Religion as Cosmic Metaphor

Leonard O’Brian
Scottsdale Community College

According to Joseph Kupfer, if someone asks why you believe in God, you should answer with a poem rather than with an argument. The suggestion seems reasonable: Art can persuade where logic fails, and the point applies to religion. A problem arises, however. Persuasion may mislead. Many a person has fallen in love, under inspiration of poetry, wine, and music; thus did love fail from the lovers’ inspired misperceptions. In religion, too, might art persuade just because—as with wine—it impairs our capacity to perceive?

Without raising this question explicitly, Kupfer addresses it in effect. There is, he thinks, a good explanation for our arriving at belief when under the influence art. Art enhances, rather than impairs, our perception. Kupfer’s reasoning concerns (1) the nature of art, (2) the nature of concepts, and (3) the nature of God. God is unique, and thus cannot be established using ordinary concepts; art does not use concepts, Kupfer claims. This freedom from concepts qualifies art as an assistant in discerning the divine. 

While the proposal has merit, it remains vague. I seek a clearer argument. First, I summarize Kupfer’s argument; second, enumerate stumbling blocks to religious belief; third, examine the nature of metaphor in poetry; finally, apply this conception of metaphor to one of the stumbling blocks. The thesis is that (A) metaphors intrinsically resemble religious claims, and that (B) this resemblance qualifies metaphors to express the nature of the divine, if there is any divinity. The paper concludes with a question: Does the resemblance also qualify metaphors to illuminate whether there is any divinity.

Kupfer’s Argument

“Art is suited to religious communication because it partakes of the transcendent. It lends itself to awareness and expression of transcendence by presenting sense qualities as organized but without a concept.”1 This argument relies on the idea that God is transcendent. God differs from the world and its inhabitants, but not in the way that, say, a president differs from the citizens or a sergeant differs from her soldiers or the most successful lawyer differs from the rest. God’s difference itself differs from all other differences. The most successful lawyer shares some properties with all the rest, for example, the possession of a law degree. God shares no properties with any things.

Kupfer emphasizes God’s uniqueness. “The ground of the existence of all particular things cannot be another thing.”2 Kupfer does not say, however, that when theologians ascribe to God transcendence, they also, almost inevitably, ascribe immanence as well. If God, in some sense, is above and beyond all things in the world, nevertheless, God is also related to this world, normally believed to be influential in it; moreover, to some limited degree, God can be described with ordinary words, as in ‘God is love’. Immanence and transcendence are in tension: To the extent that we deem God “wholly other,” God becomes distant, remote, irrelevant; on the other hand, to the extent that we claim that “God is here, now,” we reduce God to the mundane, the ordinary, the mere touch of a friend’s hand in time of need. Theologians struggle to find the proper balance.

Not considering the paradox between transcendence and immanence, Kupfer proceeds directly from the notion of transcendence itself, to the notion of concepts, then to the notion of art, and hence to the conclusion that art is distinctly suited for religious communication. Concepts, he says, group things and thereby separate some things from other things.3 The concept of table contains all the tables in the world, and thereby separates all tables from all chairs. Kupfer seems to be positing the standard principles in Logic of genus and species. A genus is a general class, a species a category within that class. Furniture is a genus relative to tables and chairs, both of which are species of furniture. Species do not overlap. No tables are chairs.

Art, Kupfer says, forms “. . . a unity but without a concept to do the unifying work.”4“In this way, art transcends our rational understanding. This is why art moves us, enchants us, even changes how we see the world, but cannot be captured in a definition.” Thus, art is distinctly suited to religious communication. 

Kupfer speaks of art generally, but emphasizes poetry. I will speak of poetry exclusively. Kupfer helps us to see the religious significance of poetry, but there are two problems. First, while poetry often does not use concepts in the same way that prose uses them, contrary to Kupfer, poetry does use concepts.


I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,--the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met at night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips
And covered up our names.

—Emily Dickinson5

Without the abstract concepts, lovetruth, and the assertion of their identity, this poem is nothing. The point applies as well to more concrete poetry.


Dangerous pavements.
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.

—Seamus Heaney6

Stickicepavements, relatively concrete concepts, are the stuff of which the symbols, and, hence, the poem, consists. There is no question as to whether poetry uses concepts. The only question is, How does poetry use concepts? Seamus Heaney and Emily Dickinson do something with concepts that is not done in typical prose. Presently, I will suggest what they do.

There is second problem. What, exactly, is Kupfer’s argument? A lot depends on the idea of transcendence. Does Kupfer reason as follows?

  1. God transcends the ordinary world.

  2. Because poetry does not use concepts, poetry transcends our rational understanding.

  3. Therefore, poetry enables us to discern the divine transcendence.

Since poetry does use concepts, we may revise the argument.

