Can We Describe God Outside of Poetry?
Metaphor not only provides a literary form that can express this transcendence, it is also foundational in the cognitive process of understanding the transcendent. In his essay Metaphor and Learning, Petrie argues “that metaphor is one of the central ways of leaping the epistemological chasm between old knowledge and new knowledge”.
As C.S Lewis reflected; “poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible”. Indeed we must pause at this point and ask if there is any other way of effectively communicating the character and person of an eternal and holy God outside the use of metaphor?
It goes without saying that as finite, sinful beings we cannot comprehend in completeness the otherness of the one true God. We have no conceptual scheme that can accurately capture his greatness. Thus we must come to see poetry as a gift woven into our language so that we may bridge this epistemic chasm and come to a knowledge, limited as it is, of His character and personhood.
The overlaying of conceptual schemes that metaphors achieve are never precise. Yet it is this very imprecision that Jones & Wilson praise for its flexibility to ensure our language for the divine is never truncated or unnecessarily narrow.
Such an example is seen in Psalm 23. In seeking sheer precision, the poet could have recorded that ‘The Lord protests and provides”. Yet there is great significance in choosing to write;
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
By quiet waters guides me.
Craigie correctly identifies these opening verses as “pregnant with meaning”, for the metaphor works both ways between God and the poet.
It reveals a God who intimately leads his people, with clear exodus associations. As well as providing a sense of kingship, “since Near Eastern monarchs also described themselves as shepherding their people”. Whilst capturing something of the character of God it reflects the dependence and trust that exists between God and his covenant people.
Implicit to this psalm is the image of the poet as a sheep under the shepherd – completely reliant upon Him for rest (23:2), life (23:3), justice (23:3), safety (23:4) and discipline (23:5). The significance of the metaphor is its ability to express with much depth the life lived in relationship with the one true God who reaches out to his people in covenantal relationship.