Is God a Metaphor?

sky with clouds and the sun peaking through

In September I stumbled upon the writings of Mark Schaefer. I found an excerpt God is a metaphor. This excerpt is from The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue. This piece intrigued me and I began to think of ways to respond. I argue that Christianity locates God in a singular human being, Jesus. This avoids the metaphorical nature of God. Thus, if Schaefer is correct, without Jesus, humanity cannot understand God.

Schaefer’s argument

He opens with the question, “what does God mean?” Schaefer suggests that a person can only give descriptive statements when discussing God. For example, I might say God is the creator. Yet that only describes what God does, not who he is. Fictional characters act in a similar way. One can only mention Huckleberry in relationship to other characters. God, mathematical principles, and fictional characters all cannot point to actual individuals.

Schaefer differentiates between God and a person in the following scenario.

Imagine two Christians are having the following conversation about war. Christian A says that my God does not believe in war. Christian B says, no my God does support a war. Yet replace the term God with Steve and the sentences make no sense. Steve cannot both be in favor of and against war. Yet Christian A and B can use God interchangeably for contradictory ideas.

Schaefer concludes that God cannot be self-evident. In isolation, a person cannot understand God. Rather God is a metaphor for the ultimate reality of existence. How one understands this reality is up to the person. In other words, God is a metaphor for a yet unidentified process that effects some change in the world. How does this philosophical take on God fit the Christian framework of God?

God in the Old Testament

God first introduces himself to Abram (Genesis 12:1). God never gives a name, but rather introduces himself based on promises he makes. He tells Abram that he will make him a great nation. After Abraham has kids, God continues to speak. God greets Issac as the God of Abraham (Genesis 26:24). Once again, God references himself in relation to someone else. This continues throughout the Bible until Moses.

The Burning Bush: Exodus 3:2-14

In this iconic scene, Moses encounters God. Moses receives a call from God to free the Israelite people from Egyptian slavery. Once again God introduces himself as the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. This fails to satisfy Moses. Moses wants to know God’s name. God then says that his name is “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Yet I am is not a proper name. Rather it merely indicates an entity that exists. According to Catholic study bible, the I am name refers to the cause of all things to be. The lack of a proper name for God changes at the incarnation.

The Incarnation

Unlike God, Jesus is a historical person. We can point to and know of Jesus. Jesus is not a metaphor but is flesh and blood. Jesus is the person that encompasses the metaphorical conception of God. Some have argued that the historical Jesus is not the same as the metaphorical God. Yet there are certain events in the Bible that point to Jesus as God. I’m not interested in proving the Bible reliable. I merely wish to show how Jesus could equal God and fix the metaphorical conception problems. Jesus’ authority over nature, sin, and death strengthens his claim of divinity. ‘

Authority Over Nature

He got into a boat and his disciples followed him. Suddenly a violent storm came upon the sea so that the boat was being swamped by waves; but he was asleep. They came and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” He said to them, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?” Mathew 8:23-27

Here in this story, Jesus demonstrates his control over the wind and waves. This act amazes the people in the boat. They know that a mere man cannot control nature. Now a common criticism is that this story never happened. Yet when the Bible was written, people close to the original sources were consulted. St. Paul writes, “After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” (1st Corinthians 15:6). Most historians would consider St Paul’s writing as authentic. They were letters written to the early church. Historical letters are considered primary sources. St Paul suggests that witness to Christ were still around. The church would have consulted these witnesses. They would have corroborated the later gospel accounts.

Authority Over Forgiveness

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”— he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. Mark 2:5-12

Here Jesus forgives the sins of a paralytic man. The scribes rightly recognize that this authority over sins belongs to God. Jesus also heals the man in response to their doubt. The healing occurs to demonstrates that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins. This bolsters his claim to be God.

Authority Over Life and Death

Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” John 11:38-44

Here Jesus calls God, father. He also says that the father sent him and hears him. He wants the crowd to believe that God sent Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus proves his relationship with the father by raising Lazarus from the dead. Having authority over life and death is commonly thought to be a characteristic of God.

Conclusion

Mark Schaefer argues that God is nothing more than a metaphor. God represents the ultimate reality of existence. Thus one cannot understand God. One cannot have self-evident knowledge of God. Yet that changes when we accept that Jesus is God. In light of the incarnation, God ceases to be a metaphor and becomes a flesh and blood person. Just like any other person, Jesus doesn’t just stand for anything. Rather if two people claim to be followers of Jesus, they must confess the same beliefs. We know Jesus is God because of the authority he displays in the gospel stories. He has authority over life and death, nature, and sin. The bigger and more important question will you accept his authority?

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