Quick Check: What Metaphor Do You Use for God?

God is light. God is love. God is energy, being, process. Irreligious as I am, I have thought all those things, but the metaphors stay locked in my head. The childhood God, the gentle father watching over you; Jesus the big brother, ready to tousle your hair and kiss your forehead; God as earth mother, warm and round and fruitful—those reach my heart.

They also scare me.

We need metaphors to understand, and talk about, something as ineffable as God. But the minute we trap God inside some human outline, we limit the limitless. Pretty soon we have imposed our own agenda, and we are arguing about details we have no honest way to fathom. That might be why I am so drawn to Eastern traditions: They stay abstract, wide open, receptive to calm discussion.

Dr. Adam Fetterman, a social psychologist at the University of Houston, has surveyed 3,000 people from a mix of faith traditions, atheism, and agnosticism. First, he asked participants to describe God. Then his team tackled the tough job of coding and sorting the most common metaphors into categories.

Fetterman wanted to see if the metaphor we choose influences our behavior, the way using a battle metaphor for cancer can make people more fatalistic and more frightened of treatment. He developed a questionnaire he thought might correlate different behaviors with different metaphors for God. If you think of God as a humanlike being, for example, you are more likely to think that God wields influence over everyday human life. You might be more likely to argue with God, in that fine Jewish tradition, or to blame God for injustices.

You will also be more likely to take comfort from your faith. And to evangelize.

Muslims guard against pictorial representations of the divine, and Jews are careful about uttering the sacred name of God, but Christians invoke nicknames and draw pictures. Christianity makes its metaphors as concrete as possible, Fetterman explains, and that changes how people react to them.

“But the New Testament is full of ‘God is light’ and ‘God is love’ imagery,” I point out.

“Those are words people use,” he agrees, “but when it comes to how they imagine God?” In his survey, fewer than 1 percent thought of God as light. Human, figurative terms were still common. “And even people who do not believe God is gendered use the pronoun ‘he.’”

If matriarchy had shaped us for a few millennia, they would not. But language’s conventions are hard to shatter; they influence the pictures in our head. As for the figurative representations, I blame all those glowing oil paintings and chapel ceilings with old white God reaching out from a cloud.

That rich tradition of religious art could have an influence, Fetterman agrees. “And Christianity also has Jesus,” whose scourged body, nailed to wood, cannot be ignored. As painful as some of these images are, the sense of embodiment is what resonates most for me in Christianity. The fragrance of anointing oil, the hard swallow of a dry wafer and welcome sip of sweet wine, the immersion in water, the weight of Jesus’ body across his mother’s lap in the Pieta; the sweat and grime that Mary Magdalene wiped from his feet…. Our senses cannot keep their distance from these images.

When those of us who are agnostic or spiritual-not-religious substitute a more abstract metaphor, God as a process of becoming, or the sum of all knowledge, it is a cool, dry, disembodied concept, less likely to touch us.

How do human beings arrive at metaphors, anyway? Is the association between light and goodness, for example, wired into the very structure of our brain? Is it shaped by biology and evolution, because daytime is safer? Is it influenced by repeated cultural images, or by language itself?

“There’s a pretty good mix of all of that,” Fetterman says. “There’s a lot of evidence that people are wired to believe in some sort of higher power, and to see cause and effect in the world. We are not inclined toward randomness. We look for agents. So nearly every culture comes up with a god, and then the teaching reinforces the specific metaphor people use to describe that god.

“My theory is that God and religious stories are grand metaphors themselves; ways to understand life,” he continues. “People in search of meaning often turn to God, and whether they find meaning in God could depend on how concrete their metaphor is.”

“So would you call ‘love’ a concrete metaphor?” I ask. “What about ‘power’ or ‘knowledge’?”

He has his own opinion, he tells me, but to avoid bias, he intends to send a list of these and other common metaphors to professors in linguistics, cognitive science, psychology, and literature who are used to distinguishing between the abstract and the concrete.

“But what do you think?” I press.

“I think power is a little less abstract,” he says. “There’s a lot of imagery that goes along with power.”

Crowns and scepters, I think, and dominion.

“Knowledge is fairly abstract,” he continues. “And God as love? I don’t think that’s a particularly concrete metaphor.”

I suspect that depends on how well you have been loved. If you had at least one parent or guardian who knew how to love unconditionally, then a God who was that love’s sum and substance would make perfect sense.

But circles us right back to God understood as a human figure.

“Metaphors like a father or a journey are probably going to be fairly helpful,” Fetterman says. “My prediction is, the more concrete your metaphor, the more stringent and fundamentalist you are going to be, and the more likely to reject other people’s religions.” If you keep it pretty abstract—deciding that God is love, for example—‘love’ can mean many things, so the conversation can continue. But if God is understood through a certain sort of human figure, there are specifications that must be imposed in advance.

This would explain why Zen Buddhism is so clean and uncluttered, free of dogma, indifferent to evangelism.

“Buddhists are definitely falling into the ‘God is love’ and ‘God is knowledge’ categories,” Fetterman agrees, scanning his questionnaire results. Those golden cross-legged statues are not taken literally, the way Christians memorize a white Jesus surrounded by sheep and children. The metaphors stay abstract.

So where does this leave us?

With the troubling notion that the concrete is what comforts us—and also what closes our minds.

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