Sticky Theology, Part 3: Metaphors, Emotional Selection, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement

When we consider theological memes we should note that the mind is largely a metaphorical device. Metaphors dominate our thinking. Thus, theology is largely metaphorical. So, to understand theology we must understand a bit about cognition and metaphor. (Note: Much of what follows is copied from a post from my Spiritual Pollution series.)

The linguists and cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (see their books Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh) have done some very interesting and influential work on the metaphorical nature of human cognition. To be more specific, I do not mean the airy metaphors of poetry. Rather, Lakoff and Johnson note that our cognitive schemas are largely structured by our sensorimotor system. That is, our bodies, and how they interact with the world around us, provide us means to "ground" our more abstract notions (e.g., love, justice, relationships, life) in concrete embodied metaphors.

For example, an orientational metaphor such as Up/Down is used as metaphor for health (e.g., He’s down with the flu), power (e.g., You want to move up in this company), mood (e.g., I’m feeling up today), or morality (e.g., He’s a low-down person). How are these metaphors constructed? Are they random connections? Lakoff and Johnson contend that these metaphors begin with our bodily experiences of rising and lying down, of "orienting" ourselves in a gravity well. For example, being ill causes one to lie "down," whereas being healthy is associated with getting "up." Thus, the metaphorical mapping Bad = Down and Good = Up gets rooted and generalized to specific sources of “goodness” and “badness” (e.g., health, mood, power).

Another example. Abstract "states" are often understood via "container metaphors." Thus, we "fall in" love and "come out of" comas. We are "in" trouble or "getting out of" a romantic relationship. Thus we see how natural and ubiquitous these metaphors are. As Lakoff and Johnson note, we couldn't think without them.

What does this have to do with theology?

Well, we structure our theological constructs via metaphors. All kinds of metaphors. Think of how God is understood. God is King, Fortress, Judge, Father, Mother, Shield, Shepherd, Warrior, Husband. And on and on. How is the Christian experience understood? Life, journey, fight, race, growth. And on and on.

As we see, all these metaphors carry theological weight. They highlight or emphasize a "truth." (And, of course, they can obscure truths or be pushed too far.)

Let's consider a list of Sin/Salvation metaphors in the Bible. The Sin/Salvation metaphors I've noted in the bible are the following:

Metaphor : Sin : Salvation
Purity : Contaminated/Dirty : Pure/Clean
Rescue : Perishing : Saved
Economic : Debt : Payment
Legal : Crime and punishment : Forgiveness
Freedom : Slavery : Emancipation
Optics : Dark : Light
Navigation : Lost : Found
Nation : Alien : Citizen
Health : Illness : Healing
Knowledge : Ignorance : Understanding
Relational : Enemy : Friend
Familial : Orphan : Adoption
Horticultural : Pruned : Grafted in
Vision : Blindness : Sight
Development : Infancy : Maturity
Military : War : Peace
Biological : Death : Life
Ambulatory : Falling/Stumbling : Standing/Walking
Truth : Error/False : Correct/True
Performance : Failure/Mistake : Success

Now, if take this list (and others like it) and connect it with the idea of emotional selection (see post #1 in this series) we can note that a few metaphors stand out for their emotional oomph. These are the rescue and crime and punishment metaphors. That is, although growth metaphors of salvation are huge in scripture (i.e., the notion of sanctification), they just don't pack an emotional punch. Salvation as "journey" is a deep metaphor, but it isn't really emotionally powerful.

But let's say I tell you a story where you are about to die. And someone suddenly (or with forethought) steps in to die in your place. Like falling on a grenade in a WWI foxhole or pushing you out of the way of an oncoming train. Now these anecdotes, expressions of particular metaphors, do have a lot of rhetorical or emotional punch.

Interestingly, these are the very metaphors behind the salvation schema called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). One of worrisome things about PSA is that it is, at root, simply a metaphor. And as a metaphor it contains some truth. The trouble is that the PSA metaphors are reified and dominate the soteriological conversations in most churches. Why?

Well, I think it is because PSA is a form of sticky theology. It's sticky because it is attached to the metaphors that are most likely to thrive via emotional selection. This is why I think PSA is ascendent in our churches. It is the most emotionally and rhetorically powerful and memorable presentation of the cross. This does not make PSA coherent. But it does make PSA popular, thriving as a memetic form of sticky theology.

