Richard Rorty, Religious Metaphors, and Praxis

Nestor Ravilas

This is a seminal analysis of the topic; hoping that a more sufficient inquiry will follow in the coming days. My interest in the subject was prompted by an incessant objection of one participant in a seminar we held on climate change and together with other social issues. Moved by his conviction, he relentlessly objected to our call for the care of nature and insisted instead that humans are the only objects of God’s salvation. He barraged us with biblical verses to prove his point and convince us of our alleged departure from truth. The encounter pulls me back to the proverbial philosopher who is sitting and musing deeply the biggest questions of life. What bothers me is the thought that the man could be a representative of significant portion of Evangelical Christians that we have to be seriously concerned about.

And what strikes me most in that encounter was the seeming tenacious influence of our religious metaphors in the way we behaved and engaged our world. Far from the drive of the West to secularize their societies, ours remains inextricably connected to the world of gods and spirits. Our attitude then towards the “other,” whether the other is another being or the world that shelters us, is informed and directed by these religious vocabularies and metaphors that we hold sacred and life-governing. It does not come as a surprise therefore to see someone’s apathy towards the degradation of nature and the threat it brings to human existence as a result of climate crisis since God herself does not value nature. It does not matter if we pander in irony of employing terror in subduing terror since our religious language says that God herself finds fetish in violence in keeping and upholding her decrees. And we do not mind if we reduced the “other” into “truth” and indulged ourselves into a metaphysical righteousness that is passively awarded by external agent, rather than responding ethically to the invitation to build relationship with the “other” that offers us an opportunity and freedom to attain righteousness by doing concrete good things to her. These, I supposed, are the prevailing religious vocabularies that governed and informed not only our faith, but the way we engage all issues of our existence.
It was this hovering crisis of the correlation of beliefs and praxis that I find Richard Rorty’s treatment of language as metaphors alluring. That no language represents and expresses reality so as to say it is identical to it. Language then, however sophisticated it is, however homage we wish to pay for what it has contributed in shaping our identity in the past, is not eternal. Both the present and the future offer challenges that compel us to improve our language to make it more sophisticated and dynamic in shaping what we wish to be in the future. The non-fixity of metaphors points into the ongoing movement of history – and thus morality, knowledge, and even faith should go along with this development and progress.

The objection of the seminar participant could be the prevailing voice in our multiplicity of metaphors. But the fact that we offered an alternative view says indeed that it was not the only voice within the public sphere of discourse. The alternative opinion breaks the peace and we hate discord for it disrupts order. But discord should be welcomed when it is pursued in the search of a better society – better than what we are today, said Rorty. Resistance to alternative metaphors is not keeping the peace, but accelerating more the tension. To open the table wide and let the alternative religious languages come in and judge them on their value based on their capacity in guiding us towards progress in ethics, knowledge, technology, and faith the more we are achieving resonance with each other. Devaluing nature based in our complete ethereal hope is no longer paying us any good but bringing us now in nearly irreversible climate crisis. So goes with the other metaphors that are holding us hostage in the issues and concerns of the past and are proven inept today.

If indeed there is someone worthy of the title “strong poet” accorded by Harold Bloom to those divergents who keep inventing language and metaphors, Jesus might have championed them all. I encourage you to read the gospel and see how he altered, improved, and invented metaphors and vocabularies to lead his group out of the antecedental enclave into a more promising community.

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