December 27, 2020•1169 words
Through the busyness of the the past couple of weeks, I have stolen away a few minutes here and there to do some reading for an online class that I am taking. When I first picked up the assigned book, entitled Philosophy in the Flesh, I will admit that I was daunted. It is a 600-page "doorstop" by a UC Berkeley linguistics professor--the very definition of heavy reading. But, despite my attempts to skim for the salient points so I could quickly produce a reflection paper for the class, I found myself drawn into the text, absorbed by the author's powerful--some say groundbreaking--ideas. And as I considered this morning's passage from John's gospel, I couldn't help but view it through the lens of Philosophy in the Flesh. There is something here worth sharing.
So, here it is. Six hundred pages boiled down into just a couple of sentences. Are you ready? Traditional Western Philosophy holds that reality, or truth, is external from us. And we use our reasoning skills, the essence of our humanity, to discover these truths. So, for example, according to Western philosophical thought, time, morality, or love are realities that exist external from us, and we are capable of understanding these things by simply thinking about them. This book, on the other hand, proposes that we reason with our physical bodies rather than just our intellect. So, coming to understand love requires that we experience it in a physical way with our primary senses. We need to see, taste, smell, hear, and touch love. We can't just think about it to "get it." The author, George Lakoff, is a linguist, and much of his rationale for this proposal comes from how humans make use of metaphor to understand such concepts.
Consider how we talk about love. We reference the physical world to describe it all all the time. One of our primary metaphors is that "love is a journey." Consider these expressions:
Look how far we've come. It's been a long, bumpy road. We can't turn back now. We're heading in different directions. We're spinning our wheels. The marriage is out of gas. We're trying to keep the relationship afloat. Our relationship is off track. We're driving in the fast lane on the freeway of love (Lakoff 65-66).
In these common expressions we communicate the idea of love by relating it to something we can experience physically. We know what driving down a bumpy road feels like. We know, or we can imagine, how terrifying it might be to be aboard a sinking ship. We know that speeding in the fast lane is fun but a little risky. It is virtually impossible to describe something as complex as love without using metaphors such as these. I even snuck in a metaphor or two at the beginning of this sermon when I talked about being "drawn into" the text of this book. Physically being drawn into something, like a moth is drawn to a flame is what it feels like to read a good book. Or how about "heavy reading" vs. "light reading?" Heavy reading, like a heavy object, weighs us down and makes us tired. Light reading, on the other hand, is something we can "pick up" easily. How would we describe reading without the use of metaphor?
If you are still with me, I think you can see Lakoff's point ("seeing is knowing" is another primary metaphor, by the way). Human bodily experience is the means by which we understand reality. We are lost without our bodies.
In the prologue to John's gospel, which we heard this morning, we are told that "the Word became flesh and lived among us." Now, knowing what we know about just how fundamental physical, bodily experience is to us humans, the incarnation takes on new meaning. It's not just nice that God came to us in the form of Jesus, it's actually the way that we know God. Abstract conceptualization is not enough for us. We need a God we can touch, smell,
hear, see, and, yes, taste--what do you think the Eucharist is all about?
Have you ever wondered why Jesus was laid in a manger? As Luke tells it, there was no room in the inn, so Mary and Joseph were presumably given access to a nearby barn or stable, which is where you would find a manger, a feeding trough for animals. In French, manger, or manger is the verb that means "to eat." There are at least two layers of meaning to this story. On the one hand, the baby was literally placed in a manger out of necessity. On the other, the manger is a metaphor meant to help us understand how we are to come to know God with our bodies. God is our primary source of nourishment.
So, what in the world does this mean for us today, this Christmas season? The COVID pandemic has been challenging for everyone. That's an understatement, I know. But I think it has been particularly perplexing for Christians because it confronts our primary metaphor. As members of the Body of Christ, we know God by physically being in one another's presence, by reaching out and touching one another. And yet, that is the very action that spreads the virus. So, understandably, we get angry about the rules that keep us apart, and we lash out. But at the root of that anger is sadness and grief. We've lost something familiar and it hurts.
And yet, lest we forget, in the midst of our socially distant Christmas, that this primary metaphor is not our only metaphor. The author of the Gospel of John knew this. At Christmas the Word becomes flesh, yes, but the light begins to shine in the darkness as well. December 21 was the winter solstice, marking the time when the days begin to grow longer. In fact, today we will have 18 more seconds of light than we did yesterday, and tomorrow we'll add 21 seconds to that. I would just like to see the COVID virus try to mess with that one! Even if our daily cases increase, the light will literally continue to overcome the darkness in this world.
So, I ask you today to shift your metaphor. No, we can't be physically present with one another. We are not celebrating the Eucharist. We will again--I'm not worried about that. But in the mean time, don't forget to look out your window and soak up the light. And, in turn, in whatever creative way you can, reflect that light, that hope, that love, to your family, your friends, and your neighbors. Let them know that despite the virus's best efforts, Christmas has come indeed.
The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Trinity and Grace Churches, Pine Bluff | December 27, 2020
First Sunday After Christmas
Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Nachdr. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010.