Here is a quote from Peter Adamson’s Medieval Philosophy (OUP, 2019, volume 4 in his History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps series) at page 188:
Metaphors exercise a stronger influence in philosophy than most philosophers would probably like to admit. Whole political theories have been grounded in the comparison of the state to a human body …. But no metaphor has been more of a constant or influential feature in the history of philosophy than the comparison of knowledge to eyesight.
There are many other examples from philosophy. You might think of Plato’s allegory of the cave, where shadows on the wall of the cave are the common understandings that people live by, but true knowledge is only to be had outside the cave, in the bright sunlight. You might think of Nietzsche’s characteristically shocking parable of the madman announcing the death of God to uncomprehending villagers: “Where has God gone? I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers.” Camus wrote an entire essay using the Greek myth of Sisyphus to frame his existential view of life. Here’s one of my favorites, a brief ironic tale from Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or, which gets less funny with every passing year:
A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.
Now here’s the problem: If the practitioners of philosophy, the art of clear and rational thinking about the general problems of life and the universe, often resort to suggestive and even beguiling metaphors to persuade readers, how much more tempting is it for theologians and expositors of religious doctrine to do the same? Why give a careful, detailed argument when a parable, metaphor, analogy, or even just a slogan will do? A metaphor may do even better, as an argument, if faulty, can be refuted, whereas metaphors and slogans somehow resist that sort of response. And thus we see how and why metaphors, analogies, and cute little stories abound in official Mormon discourse.
In fairness, metaphors and analogies can lend insight and understanding to a problem or issue. They aren’t always misleading or inapt. So the use of these rhetorical devices alone does not imply misuse. But so often analogies are thrown out as if the comparison made sheds light on an issue or, by itself, creates understanding where before there was none. Properly employed, an analogy is a pedagogical device whereby one who knows a particular subject or issue helps one who does not understand things by way of the analogy. The one who understands uses the analogy to guide one who does not understand. If neither person understands, the analogy has no claim to be providing any understanding. It’s garbage in, garbage out, and running the garbage through an analogy does not transform the process into garbage in, knowledge out.
So here is the question for the day: What metaphors or analogies are used (or overused) in the Church? Do they provide insight and understanding or do they just provide the illusion of understanding or paper over continuing confusion? I’ll throw out a couple of examples and solicit better examples from readers.
Stay in the boat! This recent metaphor from Elder Ballard likens the Church to the Old Ship Zion. We should do Mormon things and stay in the Church just like we should wear a life jacket and stay in the boat on a river rafting trip. Leaving the Church is very risky, just like being bounced out of the raft can be dangerous. People have really latched onto this metaphor. Of course, our missionaries encourage people to take off their non-LDS life jackets and jump out of their Catholic or Evangelical or atheist rafts to swim over to the LDS boat. And there is a steady trickle of members who intentionally jump off the LDS boat in search of another boat or to get completely off the religious river. Maybe a response to this metaphor might be (paraphrasing the line from Jaws): “We’re gonna need a better boat.”
The stone rolling down a mountain. This comes from Daniel, and the metaphor turns on the idea that the stone gets larger as it somehow picks up rocks and pebbles as it careens down the hill. Also, the stone is cut without hands … because God is the maker of it, just like God is the maker of the Church that rolls throughout the world growing bigger and bigger. This metaphor was used a lot when missionary work was having great success in the sixties and seventies. Not so much these days. Maybe the metaphor for today is: “Stormy weather ahead! Batten down the hatches and stay in the boat.”
So what are your favorite, or unfavorite, Mormon metaphors? I will be disappointed if I don’t see twenty or thirty examples in the comments. Because … we’re a team. We’re in this together. Put your shoulder to the wheel. No man or woman left behind. All for one and one for all. The world has no use for a drone. The train is leaving the station. God hates a coward. Fortune favors the bold. Ready, aim, fire.