom attached to the latter set of metaphors. Of course, irony and inclusiveness are also necessary in metaphorical assertion; the metaphosrs of lion and lover are both used for God in the Old Testament -- sentimentality is not the signature of an authentic metaphorical pattern.

Although metaphor is uncertain and risky, it is not expendable; one must live with the open-endedness since there is no way to get at the principal subject directly. 3a. In fact, and this is central for religious metaphors, there is what one might call a shift in principal and subsidiary subjects when dealing with what is radically unfamiliar to us. For instance, when the two contexts of a metaphorical interaction are both known to us reasonably well (baldness and mountain, policemen and pigs), we are less dependent on the screen or subsidiary subject than we are when dealing with father and God. Whatever may be the prior insight about God which encourages us to use one metaphor rather than another, it is more accurate, if we attend closely to poetic and religious metaphors, to speak of the simultaneity of the moment of insight and the choice of metaphor -- they appear to come together and be forever wedded. This means that our focus must be upon the metaphor in all its detail; it is as if the principal subject must become the subsidiary one, or as if the other dimension, the unknown one, were available to us only in and through the familiar dimension. In a religious metaphor, as we shall see in the parables, the two subjects, ordinary life and the transcendent, are so intertwined that there is no way of separating them out and, in fact, what we learn is not primarily something about God but a new way to live ordinary life. In the parables a new context, the context provided by God, is suggested for perceiving ordinary life and this becomes our principal focus, with knowledge about God only available to us in the form of what Michael Polanyi calls "subsidiary awareness." Or to say it in a slightly different way, to call a parable a metaphor does not mean that it "points to" an unknown God, but that the world of the parable itself includes both the ordinary and the transcendent in a complex interaction in which each illumines the other. The order of perception in a parable is such that it keeps our eyes on our world and that world as transformed by God, not on "God in himself."

These introductory remarks about metaphor need now to be explained more systematically and precisely. In the following passages there are at least three levels of concern with metaphor: metaphor as the creation of new meaning -- poetic metaphor; metaphor as constitutive of language -- radical metaphor; metaphor as the method of all human knowledge, whether social, political, intellectual, scientific, or personal -- metaphor as human movement.

language is ultimately traceable to metaphor. . . .4  

The primary Imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.5.  

. . no matter how widely the contents of myth and language may differ, yet the same form of mental conception is operative in both. It is the form which one may denote as metaphorical thinking; the nature and meaning of metaphor is what we must start with if we want to find, on the one hand, the unity of the verbal and the mythical worlds and, on the other, their differences.6.  

Now it has been pointed out by others before this that there is no other way by which real knowledge of Nature can spread and increase -- by which the consciousness of humanity can actually be enlarged, and knowledge, which is at present new and private, made public, but some form of metaphor.7.  

Metaphor is as ultimate as speech itself and speech as ultimate as thought.8.  

The poetic image is the human mind claiming kinship with everything that lives or has lived, and making good its claim. In doing so, it also establishes through every metaphor an affinity between external objects.9.  

Human thought is not merely metaphoric in operation. Itself forms one term of a metaphor. The other term may consist of the cosmic universe, or any detail within it, or may reach out beyond this, in exploration. . . . This method [the poetic] calls in consciously the whole figure of the human organism of mind and body, fuses it with its own instrument of language, and from this builds up its thought in an organic and human frame by which the human being and his universe are to be related and interpreted. This is what I have been calling the human metaphor.10.  

A pastiche of this sort does little more than overwhelm with its insistence that the symbolic-metaphorical ability of the human mind is crucial to its very constitution -- "metaphor is as ultimate . . . .as thought." 10a. No more radical suggestion of the importance of metaphor is possible, and it removes us light years from metaphor as adornment or illustration of some known fact or truth or feeling. The suggestion being made in all these passages is that there would be no known fact or truth or feeling without metaphor. 

Poetic Metaphor

The easiest way to grasp metaphor is by means of the examples closest at hand -- poetic metaphors; for while we could call these "second-level" metaphors in contrast to the radical images that constitute all language, they are on a continuum with them and function in the same way. On this level there is nothing mysterious about metaphor. As Robert Frost says, "Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another." G. M. Hopkins’ poem "Heaven-Haven: A nun takes the veil" is an excellent illustration of poetic metaphor, "of saying one thing and meaning another." 

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.11.  

