Monday, June 30, 2008


Very often when we are talking about something which is not perceptible by the five senses we use words which, in one of their meanings, refer to things or actions that are.

When a man says that he grasps an argument he is using a verb (grasp) which literally means to take something in the hands, but he is certainly not thinking that his mind has hands or that an argument can be seized like a gun. To avoid the word grasp, he may change the form of expression and say, "I see your point," but he does not mean that a pointed object has appeared in his visual field. He may have a third shot and say, "I follow you," but he does not mean that he is walking behind you along a road.

Everyone is familiar with this linguistic phenomenon and the grammarians call it metaphor. But it is a serious mistake to think that metaphor is an optional thing which poets and orators may put into their work as a decoration and plain speakers can do without. The truth is that if we are going to talk at all about things which are not perceived by the senses, we are forced to use language metaphorically...

There is no other way of talking, as every philologist is aware...

Let us now apply this to the "savage" or "primitive" articles of the Christian creed. And let us admit at once that many Christians (though by no means all) when they make these assertions do have in mind just those crude mental pictures which so horrify the sceptic. When they say that Christ "came down from Heaven" they do have a vague image of something shooting or floating downwards out of the sky. When they say that Christ is the "Son" of "the Father" they may have a picture of two human forms, the one looking rather older than the other...

[T]he mere presence of these mental pictures does not, of itself, tell us anything about the reasonableness or absurdity of the thoughts they accompany. If absurd images meant absurd thought, then we should all be thinking nonsense all the time. And the Christians themselves make it clear that the images are not to be identified with the thing believed. They may picture the Father as a human form, but they also maintain that He has no body. They may picture Him older than the Son, but they also maintain the one did not exist before the other, both having existed from all eternity.

I am speaking, of course, about Christian adults

Christianity is not to be judged from the fancies of children...
When we point out that what the Christians mean is not to be identified with their mental pictures, some people say, "In that case, would it not be better to get rid of the mental pictures, and of the language which suggests them, altogether?"

But this is impossible

The people who recommend it have not noticed that when they try to get rid of man-like, or as they are called, "anthropomorphic," images they merely succeed in substituting images of some other kind. "I don't believe in a personal God," says one, "but I do believe in a great spiritual force." What he has not noticed is that the word "force" has let in all sorts of images about winds and tides and electricity and gravitation...

We may feel ourselves quite safe from this degree of absurdity, but we are mistaken. If a man watches his own mind, I believe he will find that what profess to be specially advanced or philosophic conceptions of God are, in his thinking, always accompanied by vague images which, if inspected, would turn out to be even more absurd than the man-like images aroused by Christian theology.

For man, after all, is the highest of the things we meet in sensuous experience. He has, at least, conquered the globe, honoured (though not followed) virtue, achieved knowledge, made poetry, music and art. If God exists at all, it is not unreasonable to suppose that we are less unlike Him than anything else we know. No doubt we are unspeakably different from Him; to that extent all man-like images are false. But those images of shapeless mists and irrational forces which, unacknowledged, haunt the mind when we think we arising to the conception of impersonal and absolute Being, must be very much more so. For images, of the one kind or the other, will come: we cannot jump over our own shadow.

[C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study]

No comments:

Post a Comment