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Beyond Literal Truth and Mere Metaphor – September 2012

Question: Is there a middle path between seeing process theology as literal truth and mere metaphor?

Publication Month: September 2012

This question rightly points to the wide range of positions of process thinkers. In an earlier generation Charles Hartshorne sometimes said that some key terms apply literally to God and only metaphorically to human beings! An example is “knows.” When we say that God “knows,” we speak literally. When we say that we “know,” we do not. That is because the idea of knowing is such that what is known cannot be otherwise than as it is known. Human “knowing” does not guarantee that reality is as we “know” it. Only God’s “knowing” can do that. Statements like this must not be taken to mean that we “know” that God “knows.” The point is only that our idea of “knowing” could only fully, that is literally, apply to God.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bernard Meland was skeptical of rational argumentation and thought. He was interested in language and culture in ways that were much more historicist. Images played for him a larger role than concepts. The “truth” he wanted to evoke was not primarily propositional.

Whitehead’s understanding of thought and language locate him in a quite different position from either of these. He would never claim strict “literalness.” He speaks of “the fallacy of the perfect dictionary.” We can never nail down the exact meaning of any word. We can define words only in terms of other words, which can only be defined in terms of other words.

But this inherent limitation does not lead him to abandon efforts to achieve such precision as is possible. We use language to express our ideas with the hope that it will evoke similar ideas in the hearer or reader. In ongoing discussion it is often possible to increase the chance that the two discussants will focus on the same idea. Whitehead develops his understanding of “ideas” in terms of “propositions,” which he theorizes exist objectively to human beings.  

He calls his philosophy “speculative,” and explains this in terms of the formulation and testing of theories. This is an extension to philosophy of the way science works. That a theory survives a test does not make it indisputably true, but if it survives many tests, it should become part of the system of thought on the basis of which further work is done. It deserves “belief,” although no belief should be such as to exclude new evidence from serious consideration. It is what Hartshorne would call human “knowledge.” It does not have the character of the “knowledge” that can be posited of God.

The question is about “process theology,” and it is with respect to theories about God that our intellectual culture is particularly likely to emphasize that we are limited to metaphors. Often people contrast the literalness and certainty of the natural sciences with the metaphorical character of any language about God.  Even process theologians sometimes do this, especially when they are trying to establish their credibility in the larger community.

However, this is not the picture we get from Whitehead. For him the reality of the realm of potentiality is hardly more disputable than that of the realm of actuality, and its mode of existence is as “the Primordial Nature of God.” “God” appears often in Process and Reality in the most rigorous and technical parts of the book. The statements made there, as elsewhere, are all hypotheses, just like the statements about human beings and the physical environment. None are strictly “literal,” but they are an integral part of his philosophical system.

There are other process thinkers who do not make much of a realm of potentiality and especially of the “eternal objects” that populate it in Whitehead’s system. I am not here arguing that Whitehead is correct or that all process theologians should follow him. But I am saying that this most important contributor to process theology offers a way of talking about God that does not claim to be literal, but is as straightforward and as integral to his theory as is anything else. God is not for him a metaphorical add-on to a more exact account of other things.

On the other hand, Whitehead also develops ideas about God that are not so integral to his theory. He thinks of these as being the ones of mostly existential or religious importance. This is where we locate his doctrine of the Consequent Nature of God.

It would be a mistake to regard this doctrine as simply an add-on for the sake of meeting religious needs. There is a fairly tight argument that God as an actual entity (required for the Primordial Nature’s functioning) also has a physical pole. But Whitehead is explicit that what he goes on to say about the physical pole is less testable than most of his speculations and less integral to the system as a whole. That does not make it metaphorical, but because the primary interest in the physical pole of God, or the Consequent Nature, is existential or religious, Whitehead sometimes moves intentionally into metaphorical language here.

In short, the common distinction between literal and exact natural science, on the one hand, and metaphorical God-talk is very far from Whitehead’s approach. For him, some theories are more tightly integrated into the overall speculative philosophy than others. These less essential theories include some about God. Some of these theories are particularly important existentially and religiously. To enhance their effects, metaphorical language is useful.  

There is, however, another sense in which much of our ordinary language, and certainly our language about God, is metaphorical. My dictionary defines “metaphor” as “a figure of speech in which a term is transferred from the object it ordinarily designates to an object it may designate by implicit comparison or analogy.” We could well say that all language about God that uses terms normally used about people is “metaphorical.” This would not exclude it also being quite precise and accurate.

Indeed, any statement about the reality of anything other than our own individual experience, that is about what things are in and for themselves rather than about how they appear to us, could be regarded as metaphorical. I have a direct experience of being pleased or being fond of someone. When I say of someone else that she is pleased or fond of someone, I am transferring this language from what I know to another whose feelings I can only surmise.

Since attributing to other people feelings like our own is what we ordinarily do, calling it metaphorical would strain that term. In ordinary usage we are likely to use similar language also about our pets and even animals in a zoo. Indeed, there is no clear line between things to which we ordinarily attribute pleasure and fondness and things to which such attribution is extraordinary. Nevertheless, Whitehead’s attribution of “feeling” to all individual actual things is clearly extraordinary. He holds that a quantum event “feels” other quantum events.

This certainly moves in the direction of metaphor. However, it does not quite fit the definition, since metaphor is “implicit” comparison. Whitehead makes the comparison explicit. A feeling, for him, transfers something that exists independently of an occasion of experience into that occasion with some emotional tone. This happens in human experience. Whitehead’s hypothesis is that it happens in the concrescence of every actual entity.

“Every actual entity” includes God. We must recognize that our understanding of what occurs in quantum events is very limited indeed and additionally that our understanding of what happens in the divine event is even more limited. The idea of “metaphor” can be broadened a little and then used to describe this kind of speculative philosophy.

 I hope it is clear that Whitehead’s own understanding of his talk about God is far removed from both “literal” and “metaphorical” language in the way those terms are usually understood. What I most want to emphasize, however, is that for him talk of God is not in a different category from talk about galaxies, nations, other people, mice, and bacteria. There are problems within the discourses of all these topics. Both with regard to God and to all these other topics, we strive for precision, but never achieve it. We strive for certainty, but never achieve that either. We live and act at best only on inexact insights and high probabilities.

The existential and religious importance of what we say about God does introduce questions that are much less based in evidence in most of our talk about other topics. In a quite straightforward sense, metaphor rightly plays a large role when these are the central concerns. When we speak metaphorically, we should make it clear that we are doing so. But we should also be clear when we are describing God in as straightforward a manner as we can and claiming for the propositions we are uttering considerable probability of correspondence with reality.