Searching for Meaning in All the Wrong Places

by Jan Garrett

May 6, 2005

Minor revision: October 27, 2005


I don't know what came first . . . perhaps it was the song, "Looking for love" that begins with the line "looking for love in all the wrong places." Religious writers, from both conservative and liberal religious perspectives, have altered it into "looking for God in all the wrong places." There's a book by a New Thought writer and a recent sermon by a Unitarian Universalist minister with that title. Essays and sermons that expand on this title often describe unhealthy obsessions people develop-the pursuit of wealth, popularity, power, public recognition, sexual conquests, and the like. Whatever value these things have, they are not likely to satisfy for long. This is a very old point, of which ancient sages from Socrates to Jesus and beyond were well aware.

It is not my intention to redo that old, well-worn, and in its own way, worthwhile sermon. My title comes from recognition of a link between God, in the view of those who believe in God with a capital G, and meaning, as in the sense of our Unitarian Universalist principle #4, "a free and responsible search for truth and meaning." It does not take much to transform "looking for God" into "searching for meaning," thereby making our topic relevant to those who have real doubts that God, at least by that name, plays any role in our lives.

Meaning and God are connected, in that God somehow lies at the center of a system of meaning for those who really take God seriously, but if we find we can no longer speak of God as if we might know what we are talking about, we can still talk about the meaning of life or at least the meaning of life with the qualifying phrase "as I see it." "Meaning of life" is a notion theists can share with atheists, agnostics and other unconventional thinkers. Such people may still try to discover or create a system of meaning.

But I am not going to tell you today that lust for drink or sex or money or power is a poor substitute for the real thing. Nor am I going to say that our UU Buddhists or Pagans or Humanists or theists are searching for meaning in the wrong place. I want to do two things, and the first is to think out loud about the very idea of a search for meaning. What does our frequent use of this phrase amount to? To begin to answer this question, we need to reflect a bit upon the meaning of meaning itself.


Humans have been creating meaning for a long time, probably since they developed language. But we've been prevented from understanding how we do it, partly because of one-sided ideas about meaning and truth and knowledge. Where do we find meaning? Let me brazenly outline my own current thinking (much indebted to Lakoff's and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh-- see the bibliography at the end of this web page):

  • Meaning is not out there entirely independent of us, nor is it merely inside us, as if by gazing within we could discover it.

  • Meaning is created in interaction between us and our environment, the things and persons in our environment. There are at least two primary kinds of interaction.

  • The first type of interaction is far older than humanity, and therefore far older than the individual today. Random variation and natural selection, the key mechanisms of the evolutionary process, result from interaction between organisms and their environment. The environment of every organism consists of physical objects and other organisms, of its own or different kinds. Human anatomy--our muscles, bones, perceptual organs, nervous system, and brains--with which we experience and create meaning came into being only as a result of interaction between our nonhuman ancestors and their environments.

  • The second type of interaction is possible only when biological humans are on the scene. It starts no later than the moment after humans are born into a human society. From the individual perspective, this interaction can be subdivided into two stages: the creation of cultural meaning by other humans, beginning long before our own individual births, and the interactions in our own lives in which we re-digest predigested meanings and create new ones of our own.

  • To appreciate how individuals acquire meaning we must distinguish between (1) primary or embodied experience and (2) extensions of such experience based upon metaphor. Embodied experience starts as soon as we enter the world. This gives us basic-level concepts (like those of up and down, front and back, right and left, movement, the primary colors, and concepts learned by hands-on manipulation, such as individual object, container, inside and outside). From embodied experience and its basic concepts we build all the other concepts that we ever have by various means, chief among which is conceptual metaphor.

  • Metaphor, as I said, starts from basic-level concepts acquired in embodied experience; we project these concepts onto realities we do not directly meet in embodied experience. Metaphor helps us understand electrons, germs, and light waves, which we never directly see or touch. Rational thought in disciplines like physics and mathematics mostly depend upon metaphor. That's a surprise for some people, but the following is just as true (and perhaps more surprising): our general nonscientific ideas about life, nature, time, action, morality, politics, and religion also mostly depend upon metaphor.

  • Moreover, this affects thought and language in ways that we are not aware.

