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Greg Brothers is an Adventist pastor in Oregon.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

"Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana" -- Groucho Marx.

My love is like a red, red rose.

She has aphids.

And thorns.

And every now and then, we have to spray her with sulfur; otherwise, she gets that “black spot” fungus-thingy that makes her leaves turn yellow and fall off.

And if you think this particular metaphor is getting way out of hand, then you’ve just learned something important about this week’s Sabbath School lesson.

None of us know God as He really is, after all – das Ding an sich is beyond our understanding. So we use metaphors. We use analogies. We compare the God whom we cannot see or hear or touch with something we can.

“God is our Father,” we say – and no, that doesn’t mean he has XY chromosomes. Or that He likes to watch football on Sunday afternoons. Or that He is married to God the Mother (which is a perfectly obvious extension of this particular metaphor, but certainly not orthodox theology). No, we mean that God cares for us in much the same way as does an (idealized) father . . . and if your father was an abusive brute, then you’re perfectly free to go and find another metaphor.

In short, every metaphor has its limits; every time we say God is like something, we need to add, “but not really.”

When the Bible says that the Holy Spirit “descended on Jesus like a dove,” for instance, it’s talking about the relationship of Jesus to God’s Spirit – that the Spirit “descended” (i.e. God took the initiative) like a dove (i.e. gently, as opposed to falling on him like a ton of bricks).

And yes, I know this week’s lesson is happy to push this metaphor even further – that the Spirit doesn’t just descend like a dove, but it is really, really like a dove in many important aspects of its character – but that way lies madness. The next thing you know, you’re going to be drawing great spiritual lessons out of the fact that doves have feathers, and they live in flocks, and they bear exceedingly ugly young.

I mean, really – have you ever seen a squab?

Likewise, you can talk about the Spirit as light. As fire. As water. As oil. As breath or wind – and it’s worth remembering that even the idea of God’s Spirit as a “spirit” (or “breath” or “wind”) is a figure of speech – but remember: there’s only so much you can do with any one of these metaphors.

And in that respect, a metaphor is just like a rose.

Except, of course, when it is not.

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