Monday, March 11, 2013

The Top Ten Definitions of God - 4

4. God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought. It's as simple as that. 
—Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) writer of comparative mythology and religion

Well, not quite that simple. I think he meant to add:
Everything else is a metaphor for that which does not.

Campbell's definition, I admit, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi to achieve the number 4 spot. However, after Tillich, it became fashionable to argue the merits of a metaphorical vs. an ontological God. It's hard to say whether Tillich's God was not ontological, but Campbell's is definitely metaphorical. So I place it after Tillich where it gains some depth and diversity. 

What is important is not that God is metaphorical, but what that means. And here (Renée, are you reading?), we need to dip into epistemology. 

From Language, Mind and Culture, linguist Zoltan Kovecses writes, “External reality does exist, but we have access to it only in our particularly human ways. We see categories in the world only as a result of our uniquely human experiences. . . . The world, for us, is a ‘projected’ reality that human beings ‘imaginatively’ create.”  Kovecses goes on to say that "The  processes by which we 'create' the world include “categorization based on prototypes, organizing knowledge in terms of frames, and understanding experience through metaphors.”

Rabbi Toba Spitzer tells us in "God & Metaphor" that the challenge for the early Torah writers was how to represent "the impossible contraction of the verb 'to be' . . . Y-H-W-H . . . in words, in stories, in prayers?. . . . Our ancestors' answer was: with lots and lots of different images—with metaphors, that is."

However, unlike science which readily replaces old metaphors, such as ether, with new ones like fields, religion stumbled. "Through the influence of Greek ideas that made their way into both Jewish and Christian philosophy, we got the notion that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, unchanging and perfect. This sadly was not a God of many metaphors, but a philosophical abstraction that has caused a lot of trouble." writes Rabi Spitzer. 

Campbell was not a theologian, but his study of religions led him to the same conclusion. He felt that any idea of God is not God. "Catholic nuns do not have visions of the Buddha, nor do Buddhist nuns have visions of Christ." Any such God must therefore be a metaphor. "For any god who is not transparent to transcendence is an idol, and its worship is idolatry", he writes. Curiously, this is a recognized statement of truth for all the major religions from Hinduism to Sufi Islam to the Christianity of Saint Thomas Aquinas to Judaism. Yet, sadly, it is not much emphasized today. 

Many would consider Campbell a humanist rather than religious, but while he loved the humanities, he did not embrace Dewey or the many varieties of humanism. On the other hand, it certainly was not the supernatural that inspired him, but rather "the supernatural wonder of being which is for me the richest gift . . . of human experience." Humanism seemed a "stilted tradition . . . not open to the winds of mystery and rapture that are synonymous with the breath of life. For nature is to me supernatural in its mystery, and absolutely so." 

I'm intrigued by his phrase, "the supernatural wonder of being" so in an attempt to spiff up his definition, I'd like to suggest the more memorable:

4.1 God is the mother of all metaphors

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1 comment:

Big Myk said...

God is a metaphor and so, it's no wonder that, as James Carse observes, "Religion in its purest form is a vast work of poetry."