Shawn Tucker teaches Humanities at Elon University, and might contribute completely true, non-fake news stories to the Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer. He and his wife live in North Carolina and have four children.
There seems to be only two kinds of people: Those who think that metaphors are facts, and those who know that they are not facts. Those who know that they are not facts are what we call “atheists,” and those who think they are facts are called “religious.” ― Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, p. 48
I have succeeded in not cheating on my wife. I have never had sex with anyone outside of my marriage. In fact, I didn’t have sex with anyone before I got married. Those are facts. They may not seem like important facts, unless you are my wife. Or maybe if you are my children. Or maybe if you are me. For me, these facts mean that I can make promises with others and keep them. They mean I can have principles and stick to them. All of the good old virtues—temperance, justice, fortitude, courage, faith, hope, love—could be connected to these facts. Oh, and one last thing. These facts show dangers and pain I have avoided, like STDs as well as potential despair, loneliness, and post-coital feelings of emptiness.
Why do I bring up these facts? I bring then up because these facts are the results of metaphors. These facts are facts because of a series of metaphors that I use to conduct my life, to make decisions, to establish priorities and values, and to make meaning. Furthermore, these metaphors bring with them a very satisfying sense of right and wrong, of justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace. These metaphors give life to my relationships, to my church service, to my job, and to my day-to-day living. But here’s a persistent question: do these metaphors point toward transcendent, real things?
Sometimes I believe very strongly that these metaphors do point toward something real, something transcendent. I believe that there is a loving creator God, a Sky Father and a Sky Mother. I believe that They love me enough to send a Savior as well as inspired people like prophets and my parents. I feel close to God; I feel that They are listening and attending to my prayers. I feel like rituals make Them real for me. Rituals connect me with Them. I believe that a Man was born miraculously to refugees, to social outcasts, and that that Man championed the cause of outcasts. His teachings overturned oppressive systems. His teachings inspire me today. I believe that He shows the way, to use Martin Buber’s language, to say I-You in the place of saying I-It. The story of His death and resurrection has power and influence in my life. When I’m weak it gives me strength. When I error it reassures me of the power and possibility of change and forgiveness. I experience Jesus as personal and real. His life changes, transforms, conditions my life. This complex set of stories, of metaphors, seems to hint toward something vast, loving, and encouraging.
Now I will tell more facts and then I will tell two stories. In 1987 I decided to go on a mission. From May 1 to July 31, 1988, the National Gallery of Art had an exhibition of the work of Paul Gauguin. I learned about this because a friend from high school, Rich Bowen, volunteered at the exhibition. During those months I was in my first areas in Chile. In October of the next year, 1989, Nine Inch Nails released Pretty Hate Machine. This music came out toward the end of my mission. None of these facts, in isolation, are all that important, but let me tell two short stories related to them.
The first story is that in the summer of 1989, when I was working in my third area, a wonderful man we lived with decided to join the church. I had worked with him and prayed for him for months. One night, while he was still struggling with the decision to get baptized or not, as I praying for him, I felt God ask me if I would be willing to give up all of my pre-mission “stuff”—music, clothes, art, etc—in order for him to have an extra portion of the Holy Ghost. This request was horrifying for me. While I was okay setting aside that “stuff” for a mission, I anticipated returning to it after my mission. Furthermore, to give it up would be to give up a very, very large sense of who I was. God was asking me to give up my identity, myself. I felt like I was being asked to die. Luckily, my connection, friendship, and love for Mauricio, the man struggling with the decision to be baptized, won out. I told God that I would give up all of that stuff, and give it up permanently, if it meant Mauricio would get more of God’s influence via the Holy Ghost. When I made this decision, I felt momentarily empty, and then almost immediately filled with light, love, joy, faith, strength, and purpose. In the space that that “stuff” had occupied, God poured in Himself. God became a more central part of my life, my identity, my sense of who I am. It was joyous, miraculous, and life-changing.
The second story is what could have been. It is an imaginary story. I could have stayed home or gone to school near home. That would have given me a chance to attend or even help out at the Gauguin exhibition. I would have been very interested in that exhibition. Gauguin’s art is based on the idea that Western and/or Christian morality take away from life. Gauguin left the “Christian” world to live a full, rich, and artistic life in Tahiti. That life was free of sexual constrictions or regulations. Gauguin painted this rich, full life. He also lived it, having sex with many (underage) women. He spoke glowingly about the abundant color, richness, and commitment-free sex he enjoyed. This would have been very powerful for me, very persuasive. Nine Inch Nails’ music would have also been powerfully persuasive. The music is compelling and rich, and although very different artistically from Gauguin’s art, it would also have been, I believe, very persuasive in my life. Both Gauguin’s art and Nine Inch Nails’ music would have compellingly persuaded me to distrust metaphors about God. That art would have encouraged me to trust very different metaphors.
(Sorry to say it this way, but) at the end of high school two roads diverged in the woods. I took the path marked by metaphors about God, and that has made all of the difference. The difference is facts, facts about what I have done, what I have not done, what I do, and what I don’t do. The difference is a very different sense of who I am.
Honestly, I still struggle with the question of God’s factual existence. I just don’t know. But I believe and I trust these metaphors and the power that they have had in my life. They are richly rewarding and satisfying, and they seem to point toward, to hint at, something overwhelmingly caring. And they make my actual, factual life better.