Sharing Metaphors

Most of human understanding comes through our capacity to understand metaphor.  It is through metaphor that we are able to engage in the arts, science, reason and religion. Some metaphors bear wonderful fruit; others can become like weeds choking growth. May we come together and jointly work in tending our gardens of metaphors.

Tending your garden of Metaphors

For  Unitarians, metaphors are central to the principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  Additionally the principal to “support the spiritual growth of others within our congregation” hinges on successful interplay between alternative metaphors.

Can we do these things within a community that employs so many differing and often seemly conflicting metaphors? To be a successful community, I think we have to.  But there are real struggles.  We don’t always welcome different metaphors and we can be too protective of our own.

Some within our congregation may fear those of us who tend to be too literal.  Like Tim Minchin in the song we enjoyed, literalists can lose the main message by focusing on accuracy a little too much.  I can’t blame someone who fears that the more persnickety of us will suck all the joy, mystery and fun from life. Not everything has to be literally true to be useful and meaningful.  We will be poorer if we only relate to life by cold science or what can be definitively proved.  The search for truth and meaning can hit a big roadblock when literalists interfere too much.

On the other hand, more literally focused individuals are afraid of being hijacked by metaphors that go way too far.  If we use a little poetry like Einstein and Jefferson it ends up being taken as an endorsement of things we see as nonsense.  Take the concept of Karma for instance. I believe you will tend to be happier and more successful the more good you do.  Positive actions make you a positive person and you are better able to live with both good and bad developments.  But when someone invokes Karma to imply a supernatural keeper of a balance sheet that magically influences the world and we’re all chanting together for some divine intervention, that’s too far for me.   We all know the metaphor of head and heart, but really the heart is a muscle that pumps blood and what we call head or heart really is all brain. The metaphor of heart and head enables some to embrace ideas that much of our personality is outside our brain.  This too can be a roadblock in the search for truth and meaning.

There is far more diversity within our congregation than these examples.  Fear of diversity can make us seek a cocoon and hunker down to protect our metaphors from criticism. Our differing metaphors can put unwarranted distance between people. Sometimes we shun dialogue through fear of conflicts and criticism. During the children’s portion we saw that metaphors can be confusing and that we vary in our abilities to embrace differing metaphors.  Some may see an unbridgeable gulf between people of different metaphors.   My hope though is that we can have honest open dialogue and inquiry around our different metaphors.  It’s ok if others don’t embrace our metaphors.  It should be OK to question each other, to try to understand each other, and it should even be ok to say things like “I don’t get your metaphor”, or this is the problem I see with that “metaphor”.  We might all learn and grow from such exchanges.  I think it is important within a community committed to growth to share and discuss metaphors whether they are equally embraced or not.  Saying we just have different metaphors and stopping the dialogue there is a lot like the bumper sticker mindset which says “God said it, I agree, end of discussion”.  Talking about metaphors should help us with our individual gardens and better integrate us as a community.  I’d like to discuss some things to keep in mind that might make dialogue easier.  I’m sure we can come up with more.

Sometimes we wrongly assume that Contradictory metaphors are a problem

Two metaphors may be in conflict.  It doesn’t necessarily mean one is right or better.  They might instead be suited to different purposes.  To understand light, scientists have used different metaphors.  Understanding light as a particle helps us develop technologies that can convert sunlight to electric power.  Understanding light at a wave explains the refraction of light as it goes though a slit and leads to an understanding of optics. In truth light is not simply a particle or simply a wave, but both contradictory metaphors are valuable nonetheless.  Scientists manage to interact with others who employ conflicting metaphors.  Shouldn’t people who have different “life” metaphors be able to interact as well?

Truer or more accurate metaphors are not necessarily better

A metaphor does not have to be true to be useful.  Isaac Newton had a metaphor for understanding motion.  It’s really amazing; he showed that mathematical equations were a metaphor for bodies in motion.  Now Albert Einstein comes along with a metaphor that is strictly more accurate and truer. He even predicts that his metaphor will be shown to be more accurate by measurements which show the earth bending light.  It happened during an eclipse.  Einstein’s model was demonstrated to be conclusively more correct.  Did we get rid of  Newton’s equations?  No, the math of Einstein is way complex and too hard to calculate for most things and Newton’s equations do a great  job for most things we care about. So Newton is not exactly right but far more useful most of the time.

