A metaphor can save us
By JEANNETT BATZ
The merlot was an indulgence; usually I avoid wine at lunch, afraid Ill doze over the keyboard the rest of the afternoon. But deadline was met, and the wine was rich and fumy. I held the glass loosely at the stem, letting it tilt and swirl while I reminisced about this years Good Friday liturgy -- its stark beauty, its deep emotional power. Halfway through what I thought was an eloquent account, my friend looked up from his pasta.
You really believe all that?
All ... what? I asked, afraid he was referring to my maudlin adjectives.
That Christ rose from the dead, he said impatiently, to give us eternal life.
The merlot glow dissipated like fog in sun. I reached for the pitcher of iced tea, buying time.
Did I believe it?
Maybe not literally, detail by detail as exact historic fact, I hedged, although I dont disbelieve it either. I just dont know. And to be honest, Im not even sure the literal facts matter that much to me. Because as metaphor, I believe it absolutely.
I might as well have thrown my head back and issued a war whoop. Charges of hypocrisy flew across the table, landing hard on the side of my face. Instead of turning the other cheek, I ducked and tried to deflect them. You know, Mike, quite a few theologians and church officials would say the same thing if you got them drunk and injected them with truth serum.
Then theyre betraying their flock, because those people depend on the resurrection to be literally true. Thats the very ground of their faith. They build their lives on it.
Exactly, I replied. The people who believe at the level of metaphor dont want to shake the faith of people for whom that makes no sense, so they just translate back and forth. Which is fine, because theyre all saying the same thing, anyway. Its just two different levels of truth.
Mike cocked his head, and I knew I was in for it. So who says the truth of metaphors any higher or better than the truth of history? He pushed away the rest of his pasta and leaned forward. What is truth, anyway?
Pilate had asked the same question.
Nobody had answered.
Taking advantage of my silence, Mike fired again: What good is a metaphor about resurrection if the resurrection didnt physically happen? For that matter, what good is metaphor, period?
I took a stab about as forceful as a grapefruit knife. Metaphor is a way to express relationships too profound for regular prose, I recited. Its the language of symbol; it builds bridges and connects dissimilar things and reconciles opposites and embraces paradox. My list, cribbed from old English class notes, kept growing. Metaphor, I said finally, transcends the material world.
Driving home, I continued the conversation alone, and suddenly my points seemed more convincing. Saying something was metaphor didnt mean it wasnt true, it meant it was true in the most universal way possible. Jesus literally dying to save us was a powerful fact, a martyrdom worthy of worship. But if you raised it to metaphor, that death represented the ability of pure, self-sacrificing love to redeem all of creation. If the metaphor was true, then its pattern was written into the very structure of the cosmos.
Wasnt that better?
I caught myself immediately: Better was the wrong word. Mike already thought this notion of metaphorical understanding was elitist, a sort of Gnostic wink-and-nod fraternity thriving on its own sense of superiority. Me, I preferred to think of it as a more abstract way of making sense of the same reality. But I wasnt doing too well making sense of metaphor itself.
The next day, I called a friend whos a poet. Got anything good on metaphor? He copied three Wallace Stevens poems for me. One was called The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain, and had a line that read, He breathed its oxygen. The other was called Poetry is a Destructive Force, and its metaphor tied poetry to the lion that sleeps in the sun./Its nose is on its paws./It can kill a man.
If poetic metaphor could kill, maybe a resurrection metaphor could save us. In the way that, when we flounder for meaning, an idea can save us, and when we ache with self-hatred, the memory of being loved can save us. Ideas and memories dont have literal, physical form; you cant stick your fingers in their sides. So why should we require a Biblical resurrection to have more physical verifiability than love itself?
Besides, I reminded myself, I dont disbelieve in the historical resurrection. I just see it more as revelation of redemptive love and transcendent spirit, rather than a historical act unique to Christianity changing everything from that point forward. As a little girl, Id learned about every detail of the resurrection as extraordinary -- which made it rather disconcerting when I found out that crucifixion was a common practice of the times, and that dozens of Greek mystery cults told stories of resurrections.
Now, I found that commonness and universality as reassuring as the extraordinary event itself. Which sounded, to Mike, like heresy.
Wed simply have to agree to disagree, I decided. But every time I brushed aside the unfinished conversation, something rewove the web. Scanning an old copy of The Golden Bough for another purpose, I saw that James George Frazer had gathered examples from all over the world positing a sacrificed god whose body is dismembered and buried, thus giving rise to the fruit trees, beans and wheat grasses that sustain human life. Turning to a Joseph Campbell book on myth, I found myself staring at an illustration of an Egyptian bas-relief, the sacrificed Osiris with wheat growing from his body. Checking the index, I flipped to the section on the Mayans, who believed the universe was set in motion by the sacrifice of a god. Then I read how, in 1524, the Aztecs hotly defended their own gods before a council of 12 Spanish friars, saying, With their sacrifice, they gave us life.
I could just imagine the friars chastising the Aztecs, telling them their beliefs couldnt possibly be true, because it was Christ who died to give us life.
A little more metaphorical understanding, and they could have all knelt down together.
Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.
National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000