The entire poem is an extended metaphor, a familiar, sensuous rendering of an unfamiliar and nonsensuous reality. The extraordinary power of the extended metaphor derives from the fact that the poet keeps attention focused on the particularities of storms and seasons while all the time referring beyond them to other things. But within the poem are also a multitude of discrete metaphors -- "sided hail," "green swell," "havens dumb," "swing of the sea" -- which complicate, intensify, and comment on the larger metaphor. Aristotle, as often, said it quite well: "a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarities in dissimilars." In Hopkins’ poem the whole complex of "a nun taking the veil" is seen as similar to the other complex of seasonal and natural phenomena; a dialectic between the familiar, the seasons and storms at sea, and the unfamiliar, "taking the veil," is set up in which each renews and deepens the meaning of the other. The metaphoric dialectic is a complex one: on the one hand, the familiar and sensuous is used to evoke the unfamiliar, and, on the other hand, the unfamiliar context or frame in which the familiar is set allows us to see the ordinary in a new way. That is to say, the nature imagery evokes "taking the veil," and that strange event serves as the frame for nature, causing us to see it now in a new light. Metaphoric insight never takes us "out of ourselves," but it returns us to ourselves with new insight; it is not a mystical, static, intellectual vision, but an insight into how ordinary human life and events can be made to move beyond themselves by connecting them to this and to that.

Because of this dialectic of the ordinary and the strange in poetic metaphor, in which each evokes and provides the context for the other, there is no way to have the new meaning apart from the metaphor itself. Any attempt to paraphrase a metaphor immediately reveals one of the primary characteristics of a good poetic metaphor: its inseparability from "what is being said." A critic, when asked what a metaphor "means," is finally reduced to repeating the line of poetry or even the entire poem, for there is no other way of saying what is being said except in the words that were chosen to say it. Poetic metaphor is used not as an embellishment of what can be said some other way, but precisely because what is being said is new and cannot be said any other way. Take, for example, the Paolo and Francesca scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy (Canto 5, 11. 46-50): 

And as the cranes go chanting their lays, making of themselves a long line in the air, so I saw approach with long-drawn wailings shades borne on these battling winds. 

This is technically a simile, not a metaphor, for it has the ‘" construction; but that is really incidental, because metaphorical power is present. The cranes and the shades of Paolo and Francesca become one, so that the feeling and insight conveyed in the passage is an amalgam of the eerie, lonely cries of the serene long lines of cranes and the wailings of the lost lovers riding "the battling winds." There is no embellishment or adornment here; the knowing that takes place is inseparable from the images used and is conveyed only through them. Cranes and dead lovers are mutually illuminated and there is no way to extricate out a meaning; the meaning is held in solution in the metaphor.

The main point in this look at poetic metaphor is that metaphor creates the new, it does not embellish the old, and it accomplishes this through seeing similarity in dissimilars. This process, in essence, is the poet’s genius -- the combining of old words in new ways to create new meanings. The power of metaphor is in Donne’s plea to God that he "never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me," and in Richard Wilbur’s "Beasts of my soul who long to drink / Of pure mirage," and in Denise Levertov’s "and as you read / the sea is turning its dark pages, / turning / its dark pages."

 Radical Metaphor

To speak about metaphor as radical, however, is to say more than that metaphor is necessary for the creation of new meaning. It is to go beyond, or better, behind, poetic metaphor; it is to assert that language, ordinary language, and not only the language of poets, is metaphorical. In fact, what poets do is to take our literal words, our dead metaphors, and by combining them in new ways, make them capable of expressing new insight. Language, all language, is ultimately traceable to metaphor -- it is the foundation of language and thus of thought. 11a.

To insist on the radical relation between metaphor and thought means, then, that it is not only in poetry that the metaphor is the thing, but that all thought is metaphorical. Of course most of our language is not obviously metaphorical; we are surrounded by dead metaphors which make up our literal, everyday language and which allow us to write dictionaries. But these dead metaphors were once alive; there appears to be no way to trace language back to some primitive time when "word" and "thing" were in direct correspondence. What poets do now, primitive people did once upon a time -- both must use "this" for "that," both must approach the "thing" elliptically and indirectly, noting the similarities between dissimilars with no final satisfaction of having found the one and only way to the "thing." Thus many metaphors are necessary, many forays must be made to track the prey, for, apart from mystic intuition (which itself can only be expressed metaphorically), we have no one way to a thing.

If metaphor were only a poetic device we might assume that some other means of expression, some nonpoetic language, such as ordinary or scientific language, could give us direct access. But if all thought is metaphorical, then we must acknowledge the open-endedness, the risk, and the tentativeness of all our interpretations. 11b. This means that we cannot say our metaphors "correspond" to "what is"; at best, we can only say that they seem appropriate to our experience, they "fit" or seem "right." 11c. That such a situation is one of dis-ease is obvious, and it is tempting to try to escape such uncertainty through either literalism or subjectivity. But if metaphor is at the root of language and thought, then there is no escape. And this means, of course, no escape for religious and theological language and thought as well.

