anthropomorphism or metaphor 


n order to sustain the premise of a “personal” deity, religion has always presented “God” in anthro­pomorphic terms.  How is anthropomorphism different from metaphor?  Anthropomorphism is a literal error. It believes that “God” actually wills, commands, judges, provides, gets angry, is insulted, rewards and punishes, responds to prayer.  Metaphor does not.  Metaphor knows that it does not know.  Instead, it creates a symbol that encourages the direction of our relationship to “God.”                   

Metaphor is a symbol, as “myth” is a symbol.  Myth is not literal, scientific, historical … it is poetry: a story, a legend, a song, a ritual, an icon, designed to evoke a human response to the interpreted intentionality of the mysterium tremendum.                       

An example:  “Love” is generally believed to be a literal characteristic of “God.”  After all, didn’t New Testament “John” say in his epistle “God is love“?  But it is not literal.  Even by scholastic standards it is a metaphor, because, while it validly refers to feelings that we humans have, it does not literally denote what is happening on the part of “God.”  Let’s look at this more closely.

 The word “love” refers to a human phenomenon that implies desire for union between two individuals which may or may not be fulfilled. “God,” according to traditional theology, desires nothing because “he” has everything, lacks nothing, and exists in a state of unalloyed bliss.  No further union need be achieved because the total union between “God” and all things is the pre-condition of our very existence itself.  According to Aquinas, “God” “loves” himself, and us in himself. Therefore the word “love” is not properly applied to “God.”  Metaphorically, however, it is a helpful tool for us humans for it focuses our relationship toward “God.” It encourages us to love “God” who, as the source of our existence, is obviously “benevolent” toward us in a most intimate and necessary way.  But note that even the word “benevolent” itself hardly qualifies as a more adequate descriptor, because it stands at the same distance from the reality. It is also a metaphor. From our point of view, we say “God” is benevolent because we are the recipient of his “being,” but “God” feels no benevolence for us, for from “his” point of view there is nothing there but “his” own being with which “he” is already united.  According to classic theology, we are part of “God’s” being, and generosity is of the “essence” of God.  God cannot help being generous.  It’s not a choice.  “He” doesn’t even “notice” that we are there or that “he” is being generous.  For “God” to “notice” us would mean his having two different concepts; and that, according to essentialist theology, is impossible. “God” is utterly simple, “He” thinks and wills only one thing — “him”self.

      You may not like it.  But this is classic Thomism.  Most people are not aware of this.  It was never part of normal preaching.  Dismissed as esoteric, or avoided as dangerous, these “doctrines” were effectively gutted, or ignored in favor of simplistic anthropomorphisms that the “ordinary” people could understand.                  

metaphors change

 One of the results of understanding our speech about “God” as we are proposing in this study is that metaphors change as required by the relationship. Those who use metaphor are not bound by the word and concept because they know its purpose is to describe the relationship, not the object.

 This is important.  Let’s take another common metaphor for “God,” — father.  Those women and men who were abused by their fathers may have had the word “father” seriously and perhaps fatally compromised for them.  But since they know it is a metaphor, no one can say to them “you have to use that word.”  The word is only a tool … and as with any tool that no longer works, you put it down and pick up another. “God” is every bit as clearly and adequately (and inadequately and unclearly) denoted by “Mother” or “Brother” or “Principle of Organization of the Cosmos,” or “the living dynamism of material energy” as by “father.” The reality in question is so transcendent, so far beyond our essentialist concepts of any kind, that new imagery can be chosen and new metaphors created to express and maintain the focus of the relationship.   God is not a father.  It might have been Jesus’ favorite term, but it is still a metaphor; it is not literal.  Failure to realize that led ultimately to the dogmatic exaggerations at Nicaea.

 This is the sufficient and necessary ground for a sincere and universal mutual respect among all religious traditions. Catholicism will not accept that, because it takes its descriptors of “God” as literal fact, not metaphor. … and that is the problem.  Taking a metaphor literally is the source of anthropomorphism.

