Can we stop at metaphor?

“It should be seen as a metaphor.” That has has to be one of the the most common moves to save a supernatural belief from criticism. If educated people can no longer take the Bible at face value, well, maybe the creation stories, miracles, and so forth are all metaphorical. If astrology looks brain dead, it still might be a good source of psychological metaphors. Mystical writings come across as drivel? They may be metaphors nudging us toward an indescribable God.

But it’s also worthwhile to ask if it’s possible to push reinterpretation all the way, to have ancient supernaturalistic beliefs become metaphors for natural occurrences. Lawrence Bush, for example, in Waiting for God, worries that even in the most liberal religions, it’s overwhelmingly tempting to have the metaphors turn into supernaturalism.

He may have a point. I like supernatural storytelling: fiction with occult themes, or novels that play with religious stories. Some of my favorites are graphic novels. Many a night I sit down with a John Constantine, Hellblazer or a Lucifer by Mike Carey. So I also checked out the Promethea series, which has won awards, and is written by Alan Moore, who can be really good. It has an occult/high magic theme. But in this case, though J.H. Williams draws it beautifully, Moore loses his sense of humor and gets all preachy. The result is more earnest New Age bullshit than I’m willing to tolerate, especially when you get some serious physics-abuse thrown in. Oh yes, everything is supposed to be a metaphor, but it’s also all too clear that the New Age bits are supposed to be real at some level.

Sigh. Maybe the best thing is to stay away from even the ultraliberal reinterpretations of religion, because the overwhelming majority of people will take it to be saying something deep about the universe, not human aspirations.

Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
Critical Thinking is Bigotry
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
ISIS Violence IS Religious
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Keith Parsons

    Even Biblical “literalists” do not take everything literally. In the Book of Joshua it says that the Lord commanded the sun to stand still, so that the Israelites could have daylight to finish massacring their enemies. This sounds like it is presupposing a heliocentric cosmology, which, of course, it is. But fundamentalists, not wanting the Bible to be seen as endorsing bad science, say it is a figure of speech, like speaking of the sun rising or setting. Oddly, things far more absurd than heliocentrism–like a talking snake convincing a naked woman to eat a piece of fruit, resulting in cosmic calamities–are accepted at face value. This is like someone who laughs at 18th Century chemists for postulating phlogiston, but accepts the twelve labors of Hercules as literal history.

    Liberal Christians, who, to their credit, are embarrassed by the absurdities and cruelties of Holy Writ, look for metaphorical meaning in these stories. Actually, some aspects of the Christian mythos deserve attention and consideration even by the secular. The doctrine of “The Fall,” with its misanthropic doctrine of original sin, used to appall me as a good humanist. Now, after seven and a half years of the unspeakable abominations of George W. Bush’s administration, the mythos of a primordial curse on the human race doesn’t sound so silly.

  • Rourke

    Re Taner, Keith: I used to be one of those ultraliberal Christians. I know just how tempting those supernatural metaphors can be. This is why I frequently say the same things to my religious friends that Lawrence Bush apparently says in his books. You’re right that liberal Christians, to their credit, do look for metaphorical meaning in absurdity… but it doesn’t mean their poetic versions of Christianity looks any less silly when put to logical analysis.

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