But what, more precisely, does it mean to speak of metaphor as the root of thought and language? It means, among other things, that the human mind, as Kant insists, constructs its world. Coleridge also insists on the constructive character of the mind in relation to reality, isolating the imagination as the key component in that construction. Ernst Cassirer takes both Kant’s and Coleridge’s categories, discursive thought and the imagination, as central. The imaginative or metaphoric form of interpreting reality is the older of the two, Cassirer claims, for primitive conceptual forms show that naming and not discursive reason is the most ancient form of language. The primitive urge is essentially hypostatic, seeking to distinguish, to emphasize, to hold the object of attention, to fix the object as a permanent focus of attention. This can be done only with a name, a symbol. The primitive mind, is, then, an imagining mind, "the prime agent of all human perception," as Coleridge says, "and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM." Cassirer points to the central issue -- the hypostatizing, distinguishing character of language formation, the naming through noticing. The famous incident of Helen Keller at the pump, intuiting for the first time the connection between the stuff running through her fingers and the word, the hypostasis, "water," is an illustration of the process of outlining reality through naming. Gradually reality is outlined more precisely, richly, and complexly through such naming, and metaphor is at the heart of the process. 11d. Reality is created through this incredibly complex process of metaphorical leaps, of seeing this as that; we use what we notice about one thing to ‘name" (describe, call up, evoke, elicit) another thing where we notice something of the same, and hence for the first time we see it that new way.

The major fault with Cassirer’s position -- and it is a crucial fault -- is his assumption that imagistic language, the language of myth and poetry, is a stage on the way toward conceptual language and is superseded by it. Fortunately, Cassirer is by no means alone in asserting that the basis of language is symbolic and metaphoric, and others such as Owen Barfield and Paul Ricoeur would not banish metaphorical language to second-class status but rather see it as always crucial to the creation of linguistic significance.

Barfield, a British philosopher and literary critic, working independently from Cassirer in the 1920s came to a very similar point of view, though his perspective is more narrowly directed to poetry than is Cassirer’s. Like Cassirer, Barfield understands the primitive situation as one in which figurative language predominated, a language in which words were at once concrete and abstract, material and immaterial, physical and mental, outer and inner. The multi-signification can be recognized in such a word as pneuma, used variously in biblical literature for breath, wind, air, and spirit. Gradually, the outer meanings are lost. "Whatever else you have in language and its history ... you certainly have a process by which words with a material, or outer, meaning somehow turn into words with only an immaterial, or inner, one." 12. Many words for creative mental processes, such as "conceive," "germinate," "seminal," have a material base, indeed, a sexual base. The primitive had single meanings for words -- he or she participated in an original unity of body and spirit -- which referred without disjuncture to inner and outer realities.

. . . . all language has been, and some still is, imagery, in the sense that one meaning is apprehended transpiring through another. We look back and we find concomitant meanings (or uncontracted meanings that have since become, and are for us now, separable and concomitant); we find an inner meaning transpiring or showing in some way through the outer. Nonfigurative language, on the other hand, is a late arrival. What we call literal meanings, whether inner or outer, are never samples of meaning in its infancy; they are always meanings in their old age--end products of a historical process. 13.

The reason we can "look through" one sense of a word to another -- the reason words are translucent -- is that the latent inner and outer references are both there. In primitive times sensible objects were not seen as isolated from thought and feeling. Barfield claims, as does Cassirer, that this original unity was not invented by the primitives, for it exists apart from any individual thinker; it is simply the nexus out of which human animals gradually extricated themselves and to which they long to return. The history of language, then, is one of gradual distancing from this unity; the single meanings of language split into contrasted pairs -- the concrete and abstract, particular and general, objective and subjective -- and it is the poet’s burden and glory to attempt to return to this unity.

At this point Barfield introduces metaphor seriously, for it is the peculiar function of metaphorical discourse to restore conceptually the unity that the primitive sees perceptually. The poetic search for the "objective correlative" is an attempt to unite the inner and the outer, to find the sensuous base for the inner reality. Strictly speaking, early language was not metaphorical -- it did not need metaphor since all words had inner and outer meanings -- but our language, petrified by use into objective and subjective references, needs it desperately if our use of language is to be revelatory of new insight. For metaphor follows, as Barfield says, quoting Shelley, "the footsteps of nature"; just as knowledge arose originally through more and more complex "naming," so metaphor, the recognition of novel connections, is the path to new insight. Knowledge, Barfield suggests, is the accumulation of metaphors.

. . . .language does indeed appear historically as an endless process of metaphor transforming itself into meaning. Seeking for material in which to incarnate its last inspiration, imagination seizes on a suitable word or phrase, uses it as a metaphor, and so creates a meaning. The progress is from meaning, through inspiration to imagination, and from imagination through metaphor, to meaning; inspiration grasping the hitherto unapprehended, and imagination relating it to the already known. 14.


The complex tissue that results from this process is language, but the process is never complete, for what are significant, insightful words to one generation become a tired body of dead clichés to the next. One can imagine, for instance, how alive the language of Paul, John, and the other writers of the New Testament must have appeared to their contemporaries compared to how opaque and petrified it appears to many in our contemporary society.

The main point Barfield, like Cassirer, is making is that knowledge is the accumulation of metaphors; this assertion seems to be substantiated phenomenologically on the basis of primitive conception. Cassirer and Barfield did their work in the 1920s, but their basic perspective has been corroborated by more recent commentators of various orientations -- aesthetic, literary, philosophical, and anthropological. The organic, sacramental, ecological, biological perspective -- the original unity of human beings with their environment to which metaphor, now in a sophisticated and critical way, attempts to return us -- is a dominant one, evident in such thinkers as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, and Paul Ricoeur.

