Thursday, August 20, 2009

Life Metaphors

Any and all language about God is metaphorical. And that does not lessen the power of the words we use, merely tempers them a bit. And so whether God is Father or Creator or Mother or Papa or יהוה any of the other numerous possibilities, the best any word can do is describe a tiny bit of the one who is utterly indescribable.

Likewise, we use metaphorical images to describe life. The words we choose to describe the life God gives are powerful, but similarly tempered by their symbolic roles. So if we describe life as a battle against cosmic forces, we don’t mean literally a battle with literal armies lined up on opposite sides of a literal battlefield literally attacking each other. We mean battle as in a struggle, or opposition to a force at work.

There are other metaphors for a life of faith, of course. I have heard it described variously as a race or a dance or a journey, for example. None of these are literal, but supply symbolic meaning to our approach to living.

I happen to believe that any of these other three metaphors are superior to the metaphor of the battle. My last post explained some of the reasons why I think the battle image doesn’t work as well any more, focusing on the “Armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6. I think, essentially, that what the image conveyed in that letter 2,000 years ago doesn’t get conveyed today.

At different times of life, different metaphors work better than others. There are times when my life has felt like a battle, to be sure. But it was always a temporary deal. Like when the thing I was battling was out of the way, I moved on. So I guess I think of it more as an obstacle in the way of my journey than a battle. The devil doesn’t so much fight me as put things in my way.

What does that say about my theology? I’m still thinking on that, but part of what it says is that I really do think about salvation as a way or a journey. I thought about it that way even before I learned enough Wesleyan theology to realize that’s what I thought! Of course the Wesleys used multiple images to describe salvation, but the metaphor of a multi-stage journey toward “perfection” is the dominant one.

So I think of the driving force of faith as an impulse to get somewhere, much more so than an impulse to defeat something. There will likely be metaphorical obstacles to overcome and metaphorical adversaries to fight against as we go, but ultimately we’re doing it because we’re going. The point is not to conquer the enemy; the point is to get to the place where the enemy doesn’t want us to go.

In Ephesians 6, the term “full armor” is used - πανοπλίαν – and it is only used one other place in the entire New Testament. This fact highlights its significant, particular meaning. The soldier must put on the “full armor” specifically contrasted with only partial armor, in order to be fully prepared for battle. The point being that one must be fully prepared for the work to be done.

And so I can convey the same meaning by saying that we need to be fully packed for the journey, not just a water bottle and granola bar for an afternoon hike in the woods, but the back of the mini-van stuffed with every thing we might conceivably need for the two week vacation. And if I can convey the same meaning using a different metaphor, I think that’s okay.

Finally, I just think life these days is too violent to add to it with violent faith images. Recent pictures of people wielding assault weapons at a public rally only serve to solidify that point. Violence has become normal, expected, no big deal. Why add to that with equally violent responses? Shouldn’t people of God offer an alternative? Something different?

We’re not supposed to meet evil with more evil. We’re supposed to meet evil with good. (Romans 12) In The Screwtape Letters (still my favorite C.S. Lewis book), this quote of Luther appears just after the preface: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to the texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” The devil hates joy, and I find that to be much more useful in overcoming those obstacles than anything else.

What’s your favorite metaphor for life? What words do you use most often to talk about living the way God intends that we live? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

(Warning. I'm not going to answer your actual question. Instead, I'm going to keep talking about battle metaphors, because I am really enjoying this train of thought right now. I might answer your question later. To other readers, please answer Andy's question and just ignore me.)

I don't know, Andy. I feel like you're arguing for this scripture's lack of conveyance by saying that what the world could really use today is less violence. That's kind of a red herring, isn't it? I'm not sure the Roman-occupied "world" two millennia ago was in any desperate need of more violence, even if they believed that a true "end" was imminent. So, if the argument for a different metaphor is just a general plea for more goodness, why was this passage ever written in the first place? Why didn't Paul just say "to the last day, be righteous like a jolly embrace and to combat the enemy prepare within you the jeer of a firm faith" and be done with it?

