Myths and Metaphors

by Rupert Shortt

Rupert Shortt is religion editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of Rowan Williams: An Introduction. This article is excerpted from his collection of interviews with theologians, God’s Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation, to be published by Eerdmans.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, (Nov. 1, 2005, pp. 32-36.) Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation: used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This interview with Janet Martin Soskice, a theologian at Cambridge, depicts her strong arguments for the reasonableness of belief.

Janet Martin Soskice of Cambridge University has been at the forefront of a theological movement (largely inspired by Karl Barth) that asserts a renewed confidence in the intelligibility of theology. Her book Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford University Press) argues for taking biblical metaphors seriously and for not translating them into some other idiom. She is coeditor of Feminism and Theology (Oxford) and Medicine and Moral Reasoning (Cambridge University Press). She is working on a book about naming God.


I’d like to begin by asking about your early life.

I was raised a nominal Anglican in western Canada. We lived in a ski town, and most of my winter was taken up with skiing. My friends and I certainly didn’t make a dent in that to go to church on Sunday. I was nevertheless confirmed in the Anglican Church. The priest instructing me must have thought I had some disposition toward theology because he got me reading Tillich. I couldn’t make anything of it, other than to think that maybe there was something more to explore. But my puerile conclusion from all this was that if God was so great, so loving and wonderful, then God wouldn’t hold it against anyone who didn’t know if they believed in God -- and so what difference did it make?

Looking back on it, I had very condescending attitudes toward religious believers. I assumed that they were all people who needed some kind of emotional or social crutch and couldn’t manage on their own -- which is, of course, precisely true. What changes when you become religious is that you realize you’re one of those people, and that Promethean heroic autonomy is a bit of a flight of fancy.

I’m somewhat timid about saying this, but I am one of those people who then had quite a dramatic religious experience which led to conversion.

How would you describe this dramatic religious experience?

It was like being wrapped in an enormous loving mystery: I had a terrific sense of presence and of mystery, but a Presence to whom I could speak.

We have a notion -- we learn it from Bible stories in our children’s illustrated Bibles -- that God speaks to people, but what’s startling is feeling you’re in the presence of a God to whom you need to speak back. But it wasn’t with words. I didn’t hear words, I didn’t see anything

I don’t want to compare my experience to that of Moses, since I was only called to open my heart, but I find the scriptural account moving in that when Moses first notices the burning bush -- a moment we have come to think of as a great theophany -- the impression given by the text is more humdrum. Moses notices a bush that is burning and not consumed, and he is curious, rather like you might be when you see a cookery display at the end of the supermarket aisle. What’s going on? It’s only when Moses takes some steps forward and is addressed by name – "Moses, Moses. Take off your shoes. The place you are standing is holy ground" -- that things fall into place.

What happened during your university years?

I continued studying philosophy at Cornell. I started going regularly to services. At the Anglican chaplaincy there was great excitement about the fact that the congregation included the philosopher Norman Malcolm, one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s former students. So we all marveled over this, much as you might marvel over an elephant standing on a washbucket. Here was the greatest philosopher at the university, and he was a Christian. How did this work? The regnant assumption was that only idiots or the completely socially depraved believed in that sort of thing. His presence was naturally quite encouraging to me. I thought it vital at this stage to find intelligent people who were both Christian and literate: Christians who’d read Proust, that sort of thing. It sounds so awful now, but that’s the way it felt at the time.

I didn’t plan to be a theologian. I’d hardly heard of theologians, and I certainly didn’t think there were such things as women theologians. But having admitted to myself by this time that I was a Christian, I thought I should apply myself to theology.

You became a Roman Catholic at this time. Why was that?

To me it feels as though I discovered that I was a Catholic. I gradually began to see that Christianity is not about solitary seekers after truth who just get together once in a while for a chat: other people are very much part of the divine scheme of things -- even scripture has come down to us through the agency of other people. It was Catholic material that really inspired me -- the Metaphysical poets, C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and the works of Gerald Vann, OP. Malcolm Muggeridge, a friend of our principal at the Plymouth Brethren college in Vancouver, visited and spoke about how he had become a Catholic. Some found this very shocking, but I did not. I picked up an old Everyman edition of John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua in a secondhand bookshop, and, reading it, discovered that there was a beautiful and spiritual rationale for Catholic sacramental theology.

