Two Models of Christianity

[Excerpts from the book by George Lakoff, MORAL POLITICS: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, selected parts from Chapter 14.]

Nobody believes that "The Lord is my shepherd" is said literally by a sheep that has fleece and eats grass. Nobody believes that "Our Father Who art in heaven" is literally daddy. Virtually every page of the Bible is filled with passages that can only be, and always are, interpreted metaphorically. There simply is no fully literal interpretation of the Bible.

There is nothing surprising about this or wrong with it. Literal modes of thought and literal language are simply not adequate for characterizing God and the relation of human beings to God. Such things can be understood only through metaphorical thought and communicated through metaphorical language. God, after all, is ineffable—beyond human comprehension. If you're going to even think or talk about God, you're going to have to use human experience as your basis and have an extensive collection of metaphors at your disposal.

My colleague, Professor Eve Sweetser, has been studying metaphors for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. She began, somewhat arbitrarily, by looking at the Judaic tradition, at the metaphors in the Yom Kipper liturgy, at a point where a list is given. The list is a good starting point; it provides a representative collection of Judeo-Christian metaphors for God, since many of the Christian metaphors were inherited from the Jewish tradition. Here is the list:

  • God is a father; humans (or specifically Jews) are his children.
  • God is a king; human beings are his subjects.
  • God is a male lover; humanity (or the Jewish people) is his female lover.
  • God is a shepherd; humans are his flock of sheep.
  • God is a vineyard-keeper; humans are his vineyard.
  • God is a watchman; humans are the treasure he guards.
  • God is a potter; humans are his clay.
  • God is a glassblower; humans are his glass.
  • God is a smith; humans are his metal.
  • God is a helmsman; humans are the rudder (or ship).
  • God has chosen us; we have chosen God.

As Sweetser (in a work in preparation) points out, this collection of metaphors for God forms a radial category, with God As Father at the center. The God As Father metaphor is the only metaphor that overlaps in one way or another with each of the other metaphors.

  • The father and king metaphors both attribute authority to God.
  • The father and lover metaphors both attribute nurturance to God and posit mutual love between God and human beings.
  • The father, king, shepherd, and watchman metaphors all attribute protectiveness to God.
  • The father, vineyard-keeper, potter, glassblower, and smith metaphors all attribute to God a causal ontological relationship: bringing people into being.
  • The father, lover, and choice metaphors all see the relationship as between two volitional beings.

These metaphors are not to be seen as operating simultaneously. For example, God is not to be seen as a father who is also a male lover; that would make the relationship incestuous, and it is certainly not intended to be that. The metaphors, though overlapping in the understanding of God that each posits, are not to be seen as holding all at once.

This collection of metaphors for God should give some sense of the richness of metaphorical thought in religion. Since the Bible cannot be understood literally, it must be interpreted. Different denominations of Judaism and Christianity accept different interpretations of the Bible, each denomination, of course, accepting only its own interpretation. It should be clear, then, that the claims of certain Christians that their politics is just a matter of following what is literally in the Bible must be false, though I do not doubt their sincerity in believing that claim.

Conservative Christians are not conservative because they interpret the Bible—all of it—purely literally. There may be parts certain denominations do take literally, such as that God created the world in exactly 168 hours. But in many of the most important respects, conservative Christians have a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible just like everyone else. What makes them conservative is the same thing that makes them the kinds of Christians they are—the use of Strict Father morality. Indeed, that's what makes conservative Christians try to interpret the Bible literally. If the Bible, as the word of God, contains commandments from the highest moral authority, commandments which are to be followed absolutely and strictly, then someone seeking to strictly obey those commandments is committed to having no personal, subjective interpretations; he would not be following God's commandments if they were only his interpretations of God's commandments.

But as we have seen, this is a self-defeating enterprise. Purely literal interpretation of the Bible is impossible—even in its most important respects—the understanding of God, one's relationship to Him, and the overall understanding of the conservative Christian tradition. In conservative Christianity, all of these require an interpretation—a Strict Father interpretation.

All of the above is quoted from this book, chapter 14. The book gives an excellent detailed explanation of how Progressives and Conservatives start with different world views. “Contemporary American Politics is about worldview. Conservatives simply see the world differently than do progressives, and both often have a difficult time understanding accurately what the other’s worldview is.” I highly recommend this book. Since this book takes work to understand, I've made an outline of the main points. Click here for outline. See a lecture given by George Lakoff at


Also see RED vs. BLUE: The Difference Between the Conservative and Progressive Thought Process

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