What are our root metaphors?

– by B. T. Newberg

I need your help folks.  At the core of every religious tradition is a root metaphor which fuses ideas of how things are and how we ought to live.  So what root metaphor(s) operate among naturalistic traditions such as those of HP?  What metaphor(s) should we develop?

Below I make an argument that the root metaphor of all forms of naturalism is nature in some form, but that alone is not enough.  How are we to understand nature, and how will it help us understand how to live?  We need to get more specific.

Please take part in this poll.  Vote for up to three.  You don’t need to be a regular HP reader to vote.  And after voting, you’re invited to explain your choices in the comments section.

This post is part 2 of a series examining HP through the lens of the work of Loyal Rue.  Part 1 is here, and an overview of Rue’s basic concepts is here.

Each candidate is explained below, after a brief exploration of root metaphors in general and nature as the specific metaphor of naturalism.

What is a root metaphor?

In the last post in this series, it was proposed that HP’s basic job is managing human nature, in order to motivate behavior such that we may achieve both personal wholeness and social coherence, as well as ecological integrity.  How is this accomplished?

It takes a central idea capable of fusing facts and values, so that how we ought to live feels as real and compelling as reality itself.  The central idea that does this called a root metaphor.

“The root metaphor renders the real sacred, and the sacred real.”  (Rue, 2005)

A root metaphor, according to Loyal Rue, is what lies at the core of a religious tradition, informing its deepest concepts.  Crucially, it integrates into one single idea how things are (cosmology) and how we ought live (morality).  Abrahamic religions traditionally use the root metaphor of God-as-person, ancient Greek tradition used logos, Hinduism and Buddhism dharma, Chinese religion Tao, and so on.

“When the root metaphor of a mythic tradition is ingested, one apprehends that ultimate facts and values have the same source.  In mythic insight, the ultimate explanation is also the ultimate validation.” (Rue, 2005)

For example, in the Judeo-Christo-Islamic myths, which use the root metaphor of God-as-person, all ideas about how the world came to be and how we ought to live are grounded in the creative will of God.  This produces a strong motivation to behave as God wills (i.e. as the religion says to behave).

Nature the explainer

The role God plays in the above formulation is explanandus, or explainer (Rue, 1989).  The metaphor of God-as-person succinctly explains how things are (God willed them so) and how we ought to live (according to God’s will).

For naturalists, such a metaphor is no longer credible.  Instead, we have come to a point where God is the explanandum, or what needs to be explained.

The ancient Greeks made a similar shift starting around the 6th-century B.C.E. (Burkert, 1985), when they began to critique their gods and deduce how they must be from rational principles.  Since gods are perfectly good, they reasoned, they cannot exhibit moral failings, therefore the myths of Zeus’ adulterous affairs must be false.  By what were the Greeks able to make such a judgment?  They appealed to what they took to be higher than the gods: reason.  The gods were explainable by rational deduction.  Thus, the role of explanandus passed from gods-as-persons to logos, or reason.

The opposite formulation, where God is still the explainer, can be seen in many forms of Judeo-Christian theodicy, where the existence of evil is explained by placing God beyond human judgment: “God works in mysterious ways.”  In this view, there is no rational order explaining how God must be; rather, God is the be-all and end-all of explanation.

Naturalists today do not explain nature by reference to gods; they explain gods by reference to nature.  The divine is variously interpreted as process, creativity, ultimate concern, the ground of being, the encoded memory of past events or people, allegorical reference, a quirk of human biology, a tool of social domination, a development of culture, or a function of human evolution – all these are natural phenomena.  God is the explained, and nature is the explainer.  Thus, the root metaphor of naturalism would seem to be nature.

But that doesn’t tell us all that much – not yet.  What is nature exactly?  And how can it suggest how we ought to live?  To address these questions, our metaphor needs be more specific.  So let’s investigate a few of our alternatives.


The predominant paradigm bequeathed to us by scientific materialism is nature-as-machine.  We have grown used to thinking of matter as inert, dead, stupid stuff that gets knocked around by other matter, like balls on a billiard table.

One problem with this metaphor is that machines are tools for our whims.  They do not transcend us, we transcend them.

Another problem is that traditionally matter was complemented by the intelligence of soul as well as by its designer, God.  If you no longer believe in soul or God, then there is nothing but stupid, meaningless stuff all around.  This lays the foundation for the famous quote by physicist Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless” (Weinberg, 1993).