Similarly science can show flaws and problems in many metaphors.  But in many cases it may not provide a superior metaphor.  So it may be a good thing to stick with a metaphor that works whether it’s exactly true or not.  In many areas we go to older wisdom, because science, while maybe having some excellent facts, might not have caught up to the grand metaphors developed over the ages. That can be a smart thing to do.

On the other hand…Ancient and popular metaphors are not necessarily better

I just said science often does not improve on old metaphors, but in some case it may be able to.  Let’s look at an unfortunate human behavior and how different metaphors may explain and help us deal with that behavior.

Think of two people arguing and one or both comes completely unglued.  They become angry, irrational, unthinking and attacking.   Hopefully for most this is a rare occurrence,  where behavior departs radically from the norm.

What are some metaphors to explain this?  Overtaken by a demon?  Poisoned by negative energy?  The result of astronomical pulls that day?  Stress from the external environment?  Chemical, elemental or Chi imbalances?  There’s a bunch of things we could name.

One newer metaphor comes out of the school of emotional intelligence.  It recognizes that our brain is a kluge of different parts.  When we are in a high stress situation our primitive “reptile” brain can take over to protect us.  This reptile brain called the amygdala, shuts down our reasoning processes.   It focuses us on one of two modes, fight or flight.  During this amygdale hijack we become attacking beasts unable to reason or draw on our higher functions.

I find this newer metaphor much more useful and appealing than ancient metaphors.  From an understanding of this metaphor we can learn ways to block and minimize this response.  It also makes it easier to understand and forgive others who may end up in this situation.  Shouldn’t we at times compare new and old metaphors and ask which better foster growth?

Some metaphors have major flaws, shouldn’t we talk about them?

Metaphors can be a two edged sword. Aristotle cautioned, that while well applied metaphors can enhance understanding, the misapplication of a metaphor can confuse, confound and perpetuate misunderstandings

I want to be careful here and not be too disrespectful to anyone’s metaphors.  But some metaphors just focus on superficial similarities and posit connections that do not and cannot exist.  Ancient herbalists looked at the horn of a rhinoceros and saw a powerful strong protuberance.  An overly simple metaphor suggested that grinding this substance to a powder would help wealthy aging male customers achieve a similar state.  This metaphor was most unfortunate for the slaughtered rhino’s and provided no benefit beyond false hope.  We need to be on guard for metaphors that are overly simplistic.

Just being a metaphor is not enough.  Take the story of Jehovah ordering Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  I’ve never been able to embrace that story.  I know “it’s a metaphor”.  But saying something is a metaphor should not be a get out of jail free card.  If you’re going to employ such metaphors you need to be accountable for tying it to some deeper meaning that can be extracted.

Some metaphors have old associations and can contain unfortunate vestiges.  Sometimes deliberate, maybe other times accidental.

They can tie us to paternalistic and chauvinistic ways of thinking, thereby marginalizing women.

Perhaps speaking of light as good and darkness as bad may have worked well in a homogenous culture.  But it can lead to bad connotations in a diverse culture with people of varying hues.

Some metaphors find themselves in the middle of culture wars as weapons to criticize and marginalize others.  For example an emphasis on “purity” as a positive virtue suggests that others are somehow impure, dirty or flawed. Not a very sex positive message.

Working together we can help ensure we are more sensitive about our metaphors.

Now while bad metaphors confuse from the start, what’s often more dangerous is good metaphors taken too far.  The concept of a computer virus works well at a high level, but when you get into the details of dealing with computer viruses the techies will likely find other metaphors more appropriate.   If they take the virus thing too far, they will mess up your computer.

Quantum mechanics is one of the weirdest things to come out of the twentieth century. It is so weird that Niels Bohr, one of the founding fathers of the theory, eventually concluded that it was fundamentally incomprehensible.  Some of the smartest guys on the planet try to understand quantum physics through metaphor.  Richard Feynman (one of the greatest) famously said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”.    But many with limited exposure presume to understand quantum physics expanding upon it and positing all kinds of links between space, time, the universe, intentionality, spiritual realms and you name it.  Why don’t most serious physicists get caught up in the weird stuff and making grand sweeping pronouncements like these folks.   It’s because the Physicist don’t take their metaphors to extremes.  They know all metaphors are flawed when taken too far.  They don’t believe or expect these strange relationships to hold when you take it beyond the quantum level.   They listen to their colleagues who let them know when they’ve gone too far.

