Truth” in the west has been identified with “science” from well before the advent of modern times. The ancient Greeks sought a rational understanding of the world we live in; they called their quest philosophy, the love of wisdom, but they thought of it the way we think of science.
Theology was born in this context. At the dawn of western science there did not exist any clear separation between theology and physics as we have it today. For millennia, theology was not only considered a science, it was the science, the instrument that reached to the inner nature and operations of reality.
But science had to compete with poetry. That was a problem for the scientists. Socrates, you’ll remember, had great difficulty with the poets because they could not use other words to explain what they wrote. He considered them alien to the rational-scientific quest he was pursuing.
I believe Socrates was blinded to the value of poetry because of the solid possibilities that logic seemed to offer: clarity, precision, verifiability, therefore “truth.” Poetry seems to have none of that. Multi-layered, peppered with mixed imagery and allusions, full of intense personal feelings, poetry seemed entirely subjective. Socrates wanted to know “what the poets meant.” They answered by telling him to go back and re-read their poetry; apparently they felt their words had been very precisely chosen. There was no other way they could say it. Socrates could not understand that. His demand to “explain your poetry using other words,” was, as far as the poets were concerned, an attack on the jugular. What better way to tell a poet s/he’s failed? Perhaps there was an odist or two among those who voted for the hemlock.
One modern poet calls his own poetry a “raid on the inarticulate.” He speaks of “shabby equipment,” words — the poor, worn implements of daily life — that were never meant to carry the weight of the realities that the poet imposes on them. So, because words are not quite adequate, the “methodology” of the poets is special. And it’s used to communicate a special truth, a truth that is in a class apart from the measureable realities of the so-called exact sciences. The methodology is metaphor, and the special truth is “relational truth.” What do these terms mean?
“Relationship” is a very specific feature of our lives as human beings. It is a complex and interior experience of inter-personal connectedness of which our own participation is an integral part. Our relationships are difficult enough to perceive accurately but even more difficult to communicate to others. How do I express the unique relationship that I have with someone I love. I am aware that scientific descriptors, even from a science specifically dedicated to human perceptions and emotions like psychology, are totally inadequate for this purpose. Enter the poet. Her task is to try to find that combination of metaphors — symbols and images that lie outside the range of ordinary speech — which may convey with greater human accuracy the multi-faceted dimensions of the relationship. “Human accuracy” here is “truth” and refers to the ability to evoke in another person, an experience as close as possible to the poet’s experience in its individuality, complexity, scope and depth of feeling. Solomon’s poet, for example, might say:
“You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in battle array.”
How is the poet’s “love” as “terrible as an army set in battle array”? You may “get it” or you may not. But if you connect with it, you will understand what experience the poet is trying to convey, and in that act of understanding you will provide a “third party verification” both for the experience and the accuracy of its articulation. Poetry is not (only) entertainment, an elective pastime for the literati. It’s the only instrument we have for communicating “truth” at this level, relational truth.
So, I believe Socrates was wrong. The poets labor with as much commitment to accuracy and clarity as any sincere scientist or philosopher. Their art is the attempt to find those precise phrases, that precise sequence of words, that evoke human relational experience. And religion is our human relationship with the source of our existence … whatever it may be.
My point is that “relational events” or “inter-personal events” differ as object from other objects and therefore are communicated by a different kind of discourse. These “relational realities,” which include the existential relationship — i.e., my relationship to the source of my existence — are experienced by the knower as objects that include his/her self. The resonating subject is the predominant component of the object known, making the object inaccessible to another subject except through a recognized similar experience. So communication in this area involves “constructing” (poiein in Greek) something that evokes the same experience in the hearer. The “constructor,” the poeta, tries to create external conditions (words, dramatic dialogue, paintings, music, dance, ritual, etc.), a symbolic “construct,” a poema that accomplishes that task. And metaphor is its instrument of choice because it uses words not as concepts that try to comprehend and define the object, but as symbols that refer to and evoke the object in the experience of others. Evocation invites the hearer to find the object within his/her own file-cabinet of experience and thus interpret, compare and verify its truth. There is no other way these complex, interiorly experienced realities can be communicated and verified except by speech that of its very nature can only evoke and not denote, describe and not define, invite and not impose.