    What does this tell us about meaning? Meaning is not handed to us from outside (either by a kind of revelation or by passive observation of the physical environment) nor is it found within the mind by a kind of inner gaze. Meaning emerges in three stages from interactions: The first stage, the longest, includes repeated interaction between individual organisms over hundreds of thousands of generations. As we have learned from evolutionary biology, offspring naturally differ from their parents in random ways. Natural selection, which results from interaction between organism and environment, eliminates some features and allows new ones to be transmitted across generations. Such interaction alters the natural environment itself. Then comes the second stage. Billions of interactions continue to modify both human organism and environment when language and culture appear. The third stage occurs in our individual lives.

    In the perspective I am adopting, much human thought occurs at an unconscious level. Psychologists who say that conscious thought depends heavily upon unconscious mechanisms are right. Thanks to recent research it is now possible to explain much about how these operate and why we can often understand our fellow human beings.

    Unconscious mechanisms are widely shared among humans because our experience of movement, up and down, forward and backward, and the immediate environment are all rooted in the structures of the human body. Humans have similar anatomies, similar capacities for motion and manipulation of things, similar faculties of imagination and memory. Moreover, our physical environment has certain constants-earth, sky, vegetation, blood. Even the parts of the built, or artificial, environment have certain regular features because we have built them to our size, to be of use to humans. The interaction between environmental constants and our biologically similar bodies generates the basic concepts we have, and we then build upon them, by means of metaphor and other devices, the concepts that help us understand what we do not directly perceive. Unconscious thought links our most basic concepts, acquired early in life, to the more general, metaphorical concepts we use to describe our place in the wider universe.

    The meaning that people seek in religion relates to what they do not directly perceive. Thus it depends upon metaphor and unconscious thought. But there's good news: even though these normally operate at the unconscious level, we can understand how they work.

    We are genetically programmed to be able, with effort, to understand ancient pagans, primitive Christians, and our contemporaries whose religious outlooks greatly differ from our own. Why? Because there are relatively few dimensions within our embodied experience. These can provide a common basis for the metaphors that structure human worldviews.


    One place we might find meaning is right under our noses every Sunday, in our UU hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition. A few months ago I searched the lyrics of its hymns to gather and group metaphors for the deity. One of the first things that struck me was that, although theologically more traditional UU's have criticized this edition as "politically correct," the hymns still often address a superhuman Other or Thou. Sometimes this Other is personal, sometimes not.

    Before I discuss the specific metaphors, I must mention a discovery by George Lakoff, which he explained in his important book Moral Politics. Not only do we unavoidably think about morality in terms of metaphors, we connect these metaphors into networks of metaphors and the way we connect them depends upon our preferred model of the family. Lakoff discovered that in our culture there are two primary models: the first he calls the Strict Father model, the second the Nurturant Parent Model.

    The dominant metaphors in the Strict Father model include Moral Strength, Moral Authority, Moral Bounds or Limits, and Moral Purity. The dominant metaphors in the Nurturant Parent model include Moral Nurturance, Moral Empathy, and Self-Nurturance. To simplify a somewhat complex theory, our political values arise when we project our system of family values and the metaphors associated with them onto society or humanity, with the help of special metaphors such as Nation as Family or Humanity as Family. Not surprisingly, there are more Strict Father moralists than Nurturant Parent thinkers who are political conservatives and more Nurturant Parent types than Strict Father moralists who are political liberals.

    Religious views also result from projecting family values, not only upon community but upon reality as a whole. Obviously the fundamentalisms tend to be Strict Father religions. But there are Nurturant Parent Christians and Buddhists and Jews. You can guess where Lakoff would classify Unitarian Universalism.

    Now let us look at the metaphors for deity that I have collected from the hymnal by starting with the clusters that most clearly bear traces of the SFM and the NPM. (For a chart correlating the metaphors with particular hymns, see God Metaphors in Singing the Living Tradition.)

