Remember George Lakoff and his wonderful book Metaphors We Live By? He and co-writer Mark Johnson argued that metaphors are not “merely” symbolic; instead, they shape and determine how we think. That’s why I’ve been playing with the metaphor of height, which appears with remarkable frequency in the increasingly tiresome theist-atheist debate.
The assumption is that what’s high is good and what’s low is bad. Thus evangelical Christians tend to raise their eyes skyward as they talk about (or to) God or heaven. This is a cultural remnant of the ancient sky god (Baal, Zeus, or Yahweh, depending on where you lived), shown in statuettes wielding a lightning bolt. It also happens to be a clear negation of the assumed monotheistic principle of God as universal and omnipresent, but as Lakoff showed, metaphors trump principle.
We have a long history of altars built on high places, presumably on the basis of “nearer my God to thee,” whatever god or gods were involved. We have steeples and spires, needles and minarets soaring skyward, from the Tower of Babel to Dubai’s Burj al-Khalifa. (And if you happen to live in a valley, or worse, in a canyon, whether concrete or natural, you may find yourself “at the bottom of the heap.”)
The heavenly counterpart is of course hell as the underworld, stoked by fires of molten lava deep beneath the earth’s surface – the hadopelagic, from Hades, the deepest depths. But you don’t have to believe in heaven or hell to be mesmerized by height.
Some evolutionary biologists talk of humans as the “pinnacles” of creation (though I would have thought life as a pinnacle would be an alarmingly lonely business). Others see humans as a “higher order” of evolution (some of them even described as high-functioning).
We have upper and lower classes (both socioeconomic and biological), and upper and lower cases (of course God gets an upper case). We have high and low IQ, high times and low times, high achievement and low, hi-def, hi-fi, hi-res.
Phrases such as “a higher consciousness,” “higher math,” and a “higher power” come tripping off our tongues. As well as “beneath contempt,” and “above reproach.” Our spirits can sink, or soar. We get high, and feel low. And above all, as it were, we occasionally engage in high-level negotiations, rise above our emotions, and give each other a resounding high-five.
None of this would seem to bode well for any consideration in depth, but I intend to keep puzzling at it nonetheless. Maybe I need to climb to a mountaintop…