Quaker Universalist Fellowship


Universalist Friends

The Journal of the
Quaker Universalist Fellowship
Number 34
Spring & Summer 2000

In This Issue


From the Editor

George Amoss, Jr.

From the Clerk

Richard Barnes



Mystics, Metaphors, and God

Catherine C. Hull

The Quaker Universalist Fellowship is an informal gathering of persons who cherish the spirit of universality that has always been intrinsic to the Quaker faith.  We acknowledge and respect the diverse spiritual experience of those within our own meetings as well as of the human family worldwide; we are enriched by our conversation with all who search sincerely.   Our mission includes publishing and providing speakers and opportunities for fellowship at regional and national Quaker gatherings.

Universalist Friends and a QUF pamphlet are published twice a year and are available free to on-line subscribers. These publications are available as Web pages (HTML) for browsing, ebooks (PDF) for on-line reading, and pamphlets (booked PDF) for printing. To enter a free on-line subscription, visit our Web site at http://www.universalistfriends.org.

If you wish to receive printed copies of these publications by regular mail, send an annual subscription fee of $12.00 to QUF at our mailing address below. Selected past QUF publications are available free to our on-line subscribers. We will send available printed copies of past publications upon request and on payment of a fee.

We trust that all of our subscribers will support our work by sending a tax-deductible contribution to QUF. You can also contribute by sharing your reflections on our publications and on your own experiences. To make a contribution, subscribe to printed versions of our publications, or ask questions, contact:

Richard Barnes,Treasurer
Quaker Universalist Fellowship
Route 1, Box 28-3
Millboro, VA 24460
email: QUF@universalistfriends.org

From the Editor

George Amoss, Jr.

Atop the small bookcase-altar at the front of my office, an ivory-hued statue of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, sits in serene meditation, a concrete metaphor of the Buddhist ideal that inspires me. The androgynous bodhisattva is flanked by a small vase of blossoms and a white votive light. Before the statue, sandalwood smoke ascends from a long stick of incense standing lingam-like in a gray ceramic bowl.

As the sun sets outside, I take my seat on the zafu, a plump round cushion, a few feet from the altar. The half-lotus posture is the best I can manage. Sitting erect but relaxed, an imperfect image of the bodhisattva, I bring my hands together before my chest. With my attention focused on those folded hands, I gassho in a small bow before the altar, expressing respect for the symbols there, for the practice in which I am engaged, and for myself. My hands return to a position just below my navel, helping to center me in the hara, the body's hub. I begin recitation of my evening gathas, or verses, speaking them to the statue that I know is only stone.

I am of the nature to be diseased.
I am of the nature to die.
I am of the nature to decay.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.

Later, I might reflect on the contrast between that gatha and the Christian prayers I learned as a child, prayers that seemed designed to deny the reality of death. But this verse's words deny nothing. They sober me now, and sadden me. I give my sorrow some moments before continuing.

I take refuge in the Buddha, who teaches a way to peace.
I take refuge in the Dharma, the Buddha's way of compassionate mindfulness.
I take refuge in the Sangha, the community of the Buddha-Dharma.

The three refuges do not diminish the truth of the first verse. But they begin to answer the question in my heart: how can I live in a world of sorrow and death? I can open my heart to compassion, first of all for myself. I can wish myself well.

May I be free of enmity.
May I be free of hurtfulness.
May I overcome all troubles of body and mind.

All beings suffer under sentence of death. All deserve my compassion. Indeed, I see that we are one in our impermanence and suffering. What I wish for myself, I wish for all.

Whatever beings exist,
May they be free of enmity.
Whatever beings exist,
May they be free of hurtfulness.
Whatever beings exist,
May they overcome all troubles of body and mind.

Through the gathas, I have recognized impermanence, taken refuge in the way of the Buddha, and permitted myself to feel compassion for all of us who live in the shadow of death. What remains is to put that compassion into practice, developing mindfulness through meditation, living in such a way that my compassion translates into meaningful action for the relief of suffering.

The day is now ended; my life is shorter.
How have I lived this day?
I resolve to practice with all my heart,
that I may live deeply, as a free person,
always aware of impermanence,
lest my life drift away meaninglessly.