Traditional western theology has historically been considered an exact science in the rationalist sense. Realities that we know in and through our own experience, and whose inner workings apart from us we can only adumbrate, we in the west have historically claimed to know with quasi-mathematical precision. All our religious discourse, doctrine, creed, dogma, even ritual formulae, have been infected with this rationalist contagion. Religion has been subsumed under the heading of “truth,” and “truth” in the west is prejudicially the result of rational inquiry.
But what gets lost in our scientistic scenario is that “true” religious speech is indeed critical to our lives but in a way that antecedes and bypasses logic. Religious discourse, — ritual, creed, doctrine — is not science; it is poetry and as such it provides evocative descriptions of our relationship to realities whose inner mechanical workings are irrelevant to the relationship whether I do or even could come to know them or not.
For example, the perception in which I relate to my wife does not include knowledge of the vegetative functions of her organism or the neurological operations of her brain. And yet I claim to have an accurate grasp of “who she is.” I may call her a butterfly today and a soaring eagle tomorrow, but even though literally she is neither, I know exactly what I’m talking about, and so does the reader. The ruling element that gives those words meaning is relational experience.
Now, in the case of “God,” the relationship stands on its own: I understand myself to exist and that I am not self-originating. I immediately understand — from my side — the relationship I bear to the existential source of existence … even if I don’t know what that source is. Religion is the reflective description of my experience in the form of “doctrine,” which is symbol, metaphor, poetry. I say “’God’ is my Creator.” Literally, scientifically, I know neither “God” nor what it means to create. All I know for a fact is that I am not self-originating; but that is sufficient to establish the relationship. Both “God” and “creation” are metaphors for what I do not know but to which I bear a constant and inescapable relationship. In Dickens’ Great Expectations, Pip had no knowledge of his anonymous benefactor, and his conjectures were upended in mid-stream, but his awareness of what he had received and his sense of loyal gratitude was the same regardless.
Doctrine’s interpretative tool, theology, comes next. It is simply a kind of literary criticism that evaluates religious poetry in the light of the “facts” and how well the words chosen convey the indicated experience. At no point in the process does the presumption of claiming to know the object — “God” — apart from the relational experience of it, intrude.
All I know for a fact is that I am not self-originating.
… an implicit comparison between two unlike entities … The metaphor makes a qualitative leap from a reasonable, perhaps prosaic comparison, to an identification or fusion of two objects, to make a new entity partaking of the characteristics of both. Many critics regard the making of metaphors as a system of thought anteceding or bypassing logic.
Metaphor is a symbol. As a symbol it does not conceptualize its object, it “refers to” it … or, as Wittgenstein might say, it “points to it.” Metaphor is a linguistic device that applies words to realities they were not meant to define. Metaphor is a word adequate for one reality which is used “improperly” to stand for another which has no adequate word, or whose usual word has been judged inadequate. Metaphor does not define, it rather evokes and suggests; it “points to.” But the metaphor’s very “impropriety” accounts for its evocative quality, for it throws the listener back onto his own experience for understanding. It contributes a new, fresh and vital element that otherwise would be absent. “The winter wind with its long fingernails tore the canvas to shreds.” The wind does not have hands and fingernails, but the imagery evokes the destructive action of the wind. “Long fingernails” are symbols. They do not define any “scientific” reality; they rather describe how the wind’s action makes us feel ― and therefore how we relate to it.
Poetic metaphor is a most appropriate instrument for speaking about our relationship to “God.” For, besides more accurately communicating the experience, its symbolic character guarantees and protects apophasis: “God” remains ineffable, undefinable, unknowable. Metaphor is conceptually empty. Metaphor makes no pretense at grasping and comprehending its object. The believer using a metaphor is consummately aware that its employment is improper, therefore temporary, provisional, and compelling only in the personal sense. No one is compelled to assent unless their own experience verifies it.
If we say that the concept “God” is itself derived only from human experience, it means that the “objective” element in our knowledge of “God” includes the experiencing subject. I am not using the word “objective” to mean “the thing in itself apart from its being the object of a knowing subject;” there is no such thing. In the case under consideration here — knowledge of “God” — there is nothing known outside of the inseparably subjective feature of experiencing “God” in the intimate realization of our own “non self-origination.”
