Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lies Told to Children

Sunset in the Desert
-mountains turn into gold-

I learn a great deal about what is going on in the world and how people think by my daily participation in the social media. Yesterday I had a fascinating online conversation with someone who scoffed at the use of metaphorical language as a means of explaining anything that is "real' in the world, "The findings of science and the language of science alone explain reality," he said. Then he went on to tell me that "metaphors are lies told to children."  

My immediate response to the "metaphor as a lie" pronouncement was that I thought perhaps Shakespeare might disagree with that analysis. 

Metaphorical language is simply a different language, neither better nor worse than the language of science. We use metaphors to tap into our imagination. Metaphors help us to apprehend "mystery" in life.

Out here in the desert where I live, the surrounding mountains brightly glow in the reflection of the rays of the setting sun. Of course, this can all be explained scientifically and factually. The angle of the sun in relationship to the earth, the refraction of the rays- these can all be scientifically measured, and it's all very explainable. 

However, scientific facts cannot begin to "explain" how my spirit is set on fire as I stand in awe before the glowing mountains as the sun goes down. I need the language of metaphor and poetry to help me get in touch with it all; so I say "the mountains turn into gold when the sun sets in the desert skies. This is not a lie told to children. While not being "factual," this metaphor is perhaps a closer rendition of the truth. 

As I see it, our entire culture has been so influenced by the thinking of the Age of Science and Reason (18th century) that we have a difficult time understanding what metaphorical language is all about.  We have  a hard time distinguishing between scientific language and metaphorical language, and so when "metaphorical" language is used, people today tend to evaluate this language through scientific lenses.

In essence, all "religious" language is metaphorical. "God" is a profound unknowable mystery, unable to be explained or described. Any language we use abut God is never scientific or factual, it is  always metaphorical. Whenever we say that God is "Father," or God is "Creator," or God is "a small voice in the soul," or God is "blazing fire"- we are always using metaphor -  the language of poetry.

Yesterday, someone else told me that there aren't any "facts" in the Bible- and I think basically that this is probably quite true. But, then again, I never look to the Bible for facts. The Bible (the many books of the Bible) is not a history book. The Bible is not a scientific journal. The Bible is a collection of poetry and songs-stories abounding in rich metaphorical language designed to "tap into" our imagination and to encounter "mystery." 

I think, for example, of the astoundingly beautiful myth, creation poem found in the Hebrew Scriptures in the beginning of the Book of Genesis. If you treat this story as a scientific account of how the universe began, of course it is ludicrous. Six days and it's finished, God snapping "his" fingers and "poof" -there are  birds and flowers. 

The story is not meant to offer factual explanations. It is an ancient myth using the rich language of metaphor. It poetically celebrates the breathtaking beauty of all beings- everything and everyone flowing together in perfect harmony, all interdependent and interconnected in the energy of a Holy Abiding Presence. I do not read the story to find "facts." I read the story and I bask in its imagery.

No, I do not at all think that metaphors are lies told to children. Metaphors are thresholds into mystery,  and since scientists themselves today admit that they are only able to "explain" about 5% of what is real in the universe (the rest is mystery), perhaps we all need to reclaim the language of metaphor once again.

my book on amazon:


  1. Good stuff. I'm reading S. T. Cileridge's journals and the idea was to filter nature through feelings and language to bring about a new truth or understanding of the world. It isn't science but a result of observation, understanding, and a new way to see the world. It can be very cathartic in terms of the human spirit. Nice piece.

  2. You helped me remember something I read last century (just after seminary). I believe it, and from what you've written here, so do you. From Stories of God by John Shea:

    When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.

    Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezeritch, had occasion for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.

    Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sassov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

    Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.

    God made man because he loves stories.

    If God made humankind because God loves stories, creation is a success. For we all are addicted to stories. No matter our mood, in reverie or expectation, panic or peace, we can be found stringing together incidents and unfolding episodes. We turn our pain into narrative so we can bear it; we turn our ecstasy into narrative so we can prolong it. We all seem to be under the sentence of Scheherazade. We tell our stories to live.

  3. Thank you Paul. Sending you an email with a passage read and copied last century. It has stayed with me. It's part of me. It's about stories and storytelling.