I guess I'm just on the positive universal side of this one. I see that perhaps the world today, as yesterday, is still quite in need of a mobilized people who are unafraid and even loyally eager to practice a living gospel; refuse to equivocate; live in joy always; learn from every situation; think clearly enough to even have a theology of salvation; and use life-giving words instead of a life-taking weapon. A full suit of armor is suitable for people on what could be a relatively dangerous journey. Same, you might pack the minivan differently or choose a different vehicle altogether if you knew you were likely crossing an ocean and/or the mountains on your journey. It's not just about survival or comfort at that point, is it?

But really, I hear you. I agree completely about getting where the enemy doesn't want us to get, versus defeating the enemy. But, like I said before, that's why I think this passage is good: because it's not about defeating the enemy; it's about being best equipped to face the enemy.

The violence we're overexposed to these days is only teaching us lessons in defeat; one side always just wants to get the other side. What the world is showing us is, then, not compatible with journey imagery, yet Ephesians 6 is not completely incompatible with journey imagery, either. So what if, instead of throwing passages like these out for an alternative to violent imagery, we used these passages well to reintroduce the idea of a destination to a world that's convinced of a destruction. It's just my take.

Ahem. Now.

In summary, clearly, what I'm trying to say is, you know, I'm singing "A Mighty Fortress is our God" this Sunday, and we're doing Mmoloki Warona too, so you can't ruin my fun and preach the whole time about how battle imagery is outdated and irrelevant.


Andy B. said...

"I feel like you're arguing for this scripture's lack of conveyance by saying that what the world could really use today is less violence."

The fact that the world could use less violence is not the reason Eph. 6 doesn't translate well. And to counter my argument by saying that the ancient near east was not in need of more violence is a straw man. That's not what I said.

My observation was that warfare is so different today than it was then, that the meaning is changed. That the world can use less violence, not just now but in all times, is kind of an added bonus argument.

Your third paragraph is exquisite, btw.

"'s not about defeating the enemy; it's about being best equipped to face the enemy."

I disagree. I think everything in Ephesians 6, except maybe the boots, is designed precisely for defeating an enemy.

" can't ruin my fun and preach the whole time about how battle imagery is outdated and irrelevant."

I wouldn't dream of it! This line of thinking is largely tangential to where the sermon is actually going to end up, once it gets smushed together.

(ps - great conversation!)

Anonymous said...

Andy - Thanks so much for hashing it out with me. I'm thinking this is definitely not the first or last time I'm going to have this particular conversation with someone, and I love the chance to grow my perspective. We may not entirely agree, but I've also come up against several people in my generation that want to argue against my faith in general with: "the bible is so violent; therefore, God is violent; therefore, you are violent, etc." The reality is that there are violent scriptures in our bible, and I feel it's more important for me to capture those than to ignore them or replace them. I know you understand what I mean.

in order:

-You were probably clear the first time around, but I got very distracted by the bonus argument. Thanks for clarifying again. You know what those logicians say... straw men are but food for red herrings! (Actually, I made that up just now, but it sounds great, doesn't it?)

-Thanks! Every once and a great while, there's a warm, fresh, chocolate chip cookie in my field of cow pies.

-"Have strength"
"Stand, then"
"Stand Firm"
... I just see the admonition of this passage as a 'it's gonna get rough, do not be ill-prepared,' as opposed to 'it's gonna get rough, so takem' out with your super power!' I just don't see this as speaking to a group of people who are trained to "fight" telling them to fight, but rather as speaking to a group of people who are used to retreat or surrender telling them to... not do that!

-Phew! =)

(ps - light saber)

bridger said...

You can battle without fighting!
You can have righteous anger.
Sometimes willingness to put yourself in harm's way is a step of faith. Humans battle to stay alive, Christians battle to advance righteousness. It is a matter of motive and perspective.
It's Ok to want to destroy your enemy if you enemy is evil itself.
If you have an earthly perspective, then war for the purpose of advancing your own agenda and destroying someone else's is wrong. But this war is for "all the marbles." Death or Life, Salvation or Damnation, a battle that must be won with eternity in the balance. There are no bigger guns than Righteousness, Faith, Truth...
Don't forget the shoes!!!They are also a part of the armor... Peace.

Pablo said...

This metaphor came to my mind earlier. "Faith moves mountains".

Xamuel said...

My favorite metaphor for life.. life is a dream. I guess I could be a little biased, since God has blessed me with the most vivid dreams ever, to the point where they actually rival real life :P