The Mysticism of Metaphor

It’s been a hot minute, n’est pas? As usual lately, I feel like I have to open with apology for having become so sporadic in posting. I’ll continue to work on that. I promise that writing is going on behind the scenes!

Apologies aside, I want to return to a topic I’ve touched upon before. Consider this a random, “And another thing!” as I walk back into the room.

In my early series, Ambiguity in Scripture, I talked about the usefulness of metaphor in Scripture–that it allows multiple things to be said in fewer words, that it forces you to consider and confront alternatives, that it begs for interpretation rather than rote recitation. I want to drill down deeper on the power of metaphor in Scripture. In particular, I’d like to argue that metaphor is a microcosm of mystic existential experience. This is self-serving, of course, being that my own formulated Christian theology takes a (semi-)mystical and (wholly-)existential approach. That said, I don’t think that fact provides any counter-argument in and of itself.

For clarity’s sake, let’s start with some definitions. A metaphor is a rhetorical device that asks the audience to compare one thing to another by (non-literal) reference. For instance, Shakespeare’s “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet the sun.”

A simile is a subtype of metaphor using “like” or “as” for the means of comparison. Another example from Romeo and Juliet: “Is love a tender thing? It is too rough, too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.”

While I’m going to focus on metaphor, it might be worth giving a quick nod to its cousin, analogy. Like metaphor, analogy is a comparison of two things. Unlike metaphor, analogy usually has a more direct and explanatory relationship between the objects compared rather than leaving the comparison open for interpretation.

And now we get into it. Why is metaphor mystical? It is a minor synchronicity, requiring an act of engagement and experience more than intellectual decoding. In apologetics, and in particular in the context of whether a person “knows” Jesus, a statement is often made comparing intellectual knowledge (I can tell you facts about Jesus as presented in the Gospels) and more personal/experiential knowledge (I am familiar with the person of Jesus; I have experienced him). Such comparison is usually followed by pointing to the different words used in Romance languages to differentiate these types of knowledge–saber and conocer in Spanish, savoir and connaitre in French, etc.

This idea is writ both large and small in the use of metaphor. Intellectual knowledge only provides the barest of foundations for understanding a metaphor–for Romeo’s declaration about Juliet, I must know what a sun is for me to be able to understand what he means. But while that intellectual knowledge is necessary, it is vastly insufficient. Instead, I must consider the properties of the sun, its phenomena, if you will, to build a bridge between the ideas being compared. There are several consequences of this:

First, this requires direct engagement. There is no passive reception of meaning in a metaphor until we meet it head on, turn it over in our hands, place it in relationship to everything we understand. The best metaphors will allow different individuals to come to similar associations with regard to meaning, though I’d venture to say that each person’s meaning and insight are slightly (sometimes greatly) different in their focus. Were that not the case, there’d be no point in discussing metaphor as high school classes are forced to do and literature students force others to do. If the edges of the meaning of a metaphor aren’t rough, we’d just state the facts and move on, no need to talk about our feelings.

Which leads to the next point: the differences in the meanings we assign to a metaphor are deeply personal; they are borne out of the sum total of our experience, personality and inner life. They arise out of our very essence. In that way, the precise “feel” of a metaphor, those subtle differences in emotive reaction to them, cannot be fully communicated from one person to another. Language fails in a semiotic mess, because what I mean by the words I use to describe a metaphor likely overlap with but do not occupy the exact same meaning you ascribe to those same words. Metaphor itself, then, is deeply personal.

The very same slippage in words and meaning give metaphor its power. By divorcing our description from language and turning our attention to the direct comparison of objects in relationship to one another, we are freed from the constraints of normal language in finding meaning. It is this ability to reach toward, if not capture, ineffable thought that makes metaphor a truly poetic device.

This, too, is the heart of mysticism. Take for instance this definitions of the word from Merriam Webster’s online dictionary: “2: the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (such as intuition or insight); 3b: a theory postulating the possibility of direct and intuitive acquisition of ineffable knowledge or power.”

