Consistent Theology: Analogies
Consistent Theology is a series exploring precisely that: consistency in what we believe, especially in the context of theology (our beliefs about God).
Consistent theology is about being as consistent as possible within the system of our own theology. Because of that, our theological systems are inherently biased. It’s not possible to formulate a theology that is completely unbiased, because our hermeneutics don’t allow us to see from any other perspective but our own. We need other people to help expand our hermeneutics.
Analogies are incredibly useful tools for communication and self-reflection. They can help us more concisely understand, articulate, or visualize our ideas and theologies. Analogies can also help challenge us to understand how others approach things and help others understand our own ideas and beliefs.
Unfortunately, analogies, like all other parts of our theologies, are inherently biased. The point of an analogy is to illustrate an idea, so the analogy is selected to fit the idea, not the other way around. That is, analogies don’t inherently contain truths. An analogy might fit an idea really well, but if that idea is inherently flawed, the analogy won’t change that.
Most people understand this, even if they don’t talk about it that way. We’ll look at some examples from scripture, but first, a definition.
What’s An Analogy?
An analogy, for the purposes of this post, refers to words, phrases, or parables that compare two things in order to express some kind of similarity. I’m including metaphors, idioms, and similes in my use of the word “analogy.” Technically, these things can all describe unique literary tools, but for our purposes, I’m grouping them all together.
Parables in the Bible might be the most obvious types of analogies in Christianity, but they aren’t the only ones. Non-parable analogies (usually metaphors) can include descriptions of things. The Holy Spirit, for example, is described as fire, wind, and breathe, to name a few. Each of those things might attempt to reveal some aspect of the Holy Spirit or how the Holy Spirit acts or moves, and even the word “moves” might be metaphorical not literal.
In other words, an analogy is something that describes something else and isn’t the actual thing being described. Analogies are intended to be revelatory — to reveal aspects of something — or to articulate ideas.
The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like…
“The kingdom of heaven is like” is a phrase used in several places in the gospel of Matthew. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast added to flour. The kingdom of heaven is like hidden treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant who found a pearl in a field. Etc. (Those three are all found in Matthew 13, by the way.)
The common assumption is that the analogy will tell us something about the reality or nature of the kingdom or about some characteristic or attribute of the kingdom. People don’t generally approach these analogies and think to themselves, “Well, I know what the kingdom is, so clearly, Jesus is using the kingdom to tell me about yeast,” or, “Jesus is using the analogy to explain hidden treasures or merchants who value pearls.”
I like to talk about it this way: analogies point “backward” to ideas. The things being described in an analogy are waysigns, not the actual focus. We use analogies to articulate, explain, or relate ideas that we already have — ideas that already exist — like Jesus’s idea of what the kingdom is. “The kingdom of heaven is like…” points backward from the analogy (e.g. yeast or hidden treasure) to the idea he wishes to describe (i.e. what the kingdom is like).
There are pros and cons to this. A pro is that the inherent bias of analogies actually makes them great tools for understanding others and sharing ourselves with others. I said that we can’t step outside our own hermeneutics, but analogies help us challenge those limitations. They give us creative tools to connect others’ perspectives to things we already understand and vice versa.
A con is what I mentioned above: any analogy we pick is already biased toward an existing idea. This is important to understand so that we don’t deceive ourselves into thinking that the analogy itself reveals some truth. In reality, we begin with what we think is the truth and think of an analogy to explain that belief.
Just like with my definition of “consistent theology,” analogies only reference a closed system. Once we take analogies outside of their intended context, they quickly begin falling apart.
“Contextual analogies” is redundant, because all analogies are contextual, but I’m trying to make a point. Let’s look at some examples of “contextual analogies.”
Idioms are a good example of this, I think, because they tend to evolve from literal events to idiomatic phrases. Take the phrase “piece of cake,” for example, meaning something easy to do or accomplish. According to The Idioms, the expression piece of cake is believed to have originated in late 19th century America when slave owners would have their slaves dance around a cake, which they could win as a prize. The slaves would dance in a mocking way, which the slave owners didn’t seem to realize. The cake was easy to win. To use another idiom, it was like taking candy from a baby. We may have gotten the idiom “cake walk” from that same tradition.
The idioms make sense in light of their origins, and they’re fairly common in the United States. Something is like a cake walk, because it is as easy to accomplish as taking cake from narcissistic slave owners who don’t realize they’re being mocked, but in a different cultural context with no background, the idioms don’t mean anything, at all.
Similar sorts of contextual limitations exist for “theological” analogies, as well. Some of us may be familiar with certain analogies about God or Christian righteousness because they were common in the contexts in which we were raised, while others might not have heard those analogies, at all. What’s more, those analogies might be more or less appropriate depending on the specific theologies of a person or community. I already mentioned “kingdom of heaven” analogies; why are there so many different ones? It seems to me that Jesus recognizes the contextual nature of analogies and so employs several of them.
It’s important that we recognize the contextual limitations of analogies, because a lot of harmful theology is built around analogies that presume too much.
The Limitations of Theological Analogies
One of the tenants I grew up with in the church was the idea that we, as conservative, traditional, non-denominational Christians, were going to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.” One of the reasons for this was to address debates about things that were not explicitly written in Scripture. The argument was that we shouldn’t say something’s ok if the Bible doesn’t say that it’s ok. (Let’s leave the discussion about double standards — not saying something’s unacceptable if the Bible doesn’t say it’s unacceptable — for another post.)
The analogy that sometimes gets used is this: you take your car to a mechanic to get some work done. Let’s say you need new brake pads. You come back later to pick up the car, and the mechanic has replaced your brake pads but also given the car a new paint job, rims, upholstery, etc. You tell the mechanic, “I didn’t say you could give it all that other stuff!” to which the mechanic responds, “Sure, but you didn’t say that I couldn’t give it those things.”