 The words are fluid and relative … and the “thing” — in this case “God” — is unknown … what is central and guiding is the relationship. The existential relationship is understood from within, because we directly experience existence, material energy, which is our bodies, our selves.  But “what” we are related to (the source of our existence, material energy), and “how” existence is sustained (the self-embrace, the conatus) is not clearly “known” even though it is my very self and therefore somatically (bodily) and thoroughly understood!


Understanding as opposed to “knowledge” is also true for a relationship between human beings.  When I say I “know” my wife, for example, I don’t mean concep­tual knowledge … some sort of scientific or literal definition. I mean I know “what she’s like.” It is in and through the relationship that I understand her … not through scientific, psychological or medical data.  It is not her height, weight, age, body temperature, blood pressure, medical records, … even psychiatrists’ reports … that tell me who she is. For words to describe the person as apprehended in the relationship, I have recourse to poetry and poetic symbols — metaphor

 I may write one poem in which I call her a butterfly … and then in another a soaring eagle.  As a matter of literal fact, she is neither. The relationship is clearly understood with­out words but it creates words — metaphors — to express itself … and to express itself ever anew because of new circumstances, or new depths of the relationship … or new insights into the significance of words and images.

 Now let’s apply that analogy to religion. The relationship in this case is to “God” … But really … what is “God”?  We don’t know.  The only thing we know is how we are related: I am existentially dependent on what I call “God.”  I express the relationship in metaphor. The metaphors are chosen to express my understanding of the relationship.  Religions are com­munity poems, stories, legends, myths, about an unknown reality whose existential self-donation is our very selves. This relation­ship is rightly called apophatic, mean­ing that there are no words that literally apply … not because the thing we’re talking about is not real, … or that we are not in touch with or not aware of it, but because it is not a “thing out there.” It is a relationship I connaturally experience as myself!  In this particular relationship, the common transactional element — “what” we (“God” and I) hold in common — is the existence of the particular configuration of material energy that is me.  My physical presence in the world, such as I am, is for me the primary metaphor for “God.”

 We should not be surprised that something as intimate and all embracing as our relationship to our very own existence should have been mythicized and poetized and ritualized and celebrated in thousands of different ways around the globe.  Paul said “all the peoples grope after” this unknown God.  But we don’t have to look very far, he adds, it’s near to each of us … for  it is where we live and move and have our being.

 matter’s energy and the words of religion

 The “thing” humankind has called “God” is revealed through an existential relationship that objectively sustains us.  What “thing,” then, in our experience, actually provides us with our existence and our sense of the sacred?  That “thing” is not a thing at all, I submit, but the process we know as universal material energy; and we know it quite well.  Material energy is a self-donating dynamism entirely sufficient to account for our existence as well as the existence of everything, its associated conatus (drive to survive), its sustaining matrix and our sense of the sacred.

 At the risk of blurring a clarity of expression that I have worked hard to establish in this study, let me say once and for all for those who are confused about my position: it’s not that there is no “God” … it’s that “God” is so utterly different from the way our tradition has encouraged us to ima­gine “him,” that we cannot easily make the adjustments necessary to accommodate what we are learning.  And I want immediately to declare that the first adjustment may be to stop using the word “God” because it conjures something that is not and cannot be.  I am referring, of course, to the anthropomorphic imagery taken from the “Book.”

 “God” is not rational because “he” does not act for “reasons.”  “He” is exactly as our teacher described “him,” like the sun that shines equally on the just and the unjust … enlivening our bodies even as “he” enlivens the viruses and cancers, the tectonic forces and weather cycles that may kill us. There is a non-rational, universal self-donation, a kind of a helpless uncontrolled loving availability, an absolute generosity that makes absolutely no sense to us even though we exist by it and live immersed in it.  Yet, if we allow ourselves to think about it, we may realize that while it is not-rational, we do understand it … it is simply an exponential version of the way we relate to our own children and the other people we love.  Intense love is, in a sense we all understand, helpless.  We cave in to the beloved … as Solomon’s poet noticed … as if before “an army set in battle array.” 

