Home » Kiosk » Kiosk Article » God Is a Metaphor

God Is a Metaphor

Being a secular humanist I do not believe in any God or organized religion, but as a poet I am fascinated by all the languages and metaphors human beings have created over the centuries to understand and explain the mysteries of life and nature. Rather than saying that God created human beings, it might be more appropriate to say that human beings created the image of God and that God’s image appears as a metaphor in different mythologies all over the world. The God metaphor is like a Rorschach test, where each culture has given it different names, for example, Allah, Bhagwan, or Khuda, and has projected onto it a number of human qualities. When different religious mythologies say
      God is light
      God is love, or,
      God is closer to you than your jugular vein,
these statements can be interpreted as metaphors rather than concrete realities. Many religions, recognizing the tendency of human beings to concretize the deity, are opposed to the creation and veneration of physical representations of God, which they call idolatry.

Human psychologists are well aware that symbolic and metaphorical thinking develops only when the human mind reaches a certain level of emotional and mental maturity. As children pass through adolescence they begin to develop abstract thinking, and by the time they reach adulthood, are able to appreciate metaphors. That is the stage at which they can appreciate world literature and enjoy the multiple meanings of poems, plays and folktales.

Psychiatrists are aware that when mentally healthy adults experience a nervous breakdown and suffer from psychosis, one of the signs of regression is that they lose the capacity of abstraction and are unable to interpret metaphors. During the psychiatric interview and mental status examination, when they are asked to interpret a proverb like, “Too many cooks spoil the broth” they say something like, “If too many people go to the kitchen they start fighting and ruin the dinner.” They are unable to apply that proverb to other aspects of life–they cannot generalize it. They show concrete thinking and cannot appreciate the metaphor.

Just as we use abstract thinking to interpret a proverb, we also need an appreciation of metaphors to enjoy poems and plays and interpret scriptures, which are a part of the folklore of a culture. It is not surprising to find that when scriptures are read by more-evolved minds, they are interpreted in a metaphorical way, but when the same texts are read by less-evolved minds, they are interpreted very literally. Unfortunately those literal interpretations have been a source of numerous conflicts in religious families and communities and have created wars between different sects and religions.

The belief of many Muslims that their prophet Mohammad went to seventh heaven to meet God is possible only if they conceive of God as living in a special corner of the universe. Otherwise they will believe that Mohammad had a special mystical experience that could not be explained in ordinary language and that he shared it metaphorically. Similarly, for Christians to believe that Christ ascended physically to heaven to be with his Holy Father, they have to understand God as an entity living somewhere in the skies. Many enlightened readers of scriptures view Mohammad’s and Christ’s ascending experiences as symbolic not physical, metaphorical not concrete.

If we encourage our children to study scriptures as part of folklore and wisdom literature we must help them develop their critical and creative thinking so that they can enjoy and appreciate cultural symbols and metaphors of world poetry, plays and folktales. Scriptures were written in the context of a particular preexisting language and culture; only if we appreciate those linguistic and cultural traditions can we understand their scriptures as part of their mythology. Since scriptures reflect the psyche of that culture and tradition of that era in which they were created, future generations decide their relevance to their contemporary existential and social problems.

If we pursue this line of thinking further we can see that language itself is a metaphor and is a creative expression of that culture. Words are symbols reflecting something else. Words can be interpreted in a concrete way if they are part of an ordinary statement but become symbolic and metaphorical if they are part of literature. The word “mother” can be someone’s mother or can represent all mothers. Similarly “mothering” can be a metaphor for caring and nurturing.

Since many of us have developed abstract thinking as adults and enjoy the multiple meanings of literature, we sometimes have difficulty accepting that there are many men and women worldwide who not only continue to perceive God as a concrete thing and believe in concrete interpretations of scriptures, but also insist that others accept these beliefs. In their dreams of theocratic states, they are adamant that laws should be made according to their concrete interpretations of scriptures. It is amusing that many such people pray to that concrete God as though He, She or It were waiting on the other end of the 1-800 crisis line to change the laws of nature according to the wishes of the caller.

Sometimes I am intrigued when I hear a heated, angry, even bitter debate between a believer and a nonbeliever, a religious person and an atheist, when a believer tries to prove and a nonbeliever tries to disprove a concrete God, both of them failing to realize that they are using concrete thinking for a metaphor. Such discussions usually involve more than an image of God–they usually involve concepts like that of Adam and Eve, or Heaven and Hell. A concrete thinker has a hard time accepting that in Middle Eastern mythology Adam and Eve’s story was symbolic of every man and woman on earth, and that Heaven and Hell are states of mind, not places.

I am amused how people who at one stage of life believed in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus stopped believing in them as concrete realities by age 15 but continue to believe in a personal God at the age of 50. I am also intrigued by adults who have developed metaphorical thinking about God but regress to concrete thinking when they become old and feel vulnerable, or experience an emotional crisis. I think that, like individuals, families and communities can also regress and become overly religious and develop concrete thinking about God; they may revert to praying for miracles if they go through a social, economic or political crisis such as a war or famine, or experience a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake. Erica Jong once observed, “There are no atheists on turbulent airplanes.” In crises and tragedies such people pray to the same personal and concrete God who they believe sent them that natural disaster. Some even believe that the natural disaster was caused by their sins and that they must repent so that their angry God will become forgiving and merciful.

I am quite aware that while there are nonbelievers who become doubtful when experiencing a physical or emotional crisis, there are others who feel so strong in their faith in themselves that they remain committed atheists and humanists even when they are penalized and persecuted.

I think that when humanity reaches the stage of mental growth and cultural evolution when most people can understand scriptures as folklore and not as divine revelations, can view them as mythology rather than stories, and can differentiate facts from fiction, there might be more wisdom and peace and fewer conflicts and holy wars in this world.