Religion as a metaphor

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Last Sunday's New York Times contained an article by Dana Jennings, a convert to Judaism, who wrote about the recent Pew Trust report on Americans changing their religious affiliations.

I particularly liked it when he said that

religions, if nothing else, are metaphors for how we choose to lead our lives, how we choose to defy the empty cultural whirlwind.

Our lives begin in mystery ... and end in mystery. In between, we try to explain ourselves to ourselves, all 6.5 billion of us who are wedged onto this improbable planet — 6.5 billion potential paths toward the holy.

Judaism is my faith, my road, my metaphor — but my metaphor isn’t any better than your metaphor, and vice versa — which still shocks the 10-year-old country boy who lurks in my heart.

18 comments:

Harry said...

Why did Mr. Jennings bother to convert is his new metaphor isn't any better than his old metaphor?

Mystical Seeker said...

Why did Mr. Jennings bother to convert is his new metaphor isn't any better than his old metaphor?

Although he was raised as a Christian, prior to his conversion he was not particularly religious. The reason he chose Judaism, even though it is not objectively better than any other religion, is that it spoke to him personally in a way that other religions did not. The point is that he doesn't claim that what is true for him is necessarily true for everyone.

Jan said...

I like the term "metaphor" as applying to each of our views of the Holy One.

Mystical Seeker said...

I agree, Jan.

Harry said...

I find it a bit wishy-washy.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Email me -- faithinthepublicsquare@gmail.com -- I want to talk to you about writing an article for Sharing the Practice. Anonymously of course.

Bob

WES ELLIS said...

I like what you said in your response to harry (by the way, harry, good question). "...even though it is not objectively better..."
I think it is key to distinguish objectivity from anything else we might be talking about. I don't buy into the idea of objectivity. I can't imagine being arrogant enough to say that my conclusions are the conclusions to which every rational person in the world should agree. This doesn't mean I won't use language like "better" or "true." For example, I think Christianity is true and it is the best expression and way of life in the world, but I say this humbly (if you can consider this humility). I am not appealing to objective truth. I am not saying that this conclusion must be reached by all people if all people are thinking logically. I am not saying that this is true somewhere outside of my experience. I am an simply inviting people to see the world and interpret their experience in the same way we do (I use "we" because I also want to avoid thinking of this in purely individualistic terms, I think at a profound level, this is very communal). I also think God has to come into the equation somewhere. I presuppose God in my interpretation of my experience just as someone else might presuppose God's absence in theirs. God is active in the conversation taking place between people and groups and narratives. Within all our subjectivity we will always make objective statements (even the statement "but my metaphor isn’t any better than your metaphor" is 'objective') But we make these statements from within our particular interpretations and narratives. None of us have the high-ground, this actually makes for better and more honest dialog.

Harry said...

wes,

Not believing in objective truth is a popular philosophical position these days (even though it is subject to self-contradiction).

But nobody really acts as though there is no objective truth.

Is evolution just a subjective whim? Or are you willing to force the indoctrination of school children in evolution and forbid teaching the alternatives?

Mystical Seeker has written intelligently on Process Theology. Does she really believe it, or is it no better than believing in an omnipotent deity. Six of one, half dozen of another.

What we orthodox Christians and the atheist Scientists have in common is a commitment to an Objective Truth that is knowable. Christians believe that Truth is a Person , while Scientists believe Truth is an equation.

I hope you can appreciate how useless (and wishy washy) these two parties consider the Subjectivist position.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think Christianity is true and it is the best expression and way of life in the world, but I say this humbly (if you can consider this humility). I am not appealing to objective truth. I am not saying that this conclusion must be reached by all people if all people are thinking logically. I am not saying that this is true somewhere outside of my experience. I am an simply inviting people to see the world and interpret their experience in the same way we do (I use "we" because I also want to avoid thinking of this in purely individualistic terms, I think at a profound level, this is very communal).

Wes,

Great comments.

I personally think that objectivity becomes problematic when it comes to God. I don't view God as simply another "object" in the universe that we can be "objective" about. Instead, God is, in my view, a wholly more fundamental order of reality. And this reality is beyond our ability to fully comprehend it. So any time we use the word "God" we are trying to come to grips with a deeper form of reality that we can only partly glimpse, and I would suggest that any statement we make about God is necessarily provisional.