Paul Ricoeur in his masterful book The Symbolism of Evil understands symbols as the presuppositions of philosophy -- the symbol, as he says, gives rise to thought. He sees this stance as admittedly a "wager"; but he bets on the world of symbols to give him "a better understanding of man and of the bond between the being of man and the being of all beings," because symbolic language is the original language antecedent to both reflective and mythological discourse. Like Cassirer and Barfield, Ricoeur sees symbolic language as pointing to our original unity with being.

Every symbol is finally a hierophany, a manifestation of the bond between man and the sacred. . . . Finally, then, it is as an index of the situation of man at the heart of being in which he moves, exists, and wills, that the symbol speaks to us. . . . All the symbols of guilt deviation, wandering, captivity,all the mythschaos, blinding, mixture, fall,speak of the situation of the being of man in the being of the world. 15.

Further back than this we cannot go -- symbols and metaphors place us at that nexus of "man in the being of the world." We never get behind metaphor and symbol -- they are at the root of all our language and thought. 15a.  

Metaphor as Human Movement

Cassirer, Barfield, and Ricoeur in one way or another are saying that metaphor follows the footsteps of nature; that is, metaphor follows the way the human mind works. Metaphor is not only a poetic device for the creation of new meaning, but metaphor is as ultimate as thought. It is and can be the source for new insight because all human discovery is by metaphor. Metaphor unites us arid our world at a level below subject-object, mind-body; it is the nexus of "man in the being of the world," the intimation of our original unity with all that is. To see connections, to unite this with that, is the distinctive nature of human thought; only human beings, it appears, can make novel connections within their familiar worlds in order to move beyond where they are.

Metaphor is, for human beings, what instinctual groping is for the rest of the universe -- the power of getting from here to there. 15b. We use what we have, who we are, where we are to grope toward what we dimly feel, think, and envision we might have, who we might be, where we might be. We do this through a process in which the imagination is the chief mover, setting the familiar in an unfamiliar context so that new possibilities can be glimpsed. The future is never an abstraction totally unrelated to our particular and familiar presents and pasts; it is the sometimes subtle, sometimes violent renovation and fulfillment of what is familiar to us. This is such a common and at the same time complex process that often we are unaware of it, but it is the substance of the "movement" intimated by our daydreams and our personal utopias. It is at the basis of all critical thinking, as Herbert Marcuse makes clear in his critique of one-dimensional thought, the thought that does not move because it envisions no movement which can both negate and fulfill it. Two-dimensional thought criticizes "what is" by means of "what might be" -- its negative, that which stands over against it, provides a new context for "what is," not in order to destroy it but to move beyond it. It is the basis of Christian hope, of Jesus as the parable of the kingdom; the kingdom provides the context for "reading" the story of Jesus as a new story, a story which is the prolepsis of the kingdom. 15c. It is the basis of scientific discovery, the intuitive flash, the overview, as Whitehead says, which surveys the terrain from the heights, eventually to return to earth to test the hypothesis. 15d. It is the basis of social and political revolution, which relies on the dreams of the imagination to propel us from where we are to where we might be. Metaphor is movement, human movement; without it, we would not be what we are -- the only creatures in the universe to our knowledge who can envision a future and consciously work toward achieving it. The process is a dialectic of imagining new frames and contexts for our ordinary worlds, of seeing a new world which is also the old world. Metaphorical movement insists that the dream turn toward and renovate reality, not escape from it.

Metaphorical thinking, then, is not simply poetic language nor primitive language; it is the way human beings, selves (not mere minds) move in all areas of discovery, whether these be scientific, religious, poetic, social, political, or personal. The old Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, objective and subjective, thought and feeling is not relevant to a radically metaphorical pattern of human movement and growth; human beings are organisms, not machines, and like other organisms they "grope," but in a special way, a conscious way, which means that their special "thing" is their ability to make novel connections and associations within their familiar environment, dislocating it sufficiently so that the old, the stale, the ordinary, "what is," is seen in a new light as what might be.

The base of such movement is undoubtedly erotic -- the desire, as Coleridge and Ricoeur have intimated, to be united with "what is." It is the desire for fulfillment, for ultimate consummation, of one’s entire being. Plato’s myth of human thought in the image of the search for the androgynous human being is dead center and radically metaphorical, for if one understands the method of human thought as metaphorical, it is more like sexual union than it is like "thinking." Or as Elizabeth Sewell says, "Human thought is not merely metaphoric in operation. Itself forms one term of the metaphor. The other may consist of the cosmic universe, or any detail within it, or may reach out beyond this, in exploration." 16. Human beings, says Sewell, take themselves, their bodies, and where those bodies are and what they are, in all their particularity and concreteness and richness, as the "figure," the image, in terms of which they "understand," learn about, fathom whatever it is they are concerned to fathom. The unknown lies all about us and we "figure" it all with ourselves -- the human metaphors. Our movement, of whatever sort, is always metaphorical, with ourselves as one term of the metaphor.