Summing up.

We need to watch our metaphors and make sure we don’t take them where they shouldn’t go.  Discussing our metaphors with others who hold differing views can help us keep them on track and protect us from over extending.

Metaphors are important to us, community is important to us.  I think we must have more interplay amongst our metaphors within our community.

I’ll be honest.  I’m often like Amelia Bedelia.  There are many metaphors I just don’t get.  In many cases I’d like to have a better understanding of others views.  But it is hard to share our views with those who don’t value them.  But understanding has to come before valuing.  Pretending to value and appreciate something you really don’t yet understand is patronizing and dismissive not respectful and accepting.

Please share your metaphors with me. I’ll share mine.  Let’s question each other, let’s be open to challenge, let’s probe their respective values, let’s all be open to change, let’s all strive for mutual growth, let’s look at our metaphors through the eyes of others, but also let us be willing to disagree, let us expect that we will be moved by differing metaphors, let us accept when our paths diverge, and may we  all grow a bountiful garden of useful meaningful metaphors.


Additional material

Kids Part

You guys can do so much stuff and understand an awful lot.  It’s amazing.  How did you manage to learn so much in such a short time.  You were just a helpless baby not long ago.   One thing that helped you learn a lot is using metaphors.  That means you are able to understand new things by relating them to other things you understand.

Computer Virus.  Do you know what that is.  A lot of people that don’t understand much about computers can get their hands around that, because they know about viruses.  That’s a metaphor.  But  there are even more simple metaphors.

You know how you can catch someone?  Well you can also catch a fish, catch a ball, catch someone sneaking a cookie, catch what someone said, catch a nap, catch your breath, catch onto an idea, catch on fire, or catch me later.  Once you know about catching you can apply it to all types of things.  Though catching a ball is very different than catching on fire. Similarly you can drop a ball or you can drop what you’re doing.  These are metaphors-things that are alike but different too.

What does it mean when you beat someone?  I hope it doesn’t mean you beat them with a fist or stick. It could mean you beat them at a game.  If ____ says he beat up his brother this morning I hope it means he got up at  7 o’clock and his brother slept till 8.

So metaphors are helpful but can be confusing too.  We’ll read read a book about someone who is very confused by some metaphors.

Did you like the story?  Sometimes people have a hard time understanding other peoples metaphors.  How can you catch fish?  Hook, nets, speak, traps, … Well in Jesus’s time they would catch fish by lowering nets over the side of ships and they would pull them up full of fish.  Jesus told his followers he would make them fishers of men.  That was a pretty good metaphor for them.  But if you came from a place where people catch fish by stabbing them with a spear…  it might not be such a good metaphor.  So sometimes we have to work to understand each other’s metaphors.


Intro to the Service

The Great Leap-

Some say a great leap occurred around 50,000 years ago. In this great leap we became behaviorally modern human beings capable of forming cultures with elaborate social structures, language, religion, art,  creativity, scientific thought, music, myth, and humor.  What was it that enabled our ancestors to make the great leap?  Probably not our thumbs, or our upright posture, or even our big brains.

At about the same time as the Great Leap, our close relative the Neanderthals were dying out.  The Neanderthals were tool users, with bigger cranial capacity. Our brainer but less successful cousins.  The Neanderthals may have spoken a language that was a mix between  music and speech.    This hypothetical Neanderthal  lingual system is said to have been  holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic so it is sometimes called ‘hmmmmm’

What distinguished our ancestors from the Neanderthals was the separation of a “Hmmmmm” type language into the two systems of communication.   Music and  language.  This separation  most likely occurred  in our African ancestors at the beginning of the great leap. The appearance of compositional language would have had a profound impact on our human capabilities. It lead to our capacity for metaphor.  The capacity for metaphor gives us the potential for explosive growth.  It enables us to understand new things by referring  to other things we already understand.   The capacity for metaphor underlies advancement in art, science and religion.

While we call to mind the unfortunate loss of our amazing cousins with their musical language, let us also rejoice in our acquisition of the great gift of metaphor.  May the lighting of this candle call to mind the illuminations, understandings and advancements that can be brought about through well chosen metaphors.

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