by Akim Reinhardt
I don’t believe in gods. I believe in metaphors. Once upon a time, people all around the world had many gods, lots of metaphors for the experiences of their lives. And by sacrificing or praying to each god, they acknowledged the forces that shaped their existence. Gods of luck, of thunder, of death, of water, of fertility, of the sun, of air, and on and on and on, covering every nuance of human perception.
From the ancient Mediterranean, the Greek metaphors are most familiar to us today. Zeus represented the patriarchy, Apollo the sun, Aphrodite love, Artemis nature, Demeter the harvest, Hera envy, Athena wisdom, Hades death, Poseidon the seas, Aries war, and so on. Each one of them reflected the universal human values that people crave to control, understand, and express. In choosing a patron god, one could reflect themselves as they were or whom they wished to be. In fearing another god, one could find a mechanism for coping with life’s scary uncertainties and mournful inevitabilities. And through offerings to various gods, one could hope to raise into being the metaphors that might shape their destiny.
But a revolution was already brewing. Several related tribes of Middle Eastern herdsmen did something radical about 4,000 years ago. They came together and combined all of their metaphors into a single god. For them there would no longer be a pallet of distinct emotions. Instead, they would all be wrapped up into one glorious rainbow. These people would give their allegiance to a single, monotheistic metaphor, one god to define the full extent of the human experience.
It was a big change and a tall order. There were some hiccups. One side effect was that their god showed himself to be rather schizophrenic. At one minute he would be a kind and loving god. The next he would be full of wrath and vengeance. Very often, he would be silent, as if saying too many things at once were best countered by saying nothing at all.
But despite his inconsistencies, the new one god would endure. Because in its totality, this combination of all metaphors produced a new single metaphor: the vast unknown.
The new god resided not just on a mountain or in a temple, but everywhere at all times. He was omnipresent. The new god understood not just a specific facet of humanity, he knew them all. He was omniscient. And the new god’s responses were not limited to select arrows in a quiver, he could do anything. He was omnipotent. He was the creator. He was the giver of life. He was the taker of life. He was the source of the afterlife. He had made the world, and he might even end it. He was responsible for starting and ending everything. He was the Great Unknown. And though you could never really know him, you could rest assured that he knew absolutely everything about you. And by this formula he filled the needs provided by every other god. He was the ultimate confidant. This god was the metaphor of a complete life. This metaphor was the life-giving father who loved you very much, but demanded your unquestioning obedience, offering every reward and issuing every punishment in both life and death.
For a long time, these herdsmen were the only people with a single metaphor. Even long after they settled down and added agriculture to their daily routine, they lingered in the world as the sole people with a single, great, encompassing metaphor, while others continued to divide and pick and choose as situations and yearnings and fears dictated. The one metaphor was at times jealous and insecure, demanding full obedience, punishing those who strayed, berating other metaphors, and occasionally urging its followers to eradicate the competition.
The one new metaphor stood alone, like an island amid the polytheistic sea, threatened by washing waves and battering winds. But it persisted, and it did so in part because it could appeal to everyone. Each person who followed had their perfect, custom fit metaphor. The single metaphor represented whatever aspects of life and death concerned you, so followers need not seek solace and guidance from any others.
But metaphors can be very powerful. And after you create them you cannot always maintain your exclusive ownership. Ideas cannot be reigned in like horses or cached like gold. Once loosed in the world, a metaphor can float like air. Anyone can inhale it, make it their own. But when they exhale, you may not recognize the aroma. Yet, there is nothing you can do it about it. You may still have your metaphor, and maybe you were the first one to ever have it. But now others have it as well, and it is not exactly the same metaphor as you understand it.
One of the tribesman was named Yeshua, or Joshua in English. The Greeks would call him Jesus. Yeshua believed very deeply in the metaphor, perhaps more so than most. He worried that the conquering Romans were impeding upon the earthly realization of the metaphor, and so he spoke out. The Kingdom of God was glorious. The Kingdom of God would return to earth. The Kingdom. It would replace Caesar.
The Romans were open to letting the people of their empire celebrate whatever metaphor they liked. They were not terribly picky that way. But the Romans did not suffer insubordination. Yeshua payed the price for his devotion.
