What About Metaphorical Gods? Metaphorical Gods are a Waste of Time

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Mar 23, 2014, 5:46:36 PM3/23/14
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What About Metaphorical Gods? Metaphorical Gods are a Waste of Time

Mason Cooley on Theology, God, and Metaphors

By Austin Cline

One of the most significant developments in Christian theology during the modern era may be the shift from talking about God as an actually existing person to God as impersonal force or even a metaphor for something else, like the "ultimate ground of being." Not all of theology or all theologians have made such a shift, but enough have in order to create an important strand in contemporary theological thinking. But does this lead us to a "God" for legitimate, reasonable belief?


Liberal & Metaphorical Theology

This seems to be the hope, or perhaps just the assumption, of many liberal believers and theologians. It's not uncommon for them to respond to arguments from atheists with the insistence that they and other "sophisticated" believers don't see "God" in the concrete form of biblical literalism; theirs is a "sophisticated" vision of "god" which can only be comprehended through complex metaphors.

Apparently, years of study are necessary to realize just how important and "true" the sophisticated, metaphorical theology is yet it still manages to be the "true" religion in contrast to unsophisticated, unimportant literalism. But once they have decided that their "god" is a metaphor rather than real thing or being, what's the point of building a religion or a life around it? Indeed, what's the point of giving it a second thought? It seems to be a "god" that has little use or value outside academia.

This is why attempts to create a "sophisticated" theology around metaphor may carry within them the seeds of their own demise — or at least the seeds that prevent such theology from ever seriously dominating theological discourse. This sentiment is expressed quite forcefully by Mason Cooley:

A theology whose god is a metaphor is wasting its time.
- Mason Cooley, City Aphorism

It's not too hard to see of why Cooley is probably right: if "god" is merely a metaphor for something else, then just what is the point of devoting an entire academic or scholarly discipline to the study and understanding of this "god"?


Religion & Metaphor

Of course, one might ask the same question even if "god" is conceived of in more substantive terms, but at least in that situation a theologian might be involved with developing ideas about the proper relationship religious believers are supposed to have with their idea of "god," what sort of behavior is expected of them, and how their faith is sustained through history. Even if we don't believe in the existence of this god, we might allow that there is at least some sort of work going on there.

Once the very notion of a real "god" is abandoned even by the theologians, however, the situation appears to change substantially. How can we talk about believers' relationship with a metaphor? We surely can't say that a metaphor will expect any sort of behavior from us. Are we supposed to have "faith" in this metaphor?

Any such theology would very quickly have to be transformed into something that looks far more like typical psychology and philosophy or, perhaps more likely, something rather futile and pointless. It surely can't produce a better foundation for anything like a religion to structure your life around.

Theological positions that treat "god" as a metaphor of some sort became popular because they no longer require one to defend outdated arguments that don't stand up to critical reflection and empirical evidence very well. They seem to make theology easier, both for the theologian and for the religious audience. Easier theology, however, isn't necessarily better theology and it isn't the sort of theology that is likely to sustain much interest.

It would appear that however difficult, complicated, and even paradoxical the concept of a real god may be, it's also necessary for believers as well as theologians. Without it, the already-dicey subject of theology is reduced to a mere shadow of its barely-substantial self.


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