That is how there can be multiple religions in the world. Each religion is a human attempt at grasping a piece of a deeper reality, as in the story of the blind men and the elephant.

And because I think that God refers to a deeper form of reality than ordinary, everyday objects that we encounter in the world, I ultimately see "God" as a metaphorical framework, a meta-narrative, that informs our overall understanding of the world.

That was why I was pleasantly surprised to see the article by Dana Jennings. He articulated what I have been thinking for some time.

Harry said...

MS:

It is the contention of orthodox Christianity that God was incarnate in 1st C. Palestine. God has revealed Himself to us through his only begotten Son and can be known objectively.

Before Christ, God was indeed remote. Today He dwells among us!

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John 1:1-3

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
(For the life was manifested, and we have seen [it], and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)

That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship [is] with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.

Mystical Seeker said...

Ah, but I'm not an orthodox Christian, am I?

In any case, there is a difference between on the one hand affirming that God is revealed by event(s) or person(s) in the world and on the other saying that God is fully and objectively knowable. If we were not able to discern something about God within the world, there would be no religion at all. There is a middle ground between objective knowledge and no knowledge at all.

Personally, I consider the assertion that God is objectively knowable to be a form of idolatry. Jews who do not pronounce God's name do so precisely out of concern for avoiding such idolatry.

Harry said...

MS:

Students of the Kabbalah, at least, do not pronounce the name of God, but are dedicated to knowing God.

And if I am an idolator, does that mean my metaphor is somehow defective, that I am a follower of a false religion?

Mystical Seeker said...

Students of the Kabbalah, at least, do not pronounce the name of God, but are dedicated to knowing God.

As good people of faith should be.

And if I am an idolator, does that mean my metaphor is somehow defective, that I am a follower of a false religion?

You are focused on binary thinking--your question presumes that a religion must be either exclusively "true" or else it is a "false" or defective religion. All religions are incomplete in some sense, and all metaphors about God are incomplete. It just comes with the territory. That is the point I've been making all along.

Harry said...

OK, now I get it!

Religions are neither true nor false.

Your religious thinking is a sort of fashion statement rather than a search for truth.

Mystical Seeker said...

Religions are neither true nor false.

I would say instead that religions can be both true and false. Or, better still, that they are often partly true. That's because religions capture an element of the deeper divine truth that underlies reality.

Your religious thinking is a sort of fashion statement rather than a search for truth.

There you go again with that binary thinking. Actually, I do favor searching for deeper meaning and truth. What you want out of religion, like many people, is not truth but Truth. Not the same thing. I believe that religion is about giving meaning to our lives. That hardly makes it a "fashion statement". Fashion statements are not transformational and they don't give depth and meaning to people's lives. Religions do.

Harry said...

What you want out of religion, like many people, is not truth but Truth.

This you will have to explain to me.

WES ELLIS said...

MS.
I am sorry I haven't come back to this conversation for so long... I've been in Mexico (long story). I wanted to respond to your response. I appreciate where you are coming from and I agree with you on many levels.

Only one thing... about your appeal to the "elephant" metaphor. I am hesitant to use this language because I worry that it is not truly sensitive to the disagreements between various religions. Are we really taking people seriously if we say they're all just describing a piece of the same elephant? Aren't we claiming that this makes us the only people who aren't blind... standing back and watching everyone foolishly feel around? I believe that there are fundamental disagreements between different religious traditions. Not that there aren't agreements too, but shouldn't we allow people to disagree? Yes, we should point out what we have in common with each other and find ways to unite on these things. But I am afraid if we say that a Buddhist and a Muslim, for example, are touching the same elephant we are not fully taking either the Muslim or the Buddhist seriously.

Mystical Seeker said...

Aren't we claiming that this makes us the only people who aren't blind... standing back and watching everyone foolishly feel around?

I don't think of it that way. I think we who come to the conclusion that it is all the same elephant are just as blind as those who don't.

But I am afraid if we say that a Buddhist and a Muslim, for example, are touching the same elephant we are not fully taking either the Muslim or the Buddhist seriously.

They might be touching the same elephant, but they are touching very different parts of the elephant, so that is how it is possible that these disagreements can emerge. That is the point of the story.

I think that to deny that either or the Buddhist is even touching ant elephant at all--as religious exclusivists among Christianity would assert--would take neither of them seriously, since it denies that they have come in touch with any keep of deeper reality or that there is any validity to their experience of the Divine.