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

Humans have long recognized the patterns of order within the world. Despite imperfections, there is a regularity, a measure of harmony, and predictability to reality, enough for the ancients to speak of the nature of our world as cosmos as opposed to chaos – meaning an ordered world rather than a random, disordered one. Cosmos implies an interconnected system of cycles and rhythms, a dynamic harmony of changes, not all perfect or good, but more or less ordered and balanced. Further, cosmos also implies a world of meaning, whereas chaos implies a nihilistic reality.

The source of the cosmos – our ordered universe – is the principles of being and physics themselves. Gravity, electromagnetism and the other forces and laws of physics and nature produce a somewhat ordered universe. These forces are multiple, impersonal, and don’t serve well for producing poetry, appealing to some form of spiritual ritual, or moving the religious imagination.

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. God is a unified shorthand, a metaphor, for the totality of creative-ordering forces in the universe. God is the metaphor for those powers permeated throughout nature.

Recent developments in cognitive neuroscience and linguistics have helped us see the crucial role metaphor serves in the mental inference that makes thinking and the imagination possible. 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. (See the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, including, Metaphors We Live By, 2003)

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. This is God as metaphor, not God as a conscious, willful, interactive personal power that might respond to human beckoning. God may serve as poetic shorthand in conversation, ritual, meditation, and poetry – but we don’t worship metaphors.

There may be value in avoiding the word God and opting instead for divinity, the eternal, or even goddess. God is such a ladened term, carrying with it the accumulated baggage of so much bad theology and poor reasoning. Words matter. Those of us willing to retain some notion of the god-concept, even metaphorically, need to choose wisely.

“Goddess is the name we put on the great processes of birth, growth, death, and regeneration that underlie the living world. The Goddess is the presence of consciousness in all living beings; the Goddess is the great creative force that spun the universe out of coiled springs of probability and set the stars spinning.”
– Starhawk

The God metaphor does not assert something posed over and against the universe, in addition to it, nor the universe itself. This notion of God does not count God as a being at least in the way that a tree, a person, or a personal god is a being. God as metaphor is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of object at all. (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 107-108)

God is the metaphor and symbol for the creative principles in being – the creative power(s) infused throughout all things – the underlying, organizing force that brings order out of chaos and potentiality that drives emergence into ordered complexity and toward life. In this sense, retaining God as a metaphor aligns with the Western concept of monotheism as the apprehension of a unified transcendent value source.

The creative mystery that some call God serves as a foundational symbol for our culture. For many people, it functions as a primary focus for orientation to the sacred, creative principle driving the mystery of reality – that there is something and not nothing, and that this something is orderly, and produces conscious life that can ponder questions of meaning.

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. Such notions underlie most mystical experience.

Individuals are free to retain God as a metaphor or reject the concept altogether. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.

I’d welcome hearing your thoughts on the matter.


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6 thoughts on “Is There any Value for Spiritual Naturalists in Retaining God as a Metaphor?”

  1. In my humble opinion, the term “God” carries way too much baggage with it. If we are to be clear to our contemporaries regarding the meaning of our approach to reality, I think it would be best to drop the use of the g-word. It would be my hunch that a good proportion of the the USA population does not really know what a metaphor is. The “Eternal” is better, but it could still be understood as a personal, anthropomorphic, conscious being. I have always liked a terms used at the end of the move Monsieur Ibrahim, in which they use the term
    “the Immensity”.

  2. I understand the value of one metaphor to capture the numinous and the oneness of our universe. But why God or even goddess? Why wouldn’t we focus our reverence on Gaia? Yes, Gaia didn’t create the universe but it is this living being (non-conscious, non-magical) that has enabled and sustained life, including human beings.

    I see no downside of focusing our reverence on this capital-G. And a very large upside: understanding that we are part of Gaia and utterly dependent on Gaia will hopefully spark a truly restorative civilizational path rather than the cancerous one we’re currently on. Other alien lifeforms can worship their own planetary beings. And perhaps if our species makes it through its turbulent adolescence, we’ll be able to expand our vision outward and understand whatever bigger entity, if any, has enabled the billions of living planets to be born and live across the universe. And perhaps we can even take a role in helping Gaia to procreate (not spreading our fragile selves, but the basic bacterial building blocks so that in a billion years or so Gaia will give birth to planetary offspring). The point is: capital-G Gaia is enough of a metaphor for us to handle right now! Perhaps God can wait patiently a few centuries until we get our house in order.


    • I can think of some downside to using Gaia. One, it is a personification. Gaia is a goddess. Two, Gaia is specifically an earth goddess, and I would think any word we’d choose for the totality of all that is and the ultimate value of it all, would not be limited to an earth reference. Three, the term and its imagery is associated with New Ageism, and I think SNS should distance itself from New Age movements.

      My own choice of a word is Nature, with a capital N, which distinguishes it from nature with a small n, which we use when we refer to the opposition of natural and artificial or natural and cultural. Naturalism is the belief that everything happens due to natural law, including the evolution of humans and all the activities associated with humans. So Nature, as that which operates on natural law, already speaks of a universal term for reality. However, I would want to include within this term not only all the operates on natural law, but also the mystery of how it is that the world is lawful, and this lawfulness leads to a self organizing, creational world.

  3. Thanks for your thought-provoking words. I’ve shied away from the word God for all the baggage, but I’ve noticed the gap in my language. There’s definitely a power in having a single unifying word for that mystery and creative energy that drives our reality along. Using a consistent word allows us to articulate our beliefs for ourselves and others more easily. Imagine trying to explain the ideas of Taoism without the word Tao!

    But even if we’re comfortable using the word God for ourselves with our own definition, things get different in conversation with others. One thought your article brought up for me is the inevitable question we’re asked at some point — “Do you believe in God?” Would I answer yes or no? Which is more accurate? With all the different conceptions of God, the only way to answer the question accurately would be to ask the questioner to define their own definition of God 🙂

    But in the USA anyway, I think it’s impossible to get around the fact that the vast majority of people who use the word God generally mean a personal, interested, actively intervening God. The kind of God who listens to and acts upon prayers. So even though I have a deeply felt reverence toward the mystery and beauty of life, when use the word God… I have to actively fight against conjuring up that cartoonish, personified version of God.

    I’m not allergic to the word God as some atheists might be – I can even appreciate it when it’s used in poetry, religious writing, and philosophy by mapping it to my own beliefs where it makes sense. But I don’t think I can use it for myself on a regular basis.

    My search for a single unifying word continues… 🙂

  4. About metaphor, I’m not sure what God as metaphor actually means here. Metaphors make comparisons that clarify one item by comparing it to certain characteristics of another. “Love is blind,” for example. But is the suggestion here to clarify the notion of God by comparing it to the creative features of the universe? Or is the suggestion the opposite—that the creative forces might be better understood through a comparison with certain features of God?

    I agree with Thomas on the usefulness of Nature with a capital N as a name for the universe with all its mysteries and forces, as he explains above.



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