Sea of Faith, Yorkshire


Last Discussion: Metaphor in Religion

Our last discussion was 'Metaphor in Religion'. As the presenter, I had gradually realised what a vast topic this is, and so I opted to set out a few selected (though linked) issues for us to ponder on.

Iin a book celebrating the 25th anniversary of John Robinson's 'Honest to God', the author mused that, in 1963, the preacher at an Oxford college had said "It seems that St Luke has pulled Dr Robinson' leg, and it has come off in his hand". The audience were meant to laugh, sharing the joke that of course everyone already KNEW that the imagery in the Gospels was not offered literally. Apparently only John Robinson was in the dark. Yet, ten years later, the author asked "What HAS happened to all the people who bought and read 'Honest to God'"? - this at a Diocesan Training Centre that had actually pursued some of John Robinson's initiatives - and was met with a resounding silence.

Our conclusion? It takes a very long time for change to happen in religion, and perhaps 45 years is not such a long time.

Clearly no-one literally believes that Christ is born on Christmas Eve every year, and is crucified and resurrected at Easter. Yet Christian churches go through motions suggesting that they do (especially in the Easter vigil and the Stations of the Cross). So what, really, are these actions? Are they really more like theatre, where it would make no sense to say "But none of this is really true", because everyone at the theatre accepts the convention of 'willing suspension of disbelief'.

BUT in religion, it can be accepted that the observances are really theatre, while still believing that the original events referred to really happened.

AND theologians have tried to prove that the wine and the bread of the
Eucharist really do become the body and blood of Christ (theories of

SO are there degrees of symbolism? - it seems yes! In other words,
symbolism, metaphor etc. are more complex than we might think.

If mainstream Christians do hold a non-realist position, it is impossible for them to say so, especially if they are senior, without being attacked from outside the Church (let alone from inside it). Recall the furore that surrounded David Jenkins' words on the virgin birth and the resurrection ("a conjuring trick with bones"). The mass media do not appear to understand symbolism in religion, for they only have two categories: Literal Truth or Scandalous Falsehood.

BUT can you imagine a Daily Mail headline: "Lawrence Olivier denies Heathcliff really
existed!" ? No, because everyone understands that Heathcliff is a fictional character

SO there are acceptable, and unacceptable fictions. Despite how the media react to
statements about religion, there are some things that are known by everyone not to
really exist, yet are accepted as meaningful. It is not shocking, or even relevant, to point out that they are not 'real'.

Why is this? Our discussion unearthed several different groups of figures that are non-real, yet accepted as significant. (We understood the lowest level of 'significant' would be - 'attack on the figure would arouse discomfort'.)

Group One

War memorial statues

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Grave statues

These all attract a degree of respect, even from people who disagree with the ethos producing them, and the fact that they also attract vandalism shows an awareness of this on the part of the vandals. We felt that graves generally fit here as well, and some also felt that body parts after autopsy etc. did. All of these are non-real representions of human figures, though not in a 'normal' state. (Some represent more than single individuals, and some less.) Everyone (even vandals) understands that these figures are non-real, yet significant.

Group Two - fictional characters
Although perhaps no fictional character commands universal respect as 'significant', no-one seriously challenges them on the ground that they do not really exist. Rather (as in the case of Robin Hood) attempts to find real historical figures behind them arouse some intrigue. In the case of Hamlet, the fact that there was a real Prince of Denmark of the same name is felt to be hardly relevant.


King Arthur

Robin Hood

Rob Roy

Jane Eyre


This group falls off rather sharply in 'respect' terms, though till no-one challenges their status on grounds of 'reality', or fails to understand that they are 'meaningful' figures, even if not important to everyone.

Soap opera characters (Coronation Street, etc.)

Sherlock Holmes

Dixon of Dock Green

Dr Finlay

Inspector Maigret

Inspector Morse

Then there is an even sharper 'respect' fall-off at the lower end of this group, with characters invented for children

Santa Claus



Desperate Dan


Any of these children's characters can, and do, come under attack for various reasons - but never simply because they are fictional. On the other hand, there is some concern that figures such as 'Janet & John' should have more realistic features - a concern that reflects doubt about the figures' purpose and role as fictions. (My own sense about fictional characters is that, while the iconic figures near the top of the list are fairly well established, there is a tendency in our culture to lose confidence in the arts, and to collapse the whole category into the childish end, as if to say 'They are not real, so don't take them seriously'. This is not to say that people do not generally understand the 'non-real' status and function of fictional characters.)
We had some discussion of Santa Claus, and uncovered at least one cultural function - to downgrade concern or intensity over gift-giving. One family used Santa as a way of giving items that were practically needed (eg boys' socks), but too boring to give as presents. At the other end of the scale, a gift that revealed embarrassingly much thought and effort by the giver was also attributed to Santa. This seemed to us a possibly under-researched area!

Group Three - celebrities


Dead celebrities (Princess Diana, Elvis, James Dean)

Current celebrities

Some figures start out as real people, but inhabit 'non-real' roles. The appeal of celebrity news and magazines has to do with the fact that these figures straddle, with much tension, the borderline between real and fictional. The media retail gossip dealing in their 'real' aspects - usually their actual 'everdayness' and weaknesses. Royalty are at the top of the scale, in so far as they are either fully accepted or vehemently rejected (two sides of the same coin indicating their significance, as for the vandals in Group One). Dead celebrities have moved firmly into the 'non-real', and they may attract cultic adoration (including claimed 'resurrections' in the case of Elvis) 'Everydayness' reporting about them now risks being repellent (as in the case of Diana). Some of our group felt that priests belong in this category. Some felt that the current interest in historical re-enactments also relates to it, with perhaps the motive of projecting one's (real) self into a glorified, non-real context, and again exploring the real/non-real boundary.

Although it is currently acceptable to cite 'no evidence' as a knock-down argument against a (real) God, there are many other things we do accept exist on a daily basis, without evidence in our personal experience.

Places you've never visited

People you've never met

The reasons we accept their existence (usually without question) appear to be:-


Fit with other knowledge

Lack of motive to query

Cost incurred by querying (ie looking foolish or eccentric)

These reasons may explain why the idea of a 'real' God, at least, is less and less acceptable to the population at large, that is:

Authority in general does not support the idea; religious authority no longer holds wide sway

Lack of fit with other knowledge, especially with what is understood (often falsely) about science
Plenty of motive to query - i.e. fashion, conformity, educated consensus (to suggest a rising scale of motive)

No cost incurred by querying

Returning to the overall theme, really, my underlying question - is religion really a set of metaphors? we are left with the puzzle of why the idea of a non-real God should be so scandalising to tradition, and generally so difficult to grasp, when non-realism is accepted all around us. Whether in memorials, theatre, literature, television, comics, royalty or celebrity stars, everyone accepts that there is an aspect of non-realism in the persons represented. The notion itself - non-realism - is accepted and understood, even if not consciously. If there is a challenge, it is done in order to explore and play on the real/non-real boundary - or, to tease other people's lines of respect (pulling their legs!).