“Metaphor is when you use one real thing to refer to another real thing.”

Metaphor shouldn’t be confused with simile. Metaphor is typically used to use “real things” to describe abstract concepts, not other real things. In the Emily Dickinson poem that you cited she obviously is NOT saying hope is really “a thing with feathers”. If she were, we would dismiss her as out of touch with reality rather than providing us with a different and perhaps deeper way to conceive of it. She is conveying something else entirely about hope by describing it as having wings. The same is true of concepts like god. God is ineffable, or rather a metaphor for the ineffable. We can’t use words like transcendent to describe god in one breath and then insist on “his” reality in the next. Don’t confuse the metaphor with the message the metaphor is attempting to communicate.

“If hope was not a real thing, the metaphor wouldn’t work. It’s worth noting that hope does not need to be a physical thing to be a real thing. Physical does not equal real.”

First of all, I’m not arguing things like hope aren’t real. As for hope not being physical, it’s worth defining our terms here. If a thing is actually possible in our universe (like hope), then it doesn’t violate the physical laws of our universe. Since we’ve all probably experienced what we call hope, it necessarily follows that it isn’t just theoretically possible but an actual real experience we as physical beings can have. To argue hope or any experience is real but not consistent with the physical laws of the universe makes no sense. That we don’t understand all that goes into producing feelings of hope — or awe, love, or other experiences we may find deeply meaningful, even spiritual — is not an argument that the physical laws of the universe don’t apply. They must apply because hope is experienced physically in this universe, at least in our small corner of it. There are physical/real events that trigger hope and physical/real events that contribute to hopelessness and these emotions manifest themselves physically in our bodies. Much of the spiritual community seems to have reached the conclusion that any scientific understanding, or even just acceptance that there must be a physical basis for an experience (given we actually had it), negates the possibility of also interpreting that experience as spiritual. There is no reason whatsoever for considering an experience deeply profound/spiritual but not also accepting that such experiences are built into who we are and integral to our efforts to identify our place in the universe and find purpose in our lives. Indeed, it is entirely consistent with seeing life and all that it entails as sacred. By arguing that the physical universe has nothing to do with it you at least seem to be denying that our lived experience is in any way a spiritual experience. At the very least you seem to be minimizing the possibility that it is.

“No one knows what consciousness is.”

On the contrary, we all have a pretty good handle on what it is. To be exact, we know what human consciousness is. Consciousness simply means it’s like something to be who you are. What we don’t know is how exactly consciousness emerges from biological beings like ourselves. We have no examples of non-biological beings who are conscious, but this at least in theory doesn’t preclude the possibility of other beings in our universe who are conscious while also functioning very differently than we do. That said, if such creatures exist, even if we call them “pure spirit” (whatever that means), they would necessarily exist according to the laws of our physical universe and their existence alone would be all the proof needed to demonstrate that they do. Again, to argue something — anything at all — can both exist and violate the laws of nature is to contradict oneself. That we don’t currently understand what laws would support life, to say nothing of consciousness, in beings that were “pure spirit” (again, that needs to be defined) doesn’t mean that they necessarily exist outside natural laws. Our current ignorance of such beings or how they would function and interact with beings such as ourselves is not evidence of anything at the moment. Should we find evidence of life, conscious or otherwise, that does not conform to our current understanding it would merely demonstrate that a gap existed in our earlier understanding that has now been filled a bit more, not that the physical laws of the universe were being violated by their existence. That said, since I see words like “spirit” and “soul” as metaphors that it makes no sense, least of all in a spiritual context, to either insist are real or deny I’m uncomfortable even going there. Using terms like “real” or “unreal” in this context is to completely miss the point I think many of these terms are actually trying to convey, but I’m arguing on your turf here.

“History is full of examples of people moving beyond ‘normal conditions’ and experiencing what lies beyond the range of our standard 5 senses. God is one of those things people often describe ‘out there.’”

You will get no real argument from me. “Normal conditions” is just another term for average conditions. That people’s experiences can deviate from the norm is easy to demonstrate both anecdotally and scientifically. And yes, people sometimes do use the word “god” or other spiritual metaphors to describe these experiences. But god isn’t described the same way by all these people. That’s not a problem if you see the word metaphorically and understand that the countless variations in the visions of “god” or other beings that are reported are all different culturally specific images/names for the same ultimately mysterious and ineffable thing being pointed to by the experience. However, it is a problem if we take their visions and experiences to be pointing to a real thing in its own right. That puts us in the position of having to decide which visionary actually saw the “real” god and which ones saw something else. That usually doesn’t end well either when it comes to personal spiritual journeys or relationships between different cultures and religions.

I’ll close with a quote by the mythologist Joseph Campbell taken from one of his interviews with Bill Moyers about three decades ago:
“Now, this ultimate ground of all being can be experienced in two senses, one as with form and the other as without and beyond form. When you experience your god as with form, there is your envisioning mind, and there is the god. There is a subject, and there is an object. But the ultimate mystical goal is to be united with one’s god. With that, duality is transcended and forms disappear. There is nobody there, no god, no you. Your mind, going past all concepts, has dissolved in identification with the ground of your own being, because that to which the metaphorical image of your god refers is the ultimate mystery of your own being, which is the mystery of the being of the world as well. And so this is it.”

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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