The metaphor of machine cannot help us understand who we are or how we ought to live.  At most, it says it is up to us to answer these questions for ourselves.  While that may be true, I think we can do better.


Another metaphor in play today is nature-as-person(s).  This is like the God-as-person metaphor of traditional theism, but swap nature for God.  Nature acquires some or all of the human-like traits of God, such as will, intention, personality, wrath, compassion, and so on.  This metaphor shows up in some forms of animism and some Gaian paths (note that the Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis does not use this metaphor, but posits the planet earth is a self-regulating organism; Lovelock, 1995).

It’s certainly a powerful metaphor, allowing for a high degree of what Robert McCauley calls inferential potential: the capacity to permit one to “utilize a huge range of default inferences that accompany our maturationally natural ontological knowledge” (McCauley, 2011; italics his).  In plain language, he means it let’s us quickly draw a number of conclusions with little but the brain’s natural intuition.  Specifically, it draws on our species’ highly developed social intelligence.

An example will make that a little less arcane-sounding.  The God-as-person metaphor allows one to take an event such as a failure of crops and activate the brain’s module for dealing with persons, leading to a whole suite of new inferences: If all happens by divine will, then a god willed the crops to fail, and it must be because he is angry, so we should offer a gift to appease that anger, and hereafter live in ways conducive to a better relationship with the god.  In this train of thought, the idea of how things happen (cosmology) leads directly to what to do (morality).

The nature-as-person(s) metaphor would seem to allow similar inferences (though without necessarily reaching the same conclusions).  However, the main problem with this metaphor is the same as that of God-as-person: credibility.  It just doesn’t seem plausible for many naturalists today (with the possible exception of certain proposed solutions to the hard problem of consciousness).  Anthropomorphism is not necessarily a bad thing if used consciously and for specific purposes (see my defense of it here).  However, used as a root metaphor, which usually operates unconsciously and at the highest level of generality, it seems inappropriate for naturalists.


A third metaphor is nature-as-Creativity.  Representatives in this line of thought include Stuart Kauffman, Gordon D. Kaufman, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd, Connie Barlow, and PaGaian’s Glenys Livingstone.  It may also hark back to Spinoza’s natura naturans.

The idea is that nature is inherently creative, producing marvelous patterns and complexity out of its own self-organizing propensities.  It is not inert stuff, nor is it the tool of some other thing that transcends it.  This grants nature inherent value.  It also gives nature and humans something in common, namely creativity, without going so far as to turn nature into a personality.  Finally, it tells us who we are: part of the great story of unfolding cosmic creativity.

“Creativity” is quite abstract, though, and it’s not very clear how we ought to live as part of this Creativity.  It seems short on inferential potential.  If a crop failure happens due to natural Creativity, then it must have a meaningful place in some emerging pattern.  There is something inspiring in that idea, but it doesn’t seem to suggest much of a role for us in the matter other than perhaps to marvel in tragic awe at the new pattern (or am I missing something?).

Nature-as-Big Self

Here’s the idea: Nature is so much greater than us, yet we are an integral part of it.  Our tiny conscious ego (small self) is dwarfed by, yet interdependent with, the greater world of being (Big Self).

Alan Watts eloquently expresses the notion:

We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.  (Watts, 1989)

As does Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

There is inferential potential here: If I am an integral part of nature, however small, then how I live must have an effect.  Since we are nature, we ought to value it as we value ourselves, treat it with care and respect, and live in ever more sustainable ways.  The crop failure would be met by questioning how our own actions have contributed to this (trans)personal crisis, what we might do to heal the wound, and how we might live healthier in the future.

One problem with this metaphor is that it seems to obscure the radical otherness of nature.  But I don’t think it’s a big problem, because contemplation of it leads right into the experience of otherness.  Confronted by the proposition that nature is us, we immediately ask “How can this be?  I’m nothing before the vast depths of nature.”  Nature appears as an Immensity (to use Brendan Myers‘ term).  This plunges us into what Rudolf Otto (1958) calls “creature feeling”: the emotion of being overwhelmed with awe before what transcends our own smallness.  Finally, integration comes when we realize it is not the tiny ego but rather its participation in the greater whole which is meaningful.

