I finished 2017 by reading Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language by Sallie McFague. That title is terrible; it obscures and deadens what is easily one of the most compelling and thought-provoking theological works I’ve read in a long time.
I probably used up most of a highlighter on this book’s 194 pages. Published in 1982, it feels as relevant as ever. Here are some highlights:
- McFague starts by exploring the importance of metaphors for human learning. We tend to think of metaphors as poetic and rhetorical – “your eyes are deep pools” – when in fact they are essential building blocks in the creation of our respective worlds.
- She uses the intentionally absurd example of a chair. How do you know a chair is a chair? Because it has the same characteristics as things you identify as chairs. That’s a metaphorical move. Just as you use “deep pools” as the reference for describing “eyes,” you use “chairs” as the reference for this new object you’ve never seen before. This new object is both like and unlike “chair.”
- Thus metaphors are inherently relational: They forge connections and enhance learning by describing relationships between understood concepts and new ones.
- Metaphors are also inherently uncertain and filled with tension: They are incomplete and even inaccurate to some degree. Eyes are not actually deep pools. This chair is not identical to previous chair examples. God is not actually our father.
Oops. I gave it away. McFague uses this argument about the essentiality of metaphors to build what she calls a metaphorical theology – a way of talking about God that understands and relies on the importance and tension inherent in metaphors.
The problem, she writes, is that God-talk tends toward idolatry or irrelevance. Describing God is inherently uncertain, but a certain set of images become so universalized, especially among conservatives, that they begin substituting for God – and are thus idolatrous. Reacting against this tendency, liberals tend to water down these metaphors and talk about God in a way that drains the images of all meaning, thus becoming irrelevant. McFague wants to talk about God in a way that avoids both extremes while also recognizing that humans cannot ever fully describe God, no matter how powerful or accepted the metaphor.
The problem we as Christians face today is that one particular metaphor has dominated the discussion of God – and that is “God as father.” There are three reasons why the universality of this metaphor has become problematic, McFague writes:
- “Whoever names the world owns the world.” Language is a vital part of describing, and thus creating, our world, and if that language remains exclusively male, it closes women from true equality.
- “God the father” has become an idol because it – and its corresponding hierarchical, patriarchal images, such as God as master, king, lord, etc. – has become not just a way to understand the human-divine relationship, but the way.
- Religious language is a two-way street. The language we use to describe God becomes itself divinized by association with God. Thus men in their positions as father, master, husband, judge, lord, ruler are seen as closer to God than women in their positions as mother, wife, creator (pp. 8-10, expanded in pp. 149-151).
So what do we do? Well, first we look at what sort of metaphors should be appropriate for God based on how the Bible, especially the gospels, uses metaphor. McFague identifies two primary metaphors in the gospels: The parables about the kingdom of God and the life and death of Jesus himself, the “parable of God.”
The parables describe the kingdom of God in ways that are “open-ended, tensive, secular, indirect, iconoclastic, and revolutionary” (48) – by which McFague means Jesus used everyday, lowbrow examples to paint a picture of a kingdom that subverted and revolutionized the expectations of his listeners. Also, they focused on relationships, just as the Old Testament prophets did.
So, too, the story of Jesus. Borrowing from John Dominic Crossan, McFague describes Jesus as “a parable of God.” As McFague says:
There is little doubt but that this was the way that the early Church arrived at its confession of Jesus as the Christ: from experiences of healing, forgiveness, and renewal in relation to this man came the attempt to say who he was. The work of Jesus forces the question of his person (49).
Jesus, therefore, images God in certain crucial ways, and by doing so, becomes “essential for our understanding of God” and “reorders and upsets our familiar, conventional understandings.” This leads to three conclusions:
- Parables, being metaphors, both “are and are not” what they describe. Jesus, therefore is not the metaphor of God, which would be idolatrous, but rather a parable, which means other religious traditions might also have metaphors for God that are worth understanding and incorporating into our own faith (51). This may be the most radical statement in the book, and probably requires its own post to sort out.
- Jesus’ life was focused strongly on relationships with a wide variety of people – to use theology-ese, he emphasized orthopraxy over orthodoxy. As a metaphor for God, therefore, Jesus – like the kingdom parables and the prophets – indicates God is best described in terms of relationships, not doctrines (52).