 I claim that all along, throughout the entire intellectual history of western christianity, all we have ever known is our relationship of existential dependency on and participation in material energy … and essentialist metaphysics with its “God” as “ideal being” was the attempt to translate that empirical reality into the dualisms of ancient Greece and Imperial Rome.  It is not just a coincidence that the traditional essentialist relationships parallel those of cosmo-ontology.  They called matter’s energy, “being,” and mis-took it as rational thought, idea and “mental spirit.”  But there was nothing else but a self-transcending material energy that those erroneous categories could possibly have been attempting to describe … because it’s the only reality out there!  Matter produced “mind,” mind did not produce matter.  That’s what reveals what matter is.

But daring to say that, doesn’t entirely solve our problem.  We still have to decide what to do with these ancient words. They are our tradition, the tracks of our people in the search for the fountain that wells up our life.  We cherish them as symbols of our journey even though we cannot allow them to dominate the facts.  We cannot ignore the skewing effect the word “God” with its anthropomorphisms will have on our vision of reality. “God” should be used in objective discourse only if accompanied by unambiguous clarifications.  If even for the schoolmen, “God” is not the way we have been encouraged to imagine “him” by our religion, it will be even more so for those who embrace the philosophy proposed in this study. For cosmo-ontology “the sacred” is the living dynamism of material energy, posses­sed by and activated in all things.

The suggestion that matter’s energy may itself be only a metaphor for something unknowable that lies beyond it, I personally think is a redundancy.  But I have no objection for those who feel they need to imagine it in those terms, except to say this: it must never be used to re-construct an anthropomorphic other-worldly “God.”  Whatever stands behind material energy, no matter how transcendent, generous and self-emptying, must still be material energy.

 So, religion and our “transcendent materialism” are ultimately compatible … although it will be a religion purified of those elements that are incompatible with the facts.  “God” has a right to be what “he” is.  And we have the right to extol our relationship to our “God,” in which we live and move and have our being, with the richest most powerful poetry we can distill from hearts inebriated with the joy of life.  We inherited great poetry from our tradition; it’s time we contributed some of our own.

 theology and “spirituality”

 I also want to be careful here to separate theology from “spirituality.”  The word “spirituality” carries a connotation I am not comfortable with.  It obviously derives from the historical belief in the superiority of an alleged “spirit” over the “flesh.”  There is no “spirit,” and so I mean no such thing. 

An acceptable definition for me would be this: Spirituality is the affective relational attitude assumed toward the source of existence, and from there the “program” of personal development that one may use for grounding and fo­cus­ing that affect.  Such a program is clearly a work of the imagination because we do not “see” the source of our existence, except in its elaborated forms.  But all good poetry is a work of the imagination … it is not “inaccurate” for being poetry.  Good poetry is quite precise, and communal poetry like religion should refine and modify itself over time under the guiding influence of our knowledge of reality.  How good our poetry is, is up to us.

Spirituality will naturally have an “objective” or scientific side.  And the objective side is what I mean by theology.  Theology uses our knowledge of reality to evaluate the metaphors that guide our relational energies toward that in which “we live and move and have our being.” Theology must deal in facts.  Theology is the interface between the facts and our religious poetry.  Some will prefer to eschew all metaphors in the pursuit of a relationship that they realize has been severely distorted by past imagery wedded to religion’s erstwhile function as social cement and based on an ancient, obsolete “science.”  But theology functions here as well.  It is the ground and justification of contemplative silence.

 Whether this spirituality is expressed in the well known metaphors of our tradition … or left to new poetic realizations that emerge in the crash of events … or treated with an awe filled silence … is up to us.  I would only insist that in all cases the “theological” or objective side be grounded in science and with a philosophical interpretative tool, like cos­mo-ontology, germane to science. Religious imagery that alludes to other “facts” may be used metaphorically for spirituality but not for theology, and certainly not in place of science.  Religion has no “facts.”