What is at stake in this perspective is epistemologically radical; that is, it is not being proposed that metaphorical language simply "has a place" in human knowing, a place ultimately superseded by conceptual language, as Cassirer would maintain. -Rather metaphor, as Sewell understands it, is the human method

of investigating the universe. 16a. And if the problem of human knowing, as one commentator on Sewell has written, is "How does one investigate, interpret, inquire into a system of which the observer is an inseparable part?" then the answer must include the observer at every point; it must be a method in which "one figures itself in on whatever figuring process one is at work upon."17. The main difficulty with post-Cartesian epistemologies is that they do not figure in the figurer; they split mind and body, reason and imagination, subject and object, nature and history and end with something other and less than human knowing.

The banishment of imprecise, metaphorical language from the realm of serious reflection and discourse entailed the eventual loss of poetry as a unique and useful method of inquiry, however enjoyable and even important it was to remain as aesthetically interesting subject matter. Poetry, with its roots reaching far below the surface dualisms of reason/imagination, mind/matter, nature/history, had relied upon the unity of man’s sensibility coextensive with the movements of nature as expressed primordially and paradigmatically in the figure of man’s own body as embodying its own inescapable method of knowing the living universe; early Greek philosophy, founded as it was upon the denial of these roots, sought to provide man with a myth of himself and the world which itself precluded man’s mythmaking capacity and thereby so exteriorized and fragmented man’s own conception of himself that the forms upon which he had earlier relied as paradigmatic for expressing his self-conception were necessarily discredited. Being quite literally "uprooted," the mental side of man’s meaning-giving powers relinquished its understanding of itself as inevitably conjoined with the body’s own form and with the world as possible clues to the way man "figures" his own understanding. 18.  

An analysis such as the above indicates that the importance of metaphor can scarcely be overstated. Its claim is that human knowing, at its most profound, is not disembodied, abstract, or conceptual; the analogy for human knowing is not the Cartesian machine but the evolutionary organism -- the stretching of the whole creature beyond itself into the unknown. With the rest of the universe this "groping" toward richer and more fruitful forms is unconscious, with the human being it is conscious; but the pattern is the same. Nothing is left behind, no matter is sloughed off. Metaphor is the language of "a body that thinks"; it is, therefore, neither an embellishment of language nor a primitive form to be superseded by conceptual language, but the method of human thought.

A superb example of metaphor as the method of human thought is Walter Ong’s analysis of the death of one of the five nuns in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland." Hopkins’ treatment of the nun’s death and her constant cry, "0 Christ, come quickly," is movement through figuring with the whole self.

This was the point -- unknown until now -- to which her life had been building up, and she was ready, for she had known that God’s coming need not be gentle, that He is present not only in "the stars, lovely. asunder" or in "the dapple-with-damson west," but in all events of history, even the most horrible, out of which He can bring joy. . . [Hopkins’] fascination with the unique and his sense of historicity is shown perhaps most strikingly by the way in which in the "Deutschland" he has fixed on the consciously accepted death of a human being -- the utterly unique culmination of an utterly unique existence -- as the very focus of existence and meaning. 19.

All the ingredients of the human metaphor are here in a most extreme form in this human life at its moment of death. The nun sees her own death, the culmination of all she has become, as the means, the method, for moving to where she would be -- with Christ. It is absurd to think of concepts of grace or life or death; one can only say that she, her whole life now at its culmination, is the metaphor which alone is at her disposal to use to go beyond where she now is, at the entrance to death. What is true of the culmination of life in death is true also of its passage -- movement is by the human metaphor, the entire self in its embodied, historical, individual reality.

If human beings move like this in all ways in which they do move, and if this movement is not merely off the top of the head but is a total movement of the total self, then metaphor, grounded as it is in the sensuous stuff of the earth and the body and the familiar, is not only the method, but metaphors are the appropriate expression of the method. For metaphorical language not only connects this with that, here with there, but demands that one partner of the association, at least, be concrete, sensuous, familiar, bodily. It will abide no abstractions, no head without a body, no mystical flights, but because it is the method of human movement it insists on taking along the whole human being in all its familiarity, messiness, and concreteness. This means, among other things, that "anthropomorphic" language (metaphoric language) is, as Sewell says, what human language is bound to be; and she adds, What else could it be? Human beings cannot think (or move) in nonhuman ways: given what we are, we must think and move "anthropomorphically." 20.

Much of this seems so self-evident that we wonder why we miss it so often; why we insist on trying to step out of our skins when we think. Theological thinking has often been prone to this attempt in spite of the fact that it is so patently opposed by the universally accepted belief (however interpreted) that God is somehow with us in the human life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and opposed as well by the anthropomorphic, metaphorical language of the Scriptures, not to mention the highly "existential" genres in which the Scriptures are written -- the passion story, hymns, letters, sermons, poetry, and so on. As we have already noted, Erich Auerbach has pointed out in several of his writings that it was Christianity and particularly the story of Jesus that gave to Western letters and thought its trust in the human, its sense of the importance of human life, and its hope that it might get somewhere. The metaphorical tradition -- the willingness to trust the familiar sufficiently to use it as one partner in the associations to move beyond it -- is in large part the legacy of Christianity, yet the main tradition in Christian theology has often retreated from faith in its own foundation.