Next Post: Part 4

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15 thoughts on “Sticky Theology, Part 3: Metaphors, Emotional Selection, and Penal Substitutionary Atonement”

  1. Richard,

    Penal Substitutionary Atonement is indeed sticky--a bumper sticker that allows us an easy, superficial cathartic understanding of the redemptive work of God while allowing us to retain fear of our desires and hatred of the other. It is a theory/metaphor which allows for a lock-step form of reasoning and, once accepted, for powerful authoritarian ecclesiastical control--not for liberation and a life in the mystery of the Spirit.

    Stephen Finlan's little book, _Problems with Atonement_ refers to Paul as a "spinner of metaphors" about atonement--none of which or all together adequately explain the saving process of God. That book, by the way, is one of the best and richest summaries of atonement theory of the past few years. Finlan writes: "The fact is, both the problematic aspects of atonement and the effective answer to those problems are found in the Bible. The Bible is part of the problem . . . and most of the solution. We have reached a stage in theological development when we need to acknowledge that the Bible is full of diverse viewpoints and that it is not likely to be a transcript straight from the mind of God, though it may be a heavily filtered human reflection of the mind of God, a record of the gradual and partial human reception of God's initiatives."


    George C.

  2. Richard,

    One other thing. I don't consider the metaphors of poetry as "airy."

    Even "airy" is a metaphors.

    Consider the following lines from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Act 5):

    The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
    Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
    And as imagination bodies forth
    The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
    Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
    A local habitation and a name.

    "Airy" indeed. Harrumph.


    George C.

  3. Richard,

    You're on some wonderfully fertile ground here.

    Your main concern seems to be that PSA dominates the "atonement" landscape, when it's just (one) metaphor. And it's the "stickiness" of the metaphor that influences its presumably distorting influence.

    I'd like to bring up some background issues. First, Classical rhetoric tells us that there are three main aspects to successful pursuasion: logos, pathos, and ethos. That is, we need to be convincing in our argument, our emotional appeal, and our person (ethically) to carry the day rhetorically. Following the 1960s cultural revolution the rhetoric books added what was called--back in the day--"rhetoric of the fist." (Visualize the Black Panthers' logo.) Bellicose, belligerent rhetoric--in the style of say Malcom X--it had to be admitted (and hence added to the rhetoric text) was effective too.

    That would not have come as news to the Hebrew prophets--read Amos, for instance--but it was to English professors, and the 60s ushered in a forth element of persuasive rhetoric: the ability to inspire fear and shame.

    One reason for bringing this up is that you seem to be saying, in effect, that Christians need to back off the Malcom X/Hebrew prophet style of discourse.

    Generally speaking, I would agree, but I think that any such advice needs to be context sensitive. For instance, should Jesus have backed off the rhetoric of the fist when cleansing the temple? I rather think his action was heroic and necessary and just. Should he have been less bellicose in pointing religious hypocrasy in his day? I rather think his willingness to point it out was jeroic and necessary--at least to his mission--and just. Of course, I find the Jesus who asks the little children to come to him--as says that we are to come to him as little children--much more attractive and comforting.

    And this leads to an even deeper question. When we examine Scripture, including the gospel accounts of Jesus' life, what interpretive tools do you bring? Specifically, as an experimental psychologist, do you go first with what you know from experimental psychology as the basis for deciding how to or perhaps whether to critique Scripture, or does Scripture critique your science?

    This is a much more interesting question with respect to your discipline than it is with respect to the so-called hard sciences. I note that with this in mind: The big picture of Christian revelation tells us that we are made in the image of God, but that sin--literally falling short of God--came into our lives, and that the Son of God then came into the world to give us the right picture once again, so that by faith we can take on the task of becoming children of God, of becoming like Jesus.

    Thus, in your field, it seems that how we are, the "science," must be eclipsed by the revelation of God to us through Jesus (I would not make the same claim in at least most other fields of science). And yet, we certainly need an interpretive framework for understanding in detail how to love God, neighbor, self... And I think that your disciple has a tremendous amout to say that Christians should want to listen to... So how do you break it down?

    I certainly have no advice for you as an experimental psychologist. I had a hard time recalling my old rhetoric text, which only help me ask a good question! But you have an especially acute and interesting position that you occupy as a Christian experimental psychologist.

    And it seems to me that you will need to come to some kind of at least tentative answer to this question set before you can be systematic--though that might not be a goal you wish to pursue--in your approach to this blog...


  4. Tracy,

    I'm curious why you make a distinction between psychology and "hard science" when informing- or letting be informed-your interpretation of the Bible. You seem to be saying that it is OK to reinterpret Genesis in light of what hard science says, but not OK to reinterpret atonement in light of what psychology or nueroscience says about free will/responsibility and the implications on atonement and salvation. Maybe I'm just reading you wrong...