Yeshua’s deep love of the metaphor continued on after his death and his followers preached about him. In so doing, they transformed the fallen monotheist himself into a new metaphor: the Son of the Great Metaphor.
The metaphor of Yeshua was a blending of the old and the new. It harkened back to the world of many metaphors, of metaphors in the shape of people and animals, of divine metaphors that mingled with mortal men. The new believers raised their new metaphor, giving it a face and ten fingers. He looked and talked and walked the earth like a human being, just as many of the other polytheistic metaphors still did. This made the metaphor of Yeshua very appealing to those people unwilling to accept a more abstract metaphor. But the advocates of Yeshua also kept the Grand Hebraic Metaphor instead of abandoning it. The new metaphor would be the son of the One Metaphor, half-mortal and half-divine, half-alive and half-dead, half of Earth and half of Heaven, half-personified and half-abstract.
If the Father was still the abstract metaphor of everything, the Son was more focused. He was the filter through which everything was refined into one thing: Love.
The metaphor of pure love was a powerful one. Love is the emotional expression that makes a life complete. Love brings freedom. Love brings meaning. Love brings a happiness so fulfilling that it will overwhelm you, and tears will spill across your cheek. Love is what will summon the depths of our courage and weaken our knees with fear. Love is the iron core of our resolve. Love gives our lives meaning. Love is our ultimate salvation.
Love was the new metaphor to believe in. When you had love, the metaphor took the shape of Heaven. When you did not, it took the shape of Hell. After all, what is more hellish than a life without love?
This was a very attractive metaphor, and as people breathed it in and out, the air became thick with its odor. But unfortunately, it was just a metaphor. And so the world did not become encomp
assed by love. Instead of loving, more and more people merely talked about the metaphor for it. Metaphors are just words. Metaphors are empty unless you take them to heart.
Then, six centuries following the rise of the Son, the Father would show himself again. Once more, the idea of a single metaphor would inspire. The new teacher was named Mohammad. He listened to the Hebrews and said yes, there is but one metaphor. He listened to the Christians and said yes, that metaphor is Love. And furthermore, he said, there is only one way to believe in this metaphor. I know this because the metaphor has spoken to me and I will show you how. The metaphor speaks every now and then. He spoke to Abraham, to Moses, to Isaiah, and to Yeshua among others. The metaphor always speaks truly and the prophet always hears clearly, and always accurately repeats the message of the metaphor. But over time, people forget. And so the One True Metaphor will choose a new messenger to remind them. I am that new messenger. The One True Metaphor has spoken to me. Now listen. This is how to love.
The first Hebrew prophets said the Metaphor loves you.
Yeshua’s disciples said you must share the Metaphor with everyone.
Now Mohammad also offered a true message. In order to love, you must surrender yourself to love. You cannot master it. You cannot control it. You cannot put conditions upon it. You cannot ask it to treat you favorably. You cannot own it. You cannot order it. You cannot live without it. You must surrender. Surrender to love and it will set you free.
Today, these metaphors are spread far and wide across the globe and many people profess to believe them. Most people, perhaps. But me, I do not believe in metaphors. I only believe in what they stand for. I believe very deeply in love. However, I prefer to love people, not metaphors about love.
Nevertheless, I understand why many people are more comfortable with metaphors. Loving a person is very dangerous. They may not respond in kind. And there is nothing sadder than a love that does not echo. To love someone and not have them love you back is the greatest of all tragedies. This is death. You love that other creature and they love you. Then one day they are no more. You still love them very, very much. However, they can no longer love you back. They cannot do anything. They are no more.
Mommy is in a metaphor for love called Heaven
I still love mommy.
Mommy still loves you too
How can mommy still love me from heaven?
Because now mommy herself is also a metaphor for the love she gave you when she was still here to love you for real.
Life is painful. Loving a metaphor is safe. A metaphor will never deny your love. If you try really hard, you can even convince yourself that a metaphor loves you back. And a metaphor is forever. But life is fleeting and love is fragile.
I will remember the love you had for me after you are gone, and it will grant me solace in the depths of my sorrow.
Akim Reinhardt blogs regularly at The Public Professor