Metaphor, as we have described it, is the way of human knowing. It is not simply a way of embellishing something we can know in some other way. There is no other way. If this is so, then human knowledge (of whatever sort) has certain characteristics: it is tentative, relativistic, multi-layered, dynamic, complex, sensuous, historical, and participatory. But the language of theology, for instance, often seems not to have these characteristics. It often appears to fall into what Philip Wheelwright calls "steno-language," what Barfield calls rational language, what Cassirer calls scientific language.

We have seen that modern languages are for the most part composed of dead metaphors; common sense or discursive language was once metaphorical but now has attained a univocal meaning. Discursive language, then, the language which relates, communicates, designates, measures, enumerates, dissects, analyzes, systematizes, depends on metaphorical language -- it is, in fact, the old age of such language. The rational deals with what is delivered to it; it analyzes, dissects, systematizes the fruit of the imagination -- symbolic, mythological, metaphorical language; discursive language rearranges the already known. It would be wrong, of course, to understand this division in such a way as to suppose that poetry is without logical language and philosophy and science without metaphorical language, for, from scientists and from scientifically-based philosophers such as Polanyi, Whitehead, and Teilhard we know that the intuitive leaps of creative scientists are very similar to the metaphoric process; and no one has ever claimed that Dante or Shakespeare did not think logically. The relations between the two types of language are highly complex, symbiotic, and impure. Moreover, aesthetic experience is precisely "the felt change of consciousness" (Barfield) from prosaic language to poetic, and if it were not for prosaic language to hold a world in order, the awareness of new connections would not be possible.

It is true that abstract thought and language is the latest and therefore some have said it is the highest human accomplishment. There is certainly a progression of language toward the abstract; it appears to be the natural completion of symbolic language. But it is an unfortunate development, particularly as we shall see in theology, to consider the natural completion of language as its "highest" development. For it has meant, in large measure, the hegemony of abstract, systematic language in theological reflection, the elevation of the great systematizers Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Tillich, Barth -- and the accompanying depression of more basic forms, such primary forms of religious reflection as parable, story, poem, and confession. It is upon these primary forms -- metaphorical forms -- that all theological reflection relies. As Robert Funk says, the parable lies somewhere behind systematic theology: how the parable informs theology is the heart of our concern. 20a. But a few guidelines for what I have called intermediary theology may be emerging:

1) the various forms of metaphorical language operative in biblical literature and in the Christian literary tradition ought to be looked at carefully as resources for theological reflection;

2) these forms are not secondary embellishments to the mainline systematic and doctrinal tradition, but are, in fact, its nourishment;

3) recognizing the importance of such forms as parable, story, poem, and confession does not imply substituting these forms for systematic theology, but it does imply a continuum from these forms to systematic theology.

These guidelines (or some like them) are not choices made arbitrarily. If one accepts the thesis of this chapter that metaphor is basic not only to new meaning (poetic metaphor) and to the formation of language (radical metaphor) but to all human thought of whatever sort -- if, to put it most sharply, all our theories, revolutions, dreams, works of art, scientific discoveries, and metaphysics, not to mention our personal lives, are attempts to "figure" the universe -- then there is no way for theological reflection to avoid a return to its metaphorical base in parable, story, poem, and confession. It is imperative that we now look carefully at one of these metaphorical forms -- the parable before attempting to say more about intermediary theology



 0. M. H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp gives an excellent description of this point. ‘Any area for investigation, so long as it lacks prior concepts to give it structure and an express terminology with which it can be managed, appears to the inquiring mind inchoate either a blank, or an elusive and tantalizing confusion Our usual recourse is, more or less deliberately, to cast about for objects which offer parallels to dimly sensed aspects of the new situation, to use the better known to elucidate the less known, to discuss the in tangible in terms of the tangible. This analogical procedure seems characteristic of much intellectual enterprise. There is a good deal of wisdom in the popular locution for ‘what is its nature?’ namely: ‘What’s it like?’ We tend to describe the nature of something in similes and metaphors, and the vehicles of these recurrent figures, when analyzed, often turn out to be the attributes of an implicit analogue through which we are viewing the object we describe." [London: Oxford University Press, 1953], pp. 31-32)

1. I. A. Richards, The Philosophy of Rhetoric as quoted in Max Black, Models and Metaphors: Studies in Language and Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1962), p. 41.

2. Black, Models and Metaphors, p. 41.

3. Ian Ramsey, Models and Mystery (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 13-16.

3a. "We can comment upon the metaphor, but the metaphor itself neither needs nor invites explanation and paraphrase. Metaphorical thought is a distinctive mode of achieving insight, not to be construed as an ornamental substitute for plain thought" (Black, Models and Metaphors, p. 237).

