Rising Above Our Language: Reflections On Our Metaphors For God -- By: Michael Spooner

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 06:3 (Summer 1992)
Article: Rising Above Our Language: Reflections On Our Metaphors For God
Author: Michael Spooner

Rising Above Our Language:
Reflections On Our Metaphors For God

Michael Spooner

Michael Spooner is a writer and editor in Urbana, Illinois, publishing primarily in journals related to English/language arts education. This article appeared originally in “The Covenant Companion,” May 1992, and is reprinted by permission.

We seem to be created with the instinct for metaphor. We give no training in it, yet we know it is a signal of growth in language when children begin to produce their own odd figures of speech. “This floor is a tar bucket,” I remember my daughter saying one muddy afternoon when she was three or four. In adult discourse, we use metaphors to cover every purpose from making difficult concepts clear, to making difficult what is already clear.

If we used language only literally, we would have to spend tedious effort building dry, literal connections between concepts; communicating would be not only tiresome but colorless. But metaphor (or other figures of speech), applying the language of one concept directly to another, gives us an immediate—often intuitive—entry into the second concept. When it works well, we find we have fitted two words together in such a way that one reveals new dimensions in the other, illuminating our understanding; it might also be amusing, moving, or poetic.

Like all other areas of the human conversation, our language about religion uses metaphors and other figures of speech widely. “The Lord is my shepherd” is a good example. The Lord, of course, is not a shepherd, has no sheep, no rod, no staff, no green pastures — at least not in the sense that a human shepherd has these things. But by creating the metaphor of a shepherd, the psalmist draws us without ado into an appreciation of the protection and guidance of God. He uses a familiar image to give us this direct entry, making the abstract nature and behavior of God more comprehensible. And he does so quite poetically.

We find other metaphors throughout the Bible, in places of great and small importance. “Upon this rock I will build my church,” “the body of Christ,” “sharper than any two-edged sword,” “this is my body,” “the Lord is my light,” “my Rock,” “the Bridegroom,” and so on. In some cases, we are so accustomed to hearing the metaphor that we forget it is one. The problem with this is that when we forget we’re using a figure of speech, we also forget that the figure gives us only a partial picture, and a highly selective one at that.

This is especially true when it comes to the nature of God, which is so vast, abstract, and multidimensional that no single expression could hope to capture it. For example, when we focus on “the Lord is my shepherd” in D...

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