    Have you seen the recent documentary "Jesus Camp"? You should watch it... if for no other reason than to see how susceptible children are especially to these emotionally sticky ideas. It's frightening.

  5. Pecs,

    Yea, I was not very clear. Sorry about that, but I was really hoping that Richard would rescue me.

    Let me try to be short and clear.

    We don't expect the Bible to be a science text. We do expect that a person who identifies herself as a Christian means--among other things--that she holds up Jesus' life as exemplary.

    Now a person can be a Christian physicist--I imagine--without ever having her discipline influence her faith in Jesus' exemplary life.

    A psychologist, however, is in--and again, I imagine--a different place. I'll make up an example. Perhaps psychology can tell us the ingredients of a healthy, well balanced emotional life. Perhaps when set along side the list of ingredients needed for good mental health, Jesus life no longer looks exemplary. Perhaps the bit about taking up one's cross isn't very good advice, psychologically speaking.

    What then?

    It's my suspicion that psychology has things to say about core Christian values and that most other sciences either don't, or don't as directly as psychology, that motivates my question. I find that to be a very interesting possiblity to ponder...

    ...and it seems that Richard is up to some of that in his blog at this point, so...



  6. I just realized that psychology could do what Scholastic metaphysics did: assume that God has all perfections and that, consequently, all goods are attributable to God...

    Then psychology would not critique faith, it would create a Summa Cristos!

  7. Tracy,

    In other words, you think that the claims psychology makes overlap more with the Biblical witness than those of the hard sciences, right? I'll buy that. Although, I would tend to let science, whether it is physics or psychology, inform my interpretation of Scripture, rather that the other way around.

    "Taking up one's cross" is a good example. One could use this verse to silence the woman who is physically abused by her husband. She is suffering as Jesus suffered. God will be pleased with her acquiescence as the silent victim. It is an opportunity for her to reflect on the suffering Jesus went through for her sake. Bah. I would take "science's" side on this.

  8. Richard, Tracy, Pecs, Beverly:

    Three comments. First, some (in a wrong headed way, I think) do in fact assume that the Bible is a "scientific text" because it is true and is the basis of a true worldview which includes one's take on science. This creates all kinds of mischief--e.g. anti-stem cell research, life begins at conception.

    Second, psychology, which might well be translated, "the story of the soul," is a significant element in pastoral care training that certified chaplains undergo. Such training is called Clinical Pastoral Education, CPE for short. Most certified chaplains spend a minimum of a half year training. Many pursue two years' of CPE. Such training, at its best, is active-reflective learning, designed to develop self-awareness and positive pastoral or ministry behaviors rather than the use of sticky theological bromides. It is, among other matters, based on case studies, clinical interaction with others, active listening, and a good working-knowledge of transference, countertransference, projection, introjection, groups dynamics, various kinds of diagnoses, understandings of crisis and trauma, and the impact of self-issues upon care. All this is done in a context of practice while not neglecting theory.

    I cannot speak for Richard, but it seems to me that theology not informed by psychology as well as other disciplines becomes very abstract and otherworldly--what is often termed "academic."

    "Jesus Camp" demonstrates, it seems to me, precisely the kind of religious trauma which the prophets and Jesus abhor and condemn--shepherds hurting little lambs. The same thing applies to a theology that demands that we bless the abuse of others as "suffering" for Jesus.


    George C.

  9. On a side note, but related in cursory way, our evolutionary biology department has been receiving threats (including a hand-delivered note slipped under lab doors)from someone/s not too thrilled about that branch of science. Let's hope this doesn't turn into a repeat of the abortion clinic bombings and shootings.

  10. Pecs,

    I'm almost positively sure you are CSP. You really should visit your little sister's blog, since I see you have lots of time to comment on Richard's. Also, I have no Fuji pics because the weather stopped us both times.

    Um, in the event that you are not who I think you are, then just ignore this comment.

  11. Pecs!
    Okay I have parused a ton of archives with your comments. I'm absolutely positive of your identity now. I can't believe you have time to comment on this blog as much as you do! Is this your main "avoid-writing-my-dissertation" project?

    Also, I'm wondering if your nice wife would like to come to the shower our sister is putting on Aug. 11. Mom and Dad could bring her back with them after your trial, I mean defense.

  12. Tracy, George, and Pecs,
    I'm not sure if I have a coherent way that I see the interface of theology and psychology. Generally, I use psychology to do descriptive theology: Theology as a human product (and thus amenable to the tools of the social sciences). And this is a little different than a normative or creedal theology, the theology we SHOULD believe in.

    A few random comments. First, I don't put much store in theology as a finished product. I see theology simply as "conversation about God." