Thinking About God in Metaphors
When it comes to matters of political, philosophical, and religious import, we all think in metaphors.
I think I knew this already, but I learn this ever more deeply from my colleague Dr. John Sanders in his book Theology in the Flesh. Building upon the work of cognitive linguists, John shows how thoroughly steeped biblical materials are in metaphors for truth, morality, and God. And he makes it clear that metaphors are not mere supplements to our thinking, as if we could think without them. They are the very building blocks of thinking, apart from which we cannot think at all. (Building blocks is a metaphor.)
Parental Metaphors for God
In our time people who believe in God are sometimes torn between two competing metaphors. In Theology of the Flesh John speaks of them as nurturing metaphors and authoritative metaphors; I will use the terms nurturing and authoritarian because nurturance, too, can be authoritative in a helpful way.
On the one hand there is the metaphor of God as Nurturing Parent. Here God is akin to the Abba of Jesus. God seeks a co-creative relationship with human beings; God is strong yet vulnerable; God shares in the joys and sufferings of all; God wants all people to realize their potential for agency and fulfillment. God is kind and good, and in God's goodness God takes on the perspectives of others, including those who do not recognize God at all.
On the other hand there is God as Authoritarian Parent. Here God is akin to a very strict parent, albeit with a loving side. God's primary preoccupation is with keeping an orderly household, with his children obeying the rules. God is strong and unmoved; God's primary manner of action is reward and punishment. God does not take on the perspective of others, but insists that they take on his perspective, because, after all, he is God.
An extreme version of the latter would move beyond parental imagery to monarchical imagery, imagining God as a King on a Throne -- and a somewhat severe king at that. He issues commands and threatens punishment, and he is preoccupied with being flattered.
John points out to me that these alternatives concerning God parallel deep cultural divides in our society today. Some among us in the United States are drawn to the image of a well-ordered society in which all get their due if law and order reign supreme. If we believe in God we may be prone toward the authoritarian image. Others among us are drawn to the image of a nurturing society in which all are cared for, even apart from questions of desert. If we believe in God we may be drawn toward the nurturant image. God or no God, our political passions are guided by metaphors of authority or, alternatively, nurturance, and we vote along these lines. Often we cannot communicate with each other at all and sometimes we demonize the other side. They are "wrong" and we are "right.".
What to do? A first and very important step in bridging the cultural divide might be for people on both sides to recognize that they -- we -- are thinking metaphorically. We might then hold onto our metaphors with a more relaxed grasp, recognizing that no one has a firm grip on truth. (That's a metaphor, too.)
A second step, ever so difficult for most of us, but perhaps a bit easier for those who work with the nurturing parent metaphor, is to do our best to seek wisdom in the metaphors we reject even as we hold onto our own, and do our best to honor the people who embrace them. This makes sense from a nurturance point of view. We join God in perspective taking, and seek to take on the perspectives of those with whom we disagree.
Needless to say, as a process theologian, I prefer the first metaphor. John Sanders does, too. We both take inspiration from the many in our time who articulate a nurturance model. A small sampling of their books are found in the left-hand column.
For my part, like Rabbi Artson, I am influenced by Whitehead's notion of God as a loving Companion to the universe. For Whitehead God is much more like a nurturing parent and not at all like a ruling tyrant. I am likewise influenced by John Cobb, who invites me and others to imagine God as Jesus imagined God: God as Abba (Papa). See Jesus' Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed. Along with John Cobb I am quite open to Amma (Mama), too. The key is to use metaphors that elicit a sense of trust, apprecation, friendship, and nurturance.
And yet I am suspicious of overly sharp dichotomies, including my own. We process thinkers prefer both/and thinking to either/ or thinking wherever possible; and we think God as Nurturing Parent prefers the same. We believe that God encourages us to widen our hearts and hear wisdom on all sides as best we can, and we feel this calling. We think that Paul's description of love is a good depiction of God's love:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (Corinthians)
Inspired by such language I want to be patient and kind, too, rather than boastful and proud. Yes, I want to rejoice in the truth, but I also know that truth is always more than my concept of it. Thus I want to learn from the metaphor of God as Authoritarian Parent and even as King and Sovereign. I want to be able to pray, with my Jewish sisters and brothers, Avinu Malkeinu.
I find myself asking: What do advocates of the more authoritarian perspectives see about God that may well be true, even as they might articulate in metaphors that I find problematic. John Sanders would remind me that my very posing of this question employs the metaphor of “seeing” something about God, drawn from visual experience, even as I know that God is not a specific object of sight. By seeing I mean something closer to “intuitive knowing” or “perceiving through feeling.” Whitehead’s word would be prehending.
I have wondered if those who speak of God as Authoritarian parent aren’t intuiting a side of God which truly is timeless and remote, compared to experiences of love and intimacy that we humans known in loving relations with one another. Whitehead called it the Primordial Nature of God and described it as that side of God which timelessly prehends the realm of pure potentialities: that is, the realm of potentialities which may or may not be actualized by the evolving universe. This is the side of God so important to open and relational theologians who speak of God’s unique foreknowledge: a knowledge of what is possible in the future, but not what is actual until it is actualized. As I imagine a human being feeling this side of God, I think she would naturally say that God is “above” or “beyond” or “more majestic” than any earthly love we might know. She might even say that God is impassible: unaffected by what happens in the world. And she would be right. This side of God truly is invulnerable. It is not the whole of God, but it would indeed be an aspect of God.
So what might it be like to feel both sides of God: the invulnerable side and the vulnerable side, the majestic side and the tender side, the kingly side and the nurturing parent side? In this regard I have been helped by an idea in classical Islam, which is that we experience God in two modalities: as something that is distant from us and somewhat frightening and as something that is simultaneously present to us and more intimate (in a loving way) that we ordinarily imagine. In classical Islam these two options are called tasbhih and tanzih. They point, not to metaphors for God but to ways of experiencing God at a more intuitive level; and they parallel the well-known idea, developed by Rudolph Otto, that the sacred is a mystery both terrifying and fascinating: mysterium tremendum et fascinans.
If we suppose that there is wisdom in this Islamic idea – that God does indeed have two side that can be felt – then we might appreciate wisdom in the two metaphors offered above. And what might this be like?
Blending the Image of Father and King
I think it would sound like the talk offered by Rabbi Artson at the top of this page. I think it sounds like Avinu Malkeinu. If someone sung it, I think it might sound like Barbra Streisand's version below.