Ricoeur and Metaphors

Paul Ricoeur wrote considerably on the concept of metaphors. One major work was

The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language

He described six contrasts between his understanding of metaphors and the, at the time at least, common understanding of metaphors.

1.  Fundamental unit of meaning. It was (is?) common to think of the “word” as the fundamental unit of meaning. Ricoeur states that the fundamental unit is the sentence. This actually makes sense since words, at best, have a locus or cloud of meanings. The “meaning” of a word is indeterminate until it is placed within a sentence. This is particularly relevant for metaphors since metaphors are groups or words, or sentences. No individual word (that I know of) is a metaphor in and of itself.

We might laugh at the quote from “Through the Looking Glass” (Lewis Carroll), but it is in many ways quite true:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

2.  Literal versus Figurative. It has been common to think of metaphors as figurative language and tied, necessarily to allegories. Some would argue, in fact, that an allegory is an extended metaphor. Ricoeur argued that metaphors are not figurative. They take two words or concepts that are literal, and then juxtapose them to create a literary tension between them. Metaphors are not figurative but express meaning through the interaction of literal concepts.

This is really really important. Consider the statement “The Lord is my Shepherd” from Psalm 23. Shepherd is a metaphor. It is not figurative. The term Lord here refers to God (of course, “Lord” when associated with “God” is also a metaphor, but let’s leave that alone at this time). God is literal. Shepherd is literal. The two are logically incompatible. But one gains an understanding of who God is by the “tension” of the incompatibility. In fact, a good metaphor is TRUE as long as it is also NOT TRUE. That is, “The Lord is my Shepherd” is a valid metaphor in part because “The Lord is NOT my Shepherd.” God doesn’t walk around the hills and fields with a bunch of sheep… feeding, tending, shearing sheep.

Consider what we might call the three-fold roles of Jesus— prophet, priest, and king. Two of these roles are metaphors. Jesus was literally, non-metaphorically, a prophet. That was His acknowledged role during His 3-year ministry in Galilee and Judea. Jesus never literally served as a priest, nor as a king. Even in heaven, He will not have those literal roles. That is because the roles have literal meaning within the confines of human culture. For example, the “head bee” in a hive we might call the Queen… but the actual role is considerably different from a real queen. Jesus is metaphorically a priest, taking on some roles that we think of in terms of a literal priest. Jesus is metaphorically a king, taking on some roles that we think of in terms of a literal king. The difference between prophet, priest, and king is found in the negation. Because priest and king are metaphors, there is tension in the literal senses. Therefore, it is correct, on some level, that Jesus is NOT a priest or is NOT a king. But it would not be correct to say that Jesus was not a prophet. The most you could say is that Jesus was more than a prophet.

3.  Cognitive versus Affective. Once one accepts a metaphor as literal rather than figurative, then one moves from a cognitive understanding to a more affective understanding. The value of a metaphor is in its shock… its emotive impact. When we hear that “The Lord is my Shepherd,” it is supposed to shock us. We are not supposed to be entirely comfortable with it. It is supposed to challenge us. When Jesus described God as “Our Father,” we are supposed to be challenged by such a (fairly outrageous) metaphor. When the metaphor loses affective impact, it has lost much of its power. Worse, when it shifts to theological dogma… something further is lost. I would argue that we are supposed to be shocked in the metaphor of Christ: “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” The transition over the centuries of the first millennium from literal metaphor to figure and then to literal dogma destroyed the impact. Even those of us who reject the literal dogma of transubstantiation, or the figurative dogma of consubstantiation still struggle with restoring the original metaphoric impact.

4.  Meaning. Some argue that metaphors are a substitution for literal language. However, following the logic of the above points, metaphors are semantic innovations… a way of developing complex meaning structures. When Jesus is described as “The Lamb of God” we know that Jesus is not a sheep. The term “lamb” is meant literally, but the tension of connecting Jesus with a lamb brings up huge theological and historical data within the Old Testament and Judaism. Metaphors are not used to replace literal meaning, but to draw out complex and nuanced meanings.

5.  Translatability. Some argue that metaphors are simply a replacement of propositional speech. This may not be impossible… but it is impractical in many cases. When it is fully possible, the metaphor is probably unnecssary. When a person is described as a “snake in the grass,” perhaps it could be substituted with something like, “The person is a deceptive individual whose motives appear benign until he acts to cause great damage.” In that case, the “snake in the grass” probably has more of a poetic or ornamental role. When Jesus described himself as a “gate,” perhaps that could be said to be simply stylistic… he could have said it without metaphor. But to take “Jesus is the Lamb of God” and remove all metaphors from it and replace it with simple propositional language… that would pretty much be impossible. The metaphoric language is necessary.