An alternative version of this metaphor might be nature-as-body.  If “self” is too psychological of a term, “body” might achieve the same extension of personal identity without suggesting any kind of cosmic consciousness or intelligence.  Those living with the nature-as-body metaphor may see trees as their lungs, and rivers as their blood.


Last but not least, the metaphor of nature-as-kin may have something to say today.  By this metaphor, Earth becomes our mother, sky our father, and all creatures our brothers and sisters.

This metaphor has recurred again and again across history in many times and places.  It’s probably not by accident, either: sociobiology suggests we are genetically predisposed to aid our close kin first, since they likely carry identical copies of our genes (this is called inclusive fitness or kin selection; Dawkins, 1989).  If this is so, then viewing nature as kin may activate deep-rooted motivations to treat nature with respect, care, and devotion.

This reverses the original function of the predisposition (widening rather than narrowing the field of aid), but that doesn’t matter – evolution re-purposes things all the time if it makes for greater fitness.  In our age of ecological crisis, whatever best motivates eco-centric behavior will exhibit the greatest fitness.

Another advantage of this metaphor is that it has the virtue of being modestly counterintuitive.  Pascal Boyer  (2001) counts as counterintuitive something that violates our most basic, inborn intuitions about classes of objects.  Children know from a very early age that an owl can’t give birth to a lizard (McCauley, 2011).  So, saying that the earth is our mother is counterintuitive.  This makes it an interesting meme, and therefore more likely to be passed on.  Yet it is not radically counterintuitive – it doesn’t take years of training to grasp, as do science and theology.  Boyer finds the best balance or cognitive optimum is a modestly counterintuitive idea with just one or two violations.  In other words, nature-as-kin is a highly fit meme in the game of cultural selection.

A difficulty, though, might be that it seems all too ready to merge with the nature-as-person metaphor.  Since our kin are normally human, calling the Earth “mother” seems to invite anthropomorphism.  The metaphor would then suffer from the same credibility problem that plagues nature-as-person.

Other metaphors

There are, of course, many other possible nature metaphors.  Michael Cavanaugh suggests Big History as a possible metaphor (Cavanaugh, personal communication).  I’m sure you’ll come up with plenty as well (feel free to share in the comments).

Can we really choose our metaphor?

Ultimately we may not be able to choose our root metaphor; we may just find ourselves using it.  But however we identify it, it will determine how we think, act, and forge symbols as we embark on our naturalistic paths.


Boyer, P.  (2001).  Religion Explained.  New York: Basic Books.

Burkert, W.  (1989).  Greek Religion.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dawkins, R.  (1989).  The Selfish Gene.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Lovelock, J.  (1995).  Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.  New York: Oxford University Press.

McCauley, R.  (2011).  Why Religion Is Natural and Science Is Not.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Myers, B.  (2008).  The Other Side of Virtue.  Hants, UK: O Books.

Otto, R.  (1958).  The Idea of the Holy.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Rue, L.  (1989).  Amythia.  Tuscaloosa,AL: University of Alabama Press.

Rue, L.  (2005).  Religion Is Not About God.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Watts, A.  (1989).  The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (Vintage Books Edition).  New York: Random House.

Weinberg, S.  (1993).  The First Three Minutes.  New York: Basic Books.

33 Comments on “What are our root metaphors?

  1. I’d suggest Nature-as-persons over Nature-as-person as a polytheist/animist, but I’m not sure if that can also be fit as Nature-as-kin as well. I usually come up as model agnostic when someone has these kind of root metaphor discussions. I’m sure if I thought long enough I could provide a probability for each of the ones listed, rather than an/either choice that normally fit into these discussions.

    • Good point! Changed to nature-as-person(s). Doesn’t seem to display the change in the poll box but otherwise it’s there.

      There is surely overlap in some of these. You can vote for up to three.

  2. I would like to suggest another book that was helpful for me years ago. “Beyond Religion: 8 Alternative Paths to the Sacred” by David N. Elkins, Ph.D.

    • Reality/Nature/Life as Impermanence and Interdependence.

      One may recognize these as two of the core beliefs of Buddhism. But they are the most realistic, accurate and useful metaphors that I have found in my extensive searching. Interdependence is traditionally referred to as non-self and it is the idea that there is nothing about you (or any thing) that is independent of other things. That your true reality is your connectedness or oneness with all of reality. Impermanence and Interdependence are applicable at all levels/aspects of existence– the physical, the biological, the psychological, the social, the economic, the spiritual. Interdependence, when it is described in a positive sense as oneness, provides the jumping off point for a universal, constructive spirituality.

