Volume 13, Issue 5: Incarnatus
Knowing is Imaging
The term literal is quite unclear and ambiguous. After surveying recent attempts to explain it, Raymond Gibbs concludes that "there exists no comprehensive account of literal meaning. What we think of as literal depends upon a variety of factors, including culture, the individual, the context, and the task."1
Some have tried to explain literal meaning in terms of the meaning that remains after we remove any context. Literal meaning, in other words, would be that meaning we would immediately think of if we stumbled upon a note in the desert that read "The treasure is buried under the cactus." Without knowing who said this or for what purpose, we can't judge whether it's a joke or a secret code. What's left is supposedly the literal meaning. But that doesn't clarify literal because the message still assumes a vast context. We have to know the difference between a cactus and a train track, and a treasure and a bomb. We bring all sorts of background context to understand this allegedly "contextless" note.2
We can usually understand literal within a narrow context, but why has so much weight often rested upon finding crystal clarity on the point? The answer is that if you do away with the Triune God, you have to find some
other source of epistemological clarity and stability in the world. The ancient Greeks enthroned eternal abstractions, and the Enlightenment took refuge in mathematics. Math appeared to be something on which they could stand the universe and fight relativism, and so they lashed out at figurative language and tried to make everything fit mathematical categories. The literal, after all, is controllable and tame. The finite intellect can wrap around it without mystery; it fits in sanitized propositions and works in rationalistic logical constructs of multiple flavors.
Not only does marrying the true and the literal force all truth into math-like propositions, it also exiles most of our communication since most of it involves nonpropositional items like questions, commands, exclamations, images, and
figurative speech that the literal mode isn't supple enough to process.
But if we follow a more Incarnational approach to knowledge, we're not forced to give special privileges to the literal. We aren't limited to knowing only propositions. Life and truth are much broader than the intellectual. Prior installments of this column have sketched "knowing" as arising from an interactive "doing" by the whole person within the concrete created order, which can be immediately present to us.
It is this interaction with concrete things that sets the pattern for knowing: we interact with objects and events in the world (cups, paths, balls, drinking, running), and we absorb the basic patterns or schemas of these things as images in our thinking; we then use these basic images to understand and know other things, that is, we project basic images from their original objects onto other objects, persons, and especially shapeless, abstract things.
As Mark Turner and others have noted, one basic image schema that we use all the time is that of a container: "Like all image schemas, it is minimal. It has three parts: an interior, an exterior, and a boundary that separates them. We experience many things as containers: a bottle, a bag, a cup, a car, a mountain valley, rooms, [etc.]."3 By combining the image of a container with the image of motion along a path, we get the image behind our use of the preposition into. For example, Scripture shows people going into actual containers, i.e., into a "house" (Mt. 8:14), "the temple" (Mt. 21:12), and "the ark" (Lk. 17:27), but then it also projects this basic image through things that are not actually concrete containers, i.e., into "temptation" (Mt. 6:13), "life" (Mt. 19:17), "peace" (Lk. 1:79), "glory" (Lk. 24:26), "grace" (Rom. 5:2), "death" (Rom. 6:3) and "rest" (Heb. 4:1).
Similarly, there are actual falls, then images of falls projected onto "apostasy" (Lk. 8:13), "reproach" (1 Tim. 3:7), "chastisement" (Heb. 10:31), and "pride" (1 Tim. 3:6).
We find the same use of the image of a journey. Scripture speaks of actual journeys, but it also pictures nonjourneys as if they actually moved down a path: "fame" (Mt. 9:26), "wrath" (Mt. 3:7), "an hour" (Jn. 16:21), "evening" (Mt. 20:8), "days" (Mt. 9:15), "end of the world" (1 Cor. 10:11), "offences" (Mt. 18:7), "goodness" (Rom. 3:8), and "faith" (Gal. 3:25).
This is but a thin sampling. A vast portion of our daily talk is structured by images of concrete things projected onto other things and events. All this mapping, all this projecting of images, is the core of metaphor. Because of Aristotle and other rationalistic sorts, we tend to think of metaphor as a mere decoration of language. That is just the surface. Knowing involves thinking with and projecting images; knowing is metaphorical long before language shows up; knowing is imaging. And a narrow obsession with literality has long missed this wonderful reality.
As has been pointed out, the Incarnation itself is the most profound metaphor, an imaging of the Godhead in the concrete image of Christ (Heb. 1:3).