Friday, June 16, 2006

Loss of Metaphor: "Spirituality"

This week I began to make my way through Eugene Peterson's book on "spiritual theology," Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, and was impressed, as I have been before, by Peterson's scholarly acumen. Not only is he conversant in theology, but Peterson's survey of "spirituality" begins at a level that few people even address: our language. (Of course, since I'm posting this piece here, that revelation probably doesn't come as much of a surprise.)

Here's a paragraph from Peterson:
Having lost the metaphorical origin of “spirit” we operate, in our daily conversations (in the English language at least), with a serious vocabulary deficit. Imagine how our perceptions would change if we eliminated the word “spirit” from our language and used only “wind” and “breath.” Spirit was not “spiritual” for our ancestors; it was sensual. It was the invisible that had visible effects. In was invisible but it was not immaterial. Air has as much materiality to it as a granite mountain: it can be felt, heard, and measured...

I like this point a great deal, and I think it corresponds with an issue that need not be relegated only to spiritual matters: the erosion of concrete, evocative metaphors. As has been mentioned here before, the effects of words like "interfacing" and "plugging in," the stock metaphors of a technological age, tend to replace older and warmer patterns of parallelism.

I sometimes wonder if the current trends in metaphor are not merely new but thinner, colder, less concrete? The result of too many days spent in sickly florescent lighting?

Peterson presents a test case, in that a “rushing, mighty wind” of Christ’s Spirit is reduced today to wan, ambiguous “spirituality.” I suspect an across-the-board erosion of metaphoric power.