6.  Function. This really is a continuation of the previous point. Metaphors are not simply ornaments of language. The fact that they can’t be adequately translated, removing the metaphors (normally at least) means that they are more than ornaments. That being said, of course, a good metaphor does greatly add to style, of course… and might be used even if it is not absolutely necessary from a functional standpoint. Consider Hebrews 4:12.  “Living indeed is the Word of God, and active and sharper than any two-edged sword.” This is a series of metaphors. God’s word is not “living,” is not “active,” and is not “sharp.” But it provides useful imagery metaphorically that helps us understand some important things about God’s Word. However, even if one could convey the same message without metaphors, why would one want to? There is a beauty in the language. Read Psalm 23 or Psalm 1 for beautiful metaphors… having both ornamental and semantic roles.

Of course, there are dangers with metaphors. They can easily confuse people. In Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, the main character transitioned from a metaphoric insect to an actual insect. But we can do the same thing (figuratively) when we read metaphors carelessly and either concretize them, or find the wrong lessons from the creative tension within the metaphors.

Fear, Anger, and Power. Part 2


Since this is Part 2, you may want to consider reading Part 1 first. It was built around the issue of Angry, Angry Christians… and that some of it stems from Fear and Mistrust. I think that is very true, but I think there is more. I believe that some stems from what I described as “an (illicit) love affair with power.”

Jesus said that one cannot serve two masters because one will eventually favor or obey one over the other. He emphasized the two potential masters: God and Money. But money is simply a form of power… a means to extend one’s will beyond oneself to manipulate the environment around.

Power, like its subcategory money, has an addictive quality to it. The church during the 4th century felt it. As a persecuted church grew in Imperial favor in the Roman Empire, people began to flood in to become members. Bishops began to wear the clothes and other regalia of the civic leaders (and many do still to this day), as well as accepting the authority given by the emperor.

From Charlemagne and the “Holy Roman Empire” to the Crusades to the Inquisition and Colonialism, Christians have enjoyed the utilization of military and legal power to extend their control of others.

<This is not to say that other groups do better. Islam is presently being marketed as a religion, or ideology, of peace and mercy. Buddhism is often thought of as a religion of peace in the West (where they have not discovered the often harsh reality of rule by Buddhists). If one looks at founders: Jesus and the Apostles were pretty peaceful, Gautama Buddha, as well as Nanak appeared to be pretty peaceful as well. The four great imams… not so much. However, a religion is known more by its historical activities than by its founders… and most religions struggle in this area… at least those religions that gained enough strength to be able to exercise power over others.>

Religions are made of people, so they have an addiction to power because people are generally addicted to, or at least enticed by, power.

In the United States, Christianity has embraced power. While European “Christian” countries extended power with colonization, for the most part the United States has done it with hegemony, enforced by the military. For American Christians that has shown itself with the belief that that which is deemed “Anti-Christian,” such as Islamic militancy, is best handled with violence. This is a strange viewpoint. Christianity grew in the Roman Empire through moral, loving, and longsuffering behavior, not through desecration and violence.

I must note here that I am not anti-military or anti-gun. I was in the US Navy, and in no way confuse being a “peacemaker” with being a “pacifist.” Likewise, I believe guns are the great equalizer where rule of law is non-existent… ensuring that the bigger and stronger do not always hold sway. However, the fascination with guns and military projection of power has gotten out of hand.

In some ways it is benign. I have had people tell me, once they knew that I was in the military, “Thank you for your service to our country.” Always seemed so weird to me. Ignoring the whole “country thing,” I have done a lot better things for the world, working here in the Philippines than I ever did as an officer in the Navy. Frankly, my service in the military was sincere, but certainly not motivated by some great patriotic fervor.

But some gets more malignant. I had a pastor preaching in church years ago… who started a sermon something like this:

“There are some things, we as Christians, must be willing to die for. Some things that matter so much, we must be ready to die for them. We must be willing to die for the truth of the divinity of Christ. We must be willing to die for the truth of salvation by faith. We must be willing to die for the truth of the literal death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I believe we must be willing to die for the right to bear arms.”