My focus turns again to my hands, which I raise slowly to my chest in gassho and then return to their position before the hara, one hand in the other, thumb tips touching as if I hold an empty world lightly but lovingly. As night falls, I settle into the calm alertness of zazen, "sitting Zen" meditation. My mind is focused on my gently moving breath, but thoughts come and go. Sometimes I get caught up in concerns or memories; sometimes I get caught up in wondering about what I'm doing and why. But always I return to my breath, at times counting the exhalations, at times simply watching. Rarely, I become aware that my center has shifted to the hara. But neither centering in the hara nor focusing on breathing is the goal of zazen. Zazen is a journey of exploration. The journey itself is the goal. If zazen has any conceptual lesson to teach me, surely it is that.

Behind me, a computer casts its soft light into the room. The machine is keeping track of time for me, and at the moment appointed to end my meditation it plays a recording of a small temple bell. Before rising, I gassho once more. As I blow out the candle, I recall that "nirvana" means extinguishment, not of the self (for Buddhism denies that a self exists), but of the ignorance that leads to the grasping and suffering of a life centered on illusion.

I place a fresh stick of incense in its holder, the action an unintentional metaphor of sexual differentiation, and my gaze moves up to the bodhisattva, in whom the sexual opposites are inseparably united. I am reminded of the saying of Jesus in the Gospel According to Thomas: "When you make the two one, …when you make the male and the female one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female, …then you will enter the kingdom," and of Lao-Tzu's

Knowing the male, be female;
Being the entrance of the world,
You embrace harmony
And become as a newborn.

In thirty years of Buddhist study and practice, I have learned that Buddhist enlightenment is the experience and expression of that harmony here and now, and that it begins with recognition of the nature of existence. That all life is impermanent and involves suffering is the first principle of the Buddha's teaching: no one escapes sorrow and death. That all beings are devoid of self is the second principle: each thing that exists is related to all other things, and nothing exists autonomously. Beginning with a theoretical understanding of those principles, we apply ourselves to meditation in order to move from theory to practice. As the clear mindfulness of zazen infuses our daily living, we come to know firsthand the fluidity and ultimate unreality of boundaries. We exist, yes, but inseparably with all that seems other than we. In awakening to our deeper identity, we meet ourselves as if for the first time.

Like zazen, Quaker worship can serve as a gate to that awakening. In a recent article, I used the metaphor of hearing the cries of suffering humanity to express something of my experience in our silent worship. Others, Friends without Buddhist backgrounds, have spoken of similar worship experiences. Deep, mindful silence dissolves borders and illumines our relationship to all that is. Silence, therefore, is a door to wisdom, the "gateless gate" of enlightenment. Metaphor can help guide us on the path to that gate, leading us to life. The metaphor of the Body of Christ, for example, is one of the most powerful in all of religious literature: those who can imagine themselves as members of one divine body understand that whatever we do to one another, we do to the life we all share. But metaphor is no longer needed when the (metaphorical) gate is reached. When we enter the inner silence of worship or meditation, the fruit of which is the practice of compassionate mindfulness in our daily lives, metaphor is both realized and transcended. Gazing upon the Bodhisattva of Compassion, I recall something that Huang Po wrote more than a thousand years ago: "All that is represented by the great bodhisattvas is present in each of us."

From the Clerk

by Richard Barnes, QUF Steering Committee Clerk

Many Friends wistfully seek a time when harmonious unity existed among all Friends in their religious beliefs. They often speak of returning to a "primitive Christianity" or to the beliefs of "first Friends." However, Biblical scholarship has shown the early church struggling with a wide diversity of beliefs. Most of Paul's letter are specifically addressing this factionalism. Recent Biblical scholarship also has shown that the groups of followers of Jesus were in competition with each other even before the Gospels were written. Differing accounts by each of the Gospel writers of which disciples and followers were visited by the resurrected Christ after the crucifixion and the order in which he visits them have political meaning as to the importance of each faction.

Like many other seekers trying to return to "primitive Christianity," early Friends were unsuccessful in finding unity in religious beliefs. In response to the discord among early Friends, Isaac Pennington grasped the nature of the problem and gives us the solution as to how can we nurture a unity of Spirit amid a welcomed diversity of beliefs and practices:

Even in the Apostles' days, Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; . . . it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices . . .

