Monday, September 24, 2007

Metaphor. Handle with Care.

I love metaphor and believe that metaphoric thinking is key to spiritual understanding. But metaphor can be misleading when the feeling the metaphor evokes trumps the wisdom it is meant to impart. Martin Buber’s metaphor “the eclipse of God” is a case in point.

Krista Tippett in her lovely and sometimes maddeningly frustrating book “Speaking of Faith,” uses Buber’s metaphor to introduce the idea that God has turned His Face away from humankind. This is metaphoric thinking at its worst. First of all, it isn’t at all what Buber meant. Secondly, it is theologically false.

An eclipse is not linked to the actions of that which is eclipsed. The sun does not turn away during a solar eclipse; the moon simply gets between us and the sun, and blocks our view. The sun is still shining; we just can’t see it. Buber didn’t mean that God has turned away from us, but that our ideas of god have blocked us from the living Presence of God. Even the word “God” is a block: “It is incumbent upon the human being to get rid also of the name Elohim [god], for it by necessity creates a relation based on an assumption of nearness” (Buber, Eclipse of God, 24).

God is not a being you can locate in or out of space/time. If God is in space/time, then God is no different from us. If God transcends space/time, God is irrelevant to us. For centuries theologians have tried to overcome the irrelevancy of a supernatural god by figuring out how a god who transcends space/time can interact with creatures bound by space/time. The whole enterprise, however, is silly, since the problem only exists in the minds of the people trying to solve it.

It is like a person who comes to you with a brown paper shopping bag and says, “I have a full size elephant in this bag. Can you tell me how I got it in there?” Now you can spend hours imagining all kinds of weird ways to get an elephant into a bag, or you can say, “You can’t have an elephant in that bag,” and walk on. When it comes to matters theological, I prefer to walk on.

It is we who say God is in or out of space/time. If the idea doesn’t make sense, stop saying it. Rather than trying to bridge a gap that we ourselves create, stop creating the gap in the first place.

God is not in space/time; space/time is in God. The reason we may feel eclipsed from God is that we have placed blinders over our eyes at noon, and then convinced ourselves that day has been eclipsed by night.

Of course if you really understand the reality of God in, with, and as all things, even the blinders are God, and you just take them off or leave them on as the mood moves you without imagining that either state effects your real relationship with God at all.

So please handle metaphors with care, making sure they speak truth rather than just evoke feelings.

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