 This study has not been about spirituality. It has been about philosophy and the hints that analysis has given us about theology. Theology has to do with clarifying religious words and religious imagery, and what I challenge are the anthropomorphisms that are used, not for spirituality, but as theological “facts” whose non-reality makes them dysfunctional for faith.  (note: This use of the word faith with the strikeout will be the focus of the next chapter.  The strikeout is simply a reminder that we are not talking about anything supernatural.)

 Certain individual thinkers throughout western history have proposed imagery about “God” that is different from our inherited anthropomorphisms. These visionaries, like Johannes Eckhart and Baruch Spinoza, have also supported a pan-en-theist view of reality; they are well known and need no introduction from me.  But, in my opinion, as much as I am inspired by their work, I believe it is dangerous simply to accept that “God exists” on their terms, for they lived before the time of modern science.  I say this because their naïve use of the word “God,” despite their best intentions, runs the risk of re-estab­lishing the same anthropomorphic ima­ge­ry … which will tend to be hijacked by the same self-serving ethnocentric religious organizations, feeding the same personal patho­logies and prolonging the same political and social inequities as always.  This is not necessarily so, but the risk is great and I would prevent it if I could.  Can our sense of the sacred live without (the word) “God”?

 Our traditional western religions stemming from the anthropomor­phisms of the “Book” have tended to produce believers who are individualistic, authoritarian, elitist, ethnnocentric, male-do­mi­nating, anti-somatic, judgmental, guilt-ridden, self-destruc­tive and violently intolerant of other traditions. Those who have avoi­ded those pitfalls have done so by selectively choosing among doctrines and doctrinal interpretations based on their own sense of humanity.  We must realize that the doctrines of our own tradition do not necessarily challenge those pathological attitudes and can even be cited in support of them. If the reader does not recognize these anti-human defects, this aspect of the argument will make no sense. I’m saying that unless spirituality changes on its objective, theological side, guided by science and theology, nothing will change, and ultimately we will be “like those who look into a mirror and walk away … and forget what they saw.”

 un-knowing: faith is not belief

 The word “God” and its entourage of associated notions has been expropriated by “religion,” and unless religion’s erroneous definitions are de­toxi­fied and made digestible by metaphor, they will contaminate our thinking and make an adult relationship to the sacred matrix impossible. This, I am sure, will draw a line in the sand … separating “believers” from non-believers.  But the authentic religious quest, I have insisted all along, is not “belief, but, faithrelationship.  “Belief” projects a multitude of “facts” that are just not there.  It pretends to have a “know­ledge” of “God.”  But no such knowledge exists, because no such separate entity exists. “God” is not other than us and the material matrix from which we emerged.  We cannot objectify it, and so we cannot “know” it. I claim we have an intimate and absolutely certain understanding of existence because it is what we are, and therefore we can relate to it. Our very bodies were spawned by it and function on its energies.  Science gives us knowledge of it, but what it means to us is something we already understand internally and express in poetry.  Existence — our fleshed existence — is “God.” This understanding challenges our archaic beliefs, but not faith.  Faith offers no new facts to mystify and delude us.  Faith “un-knows” because it cannot objectify existence.  But it understands that existence is not-other and cannot be lost.  It operates within the context of the facts as our science and intelligence reveal them.  Faith doesn’t know something science doesn’t, but it understands those facts in a way that opens to a loving reliance on existence as it really is.  Existence is called in this study “the energy of matter,” and in other places by other people with other metaphors like “natura naturans,” “the Cloud of Unknowing,” “The Dark Night,” “sunyata-emptiness” or even “non-being.  These semantic equations work in all directions: “God” is the “symbol” our culture has devised for the matrix in which we exist.

 There are many who have little respect for the understanding that comes through somatic experience. Rather than understand that they belong to existence and surrender to the maddening passionate entanglements and sweet sorrow that material belonging entails, they would prefer to “believe,” on the authority of others, questionable “facts” which promise to “save” them from having to embrace this turbid raucous mother that gave them birth. They cling to those beliefs as if they were shekels allowing them to buy their way out of this world without actually dying.  They harbor the illusion that they came out of nowhere … are part of nothing … belong to no one … and will exist as their individual “selves” in a placid eternity unencumbered by any connection to this struggling family of bumbling, self-cen­tered matter. 