And here is the true unity, in the Spirit, in the inward life, and not in outward uniformity . . . Men keeping close to God, the Lord will lead them on fast enough. . . for He taketh care of such, and knoweth what Light and what practices are most proper for them.

For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.

The great error of the ages of the apostasy hath been to set up an outward order and uniformity, and to make men's consciences bend thereto, either by arguments of wisdom, or by force; but the property of the true church government is, to leave the conscience to its full liberty in the Lord, to preserve it single and entire of the Lord to exercise, and to seek unity in the light and in the Spirit, walking sweetly and harmoniously together in the midst of different practices.

Isaac Pennington, Works, 1681

During the last three years, I have led a workshop at the annual FGC Gathering of Friends with the title, "Nurturing Unity in the Spirit Amidst a Diversity of Beliefs." From my experience in this workshop, I would like to offer the following suggestions as to how we can nurture a unity of Spirit in practices and behaviors amid a welcomed diversity of beliefs.

  • Judge one another less, deeply listen to one another more, and come to realize that another's truth may shed new light on our own religious tradition—transform our monthly and yearly meetings into centers of mutual understanding and compassion.
  • Affirm that the religious "identity" of Friends lies not in a commonly held set of beliefs (orthodoxy) but in a commonly held set of practices of individual and corporate spiritual discernment (orthopraxis).
  • Acknowledge and affirm real differences in religious beliefs and philosophies among Friends in our monthly and yearly meetings.
  • Celebrate the wide diversity of religious beliefs within our monthly and yearly meetings, not as a liability, but as an opportunity to develop our skills of listening spirituality, mediation, conflict resolution, and peacemaking.
  • Encourage all individuals to progress on their own spiritual path and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of reprisal, and create a climate for a loving, listening spirituality within our meetings for worship, business, and learning in which all attendees may share the deepest witness of their individual belief system.
  • Acknowledge that the Quaker universalist philosophy that "all human beings, regardless of their religious beliefs, have the ability of unmediated spiritual communion and relationship with the transcendent Divine that is immanent within" can peacefully coexist within the Religious Society of Friends with Christian beliefs that are not exclusive or exclusionary.
  • Affirm that the Religious Society of Friends is a religion based on the individual and corporate spiritual search for an inward, immediate experience of the divine. (Howard Brinton)
  • Affirm that we have a deep faith in divine guidance, in obedience to the "leadings" and "concerns" that spring from it, and in spiritual practices that enhance individual and corporate discernment of God's will. (Douglas Steer)
  • Learn from and share with other religious traditions personal practices of spiritual discernment—daily periods of individual and family "retirement," prayer, meditation, inspirational reading, lectio divina, journal writing, communing with nature, spirituality and the arts, spiritual companionship, and serving others without regard to results.
  • Participate fully with an open mind and heart in all of Friends' unique corporate spiritual practices of discernment—silent meeting for worship, unprogramed vocal ministry, meetings for learning, worship sharing, clearness committees, and the answering of queries for individuals, families, and meetings.

What is the basis for spiritual unity and a sense of corporate identity among unprogrammed Friends? As I have done in the past, I extend an invitation to the readers of Universalist Friends to respond and to email your suggestions to Richard Barnes, clerk of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, at QUF@universalistfriends.org


Thank you, thank you for existing. I came across your pamphlets in Kalamazoo, when FGC first met at Kalamazoo. Ever since, I have felt a need to put on paper how I was made a universalist sixty years ago. Yes, sixty years ago at the tender age of twelve, because it happened before we left Germany in 1939.

Our family was Protestant, belonging to the Evangelisch Bekennenden Reformierte Kirche, original Huguenot. I seldom entered the main downtown church, which looked exactly like a concert hall, as at the time it was built it could not identify itself as a church. Instead, the three ministers each met the children in rented buildings in three different areas of the city. I walked to a…school where the Reverend Schuemer held Sunday School for us. There was something special about him, and our group grew and grew to over 100. My favorite hymn at the time was "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," especially the second verse:

Nehmen sie den Leib     Let them take our body,
Gut, Her, Kind und Weib,Goods, honor, child, and wife.
Lass fahren dahin Let it pass;
Sie haben kein GewinnThey cannot win.
Das Reich muss uns doch bleiben.The Kingdom still is ours.


