Myth Metaphor or Truth

Classical Christian belief in the divinity of Christ was challenged by the Quakers and the Unitarians in the early modern period, by the liberal Protestant critique of the history of dogma in the nineteenth century and at the Girton Conference of the Modern Churchmen's Union in 1920. The much discussed volume, The Myth of God Incarnate, which appeared in 1977, summed up the difficulties found by many modern Christian theologians with the credal affirmations. That book's editor, the distinguished philosopher of religion John Hick, will be taken here as the clearest and most challenging exponent of a non-incarnational version of Christianity.

In his own contribution to The Myth of God Incarnate, Hick stressed the problems for Christian incarnational belief posed by the other world faiths, whose status as vehicles of liberation and salvation for millions of people worldwide and down the ages would, Hick thought, be bound to be depreciated if Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone were 'literally' God incarnate. This difficulty is one of the three main objections to the doctrine of the Incarnation put forward in The Myth of God Incarnate. The other two were the problem of evidence (what historical evidence could possibly establish so extravagant a doctrine?) and the problem of coherence (surely it is a straight contradiction to affirm both humanity and divinity of the same individual). Hick himself developed this third objection in subsequent writings, in his Gifford Lectures,4 and in The Metaphor of God Incarnate.5 We shall consider the first two objections — the problem of other religions and the problem of evidence — in later sections of this chapter. But our main concern in philosophical theology is with the logical question of whether the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is coherent.

If the doctrine is incoherent, it cannot possibly be true. At worst it is a nonsense; at best it is really (I do not say only) a myth or a metaphor. But this contrast between truth on the one hand, and myth or metaphor on the other, is not nearly as perspicuous as might appear at first sight. So, before we examine the logic and metaphysics of God incarnate, that is, the case for thinking the doctrine ofthe Incarnation to be both coherent and true, it will be well worth while spending a little time on what is meant by calling it mythical or metaphorical rather than true.

A statement, belief or doctrine is true if things are in reality what it says they are. The doctrine of the Incarnation is true if Jesus was indeed God made man, if he was indeed both human and divine. Such talk of the divinity of Christ is mythical or metaphorical, if the doctrine is not literally true, but rather expresses, figuratively and indirectly, some other fact or attitude. Myths and metaphors are not lies or falsehoods, nor are they meaningless nonsenses. On the contrary, they often themselves express deep truths, truths hard to convey in straight prose, deep truths, underlying the surface meaning of the myth or metaphor. The difference between myths and metaphors is this: a myth is an extended story, illustrating or conveying some underlying meaning or truth; a metaphor is a figure of speech suggestive of some underlying meaning or truth. Often it is claimed that the underlying meaning or truth can only be hinted at indirectly and figuratively by means of myth or metaphor. But we can always try to articulate more directly what is conveyed by the myth or metaphor.

Here are some examples, first, of myth: the creation myths at the beginning of Genesis are not literally true. Creation, for example, did not take place in six days. But they convey very powerfully, in story form, the absolute dependence of the universe on the creative will and act of God for being in being at all. (In other words, what we were doing in the last chapter was articulating and exploring the deep truths underlying the creation myths of Genesis.) And here is an example of metaphor: when we sing the hymn,

'Rock of Ages, cleft for me', we are using the metaphor 'rock' to signify, figuratively, the enduring steadfastness of almighty God.

Of course, the language used in articulating the doctrine is itself stretched and extended from normal everyday use. Thomas Aquinas taught the way of analogy as characterizing our talk of God and God's action.6 Mere humans cannot comprehend the ineffable divine. But we can speak of God on the basis of the attributes and acts of those creatures made in God's image. Examples of such analogies are 'Creator', 'wise', 'love', 'will'. Analogies are not metaphors. There is a real relation of resemblance between human love and divine love. One way of distinguishing between metaphors and analogies is to ask, 'But is A really x?'. God is not really a rock. That is a metaphor. But you cannot say 'God is not really love'. That shows that 'love' is not a metaphor. The word is being used analogically.

Not all talk of God is analogical. 'Divine' itself is a literal, 'univocal' term, as are several other specially coined theological terms. But it is important to remember that Aquinas included the analogical under the heading of the literal or 'proper' in his analysis of talk of God. So we need have no compunction in pressing the question whether or not some doctrine is literally true.

To return to the Incarnation: the dispute between the authors of The Myth of God Incarnate and the authors of the immediate reply, The Truth of God Incarnate, was over whether talk of the divinity of Christ was literally true, or whether, in fact, it was either a figurative way of expressing some more general truth, such as 'that which makes possible a profound inner union of the divine and the human in the experience of grace in the life of the believer now and more broadly in the life of the church as a whole' (thus Maurice Wiles ), or else 'a story which ... invites a particular attitude in its hearers In the case of Jesus it gives definitive expression to his efficacy as saviour from sin and ignorance and as giver of new life; it offers a way of declaring his significance to the world' (thus John Hick ). In his later book, Hick prefers to speak of the metaphor of divine incarnation: 'Just as Winston Churchill ''incarnated'' the British will to resist Hitler, so Jesus ''incarnated'' God's will and love for humankind as well as the ideal of human life lived in response to God.'11 Hick's main reason for denying literal truth to the classical Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, in both texts, is that a literal incarnation makes no sense. Just as there cannot, logically cannot, be a square circle, so the notion of one who is both God and man is a contradiction in terms.

It is interesting to note that the majority of the Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophers of religion who have addressed this issue have not been persuaded that there is a straight contradiction here. But clearly this is the key issue for philosophers. And it is to work on this issue that we must now turn.

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