4. Stanley Burnshaw, The Seamless Web (New York: George Braziller, 1970), p. 98.

5. Samuel Coleridge, "Biographia Literaria," Ch. 14, The Portable Coleridge, ed. I. A. Richards (New York: The Viking Press, 1967), p. 516.

6. Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth, trans. Susanne K. Langer (New York: Harpers, 1946), p. 84.

7. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (London: Faber and Faber, 1928), p. 141.

8, John Middleton Murry, Countries of the Mind: Essays in Literary Criticism, 2nd series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), p. 1.

9. C. Day-Lewis, The Poetic Image (London: Jonathan Cape, 1947), p. 35.

10. Elizabeth Sewell, The Human Metaphor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), pp. 11, 200.

10a. Others say it a little differently, but with the same focus. "Metaphor is, in essence, a very simple device: it is, quite literally, a figure of speech by which a sense or meaning that is usually associated with one sort of thing (object, or situation or occasion) is ‘brought over’ and attached to another sort of thing" (Iredell Jenkins, Art and the Human Enterprise [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958], p. 248); "The Poetic metaphor is ‘a powerful image, new for the mind, [produced] by bringing together without comparison two distant realities whose relationships (rapports) have been grasped by the mind alone' (Paul Reverdy). A poetic metaphor is ‘the use of material images to suggest immaterial relationships’ (Ernest Fenellosa)" (Stanley Burnshaw, The Seamless Web [New York: George Braziller, 1970], p. 88); "Metaphor is the synthesis of several units of observation into one commanding image; it is the expression of a complex idea, not by analysis, nor by direct statement, but by sudden perception of an objective relation (Herbert Read)" (Philip Wheelwright, The Burning Fountain: A Study in the Language of Symbolism [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968], p. 94).

11. Poems and Prose of Hopkins, p. 5.

11a. To say that metaphor is constitutive of language does not of course imply any theory about the origin of language, a question which lies beyond the ken of science or speculation. "Somehow in the long temporal mystery of evolution there emerged the power and disposition to let something -- whether a body, an image, a sound, or later a written word -- stand as surrogate for something else. Therein man became -- and neither anthropologist nor philosopher can say when or how -- a linguistic animal" (Philip Wheelwright, Metaphor and Reality [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1962], p. 19).

11b. David Burrell’s thesis of "the dramatic character of language" provides further substantiation for the radical character of metaphor. Ordinary language is metaphorical through and through, he says. There is no "meta-level inquiry" which will unravel the ambiguous and tentative character of all our interpretations of reality. In tracing the history of analogical discourse from Plato to modern times, he asserts that whereas the Renaissance view of metaphor as decorative presumes a univocal relation between language and reality, the contemporary view -- witnessed to by literary critics and language analysts, notably Wittgenstein -- insists on the inherent theory of metaphor" which presumes no privileged set of terms in our forays on reality that are exempt from criticism and reflective discrimination. "No metaphor can claim to be the right one because this very claim would render all others superfluous and merely decorative. Yet within limits we can recognize certain ‘sort-crossings’ as more appropriate -- at least to a given context -- than others. Again within limits this kind of appropriateness can be argued for and so gradually learned. But what cannot be acquired and must be presupposed is the original reflective and critical ability which issues in recognitions like these: that a metaphor fits the occasion" (Analogy and Philosophical Language [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), pp. 259-260).

11c. The ability to discriminate and to recognize appropriate metaphors is complex. It appears to be, at least in part, an intrinsic quality, like the ability to judge a work of art as "good." On the face of it, there may appear to be no way to learn it. Ian Ramsay says, "The theological model works more like the fitting of a boot or a shoe than like the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ of a rollcall" (Models and Mystery [London: Oxford University Press, 1964], p. 17). Frederick Ferré suggests a more pragmatic basis for discrimination; "The best language at his [the religious believer’s] disposal in which to formulate his ultimate beliefs may be recognized as literally false, but he has reasons to believe that his concepts are not mere falsehoods. They illuminate his experience; they organize his understanding of the world in an effective and fruitful way; they replace blank opaqueness with the elusive gleam, at least, of intelligibility. In a word, his religious images ‘work’ for him, if his is a relatively reliable set of religious beliefs; they work, if they do work, to the furtherance of understanding, the increase of integrity and coherence in the believer’s total self, and thus to the fulfillment of both thought and life" (‘Metaphors, Models, and Religion," p. 344). But in learning to discriminate among religious metaphors, participation in the religious community seems essential, for in part, at least, what the "tradition" and "orthodoxy" are is the recognition by many believers over many centuries of metaphors that fit and are appropriate. On this reading, ‘heresy" can he seen as constituted by discarded metaphors which were tried by the church and found to be inappropriate.

