@ K. 1999 05 14
Metaphor vs. Simile
My love is an arbetus.
She walks in beauty like the night.
Metaphor says that A is B; simile says that A is like B.
Jesus said, This is my body. Roman Catholics don’t say it’s a metaphor; they say it’s the truth. The truth is understood as literal Protestants say that the host, the wafer, the bread cube represents Jesus’ body. I use Gregory Bateson’s example. That greatest-of-all-teachers-before-Prigogine said that Catholics are hard put to understand what in hell the Protestants are talking about. To them the distinction may appear to be insane. Catholics are deep into metaphor.
So am I. But I also insist that the ability to make the distinction is a positive evolutionary advance over the inability. Some of us are color blind; most of us are metaphor blind. (Protestant literalists are in atavistic retreat.)
The little word is has its tragedies; it marries and identifies different things with the greatest innocence; and yet no two are ever identical, and if therein lies the charm of wedding them and calling them one, therein too lies the danger. Whenever I use the word is, except in sheer tautology, I deeply misuse it; and when I discover my error, the world seems to fall asunder and the members of my family no longer know one another.
Might not liberal theologians see the idea of Jesus being the Son of God as itself a metaphor? I do. But then I’m so liberal few would qualify me as a theologian of any stripe. (“Liberal theologian”: is that an oxymoron?) Indeed, I see God “Himself” as a metaphor. I both live it (like a Catholic) and see it (like the Protestant I once was). After all, what can we possibly know of the true origin or nature of the universe? Theory, always subject to revision against new data and new ideas, is the best we have, the best we can have.
The bulk of modern “Christians” (Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, or Greek), share the belief that Jesus is the Son of God. The many variants on the view were shouted down or bushwhacked as heresy many centuries ago: Aryanism, for example. (There’s an excellent replica of this history in Garry Jennings’ novel, Raptor.) Now: does this “is” signify “truth” as in A: the map accurately represents the territory (as in the rational disciplines)? Or B: it has the status of identity (as in a tautology)? Or C: go along (or at least have the decency to pretend) or you won’t get any Christmas presents (as in religion and politics)? Or D: as in good metaphor? (Bad metaphor we’re less likely to call “truth.”) If the latter, still further questions come to bear: is the metaphor distinguished as such? or is metaphor-blindness part of the metaphor?
How often do people take “literal” to mean that the map is the territory? Sorry. Impossible. At best it can mean that there are no discrepancies between the territory and the map’s representation of it.
That too is impossible. At best, it’s hyperbole.
I put the word Christians in quotation marks as a challenge. Who’s Christian? Anyone who says they are? Anyone who believes all elements of the Nicene Creed? Anyone who believes that Jesus will love and save him, no matter how he behaves, so long as he believes?
If you define Christian in terms of embodying what Jesus said, I don’t think you’ll be able to count too many. How many “reverends” and “priests” would qualify? Some, I concede. There is nevertheless a huge discrepancy of number between self- and fraternally-proclaimed Christians and how many a rationally skeptical “Martian” would count.
If there is a Judgment Day, we shall see how much wool can be pulled over God’s eyes.