    The metaphors closest to the Strict Father heritage we get from the ancient Hebrew tradition and the Christian tradition insofar as it preserves and continues to use them:

    Obviously, there is "father" itself (it occurs less often than "mother"). Then there are the altitude and royalty metaphors: sovereign of heaven, on high, great one, power, all-mighty, commander of the universe, Lord, ruler in might [who] reigns over all things. [very traditional]. These Biblically inspired metaphors are derived from the qualities of West Asian potentates, who commanded armies and were almost always male. Related to them but more impersonal are the metaphors of law, moral and natural. Connected to the quality of the deity as law or lawgiver is its relationship to justice: fount of justice and anointer of leaders. Linked to the idea of military power, which we would like to have on our side in the midst of strife, are mighty fortress, shield, defender. I put "redeemer" in this list because if we get captured in war, we would like to be liberated or redeemed (saved from a life of miserable oppression) by having a powerful person pay our ransom.

    Some of these metaphors clearly evoke the monotheistic, judgmental, moralistic, and often militaristic male sky god. The royalty metaphors, the references to sovereignty, moral law, planning, and absolute power seem part of the same cluster.

    On the Nurturant Parent side, we find obvious metaphors: mother, love, along with wondrous love, and love that never ends." (The love references are very frequent.) So also fount of every blessing, bountiful creation, source of prosperity, fountains of goodness and love, feast, food source, [well]spring, giver of gifts, giver of joy, amazing grace.

    Protecting might be a manifestation of the Heavenly Father's power, but equally plausible is its link to the Nurturant Parent, who may also be weaver of our life's design, shaper of all things, spinner of chaos, care that cares for all, spring from which we can all drink, fountains of goodness and love, grace and renewer.

    The teacher metaphors seem neutral between Strict Father and Nurturant Parent but perhaps they are more naturally associated with the NP insofar as what is learned is nuanced, as wisdom would seem necessarily to be, rather than clear but demanding moral rules.

    The adjectives "merciful" and "forgiving" evidently relate to NP, as do comforter and healer. Forgiveness would not seem to be a primary trait of the SF sky god. The military metaphors seem to be associated with the Strict Father along with the references to justice (because of its implicit reference to a ruler that dispenses justice).

    Apparently, the warlike Hebrew Strict Father God of, say, the Joshua stories, over time and in the hands of later writers, developed more nurturant characteristics. Of course, since texts representing the earlier point of view have been preserved, it was always possible for those who wished to revive the sterner SF qualities to do so.

    A hypothesis worth exploring in depth on another occasion is put forward by Riane Eisler in her book The Chalice and the Blade. This book is an account of the matrilineal horticultural societies of the Neolithic Near East and Southeastern Europe prior to the emergence of what you and I have been taught to think of as civilization. Using recent archeological evidence, Eisler argues that these essentially peaceful, more or less egalitarian Goddess-centered societies developed a high level of culture and lasted for several millennia before being overrun by male-dominated militaristic societies. These male-dominated societies did not merely substitute their own religions for the Goddess religion. Rather they reframed the values of the Goddess religion in male-dominated, hierarchical terms, linking many qualities once attributed to the Goddess to the now-dominant male deity, thus gradually weakening the role of the Goddess until it almost became possible to do without her. Obviously, it was easier for the male God to take over qualities like justice than to do so with others such as fountain of love.

    The Goddess may once have been a divine craftsperson, a source of learning and justice, overseer, a fount of vision and inspiration, and a Great Musician, although when we hear these references in the hymns we are conditioned to think first of the male sky God.

    There are relatively few religious metaphors that cannot be linked to the Nurturant Parent or the Strict Father, so much so that Lakoff can speak of SF religion and NP religion, almost as if there could be no other kind. But there are a few metaphors that seem to resist this categorization.


    What about Spirit? I suspect that spirit is important because of its multiple connotations: fluidity and power. Spirit is associated with breath and with air. Alcohol is a spirit because it more easily vaporizes than water. The ancient Greeks spoke of daimones or spirit beings that sometimes included the gods but frequently were distinguished from the gods as intermediate being between the gods and human beings, superior to humans. Some were messengers of the gods to mortals.

    Although the Holy Spirit is said by Trinitarians to be one of the three Persons mysteriously united in the One God, in the Bible stories Spirit is almost always less distinctly a particular person than God. It is less distinctly a Person for that matter than Jesus. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit seems to function more as an intermediary between God and human beings, or as a manifestation of God, than as an independent entity. Thus, while Spirit does not seem to fit neatly under the SFM or NPM, its meaning is controlled by its special role in ancient and medieval culture.

