Sacred Metaphors and Creating Comfortable Conditions

I recently co-published an article at the Journal of Religion and Society titled “Revisiting Sacred Metaphors: A Religious Studies Pedagogical Response to the Rise of the Nones.” (The journal is open access and the article is downloadable).  The article is a response to two issues encountered while teaching Introduction to Religious Studies courses at a state university.  First, many undergraduate students within the courses that I have taught tend to enter the class in a defensive posture.  The defensiveness is typically caused by students feeling obligated to defend their faith traditions that might be challenged within the course materials or by students hoping to disprove the relevancy and/or accuracy of religious traditions.  Many times these two “garrison groups” of students are inclined to be the most vocal during the course, and their impassioned stances can cause less impassioned students to withdraw from the conversation.  Second, my co-author and I have been wrestling with how to instruct students regarding what many scholars are calling the “religious nones.”  Simply stated, the religious nones are those refusing to affiliate with a religious tradition and categorically check the “None” box on religious identity surveys.  (For more regarding the religious nones, The Huffington Post has assembled quite a repository of articles).

Within the article, my colleague and I propose the usage of “sacred metaphors,” loosely based on Peter Berger’s work The Sacred Canopy.  By ‘sacred’ we do not mean to suggest a transcendental or otherworldly nature for the metaphors themselves.  Instead, we argue that by employing metaphors, the two issues previously mentioned can possibly be ameliorated.  For instance, to discuss agnosticism, which falls within the religious nones category, we suggest a “sacred metaphor” of a sacred quilt.  The word picture of a quilt symbolizes the inherited nature of religious traditions while also providing comfort in times of instability.  We admit that metaphors are limited in their application, but suggest that instructors could easily assign students to create their own “sacred metaphors” regarding religion.  When utilized, we have discovered that “sacred metaphors” allow all students within the class to safely enter into the discussion regarding their thoughts on religion.  And as a bonus, the students are able to use their creativity when exploring religion.

Although the article specifically highlights a pedagogical tool, the concept is applicable to interfaith and intrafaith dialogues.  For many religious traditions, the metaphors are already available.  For within religious texts, many faith traditions include metaphors to describe their deity, prophets, teachers, experiences or the tradition itself.  As examples:

  • Taoism employs ideas of water to describe the Tao.
  • The Koran mentions the idea of a path or journey to describe the teachings of Muhammad.
  • The Gospel of John in Christian scripture repeatedly cites metaphors to describe Jesus.

And many more could be cited here.  In fact, for many persons of faith and of no faith, metaphors provide a safe way to describe one’s religion or beliefs.  I have heard people state that their faith is like a map, steering wheel or GPS system denoting the guiding nature of their tradition.  Others have drawn on ideas of blankets or shelters describing the security that their faith tradition provides.

The metaphor technique seems like a great conversation starter for an interfaith dialogue.  By having participants introduce themselves and their faith by stating, “my faith is like…”, participants could easily contribute to the conversation, discover similarities and differences between themselves and others, and recognize the conversation as a safe space.

Finally, this leads me to questions for the contributors of this blog and for practitioners of interfaith movements/dialogues:

  • Have you utilized a similar technique in your conversations? If so, what was the outcome?
  • How do you describe your faith tradition?
  • What are the metaphors already available within your religious texts?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
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2 thoughts on “Sacred Metaphors and Creating Comfortable Conditions

  1. My faith is like a potluck supper. It contains a rich diversity of individual gifts, it offers nourishment, there are some dishes that I avoid and others that I cherish, but ultimately it is about bringing people together.

    Thanks for a helpful new way to engage people about their faith/beliefs.

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for the comment and suggestion of a potluck supper. This reminds me of the important role that food has always played in religious life.


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