Metaphors have an important primary place in our understanding of the physical world—but they have an even more important spiritual role.
In all spiritual things—which after all describe the numinous world and the non-physical realm—metaphors and other kinds of abstract thought teach us how to see beyond the literal.
We can hardly discuss the use of the metaphorical process as it relates to religion without mentioning this vital asset of any metaphor: it is a safeguard against literalism and hence against imitation and dogmatism.
For example, when Christ states that he is the “bread of life,” he means something positive by it, that he is valuable, essential, a source of sustenance, of spiritual nourishment. Yet there is no single “correct” meaning or translation of this metaphorical equation. But if we accept the statement literally at face value, if we fail to realize that Christ’s statement is metaphorical, we are forced to conclude that Christ was a loaf of bread.
Such a conclusion should cause those who claim that scripture should be accepted literally to re-consider their assertion.
Abstract Thought: What Makes Us Human
Perhaps the most important value of the metaphorical process is its function in human development. Without the capacity for analogical thinking, humankind would not be able to transcend the physical world, even for a moment, because in our physical experience abstract thought is impossible without the use of a referent or analogy. For example, to discuss or comprehend spiritual qualities, we must first relate these ephemeral realities to concrete examples we have experienced. This essential need for using the analogical process to understand abstraction is expressed by Abdu’l-Baha when he explained that:
… human knowledge is of two kinds.
One is the knowledge acquired through the senses. That which the eye, the ear, or the senses of smell, taste, or touch can perceive is called “sensible.”…
The other kind of human knowledge is that of intelligible things; that is, it consists of intelligible realities which have no outward form or place and which are not sensible. For example, the power of the mind is not sensible, nor are any of the human attributes: These are intelligible realities. Love, likewise, is an intelligible and not a sensible reality …
But when you undertake to express these intelligible realities, you have no recourse but to cast them in the mould of the sensible, for outwardly there is nothing beyond the sensible. Thus, when you wish to describe the reality of the spirit and its conditions and degrees, you are obliged to describe them in terms of sensible things, since outwardly there exists nothing but the sensible. For example, grief and happiness are intelligible things, but when you wish to express these spiritual conditions you say, “My heart became heavy”, or “My heart was uplifted”, although one’s heart is not literally made heavy or lifted up. Rather, it is a spiritual or intelligible condition, the expression of which requires the use of sensible terms. Another example is when you say, “So-and-so has greatly advanced”, although he has remained in the same place, or “So-and-so has a high position”, whereas, like everyone else, he continues to walk upon the earth. This elevation and advancement are spiritual conditions and intelligible realities, but to express them you must use sensible terms, since outwardly there is nothing beyond the sensible.
To cite another example, knowledge is figuratively described as light, and ignorance as darkness. But reflect: Is knowledge sensible light or ignorance sensible darkness? Certainly not. These are only intelligible conditions, but when you wish to express them outwardly you call knowledge light and ignorance darkness … – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 93-95.
This metaphorical process, then, together with the faculty for inductive logic, enables us to pass beyond the Pavlovian or Skinnerian reflex in order that we might conceptualize more deeply about ourselves and about the world around us.
Metaphors allow us to go beyond the literal and expand our understanding past the physical realities we encounter every day.