What would you say to people who haven’t been privy to the special spiritual experience you’ve described?

I’ve met many better Christians than myself who’ve never had any such deep feeling or intuition. Part of me feels that this must be dispositional -- some are more given to this kind of phenomenon than others. Some who have this experience go no further with it. (Bertrand Russell apparently had some form of spiritual experience near the end of his life, but felt it was too late to change his mind about religion.) Some who have no such experience become great saints. Some of the greatest saints -- Teresa of Avila, for example -- have years of darkness with no feeling of the presence of God at all. Some grow up with a quiet faith which they never have cause to doubt.

What, then, of those whose way is different? I think my message would echo that of Pascal: read scripture, pray, go to church, become involved with this world of faith and with people who believe, and see if things don’t click into place. I do feel that it becomes possible to see the presence of the world and its orderliness in a new way when you believe it to be a gift -- literally gratuitous -- and a gift from a Giver.

You’re touching on a popular but questionable myth: that atheism provides the neutral, common-sense view of the world, while religion is pie in the sky. It would be truer to hold that the existence of the world poses awe-inspiring questions to atheists as well as to believers.

Atheism is neither obvious nor obviously true. The big question for which there is no answer by reason alone is, of course, why there is something rather than nothing. I was once invited to take part in a radio program about miracles and was asked whether I believed In them, "Yes, of course," I said. And the researcher replied that she had recruited a leading humanist to put the contrary case. "What would you say to him?" I answered, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" There followed a baffled silence at the other end of the line, and in the end they asked a priest in charge of the Shrine at Knock to engage with the humanist instead of me.

That’s still a big problem, and believe me cosmology hasn’t answered it, astrophysics hasn’t answered it. It isn’t any more logical to say, with Aristotle, that the universe has simply always existed than it is to say that there’s a Creator, Bertrand Russell’s reply to the Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston -- that there’s no answer to this question -- doesn’t seem terribly satisfactory either.

So theology is to some extent a well-kept secret?

Yes, and theologians are partly responsible for that. At the same time, there’s something perverse in the way the modern academy has sidelined theology. I’ve been told by colleagues in medieval languages, and even in Dante studies, that it is "not done" to be interested in theology. How can you study medieval texts without being informed by theology? Political theorists write gamely about natural law in the 16th century without feeling the need to inquire into its religious foundations. There seems to be an assumption that because we are wise and atheistic, anyone in the past whom we admire cannot have been too much affected by religion -- that their faith is just a cultural appurtenance of as little importance to understanding their thought as their hairstyle. This isn’t objectivity: it’s prejudice. The study of theology is immensely broadening -- bringing together ethics, politics, metaphysics, aesthetics -- even if you can’t serve up neat and tidy answers.

Can you summarize what you are saying in Metaphor and Religious Language?

I was interested in moving the arguments about the reasonableness of belief a step sideways, and arguing that a religious person is not someone who has a few bizarre beliefs tacked on to what normal people believe, but someone who is informed by certain symbols, who inhabits certain sacred texts and narratives.

My question was, How do metaphors and symbols work? Can they be referential? Can they be truth-bearing? I wanted to locate these questions within a realist philosophical perspective because the prevailing dogma was that metaphor is incidental, ornamental and insubstantial. This line had prevailed since Locke, who had aligned metaphor with rhetoric (in this context considered negatively) and put both on the side of the ornamental or incidental. Neither, then, was to be considered integral or substantive. If this was right, and metaphor could never be "load bearing" if not reducible at some level to literal speech, then religious rationality would have to be consigned to the dustheap.

You wanted to argue that this couldn’t be true, but not simply to respond with a kind of leaden literalism -- God really is in his heaven and really sits on a throne.