  1. God transcends the ordinary world.

  1. Because poetry does not use concepts in the ordinary way, poetry transcends our rational understanding.

  1. Therefore, poetry enables us to discern the divine transcendence.

Such an argument equivocates on ‘transcend’. In 1, ‘transcend’ carries the traditional theological significance, something like, ‘differs in every respect from the ordinary world’; in 4, however, ‘transcend’ could merely mean, ‘escapes my present understanding’. Now, it would be patently fallacious to reason, 

  1. God transcends the ordinary world.

  1. Your passion for the racetrack escapes my present understanding.

  1. Therefore, your passion for the racetrack enables me to discern the divine transcendence.

Therefore, we need an argument along the following lines.

  1. God transcends the ordinary world.

  1. Because poetry does not use concepts in the ordinary way, the poetic experience resembles, or is even identical to, the religious experience.

  1. Therefore, poetry enables us to discern the divine transcendence.

We need a more precise conception of transcendence in poetry, such that poetic experience will closely resemble, or even be identical to, the religious experience, if we are to argue that transcendence in poetry helps us apprehend the divine. Before turning to the nature of poetic transcendence, however, some of the sources of skepticism about the divine should be noted.

Intellectual Stumbling Blocks to Religious Belief

We doubt religious claims for numerous reasons, among them, that:

  1. Various religious doctrines contradict each other.

  2. In particular, transcendence and immanence contradict each other.

  3. Moreover, the doctrine of a perfect Creator and the acknowledgement of an imperfect creation contradict each other.

  4. Evidence for the existence of God is insufficient.

These considerations interrelate, partly because each of them involves contradiction. Transcendence and immanence seem to contradict each other. The problem of evil seems to constitute a contradiction between the positing of a perfect Creator and imperfect creation. Since 8, 9, and 10 contribute to the cogency of 11, 11 concerns contradiction as well. This paper focuses on 8. Perhaps if progress can be made regarding contradiction, groundwork will be laid for elsewhere addressing 9, 10, and 11.

The Nature of Metaphor

Metaphors have several important characteristics. First, all metaphors are literally false. They are contradictions.

Wind And Silver

Greatly shining,
The Autumn moon floats in the thin sky;
And the fish-ponds shake their backs and flash their
       dragon scales
As she passes over them.

—Amy Lowell 7

Most of the speaker’s claims are metaphors, and all of them are literally false. A moon does not float, except through a figurative use of ‘float’. Fish do shake, perhaps even, in some sense, shake their backs; but fish-ponds do not, unless ‘backs’ is figurative for ‘surface of the water’. Nor are fish-ponds ever dragons. Nor do fish-ponds bear the scales of dragons. Nor is any astronomical body female: Some women are mothers, some are attorneys, some heroin addicts, some U.S. senators; but no women are moons. Metaphors are necessarily false, hence contradictions.

Second, any decent poem contains not just dead, but living, new and creative metaphors—which cannot be explicated completely. The literal falsity of metaphors invites explication. We want to explain them and we certainly try. We say, “Well, the moon floats in the sense that it is not supported from below.” But floating objects aresupported from below, by fluid; and the sky is not a fluid. “Well, the dark sky looks like dark water. “ But it doesn’t have ripples. “Well, clouds can look ripply, maybe like whitecaps.” But water can ripple without white caps. Does the sky ever ripple without clouds?” “Well, . . .” Attempts to explain creative metaphors always leave some remainder, inexplicable residue.

These two facts confront us with a third, paradoxical, fact: Metaphors are illuminating. Some are very illuminating. Though metaphors defy complete explication, they invite and enjoy our attempts at explication. They invite our partial explications, our struggles to understand. The struggles revise our views, our views of the poem, our views of reality. Herein, perhaps, is at least part of the point to poetry, to help us, as Kupfer notes, to see old things in a new way.

In A Station Of The Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

—Ezra Pound8

The image stops, stays, holds us. In some way, at some time, in some place, the speaker in the poem is right. Is he right when it rains? Is he right when it rains at night? Is he right when the commuters hurry and we hurry? Or when they hurry and weare lonely, their faces futile objects of our longing. . . ? We try to understand, and we know that somewhere and somehow the speaker is right. The metaphor frustrates by its contradiction, and thereby illuminates the insufficiently illumined. It illuminates through the assertion of a false identity that seems, somehow, to be right.

Religion as Cosmic Contradiction

Some religious doctrines seem to do the same. They contradict. They contradict each other, not mistakenly, any more than a good metaphor makes a mistake, but intentionally, unabashedly, unashamedly. Consider one doctrine from one branch of one religious tradition, the doctrine of the Trinity. Ever since the 4th century, the Trinity has served a central role in most Christian theologies. Essentially, the Trinity is the doctrine that God is both one and three. The self-same God is, at once, God, yet also God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The claim that three equals one is contradictory. The literal, necessary falsehood of this doctrine has led to popularizing explanations, e.g., God is one, yet acts or abides or communicates Himself in several different ways. Such explanations dilute the original, philosophically interesting, doctrine. There is nothing interesting about saying that a man can be a father, a chemist, and a Cubs fan, and there is nothing interesting about saying that God can present Himself to human beings in several different guises or manifestations. By contrast, the original contradiction is interesting and significant.

