The hidden scandal of the historical church has been exposed: The world no longer accepts the proofs of our truth or the evidence of our doctrines.

What else proves a greater threat? Urgently, church leaders must find far more convincing certainties—far more valid signs and tests of Truth. And, though many believers certify "truth" by the "experience" of their faith, they must also learn to "test" those signs.

Yet, most of us fail to recognize even the "signs" of Truth—let alone "test" them. So the previous article, "Signs of Truth, Part One", began this series.

In Part One, we described how the "experience" of Truth fulfills what great thinkers mean by truth and what great believers justify as truth. In other words, direct experience has always proven a convincing expression, a valid indication of Truth. Doctrinal "truth," for example, can never replace experiencing that truth.

Unfortunately, our interpretations of experience often mislead us. They often remain untested, undiscerned, ungrounded. So the possibility of error is a necessary element of any belief—especially during today’s great historical transition.

Once again, history demands distinguishing between Spirit and "flesh"—revelation and subjectivity—godly experiences and worldly experiences. Once again, we must discern an "Otherness," an autonomous power beyond our subjectivities, beyond our categories and concepts, and beyond the inventions of our minds. Once again, we must risk unique visions never known, shifts in perspective never guessed, prophetic revelations never figured out, and redescriptions of the world never proclaimed.

And, contrary to opinion, this journey begins with "bodily wisdom," "embodied emotions," or "felt meanings." For truth is increasingly embodied, and this fact promises a profound shift in how we search for Truth. Even "respectable thinking"—"pure" science and "objective" scholarship—requires the experience of the body.

Of course, this "bodily wisdom" is not the usual bogus bliss or a surrogate spirituality that pervades the church. It is not, for example, the passion of self-interest, self-centeredness, self-preservation, or self-pleasure (even though "religious"). It is not the natural instinct of animal-like longings (even though "sophisticated"). It is not a knee-jerk response to the environment or to the manipulation of others. Neither is it mere subjectivity or—to the other extreme—the cold abstractions of philosophical or psychological "ideas."

Prophetic or spiritual passion differs from such fraudulent feeling—from such turned-in soulishness. After all, only "Spirit gives birth to spirit." In other words, spiritual emotions are inspired—they are evoked aesthetically (much the way we experience beauty). They mediate between our sensual life and our spiritual life. And, finally, they transcend the world.

But the facts of our feelings lead us toward still another "sign" of Truth, for the language of emotion is metaphor, and the language of metaphor is emotion. So now—in Part Two of this series—we will explore "metaphor"as a "sign of Truth" and begin by recognizing its "signs."

Rich Ambiguities

When things are rich in ambiguity, enigma, and paradox, know that metaphor is nearby. When things are compared—without common sense—to other things, know that metaphor lurks about. When the revelation of the "real" comes from things not real, know that metaphor hides in disguise.

When the known and the unknown combine in impossible ways, know that a certain resonance bounces off things we can’t see. When strange tensions between opposing forces crack our credibility, know that these tensions birth hidden Truths. When simple metaphors pile on top of each other in fathomless complexity, know that the invisible is becoming visible.

These tensions resemble a violin string that produces a meaningful melody because it is fastened hard at opposite ends. Or, it is like a bow that propels its intentional arrow because of the tautness between the bow’s opposing poles.

We’ve known these contradictions. We’ve felt, for example, the secret grief of the happy clown. We’ve sensed Negro spirituals that sing of joy and sorrow at the same time. We’ve tasted, simultaneously, the sweetness and sacrifice at our daughters’ weddings. And, we’ve heard about the tragic cross and the triumphant grave in the same moment.

In such moments, unbearable ugliness is not without the atonement of overpowering beauty. And worldly tragedy is not without otherworldly triumph.

So seeing metaphor is surely a sign.

But not all metaphors serve Truth. With some metaphors, truth is not even an issue. Simple metaphors, everyday conventions, or common ideas—like a "warm" welcome, a "big" day, or a "close" friend—have long lost their metaphoric power. And, we seldom find truth in the metaphors of a passing culture where novelty, fad, style, taste, and decor are quickly consumed and soon forgotten. Nor will we find signs of Truth in the metaphors of skilled inventions—the colorful idioms, rhetorical flourish, and figures of speech of our fleshly cleverness.

So we must challenge the difference between surface metaphor and prophetic metaphor, between a tool of trade and a talisman of transcendence.

"The Whole Fabric"

We have little choice in the matter.