How strange is that? Is that Biblically/theological sound Christian prophetic guidance to give from a pulpit? I have my doubts.

At Liberty University, a Christian school not that far from my home church in the US, the present head had encouraged students to get guns, get trained to use guns, and get permits for the right to wear concealed guns. The logic was to “welcome” militant Muslims who might show themselves on campus. While it is just good practice to have some form of security on any campus, encouraging 18-22 year old college students to walk around armed seems like a poor solution. As a 16 year old, I got a 12 guage shotgun for my birthday. But I got it for deer hunting… not to carry around with me at school. And talking as if the students are somehow encouraged (?) to think of “them” (as opposed to “us”) as those who should be dealt with violently is irreconcilable, I believe, with following the example of Jesus.

  1.  I would suggest that the church would be do better to lessen war metaphors in Christianity. It is not that they may not be apt… but some people confuse the image with the reality.
  2. I would suggest pastors minimize emphasis on power. in sermons. I know that goes against some. I have heard many that emphasize the word “power” (or “POWWWW-ERRrrrrrrr”) as if it is a wonderful thing. I remember hearing Oral Roberts talking about bringing out the “Holy Ghost Shotgun.” But while God is certainly described as the source of our power, we are also told to live lives of Love, Joy, Peace, Gentleness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Meekness, and Self Control. Frankly, these have more emphasis in the New Testament, I feel. It would be wonderful if preachers would give these terms as much emphasis as they do Power. Words have power too, and people tend to be driven emotionally as much or more than cognitively by words. One’s choice of words matter.
  3. I would suggest, similarly, a lessening of the language of fear and hate. I remember the anger people felt after the 9-11 incident. And that anger was heightened with the video of Palestinians cheering the deaths of so many people. Many Palestinians did not share that feeling… or later rethought things… but the damage was done. As bad as all that might be, some of the rhetoric I have heard from pulpits and FB from Christians hasn’t been better.
  4. I would suggest following the wisdom of Jesus… not the wisdom of the times. If others wish to follow their own leaders— be they good, bad, or evil… that is their call but we should know who our Lord is and follow His command and example.

For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps   I Peter 2:20-21

Fear, Anger, and Power. Part 1

I was reading an FB post by Ptr. Bill Nieporte, and I felt it had a lot of what I wanted to talk about because of all the madness with bombings and shootings, as well as angry and/or violent rhetoric. You can see more of his writings if you CLICK HERE.  Here is his post.pogo

I have never ended a friendship on facebook or “real life” because of a person’s politics, religion, lifestyle, or anything else. The only thing that causes me to end a relationship is when comments become personally insulting and threatening to me or my family.

Unfortunately, that is becoming more par for the course these days. People from all corners are too darn angry to talk. And nobody seems willing to take ownership of their own anger issues.

I know, most of that comes from FEAR. People are afraid…and they scapegoat their fear and anger on the various boogeymen they think are hiding under every rock and around every corner.

That’s why you get fire-from-heaven rhetoric from pastors-chancellors of “Christian schools” advocating that everyone on campus get a conceal-and-carry permit to “get them Muslims.”

That why you have Muslims like the two young people in California who were so angry and fearful of a world not fully Muslim that they shot up those people.

That’s why you have people like the guy who shot at the Planned Parenthood office shouting stuff about “no more body parts” while he created body parts out of corpses

That’s why you have people like the church shooter in South Carolina.
That’s why you have people like the shooter at Fort Hood.
That why the rhetoric from talk radio spawning more fear and hate.

Look, the guy across the block and down the street with the conceal-and-carry permit is not the source of all evil. Neither is the Muslim man at the gym. Neither is the gay couple in the grocery store line. Neither is the liberal…or the conservative…or libertarian…or progressive on Facebook .

Those folks are not the enemy. The real enemy is the hatred that desires to “call fire down from heaven” to consume those who do not receive us with kindness When everyone is praying for fire or wanting to “bomb the sh(&” out of others, we are ALL in trouble…none will survive.

Jesus spoke of inspecting the log in our own eye, not the spec in the eye of our neighbor. Maybe it’s time we start heeding his instructions.

That does not mean we do no disagree. There are several of my friends whom I have intense disagreements with about a number of issues – some on Facebook and some in “real life.” They have not blocked, fired, threatened, or insulted me or my family…nor have I done that to them.

But here lately, it is happening. It’s happening everyday.

