Metaphors are fun to play around with. Over on my other blog, I recently called the Oregon city where I live "a blandburger sandwiched between spicy Portland and Eugene."
But Salem isn't really food.
It's what it is: people, places, buildings, roads, parks, culture (and the lack thereof), plus so much else immediately cognizable stuff. Metaphors are a big step removed from the sort of reality that doesn't depend upon mentally connecting this, such as Salem, with that, such as the innards of a sandwich.
I'm plugging away on reading a big thick book, "Philosophy in the Flesh," that I've previously blogged about here, here, and here. It's fairly dense, being more of a textbook than a title aimed at a general readership.
The main point of the authors, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, is that concepts derived from bodily metaphors provide much, if not most, of the foundation for how we view the world.
Consider the notion of a spiritual or moral "path." Or a "way." This is a notion that is rooted in how our bodies move along from place to place. When this becomes a well-travelled route, it's called a path.
Yet in the context of a religious, spiritual, mystical, or philosophical practice -- a way of life -- the metaphor of being on a path can be seen for what it is: an abstraction removed from here-and-now reality.
Meaning, our bodies do indeed move along physical paths. However, our psyches only metaphorically engage in practices that the human mind views as akin to bodily movement.
In their chapter on Morality, Lakoff and Johnson talk about this in a fashion that applies equally to the metaphor of spiritual progress being along a "path."
There is nothing inherently metaphoric about such claims of basic experiential morality as "Health is good," "It is better to be cared for than uncared for," "Everyone ought to be protected from physical harm," and "It is good to be loved."
However, as soon as we develop such claims into a full-fledged human morallity, we find that virtually all of our abstract moral concepts -- justice, rights, empathy, nurturance, strength, uprightness, and so forth -- are defined by metaphors.
That is why there is no ethical system that is not metaphorical. We understand our experience via these conceptual metaphors, we reason according to their metaphorical logic, and we make judgments on the basis of the metaphors. This is what we mean when we say that morality is metaphoric.
...There is no set of pure moral concepts that could be understood "in themselves" or "on their own terms." Instead, we understand morality via mappings of structures from other aspects and domains of our experience: wealth, balance, order, boundaries, light/dark, beauty, strength, and so on.
If our moral concepts are metaphorical, then their structure and logic come primarily from the source domains that ground those metaphors...and we have seen how these source domains are tied up with our basic bodily well-being.
Same with religion, spirituality, and mysticism. These areas of human culture supposedly deal with experiential domains beyond the physical, or at least on the ethereal side of materiality.
Yet the ways people think about "other-worldly" subjects are decidedly bodily. For example:
-- On the HBO series, "Big Love," which is about a polygamist Mormon family, the main characters are always talking what Holy Father wants them to do, and what pleases Holy Father.
This is an example of how religions metaphorically map familiar family relationships onto how people supposedly are supposed to relate with God. Likewise, Jesus is considered to be the loving and loyal Son of God, and the Virgin Mary is a nurturing mother figure.
-- Fairly frequently I've been asked by members of the India-based spiritual organization to which I used to belong, "Have you left the Path?" I'm never sure how to respond to that question.
What path? Point to it.
I no longer believe in the metaphorical concept of a path back to God or ultimate reality. That's an abstraction, a human idea. There's no evidence that such a path actually exists between two places, one worldly and one spiritual.
Many people simply have gotten accustomed to conceiving of life as a journey along a well-defined route that can be discerned by reading holy books, having faith in the guidance of gurus, and other means.
-- Similarly, true believers speak of a "fall." A fall from grace. A fallen soul. Falling off the path. But where is the real-world topography which, outside of metaphor, would cause a person to lose his or her balance and descend from a higher to a lower state?
I could offer more examples, but hopefully you've gotten the point.
If we carefully attend to how we speak about religion, spirituality, and mysticism, the conclusions Lakoff and Johnson perusasively lay out in "Philosophy in the Flesh" will become clear.
Because we are physical beings and all of our experience is processed by the physical brain, humans naturally use bodily metaphors to conceptualize more abstract subjects. Viewing God as our father and spirituality as a path are two ways, among many, that this occurs.
Metaphors can be useful. However, they need to be seen for what they are: mappings of one realm of reality onto another realm. Maps aren't the actual territory. Almost certainly there isn't a father God, nor is there a spiritual path.