That’s right. On the contrary, the important thing was to open up a new and more imaginative way of being a religious realist. I was surprised and delighted that the book was a success with conservatives, but I hope their reaction amounted to more than just recognizing someone else who believes that God is real, end of story. At the same time, some wrote to me to say they were glad to have a way opened up in which you could say you really do believe in God and God’s presence in your life, and the disclosure of God to Israel, without feeling that this realism commits you to believing that everything is nailed down in precise terms. Faithful knowing must also be unknowing, for the wonder of God exceeds our frail brains.

It seems you’ve been campaigning on two fronts: against the limitations of secular reasoning, and against the unacknowledged secularity common in modern Christian thought.

I’m always somewhat dispirited by the tendency to answer criticisms about the coherence of religious belief with a sort of watertight defense of its rationality. It just doesn’t seem to do justice to the sort of evidence as to how people believe and why. Conversely, you can know all the reasons and still not believe.

As a graduate student I found it depressing to find people defending philosophical realism by saying that God causes the world to come into being in much the same way as I cause this pencil to drop onto the table. There’s this kind of argument: God causes the world to come into being -- with some modest provisos such as that God, unlike us, creates outside of space and outside of time. But these aren’t modest provisos. Once you’ve inserted those qualifications, then divine creation becomes something radically different. Philosophy of religion in the analytic tradition has been haunted by a deism in which God becomes a big thing, at the opposite end of the spectrum from a neutrino. But God can’t be like that. If you really take on board the idea that God created all that is, including space and time, God’s otherness must be absolute.

Now for the three major monotheistic traditions, the fascination of the otherness of God does not imply God’s total absence. No: it is the reason we can speak of God’s total presence to the world. This is a lesson I learned from Herbert McCabe and other Dominicans, like Fergus Kerr, who effected a kind of marriage between Wittgenstein and Aquinas during the second half of the 20th century.

The lesson goes back at least as far as Augustine’s Confessions. You’ll remember the sequence: in his early days his mother is a Christian, but he hasn’t yet been baptized. He reads her Bible and thinks that it’s not written in very good Latin. It’s not very morally edifying. And who are the Jews? They’re some provincial people no one’s really heard about, Yet when he accepts Christ in a mysterious moment in the Milan garden, he comes to see that this God of the Bible who is present to Israel need not be incompatible with the Neoplatonism which still attracts him. The Christian God is still eternal, as was Plato’s god, but that doesn’t mean that God has no place in time but is every place, so to speak, in time. God’s omnipresence doesn’t mean that God is nowhere; it means that God is everywhere -- nearer to you than anything can be. Two "things" can only be so near -- but God is not a thing. The non-thingness of God means, as Augustine says, that God can be nearer to me than I am to my own self. And it’s this combination of the ultimacy of God with the intimacy of God that undergirds a lot of my work at the moment.

Your writings also offer scope for tracing paths from psychology toward spirituality. You’ve suggested that "morality, religion and mysticism are of a piece."

To go back to Augustine again, I’ve long liked his comment on the dominical teaching: the sum of the law and the prophets is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Augustine observes that this doesn’t seem to give guidance on how you’re meant to love yourself, but you’re meant to love yourself as in the image of God. So we have to love God fully, but we can’t love God fully without loving our neighbor fully, and without loving ourselves in the image of God fully. Those things go together.

This is why I object to any account of God’s nature that leaves other people out of the picture. We are here together with other human beings, with all their virtues and foibles. We become ourselves, as infants, by learning to love and to speak, and we have language in particular as a gift from other people. None of us invents it for ourselves (this is true of sign language too, of course). With language we move into the social world, and with language we praise, pray and promise. We characteristically move in language -- we ask questions, we call out to people, we name things, we ask someone to pass us butter or bricks, we create metaphors, we make puns. This is why Wittgenstein is so important; he never lets us forget that language, whatever else it may be, is a practice.

Religion in many ways is a practice too: it’s intensely social. I believe that God has made us to be intensely social. We come from each other. We would not be, but for our parents. We’ve learned languages from one another. This is another great Augustinian theme. In De Doctrina Christiana he says that although God could have taught us all individually and immediately by means of angels, it was part of God’s good plan that we should learn from one another, that we are tied to one another by the ligatures of love. .