For the 'thirties were hard times, not just economically as in the U.S.A., but psychologically, morally, and philosophically—or should one say theologically? Of our three ministers, one became a Nazi, one a fence sitter, and Schuemer had strong Christian convictions that cost him his life.

Was it the tolerance of my own family, the existence of the three ministers with different approaches, or even the general attitude in Germany? My friends and I never felt that there was any difference between Catholics and Protestants, one church or another. Yes, on Christmas Eve we all went to midnight mass in our cathedral—der Dom in which even Roman emperors were crowned. I had to come to the United States to experience the "purer than thou" splintering of Christianity….

The last time the Reverend Schuemer held Sunday School with us, the room was different—all the chairs had been turned around and we faced another way. He had requested that the oversized picture of Hitler be covered with a cloth during Sunday School. As permission was not granted, he preferred to turn the class around and face that evil himself. After that he disappeared. In my childish mind, it was for that act.

Of course he stood for a whole lot more. There was the time that my mother came home breathless and very aggravated. She had been at a churchwomen's meeting. The Gestapo came in through the basement. The women had met upstairs. The Reverend Schuemer asked the women to leave quietly one by one. She had no idea how many escaped, or what happened to the Reverend Schuemer and the attendance list. Not that time, but eventually, he became one of the disappeared, and his wife and four children became wards of the church.

The above is needed as a kind of background.

What is this strange revelation that I experienced as a twelve-year-old? Yes, as an adult I can explain every detail away—except that it spoke something very different to me, and even after sixty years I get teary-eyed and emotional as if it were just happening. Bethel bei Bielefeld is a Christian institution that takes in the unfit, the derelicts of mankind. They had prepared a little pamphlet whose purpose was collecting money for their mission in Africa. To explain that these people were worthy of the mission outpost, it told this little story:

A package arrived at the mission with toys. The missionary lined up the girls and started to hand a toy to each one. He came to the last child and there was no toy. At that point, an older girl stepped out of line and handed her toy to the little girl.

The intended message was loud and clear: you see these people are worth saving. To me, the message was entirely different. God was there long before the missionary. He had worked in the girl's heart. The missionary was really unnecessary. God doesn't need us to spread his message.

When I try to talk that message away, it just doesn't work. During the last decade, I attended First Christian church (Disciples of Christ) for some eight years so my grandchildren could experience a Sunday School. (At that time, our Friends Meeting in Fayetteville consisted of one or two people with an occasional visitor, and children then became very disturbing.) At the beginning of the service at First Christian, they have a Children's Minute…after which the younger ones leave to go out and play. The children usually receive some trinket, sometimes just a piece of candy. Occasionally, Brenda would spend the night with us and thus go to church with us. She's just like an adopted cousin or younger sister, being six years younger than my granddaughter. Had there been no trinket for Brenda, of course my granddaughter would immediately have stepped forward and shared hers. It's so easy as an adult to explain it all away—but for me that doesn't change the original message.

Until a few years ago, this interpretation was my Truth. Naturally, I was very unsuccessful in sharing it with Christians….

Then during the adult discussion/Sunday School at First Christian, it struck me how wrong I was—feeling superior, self-righteous, and correct. It was not what I believed or had thought out, but what God had revealed to me. I felt guilty for my self-righteousness, but also instantly forgiven. Now I can relate much more easily how I was made a universalist, as it was truly not my doing.

Lee Kleiss
Fayetteville, North Carolina


This is to address the Quakers-as-Christians controversy that you introduced in Universalist Friends for fall 1999.

As I understand it, Quakers, even Christocentric Quakers, cannot be called Christians…. Properly speaking, in order to call oneself a Christian, [one] must profess certain doctrines established at the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), whose creed is still a foundation document throughout Christendom. Since the Religious Society of Friends does not profess the Nicene Creed, the Quakers are, by definition, a non-Christian religious organization.

According to the Nicene Creed, a Christian is a person who believes that Jesus is the Christ; that Jesus Christ is both entirely human and entirely divine; that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the second person in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; that Jesus Christ's death and resurrection were acts that liberated humanity from the damnation of original sin; that believing in Jesus Christ's victory over original sin assures the soul's everlasting life.

