Metaphors We Live By

I’m reading George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, and it’s really rocking my world. To sum up their book in one (terribly inadequate) sentence:

Metaphors are built into our language so deeply that they unconsciously guide – and even restrict – our thinking.

We don’t just write metaphors. We don’t just talk in metaphors. We think in metaphors.

Metaphors aren’t just for literature and poetry. Cultural metaphors go so deep

The Tower of Babel, Russian manuscript, 1539.

The Tower of Babel, Russian manuscript, 1539.

that we don’t even realize they’re there. We think we’re thinking about things “literally,” but our conceptual metaphors are built into the language. And they shape our thoughts without us even knowing it.

If we think “Time is Money,” (from chapter two) then it’s something we can budget, save, and invest. It’s something we must not waste. We’ve all heard and said those things, right?

But think of a culture that isn’t ruled by our industrial rhythms. To hunter-gatherers, time is what? I can barely imagine how someone who has no watch, no calendar, and no real concept of money, might conceptualize time.

Even the earliest hunter-gatherers had to have some concept of time: seasons change; day fades into night; babies grow up, grow old, and die.

But they might think of time as a circle, spinning from day to night to day to night again. They might consider their lives a part of that cycle (either through reincarnation or in other ways). Lacking money, they’d certainly not talk about spending or saving time.

So, what does this have to do with “Wrestling with the Angel?”

If our very thoughts are guided by our culture-specific conceptual metaphors, then so were our ancestors’… specifically our spiritual ancestors.

What were the conceptual metaphors of the writers of the Bible? Can we even really know?

They didn’t live in a post-industrial world. They didn’t struggle with “diseases of affluence.” They knew nothing of equal rights or democracy. And we certainly don’t live in – or understand – their world.

Is it enough to translate the Bible, if we don’t translate the underlying metaphors? Can even the best scholar actually understand the thought processes of a pre-industrial first century believer?

Can we trust the Bible?

Well, yes, but …

Yes, but … we must go beneath the surface. We can’t just read a passage (in translation) and say “God said it, I believe it, and that finished it.”

Yes, but … we can’t allow ourselves to get lazy. In Jesus’s time, Jews and Christians alike studied the scriptures, repeated them, prayed them, and knew the interpretation debates. Today, we’re used to instant answers and polarized parties. We want an ideological clan with all the answers more than we want muddy, messy, living truth.

Yes, but … we must approach scripture humbly, realizing we may be wrong, no matter how long we’ve believed something.

Yes, but … we must approach other people humbly, realizing we may be wrong.

Yes, we can trust the Bible, but … we should know better than to blindly, assuredly, trust ourselves.

What I Am Sure Of

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about questions, writing about the push and pull of mysteries of the faith, things so many people take for granted.  It may be frustrating to some of you that I don’t always come to a conclusion.  To borrow a phrase from Donald Miller, I don’t “resolve.”  But please bear with me.  There are some things I do believe…

The charge has been leveled that evangelical Christians, and conservative ones in general, can’t stomach ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  And surely bumper-sticker catchphrases like “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” only add to that image.

But the truth is, people aren’t great with ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty.  That’s why, once we choose a political party, we ignore almost any horrible deed by our side, because it’s “better than the other guys,” whether it’s torture – I mean, “enhanced interrogation” – or drone strikes on Pakistani civilians and U.S. citizens abroad.

Similarly, when we settle on a religious framework, we tend to stick to it, minimizing or exceptionalizing its problems, from ‘crack that limp wrist’ to ‘build a fence so they’ll die out‘ to the ongoing abuses of complementarian fundamentalists.  But much of the time the problem isn’t the theology so much as the certainty itself.  None of us is immune to confirmation bias.  The problem comes when we don’t fight it, but instead sanctify it.

It’s true that we go through times of transition, mostly as young people, when we examine our parents’ beliefs to see which ones are really ours.  The children of conservatives may become socialists, the sons of hippies, Young Republicans, the daughters of butchers, vegetarians.

Of course, times of change and transition aren’t only for adolescents. Sometimes having children sparks a new period of wrestling, brought on by sleepless nights and the awesome wonder of new life.  Sometimes age and approaching retirement, with its distant rumblings of mortality, sparks yet another time of change.

But beyond this?   Most people don’t have a stomach for uncertainty.  As human beings, it’s our nature to prefer flawed, even wrong, answers to rightful questions.

It’s far too easy to stop wrestling, struggling, “working out our salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  We get comfortable, and soon we find we’re no longer following Jesus across dusty Judean roads, over craggy mountains, and into the land of the half-breed heretic Samaritans.

Instead, we’ve set up our comfortable seats at the temple (always the same pew, every Sunday).  And the sad part is, we don’t even really expect Him to come to us.  We think He has come to us, and we’re good.  We’ve got it.  We got our inoculation, we’re right with God.  We’re all right.  “I’m not a sinner.  I never sin.  I’ve got a friend in Jesus…

And that certainty makes us hard.  It calcifies and ossifies, grinding our compassion and empathy to a halt.  Outsiders become, not the ones we seek out (like the woman at the well), but enemies of the faith.  Our approach is not genuine interest and sacrificial compassion, but alarm and hostility.  We cry “persecution!” from our well-cushioned pews in our air-conditioned churches every time something in the outer world slaps us in the face.  But persecution isn’t a slap in the face; it’s a bullet in the head.

There’s a reason we call it wrestling with a topic.  Wrestling is hard.  It’s sweaty.  It’s physical.  It’s exhausting.  Working out our salvation with fear and trembling requires a lot of energy.  More than that, it requires pain.  Fear and trembling.  This is going to hurt.

Wrestling with God is going to hurt.  And it should.  The Marines have a saying: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”  If you can’t stomach the pain of questioning, you’ll have to accept the weakness.  But please, don’t claim that weakness to be a stronger or truer faith.  Shouting heretic and TYPING IN ALL CAPS doesn’t make you right.  It didn’t make me right when I did it, either.

This is what I believe.  I believe that Jacob didn’t wrestle an angel.  He wrestled God Himself, a pre-incarnate Jesus.  And though he wrestled all night until his arms ripped and his lungs raged like fire, though he almost lost his leg, Jacob wrestled.  He held on, and in the end God blessed him.

And I believe God still waits to wrestle with us all.  It won’t be pretty.  It won’t be easy.  It won’t be painless.  But it will be worth it.

Amen.