How can we envisage God, who is beyond all human imagining? How can we speak of God, who transcends all human speech? These are ultimate theological questions for almost all religions. But theistic religions, particularly Judaism, Christianity and Islam, turn the question round, asking first not what we humans can do to express the truth of God, but what God does in divine revelation to make himself known to us. In what form and by what means does God reveal God's nature and purpose to us? Only when we have established the priority of divine revelation can we go on to ask how we receive, express and interpret that revelation.
Whichever way round we look at them, these divine-human encounters of revelation and response are invariably expressed in the highly figurative language of metaphor, symbol and myth. Is such figurative language capable of telling the truth about reality, or is it merely the expression of free-wheeling fantasy projected onto a void? Can metaphor, symbol and myth be vehicles of truth-giving insight into the sacred realm? Can they become paths to God?
My contention in this book is twofold: first, that it is primarily through the imagination and the genres typically generated by the imagination (metaphor, symbol and myth) that we are brought into living contact with our object (the sacred, the divine, revelation, God), both in living religion and in theological reflection; second, that these modes of discourse have a truth-bearing capacity and can support a critical-realist theology, one that does justice to both the subjective and the objective aspects of theology. The argument of this book develops in four stages:
• In Part I I set out my stall. I open up some of the key issues and explore the background in modernity and postmodernity, showing that both are inhospitable— for different reasons—to the symbolic and its truth-bearing capacity. I sketch an alternative tradition of epistemology that stems from the Romantic poets and thinkers and has been put to work in some modern philosophies of science.
• In Part II I explore the role of imaginative thinking and its expression in metaphor, symbol and myth in four key areas of the Christian religion: revelation through the Bible; theology and doctrine; faith and belief; worship and liturgy. I carry forward important questions for discussion later.
• In Part III I draw largely on non-theological disciplines, such as literary theory, anthropology, philosophy of language and philosophy of sci-ence, to clarify the nature of metaphor, symbolism and myth, in preparation for deploying these concepts in the final part.
• Finally, in Part IVI tackle the fundamental questions of whether and how figurative discourse—primarily metaphor, symbol and myth—can bear truthful witness to the nature of reality and of God. I ask what consequences this has for Christian beliefs and examine some thorny doctrinal—mainly Christological—issues.
So the argument is cumulative and advances in a sort of spiral, coming back to the central issues of the Bible, doctrine, faith and worship from several different perspectives.
We can only adopt this critical, interpretative and evaluative approach to the language of faith and theology when we recognise that religious imagery is humanly and socially constructed. If the metaphors, symbols and myths of Christianity were given, ready-made, whole and entire, and without remainder in divine revelation, there would be little work that we could appropriately do on them. It would be a question of receiving them in all humility and merely presenting, arranging, elaborating and expounding them. The critical, comparative and evaluative approach would be out of place. It is, then, a presupposition of this study that religious imagery did not fall ready-made from heaven, but emerges out of the human response to the disclosing of divine presence in revelation. While revelation stands over against all human subjectivity and social construction, it remains true that (as Marx has taught us) man makes religion. The phenomena of religion—beliefs, forms of worship, structures of organisation, moral codes—are human artefacts derived from revelation but mediated through human cultural perspectives. The response to revelation that is articulated in religion is culturally and socially conditioned. Divine revelation and the human response embodied in religion interact creatively and critically. This realm of divine-human encounter and interaction may be called 'the sacred'. In it the elements of givenness and of appropriation may be distinguished in conceptual analysis but are difficult to separate out in lived experience. The whole repertoire of religious imagery—primarily metaphor, symbol and myth—forms the primary constituents of the sacred.
The sacred is a set of related images that carry the sense of mystery. Sacred images are those that open a world to the transcendent. They mark the limits of the human world and the boundary points where men and women meet the unknown but felt reality that encompasses their world.
My overall intention is to defend the rationality, coherence and credibility of the Christian faith. I do not make the assumption, however, that the truth-claims of Christian theology can be established or defended merely by analysing the figurative language in which they are expressed. What such an analysis can and does show, however, I believe, is the unequivocal intention of Christian discourse to speak of the nature of reality and of the true relation between God and humanity. The study of metaphor, symbol and myth can show us how such language works, as it serves as the vehicle for spiritual insight— evoked by the revelatory action and gracious presence of God—into ultimate mystery. I believe that such an analysis can demonstrate, as I have already suggested, that creative figurative language is significant, cognitive and unsubstitutable, though not veridical— that is to say, it is not a window into reality as it is, transparent and undistorted, but a reflection in human thought of the actual impact of objective reality, though refracted, dimmed and distorted by the psychological, sociological, political and cultural lenses through which we must inevitably look. 'For now we see through a glass, darkly' (1 Corinthians 13.12, AV).
Underlying my argument is the conviction that the creative human imagination is one of the closest analogies to the being of God. The mystery of imagination points to and reflects the mystery of God. As Coleridge (among others) suggested, human imaginative creativity is an echo, a spark, of the divine creativity that is poured out in the plenitude of creation. Religious thinkers as different as St Augustine and William Blake have (as we shall see) pictured God as a poet or artist who delights to reveal himself through the forms of the imagination: in the poetic and the symbolic. If not, why did Jesus choose to teach through parables?
To bring this discussion within reasonable bounds I have had to take out, in revision, much material that seemed interesting to me—particularly on the Enlightenment, modernity and postmodernity, and also on the construction of Christian identity and the role of symbols, ritual and narratives therein. This suggests the possibility of another project, on the construction of Christian identity in the postmodern age. I have made a start on this in my recently completed text on the pastoral mission of a national Church. I am sympathetic to those who will say—if I may attempt to anticipate a criticism or two— 'Why don't you clarify what you mean by postmodernity?' or 'How can you expound the nature of symbols without discussing identity-formation?' or 'How can you talk about myth without going into narrative theory and narrative theology?' In response, I would point out that I have gone as far into these matters as the argument seemed to require but no further. I merely ask any such critics to be patient.
Unfortunately, I did not see Keith Ward's helpful discussion of metaphor and analogy in Religion and Creation (OUP, 1996), Chapter 6, until this book was in press.
I am most grateful to Richard Bourne, my research assistant in the Centre for the Study of the Christian Church, for his work on the indexes.
As General Secretary of the Church of England's Council for Christian Unity I would like to make it clear that I am writing in a purely personal capacity.
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