(I suppose there is at least one Quaker somewhere who professes the Nicene Creed, but I should think that such a person would be happier in a Christian church than in a Quaker meetinghouse.)

To define a Christian according to the Nicene Creed may sound austere and legalistic, especially if one understands Christianity to be the theory and practice of loving one's neighbor as oneself. But the theory and practice of benevolence is not the real essence of Christianity. Rather, Christianity is and always has been a methodology for keeping one's soul out of Hell and getting it into Heaven. The mandate to show good will toward one's fellow humans is not incorporated into any Christian creed or sacrament.

Christianity does include an ethical code, yes, but Christianity is not unique among the world's religions in advocating that we treat each other with good will. All of the world's major religious philosophies encourage benevolence.

Significantly, the religion is called Christianity, not Jesusism. Jesus was a Jewish prophet who lived two millennia ago; Christ is an idealization abstracted from Jesus' wisdom, but one so elaborated and embellished over the centuries that Jesus and Christ have become two different entities. Jesus was a person; Christ is a theological concept.

What I do not understand: if a person does not believe in the Trinity and does not believe in original sin and, therefore, does not believe in the need for a Christ to redeem the world from original sin—why would such a person want to perpetuate the Christ mystique or to devise some new use for the word "Christ"?

Especially, I do not understand the use of Christ-language in the context of contemplative piety, notably when Christ-language is used in such expressions as "the Christ within you." To me, at least, such language is more confusing than helpful because it muddles together (1) the image of the physical Jesus, (2) the injunction to be more Christ-like or virtuous, (3) guilt about falling short of the Christ-ideal of perfect virtue, and (4) serene attunement with God. Christ-language just does not jibe with contemplative experience, at least as far as my own contemplative experience is concerned.

In criticizing Christ-language, I do not mean to disparage Jesus. Admiring Jesus is all well and good, but in the day-to-day life that I lead, it is my own attunement with God that sustains and uplifts me, not the spirituality of Jesus or Gautama or anyone else, no matter how greatly spiritual that person may be or may have been.

Much more apt than Christ-language are such expressions as "oneness," "in the Spirit," "in the Light." These are phrases that are immediately comprehensible to anyone who has found attunement with God through contemplation. (At least they were immediately comprehensible to me when I first began to practice contemplation and to study Quakerism.) Phrases like "in the Light" express attunement with God as a real and imminent experience—which, of course, it is.

Roger Christeck
Green Valley, Arizona


The John Woolman quote from "A Plea for the Poor" in the Spring 1999 Universalist Friends is one of my favorite passages in Quaker literature. I'm sending my check for membership/subscription to Richard Mitchell and Betsy Neale.

Below are some of my thoughts and concerns. The aspect of Quakerism and Buddhism that most appeals to me is the appreciation of the here and now, ordinary life, universalities of human nature. This attitude is aided by mental disciplines from Buddhism; Quaker social values of simplicity, honesty, and equality; humanist philosophy; and scientific understanding of the long history of life on earth. My humanistic interpretation of the Bible says that knowable reality (God) is a unity at the service of human life. Jesus demonstrated the nature of the knowable reality, totally at our service (the suffering servant), putting complete responsibility on our shoulders. It will not force us to do right. It will not force us to seek it. It will not save us without our effort and participation in the process. Through generations of persistent cooperative effort we can know what we need to know to sustain life.

The conflict that concerns me most in Quakerism (and in many other religious groups, I suspect) seems to be more activist versus quietist, social conscience versus inner peace, than Christian versus Universalist. John Woolman's lucid argument can and should be widely disseminated along with facts about global ecology and how militarism obstructs the development of real solutions. I'm looking for the lean, logical, realistic statements that will strengthen people to stand on principle. Starting at Pacific Yearly Meeting in 1956, the most moving worship experiences for me have always been in the presence of very real, even agonizing, struggles for clarity and strength to take action on social issues. Integration, disarmament, sanctuary for Central American refugees come to mind.

My religion is Quakerism, my philosophy is humanism. I'm a member of Albuquerque Friends Meeting and of the American Humanist Association. I attend the church nearest my house (Presbyterian), being 70 miles from Albuquerque and not owning a car.

Dale Berry
Grants, New Mexico

Dale Berry also sent the following responses to correspondence in our fall 1999 issue.


