Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

‘The God Allusion’: 1. METAPHOR

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Does God exist or not?

Many of us don’t much care, of course. Aren’t there more important things, such as friendship, or love, or leisure?

In this book I want to demonstrate how myth[1] and the gods can inspire a healthy life.

These ideas are not new; sages of the past may have read the great myths in a similar way, but this is not a history book. How certain ideas developed can only be the subject of speculation; I am neither an anthropologist nor a historian. Nor am I proposing conspiracy theories – no political intrigues or Da Vinci codes. I am interested in living myth, here in the present.

It is obvious that mythology is not logical. It is not science. Mythology engages with science as much as, say, music does. You can analyse the auditory receptiveness of the human ear, but this won’t help you write a symphony. Scientific reasoning is what science is for.

And myth is not history. Myth engages with history as much as, say, painting does. To paint a picture of Napoleon, the artist is concerned with the painting – the framing of the form, the colours used, the texture, the style. The artist might need to research the customs of the period, but history isn’t the chief concern. History is the material; the inspiration and the arrangement of this on the canvas is the craft. So mythology can make use of historical forms, but not as a record of past events and times. That is what history is for.

It is easy to dismiss mythology on grounds of science or history – surprisingly easy considering all the debate, even bloodshed. Mythology is concerned with mythological thought. And mythological thought is concerned with metaphor.

What is a metaphor?

A metaphor is a figure of speech; a resemblance is suggested between two things that are not literally the same. For example, ‘All the world’s a stage’. This is not to be confused with a simile, which is worded in a more ‘rational’ way: ‘The world is like a stage.’ There is nothing unusual about a simile – even scientists use them to explain complex theory.

But the more complex the metaphor, the harder it is to convert back into a simile and understand it with a basic ‘equals’ sign (e.g., the world = a stage).

My sister is good at swimming.

Simile: ‘My sister swims like a fish.’

Metaphor: ‘My sister is a fish.’ (You might say, “My sister is such a fish, you know.”)

It is easy to prove that my sister is not a fish; she does not have scaly skin or gills. Mythologies are lies in the same way that the world is not actually a stage, and my sister is a not a fish. This is all very clever and not untrue, but foolishly missing the point of the metaphor in the first place.

Furthermore, if ‘my sister is such a fish’, do you believe in the fish? This is just as ridiculous. The fish is a metaphor, and the simplest kind, based on the pattern, ‘Something IS (represented by) something else.’ Metaphors can get much deeper than this:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…

Much of Shakespeare’s power comes from his apt and expressive metaphors; here the stage-world metaphor is extended to include the actors-people metaphor too. You might say this makes his metaphor ‘more true.’

This is what is meant by religious or spiritual truth. Not the truth of a mathematical formula or a logical syllogism, but the truth of a Bach fugue or a Shakespearean sonnet.

The simplest metaphoric narrative is an allegory, where, for example, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pigs clearly represent Communist leaders (who are ‘more equal than others’) and the animals of the farm yard are the repressed multitudes of society. This sort of metaphor is simple because it is obvious what the metaphors are referring to; the whole book is easily reduced to an essay about the dangers of Communism. There is also the fable, where the Big Bad Wolf may represent, but more obscurely and mysteriously, the nature of Gluttony.

When a metaphor refers to something very mysterious and even contradictory, it edges toward myth. In Douglas Adams’ novel The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Ford Prefect says he will show us how the universe will end. He says to imagine that his wine glass represents the temporal universe – then he smashes it. (This is also a good example of the merrily insane spirit of myth.)

Another example: my sister is a fish because she swims a lot. My uncle is a fisherman because he is attracted to scantily-clad female swimmers and would like to ‘catch’ one. One day, my uncle goes ‘fishing’. He sits by the pool and casts his line out into the water, hoping to catch a juicy fish. Suddenly, a shark grabs his line and pulls him into the river. He is almost drowned, but happens to grab hold of a log and floats downstream. He is washed up on the shores of an uninhabited island. What does this story mean when we translate it back into its references?

Casting his line in the river might represent sitting by the pool and winking at female swimmers, but what does the shark represent? What does it mean to say he was almost drowned? Perhaps here is his comeuppance for being such a lecherous old womanizer. But what ‘is’ the log that saves him (it could be any number of possibilities)? And the uninhabited island is even more mysterious…

Similarly, what does it mean that Mary gave birth without having sexual intercourse? Or that Jesus was not born of woman? How can you have a virgin birth? The answer isn’t found by examining the human reproductive system. This is a metaphor. What kind of birth is not a physical one? That would be a spiritual birth of some kind. The metaphors point toward mystery.

And vaguely pointing to a mystery is all a myth can do. Mythic metaphors can’t force conclusions, at least not like fables, allegories, similes or logical syllogisms. Mythological symbols can only ‘point the way’, after which we are on our own with our troubled thoughts. (This may be why they are often misinterpreted; seen as the “cause” of war or psychosis – they are psychological dynamite.) Myths, experienced and lived, promote a special type of thought – a possession of mind – that may hold the key to existence. The mythological realm is the jumping off space, the Way Between, the departure gate to the Great Unknown, a mysterious journey into night and back again into day.

“THE GOD ALLUSION” is a unique response to Richard Dawkins’ best-seller “The God Delusion”, but that isn’t all. It lucidly explores what myths ‘mean’, shedding some light on their mystery and purpose, relating them directly to our modern lives. Myth concerns the deeply personal as well as the universals that make us human. Unlike other works on this subject, the book doesn’t set out to divide but to unite the world in a game of life. This is explored through drama, music, sport, dance, drawing from blockbuster movies, evolution, Shakespeare, psychology, even advertising. God is not a fact and God is not a lie, God is an allusion, a word we use to indicate a personal and enticingly-meaningful mystery beyond all words and forms that inspires a powerful, exhilarating experience of being truly alive.

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Written by tomtomrant

12 August 2010 at 10:37 pm

Posted in myth, religion

Tagged with , , ,

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