Metaphors for Knowing God

by Robert Brow     August 1999    (web site -

The only way to understand God is by using metaphors. Usually we do this without knowing it. This is because as children we learned about God with the metaphors already included in the name.  The word God is a proper name, and like other proper names it has no meaning till we connect it with a network of ideas that explain it.

The proper name Robert can be connected with Bob, which is a nickname. Or with a parent's proper name to yield Robert Brow. I am also known as various numbers by the government, banks, and many other institutions. I have a telephone number which also becomes a proper name, as does my e-mail address, or even my DNA.

But these connections tell you nothing much about me as a person. To describe my character you need a network of descriptions and metaphors. Am I Black, Oriental, or Caucasian, pompous or unassuming, honest or a crook, steady or erratic, a hard driver or laid back, placid or nervous, friendly or reserved, cheerful or morose, a blabber-mouth or tight-lipped, boring or a ball of fire?  It is easy to see that each of these descriptions was originally metaphorical.

By the use of proper names and connected metaphors a novelist can create an imaginary person with a recognizable identity. And one could even construct a person who never existed by recording a birth name, forging a passport, and connecting it with a network of family members and adding descriptions such as Canadian, lives in Toronto, is bilingual.

But the word God is a proper name that has no such network of connected proper names and descriptions. The word God on its own is meaningless. It needs a context. When people say "Oh God," we know the word God is not a proper name. It is the equivalent of "how upsetting." "God knows" is not a statement about God, but an expression of the speaker's ignorance of some fact.

Those who have been raised as Christians with no opportunity to learn the language used by other religions tend to assume that the word God used as a proper name means the Creator or Artist of our world. But when we travel, or have people of other religions as neighbors, we soon discover that the word God can have radically different meanings.

In one form of Hinduism God is the soul of our world. Here the metaphor 'soul' suggests the idea that our world is a living organism, and God animates it. A Pantheist might say "God is all that is," which means that the word God is another name for the whole of nature. In Original Buddhism the word God was not used but -nirvana- was defined by the metaphor of peaceful bliss where there are no desires. Materialism also does without the word God, but it cannot avoid metaphorical terms such as mass and energy to describe what materialists view as reality.

A Theist is someone who uses the metaphor "God is the Creator or Artist of our world." An Atheist will deny that by saying "The world does not look to me like a creation or an artistic creation. I can tell you all I want about the world without using the word God." So when Christians and Atheists argue about the existence of God they are not discussing a matter of fact. Their disagreement is about metaphors.

Among Jews and Christians the metaphor for God as the Creator comes from the first chapter of Genesis. God is not some inanimate force but the very personal Artist who said "Let there be light." Here the light corresponds to the spectrum of colors on an artist's palette and God is creating a masterpiece on a vast canvas.

The world is not created instantly in one twenty-four day, but in six stages. And after the creation of the land and sea, the Artist metaphorically steps back to look, as artists do. "And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:10). Similarly God filled in the vegetation, then the sky, the fish and the birds, and the mammals. At each stage there is the same refrain, "And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:13, 18, 21, 25).

Finally when humans appeared "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31). It is hard to think of a clearer metaphor of God as the Artist Creator of our world.

But that tells us nothing about God's character. Is he good or is he evil?  Is he merely playing a game with us (Hindus use the word - lila-), amusing himself like a cat playing with a mouse?  Or does God genuinely care for us as individuals? To clarify that, Christians use the metaphor "God is love" (1 John 4:8).

In the Jewish Old Testament the metaphor of God as love comes in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses (Genesis 24:12, 14, 24:27, 32:10, 39:21, Exodus 15:13, 34:6). The Psalms use the metaphor of God's love (-khesed-) over a hundred times. Psalm 136 uses the word in each of twenty-six verses, which proves that the metaphor of God as love was already very important nearly three thousand years ago..

The problem is that the metaphor of love is taken from human love, and love has dozens of meanings. Does God love us like "I love shrimps"? Does he fall in and out of love? Is his love possessive, manipulative, conditional, designed to take away our freedom? Does his love only continue while we are alive, and then he has us put down like a race-horse that has broken a leg?

To clarify what we mean by God's love we therefore need other metaphors to help us. God is our Father, but that does not work easily as metaphor for someone who was ignored or abused as a child. God is our mother (Deuteronmy 32:11-12, Psalm 131:2, Isaiah 49:15. 66:13, Hosea 11:3-4, Matthew 23:37), which suits the feminists who hate patriarchy.

We need other metaphors to make clear that God is not one impassible, indivisible mathematical unit. God is three Persons who are eternally united in love. In addition to the metaphors for God as parent, we need metaphors to clarify the character of the Son of God.

With metaphors it is not logically contradictory to say that a particular man is both a father and a judge in the family, a lover and a football player, an artist and an accountant, a Canadian and English by birth. The advantage of using such metaphors is that they can suggest paradoxical opposites, and Jesus the Son of God was certainly paradoxical. What should not be done is to mix metaphors. It makes no sense to say "Let us look to the rock of our salvation for forgiveness and healing." Each metaphor should be presented to do its own work in its own way. And put together they give us the insight we need.