My answer to David Rambo's question about "Narrow is the gate and difficult the path to life, and few are the ones finding it" (Matt. 7:14) is Matthew 19:16-21, the story of the upright young man told by Jesus to give away his wealth and be an apostle. Jesus was saying, I think, that fulfillment only comes out of a life of challenge and struggle. Genesis 3 says much the same thing. Eve and Adam wanted to get knowledge by taking a pill (so to speak), but by "the sweat of thy face" is the only way that really works.

To Todd Leet, in response to his letter: The "Living Christ" resides in all people but in many it is inactive, asleep, or suppressed. The question that major religions try to address is "How can that inner power be awakened or activated?" How do we know when the inner Christ is active? "By their fruits you will know them." A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Obviously, people who are not exercising their inner power are not "OK." As for "is there no Satan in your world?" I believe that Satan in the Bible is a symbol of ignorance, error, and self-deception. Such things are abundant in this world and I wish to encourage anyone who is struggling to overcome them, even when their current opinions are seriously flawed from my perspective.

Mystics, Metaphors, and God

by Catherine C. Hull

For most of us, ideas and images of God come through bible stories, church traditions, hymns, and religious art. From our childhood in the Christian tradition, we have experienced God in a variety of images, from creator to judge to father. We have seen Jesus in art as the Infant in his mother's arms, as the Good Shepherd, as the Crucified and as the glorified Redeemer. We have sung hymns to the Trinity and to Amazing Grace. These images have informed the Christian consciousness and flowed from the theology of the Judeo-Christian experience. Most of us do not question the origins of these images, or why these and not others have particular meaning. When we realize that these images and metaphors have their origins in human imagination, we can begin to understand how our experience of God has expression in language and visuals that reveal the truth of these experiences in terms we cherish. This language gives form to the silence within which God resides, a silence known by mystics in their own experience of the divine unknowing. This language stands between us and the vast unknown that we have named God. The danger lies in limiting our belief to what is truly only metaphor and symbol, instead of seeking to go beyond words and images. Yet we must understand what words and images can tell us of ourselves and of God.

To say that our images of God are projections of our own needs brings us at once to the brink of misunderstanding. To believe that God is only what we say God is, limits our possibility of extending our understanding of the divine. Judging from our sacred writings and art, and understanding our psychological need for projection, we needed a god to be angry, pleased, judgmental, triumphant, loving, giving, forgiving, and powerful. These are human characteristics, projected upon the darkness and silence which is all we truly know of the nature of God. Our human psychological growth is certainly a part of our spiritual journey, and the function of these projections is to bring us to greater maturity.

The language of the sacred is inherently poetic, most profound in its attempt to express mystical encounters with the divine. "God," said Meister Eckhart, "is born in the empty soul by discovering himself to her as a new guise without guise, without light in divine light" (Sermon 91). This language is the meeting place between the human and the divine. Metaphors are used by the human mind as instinctive tools to explore reality and make comparisons. In theology, they are used in sacred writings, and to express images in sacred art. In spiritual writings of the mystics, they appear in the records of their personal visions as guides to the inner life. In psychology, they can be used to represent the integration of ego to self, as used by Jung. He believed that the great myths, such as those that inform the major religions, are grounded in the unconscious, where the divine in us dwells. We learn by these associations and say, "I see," meaning that we understand.

Paul Ricoeur wrote that metaphor "clears the way to a new vision" (Rule, p. 236) and gives direction and transcendence to the spiritual quest (Rule, p. 288). For instance, light is not only a phenomenon of physics but also the ultimate description of the divine: uncreated light. The metaphor reaches for truth at the same time that it pronounces the limits of our understanding.

In a real sense, metaphors mediate the sacred. Julian of Norwich saw the cosmos in a hazelnut. Hildegard of Bingen saw humans as the shadows of God. Metaphors and myths (extended metaphors) are expressions of that inner, incomprehensible reality that we call God. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in the fourth century that we come upon God only in darkness, in what is unknown and unseen, "penetrating deeper until by the intelligence yearning for understanding, it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God" (The Life of Moses, quoted in Edwards, p. 87).

