Metaphorical Theology in Missions

The Lord is my Good Shepherd
The Lord is my Good Shepherd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading some of “Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age” (strange title) by Sallie McFague. It has a chapter on Metaphorical Theology, and it seemed to me that it has much to say about Missions Theology. While I am aware that there have been some honest attempts to develop a real Missions Theology, most of what I have seen is little more than an attempt to “prooftext” the behavior of missionaries. I doubt that I will be part of the correction in this area… but I do hope to look at Contextual or Narrative or Metaphorical Theology on a level beyond the obvious. At this point I am probably still dwelling in the obvious.

Dennis Nineham (in the epiloge to “The Myth of God Incarnate” quoted by McFague) says that people…

“find it hard to believe in God because they do not have available to them any lively imaginative picture of the way God and the world as they know it are related. What they need most is a story, a picture, a myth, that will capture their imagination while meshing in with the rest of their sensibility in the way that messianic terms linked with the sensibility of first-century Jews, or Nicene symbolism with the sensibility of philosophically-minded fourth-century Greeks.”

The obvious implications of this is that people in the modern or post-modern or globalistic or pluralistic world picture God and that picture does not fit with their worldview. This disconnect leads them, naturally, to unbelief (or at least agnosticism). Or another way of saying it is that people invent an unbelievable god, and rejecting their own creation, reject God.

Gordon Kaufman has written a lot on God as symbol, not rejecting God, but recognizing that there is a difference between the “Available God” (a picture or image of God that we create in our minds) and the “Real God” (the self-existent One). Once we get a firm understanding of the difference between the “God Who Is” versus the “god we construct” we can see the problem that people today have.


But whose fault is that? If people view God as violent, uncaring, and judgmental, are we justified to blame them for the poor image? If people view God as kind of grandfatherly— kindly, doting, and a bit out of touch– can we condemn those with such an opinion? I would suggest that we as missionaries, theologians, Christians, have failed when we cannot develop an understanding of God that is both true and relevant.

An obvious (even necessary) way of doing this is through metaphor. A metaphor is a word or phrase that is used correctly in one context but applied to another context. When we say “The Lord is my Shepherd” we are taking the image of a shepherd, a keeper and protector of sheep, and relating it to God (and relating us to the sheep). Obviously, in many ways God is very much unlike a shepherd… but on some level the concept helps us understand God (if, at least, we understand what a GOOD shepherd is like).

Jacques Derrida notes that metaphors exist somewhere between nonsense and truth. Take the good shepherd example. On many levels it is nonsense to say that God is a shepherd. Clearly, He is not so employed. Clearly, He neither looks like a shepherd nor, in most ways, behaves as a shepherd. Yet on another level, it is possible that the image of God as a good shepherd expresses a profound truth about God that we would have trouble fathoming without this symbol/metaphor

Metaphor then provides a bridge between:

Context “A” ————— Metaphor ————— Context “B”

Is Not ———————— Metaphor ————– Is

Nonsense ——————- Metaphor ————– Truth

Sometimes a metaphor is found to be relatively stable, coherent, comprehensive and broad in scope. At that time, we might no longer talk of it as simply a metaphor, but as a model.

For example, according to McFague, “God as Father” is more than simply a metaphor, but can be thought of as a model. However, a model does not mean that it is any more real… it just means that it is broadly useful. God is not literally my father… yet God can be understood effectively in a broad set of situations through the metaphor/model of an idealized father.

Metaphors for God are useful, but they can lose their power. When Jesus spoke of God as His (and our) Father, this was a shocking new idea with little support within the Hebrew Bible. It’s power was tied to that shock value. Once the idea becomes comfortable, it risks becoming trite, it can become theologized, it can become a definition. Embracing the Fatherhood of God as a definition has led to much foolishness at times. Some have tried to explain why God can only be thought of as a Father and not a Mother, or how God is “male” and not “female.” I am not suggesting a feminization of terms for God. Many of those who seek to do this seem to be seeking new definitions rather than metaphors, or are purposely rejecting church heritage. New metaphors will certainly always challenge the past, but a respect for our heritage is also important… it is part of who we are. Metaphors can drift into heresy by misdirecting people so as to obscure the God Who Is, or by being taken as literal and so, again, obscuring the God Who Is. We often talk about Jesus as Prophet, Priest, and King. However, only one of these is literally true. Jesus was a prophet. However, Jesus was not literally a priest or a king. Rather, the terms “priest” and “king” are useful metaphors for certain aspects of the nature and role of Jesus.

Looking at this post, I realize that I am meandering. As I said, I am thinking through a lot of this with still more questions than answers. I can say this. We need to spend less time explaining old metaphors for God and then blaming people for not understanding them. We need to find effective metaphors for God that challenge and shock, that open the eyes of people today to understand who God is. In doing this, we risk being misunderstood, and we risk being thought of as heretical. However, effective metaphors will bridge the gap between the “God Who Is, ” present-day culture, and our faith heritage.

If this was easy, everyone would do it. But it is not easy… it requires a good understanding of who God is, an emic understanding of post-modern culture, and a divinely inspired creative imagination.

One thought on “Metaphorical Theology in Missions

  1. Pingback: new myth, old god (and the origin of heaven and hell on earth) « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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