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What happens when we fail to recognize the metaphors in religion?
One example of the disastrous results of not recognizing the metaphorical process at work in the nature of God’s messengers is evident in the far-reaching effects of the vote taken at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The followers of Athanasius, an Egyptian theologian and ecclesiastical statesman, asserted that the tenor and the vehicle are one—that Christ and God are the same essence. The followers of Arius, a Christian priest of Alexandria, believed Christ is essentially inferior to God and was sent to do God’s bidding.
Subsequent to heated debate, a ballot was cast—and Arius lost.
The institution of the church sanctioned the theology of Athanasius, condemned as heresy the views of Arius, and effectively severed itself from Christ’s fundamental teaching for all time. As Muhammad pointed out to the Christians three hundred years later, to equate Christ with God is to add gods to God—in effect, to believe in more than one God as did the idolaters of Muhammad’s day:
Infidels now are they who say, “God is the Messiah, Son of Mary;” for the Messiah said, “O children of Israel! worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever shall join other gods with God, God shall forbid him the Garden, and his abode shall be the Fire; and the wicked shall have no helpers. – Qur’an 5:76.
The use of metaphor is also the key to unlocking the meaning of the physical acts of the messengers, the manifestations of God. Since none of the prophets aspires to physical authority or dominion, any expression of physical power by them clearly has limited importance. In healing the sick, Christ was not attempting to rid the land of disease or to demonstrate an innovative medical technique. Abdu’l-Baha explains that the miraculous acts of God’s messengers have as their primary purpose the metaphorical or analogical dramatization of a spiritual truth:
These outward miracles are of no importance to the followers of truth. For example, if a blind man is made to see, in the end he will again lose his sight, for he will die and be deprived of all his senses and faculties. Thus, causing the blind to see is of no lasting importance, since the faculty of sight is bound to be lost again in the end. And if a dead body be revived, what is gained thereby, since it must die again? What is important is to bestow true insight and everlasting life, that is, a spiritual and divine life …
Consider that Christ reckoned as dead those who were nonetheless outwardly and physically alive; for true life is life eternal and true existence is spiritual existence. Thus if the Sacred Scriptures speak of raising the dead, the meaning is that they attained everlasting life; if they say that one who was blind was made to see, the meaning of this seeing is true insight; if they say that one who was deaf was made to hear, the meaning is that he acquired an inner ear and attained spiritual hearing. …
Our meaning is not that the Manifestations of God are unable to perform miracles, for this indeed lies within Their power. But that which is of import and consequence in Their eyes is inner sight, spiritual hearing and eternal life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 114-115.
There is also an obvious temptation on the part of the followers of a manifestation of God to believe in him or to worship him because of what they perceive to be impressive or miraculous physical deeds. When they do so, they perceive him as a figure of temporal power instead of spiritual authority. It is understandably easier for some followers to become attracted to the vehicle—the personalities of the manifestations or the literal acts They perform—than to recognize the similarity between these vehicles and the spiritual forces and attributes they metaphorize for us.
One of the clearest examples of such a mistaken perception, besides the almost inevitable attachment to the physical person of the messenger, is the incident of Christ’s feeding of the five thousand. After he performed the miracle of feeding the masses with only five barley loaves and two fishes, the people suddenly became assured that he was indeed a prophet. When Christ saw that they wanted to take him by force and make him king, he fled to the hills. He explained the reason for his action to his disciples the next day when they found him on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.
When the people failed to understand the metaphorical meaning or inner significance of Christ’s act and wanted to become his followers because of the miracle he seemed to have performed, he became disconsolate and left them. The importance he placed on their grasping the “inner” significance of his physical actions is further evident in the patience with which he continued his explanation:
Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” – John 6:31-35.
If we think that Christ belabors the imagery of the bread from heaven, we are wrong. Even when he repeats and extends the conceit, the Jews do not appreciate the metaphorical intent of his actions or of his words:
I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” – John 6:51-52.
Having been raised in a legalistic religious tradition, many Jews had difficulty understanding teachings that were communicated through metaphor, even though their own teachings and rituals had their origin in the symbolic or metaphorical expression of spiritual concepts.
Thus, in a very real sense the actions and teaching methods of Christ were precisely aimed at breaking through the literalism of his primary audience, the Jewish people. He was teaching them to think “spiritually” or metaphorically, to sense the inner significance of his words and their own scripture, as well as the meaning underlying the outer forms of their religious practices. For example, one of the most powerful symbolic acts Christ performed became for Christians the most important sacrament, the sacrament of the Eucharist.
As one of his last actions among his disciples, Christ once again employed the metaphor or symbol of nourishment when he spoke of the wine and the bread imagery at the Last Supper:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” – Mathew 26:26-28.
In this case, a verbal metaphor was not sufficient. Christ had his own disciples act out the metaphor. And yet, despite the clarity of this teaching exercise, the Christian church in the thirteenth century adopted the doctrine of transubstantiation—the belief that the wine and bread when blessed by the priest literally become the blood and body of Christ (though there are variations on how this doctrine is explained).