Saturday, June 13, 2009

metaphors for religion

Religions as languages - the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it's not the whole picture. Wittgenstein's concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:
Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.
Religions as vinegar tasters - there's a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.

Religions as software - if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it's really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.

Religions as ex-girlfriends - Al Billings' hilarious article (update: sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:
[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.
Religions as explanatory tools for various situations - like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven't been discovered).

Religions as cities - this one's been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding contryside?

Religions as receivers of frequencies - it occurred to me the other day that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on -- so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.

Religions as colours - each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it.

Religions as rhizomes or river systems - Deleuze and Guattari's idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an 'expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.'

Religions as trees: Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it's a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).

9 comments:

Yvonne Rathbone said...

How about: Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn't a metaphor but a tautology.

[gone dancin']

Yewtree said...

I like it very much!

catvincent said...

Of course being me, I have to wonder what religions are themselves metaphors for - easy answer is Tao (or at least that's what I just twittered about this!) but even that's a metaphor...

Yewtree said...

According to Jonathan Z Smith (theorist of religion), religions are an illusory unity. So the idea that they themselves are metaphors for something else makes a lot of sense.

I thought of another metaphor: religion as cuisine. Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices.

Yvonne Rathbone said...

Oh, that reminds me of a wonderful El Salvadorean restaurant that opened in Berkeley. Lots of the same things as Mexican cuisine(corn tortillas, chilis) but the food tastes different. Still wonderful, it helps to define a larger "central American cuisine" that is inclusive of both it and Mexican cuisine. Oh, it would be horrible to live in a one-cuisine world. Even curry isn't the ultimate and singular savior of flavor.

Yewtree said...

Just come across another one: religions as prisms refracting the light of the Divine. Nice.

Yewtree said...

Here's another article mentioning the idea of religions as languages.

Yewtree said...

A new metaphor: religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions.

Yewtree said...

Another metaphor (from the Simpsons via Andrew J Brown): Religion as ice-cream.