I’ve long contended that one of the most pernicious confusions that religious believers with a fundamentalist bent introduce into public discourse about religious issues is this: they take what is metaphorical, and they try to freeze the metaphor. To absolutize it. To make the analogical into a litmus test of absolute truth rather than a metaphor pointing in imperfect, halting human language to what transcends language.
And pointing to what requires many different analogies or metaphors to represent its rich diversity, since the richly diverse spiritual realm is by its very nature beyond human language. One of the most glaring cases in point is this: those who argue that God is male, that the application of gendered language to God is not analogical but a precise description of who God is in “his” very nature, have absolutized what is clearly meant to be metaphorical in the scriptures of the world religions. They have frozen a metaphor, lost sight of its metaphorical significance, and they then frequently want to impose the frozen, absolutized metaphor on both their own religious traditions and society at large as a litmus test of orthodoxy.
The Jewish and Christian scriptures employ both male and female analogies to speak of a God who is beyond gender, beyond human language, more wildly and richly diverse than any single metaphor can ever capture. The very first image of God we encounter in the Judaeo-Christian bible is that of God as a mother bird hovering over the still-to-be-tamed chaos, to bring it to birth as a mother bird does her clutch of eggs. God broods over the unformed void to bring it into being.
And Jesus echoes this image of God the mother enfolding her brood under her wings when he laments that Jerusalem has resisted his embrace, which is akin to that of a hen trying to hold her chicks close to her to protect them. No single metaphor for God (or for any religious phenomenon) fully captures the divine. We need many different metaphors in order to begin to approach the rich complexity of the spiritual realm.
And because this seems so self-evident to me, I find Robert McClory’s recent critique of statements of the former head of the U.S. Catholic bishops, Francis George, refreshing. McClory entitles his critique “Turning Metaphors Into Laws.” As he notes, George (and other U.S. bishops) have been working fast and furious to absolutize gender-based Catholic metaphors to explain to us precisely why we ought to find gay marriage impossible or why women can’t possibly preside at the eucharistic liturgy. McClory notes that in a recent article in the Catholic New World, Cardinal George “juggled both issues at once using the image of Christ as bridegroom and the church as bride.”
Women are wonderful, George argues, but they just can’t do what a priest is all about, which is representing Christ as the bridegroom of the church. We need a man standing at the altar so that we don’t get confused about who we are as church–the virginal bride of Christ–with a male priest at our head representing the bridegroom in our virginal ecclesial transaction with Christ the eternal bridegroom.
Well, something like that. I confess that, when the metaphors start flying quick and thick in these theological-political discussions, and when they become so treacly and mind-numbing that I can follow them only by shutting down the critical portions of my God-given brain in order to make any sense of them, I begin to tune out. Because I believe, as McClory aptly puts it, that
[m]etaphors are meant to help us meditate on mysteries beyond our full comprehension. They have limits and do not serve their intended purpose when forced into the role of barriers against the work of the Spirit in the church.
And to piggyback on the preceding concluding statement of McClory’s article: one of the strangest and most destructive legacies John Paul II bequeathed the church of our period of history is his magical-mystical theology of the body, which wheels through one gendered metaphor after another, all focused on demonstrating that God made men to be men and women to be women, and the order of the cosmos depends on keeping both in their place. On keeping women subjugated to men, that is.
As this magical-mystical theology has inflamed the imaginations of Catholics without a scintilla of appreciation for its metaphorical basis (and its metaphorical limitations), and as those Catholics inflamed by the theology of the body have frozen its magical-mystical metaphors into gospel truth, what the Catholic church has to say about human sexuality and issues of gender has gotten sillier and sillier.
Until few folks with good sense are willing to listen to what we have to say about these matters any longer. Nor should they.
Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 8 July 2011.