Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Language of Metaphor

"Golden Drops of Sunlight"
-morning in my meditation garden-

"This morning, a giant orb rose majestically over the eastern mountains and golden droplets of sunshine were sprinkled all around my desert garden." Now, upon reading this sentence, no one would ask me, "Did that really happen? Is your garden all covered with little golden drops of some sort of substance?" It's clear that I am speaking in the language of poetry and metaphor, so the question as to whether or not this "really happened" is somewhat ludicrous.  

The interesting thing is that religious scriptures, most especially the stories contained in the Bible are almost exclusively written in the language of metaphor; and yet people read those stories and continually ask the question, "Did that really happen?"

In Buddhist scriptures, angelic creatures announce the birth of the baby Buddha, the stars in the skies dance in a blinding array of brilliant light to celebrate the birth, and Indian sages come to pay homage to the newborn child.

Rich poetic metaphor is also abundant throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).  In the story of creation, God takes seven days to fashion a paradise of pristine beauty with everything and everyone in perfect harmony. In the story of the "exodus," the people wander for 40 years in an uncharted wilderness on their way to the Promised Land - everyone helping each other to find the way as they are guided by God who appears as a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. And don't forget the story of the dry bones scattered over the barren desert that suddenly come back to life, piece by piece, limb by limb, until new life is restored.   

In the Christian Scriptures, the birth of Jesus (like that of the Buddha) is also announced by angels, with stars dancing in the sky over a Bethlehem stable and wise men from the East coming to worship the baby. When Jesus grows up he walks on water, takes a few pieces of bread and a few fish and turns them into enough food to feed 5000 people. He stops a raging storm and restores his once-dead friend back to life. 

These stories are all told in the rich, enchanting, wonderful and mysterious language of metaphor. When I read them, I never even think of asking, "Did that really happen?" 

In his provocatively titled new book,  Christianity without God, theologian and professor Daniel Maguire makes the interesting observation that when it comes to understanding biblical metaphor, atheists and believing religious people often find themselves in the same camp. They both fail to understand the language of metaphor, and in doing so lose the deeper "truth" of what a biblical story has to offer:

Fervent atheists join the faithful in reducing the infinitely varied and image-rich narratives in the scriptures to a literal reading as though they were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism. Anti-poets take teachings like 'exodus,' 'paradise,' 'incarnation,' and 'resurrection' and downsize them into happenings that could have been caught on film.

For me, not only do I "not" ask if a biblical story really happened, I don't want these stories to have really happened. If they really did happen to those people long ago, then the story isn't my story. It has little or nothing to do with my life. 

But the stories are metaphorical and so these can also be my stories, speaking a deep truth to me.  I know what it feels like to wander in the wilderness and I know how important it is for others to show me the way. I have seen the dried-bone lives of countless people revived again with the healing balm of love.  I have stood in a soup kitchen and seen how a few loaves of bread can be multiplied to feed and enrich thousands of others. Many times I have stood at a cemetery tomb and had a "sure and certain hope" that somehow life goes on. 

Yes, I even live in paradise. Every morning I sit in my garden and it's a new creation, every morning is "like the first morning" as the giant orb rises majestically over the eastern mountains and sprinkles golden droplets of sunshine all around me.


  1. Great topic. I think the letter kills but the spirit gives life sums it up. A literal reading of the bible and a loss of what it is speaking of is in large part the reason religion looks so phony and failing to be religious appears to be the only smart thing to do.

    Reading the bible with the understanding that it is in metaphorical language maintains a spiritual dimension in the mind.

    The little religious box which is constructed by a literal approach to reading and understanding the bible becomes a prison cell and the believer a prisoner of his own beliefs.

    1. I always appreciate your insightful comments.