    Spirituality, which these days usually refers to refer to a grab bag of nontraditional ways of relating to a more-than-human but not necessarily unphysical dimension, suggests that spirit is more than human. It is also possible to be a "spiritual person" in the contemporary sense without subscribing to a Strict Father seated on his throne in the high heavens. Spirituality preserves the neither Here nor There but In-Between quality of traditional spirits without requiring any precisely fixed teachings about the supreme being.

    Now let us try to make sense out of references to mystery and the ineffable. Given the elusive nature of this supra human or supra ordinary dimension, it remains mysterious and hard to name. A "name" is a noun. But not all names are proper names. Some are common nouns (like Horse, Human, and god). Yet even common nouns convey descriptions and categorizations. Even to say that Zeus is a god is to say, in a systematic view of gods, spirit beings, and mortals, that Zeus is neither a spirit being nor a mortal.

    To categorize is, metaphorically, to place something inside some containers and outside others. But containers capture. If we can capture something, we may be able to control it, to use it as a mere means. This suggests the following problem: Would it not be the height of arrogance to try to use the suprahuman Thou as a mere means?

    But wait. This worry seems to rest on a mistake: a category is not a literal but a metaphorical container. Categories help us predict and control things but not all categories enable us to control the thing categorized. (Think of the category Tsunami.) Still, the religious importance of spirit may have something to do with recognizing that there are powers upon which we depend but cannot fully control.

    It may not be a moral mistake to categorize the divine, but it may be difficult if not impossible to do so. Categories enable us to mentally isolate the thing which is in a category from other things outside it. It is hard to do this with deity terms. Perhaps the reason is that a deity term plays the role of the keystone of a metaphorical world view. A keystone, of course, is the stone at the top of an arch that holds it together and permits it to support a great weight. Remove the keystone from its position in the whole arch and everything collapses.

    Is this what people are forgetting when they assume that because nouns, proper or common, are used to refer to the divine, the divine must be something we can study as we might study radium or copper or even the disease AIDS. Perhaps deity words are not like this: perhaps, like the term keystone, which can only be understood in relationship to the notion of an arch, these words cannot be "cashed in" except in terms of the whole story of which they are parts; and the whole story is your or my or somebody else's story of Life or Existence, in which we live and move and have our being.

    This brings us to the web of life and, related to that, the web of existence, two of my favorite metaphors for the "more than human" object addressed in our hymns. They do better than "spirit" or "being in all" in evoking a visual image. They also have what some might regard as an advantage of not suggesting a central point from which commands can radiate as if from the throne of an absolute monarch. Another attractive feature of webs is their elasticity or flexibility. All such images have their limits, however: webs do not maintain themselves, they require spiders; of course spiders do not maintain themselves either, they come to be thanks to the webs their mothers spun and the bugs in the environment that got caught in that web. Hence, the web of life seems to require the Cosmic Spider, weaver of the universe, and vice versa. In any case, I suspect there is unrealized power in a theology that reflects upon the interactions between webs and spinners of webs.


    Yet the fact remains that this is not a primary metaphor in the pantheon of metaphors for God. So we seem to remain caught up in the metaphorical systems of family moral models. Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams writes somewhere that we cannot really avoid speaking of the divine in personal terms because persons are the most valuable beings we familiarly know. What Lakoff tells us about pervasiveness of the family models in moral, political, and religious thought tends to converge with Adams at this point. And so would the fact that in spite of the many Deists, agnostics, pantheists, and humanists we have in this congregation, we still willingly sing so many hymns with personal or half-personal metaphors for the Cosmic Other.

    Select Bibliography

    George Lakoff, Moral Politics. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

    George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

    Singing the Living Tradition Unitarian Universalist Association.

    Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology. Fortress Philadelphia.

    I read this work only after completing this essay, but I include it because of the parallels between my project and McFague's. What I did not do but she does (in the last chapter of her book) is to explore friend as a means of designating the Cosmic Other. Obviously friend is a personal metaphor but unlike mother or father it is less tightly connected to family politics.

    Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade. Harper SanFrancisco, 1987.

    Related Websites

    Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green KY
    Dr. Garrett's Academic Website
    Other Talks by Dr. Garrett Related to Religion
    Applications of the Lakoff-Johnson approach to Philosophy