When he was on earth the Son of God was also son of man. We can say "The Lord is my Shepherd" and paradoxically also call him the Lamb of God. He is both Judge and Savior, Lord and Servant, King and Personal Friend, Warrior and Peace Maker, Rock and Young Plant, Resurrection and Life, the Door and the Way.

Similarly the Holy Spirit is called -ruakh elohim- which in Hebrew means Wind of God. But we can also differentiate Wind Blowing, Wind Breathing (inspiration), and Wind Burning (forest fire, fire in the hearth, fire for smelting). In the New Testament we add that the Spirit is the organizing life of the church (1 Corinthians 12:6, Ephesians 4:15-16). He is also The Team Coach (John 16:12-13).

Preachers who merely argue about doctrines are a bore. The really effective preachers are those who are skilled in using, explaining, and applying the rich metaphors of the Bible. It is possible to invent new metaphors to understand what God is like, but obviously some might not be appropriate in preaching the Christian good news: God is my Bartender, Dance Partner, Guerilla Leader, Godfather (as in the Mafia)?

And Christians will normally avoid some of the metaphors that are important in other religions. Hindu Shaivism thinks of God as Shiva the destroyer. A God who amuses himself by watching the people of our world as -lila- a play, is not a loving God. In Taoism if the word God is used it refers to The Tao (what is natural) of life. (To go deeper into this topic see the first two chapters of God of Many Names: An Introduction to Dialogue Between Religions, 1993.

Finally we come to our topic "Metaphors for Knowing God." As we multiply the biblical metaphors connected with the word God, we learn to know more and more about God. But that is not the same as knowing God. Obviously if God is love, then he loves every single person who has lived in our world. Every one of us is personally known (Psalm 139:1-6) though we may not recognize it. And many people live and die for a few minutes, or days, or years without ever using a single metaphor to describe their experience of God.

That suggests that Ignorance of the correct metaphors does not separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:31-39). And there must be millions of people who experience the love of God without grasping the hundreds of metaphors that the Bible offers us. So we wonder why we need metaphors at all? Why not say nothing and focus on God "who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (1 Timothy 1:17)?

Enjoying the love of God without metaphors to describe him is obviously possible for babies and little children, the retarded, and simple minded people among all nations. The problem arises when people suggest to us (and this is one of the main activities of Satan) metaphors that misrepresent the love of God. "God is dangerous, God is vengeful, God is indifferent, God is mean spirited, God is a tyrant, God is a slave owner, God is a hard task-master, God is a nagging condemner. "

Those who have no metaphors to misunderstand, are quite safe in the love of God. But when a wrong metaphor begins to govern our mind, we lose our sense of the love of God and shrink away. That was the case with Adam and Eve. "God is a liar, God is a spoil- sport." And at that point the only way back is to hear the Word of God preached, read it from the Bible, or remind ourselves of the correct metaphors for the love of God. But we also need to learn the rich metaphors of heaven's kind of love if we want to serve him and serve others.

Every morning when I wake up, before getting out of bed, I talk to God as Father and remind myself of the metaphors of a loving parent. Then I talk to God the Son, and review some of the paradoxical metaphors that describe him. I also need to prepare myself for the day by thinking of the metaphors of the Holy Spirit as teacher, coach, inspirer, guide, fruit producer, and much else that I will need.  In that sense day by day I am enriched by the metaphors for knowing God.

The deliberate rejection of the love of God in favour of eternal darkness and death is for me an unthinkable choice, though the Bible says it is a possibility (John 3:19-21). But delighting in the metaphors of the love of God gives me the assurance that I am loved eternally and welcome just as I am to the joy of heaven. Many die without the comfort of that "blessed assurance." But I don't have to say that those who don't know what a metaphor is, or ever think in those terms, or are plagued with wrong metaphors, are less loved and close to God than I am.

A Note on Metaphor

What then is a metaphor? The Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines it as the "application of a name or description to something to which it is not literally applicable (e.g. a glaring error)." An error cannot shine dazzlingly, but the metaphor suggests the error is very obvious.

Some would argue that all adjectives, even the most scientific sounding ones were originally metaphors. "Light is a wave or a particle, it moves in a straight line, or it moves in curved space." The word atom from -atomos- in Greek meant something unable to be divided or split.

Thomas Stephen Szasz said that two things are needed to create a metaphor.  You have to give something a name, and it should belong "to something else resembling it." He gives the examples of calling a remark "cutting" or describing a person as "foxy." (Heresies, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1976, p.37).

Sallie McFague defined metaphor as pretending that "this is that." (Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language, Philadelphia: Forrtress Press, 1982, p.15). Sandra Schneiders defined metaphor as the tension between "a literally absurd statement" and the person or event to which it points. (Women and the Word, New York  & Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1986, p.25)

Douglas Berggren used the idea of metaphorical tension. It is when the metaphorical tension is lost, and people take the metaphors literally, that misunderstanding occurs. He also pointed out that metaphors at first surprise and shock us. In time they get literalized, lose their tension, go stale, or become dead ("The Use and Abuse of Metaphor," The Review of Metaphysics, XVI, 1962- 63, pp. 237-258). William P. Alston for example gives us five illustrations of what he calls a dead metaphor : fork in the road, leg of a table, leaf of a book, stem of a glass, eye lids (Philosophy of Language, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1964, p.99).

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