Does this mean that “God” is not real? … only on the gratuitous assumption that what can’t be verified independently of experiencing subjects is non-existent. But no one would say that. The most that even a scientist would claim is that you cannot compel assent to the existence or character of things that are not independently verifiable. That in itself does not prove that they do not exist, nor does it establish their character, i.e., what they are like. Unfortunately, the word “truth” has been arrogated by the over-enthusiastic scientism of our times to refer exclusively to “knowledge” that has been subjected to the kind of probity demanded by science. Relationship — the intentional valence between conscious organisms — may be accessible to scientific measurement as far as its emotional resonance or other observable by-products are concerned, but no one would say that those things were themselves constitutive of the relationship. The emotions of elation that accompany a realization, for example, might be measurable, but they do not constitute the realization. Religion is not about what things are, but how we relate to them. I relate to the source of my existence as to “God,” and the nature of that relationship is determined by the nature of my existence and how I experience it, not by what I have been led to think “God” is. I articulate the nature of my existence, i.e., that it is not self-originating, and celebrate it in poetry. That is religion.
I call metaphor a tool of poetry and that poetry reaches “truth” — but not a scientific truth that is verifiable independent of the experience of the subject, demanding acknowledgement without concurrent experience. This “poetic truth” that I speak of, however, is also truth, it is objective and it is verifiable. It’s the communication and sharing of experience; as such it cannot be communicated without being verified. You verify it with your own experience, however, not some independent measuring device or a logical syllogism.
Religion tries to turn the experience of “God” into words. Poetry is our almost exclusive tool for communicating truth in these interpersonal regions. But I want to emphasize, it’s aim is truth: what is real and really there — the relationship. We are not talking about fabrications of the imagination. I am objectively related to the source of my existence — in which I live and move and have my being, whether I scientifically “know” what it is or not — and I express that relationship in religious poetry. Poetry uses metaphor, symbol, fables and allegory, to express relational truth that cannot be expressed in any other way. The very nature of the realities we’ve been talking about, realities whose existence is knowable only as interpersonal relational events, must necessarily use metaphor for their expression.
This is true of all relationships. Who would ever deny that the relationships between spouses, or friends, or siblings, or parents and children were real, even though there is no physical or chemical or laboratory test that could verify their existence?
The root of religious speech is human experience which is historically and culturally conditioned. Speech about “God” that was forged at a particular time and place bears the stamp of that particularity and will need constant translation and renewal if it is to correspond to what is experienced by other people at other times and under other circumstances. The words of one age do not necessarily communicate in another. “Original sin,” for example, may have captured a Greco-Roman’s intuition that something was radically wrong with life under the Empire, but a modern South Asian may find such an idea unthinkable and an insult to the goodness of God. “In our countries,” says Sri-Lankan Catholic theologian Tissa Balusuría, “the idea of humans being born alienated from the Creator would seem an abominable concept.” Metaphor preserves the relativity of local expressions.
Moreover, the uniqueness of metaphorical projection introduces a fragrance and intensity to religious communication that more adequately corresponds to the nature of the human experience in question here, mystical experience. The mystics speak of “the cloud of unknowing,” for example, a haunting image to describe the ineffability of “God.” If this evocative quality should be lost, religious truth, as we are defining it, would not be adequately transmitted; metaphor is critically important in this respect.
Again, in this same connection, while metaphor communicates, and communicates well, it also retains the quality of indefinability, a fundamental characteristic of all interpersonal encounter. It evokes, it does not define. The “doctrinal terms” are temporary because of their evocative function. Once they cease to evoke, they no longer communicate. The experience to which they refer, however, remains always what it was. New conditions may require new metaphors. This is most relevant to our reflection. For it means that metaphor preserves inviolate the apophatic principle of Christian tradition, that is, the radical unknowability of God. For metaphor is essentially empty.
Theologians must analyze, weigh and judge all these terms used to define elements of religious experience. It hardly needs saying that much of what is most sordid and shameful in the history of humankind is directly traceable to the unwarranted ascription of literal scientific objectivity to locally conditioned religious experience and the metaphors used to evoke them. The conviction that one has the absolute truth about “God” and how one should live has provoked and excused wars, pogroms, conquests, slavery, persecutions and xenophobic hatred of all kinds. What’s at stake, as we’ve unfortunately come to realize in these times, is nothing less than genocide carried out in the name of “God.”
Plato, The Apology in The Works of Plato, tr.Jowett, Tudor, NY, vol.III, p.107.
T.S.Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker” V
Song of Solomon 6:4
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1979, Mic VI, p.831
 H. and H.A. Frankfort, “Myth and Reality,” in The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, U of Chicago Press, 1946 & 1977 p.7; and also “The Logic of Mythopoetic Thought,” pp. 10-11