Metaphorical musings

I once asked myself a simple question: “what is the link between theology and myth?” By myth, I meant the individual myths of mankind as well as their sum collection1. The fundamental reason why this intrigued me is because there does seem to be a similarity between the content of theology (and I am assuming “Christian” theology at this point) and the content of many myths. This similarity does not generally lie in the plot of some set of stories, considering that myth and theology do both involve narrative (although there may be some minor overlap). No, the likeness dwells instead in the way in which metaphor is utilized.

In reading the Tanakh, for example, one cannot but be aware of the abundance of metaphorical language, often given rather poetically, if not simply in poetic form. This should not surprise the reader: one would have expected similar content from other ancient southwest Asian cultures. All the other narratives of gods from the second and first millennium BC were given in poetry as well, inasmuch as they are written down.

Then there are the Psalms. A philosophically inclined theologian cannot but grow queasy at the remarkable mixture of tangible concepts and intangible metaphors. These are thick weeds to wade through for one who wishes for a clear and consistent notion of the nature of the God the psalmist is petitioning and praising.

This picture does not change with the writings of the New Testament. Fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the atonement, are constructed out of metaphors, like that of the blood of the paschal lamb, evoking not only the salvation of the children of Israel from the judgment of God as brought upon the Egyptians but also the whole legislation and history of blood sacrifice as found in the Tanakh.

The simple fact of the matter is that theology is built out of metaphor. And more than this, it is built up of stories that rely heavily upon metaphors to understand the meaning of what is taking place. In all these regards, the content of the Tanakh and the NT is much like the content of myth.

But regardless of one’s belief relative to the claims of theology, one must recognize a rather significant change from most myth and the stories that, say, some ancient Israelites started to tell. Their myths are somewhat more concrete than the stories of their fellow contemporary cultures. They were the ones who laid the groundwork for the incarnational theology of Christianity, which surrounds the events that took place concerning Jesus of Nazareth. When they told stories, they were formed so as to speak about the characteristics of events that took place in the reachable past, within human history, not in the primeval eons and wars of the gods who made men. The relation of Israel to the Exodus narrative was somewhat more powerful than even the relationship between the Greeks and Homer’s epics, and the latter was no minor relation.

And believers in these metaphorical constructs do not consider them, philosophically speaking, to be merely symbolic. Sometimes you will catch someone saying something along these lines that God deigns to speak in terms we can understand – that he, as Calvin said, “lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children.”2 And though, no doubt, someone would want to assume that God, were he to speak, must “lisp” as it were, surely this cannot cover all convictions. Pay attention to the statements made by a believer concerning, say, Christ as the Good Shepherd or as the Vine, and there is an undeniable link between the image and the subject that runs deeper than a pedagogical tool.

I will conclude by saying that I think that the underlying and often sub-conscious assumption in all this is that, in the language of Christian theology, the entire world itself exists to be an image of the being and action of God, so that the metaphors used within it are not grabbed out of the environment as just presently useful, but that blood and water and lambs exist because they embody in themselves the truth. And poets themselves generally suspect something similar with regards to poetry and its own mannerisms and metaphors.

Featured image: ‘The Lamb Takes the Book from Christ,’ from a 13th century manuscript of the Apocalpyse in Latin, image in the public domain.

  1. I do wish dearly that we had always just called myths “myths” and saved the term “mythology” for the study of myths, but apparently we lost that battle somehow. []
  2. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, bk. 1, chap. 13, sec. 1. []

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