What Use Is Metaphor?


I believe we think in metaphor.  I’m sure I do.  All the dead metaphors lying around suggest this: melting pot, wall of separation, war on drugs, information superhighway, to mention just a few.  Many people, unfortunately, discount metaphor and this limits their thinking.

If we think in metaphor, this would be the way we think about deity, about religion.  It was reading the work of the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides which first made me aware of this.  He asserts that we can only talk about God by analogy.  If we say God is good, we are only saying that this attribute of God is in some way analogous to the qualities we admire in a person we call good.  It makes sense that, if we are creatures, our Creator is beyond our understanding.  Our ideas can at best be vague approximations.

The problem is that modern popular language dismisses metaphor because it is not “true” by which is meant that it is not factual.  The reduction of “truth” to “fact” is unfortunate, because it easily constricts reason to “thinking about facts.”

Beginning in the mid-19th century, those who wanted to gain public attention for new religious ideas presented them in scientific language: the mediums of spiritualism tried to present their work as science; Mary Baker Eddy not only called her belief system “Christian Science,” her basic text is The Science of Health With Key to the Scriptures.  Similarly Madame Blavatsky presented her ideas, to which she gave the name Theosophy, as science.

In our time the dominant popular world view limits the reading of sacred texts because if the only truth is fact, then scripture must be either factual or false.

Fortunately one can escape this trap and think more broadly.  One can read one’s sacred text as human interpretation.  One can recognize that all language about God has to be metaphoric (including such terms as “Father” for God),.  But those who do read their scriptures in this broad way find themselves on one side of a very large gap between two kinds of believers.  And those who take their sacred text literally have the strength of popular scientific thinking on their side.

Some people who are raised in a literal belief system abandon it to find other levels of awareness through other traditions.  Those other levels inform all religions, including the one the former believer has left, knowing only the version diminished by reductive language.

I choose to stay in my tradition and explore its alternative meanings.  This is hard to explain to both literal believers and non-believers.  It is probably wiser to hint at it in poetry than to write explanations.


Robert Ingersoll asks “Which Way”


Robert Ingersoll, the most popular lecturer of the nineteenth century, presented a new freethought lecture called “Which Way” in the 1880s.  It brings up some interesting points for our day.

His primary question is threefold “How shall we civilize the world?  How shall we protect, life, liberty, property and reputations?  How shall we do away with crime and poverty?”  There was hope in the late nineteenth century that these questions might find answers.  The events of the last one hundred and thirty years suggest otherwise.

Ingersoll points out the lack of success of “the churches” in answering these questions.  He spends a lot of time on the God portrayed in Genesis.  Did this God advise or instruct his new human beings?  No, he just said “You shall not eat of this tree.”  Did he forgive and comfort when they sinned?  No, he punished them. 

He asks, “Are we to be governed by a Supernatural Being, or are we to govern ourselves?”  The answer is obvious to him. “I take the democratic side,” he says.  That “Supernatural Being” is a figure called on by tyrants and despots, princes and popes, to support the status quo.  

Ingersoll doesn’t go as far as we might today to show how the God those rulers called on to maintain their power was made after their own image.  He doesn’t need to because not just some, but most of his audience had been raised to believe that Genesis is history; that the punishing God is the only option.  In Ingersoll’s day good people still believed that the fear of hell helped to preserve social order.  Ingersoll disagrees: 

There is no reforming power in fear.  You can scare a man, maybe, so bad that he won’t do a thing, but you can’t scare him so bad he won’t want to do it.  There is no reforming power in punishment or brute force.

That’s one lesson we as a community have not learned to this day.  We also have made no progress, perhaps have even gone backward, in this:

You may ask me what I want.  Well, in the first place I want to get theology out of government.  It has no business there.  Man gets his authority from man, and is responsible only to man.  I want to get theology out of politics.  Our ancestors in 1776 retired God from politics, because of the jealousies among the churches, and the result has been splendid for mankind.  I want to get theology out of education.  Teach the children what somebody knows, not what somebody guesses. 

Robert Ingersoll was intensely patriotic.  I believe he would be quite discouraged to see how little progress our nation has made in these matters since his time.  Which way should we turn to find a solution to our present situation?


Juxtaposition and more of Levi Romero


I have a long-enduring fondness for the word “Juxtaposition.”  In an early poem using that title, now justifiably forgotten, I wrote “things touch at their edges.”  Where things touch, they affect each other; that’s juxtaposition, whether in nature or in art.  In this entry I juxtapose a piece of my work with a little more of Levi Romero’s work

Levi Romero’s book, Poetry of Remembrance, focuses, as I discussed previously, on stories and the past, but he includes other more current facets of his life: as teacher and leader of workshops and as an architect – an architect who cannot expect to be welcomed into a home he has designed.  In a poem he titles “Juxtaposition” he describes a visit to one such building as it was being built:

may I help you?
I am asked by the realtor
standing at the door,
thinking that I may be the guy
who mixed the mud and pushed the wheelbarrow . . .

I once was asked by a home magazine journalist
if I felt insulted by such incidents
well, no, I said, my mind mixing for an answer
a good batch of cement is never accidental

Romero has learned to live with  kindness but close attention on the edge of a culture where others assert that he does not belong.

This “outtake” from my own recent writing uses the term to describe juxtaposition in nature:

juxtaposing gypsum
deposits, playa, crystals, wind,
forms rolling dunes of white
sand in a brown desert.

in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico, gypsum washed down from bands in the mountain collects in Lucero Lake, then crystallizes as the lake goes dry, is worn away by wind, and blows into the dunes of White Sands National Monument. 

When I think anthropomorphically about God (and sometimes I do, knowing that all language about God is metaphoric) I picture an artist putting different elements of nature together to see what will happen.  The result may be wild or wonderful―and totally impractical.

What a powerful word!  “Juxtaposition” has taken me from society through poetry to nature and theology.  This may explain why I can’t seem to categorize my posts.