Facts and Metaphors: Reflections after Reading Joseph Campbell

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? [Read more…]