A fourth grade Arabic boy has been called a terrorist in a nearby school. I know of this boy from a very reliable reference. He is scared. Where do the fourth graders get that sort of thing. From mommy and daddy.

We are doomed as a society if this does not change…and this cannot be scapegoated on Obama, Trump, Fundies, Muslims, Jews, gun owners, liberals, conservatives, progressives, tea-party people. It is on us if we do not learn how to love each other

In Pastoral Counseling we learn that Anger is typically a “secondary” emotion. That is, something triggers a primary emotion (like fear, disgust, or mistrust) and that primary emotion then triggers a second emotion. A xenophobic reaction (Us versus Them… fear or mistrust of those we don’t understand) can easily morph into anger or hatred.

Frankly, this is a pretty human response. One might even say it is our nature (Not that it is an excuse.  Quoting Rose Sayer from the movie The African Queen, “Nature, … is what we are put in this world to rise above.”) And since we are all humans, like it or not, we find it easy to fall in this trap. That is why, in part, Jesus said that we are to love one another… including those we consider enemies— those we are tempted to dehumanize, demonize, or objectify. We are told to love these people because it is difficult. I think there is a lot of reason for concern when Christian leaders provide religious support for culturally triggered hatred. Something clearly not Christian in this. When we embrace a “righteous” anger for those we find distasteful or those we fear, we begin to become what we hate. We become the enemies that we have, or the enemies we imagine.

I do think there is another related issue here… and that involves Christians’ (illicit) love affair with power. But I will save that for Part 2.

“Walking With” as Metaphor for Missions

In my Theology of Missions class, I asked my students to present their metaphor for missions. We do that for pastoral care in CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) but this is my first time doing it for a Missions class. A metaphor links together two disparate things… typically one abstract, and one concrete. I shared my metaphor to give them an idea. I chose “Walking With.” It is “concrete” to the extent that it is directly observable.  Anyway, this is what I shared. Looking forward to hear what my students came up with.


The metaphor that strikes me for missions is “Walking With.”

While a metaphor does not have to be based on the Bible, this one has strong Biblical Roots.

1.  Relationship. “Walking With” implies some form of mutual relationship. A stalker may share a common path with the stalkee, as may two strangers coincidentally and temporarily share a common path. Neither would be said to be walking with. Walking with implies some form of positive relationship. Missions work is grounded on a relationship with God. Genesis describes Adam and Eve walking with God in the Garden, and then later Enoch walking with God. In these cases, they seem to describe an idyllic relationship.

2.  Agreement. As Amos 3:3 notes… two cannot walk together unless they agree. The relationship is by mutual agreement. Jesus call to missions of Peter, Andrew, James, John and others was built on the call “Follow Me.” Micah in Micah 6:8 says that we are called to “walking humbly with” God.

3.  Movement/Process: Walking implies not so much a state of being, as much as a process. Life and faith and mission are not so much a place or destination… but a dynamic moving along a path. The early church saw the Christian life commonly as those on the narrow path, as opposed to the wide path. As such, a Christian is not sitting in a place, but actively on a holy quest… a pilgrimmage.

4.  Direction:  Walking has direction… a path that one goes on. It could be a trail newly blazed, it may be a well-worn path… but it goes somewhere. Psalm 23 sees God as a Shepherd who guides us in the ways of righteousness… even when those paths may lead us through the valley of the shadow of death. Likewise John 14:6 describes Jesus as the way. While the way in this case could be seen as the access to God, it is consistent with the idea that our life is a path, and Jesus provides that path to go.

5.  Commonality of Place and Time. Walking with means that two or more share a place and time on the path. As such, the path has more than direction, but a NOW, as well as a PAST, and a FUTURE. Walking with Jesus means that in its fullest sense, He is with us.

Our life exists in both space and time, and God is with us in the same manner. So we look back on our life to see God with us. We can look now as ones inhabited by God… and we can look to the future with full expectation that not only will God be with us, but in line with Proverbs 3:5-6, He is at work, making straight our path.

So how does this metaphor inform my theology of missions?

