Have you ever heard that Eskimos have over a hundred different words for snow? This is often said to espouse the notion that language affects and reflects a person’s experience of reality. In this case, the casual thought is that Eskimos deal with snow in so many forms all the darned time that their orientation to life is essentially enmeshed with it. (Snow kabobs, grilled snow, baked snow, fried snow, snow salad, snow and potatoes...) The prominence of snow in their lives warrants the minute detail of language needed to speak about it, and conversely, the nuanced language about snow heightens the Eskimos’ perception and acumen about it.
I hate to burst your bubble but modern linguistic scholars widely dispute this cliché about the number of Eskimo words for snow. There are difficulties in defining the label Eskimo and in defining the meaning of “word” or “word roots” when tracing the etymology of both snow and Eskimo. Not to mention that the term Eskimo itself is pejorative to many indigenous groups of people who have been lumped under this moniker by Westerners for hundreds of years. The preferred term, at least by many, is Inuit and refers to the native people of Alaska, Siberia, Canada, Greenland and other circumpolar regions of the North Pole.
What we've got here is failure to communicate. -Captain in Cool Hand Luke
Language is a metaphor of our thoughts, feelings, experiences, and perceptions of reality. If you don’t believe me, think back to the last time you and your significant other had an icky episode. Chances are one of you communicated “A” while the other person heard “B” and relationship mayhem ensued. And if you were the speaker, you thought to yourself, if he could just be in my heart or my mind, he would know that I did not mean it the way that he heard it. And he probably thought, if she really knew me, she wouldn’t have said what she said!
Things often get lost in translation, whether it’s due to the speaker, the listener or merely the inherent limitations of language. Unfortunately for us humans, we do not have Vulcan capabilities and mind melds are not possible. Language is the carrier of the internal reality that we are seeking to share with others. The Eskimo example illustrates the layers upon layers of complexities within language.
When I say God is a metaphor, I mean it in two ways. The word God in and of itself is a metaphor. The word is a symbol of what an individual, group, or religion means by the idea of God. This is why I could have so much fun at parties in my 20s and still feel a sense of correctness. I was basically asking the poor guy, “What is the meaning of your symbol vis-à-vis the word God?”
However, much hardship and many years later, I have come to understand God as a metaphor in a much deeper way. As touched upon previously, God has metamorphosed throughout history with changing attributes, personalities, powers, and abilities. From the Judeo-Christian perspective, this God is commonly viewed as an external being somewhere “out there” who is most certainly male. (Does the image of an old white man with long white hair and a beard, wearing flowing white robes and sitting on a throne that is magically suspended by clouds seem familiar to you?) This is the same God who has secret plans, arbitrarily decides people’s fates, wins football games, and likes bumper stickers with His name on it.
What I came to realize is that even the way we characterize God is a metaphor for our deepest, most existential yearnings or experiences. When we think of God as an old dude out there somewhere who, if we do the right things or believe the right things, will make life better for us, then that is a reflection of the interior mechanism we employ to navigate the difficulties of life. Something external, some self-contained being that I am incapable of understanding is supposed to come to my rescue.
This external-otherness notion of God is what I believed for many years outside of my agnostic phase. That all came to a cataclysmic implosion during a moment that I consider to be the dawn of my spiritual awakening.
To be continued...
This blog piece is an excerpt from Chapter 1: Confessions of an American None: A Credo of Sorts.