To use darkness in this way as a metaphor, we understand that God is no more a "cloud of darkness" than God is a masculine parent, but something of darkness expresses the experience of God. The human mind seeks out words in which to communicate the divine reality: light, friend, father, mother, darkness, glory, desert, mountain, rain, fire. God is not a "person," nor is God a being in the sense of a created being, but some unknowable Other that seems to lie both within and without our existence. Our natural images can express a profound near presence of a transcendent reality. Something of the vast emptiness and dryness of the desert has led many mystics to the arid wastelands to find God. Jesus was led into the desert. We feel ourselves living in that vastness when we are lost and need to find the comfort of a rain that only God can provide. "The mountain is where one seeks to transcend ordinary human experience; the desert is where one enters it most deeply" (Lane, p. 41).

It is clear that as one of our greatest mystics, Jesus invites us to share his experience of God by clothing his teachings in a rich tapestry of created images, parables, and metaphors. He gave us an extraordinary wealth of parables: The Sower and the Seed, The Wise Man, The Workers in the Vineyard, The Wedding Feast, The Fig Tree, The Ten Virgins, The Lost Coin, The Mustard Seed, The Lost Sheep, The Persistent Widow, The Rich Man and Lazarus. These stories are not meant to be taken literally, but to be meditated upon as spiritual guides to behavior and a philosophy of life. They speak of the Kingdom of God, which, as Jesus said, is within.

Scholars have called Jesus the Parable of God (Edwards, p. 51; McFague, pp. 47-54), because there is something of God in Jesus that reveals the divine to us. His life is a model for us, if we are to believe that the kingdom of God is within us and that God can be a father to us. Jesus spoke of himself in terms of metaphor: "I am the light of the world"..."I am the bread of life"..."I am the good shepherd." When the events of his life are examined as metaphors for our own spiritual journey, we go beyond historical facts or theological truths to events that clarify psychological and spiritual realities.

For example, Joseph Campbell has pointed out that the Virgin Birth story which signified Jesus' spiritual importance also represents the birth of the spiritual out of the physical. "It happens," he said, "when you awaken at the level of the heart in compassion" (Campbell, p. 174). The holy event of our own spiritual awakening becomes the fulfillment of the metaphor. The transcendent event of our spiritual birth may not be on our minds when we celebrate Christmas, but it is there in the metaphor. The deepest meaning of the resurrection may be as a metaphor for our extending the life of Jesus through our own lives.

Our spiritual journey continues through the passages of the life of Jesus. His sufferings and death not only unite us to our human condition but elevate our condition to the realm of transcendence. "The route in knowing and speaking of God," said Meister Eckhart in the fourteenth century," is invariably the way of abandonment, the way of the cross" (Lane, p. 69). Most mystics agree that God and the self are not different categories, that the creature exists in the divine creator. Eckhart uses the metaphor of sight to describe this intimate union:

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are only one eye and one seeing and one knowing and one love.

(Sermon 12)

Mystics saw humanity and God as meeting in Jesus. In saying that Jesus was the Christ (Anointed Redeemer) and the Logos (the Word), both metaphors for aspects of the hidden God, we are given a relationship with One-who-saves and One-who-speaks. In reality, though, these metaphors say more of us than they do of Jesus or God. We are the ones in need of saving, who need to hear the voice of God, to answer our questions about life and its purpose. The projections of our needs create this kind of God, or we discover in this God the answers to our questions. If not, then we continue the search, and in the process new revelations come from the darkness. Language and image evolve, our minds and spirits seek understanding. Perhaps God is saying this is all we need, ultimately. No one has ever been transformed into a living embodiment of Jesus' example of grace and love by a system of theology, but by personal suffering and acceptance. Mystics have experienced God not through a list of dogmas, but by personal prayer and quiet listening. They have entered into that darkness, where they stood in an abyss without the protection of language. Metaphors come from human longing and experience, but ultimately our language is "too finite to name the infinite" (Craighead, p. 77).

If the metaphors of the past still speak to us, we can still be alert to contemporary language that discovers new aspects of the divine reality through continuing enlightenment. Chaos theory exposes the hidden patterns of order and beauty in what seems like randomness, giving us reason to hope and to find God in what seems like disorder and confusion. The phenomena of astronomy, such as black holes and other forces at work in the universe, can provide contemporary metaphors for spiritual events. Black holes, voids in space dominated by a power of gravity that pulls everything into itself, exist in huge numbers, although none has ever been seen. What appears to us to be ultimate destruction may actually lead to a greater transformation. Scientists speculate on how matter is transformed when it emerges on the other side of a black hole. As a metaphor, then, black holes (suffering and death) may offer hope and transformation (coming out the other side). The greatest mysteries of the cosmos reflect metaphorically the deepest mysteries of our human condition.