      • Ah, interdependence, yes. Good one. What do you see as the potential in that for how we ought to live?

      • I like that Gerard … your “impermanence and interdependence” expressed here seem resonant with what I call the “communion” quality of the unfolding Cosmos, which is the essential relatedness, and is also dynamic – always in flux: this place of existence is an event. I also identify it, metaphorize it as the “Mother” quality of the Triple Goddess – in my poetics.

  3. Oh … I went hunting and found my comment over at the poll. So here it is:

    For me the Triple Spiral motif expresses the complex dynamic of Creativity in which we humans find ourselves. Is the Triple Spiral a metaphor? It has so many layers of meaning … related to the actual place where it is found, but also cosmically.
    And re (in your section on nature as creativity): “There is something inspiring in that idea, but it doesn’t seem to suggest much of a role for us in the matter other than perhaps to marvel in tragic awe at the new pattern (or am I missing something?).” I think the thing you are missing is that a Creative Cosmos is sentient and seething with connectivity – Thomas Berry called it “presence”. In such a universe, I feel that “every hair on one’s head is counted”: that is, detail is attended to … we may not understand it very well, but Whitehead’s process philosophy went a long way towards an understanding and others (including David Ray Griffin and Charlene Spretnak) since then have developed it further. In such a universe we cannot touch without being touched, and everything one does makes a difference.
    best 🙂

    • >every hair on one’s head is counted

      That is also inspiring – deeply so – but how does it imply how we ought to live? i.e. what are the implications for morality?

      Also, what do you mean by sentience? Why does Creativity imply sentience?

  4. As a variation of the “Nature-as-Creativity,” I suggest “Nature-as-Giver.” This contrast the older notion that Nature is the given and God the giver. Nature is the giver of life and all that sustains it. Of course, it is also the taker of life, but it can only take what first is given. (We are given but an uncertain duration to enjoy this “present.”)

    Actually, though, I would emphasize the pluralism of naturalistic belief. Each of the metaphors above reveals an aspect of Nature, and none of them reveals more than an aspect. If someone prefers one to another, fine. Would that the community of naturalistic belief be united as much by the differences of our beliefs and myths and metaphors as by the similarities.

    • >As a variation of the “Nature-as-Creativity,” I suggest “Nature-as-Giver.”

      Interesting. That also finds a fortuitous correspondence in the ancient Pagan notions of religion as recriprocity, or do ut des – giving and receiving of honors. It also accesses a likely mental module for intuitive interpersonal interaction – the “you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” mentality – as well as a sociality module. In other words, there’s basic inferential potential there in McCauley’s sense. For better it worse it might blur part-way into nature-as-person(s).

      >Actually, though, I would emphasize the pluralism of naturalistic belief.

      Acknowledged. The only thing that all naturalists could really have in common is naturalism. Nevertheless, finding out what metaphors interest our community most could lead in some creative and inspirational directions (without shutting down other directions).

  5. well Brandon, I reckon that if we live in a Universe where “every hair on your head has been counted” (detail is attended to), then it implies that one ought to live care-fully: Care becomes rather important, and so does transparency; lots of implications for morality.

    By sentient I mean an intelligent space, a capacity that is alive with potentiality. I really like the Webster’s dictionary definition of “sentience”: “intelligence … the readiness to receive sensation, idea or image … unstructured available consciousness … feeling”.

    A Creative universe would imply that yes?

    • >By sentient I mean an intelligent space, a capacity that is alive with potentiality. I really like the Webster’s dictionary definition of “sentience”: “intelligence … the readiness to receive sensation, idea or image … unstructured available consciousness … feeling”.
      A Creative universe would imply that yes?

      I wouldn’t have thought so. Do you mean, like, a personality with feelings and intentions and purposes? I guess I was reading Creativity as referring more to the universe’s process, which is characterized not as inert matter in the hands of some Creator, but as a self-creating process, an innate Creativity.

      In this, I thought I was following folks like Brian Swimme and Michael Dowd, but you know them far better than I do. Do they talk of sentence and feeling? Just curious.

      • I don’t mean like a personality – I mean like the quantum foam.

