Let us imagine two people are having a conversation about love. The first one says, “Love is tumbling headlong through a field of fragrant wildflowers.”
“No it isn’t, you fool!” shouts the second. “Love is being drunk on the sweetest wine!”
To us, this seems a preposterous situation because there is no need to denounce one metaphor in favor of another. Both can be true simultaneously.
In fact, the only way the above conversation makes sense is if neither speaker realized that they were using metaphors. That is, if each believed themselves to be speaking in literal truths.
But why on earth would two individuals believe themselves to be speaking literal truths when using such potent metaphors? For the same reason that people speaking religious truths imagine themselves to be speaking literal truths despite their own use of powerful metaphors: the desire to be certain.
The theologian and religious philosopher Paul Tillich argued that there was something in us that resisted the attempt to interpret symbols as symbols, something that was not comfortable admitting that religion employed metaphor.
Perhaps it’s because we fear that doing so makes religion less true, less convincing, less certain. Symbols and metaphors—as pointers beyond themselves—admit the uncertainty of a religious claim. If we were to be comfortable with symbol and metaphor, we’d have to be comfortable with uncertainty. And so, in order to maximize certainty and retreat from the uncertainty of symbols, many people retreat into literalism, taking all the metaphors at face value.
This certainty has consequences for us and for our ability to build meaningful diverse community. For when we insist on a certainty—a certainty that, as The Certainty of Uncertainty demonstrates, is impossible to find—we are less likely to admit that our own language is metaphorical, and thus, uncertain.
And so it is that we are more inclined to see other points of view as competing truth claims rather than as alternative metaphors for the same underlying mystery. We are more inclined toward the idea that in order for our claims to be true, other claims must be false.
When we embrace uncertainty, metaphor, and doubt, we not only embrace the reality that the certainty we seek cannot be found, but we also embrace a way that allows us to build constructive and meaningful relationships in a diverse world. We are able to build a community in which love is both tumbling headlong through wildflowers and being drunk on the sweetest wine.
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