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Model and Metaphor Compared

Three important writers on model and metaphor in religion are Ian Barbour, Janet Martin Soskice and Sallie McFague.Barbour, Ian, Myths, Models and Paradigms (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1974), Soskice, Janet Martin, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), McFague, Sallie, Metaphorical Theology...McFague in particular stresses the role of metaphor in the development of imaginative formulations - all metaphor contains an is/is not - in some respects a crafty statesman may ‘be’ an old fox, in other respects he clearly is not. In the role of model and metaphor we discussed the ‘is/is not’ operating in the Bohr atom and Augustine’s Trinity. Theology, for McFague, operates between poetry and philosophy, so metaphor is indispensable. A model, for her, is ‘a metaphor with “staying power”’, a pattern which allows relatively comprehensive and coherent (though still exploratory and open-ended) explanation.McFague, 1987, Ch.2

John Polkinghorne, a former theoretical particle physicist, wants to draw a sharper distinction than many between model and metaphor. He accepts the crucial role of models in framing scientific theory. But in considering metaphor in science he writes: ‘In my opinion, when scientists use apparently metaphorical language - as in talk of ‘black holes’ or the ‘genetic code’ - they are using these terms as picturesque shorthand for ideas they can more readily and more adequately convey in precise scientific language, and they are not using them as imaginative resources for the generation of ideas in a truly metaphorical way.’Polkinghorne, John, The Scientist-Theologians (London: SPCK, 1996) p20

This remark is an important corrective to an over-romantic view of science, but does not do justice to the way metaphors determine what can and cannot be thought, even in a highly mathematical science such as physics.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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