We know that ninety percent of the universe is made of dark matter, an immense mass that fills the seemingly empty space between galaxies. We search for the illusive neutrino, which, if found, will unravel mysteries and expand human knowledge. In fact, the phenomena of the universe echo theology: "Extinction and transformation, the evolutionary equivalents of Calvary and resurrection, are central coordinates of cosmic and planetary evolution" (O'Murchu, 185). O'Murchu offers a system he calls "quantum theology" that evolves from the "creative potential...within the cosmos" that redefines God (p. 50). Traditional theology generates images of God "largely made in the image and likeness of man(kind). It has stripped God of the splendor, elegance, and intimacy of the divine co-creativity" that cosmology restores. Without diminishing the incarnation, "quantum theology seeks to recapture the mystery of God" (p. 50). New metaphors emerge: creative energy, ultimate life force, being itself. Reverential silence is seen as the best mode of connecting with this divinity. Language, a human invention, can never be a literal source of divine truth (p. 51).

What O'Murchu seeks in proposing quantum theology is to sweep aside the barrier that traditionally has separated science and religion. He proposes, then, to unite the two by using the phenomena of science as metaphors for a new understanding of the divine.

The human story includes a spiritual evolution in its struggle to understand its place in the universe and the identity of the one who placed it on this earth. This spiritual evolution includes a variety of metaphors, symbols and images, used in language, literature and art to express the experience of the divine. Our best mystics, past and present, have contributed to this understanding through their writings and stories.

The god who was pronounced dead in the 'sixties was that image of the deity that no longer fit human need. Thomas Merton wrote:

The true symbol does not merely point to something else. It contains in itself a structure which awakens our consciousness to a new awareness of the inner meaning of life and of reality itself. ... "God is dead" means, in fact, that symbols are dead. (Merton, pp. 1-2)

What was swept aside made room for a new image of the divine, one that reflected the contemporary experience and needs of humanity. As individuals and as a collective humanity, we journey onward toward a fuller understanding of the divine reality that is always within us, unchanging.

The more we are invited to go beyond words to the reality waiting there, the more our mystics experience this new world in our behalf, the more our metaphors and images strive to reproduce this unutterable mystery. The metaphors and images delight and inspire, but we must not take them to be reality itself. They announce the presence of God, but they are merely God's shadows.


Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday,1988.

Edwards, Denis. Human Experience of God. NY: Paulist Press, 1983.

Craighead, Meinrad. "Immanent Mother" in The Feminist Mystic and Other Essays on Women and Spirituality. Mary E. Giles, Ed. NY: Crossroads, 1982.

Lane, Belden C. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. NY: Oxford University Press, 1998.

McFague, Sallie. Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1982.

Merton, Thomas. "Symbolism: Communication or Communion?" in New Directions 20. NY: New Directions, 1968.

O'Murchu, Diarmuid. Quantum Theology: Spiritual Implications of The New Physics. NY: Crossroads, 1997.

Ricoeur, Paul. The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of Meaning in Language. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1977.

Further Reading:

Borg, Marcus J. Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship. Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994.

Green, Garrett. Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination. NY: Harper and Row, 1989.

Hick, John. The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993.

Jung, C. G. Psychology and Western Religion. Translated by R.F.C. Hull. Bollinger Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

McFague, Sallie. Speaking in Parables: A Study of Metaphor and Theology. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1975.

McGinn, Bernard. Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics. NY: Continuum, 1994.

Sacks, Sheldon, ed. On Metaphor. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979.

Catherine Hull, a retired librarian, writes from Rhode Island. In her youth, Catherine was a cloistered nun, and she continues an essential journey with God. One of her greatest interests is the psychology of religion, which, combined with training in the study of literature, has led her to study the role of metaphors in the expression of spiritual experience. A project underwritten by a grant from FWCC's Elizabeth Ann Bogert Memorial Fund resulted in the essay published here.

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