Our culture harbors the mistaken notion that metaphor belongs only to poets. But few realize we actually exist in metaphor! Science has discovered, for example, "that most human thought is metaphorical."1 It is one of the most powerful influences in our daily lives. It plays an enormous role in shaping our everyday understanding of everyday events.2

Though we also pursue "literal" ideas, metaphor remains integral to all language. A handful of basic metaphors, as example, underlie tens of thousands of words in every language.3 Indeed, metaphor is indispensable to our understanding of language. And, most of the time, we even reason metaphorically! "Without metaphor," in fact, "abstract thought is virtually impossible."4

After all, metaphor holds "the whole fabric of mental interconnections" together.5

So it’s no surprise our metaphors also seek deeper levels of meaning. After all, meaning is the very purpose of metaphor. "Metaphor is about life—our life."6 And, in our search for greater Truths, we simply push beyond common images to more complex inferences—we reach past basic metaphors to prophetic metaphors.

In the metaphor, "Life is a journey," for example, we transfer all the rich inferences of journeys to the most intimate events of life. Without metaphor, in fact, we can’t even begin to understand the more profound implications of subjects like "life," "death," or "time."

Clearly, that’s the reason metaphor remains basic to all religious thought. That’s why metaphor is becoming an irreplaceable sign in postmodern theology. And, this explains, as well, why metaphor has always been, and always will be, one of the main mediums of spiritual events.

Indeed, metaphor may be the primary "Presence" carrier—the principal Epiphany of reality.

It’s been that way since the beginning. Until modern times, metaphor was seldom considered "unnecessary." In fact, it was the only way to truly sense ultimate reality. All early visionaries—who pronounced their earth-changing revelations for future generations—moved in metaphor. That’s why metaphor served and continues to serve as the medium of biblical Truth—eternally forming and informing our belief.

More significant still, metaphor is an "incarnational" language. In other words, it is the "Word made flesh." It grounds spiritual realities in bodily form. Jesus, as example, proved the ultimate metaphor. "He is the exact likeness of the unseen God [the visible representation of the invisible]."7

In short, if we lose metaphor, we have lost Truth.

An Autonomous Source

And, we will lose it if we fail to recognize it. So we must discern the difference between simple metaphors and significant metaphors—between common metaphors and complex metaphors—between "dead" metaphors and prophetic metaphors—between metaphors of expediency and metaphors of epiphany.

Here’s how:

We trace the power in a metaphor—either to itself or to something other than itself. This is essential, for only a prophetic metaphor transcends itself. Only a prophetic metaphor truly passes outside itself, points beyond itself, speaks beyond itself. Its meaning, in other words, exceeds its medium. We realize truth through it, but not in it. It represents something "not there."

It is "virtual," "vicarious."

Prophetic metaphor differs from everyday metaphor because it represents a force independent of the metaphor—an autonomous Source, full of tension and tendency. Poets don’t create metaphors, for example, metaphors create poets.

We know this removed reality by the shock, the surprise, or the stunned recognition that demands our attention and requires our response. Often, prophetic metaphors create these reactions repeatedly. And, in such moments, the familiar becomes strange and the strange becomes familiar.

Finally, we know the metaphor’s hidden, autonomous power by the constraints it places on its own message. Its message does not arrive by chance, it does not spin aimless fantasies in the blue, it does not subject itself to wild subjectivity. We may create or interpret many metaphors, but finally, their messages remain independent of our whimsical intention.

They have their own way of being.

They move, for example, with both compelling and opposing forces. On one hand, metaphoric Truth flows without resistance when we welcome its persuasive power—when we are inspired, in other words. On the other hand, metaphor resists arbitrary interpretations. To illustrate, a story can’t be argued with or dismissed like an idea. And, it’s hard for the teller of a story to twist it totally out of shape.

In other words, metaphor controls its own interpretation. It permits some, but not just any, variation. It takes on many forms and lends itself to many interpretations, but—unless completely destroyed—it never loses its intended purpose.

So we recognize the signs of prophetic metaphor when we also recognize the force and control of its message.


Once again, we exist in metaphor. Metaphor meets us where we are. Indeed, God is more real in metaphor than in any theology or doctrine. And, for that reason, future artists will become theologians and future theologians will become artists in a new journey toward Truth.

As we increasingly weave the metaphoric web in which we are embedded, we will increasingly witness signs of Truth. The future belongs to the language of metaphor—or more to the point, to the Presence of the Other. And, as that Presence—that Word—becomes "flesh," Christ returns to His rightful place in our postmodern world.

© 2010 Thomas Hohstadt


1. Lakoff and Johnson, quoted in Fritjof Capra, The Hidden Connections: Integrating the Biological, Cognitive, and Social Dimensions of Life into a Science of Sustainability (New York: Doubleday, 2002) p. 63.

2. George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 15, 51.

3. Stephen Pinker, How the Mind Works (London: The Softback Preview, 1997) p. 355. See also www.cleanlanguage.co.uk

4. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999) pp. 58, 59.

5. Gregory Bateson, quoted in Fritjof Capra, Uncommon Wisdom: Conversations with remarkable people (New York: Bantam, 1988) pp 76,77. See also www.cleanlanguage.co.uk

6. Lewis Edwin Hahn, Editor, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) p. 271.

7. Colossians 1:15, AMP.

Future Church Administrator