Symbols and the Knowledge of God

The idea of metaphor has pervaded my recent series here: In Languages of God, I spoke of religion as a language and denominations as dialects, and about doctrinal systems are language games. The series before Christmas on the ‘O Antiphons‘ was full of metaphors, like “root of Jesse,” “key of David,” and “Dayspring from on High.” And so far in the series on knowing God, I’ve written about the map and the territory, and talked about old stories where God is known in as varied symbols as three messengers, a burning bush, a whirlwind, the sound of silence. This isn’t a surprise — metaphor is a fundamental part of human language and thought — but it does mean that it’s probably time to talk about what we mean when we talk about God being revealed in metaphor and symbols.

Metaphors, or symbols more broadly, work because they draw connections between different things without fully equating them. Our world is full of symbols, whether we realize it or not. From corporate logos to national anthems, to the way a faith community expresses itself in worship, to the signs on our streets or how we choose to decorate our homes or put up on our social media feeds, symbols are all around us.

In the 1980s, theology took a “metaphorical turn” and many theologians began to focus on the nature of our talk about God. (To give you a sense of how literally I mean this, two of the more influential titles of the era were called The Analogical Imagination and Metaphorical Theology.) While undeniably postmodern, this movement also sought to reclaim the ancient Christian insistence that our language about an infinite God is always artificial and inexact. It is always an exercise in metaphor; it is always symbolic.

This can easily raise hackles among believers. What are we trying to say? That the Bible is lying when it calls God ‘Father’ or says that “God is love”? Does it mean we can’t trust our Scriptures or religious vocabulary? Indeed, Sally McFague provocatively wrote “theology is mostly fiction,” so it’s easy to see why people would be concerned.

But I think we can affirm the truth behind the metaphorical turn — that finite human thought and language can never adequately capture an infinite God and so our language about God is always creative and symbolic — without rejecting the truth of that symbolic language about God.

As is so often the case, my guide in this is the fourteenth-century Byzantine theologian Gregory Palamas. The question of symbols played an important role in his debates with the scholar-monk Barlaam of Calabria. Barlaam denied that God was truly experienced in mystical prayer because what was experienced (specifically, they were arguing about a phenomenon known as the divine light) was a symbol of God and therefore not properly God.

Palamas’ response is not only helpful for our question today, but also helpfully accessible. In his Chapters in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts, he notes that not all symbols function the same way. Some participate in and are intrinsic to the symbolized — examples he gives are the dawn as a symbol of the Sun or heat as a symbol of fire — while others are extrinsic — such as distant torchlight as a symbol of an approaching army.

The symbolic experiences of God, according to Palamas are legitimate experiences of God because they are symbols that participate in what they symbolize.

While less paradigmatically so, more common experiences of God in symbols, such as those in the sacraments, liturgy and prayer, are similarly understood to be genuinely experiences of God because they too — by grace — participate in and are suffused in and by the energies of God.

It’s worth noting that this gets us very close to the Eastern understanding of salvation itself: that by grace, we become one with God through an ever-increasing union of our energies with God’s. Thus we could say that our goal as Christians is to become symbols of God to, in, and for the world.

Getting back to the matter at hand, I think this gives us a helpful way of thinking about our symbolic and metaphorical language for God. We can acknowledge the limitations of our words without denying their truth. If our Scriptures speak of God as being our Father, we can say that there is something about God’s character that is ‘fatherly’ towards us — we can say that that image ‘participates’ in who God is. But that image does not define or limit God, just as the sun isn’t limited by ‘light’, or any other of the ways we experience it on Earth. God is inexhaustible, and God’s character is perfect, so our words can never measure up. We rightly call God ‘Father’ but if we think of God as a human father, whether biologically as having produced semen or socially as expressing the worst sides of the image of fatherhood, like being domineering or controlling — or if we say that this means that God cannot be Mother too, we’re off track and have put too much stock in our paltry human words.

If we turn back to our ancient theophany stories, we can see how the ways in which God is revealed in them in symbols can be instructive of who God is: Abraham found that God is a guest who must be welcomed in; Jacob experienced God as a test of his skill, perseverance, and strength, and then as a fresh start; Moses experienced God as all-consuming yet never consumed; Job experienced God as an all-powerful and infinite force of nature; and Elijah experienced God as what is left when all those dramatics are over. These were powerful symbols for them, meeting them where they were at and giving them what they needed to see. And they remain powerful symbols for us, saying something true about — but not exhausting or limiting — God.

7 thoughts on “Symbols and the Knowledge of God

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