Anything we say about God is always metaphorical.
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable. The statement “God is love” is not literally true in the sense that the statement “This is a chair,” is literally true. There may be different kinds of chairs, but the basic category “chair” is for the most part universally comprehensible. The same cannot be said for the word “love.”
We run into trouble when we equate the metaphors we use to speak about God too closely with the reality we are attempting to communicate. When we are talking about God, language is always a finger pointing at the moon. If we believe the finger is the moon, we will never come close to encountering the reality towards which the finger is attempting to point.
Spiritual traditions have used many words to speak about that reality we seek to discern when we use the term “God.” Recently I compiled a list of some of the word images traditions have used to refer to God. It is a pretty long list attached below. No doubt there are many words missing. But the very quantity of words I have identified points to the extraordinary complexity and mystery of trying to talk about “God.”
(nb: if you get weary with this long list, skip to the bottom of this post for the concluding three paragraphs)
Figures of Speech Used in Talking about God
Names/Descriptions of God in Hinduism:
Timeless Being, Primordial Lord, First Person, the Supreme Brahman, the Self of all, the Supreme Soul, The Over-Soul, The chief foundation of this world, subtler than the subtle, eternal, That thou art, thou art That, Pure Light, Pure Love, the Highest of beings, Supreme Permanence, Supreme Consciousness, Supreme Intelligence, Ultimate Reality, Emptiness, Absolute, Cosmic Controller, Supreme Cosmic Spirit
Metaphors for God in the Bible:
king, judge, shepherd, rock, lion, fortress, friend, father, co-worker, potter, wind, breath, vine, light, farmer, old woman, mother hen, bride-groom, fountain, gate, water, bread, fire
Adjectives used in the Bible to describe God:
holy, faithful, everlasting, almighty, immanent, transcendent, eternal, jealous, righteous, forgiving, merciful, comforting, perfection, compassionate, steadfast, patient
Names of God in the Bible:
I Am What I Am, Lord (Yahweh/Jehovah), Healer, Provider, Creator, Wisdom, Banner, Justice, Helper, Beloved, Ancient of Days, Hope, Redeemer, Master, Saviour, Advocate, Counsellor, Life
99 Names for God in Islam:
The Greatest Name, The All-Compassionate, The All-Merciful, The Absolute Ruler, The Pure One, The Source of Peace, The Inspirer of Faith, The Guardian, The Victorious, The Compeller, The Greatest, The Creator, The Maker of Order, The Shaper of Beauty, The Forgiving, The Subduer, The Giver of All, The Sustainer, The Opener, The Knower of All, The Constrictor, The Reliever, The Abaser, The Exalter, The Bestower of Honors, The Humiliator, The Hearer of All, The Seer of All, The Judge, The Just, The Subtle One, The All-Aware, The Forbearing, The Magnificent, The Forgiver and Hider of Faults, The Rewarder of Thankfulness, The Highest, The Greatest, The Preserver, The Nourisher, The Accounter, The Mighty, The Generous, The Watchful One, The Responder to Prayer, The All-Comprehending, The Perfectly Wise, The Loving One, The Majestic One, The Resurrector, The Witness, The Truth, The Trustee, The Possessor of All Strength, The Forceful One, The Governor, The Praised One, The Appraiser, The Originator, The Restorer, The Giver of Life, The Taker of Life, The Ever Living One, The Self-Existing One, The Finder, The Glorious, The One, the All Inclusive, The Indivisible, The Satisfier of All Needs, The All Powerful, The Creator of All Power, The Expediter, The Delayer, The First, The Last, The Manifest One, The Hidden One, The Protecting Friend, The Supreme One, The Doer of Good, The Guide to Repentance, The Avenger, The Forgiver, The Clement, The Owner of All, The Lord of Majesty and Bounty, The Equitable One, The Gatherer, The Rich One, The Enricher, The Preventer of Harm, The Creator of The Harmful, The Creator of Good, The Light, The Guide, The Originator, The Everlasting One, The Inheritor of All, The Righteous Teacher, The Patient One
CEO, Co-Pilot, Higher Power, Clockmaker, Baker, Weaver, Divine Therapist, The Force, The Singer, The Ground of Being, G-d, The Source, Architect of the Universe
Who can say which is the “best” metaphor/word/image to use of God? Who am I to demand that you sign on to my God-language as if my language was somehow uniquely ratified by the Almighty? Would we not all speak more adequately about the invisible Mystery that is God, if we chose to honour and respect one another’s language?
Does accepting that your language works for you and draws you closer to the reality we are both pointing to when we speak of God, mean that I cannot hold passionately to the truth to which my language points?
I believe, if I follow deeply and authentically the path to which my metaphors for God guide me, I will grow in my faith and trust in the reality of God in my life. I believe, if you follow deeply and authentically the path to which your metaphors for God guide you, you will grow in your faith and trust in the reality of God in your life. Let’s do that… okay?