Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Religion and Metaphors and the 21st Century

World-wide, language teachers have failed to be thorough in the uses, benefits, and, most importantly, the dangers of metaphor—that comparison between two unlike items--”His fist is a hammer.” A fist is not a hammer, but the metaphor implies a fist with strengths similar to those of a hammer.

In country after country, too many people not adequately trained to recognize metaphor are easily misled into “truths” which they otherwise would not logically assume; and most dangerous of these are those which deal with the metaphors of religion.

All “Holy” writings come from lore, evolved from the effort to make secure a specific tribe at a specific time in history. Are tribal members falling ill and dying from eating pork or shellfish? Then invent fearsome, all-knowing, yet unknowable, powers to regulate diet. Create anthropomorphized, all-powerful entities with all the positive and negative emotions of a human; and the tribal leader, thus a mere tool immunized from scrutiny, has a good, strong, never-to-be-questioned educational and regulatory tool.

Does the eventual presence of multiple, competing powers/gods threaten the stability of the tribe? Designate a single, jealous “god.”

It was reasonable for leaders thousands of years ago to use metaphor to teach people how to live safely and thrive in an unforgiving environment.

Today, parents use metaphor to concoct a “bogeyman” to teach a child caution or to give a vague, but all-powerful, reason not to do something. There does come a point when the child's bogeyman is set aside--until that child becomes an adult and, in turn, resurrects the fearsome bogeyman in order to help teach the next generation.

It is neither nor legitimate to continue structuring religious ethics and morals around an anthropomorphic metaphor. We understand natural laws; we know to kill the toxic parasites in pork through thorough cooking; we know to avoid shellfish during certain tidal episodes.

Religious terrorism, physical and psychological, stems from those negative human characteristics that have been attributed to deities. Logic and policy cannot any longer accept those negatives.

It is arrogance to claim that a deity can be jealous. Pettiness in such power? Anger? In a perfect entity? Such posturing is not only illogical, it shows a lack of trust in the congregants. Worse, it condemns thousands to ignorance and imperils everyone.

Thomas Aquinas, when pressed, used Aristotle’s definition of “God”-- “the Prime Mover”--whatever force gave impetus to the universe. By implication, this Christian theologian tells us all else is metaphor.“God” is not dead, having never “lived” in the human sense of the word. “God” is vaster than the deities of earth. “God” is beyond our ken, but not beyond our daily experiences.

The time has come to honor the religious metaphors of the past as once useful tools, but in these dangerous times we must find a new metaphor that is able to deal with the realities of the moment. These realities necessarily mean developing a metaphor for a sense of oneness with the universe, which is strongly akin to the metaphor of the past but which also demands recognition of, and responsibility for, the place of each individual in the panoply of the universe; and, especially, a oneness with others.

Coupled with the need for this new metaphor is the more general urgency to integrate into education an understanding of the importance of anthropology, sociology, and history; giving us more complete comprehension of this complicated world and enabling all to lead more secure lives.

The basic wisdom of the centuries is immutable; the metaphors used to teach that wisdom are not immutable. Teachers of reading and ministers of the soul must learn to trust a well-educated population.

There will be people who will read this as an attack on their religious beliefs. It is not; the metaphor is not the belief; the truth within the metaphor is the belief. The metaphor is the “handle” we use to express our innate spirituality.We need teachers to be more thorough and spiritual leaders to be more honest. The metaphor is not the message.

With the world teetering on an internal religious war between two factions of the Islamic religion, not to mention a possible bloody struggle between Islamists and religionists of the two other religions of "the Book," it's time for all leaders, secular and sectarian, to come clean about their particular religious metaphors.

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