Metaphors

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. A trinitarian understanding of God was made mainstream in the Christian faith in the 4th century. Some people give a lot of the credit to Constantine who just wanted harmony in the realm and forced the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. I think that’s a bit simplistic. This discussion forced the church to think theologically in ways it hadn’t before—a question beyond the concerns of a monarch. The discussions at Nicaea were about nuancing words to capture ideas that were inherently beyond the words used. The careful parsing of the Greek begs an underlying truth: Everything we ever say about the divine is by means of metaphor. The discussion ultimately did not have to do with the words themselves, but the constellations of meanings conjured up in the minds of those who used them. The very need for discussion reminds us that the metaphors may be the map and not the territory, but maps are only as good as they are accurate. Metaphors are only as good as the meanings conjured.

And so it must be. Words spin constellations of meanings into the mind. Poetry combines constellations of meanings in ways that drive us beyond the well-worn ruts of our usual thoughts, to jar us out of the idolatry of thinking our words limit reality, tame it into something manageable, force a bit into its mouth so we can imagine we know where our words will take us. Just visit a good court trial and you will see that such could hardly be further from the truth. Anything you say may be used against you…some innocent words still contain the potential to damn you. The Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel is myth at its best: We constantly suffer the innate confusion of language and find ourselves alienated from one another.

Words force us onto a humble knife-edged ridge. On one side one tumbles off the cliff of self-certainty. On the other one slips down the scree of meaninglessness. Along the center lies a path that allows us to use words as metaphors, never taming them, but availing ourselves of their willing service.

One should always speak from a place of humble gratitude.

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