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This week’s DYK is continued from newly released book, God and Spirituality: A symbol, in Tillich’s theological system, is a signpost pointing our attention to something else. But we must remember that the symbol is not that to which it points. The signpost pointing our attention to the Grand Canyon is not itself the Grand Canyon. I prefer to use the term metaphor instead of symbol in my theological writings, because it makes it easier to understand how so many religious texts, like the passage from Isaiah 40 which was quoted earlier, consist of vast numbers of vivid metaphors: human lives are like tiny blades of grass or like grasshoppers jumping about, but they can use the divine power of divine grace “to mount up with wings like eagles,” to mention just a few of the colorful images used. But my choosing to use the term metaphor instead of symbols is mostly just for personal preference, because I am pointing to the same kind of religious language to which Tillich refers.

Religious symbols and metaphors must be analyzed by what early Greek Christian theologians called the kataphatic-apophatic method. The Greek verb kataphemi means to say yes or assent to something, so the Greek noun kataphasis, which is derived from it means an affirmative statement. The kata prefix can also be added to a word to mean that whatever is being done, is being done throughout and thoroughly, from one end to the other, so this is also implied in the theological use of the term kataphatic in early Christian Greek. The other word, apophasis, meant negation, saying no, denying that something was true. In an interesting sort of way, in order for us to use religious metaphor properly, we must do both and say both “yes” and “no” to the contents of the symbolic elements.

When we apply the kataphatic—apophatic method to analyzing religious metaphors, we must begin by using the kataphatic approach and discussing the internal structure of the metaphor in detail, exploring the context of its meaning if it were taken literally. So when Isaiah 40 says that the Jews who were now going to be allowed to return from the Babylonian concentration camps “shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint,” we can use the kataphatic method to discuss the eagle metaphor and try to visualize more clearly that which it means to talk about eagles flying through the air, taken as a totally literal visual image. When we watch an eagle soaring overhead, we are impressed with the grace and ease and total freedom with which the eagle sweeps through the heights. The eagle’s wings are strong and capable in themselves, but the eagle also knows how to use them to ride the powerful air currents and thermals in the upper atmosphere, and be borne upwards even further. Above all, the eagle is lifted up above the creatures that creep, crawl and hop upon the surface of the earth, and can ignore their petty battles and concerns. Eagles do not bother themselves about grasshoppers fighting for the same blade of grass.  But then to appropriate the metaphor for spiritual purposes, we must use the apophatic method, and make it clear that when we are reading the Bible, we are not studying a biological textbook about the habits of eagles. We must see how to apply the metaphor to our own lives.  The higher meaning of the metaphor is a message about freedom, rising to new heights, receiving an exuberant new power, and being able to leave behind the constraints that had us crawling miserably on rocks and thorns of existence. But this higher meaning has to be grasped intuitively, and cannot itself be put literally into words, the preceding sentence used a different set of metaphors in the attempt to illuminate the meaning of the eagle metaphor. Freedom vs. being locked up, high vs. low, references to “the rocks and thorns of existence,” and so on, are also metaphors and not literal statements, when we are attempting to describe a spiritual state of mind.

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Glenn Chesnut

He was Professor of History and Religious Studies at IU South Bend for 33 years, winning IU's Herman Frederic Lieber Award for excellence in teaching in 1988. He has written a number of works that primarily focus on Christianity & Alcoholics Anonymous. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer