e-mail us


New and old ways into universal truths


I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell, mainly at the suggestion of a reviewer in this very publication. Overall, it’s been a stimulating and delightful experience. Except for the part where he says we’ve killed our metaphors, that we need new ones.

At first I nodded, stroked my chin, agreed as cautiously as a white-wigged British magistrate. Then I realized what I was agreeing to. The Garden of Eden, the Virgin Birth, transubstantiation, the end of the world -- all dead as doornails, stripped of relevance and resonance?

I think not.

Campbell’s premise was that for centuries, church theologians have insisted on historicizing these metaphors, niggling over factual issues impossible to resolve and draining their symbolic significance in the process. Campbell believed the metaphors were now bled dry, and he was waiting eagerly for replacements to spring from the current culture.

I’m looking at our current culture, and I’m not seeing anything anywhere near as powerful. It does seem easier for people to recognize Christ on the big screen in the Lord of the Rings than on the altar at Mass. But that’s not new metaphor, it’s just new presentation.

I turn to an old friend who’s now Msgr. Jim Telthorst, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. His blue eyes still startle me, he still laughs with reassuring ease, and he’s just as humble, smart and clear-eyed as he was 31 years ago, when he taught religion at my grade school. Fr. T. never made us choose between history and meaning.

“Metaphor is not the denial of reality,” he reminds me. “It’s the way in. Because all the words fail.” He begins to chuckle, thinking of the way today’s teenagers say, “I was like … ” and never finish the sentence. “We’re starved for metaphor,” he says. “We don’t have any way to tell someone we’re excited except to say, ‘Oh wow.’ We say, ‘He was like … ’ Yeah? What was he like?”

“Everything is imaged for us,” he finishes, gesturing toward the TV flashing pixels in the restaurant’s bar. “We’re empty.”

Is that because the ground of our faith is dry and barren, I ask, braver than I was in grade school. He meets my eyes. “I am the Light of the World,” he replies gently. “I am the Living Water.” We both know light still dawns, and water still refreshes.

Yes, we’ve hammered at historicity until we concussed it. Yes, we’ve added and projected whatever meaning we needed onto scripture’s elegantly bare bones: Catholics reading teachings about the Virgin Birth as proof that sex is filthy; Protestants reading the teaching of transubstantiation as proof that Catholics are cannibals.

But misinterpretation doesn’t mean we need to start from scratch.

“Maybe the Virgin Birth says we cannot save ourselves, cannot find our own path out of the darkness,” suggests Telthorst. “Maybe this is an image of God taking the necessary step. Maybe this is a symbol of wonderful opening and surrender to God.” Such readings don’t place the Virgin Birth outside historical truth -- and neither does its previous existence as a symbolic motif in ancient cultures. Archetypes exist for a reason: They capture universal truths.

And transubstantiation?

“I do believe in the Real Presence,” he says, “and there is foundation in scripture for everything I said. The church does not teach that the bread is the physical presence of Jesus. It says that the bread is no longer there as bread, but as the sacramental presence of Christ. It is present as the saving moment of Christ’s death and resurrection.” He stops eating altogether, intent on making his point this time around. “We became rigid in thinking real equaled physical,” he explains. “We have trouble probing the really real. Just because something’s not physical doesn’t mean it’s just a thought.

“Words aren’t enough,” he continues. “That’s why we need sacraments. Sacraments are metaphors acted out, so that we might touch, hold onto and be drawn into the really real. Metaphor brings two things together that were once distinct, and makes them a new reality. It’s not just a way to tease our imagination,” he adds. “It’s a way to deal with mystery, with a reality so profound that we stumble trying to express it.”

He sighs heavily, no doubt thinking of all the ways that what he is saying now could be misunderstood. “You know, a lot of this goes back to different personalities,” he says. “The person who is predominantly intuitive in the way they learn things is going to hear this stuff and want more. The person who learns mainly through the senses is going to want precise language and concrete, specific meanings. It’s a world of difference, and we drive each other crazy. Both extremes can do damage,” he says. “The sensate wants to make an absolute out of the metaphor, and the intuitive sometimes cheapens the metaphor by trying so hard to reach beyond it.”

Caught in the liturgical tug of war, the average Catholic feels forced to choose between history and transcendence. Historicizing the sensate path freezes the reality, distancing it and making us spectators instead of participants. And reducing the metaphor to a simple sign or reminder, as intuitives sometimes do, removes us from its full reality. Thus surveys came back to the bishops saying people no longer believe in Real Presence -- all because, in Telthorst’s opinion, the question isn’t being framed right.

“The sacrament doesn’t just ‘remind’ us of Jesus. It exists so we might consume the Eucharist and become what we eat, become Jesus’ presence in the world. If we stop short of that reality, we’re still looking at Jesus as someone apart from us. We haven’t become his presence.” So, I prompt: Do we need new metaphors?

“I don’t know that I would rush to a new mythology,” he answers slowly. “You can’t just create one. After Vatican II, we rushed out to create new symbols, and they were laughable.” He sets down his fork and smiles ruefully. “I was part of that. But you know, there really only are a few elemental, universal symbols -- like air, fire, water, earth -- and bread.”

Telthorst isn’t looking for new symbols or myths, but he is looking constantly for new ways into the old ones. “Lately what’s helped me is the new cosmology,” he says. “Scientists describe the center of the universe in a way that, for me, parallels Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. They’re learning that the universe is still moving, still growing, and they say they have discovered its omnicenter. One guy gave an example: Put a lump of raisin-bread dough in the oven and it starts expanding, and the raisins move outward along with it. Every raisin is the center of that experience, feeling that movement. Every part of the universe is experiencing the heart of the universe.

“And every community that celebrates Eucharist together is experiencing the same real presence, the same saving power, the same Lord who is the Word through whom all has been created and all has been redeemed.”

I smile, feeling that pleasant closure of the circle, the arriving back where we started, but happier for the journey. Telthorst and Campbell might disagree about the steps, but they’re on the same path after all. The shiny new metaphors of current physics do arrive free of historical baggage, innocent and fresh, eager to be fathomed.

But they point to the very same truths.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 15, 2002