Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Similes, Metaphors, and Religious Arrogance

Similes and metaphors, by their very nature, allow for a variety of meaning.  To say something is like something else leaves a great deal up to the listener's experience of that something else. Those who use metaphor and simile have made a move toward art or poetry and away from scientific precision.  And for whatever reasons, much of what we know of God and life with God comes to us in this less than precise fashion.

But poetic rendering does not necessarily permit a "God is whoever or whatever I imagine God to be" proposition that is sometimes heard in popular religious thought.  God may be beyond our comprehension, and no image of God may be adequate. But if there is a God then presumably there are things of which it can be said, "God is like this and so not like that," or "A follower of Jesus should be like this and not like that."

Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." In making sense of this, a lot is riding on what a person thinks it means to become "like children." And this problem is compounded by a kind of religious arrogance (a perhaps peculiarly Protestant one) that imagines the Bible is written for us and addresses us directly.

If you want to see this in full blown form, consider how a great many people handle the book of Revelation as a book of predictions.  Some imaginative interpreters even claim there are accurate accounts of nuclear naval battles depicted in the book. (I tried, but I couldn't see it.)  But of course the book is actually a letter written to Christian congregations many centuries ago. And while it may have been intended for wider circulation than the congregations mentioned in it, if it is written for us, telling of the end of the world in our time, what were the original recipients supposed to do with it?

The letters of Paul and other epistles point to this same problem. With them we are reading someone else's mail, and because such letters were the only means Paul and others had to communicate with distant congregations, we are essentially hearing one side of a conversation. We are not always sure of the problem being addressed by a letter, and if we don't know what Paul is talking about when he instructs or corrects a congregation, we may misunderstand him badly.

That brings me back to becoming "like children." I have frequently heard people start talking about the psychological makeup of a child and how Jesus is calling us to emulate this. But if Jesus is actually speaking to the people in front of him 2000 years ago, doesn't it stand to reason that he expects them to understand what he says without the benefit of any psychology. The Gospel of Matthew is written not so many decades after Jesus lived, and so wouldn't its author have reported Jesus' words fully expecting his readers to understand what Jesus meant? And so doesn't it stand to reason that this simile depends on a First Century understanding of what is involved in becoming like a child?

This does not necessarily mean that all modern understandings of childhood are useless in understanding what Jesus is saying. But if we imagine there are no historical or cultural barriers to encountering Jesus, surely we will create for ourselves a peculiarly modern Jesus who would be unrecognizable to his first followers. Of course if Jesus came of us and not them, that may not be a problem.

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1 comment:

  1. Historical context is important. In our culture, children are commonly glorified as innocent and sweet.

    In the case of Mt. 18:3, the literary context helps most of all. The simile "like children" comes after Jesus' disciples are asking who is the greatest (man) in Jesus' new kingdom of heaven (18:1). This context suggests the child is an example of the opposite, the least (in a kingdom of earth, at that time). This is confirmed in 18:4 when Jesus identifies "like this child" with "whoever humbles himself;" yet whoever becomes humble and lowly like this child will in fact be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

    Jesus goes on to address the problem of the arrogant (who think they are great) causing one of these "little ones who believe in me" to stumble and fall (18:6). Such ambitions for greatness--that step on (or over) humble, lowly disciples--are then portrayed with more metaphors: a "hand" or "foot" or "eye" that causes one to stumble and fall (18:8-9).

    Jesus then introduces the larger metaphor of a shepherd with a sheep that has left the flock. Rather than look down on and despise "one of these little ones," a good shepherd cares about these fallen disciples, who are lowly and humble like children, and searches for them.

    These powerful metaphors include the eternal danger for the "great" (and arrogant) as well as the lowly they cause to stumble: they might perish.