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.



Blogger John B. said...

This book sounds really interesting. I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

One quick observation: metaphor is sensual, yes, but it asks us to think abstractly rather than literally, and something that I've observed among people generally (and, sadly, lots of Christians) is a suspicion of that which isn't concrete, directly observable. To borrow a phrase from the gospels, the people ask for a sign, and they know that metaphor ain't it. As a teacher, I've noticed my students' declining ability to think abstractly, which they may think of as being free of illusion but I think of as neglecting or making harder their chief job, being human.

But here's the paradox of metaphor: it asks us to think about the conventional in unconventional ways, to see the world with new eyes. It connects that which we might not otherwise think of as being connected. To be reminded of the ancient word for "spirit" is to be reminded that that inner life is as essential as--IS--air. We can put this in more secular terms as well: to think about the question of "what it means to be human," it seems to me, inevitably requires abstraction and, more particularly, metaphor.

5:35 AM  
Blogger martin said...

I disagree, I think. Parables like the sower or the wise and foolish virgins gained their immediacy because they related directly to the experience of the audience. It is only when (as I was last year) you sow seed by hand that you suddenly feel the words come alive. The problem with students is that they haven't done enough to have experiences to refer to: for them, 'interface' may be just as immediate and loaded as any other word. It's difficult, of course, since you are unlikely to feel the same. But I think you get somewhere by recasting into modern idiom: spam not, lest ye be spammed; what availeth it a man who hath a set-top box but no descrambler?

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love Eugene Peterson!
I read the Message sometimes and think to myself: This guy really gets it!! The gospel is really as simple as he explains it!

I am a musician and I would be honored if you would check out my music. Its all free for download on my site. Anyway, I just thought that I would share.

"All my music is free."

10:10 PM  
Blogger Iambic Admonit said...

There is another, related, problem in Christian conversation (and writing, and teaching) today: an ignorance that metaphors are just that. In other words, an underlying assumption that one is saying something when one is just mouthing over-used metaphors. For example: God guides my path. I remind my students that you do not literally mean a physical path, although it's a nice comparison. Can you find a more immediate, personal, visceral way of expressing that? They might try, God holds my hand, or God directs my steps, or God goes before me, etc. It takes a while before they start to see the heaps and heaps of meaningless language that has been used into flimsy non-meaning by years of sloppy use.

But then, how can we talk about "religious experience" without metaphors? Perhaps your point, that of re-literalizing abstract terminology, is one way.

3:28 AM  
Blogger Patry Francis said...

I'm thinking of St. Francis's "Canticle of the Sun" and how he charges all the elements with the presence of God.

7:15 PM  
Blogger voni said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog yesterday. You would be excellent at selling books because I have this feeling that you would have read them before you sell them:) Enjoyed looking at your blog. Blessings, Voni

8:35 AM  
Blogger Lyn said...

Amen and verily to what iambid admonit said. That word of revelation warmed my spirit. ;-)

Good word, John. Peterson has a grasp of the English (and Greek and Hebrew) language! lgp

11:19 AM  
Blogger martin said...

It looks like someone needs to start the Vocabulary Reclamtion Project Reclamation Project!

1:31 PM  
Blogger Raminagrobis said...

I just stumbled upon this blog, via a link from blog meridian (I'm always the last to know about these things), and having read this post I thought I might as well add a (very belated) comment.

First, I'm not sure I agree with this idea that the metaphorical capacity of the language is being diminished. (In fact, I'm not sure I agree with the basic premise of this site at all: modern English has about a million words in its lexicon; the average educated person knows about 50000 words; and Shakespeare only used 20000. But that's another matter.) The English language has today a greater and more various store of metaphors than it has ever had.

You worry that metaphors available to us today are less immediate, less 'warm'. But the examples you use are extremely selective: technological metaphors pervade ancient and early modern writing: to take one example, many metaphors and idioms in ancient writing are drawn from the technology of shipbuilding and seafaring ('gubernator', the ship of State, sailing close to the wind, etc.). This technology was no more 'familiar' and 'warm' to your average ancient Roman than microchips and computers are to us. And we today use – and daily coin – many 'living' metaphors that retain their elemental force: to take just one sub-set, just think of the variety of insults used in popular speech that make imaginative metaphorical use of fucking, shitting and pissing.

You focus in particular on the religious discourse; but religious language has always made use of technological metaphors for the purposes of edification (there's one). 'Spirituality', I agree, is a pretty meaningless concept, but its origins are not lost (for the philologist at least), and we today benefit from a whole new set of metaphors drawn from the Latin 'spiritus' that were not available to our ancestors ('inspiration', 'aspiration'; and even metaphors in the scientific discourse: 'respiration', 'transpiration' (yes, modern science and technology increase the metaphorical store of our language too: they do not only diminish it))

Furthermore, in speaking of the 'erosion' of 'concrete' metaphors, you are yourself drawing on a register of technological metaphors ('concrete' is a modern invention, is it not?) - to write against the use of technological metaphors!

4:24 PM  

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