  • Consistent with Henry Blackaby and Avery Willis, I can say that “God is on a mission, and invites each of us to join Him.” God is dynamically working… moving. To be with God… to walk with God means to join him dynamically in such working.
  • The common perception of the “Missionary Call” needs to change. To serve in missions is not to embrace a static state or location. Rather, it is to follow Jesus. When Jesus called the disciples he did not say… Come and be cross-cultural churchplanters. Rather, He said… Follow Me. Essentially… Go where I go. Do what I do. Your calling is not a title or a place… but a determination to follow where God leads.
  • Walking with is centered on obedience, but does not deny mutuality and free will. Walking with is always described as a choice we make. We have a right not to. Also, walking with is primarily understood in terms of relationship more than a physical path… so there is room for freedom. In the Gospels, the apostles would physically follow Jesus… but after his resurrection, he told them to go… without a lot of details, but noting that He would always be with them.
  • Walking with implies an intimacy with God that transcends nation, land, and culture. Sometimes people speak of going to Godless lands. Not only is that wrong in general… but wherever we go, in our walking with God… God is there.
  • Walking with draws into question the common folk Christian wisdom that when happy things occur, that means that we are close to God, and when bad things occur, that means we are distant from God. After all, in the Bible… the paths of righteousness are as likely to be through the valley of the shadow of death as the green pastures and still waters… as likely to be the wilderness as the promised land.


Note:  A much longer version of this metaphor can be found as an extended post broken into five parts. Part One can be found CLICKING HERE.

… But We Are Keeping the Spam Cans


In the words of George Carlin, “A house is just a place to keep your stuff, while you go out and get more stuff.” That view starts to unravel when one has to move to a smaller place. We will be selling our house, prayerfully, in the next few months here in the Philippines, as a downsizing of space, lifestyle, and cost. It is great to have a lot of room so that one can keep more stuff… but there is something rather freeing in getting rid of excess baggage. We have piles of books we will never read. I love books, and I hate to let them go. But some books, we will never never never read again. Some we will never read for the first time. Soon we will have to start that painful process of letting them go.

But our first step is getting rid of recyclables. We have been collecting recycled items for years. These include:

cardboard tubes, cans, glass bottles, plastic bottles, mylar bags, newspapers, magazines, bond paper that was only used on one side, half-used notebooks,  plastic bags, cardboard boxes, and so forth.

Some we used for school, like the used bond paper for scrap, or the notebooks, along with various sundries for the many, many elementary and high school projects. However, most we saved for ministry purposes— Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Kids Club ministries. We let go of Divine Love Kids Club in 2010 to focus on pastoral care and CPE, and we got less and less involved with children’s Sunday school and VBS as our children have aged. All three are now in college, so it is time to let go.

We have already gotten rid of most of the recyclable items already– mostly papers to go through now… and then comes the nightmare of sick, dead, or obsolete electrical and electronic appliances. But some things we can’t let go of… at least not yet. We keep the plastic cookie and icecream containers. They are just too useful. Our son Joel wanted some of the glass bottles for some future project of his. The rest is gone… or going.

But we can’t let go of the Spam cans yet. Like so many Filipino families here in the Philippines, we eat a fair amount of Spam, canned corned beef, sardines and the like, and we do so without the weird American embarrassment in their use. In fact, we were out of cheese, peanut butter and jelly this morning, so I made Spam sandwiches for our girls’ lunches.

In the past we kept the cans for craft projects with Kids Club. For example, one could punch holes in the bottom of them and use them for growing seedlings, or punch hole patterns on the side, and make an interesting little pencil holder or even candle lanterns.

Downsizing can be difficult and one can make mistakes. 11 years later, Celia still expresses unhappiness that I sold our Cornelle dinnerware at a garage sale before moving to the Philippines. My children, additionally, periodically express their disbelief that I sold my accordion at the same sale. (I couldn’t really play the accordion and, back then, my children were showing no propensity toward music.  That has changed.)

So I am not sure what we will do with the Spam cans, but we will keep them for now. I know it sounds silly, but some things take a bit longer to get rid of than others.

The Science of Persuasion | Ideapod

This is a cleverly hand drawn animated video depicting Dr Robert Cialdini’s Six Weapons of Influence as popularised in his book Influence, Science and Practice. The video introduces you or reinforces, the Six Principles of Persuasion, which are:Reciprocity: People are more likely to say “yes” to those that they owe, especially in the context of a social obligation. It also matters “how” you give.Scarcity: People want more of what they have less ofAuthority: It’s important to signal to others what makes you a credible, knowledgeable authority without having to say it yourself.Consistency: Consistency is activated by looking for and asking for small commitments that can be made along the way.Liking: People prefer to say yes to people that they like! Consensus: People look to the actions and behaviors of others to determine their own.

Source: The Science of Persuasion | Ideapod