C. S. Lewis on Metaphor and the Power of Scriptural Imagery

The Bible is full of imaginative language, symbol and metaphor, and this imagery has been transferred to the central Christian statements of faith – the Apostles Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, both of which use symbolic and pictorial language in order to describe the mysteries of the Faith. One of the many tired and predictable criticisms of atheist and agnostic detractors of Christianity is to point this out (as if it had never been noticed by anyone before) and use it as ‘proof’ that Christians are irrational and backward-looking, not only holding on to ideas that are ‘out of date’, but also describing them in antiquated and supposedly infantile language.

C.S. Lewis, in an essay read to the Oxford Socratic Club entitled Is Theology Poetry? addresses this criticism, and provides a clear assessment of where such scepticism has gone wrong by examining the beliefs of the earliest Christians, and in doing so showing that the critics of scriptural imagery have made something of a category mistake. The following quote is a fairly long one, but its length is necessary in order to show the breadth of Lewis’ argument:

Theology certainly shares with poetry the use of metaphorical or symbolical language. The first Person of the Trinity is not the Father of the Second in a physical sense. The Second Person did not come “down” to earth in the same sense as a parachutist: nor re-ascend into the sky like a balloon: nor did He literally sit at the right hand of the Father. Why, then, does Christianity talk as if all these things did happen? The agnostic thinks that it does so because those who founded it were quite naively ignorant and believed all these statements literally; and we later Christians have gone on using the same language through timidity and conservatism…

…What did the early Christians believe? Did they believe that God really has a material palace in the sky and that He received His Son in a decorated state chair placed a little to the right of His own – or did they not? The answer is that the alternative we are offering them was probably never present to their minds at all. As soon as it was present, we know quite well which side of the fence they came down. As soon as the issue of Anthropomorphism was explicitly before the Church in, I think, the second century, Anthropomorphism was condemned…

…It is very probable that most (almost certainly not all) of the first generation of Christians never thought of their faith without anthropomorphic imagery: and that they were not explicitly conscious, as a modern would be, that it was mere imagery. But this does not in the least mean that the essence of their belief was concerned with details about a celestial throne room.

Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), p.17, Harper Collins.

The central point Lewis makes here is that for the early Christians, the distinction between symbol and truth was not one that would have made sense. As soon as someone suggested that anthropomorphic language about God could mislead, correctives were added so that the nature and purpose of the imagery employed was made clear; but prior to this, it was taken as a given that the best way of preserving and communicating certain truths about God was precisely in this sort of language – in metaphorical, symbolic, pictorial terms. The modern contention that abstract statements of truth are not only somehow more satisfying, but actually in and of themselves more true, was not one that they would have recognised; nor would they have accepted it if presented to them.

Further on in the essay, Lewis develops this point by moving from consideration of the beliefs of early Christians to a reflection on the inseparability of our beliefs from symbol and metaphor altogether:

We are invited to restate our belief in a form free from metaphor and symbol. The reason why we don’t is that we can’t. We can, if you like, say “God entered history” instead of saying “God came down to earth”. But, of course, “entered” is just as metaphorical as “came down”. You have only substituted horizontal or undefined movement for vertical movement. We can make our language duller; we cannot make it less metaphorical. We can make the pictures more prosaic; we cannot be less pictorial. Nor are we Christians alone in this disability…

…all language about things other than physical objects is necessarily metaphorical.

ibid, p.18.

            Reflection on the last sentence in the excerpt above should lead us to see the truth of it – other than the concrete things we see about us in the world, which we can describe with accuracy and provide a definite account of, everything else we believe about the world must be described either in the abstract, or in terms of metaphor. Furthermore, as Lewis points out, using language that is more technical and less obviously pictorial is also a metaphorical way of speaking. Unless one is to deny all non-physical truths (which some do, seemingly oblivious to the inconsistency of statements such as the non-empirically verifiable declaration that ‘the only truths we can rely on are those that can be empirically tested or accounted for’) we must use metaphor.