11d. Strictly speaking, image rather than metaphor is the most accurate way of describing primitive language formation, for metaphor already implies some names or symbols which are distinguished and related in order to name events and objects more precisely. But a "pure" or radically primitive situation in which distinct denotative symbols exist is somewhat arbitrary to imagine, for even the most primitive languages display the intricate interweavings of nomenclature that rely on the ability to think metaphorically, that is, to note similarities and differences.

12. Barfield, Speaker’s Meaning, p. 53.

13. Ibid., p. 59.

14. Barfield, Poetic Diction, pp. 140-141.

15. Ricoeur, Symbolism of Evil, p. 356.

15a. In a recent essay, Ricoeur makes the closest possible connection between metaphor and reality: ". . . a discourse which makes use of metaphor has the extraordinary power of redescribing reality. This is, I believe, the referential function of metaphorical statement. . . . If this analysis is sound, we should have to say that metaphor not only shatters the previous structures of our language, but also the previous structures of what we call reality. When we ask whether metaphorical language reaches reality, we presuppose that we already know what reality is. But if we assume that metaphor redescribes reality, we must then assume that this reality as redescribed is itself novel reality. . . . With metaphor we experience the metamorphosis of both language and reality" ("Creativity in Language: Word, Polysemy, Metaphor," Philosophy Today [Summer 1973], pp. 110, 111).

15b. I am deeply indebted to Elizabeth Sewell’s The Orphic Voice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960) and The Human Metaphor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964) for the perspective ingredient in the following remarks. As she makes clear in her books, however, the notion that the human "method" of knowing (as well as growth in all other areas, whether personal, political, or social) is metaphorical is as old as Orpheus and as modern as Michael Polanyi. The idea that human beings think like machines rather than like organisms is a fairly recent one, as she points out -- as recent as Descartes at the earliest

15c. In the perspective called "theology of hope" (Jurgen Moltmann, Dorothee Soelle, Gustavo Gutierrez, etc.) the future functions as the context in which the present can be both criticized and renovated. The claim of these theologians that Christianity is always and basically eschatological can be accepted, provided such a perspective does not discard the present. That is, the kingdom is not only ahead of us and over against us but it is also in our midst -- in the healing stories, the parables, the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we have intimations, metaphors, of the kingdom.

15d. Ian G. Barbour insists that the construction of scientific models, like the construction of religious metaphors, is the way of perceiving and redescribing reality. "I will deal ... with theoretical models in science, which are mental constructs devised to account for observed phenomena in the natural world. They originate in a combination of analogy to the familiar and creative imagination in the invention of the new. I will argue that theoretical models, such as the ‘billard ball model’ of a gas. are not merely convenient calculating devices or temporary psychological aids in the formulation of theories; they have an important continuing role in suggesting both modifications in existing theories and the discovery of new phenomena, I will try to show that such models are taken seriously but not literally. They are neither literal pictures of reality nor ‘useful fictions,’ but partial and provisional ways of imagining what is not observable; they are symbolic representation of aspects of the world which are not directly accessible to us" (Myths, Models and Paradigms, pp. 6-7).

16. Sewell, Metaphor, p. 11.

16a. An epistemological extreme of Sewell’s position of the human being as the metaphor or partner in all knowing is James Olney’s Metaphors of the Self: The Meaning of Autobiography: "A theology, a philosophy, a physics or a metaphysics -- properly seen, these are all autobiography recorded in other characters and other symbols. . . . A metaphor , . . through which we stamp our own image on the face of nature, allows us to connect the known of ourselves to the unknown of the world, and, making available new relational patterns, it simultaneously organizes the self into a new and richer entity; so that the old known self is joined to and transformed into the new, the heretofore unknown, self. Metaphor says very little about what the world is, or is like, but a great deal about what I am " [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972], pp. 5, 31-32),

17. Benjamin Ladner, "On Hearing the Orphic Voice," Soundings, 55 (Summer 1972), 247, 248.

18. Ibid., pp. 240-241.

19. Walter J. Ong, S.J., "Evolution, Myth, and Poetic Vision," New Theology #5, ed, Martin Marty and Dean Peerman (New York: Macmillan, 1968), pp. 246, 247.

20. Sewell, Metaphor, p. 78.

20a. Paul Ricoeur makes some interesting comments on parables and systematic theology in an essay entitled "Listening to the Parables of Jesus" (Criterion, 13 [Spring 1974], 1822). He contends that Jesus’ parables are "a language which from beginning to end, thinks through the Metaphor and never beyond." We who are used to using images as provisionary devices to be replaced by concepts find the strategy of the parables hard to bear, but, says Ricoeur, our disappointment at not finding "a coherent idea, an equivocal concept from this bundle of metaphors" can become amazement when we realize that 'there is more in the parables taken together than in any conceptual system about God. We are, in the Parables taken as a whole, given much more to think through than the coherence of any concept offers." We can, he says," draw from the Parables nearly all the kinds of theologies which have divided Christianity through the centuries . . . and taken all together, they say more than any rational theology." The parables, in words Ricoeur has used elsewhere, "give rise to thought," but cannot be reduced to "theological simplifications which we attempt to put in their place."


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