Robert MASSON.  Without Metaphor, No Saving God: Theology After Cognitive Linguistics.  2014. Leuven-Paris-Walpole MA: Peeters.  ISBN: 978-90-429-3019-3.  Reviewed by Win WHELAN, St. Bonaventure University (emerita), 1415 W. Rascher Avenue Chicago IL 60640-1205. 


Robert Masson lays out a hypothesis, i.e. a proposition or a theory which he proposes as a way of understanding the way theology talks about God. He proposes that there is no way to speak of God without using metaphor. "God is good," for example, is a metaphor, the reason being that "goodness" has a different meaning when it refers to God. The statement cannot be taken literally.

So what is the proper way to talk about God? Here is Masson’s point: there is no proper way to talk about God without using metaphor. Metaphor is a pervasive feature of human thought and language, so much so that much of what we say is unconscious metaphor. "The temperature is rising," for example, is a metaphor, but it is used so often, that we take it literally. The problem here is that we need to recognize what Masson calls "cross-domain mappings." Temperature is crossed with rising. We very often cross two domains without realizing that we are using a metaphor. When we say that God is good, we often don’t realize that goodness, when it refers to God is not the same as goodness in the ordinary sense of the term.

A student queried Masson, "Do you believe that God exists?" Masson answered, That depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "exist." Is God an unseen dimension of the universe, part of a larger whole? Or is God the context and the backdrop for understanding the world? Aquinas makes a distinction, says Masson, between finite being, and the infinite God whose essence is "to be." Existence, when spoken of God does not have the same meaning as when it is spoken of anything else. By saying that God exists, Aquinas is blending the idea of God with the idea of exist, but existence cannot be reduced to some ‘thing’ or ‘being.’ We can affirm that God exists, with the understanding that existence as applied to God is not equal to existence as applied to anything else. This applies to anything that we might want to compare God to.

To speak about the "arm of God," for example, cannot be taken literally, but it can be used provided that it is understood analogically or figuratively. It, and metaphors like it, can be used, provided that they are semantically proper, logically warranted, factually the case, and accepted by the community. Masson wants to create a space between a literal statement and one that is blatantly metaphorical, such as "the arm of God," or "the lamb of God." That space is what he calls "proper." "Proper" should be used when the meaning is in a blended space, that is, when two things or ideas are combined. Masson believes that the word "proper" would clarify the understanding. The statement, "He/She who is" cannot be taken literally because God transcends gender. Yet it can be said in a proper way. This is one of those statements that is often taken literally, but it is actually a metaphor, since God transcends gender.

When the early Christians claimed that Jesus is the Messiah, they took two understandings or terms and blended them in what Masson calls a tectonic conceptual blend. Neither term by itself was new, but brought together, each term was enriched with new meaning. . As a metaphor, it can be used "properly." In the tectonic blend, each term brings new meaning to the other.

Masson’s hypothesis can forestall many misunderstandings when it comes to speaking of God. Whatever we say is not literal, and metaphors are fine as long as they are "proper." However, further clarification is needed on when a metaphor is "proper" and when it is not. Masson defines "proper" as being "semantically proper, logically warranted, and factually the case." The meanings of these terms are not sufficiently clear.

Masson cites many theologians’ ideas to either support or defend his hypothesis, including Thomas Sheehan, Roger Haight, Karl Rahner, and gives an example from James Cone. The book presumes that the reader has knowledge of these authors and theologians. The reader also has to be very astute in deciphering what Masson’s hypothesis is and how the sections relate to one another. It is worth the effort.