 At the other extreme, there are those who would eschew the sacred altogether simply because they have discovered that the literalisms of their childhood religion do not harmonize with scientific facts. Some even go so far as to deny their sense of the sacred in a futile effort to dodge the overpowering impact of the numinous embedded in the transcendent creativity of matter … on spectacular display in their own flesh.

We carry a sacred treasure in vessels of clay.  It is the mystery of matter … our matter, our bodies. This treasure needs to be cherished for what it is and not what our ancient fantasies imagined it was. It is our surrender to our integral place in the living material dynamism of suffering existence, the groaning mother whose creative emptiness endlessly gives birth to this astonishing universe … our bodies … our selves.



5 comments on “RELIGION (III)

  1. Tony –

    Great post! Even if I have some reservations about your diagnosis of those of us who demure about the word “sacred.” Thank you.

    I also have a couple of questions:

    You say that anthropomorphic imagery of “God” …”will tend to be hijacked by the same self-serving ethnocentric religious organizations, feeding the same personal pathologies and prolonging the same political and social inequities as always.”

    Are you saying that anthropomorphic imagery supports political and social inequity or that it causes it?

    In other words, I’m asking if you think an anthropomorphic view of “god” is essentially destructive, or if it is merely inevitably hijacked to support pathology and injustice? If the latter, then letting go of our anthropomorphic imagery won’t necessarily help solve the problem. If the former, why do you see it as essentially destructive of inequity? is it because it is essentially a falsehood? a psychological projection of our own limitations and pathologies onto a theoretically all-powerful being who therefore justifies our limitations? And that letting go of an anthropomorphic god will kick away a very significant support for inequities that the powerful impose on society?

    My second question is one of relationship. I appreciate that understanding is not the same thing as knowledge acquired through scientific, logical, or mathematical analysis. But I do not see how one can have a deeply meaningful relationship with something that is completely unknowable. Although I will admit that I am puzzling mightily these days about the foundation of my convictions. What is the source, for instance, of my conviction that life in whatever form is worthy of respect? OMG, I almost wrote “that life is sacred – something worthy of reverence – everywhere and always.” I’ll go away and think about that. Perhaps I’ve tripped on the answer?

    If so, a double thank you.


  2. tonyequale says:

    Terry, hi!
    Anthropomorphic imagery is necessary for religion as we have inherited it. If your “God,” like Spinioza’s, does not give commands, or punish those who disobey (sometimes with plagues and earthquakes), your religion changes radically. Spinoza’s “God” does not go forth with your armies nor burn mystics at the stake, not waste three perfectly good centuries trying to exterminate the “heathen.”

    However, I’m saying the word “God” itself is so overlaid with anthropomorphic imagery, that even if you are Spinoza, sooner or later your “God” is going to start “doing” naughty things like those mentioned above. While this is not necessarily so, it is a high risk, and I recommend dropping the word “God” from respect-able speech, just as we drop the “f …” word from respectable speech.

    For something to be unknowable does not mean it does not exist … and it does not mean it is not embraced in an internal, bodily experienced comprehension. As a small child, I had an intimate, physical, intensely stimulating comprehension of color. I understood color perfectly, but I did not have the vaguest idea what it was until science taught me.

    As far as my relationship to material energy is concerneed, the salient fact is that I am material energy. I understand it because I am in connatural contact with my own physical organism. I understand existence intimately from within and can relate to it, because I can relate to myself, but I do not know what it is.

    As for your last question … I will await your reformulation


    • Thank you, Tony, for your explanation and amplification. I appreciate your taking the time and effort. It does help me understand what you are saying more clearly.

