Speaking of God

A word is dead when it’s been said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.

-Emily Dickinson

This was an emotional creation. I usually disl...

In nearly every instance, speaking of God requires the use of metaphor.  We don’t have a whole lot of experience with transcendent beings, so we’re left with comparing God to what we do know and experience.

This is a tricky thing, however, because all of us experience our world in different ways.  The metaphors we create don’t always communicate what we think they communicate.  When I hear that God is “our Father,” I think of a strong and loving presence, while another person thinks about abusive manipulation, and another nothing at all.

Metaphors for God are essential, but tricky.

The following are a few things I try to remember when dropping the G-word (and others that I associate with it).

1. In every metaphor, something is true and something is false.

When I say “suns rise from the soil and hang on green stems,” I’m not speaking literally.  I’m using a literary device to compare flowers with a gaseous ball of thermonuclear fusion, and most people will understand the connections I’m making.  Each of these things are circular, appear surrounded by yellowish rays when you look at them, and rise up in the morning.  I’m not trying to say, however, that these little sunflowers are 109 times the size of earth, or emit massive amounts of heat, or possess orbiting bodies, or generate light.  Something about my metaphor is indeed true, but many things are not.

This is certainly the case with God.  We can pursue almost any metaphor for God to inaccurate conclusions.  For example, God is like a Father in some ways, but God doesn’t have a gender, or a baby mama, or a physical body (and, conversely, fathers aren’t gods).

2. Multiple metaphors work simultaneously to describe a single thing, perhaps many more when that thing is an infinite God.

Even though God has been rightly called Father, this does not preclude the validity of a Mother metaphor. A great conversation about the culturally relative nature of gender construction aside… it is just as legitimate to call God a woman as it is to call God a man, because God is neither.  It is appropriate to call God Mother, Father, Friend, because God is like all those things, but only in certain ways.

If you’re following me so far, awesome.  Let me alert you to the fact, however, that this next point is where many of us will disagree. And that’s OK…  my perspective is the right one, but that’s OK.

3. New metaphors are needed in order to move beyond the “false” aspects of old ones.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road.  If many metaphors are valid, which metaphors should we use?  This is a difficult question and it needs to be answered in community.  Only permit me one further observation:  it is possible for a metaphor to be used so frequently and for so long that its false aspects become less apparently false.  In such cases, it is necessary to borrow/devise/use new ways of talking in an effort to balance out the more insidious aspects of the old ones.

Replacing time-tested metaphors and analyzing the way we talk about God might seem needlessly cumbersome, but I believe it is important, because our metaphors will amount to idolatry if we let them.

Now go make some new ones.

Allen Marshall O'Brien

Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, throws things to his border collie Sonata, and writes for multiple platforms.

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