As readers of poetry seek to explain metaphors—but can never complete the explanation—so believers seek to explain the Trinity, but cannot do so without remainder. The contemporary Irish philosopher, John O’Donohue, attempts to explicate the Trinity with a concept from Celtic Christianity. The concept is the anam cara. In the Irish language, ‘anam’ means ‘soul’, ‘cara’ means ‘friend’. An anam cara is a soul-friend, a confidant, an intimate, a person who accepts you completely, a spiritual guide with whom you abandon all pretence. Your relation to your anam cara “. . .cut(s) across all convention, morality and category.”9 Your anam cara knows you fully, as an ordinary friend does not. O’Donohue applies the anam cara to the Trinity.

It is precisely in awakening and exploring this rich and opaque inner landscape that the anam cara experience illuminates the mystery and kindness of the divine. The anam cara is God’s gift. Friendship is the nature of God. the Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of Otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfillment of our immortal longings in the words of Jesus who said: ‘I call you friends.’ Jesus as the son of God is the first Other in the universe; he is the prism of all difference. He is the secret anam cara of each individual. In friendship with him we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free.10

Much as we seek to explicate metaphors, which are contradictory, so O’Donohue seeks to explicate the Trinity, which is contradictory. As far as I can tell, O’Donohue does not either explicitly or implicitly deny that the Trinity is contradictory. Rather, he seeks to pull from the contradiction a meaning that is deeper than can be expressed by literal statements. His effort returns us to Kupfer’s claim that art, including poetry, does not use concepts. I have argued that this claim is false, at least so far as poetry is concerned. But while Kupfer may be wrong as he expresses it, he would be right if he were to say that poetry does not use concepts in the way that prose ordinarily does. Poetry uses concepts by fusing or interconnecting widely disconnected species. In Logic, no tables are chairs, no women are moons. In poetry, a woman might be the moon, because a woman and the moon do not merely differ from one another as species, but also resemble one another, even though unending attempts at analysis will disclose no shared properties.11 Poetic transcendence consists in the metaphorical connection of logical species that seem radically disconnected. 

Perhaps poetry attempts, in a limited way, what religion attempts in an unlimited way: To connect the seemingly disconnected. No literal fathers are sons.12 The Trinity seems to assert that a Father is the Son of Himself, and also is identical to a single Spirit; and that this unitary triad is also identical to God. Thus, in this cosmic doctrine are widely disconnected logical species interconnected or fused, much as they are in the metaphors of poetry. Divine transcendence consists in the radical difference between God and the world that is paradoxically balanced by immanence. With respect to the Trinity, divine transcendence consists in the unanalyzable Oneness of God, paradoxically co-present with God’s irreducible Threeness.

Perhaps religion seeks to achieve a cosmic fusion, while much poetry seeks a limitedfusion. Further, if a particular poem has religious content, that poem would seek a cosmic fusion, as does religion itself. Thus poetry and religion have overlapping goals. Moreover, if religion is correct that the most disparate of elements of reality are connected, religion and poetry are themselves connected not by a mere overlapping but by some sort of fundamental unity. It was once said, I think by Pelagius, that God is present even in the underbelly of a cockroach; if so, God must be present, too, in all metaphors. Of course, God would also, then, be present in all literal statements, as well; but metaphors seem particularly suited to expression of the divine, if there is any divinity. Is there any divinity? Perhaps metaphors are particularly suited to address that question, which is to say, that poetry may help us to determine whether to believe in God. 

  1. (Back to text) Joseph Kupfer, “The Art of Religious Communication,” published in Philosophy, ed. by Klemke, Kline, and Hollinger (St. Martin’s, 1994), 313.

  2. (Back to textIbid., 312.

  3. (Back to textIbid., 313.

  4. (Back to textIbid.

  5. (Back to text) “I Died for Beauty,” Emily Dickinson, published in Modern American and British Poetry, ed. by Louis Untermeyer (Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1958), American section, 95.

  6. (Back to text) “1.1.87,” Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things, (Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1991), 20.

  7. (Back to text) “Wind and Silver,” Amy Lowell, published in The Poems of Amy Lowell, ed. by Louis Untermeyer (Houghton Mifflin, Cambridge Edition), 477. 

  8. (Back to text) “In a Station of the Metro,” Ezra Pound, published in Untermeyer, American section, 294.

  9. (Back to text) John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, (Bantam, 1997), 35.

  10. (Back to textIbid., 36-7.

  11. (Back to text) This counter-intuitive notion, that two particulars may resemble one another, though they share no properties, has been cogently supported by C. Mason Myers, “Inexplicable Analogies,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 22, March 1962, 326-33. 

  12. (Back to text) That is, no fathers are sons with respect to themselves—obviously, every father is, himself, a son with respect to another man.

EssaysBrian Flatgard