- Jesus “questioned the importance of the natural family, religious structures, marriage, wealth, and nationalism” – which is to say he was “radical, shocking, unconventional,” never more so than when he suffered and died on behalf of the victims of evil and death. Thus, McFague writes: “If Jesus is a parable of God, it is at the cross that the parable will be heard by those who have ears to hear, for here God’s suffering love embraces both the sinner and those sinned against (53).”
So where does that leave us? Well, if our primary lens should be relationship, then we should express our metaphors for God – or, rather, our relationship with God – that way:
If God is not seen to be “father,” but “father” is understood as one model through which we interpret our relationship with God, then I suspect many people would feel comfortable about interpreting that relationship through other models as well, including a maternal model. … The network or structure of relationships involved in these models and the commonplaces associated with them are what is central, not the ontological assertion that God is “father” or “mother.” (128, emphasis original)
This makes sense. After all, no matter where we are on the religious spectrum, we should all be able to agree that God is not literally a man or a woman; both descriptions as descriptions of God Godself are equally inaccurate. God does not have a y chromosome or a penis any more than he has two x chromosomes or a vagina. If God is neither male nor female as humans define those terms, then using male and female metaphors to describe our relationship with God should not be particularly troubling. And if they are troubling, we probably need to reassess how much we are substituting an image of God for God.
As McFague says, “No models are adequate.” (129)
(You’ll notice McFague has shifted to talking about models. Basically, she’s talking about models as groups of metaphors that work together to create a coherent, worldview-shaping image, almost like a super-metaphor. She also delves much more deeply into the liberating character of the parables and their potential use in deconstructing patriarchal oppression, but when the internet runs out of space, I don’t want anyone blaming me for it.)
So, assuming that we need better metaphors and models than over-reliance on “God as father,” McFague proposes one that has not really caught on very much in the 36 years since publishing her book: God as friend.
And that’s really a shame. Because, as McFague writes, parental models of the divine-human relationship, while appropriate in many cases, “neglect the public and political dimensions of that relationship” by focusing on security and compassion for the individual. But the friendship of God is stated or implied in the Old Testament (Isa 41:18, Josh 1:5, Hos 2:23), and friendship with Jesus and/or God is likewise found in the New Testament (John 15:13, Matt 11:19, 1 John 1:3, John 17:21, 1 Cor 3:9). It’s also found sporadically in Christian tradition (Iranaeus of Lyons, medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich, A.N. Whitehead).
Look, I get it. Your initial thought of God as a friend is, “Lame.” Perhaps you’re thinking of this beautiful Sonseed video:
More seriously, there was the backlash to the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” trend from about 10 years ago. You can also find plenty of examples online generally concerned that viewing God and/or Jesus as your friend threatens to disrespect God and undermine God’s sovereignty.
McFague herself identifies three primary questions her metaphor must answer:
- Can God as a friend have authority?
- Can God as a friend effect salvation?
- Can God as a friend be worshiped?
Her response to all of these is, “Yes.” Because a strong friendship includes accountability and criticism, often with greater authority than criticism from parents. Because friendship is about partnership, and friendship with God is about partnership in saving the world. And friendship includes both heartfelt thanks for undeserved gifts and requests for aid.
Of course, even if those arguments don’t hold up (the salvation one is particularly weak, I think), the whole point is that no single metaphor can capture all of God – for that matter the combination of every possible metaphor still cannot capture all of God (190)!
Nevertheless, a model of friendship with God opens our minds to a plethora of new, potentially more inclusive and healthier images than the standard patriarchal throwbacks:
If … the fellowship of the table for the early Christian community is a symbol of the messianic banquet (as well as a precursor of the Eucharist), then Jesus, in his friendship with outcasts and sinners, is a model of friendship with God. Jesus as parable enacts God’s friendship with humanity. The God of Jesus is the One who invites us to table to eat together as friends. … [Jesus’] way of expressing his love for his friends must also be our way of expressing gratitude for such love – we too must lay down our lives. Thus we are no longer called “servants” but “friends,” doing for others what our friend did for us. (181, emphasis mine)
More, God as friend turns the whole notion of salvation on its head. For too long, following in Jesus’ footsteps has been hollowed out into an act of duty commanded by a stern parent. That is perverse.
As McFague puts it, “As twentieth-century Christians, the model of God as the companion whom we wish to please and who attracts our cooperation may be a more powerful model for us than the model of God as father or king who commands us to be obedient children or servants (184).”
And then the kicker:
God has our attention by the lure of his goodness rather than by the command of his sovereignty.
How can I top that? Buy the book. It deserves a new hearing for the 21st century.