        And yes Brian Swimme certainly speaks of sentience and feeling .. his old “Canticle to the Cosmos” series is worth a watch or a listen for all that (you can get just the audio http://www.soundstrue.com/shop/Canticle-to-the-Cosmos/3459.productdetails ). And Thomas Berry wrote many essays expressing this. It is also explained somewhat in process philosophy, (though that may be a task to read) – though not sufficiently by Whitehead I don’t think: others have taken it further since, and I am currently reading for a doctoral student who is developing it yet again. I don’t know about Michael Dowd in this regard … he may have other priorities regarding explaining things (God).

        best to you …. sorry to be a bit brief: Winter Solstice ceremony coming up on the agenda 🙂

        P.S. for some reason I am not being notified of comments here: I have to come looking. ??

        • Thanks for the clarification, and don’t worry about it you get busy. Have a great Winters Solstice!

          Comments: Next time you comment, you might have to check a box below that says “Notify me of follow-up comments via email.”

  6. I checked nature-as-kin and nature-as-big self. Had I read your descriptions first I would have also checked nature-as-creativity. To me these three categories are really an outgrowth of the theory of evolution. Evolution is the paradigm of our time, and it is changing the way we think about everything, not just biology, but economics, history, psychology, religion and even morality. People are starting to pay less attention to the “charioteer” and more to the “horse” to borrow Plato’s analogy, that is to explain things by looking at the small, almost imperceptible forces and structure which can have an enormous effect especially over time. Evolution seems a little big to be a root metaphor for HP, but still I don’t think we can stray far from it.

  7. For me, Nature, aka the Universe, the All, is the Big Self, it is the organic beaing of which I am a microscopic part of. As Neil Degrasse Tyson said, “that makes me feel big”.

    • Thanks, Annika. DT Strain also mentioned Neil Degrasse Tyson to me the other day. I’m actually not familiar with his work… what can you tell me about him? And what was the context of his comment “that makes me feel big”?

      • He’s a scientist, I think an “astrophysicist” but he talks a lot about studying outerspace, planets, stars, the universe. There’s a lot of videos of him on youtube giving really inspiring talks. The quote was from a talk where he’s talking about the creation of the universe and how we’re all made of star stuff. I think he says “we are in the universe and the universe is in us”.

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  9. As for me, I voted for nature-as-Creativity, nature-as-Big Self, and nature-as-kin.

    Creativity doesn’t really appeal to me, personally – too abstract – but it does appeal to a whole lot of folks, which indicates its power and usefulness.

    Big Self is my personal favorite, because this is exactly the kind of awe-inspiring, land-you-on-your-ass experience that I’ve had with nature. That it is so much greater than me, but that I am a seamless part of it, leaves me speechless. Nothing I write or say can really be separated from that realization.

    Kin has limited appeal to me personally, but I would advocate for it for a specific reason: it seems able to appeal to folks on a mass scale, which is sorely needed in naturalism. Upon contemplating all the naturalistic religious traditions that have appeared throughout history, I can’t think of even one that was not a special interest attached to a larger culture of anthropomorphizing popular religion. Stoics and Epicureans, for example, were part of the larger Greek religious tradition, Buddhist monastics are part of a popular tradition of lay Buddhism, philosophical Taoism is part of a larger Chinese folk religion with magic and deities and so forth. So it seems historically evident to me that any naturalistic tradition that hopes to survive must have some mass appeal, or some version with mass appeal. Naturalism itself depends on years of rigorous training in the sciences and logic before we really appreciate how amazing nature is *without* supernatural beings, or why such superbeings are not desirable. Even more difficult to understand is how to live once we have that appreciation. Thus, naturalism seems more akin to theology/philosophy to me than popular religion. Something requiring that much in-depth training and investment can never support a popular religion. What could be reasonably consistent with naturalism and yet very easy to understand, so easy even a child can get it intuitively? Thinking of earth as mother, sky as father, other species as siblings, etc., seems to have this virtue. It is still capable of supporting deep thought as well, but even a child can get the basic idea easily. That’s why I think nature-as-kin has real potential. The challenge is whether it can maintain its integrity without slipping into quasi-supernaturalism by imparting intelligence, intention, and agency along with kinship.

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  14. I’d say that in Hinduism you get four of these: nature as person, creativity, kin, and big self. They are not seen as contradictory.

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