The claim that religion is metaphor is not a claim that there is no underlying truth; it is a reminder that the truth we proclaim through metaphor is imperfectly known. As such, it stakes out an important middle ground in the question of what we can know.

There are those who argue that language should be used only to make objective statements about objective realities and truths. These objectivists believe that using metaphor is using words in their “improper senses” to stir emotions and, therefore, leads “away from truth and toward illusion.”[1] Their belief is built on the idea that there is an objective reality independent of humanity that can be known, an idea that can be comforting in an uncertain world.

Screen cap from the X-Files reading "The Truth is Out There"

We’re with you, Muldur and Scully

On the other side of the issue are the subjectivists, who argue that truth depends entirely on one’s own perspective. It is an idea found at the heart of post-modernism, known for many things, but in the arena of philosophy and religion primarily known for one basic tenet: there is no absolute truth. It is not simply a rejection of the medieval idea that truth came through divine revelation, or the modern idea that truth was known through human reason; it rejects the idea that there is an absolute truth at all.[*]

Between these two, metaphor offers a middle ground. Lakoff and Johnson see the use of metaphor as neither an objective nor a subjective kind of rationality, but as an imaginative rationality. Metaphor uses one of the most important tools that we have for trying to “comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.” In this way, metaphor does not need to deny the existence of truth, but it accommodates our inability to perfectly know what the truth is.[2]

The use of metaphor doesn’t mean that there is no objective truth. It means that truth has to be conveyed in ways that people can relate to and understand. And in order to do that, the truth has to be expressed in ways that appeal to ordinary human experience—through metaphor. Because it is impossible to separate metaphor from our experience of the world, we will never have certainty as to what that objective truth is. That is, the truth will always be expressed in terms that come from our experience—not from some objective reality.

Is there an ultimate truth? I like to think that there is. Of course, I cannot be certain that there is. I’m not alone in that; indeed, mathematicians and scientists and theologians have spent their lives looking for that ultimate truth, convinced that it exists. I will admit this: the post-modernists are right in saying that human beings will never know this ultimate truth with certainty. The statement that there is no absolute truth may not be true as a matter of ontology—that is, as a matter of the existence of things[†]—but it is certainly correct as a matter of epistemology—that is, what can be known. The truth is out there; but so long as we’re using metaphors to describe the ultimate reality of things, we will never be able to claim to have captured it perfectly.

Our understanding may be incomplete, our knowledge lacking. We may never be able to comprehend with fullness the nature of ultimate reality, and the metaphors that we use to talk about that ultimate truth are not the same as the truths they represent. But they are pointers toward that truth, and, in that capacity, they have great value to us.



[*] It has been pointed out, of course, that the statement “There is no absolute truth” is itself a statement of absolute truth. It’s an inherent contradiction that might show a fatal overreach in this approach of post-modernist philosophy.

[†] As noted above in Chapter 16, however, there are those who argue that quantum uncertainty isn’t just an epistemological phenomenon, it’s ontological.

[1] Lakoff and Johnson, 186-88.

[2] Ibid., 193.