All Language Is Metaphor
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
All language about God is necessarily symbolic and figurative. Actually all language is metaphorical. Words are never the thing itself; they can only point toward the thing, which is exactly why “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). As James Finley, a CAC core faculty member, often says, “Language is in service of the unsayable.” When it comes to comprehending God and the great mysteries of love and death, knowing has to be balanced by unknowing. Words can only point a finger toward the moon; they are not the moon or even its light. They are that by which we begin to see the moon and its light.
Jesus often used similes in his parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like. . . .” (See Matthew 13: 31, 33, 44.) In other places, the Bible uses metaphors for God, such as rock (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalms 62:3) and shepherd (Psalm 23:1; Ezekiel 34:11-16). Jesus describes himself metaphorically as the bread of life (John 6:35-51) and the light of the world (John 8:12; 9:5). The Spirit is portrayed as breath (Genesis 2:7; Job 32:8) and wind (John 3:8). Can’t literalists be honest and admit these are all fingers pointing to the moon? God is not literally a rock or an actual shepherd on a hillside somewhere, yet we need these images to “imagine” the unsayable Mystery.
Christians must also admit that the New Testament was largely written in Greek—a language which Jesus did not speak or understand—and the text was mostly written thirty to seventy years after Jesus’ death, centuries before the age of digital recorders. We have only a few snippets of Jesus’ precise words in his native Aramaic. We can only conclude that Jesus’ exact words were apparently not that important for the Holy Spirit—or for us. This should keep us all humble and searching for our own experience of the Risen Christ now instead of arguing over Greek verbs and tenses.
The very inclusion of the Hebrew Bible into the official canon of the Christian Bible is forever a standing statement about inclusivity. Our Bible structurally admits that the Hebrew Bible and religion were indeed inspired and led by God, long before Jesus. How could Christians have missed such a central point? Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and all the prophets were clearly justified before God and effectively used by God—without ever knowing Jesus. Again, let’s start being honest about what we say we believe.
The New Testament is a very inclusive and broad text. It builds upon pre-Jewish and Jewish history and symbols, includes “pagan” roots and stories, draws from “inter-testamental literature” recorded during the two centuries between the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures, and has many, many Greek influences. This is the only way the pattern of Divine Revelation can and will continue—with a foundation that sets the trajectory and constant, ongoing development and example.
Gateway to Silence:
Your word is a light for my path. —Psalms 119:105
Adapted from Richard Rohr, an unpublished talk, Canossian Spirituality Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico, December 3, 2016; and
Yes, And . . . : Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media: 2013), xi-xii.