Quaker Theology #16 -- Fall-Winter 2009
The Quaker Enterprise of Metaphor
By Jnana Hodson
In early Quaker usage, metaphor engages far more than its definition as a figure of speech would presuppose. The central overlapping images – principally Light and Seed, linked to a concept of Truth – advance a complex logic grounded in an outpouring of spiritual experiences by many individuals. Given the constraints established by the blasphemy laws of their time and their own subsequent self-censorship, as well as the turbulent circumstances in which their expressions arose, we should not be surprised to find wide variation, irregularities, and possible public equivocation when we examine their tracts and letters and seek clear definition of their meaning.
Even so, their application of metaphor suggests an evolving radical awareness while sidestepping stringent taboos. Today, of course, freed of those prohibitions, we may more openly consider implications embedded in their logic of metaphor, and in the process come to a sharper understanding of the ways such thinking differs from the reasoning employed by other denominations, exposing in part why their teachings so baffled and threatened non-Friends.
Metaphor is defined as a "condensed verbal relation in which an idea, image, or symbol may, by the presence of one or more other ideas, images, or symbols, be enhanced in vividness, complexity, or breadth of implication." The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics entry then continues for more than five pages of amplification.
The definition introduces other concepts. Image, for one, which is typically but not exclusively visual (sound, such as the ringing of church bells, or taste, such as a ripe fig, might be used as images) and symbol, for another, where one thing can stand in for something else (Jacob’s ladder, for instance, goes from being a simple ladder to a pathway to the Divine). While simile compares two things side-by-side, metaphor overlaps and compresses them. Love is no longer like a rose but rather becomes a rose, fragrant and blooming.
When I write poetry or fiction, these elements are so deeply ingrained in my practice I’m seldom conscious of their essential presence, as such. The same goes for our Quaker practice. Over time, I’ve also realized how basic they are to Judeo-Christian prophecy, as well. This stands in contrast to the many times we’ve heard references to the "poetic language" of a passage, as if praising only its beauty, or of attempts to define a sequence of symbols as a kind of equation that adds up to a simple command-ment for living, while simultaneously disdaining symbolism itself as a somehow more feeble form of communication than exposition, exhortation, or a quasi-mathematical equation.
Moreover, this points to a crucial division between those who read Scripture as a set of regulations and guidelines, that is, in a legalistic approach determining what a believer may and may not do, and those who read Scripture as a record of profound human encounters and insights within an emerging stream of prophetic history. Examining Scripture through the eyes of modern science, history, mathematics, legal systems, or strict logic may enrich or refine our understanding of the text, but each of these disciplines carries its own limitations in addressing personal experience.
Without an awareness of metaphor, however, we are likely to miss entirely the emotional depths of a passage. Consider, for instance, Isaiah 55:12, "and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands"; anyone who has been astonished by the sound of wind passing through leaves immediately recognizes the message, while those who want to insist the trees have suddenly sprouted fingers and hands (which, after all, God could do) fail to connect it to their own living experience.
Comprehension of this order is a response to metaphor being applied as a system of thought on its own and not just as a rhetorical tool within another logic. Scientific method, in contrast, relies on measurable observations and actions that can be predictably repeated; history examines the lives of individuals, places, and events that can be independently verified; legal systems invoke contracts, rights, obligations, and prohibitions; while mathematics, the arts, athletics, and Aristotelian logic operate according to their own strict decrees and procedures.
Metaphor, on the other hand, attempts to make sense of what is essentially ungraspable. It begins with personal experience – mental activity, emotions, sensations revealed as taste, sound, smell, touch, even autonomous muscular movement – and endea-vors to communicate this in ways other people will recognize. In one range, metaphor gives voice and validation to an otherwise incoherent episode. On a broader scope, metaphor encourages and directs others to seek a similar experience and grow in it; here, metaphor may even lead to mutual action, societal change, and group identification.
Metaphor is especially well suited as a form of thinking for advancing both poetry and religion, which, I believe, spring from the same source: the unending mysteries of creation and origins, life and death, birth and sexuality, family, disasters and abundance, and so on – the great questions that are so central to the human condition – as well as the realization that the experience they engender cannot be related, except through relationship. Any attempt to explain a mystical encounter already reduces it, from an overwhelming, multi-dimensional mind-spirit-emotions-body engagement, casting it instead as a flat representation we typically convey in words. Words, of course, will prove inadequate to such heightened awareness, even when offered by a great storyteller.
This conflict is reflected in the emergence of the Society of Friends. Their use of extended metaphor – Light and Seed, especially, in many varied phrasings – points toward an alternative understanding of both Christ and Christianity, a theology early Friends never articulated fully in the face of extended persecution.
Crucial to the Quaker metaphor of Light is its origin in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. There, the Light is presented as an aspect of Christ and of Logos, which is commonly translated as the Word, losing its reference to a system of Greek philosophy predating Jesus by at least five centuries. By definition, Logos variously appears as the underlying connection between opposites; the soul of the universe; the divine plan; an active rational and spiritual principle that permeates all reality; the intermediary between God and the cosmos; both the agent of creation and the agent through which the human mind can apprehend and comprehend God; and, in some early Christian applications, Christ.
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