Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Language of Spirituality

"Painted Sky"
- Sunset at the Desert Retreat House -

In an online conversation with a young atheist yesterday, I was asked how he could possibly have a serious conversation with “people like me” who believed that the world was created  in 6 days by some superman in the sky? Well, of course, I don’t at all believe that this is how the world came to be (I pretty much ascribe to a scientific “Big-Bang” theory); but because I am a priest, a religious person, my online young atheist friend figured I must be “one of those people” who believes the stories the Bible tells - like the one about the world being created in 6 days.

Yesterday’s entire conversation actually pointed out a much deeper issue for me - when it comes to the language of spirituality and religion, we may use the same words but we often do not speak the same language and so do not at all understand one another. This is especially true in dialogue between atheists and people of faith.

As I see it, language about “God”, faith, belief, religion and spirituality always involves metaphor and poetry; and a lot of people today hardly even know what a metaphor is and are unable to recognize metaphor when they see it, thinking instead only in a language of fact and description.

As I see it, it is virtually impossible to understand the Bible (or the scriptures of almost any faith tradition) without realizing that it is filled with an abundance of “stories’ written over a thousand years that are always rich in metaphor, much more prone to poetry than to history.

A story like the one about the earth being formed and fashioned in the six days of creation is a beautiful poem celebrating the harmonious splendor of creation,  a story like the one about the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness, or the one in the Gospels about Jesus walking on water and calming a turbulent sea are all rich metaphors told to inspire and strengthen faith, to give hope and provide guidance for the living of everyday life in our own time and place.

In the Buddhist scriptures angelic creatures sing in the sky announcing the birth of the baby Buddha as the stars dance around in a blinding cosmic array- the same kind of stories are told about the birth of the baby Jesus, beautiful awe-inspiring poetry.

These stories are not meant to be hard-core history, factual descriptions of long-ago events. The language of these stories, like all the language of religion and spirituality,  is a language filled with the rich, enchanting, mysterious and wonder-provoking language of metaphor and poetry, a language that transports us into the indescribable mystery of transcendence. And if you take this language too literally, you will inevitably miss its richer meaning.

I walk outside my house at sunset, look up at the desert sky and exclaim that the sky is “painted in the colors of the rainbow.”  Obviously I don’t think that an artist actually took up a brush and painted the sky - it would be ludicrous to make such a claim and it would be difficult to have a serious conversation with anyone who actually believed this was literally true.  Instead the use of poetry and the metaphor about painting allows me to express a deeper experience of beauty in that desert sky, a beauty that cannot possibly be captured with the language of scientific explanation.

I am reminded of something the theologian, Dan Maguire, wrote in his recently-published provocative new book, Christianity without God. He makes an interesting observation about how fundamentalist believers as well as hard-core atheists often fall into the same camp in their inability to recognize and appreciate metaphor as the language of spirituality - especially “metaphor” as found in the scriptures.

Fervent atheists often join faithful believers 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 teaching like ‘paradise,’ “exodus,’ ‘incarnation’ and ‘resurrection’
and downsize them as if they could have been caught on film
and featured in a documentary.

It seems to me that we will only be able to have a “serious conversation” with one another when we can agree on the poetic and metaphoric nature of our biblical and spiritual language. Otherwise we will be constantly arguing about how silly it is to believe that these events really happened.

The summer sunset really was magical here the other night- God must have been working overtime painting such a beautiful sky.


  1. Paul, you provided a great deal to ponder and with great details for deeper understanding. What amazes me is how religion separates people - Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Jehovah Witness etc... The process is extended into how people identify his or herself as Christians, Muslim etc... and how the name of God Kristna, Jesus, Yahweh, and Jehovah further mislead people from gaining collective understanding instead of defensive positioning.

    Isn't better to bridge an understanding of our collective common belief of a universal source greater than ourselves for human connection? Instead of taking a defensive posture?

    I happen to love the language of spirituality and the metaphors that allow me personal space to see me in the mix of living life. I can admit to the confusion of the varying biblical or recounts of how the world came into existence; however, the reality of all the greatness that exist within this plant is further evidence of the powerful presence that is called by several names... Thank you for a wonderful story and message...

    1. Thanks so much for an insightful coment.

  2. The article is fine but it falls into the same trap as the "young atheists" it criticises. I am a middle-aged atheist: I have always recognised the poetry and metaphor in the BIble and the moral truth of Jesus Christ's teachings. However let's not forget that the contemporary view that much of the Bible is "metaphor" has been won by thousands of years of the organised church fighting the forces of rationalism and torturing and killing "in the name of" the literal truth of the BIble: Galileo, Darwin to name but 2 scientists whose views contradicted the literal truth of the BIble.