In another essay – The Language of Religion – that Lewis had prepared to read at the Twelfth Symposium of the Colston Research Society at the University of Bristol, but was ultimately unable to attend due to ill health, he develops this point even further:

Now it seems to me a mistake to think that our experience in general can be communicated by precise and literal language and that there is a special class of experiences (say, emotions) which cannot. The truth seems to me the opposite: there is a special region of experiences which can be communicated without Poetic language, namely, its “common measurable features”, but most experience cannot. To be incommunicable by Scientific language is, so far as I can judge, the normal state of experience…

…The very essence of our life as conscious beings, all day and every day, consists of something which cannot be communicated except by hints, similes, metaphors, and the use of those emotions (themselves not very important) which are pointers to it.

ibid, pp.263, 265.

To return to the original issue of Christian, and specifically scriptural, language though, the question becomes slightly different, as we are trying to describe what is the most real, and in some sense the most concrete thing in our lives in metaphorical terms; so the question then becomes, what kind of metaphor, what kind of language, is most suitable? The answer, I would submit, is that it is precisely the sort of language we find in Scripture (and which has been preserved in the Creeds) that is most suitable for this task.

The image of Christ sitting enthroned at the right hand of the Father speaks to the whole of us (intellect, imagination, emotion) automatically of the truths enshrined in the image – the complex relationship between Christ’s subordination to the Father and His sharing of the Father’s divine status; the Lordship of Christ over all creation; the raising up of humanity into the divine sphere. All the truths which we abstract from the image are already present within it, and can be accepted by the believer through the image, in a way that breaking it down into convoluted technical terms is often not able to do as powerfully, persuasively, or even as clearly.

Similarly, the terms Scripture uses to describe Heaven – harps, thrones, gold, jewels, running water, grand cities shining with light – are things that we naturally recognise as representative of splendour and glory beyond our imagining. It is almost impossible (though a select few may do this) to imagine Heaven literally being populated by such objects, and we naturally receive such images as the truth-carrying symbols they really are. Our abstract thought is composed of endless comparisons and clarifications, and often only results in obscuring the spiritual realities which are so latent in the images that we have tried to de-code. As Lewis writes in one of his book-length publications:

When the purport of the images – what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections – seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time. For our abstract thinking is itself a tissue of analogies: a continual modelling of spiritual reality in legal or chemical or mechanical terms. Are these likely to be more adequate than the sensuous, organic, and personal images of scripture – light and darkness, river and well, seed and harvest, master and servant, hen and chickens, father and child? The footprints of the Divine are more visible in that rich soil than across rocks or slag-heaps. Hence what they now call “de-mythologising” Christianity can easily be “re-mythologising” it – and substituting a poorer mythology for a richer.

Prayer: Letters to Malcolm (1979), pp.54-55, Fount Paperbacks.

            None of this is to say that theological abstractions are not useful, and do not serve a purpose – they are and they do. The statements of the second century mentioned by Lewis, which were introduced in order to prevent a slide into anthropomorphism, are of this ilk, and were very necessary; the Church has always had to preserve its treasures by a variety of means. But the rich imagery of Scripture, and also the poetic imagery used by many of the saints, who themselves often draw on the original scriptural data, has a perennial potency and vitality to it that cannot be reduced down, and which carries over to us divine truth in ways that speak to us as whole persons, not just to our intellects.

Of course, the Bible is not just any old scripture, it is Sacred Scripture, and so has a divine authority behind it. So we may be permitted to believe, quite reasonably, that the reason its images have such power, is that God chose these particular symbols as especially efficacious means of communicating His will and character. In this respect, Scripture and its imagery can be said to have a sacramental value as well – on top of the natural power of the images to communicate certain truths, for the believer they also key into a wider tapestry of Truth, which is the whole economy of salvation, and so bear upon us even more; one image speaks of another, which speaks of a bigger picture overall. The imagery in Scripture is powerful because it is used by One who wishes to draw people closer to Him, and the closer one gets, the more of that Power it conveys.

We therefore cannot get rid of those images used by God in Scripture to convey His Truth in order to get closer to that Truth. The two come from the same source, and are closely woven together for His purposes; there is no outer shell we can remove to leave behind an inner kernel of revelation, as the two come from the same place, and are one. This is why, on top of the natural power that image and metaphor have in general, and the natural use we make of them, that these images have such potency, and are as such, non-negotiable.


One thought on “C. S. Lewis on Metaphor and the Power of Scriptural Imagery

  1. Pingback: C. S. Lewis on Transposition: The Meeting of Earthly and Heavenly Things | Journey Towards Easter

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