      For my part, I’m not quite ready to present a reformulation. But I did make a post on my blog last week in which I suggested that there are some things I know by direct experience – not by logic or research or analysis. Rather like your knowing what colours were and responding to colour before you could analyze it, I think.

      I don’t know yet how far down that road of trusting experience I am ready to walk. I do know that a great number of the most important things in my life belong in that category. Like knowing that my husband loves me, like knowing that Mozart wrote beautiful music, like knowing that Picasso was a great artist, like knowing that the Empire State building is taller than a child. I think we have no choice but to trust these experiences, but at the same time to be open to the possibility that I am wrong. Because experience never comes in naked form, as it were. We always interpret what we experience, we always put it into some context, give it some meaning – even if that meaning is “I don’t understand this.” Therefore there is always another point of view, another interpretation that may be more valid than my own. Which is why I think I must be open to the possibility that I am even living my whole life on a mistaken premise. Like working for a better world by trying to change society in ways that ultimately destroy justice or the environment or human dignity.

      I’ve spent a great deal of my life seeking certainty and simultaneously fearing its dangers. It is only in my later years that I truly feel at home with the risk of accepting that I am surrounded by a mystery that I cannot ever fully unravel.

      Thank you again, Tony. I make the effort of seriously reading what you write because it is inevitably stimulating, and more often than not, enlightening.


  3. Gerry says:

    Hi Tony,
    Thanks again for your third, profound and mind bending essay on religion.

    Several years ago, a Unitarian Minister gave a talk on religion stating that all religions were metaphors to explain the mystery of existence. I had never thought of religion in those terms. After years of brainwashing in Catholicism,I had carelessly dismissed all religions as “fairy tales”. I have since valued the insight that the minister’s talk brought to my understanding of a plethora of confusing messages. You have expounded on the idea of metaphor in a most profound way and added the dimension of “poetic” to the basic concept. Thank you for offering a vision that brings beauty to an otherwise divisive concept.

    Your statement that, “Metaphor knows that it does not know.”, bring me a deep sense of peace. No longer is the issue “doubt”, which as Catholics we were taught to eschew, but acceptance and recognition. But, perhaps too simplistically, I ask, isn’t contemplation of so great a mystery enough? Don’t we discredit the profundity of the mystery by attempting to pierce the veil?

    Respectfully, I think this is what part of your essay does. It seems that you bend your own ‘rule’ (Metaphor knows that it does not know.) by delving into the ‘mystery’. For instance you state, ” The only thing we know is how we are related: I am existentially dependent on what I call God.” Isn’t our relationship to “God” part of the metaphor that you say is unknowable?

    Thank you and I look forward to your reply.

    • tonyequale says:


      Like you, I am not comfortable when I think I am saying too much. The next two installments will be on “faith,” and I have anguished over whether I attempt to “delve too deeply” into what is unknowable. I defend myself from my own misgivings by denying that what I am talking about is “knowldege.” I call it “understanding.” The word is not as poetically evocative of what I mean as I would like. But I define and describe it often enough that I think I have adequately distinguished it from “knowing.” It’s the best I can do.

      I try always to use the word “somatic” when I characterize “understanding.” I do that because I mean a connatural consciousness that suffuses our bodies without words. It should not be confused with animal intelligence because it is fully human, but it operates in that dimension of awareness where words are sometimes attempted (good poetry, I would say) but they are really not necessary, and frequently a distraction. We “understand” directly, organically, without words, without representation, without proof, and without implication, what we are. I am my body. I “understnd” it intimately … from within. I can “talk” about it, but the talk is tangential and can be alienating. My experience of my being my body is wordless.

      And yet I know we all share such an experience, and so do the animals, and the plants and the protozoa, each in their own way. Whatever there is of “me” in this world arises from there, like smoke from a fire. This “understanding” that I talk about, of which what I call “faith” is the corollary, I don’t think of as “delving” but rather as “resting” or maybe “embracing.” I don’t go anywhere with it … because I don’t think there is anywhere else. I stay with it right where I find it. But I have found it. It is not an illusion. And I rest in it.


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