The Glass of Vision Lecture 4: The Metaphysician’s Image


In the last lecture, Farrer makes a case for images in the form of metaphors, as the locus of revelation in the broadest sense. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are the specific events then that these images, many of them very ancient, interact with. In this lecture he asks how we might better understand the reality behind these imaged events. “Does God feed his saints with nothing but figures of speech?” The development of an answer to this question leads to a general discussion of the nature of metaphors in human endeavor.

Farrer distinguishes between problems and mysteries. Problems are potentially solvable puzzles and are the usual domain of the various natural sciences, but they can also be approached by philosophers. Information about the world is gathered and analyzed through the use of appropriate instruments (physical or conceptual), continuously refined, which yield answers to specific questions. Science, especially, is often narrowly focused and can only provide the kind of information that its tools and limited questions are designed to extract. Mysteries, on the other hand, are more multidimensional and holistic. They are the so-called ‘big questions’ of life, and call forth human awe and wonder. What is it to love? What does it mean to by subject to time? What are the forces of nature? What is consciousness? Sheer amazement or perhaps poetic exploration are possible responses, but “where the attitude of passive respect combines with a rigorous demand for understanding, metaphysical activity will appear.”

The understanding that Farrer has of metaphysical mysteries precludes any kind of finality like that of puzzles. “Mysteries are not to be solved but (always inadequately) described.” There are no pre-selected tools that can be used to understand complex processes and objects in their fullness. Often multiple images are used to make a composite picture. Images are re-arranged until they seem to fit with other things that we know and with other images. Metaphysics is a systematic elaboration of our thinking and wondering about the world, but in the realm of mystery there are no hard rules to guide us. We go from images to images, term to term, in “irreducible analogizing”. George Lakoff, in his Metaphors We Live By (2003), documents the truth of this assertion in great detail. In fact, Lakoff’s concept of ‘imaginative rationality‘ has a great deal in common with what I think Farrer is getting at here.

After this excursus, Farrer returns to the questions that preoccupy him as a theologian. The total object of belief, like mysteries, is a vast divine process, but there is also a curtain between divine agency and effect. This veil “is not blank. It is painted with the image of God, and God himself painted it, and made it indelible with his blood…” but our experience of it has only begun in Jesus and is therefore partial and dimly understood. The metaphysician may seem to have a relatively easier task than the theologian.

Neither of these men, it is true, can get behind the imaged form of statement, but the metaphysician’s object of study is absolutely given to him in his own existence and in its environing conditions: it is about these things that his analogical statements are made, and he has such an awareness ofthe realities he describes as to be able to feel the relative adequacy of different analogies to them. Not so the scriptural theologian. He has got something, indeed, of given reality to which some of his statements refer, that is to say, the work of grace in his own soul.But not even with regard to this is he in the same position as the metaphysician. For the work of grace in one’s own soul, taken as something simply given, and apart from the transcendent realities to which it is believed to be related, is not even recognizable as the work of grace. So the theologian cannot simply feel the adequacy or inadequacy of the revealed images to the object they describe: for he has not that object. He cannot criticize the revealed images from his acquaintance with their object: he can only confront them with one another.

In conclusion, metaphysical and theological contemplation of mysteries are a grasping after unmeasurable realities that meet us under the conditions of our finitude. They are the natural extensions of human wonder that go beyond intellectual problem-solving within systems. Theology has taken on an enormous task, one comparable to metaphysics, but with a different kind of object. It attempts to interpret all of reality as related to a single idea–God. And that task is the subject of the fifth lecture.