“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Dorothy Sayers on Describing God with Human Language

Christianity describes God as a father and Jesus as his "son," and in relation to mankind, God is a father, a lover, a friend, a king, etc. He is described in terms of human roles, so it is sometimes objected that humans are merely projecting their own experience onto their idea of God. But let's pause and think for a minute. How else would humans describe God? All of human language is developed from man's experience - we can only describe God in terms of things that are not God. If an eternal and transcendent reality can be described with words at all, it must be by analogy and metaphor - we must compare God with things we know by saying how he is or is not like them. There is no other way to talk about God.

Dorothy Sayers addresses this question in her book The Mind of the Maker:

"The fact is that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors...When we speak about something of which we have no direct experience, we must think by analogy or refrain from thought. It may be perilous, as it must be inadequate, to interpret God by analogy with ourselves, but we are compelled to do so; we have no other means of interpreting anything...Sceptics frequently complain that man has made God in his own image; they should in reason go further (as many of them do) and acknowledge that man has made all existence in his own image. If the tendency to anthropomorphism is a good reason for refusing to think about God, it is an equally good reason for refusing to think about light, or oysters, or battleships. It may quite well be perilous, as it must be inadequate, to interpret the mind of our pet dog by analogy with ourselves; we can by no means enter directly into the nature of a dog; behind the appealing eyes and the wagging tail lies a mystery as inscrutable as the mystery of the Trinity. But that does not prevent us from ascribing to the dog feelings and ideas based on analogy with our own experience; and our behaviour to the dog, controlled by this kind of experimental guesswork, produces practical results which are reasonably satisfactory. Similarly the physicist, struggling to interpret the alien structure of the atom, finds himself obliged to consider it sometimes as a "wave and sometimes as a "particle". He knows very well that both these terms are analogical - they are metaphors, "picture-thinking", and, as pictures, they are incompatible and mutually contradictory. But he need not on that account refrain from using them for what they are worth. If he were to wait till he could have immediate experience of the atom, he would have to wait until he was set free from the framework of the universe. In the meantime, so long as he remembers that language and observation are human functions, partaking at every point of the limitations of humanity, he can get along quite well with them and carry out fruitful researches. To complain that man measures God by his own experience is a waste of time; man measures everything by his own experience; he has no other yardstick."
Human language is of course a limited means of communication, but it is all we have to go on. It is even more difficult when talking about God - we must describe the infinite and eternal in terms of what we know with our limited human senses, thoughts, and emotions. But even this kind of highly analogical language can carry truth, and we are aided by God in the task of knowing and describing him by means of human language. He has made himself known to us in terms of the tangible and the physical, in terms of human senses and relationships (see "A Religion that Can Be Touched: The "Myth and Metaphor" of Christianity"). He designed human roles such as father and son, lover and beloved, for this very purpose - that the finite should touch upon the infinite, that creatures should glimpse their Creator. Far from being a reason to doubt the truth of Christianity, these rich and varied descriptions of God in terms of things we know in our world of experience add a layer of depth and beauty to our understanding of the divine.

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