Friday, March 6, 2015

A God of Symbolism and Metaphor

In much of common usage, symbolism and metaphor are synonymous terms. There is a slight difference, in that symbolism refers to objects or concepts representing other objects or concepts, whereas a metaphor can refer to a word or phrase that stands in the place of another. In this way, there is overlap, since metaphor can be symbolic, as in the case of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Old Major is a symbolic representation of Karl Marx in the context of the story, and so every time you see the words "Old Major," that's understood to be a metaphor for "Karl Marx," and so you mentally substitute the words. So you could say that symbols are objects whose comprehension generates abstractions, and metaphors are abstractions which apply themselves to objects.
  • But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances.
    • 1459.a4
~ Aristotle, Poetics.
"19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made..." ~ Romans 1
Aristotle recognized a divine truth.

As a matter of interest, note that "genius" is related to "generate," "generation," and "genesis." It was coined in distant ages to mean native talent, that is to say, "he was born with it." So genius is technically not learned knowledge but innate wisdom. It means you get something by virtue of being instinctively attuned to perceive it, and that you didn't have to be taught by someone else in order to make the connection.

Now, I believe 'nature and nurture' both are relevant in forming a person's thinking, but the emphasis on genius is that it has more to do with the wiring of their brain -- or the operation of the spirit aspect of the mind-brain interface -- than it does with what you learn. Accumulated knowledge is merely the way that you can identify wisdom, like glitter on a paper with glue makes a pattern. The way the glitter--here a metaphor for knowledge--sticks to the page reveals whether the intellect in question is genius or not.

Nevertheless, I agree with Aristotle that "command of metaphor" is a mark of a fine-tuned intellect. To be good at using and recognizing abstract relationships between notions, such as symbolism, analogies, metaphors, themes, etc, is to show the mark of a gifted mind. Gifted by whom? God, the giver of all gifts.

I love the fact that by reading the Bible, it's plain to see that God enjoys the use of symbolism. Every parable -- symbolic. Every eschatological prophecy -- heavy on symbolism. Every ceremonial law in the Old Testament paradigm -- symbolism (Matthew Henry's commentary was very helpful to me in this regard, because I had not realized before I studied the various purification guidelines (after an atheist insinuating it proved scientifically illiterate men wrote the Bible) how each aspect was symbolic -- everything points to the Cross). Every institution God created is symbolic: pastors, husbands, and lay believers-at-large are all representatives of Christ in some capacity. Marriage is a symbol of God's love for the Church while, in a lesser degree (because this is not emphasized in the Scripture as much) also symbolic of the Father and Son in the Holy Trinity, operating in a coequal loving relationship where one submits to the other and is no less God Almighty because of it!

I love discovering some new symbolism in the Bible. Mark my words, symbolism is not allegory. Something can be very real while at the same time being a symbol of something else. The statue of George Washington in Grand Central Station (?) for example. The fact that the statue isn't a real person doesn't mean that George Washington didn't exist. But ALLEGORY would say that the face on the $1 bill is not a real person, but an abstraction, a construct to serve as a national creation-myth, an explanation for why America is the way it is. So you can see the difference, I hope. I don't go looking for ways to allegorize Bible passages into something else, denying that it means what it says. I take the plain reading of the text -- and merely mean to say that I love digging into it to find the deeper meanings beyond the plain fact of the historical truths that are relayed to us.

The quest to identify symbolism is synonymous with the quest to answer the question "Why do we do this?" It is the answer to confusion about tradition. It is the merging of the modern practice of a thing with the understanding of the reason behind the initial institution of the practice.

Such knowledge is eminently helpful to Christians, to prevent them from a) having their faith shaken by people who challenge why seemingly absurd things are done or believed by Christians, and b) from concluding loopy, wonky theology because they don't understand the reasons why the Bible says something.

So to borrow from Aristotle's language, I exhort you to take command of metaphor!

~ Rak Chazak

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