Articles, Exegesis, Reviews

Is There any Value for Spiritual Naturalists in Retaining God as a Metaphor? :: Review

I have followed The Spiritual Naturalist Society for a while now. They are a wonderful community of literate people trailblazing a wide range of spiritual paths. Most are atheist or agnostic, some are pantheist, but unfortunately, I have come across few syntheist articles. This particular article demonstrates to me why syntheism is so important for religious institutions to evolve.


Therefore, some religious naturalists advocate retaining God as the metaphor for the ongoing creativity in the universe – the life-giving, creative, ordering power within the emerging into being of all that is.

The common stereotype is that a metaphor is something imaginary and not real. On one level this may be true, but at the level of neuroscience and cognition, metaphor is, literally, everything. It is the basic working cognitive unit of our minds and it is by using metaphor that all our concepts are formed and learned.

Using this metaphor runs some risks. We need to be careful not to anthropomorphize the metaphor, using it as an excuse for sloppy thinking that turns us back to unwarranted theistic visions. 

The God metaphor does not assert something posed over and against the universe, in addition to it, nor the universe itself.

God is the concept of unity among the diversity of being – a symbol of the great oneness that speaks of the truth of the interconnectedness of everything.

Is There any Value for Spiritual Naturalists in Retaining God as a Metaphor? – Gregory Gronbacher

God as a metaphor is not new. This “metaphorical” concept of God has a long tradition in mainstream religion. Understanding God as a human term referring to a magnitude and oneness that is totally beyond us is theistic. Mystics throughout the ages from the Abrahamic religions have seen God in this way. They saw the magnitude of the universe and recognized the term “God” can only gesture to something no word could contain. God is great and terrible, mysterious and totally beyond us. That is theism. The modern fundamentalist interpretation of Jesus is very different from the longstanding interpretations of “God.” The reason why Jesus is such a beautiful and unique part of Christianity is because it provides “God” a means to condescend and become personal. Moving away from Jesus and back to a expansive concept of God remains within the purview of theism. Metaphorical, pantheistic gods as articulated by Kauffman are reformatted visions of old theistic ideas.

This becomes clear when we are asked if we believe in God while we use “God” to describe the oneness. The answer has to be yes. If you are using the word “God” to refer to a real thing outside of yourself, something that persists without you, you believe in God. Granted it might look different from other conceptions, but you believe in “God” nonetheless. It doesn’t matter if this entity is anthropomorphized or not, it is still theistic. After all, how far can this metaphor go? If I design an emblem showing a human figure ordering the universe and binding it, does that fall within the purview of a non-theistic God metaphor? Or is it too anthropomorphized? What orthodoxy is necessary to ensure that this metaphor doesn’t slide into what the author would consider “unwarranted theistic visions?”

Obviously this is the wrong question. Using a “God metaphor” is theistic, just more mystical than what we’re used to in the modern fundamentalist world. The right question is, “what are we doing when we invoke God?”

Asking whether “God” has any value for spiritual naturalists depends on whether the spiritual naturalist is determined to remain strictly atheist. If not, we are describing a deistic or pantheistic worldview. It seems Gronbacher wants to avoid theism, in which case he would have to jettison “God” in order to avoid entering into theistic territory. But if he did that, as I’m sure he recognizes, he would throw out the baby with the bathwater. There is so much richness and power in God and gods, so much to lift humanity up. The fact he wrote this article indicates to me that he is struggling with how to reconcile the beauty with the baggage, as are many of us in this community.

But the solution is annoyingly simple, sitting right under our noses. What are we doing when we invoke God? We are making it up.

Gronbacher touches on how metaphors are “imaginary” and “not real” but that to our brains that doesn’t matter. He’s on the right track. It’s the key to why gods are so important in the first place. This is not a problem. This is a superpower. Too often I see atheists grappling heroically with the uncomfortable notion that God, despite being made up, still has power over their lives. Their family members believe in God, God influences politics through the people that follow it, God can change a person’s life for the better or worse. The only way to make sense of this is to embrace humanity’s power to create myth. Religion cannot mature if it remains insecure about myth and ritual; the very things which make it up. We must celebrate our ability to make gods. That’s what syntheism is all about.

Celebrating our abilities can give us the tools to put these puzzles into context. Who cares if someone is describing a non-theistic “God” that describes oneness or a theistic “God” that describes oneness? What matters is that there is power in the Name of the Lord. What matters is that we can feel it, the experience, that moment when you look up at the stars and feel small and One. What matters is, if you say you believe in God, you are participating in that which binds us together and makes us greater than we are alone.

There is a difference between describing the oneness and participating in it. Where science tries to describe, the spiritual try to participate. Embracing this, overcoming science envy, and celebrating our ability to make up God is the path forward.

Instead of looking out at the universe and splitting hairs over whether naming that feeling “God” is right or not, just cry “Holy, Holy, Holy.” You’ll get more accomplished that way.

Further Study:

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