The implication is that you’re God in this scenario, and the mechanic is people who do things in worship that the Bible doesn’t explicitly say they can do (e.g. instrumental worship or intinction). This was a way of teaching us that, similar to how we might disapprove of a mechanic doing things to our vehicle that we didn’t explicitly sign off on, God disapproves when we do things in worship that God didn’t explicitly sign off on.
Remember what I mentioned above: analogies are chosen to fit ideas, not the other way around; analogies don’t inherently contain truths. The mechanic analogy is perfect, if it’s true that God only wants us to do what’s explicitly stated in scripture. However, if that’s not true — if God isn’t a strict legalist, if scripture isn’t a mere text book or instruction manual, etc. — the analogy is no longer perfect.
We can find examples of both scenarios within scripture. Saul was rebuked harshly by a prophet for offering a sacrifice. The prophet was supposed to do it, but he was late. The battle was going to start, and Saul was nervous. He wanted to make sure the sacrifice was made on time, as he perceived it, so he performed it himself. To say God was displeased might be an understatement. Not only was Saul rebuked, he appears to have essentially been cursed by the prophet and died soon after.
On the other hand, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees on many occasions for sticking to the letter of the law and/or rabbinical traditions rather than understanding what the meaning behind those laws/traditions were. Similarly, God sometimes rebuked the Israelites in the Old Testament for doing the very things God had commanded, because their lives were lacking in love, mercy, and justice.
Hopefully, you can see how the appropriateness of the mechanic analogy depends on how one interprets different passages and which passages one chooses to emphasize. If we’re going to use Saul’s story as our boss text, the mechanic analogy can seem like a rather lighthearted but appropriate way of explaining to people why we should worship a certain way. If, instead, we’re going to use Jesus’s rebuke of the religious leaders as our boss text, the mechanic analogy doesn’t fit.
And, no, those aren’t the only two options. I’m not arguing for a dichotomy of any kind. I’m only illustrating that analogies have limitations, even in theological contexts.
The Slippery Slope
Another popular analogy in conservative traditions is that of “the slippery slope.” Imagine you’re walking on a narrow, mountain path, maybe along the spine of a mountain range. You’re safe on the path, which is narrow but flat, but if you stray to one side or the other, you’ll find yourself on a slope that’s not safe. In the analogy, the slope is slippery. Perhaps it’s a gravelly, steep surface, or maybe it’s covered in slippery moss or wet from the fog. It doesn’t matter why it’s slippery, only that you understand it is.
This analogy describes the way people can easily be led astray from the path of righteousness (i.e. the straight and narrow path). What may seem like a minor or inconsequential deviation can quickly turn into an uncontrollable slide toward depravity. However, the analogy only works if we first believe that “the straight and narrow” is actually like a narrow mountain path. It also seems to require a belief that “straight and narrow” is the most accurate (if not only) analogy in scripture for the idea of “righteousness.”
If, however, righteousness is not like walking a straight and narrow mountain path, the analogy of the slippery slope might not be appropriate. If you’re thinking, “Yes, but scripture clearly uses the ‘straight and narrow’ analogy,” I agree with you. It does use that analogy, but does it only use that analogy? Is it the only way of imagining the Way?
The question isn’t whether an analogy exists but whether the analogy accurately conveys truth. We’re trying to recognize our own biases in an attempt to critique the consistency of our own theologies. Is there, in fact, a “slippery slope,” or is that presuming more than the scriptures actually say?
One of the helpful things about Matthew’s kingdom of heaven analogies is that the author presents so many of them so closely together. Doing so helps keep readers from getting hung up on any one analogy, because the analogy keeps changing.
If the straight and narrow path is only one of many analogies presented in scripture to describe a righteous life or faith in God or a path to salvation, etc., then the slippery slope analogy is, at best, only sometimes appropriate. Or, if we believe that our journey with God is characterized by grace, mercy, humility, and love, the idea of a “slippery slope” may be too extreme.
Analogies and Consistent Theology
There are two reasons why I’m including this in the Consistent Theology series.
- Analogies have the same kind of internal focus that characterizes my view of consistent theology; we pick analogies based on ideas we already have. They don’t inherently contain truths just because they make sense to us. Similarly, our theologies aren’t inherently true just because they seem consistent. Consistent theology has an internal focus; it should be consistent with itself, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
- In the same way that our theologies must be open to change, our analogies must also be open to change. If we pursue consistent theology, we should understand that we’ll eventually need to abandon some analogies and find new ones. We should learn to distinguish between analogies and truths so that we don’t conflate the two. It would be unfortunate if our pursuit of God and truth were cut short because we got hung up on some analogy.
If these things make sense to you, I hope you understand that analogies can’t be used as “trump cards.” Thinking of a strong analogy doesn’t necessarily mean we’re right about something. We can’t simply present a strong analogy and assume we’ve won an argument.
Biases will always exist. None of us will ever have a perfect understanding of facts, let alone truths. Our analogies will always be limited and limiting, but we can still pursue consistency in our beliefs as much as possible. To pursue consistent theology is to be open to self-reflection and questioning, and that means learning new analogies — new ways of articulating our changing beliefs. Hopefully, understanding these things will help us better share our ideas with one another, which will, in turn, help us to continue refining our own beliefs and understandings.
If you’re enjoying the content on Breaking Bread Theology or find it helpful, please consider supporting this work with a donation. I would love to make this a full-time effort and continue to expand the available content, but that will only be possible with enough support from readers like yourself. I hope that together we can continue to create safe spaces for people to explore faith and theology.
Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on May 2, 2022.