Every time we use a metaphor, it is a personal, existential engagement of mind and idea. I think it fair to call that mystical, without any need to resort to religious doctrine or belief. But this is a post about religion and theology, after all, so we cannot stop there.

Scripture is filled with the use of metaphor, from the fleshy: “Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies,” (Song of Solomon 4:5) to the more profound statements of Jesus. Let’s walk through some examples:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). While often quoted for the assertion that only Christians gain salvation, the metaphor makes things far more complex. How is Jesus the way? What does it mean that Jesus is truth? What does it mean that Jesus is “the life.” The second statement must be interpreted in light of the metaphors in the first. Rather than provide you with my own interpretation, I’ll argue that the introspection forced by the metaphors here is the point. The believer in Jesus does not struggle with the truth of the words–this requires faith not intellect, a point underscored by the circular logic implied by questioning the truthfulness of Jesus’ assertion that he is truth. No, the introspection is one far more difficult–and far more necessary–to the honestly seeking Christian: what does all of this mean for me and how I should conduct myself? The use of metaphor moves us toward internal struggle rather than providing an easy criterion for the judgment of others.

As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s this “poetic truth,” this carefully-constructed but subtle message in the linguistic structures of Scripture, where I find the inspiration (with a capital “I,” if you wish) of the Bible–not in arbitrary authority ascribed to a narrow view of the text. But those are thoughts for another time.

Think of all of some of the other metaphors Jesus uses: “the vine and the branches,” “living water,” “the bread of life.” How about the similes used to speak of the “kingdom of God?” The kingdom of heaven is like: “a mustard seed,” “a man who sowed good seed in his field,” “leaven,” “treasure hidden in a field,” “a dragnet cast into the sea,” “a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old,” etc., etc.

By removing these truths from cold intellectual lectures and placing them within earthy extended metaphors using ideas that would be common to any of his listeners, Jesus provides a certain equality to his message. Rather than restricting understanding to scholars and academics, the use of metaphor makes understanding available to anyone with experience of the world to draw upon. Other than the ability to think abstractly, there is no special training required to glean meaning from a metaphor; the fisherman or subsistence farmer has equal access as the doctor or lawyer. I have on multiple occasions been humbled by the interpretations of Scripture by those I would not consider “intellectual” (for whatever good such a label is) who nevertheless–through the application of their experience and intuitive knowledge of “how things are”–provide understandings of Scriptural meaning far more profound than anything I’d thought up with my fancy tools of “textual” or “comparative” analysis.

There is, of course, a danger in this equality, for it destroys all authority outside of God. If we each have equal access to the truth expressed in metaphor, what right have I to lord over you, or to not start from a place of humility? That is undoubtedly terrifying to those who prefer order to relationship, easy answers to depth of feeling and experience.

But, the statement that the metaphor gives equal access to authority in spiritual understanding is not the same as saying that anything goes ie that we cannot know anything. As I’ve written in other posts, even when we may be unable to fully define the truth and mark out its sharp edges, we have tools to approximate as best we can. We can compare the internal consistency of theological argument, the way that it squares with Scripture, science and other sources of understanding our existence, and our own experience. My Methodist readers will see here Albert Outler’s “Weslayan Quadrilateral,” though the principle is not confined to any one denomination or expression of Christian faith.

Metaphor, both in the general sense and with particular regard to Scripture and theology, begins with experience and then transcends it, bringing forth from experience and creative comparison a liberation from the constraints of language and a passage into the freedom of abstract thought and intuition, where we may seek understandings concealed from us in the use of our more logical and formal thought. That is mysticism. It may not be the ecstatic mysticism of the unio mystica purportedly achieved by a handful of saints, but it is far more available to we less-disciplined souls. It is a mysticism that everyone can practice. Regularly, subtly, and yet not without profundity. And, of course, there’s the symmetry that this method of escaping linguistic thought is derived from analysis of the uses of language and rhetoric.

i invite you to reread Jesus’s parables and revel in their metaphors. See where they lead you in the search for understanding that surpasses mere words. Consider it an alternative form of lectio divina, if you like.

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