Getting High

By Lesley Hazelton   Published: April 16, 2014

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…

About the Author

Lesley Hazleton (born 1945) is an award-winning British-American writer whose work focuses on the intersection of politics, religion, and history, especially in the Middle East. She reported from Israel for Time, and has written on the Middle East for numerous publications including The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Nation, and The New Republic.

Hazleton was born in England but became a United States citizen in 1994. She was based in Jerusalem from 1966 to 1979 and in New York City from 1979 to 1992, when she moved to her current home in Seattle WA, originally to get her pilot's license. She has two degrees in psychology (B.A. Manchester University, M.A. Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

She has described herself as "a Jew who once seriously considered becoming a rabbi, a former convent schoolgirl who daydreamed about being a nun, an agnostic with a deep sense of religious mystery though no affinity for organized religion". "Everything is paradox," she has said. "The danger is one-dimensional thinking".

In April 2010, she began blogging as The Accidental Theologist, casting "an agnostic eye on religion, politics, and existence." In September 2011, she received The Stranger's Genius Award in Literature and in fall 2012, she was the Inaugural Scholar-in-Residence at Town Hall Seattle.

Her biography of Muhammad was published by Riverhead Books in January, 2013.

Biography source: Wikipedia

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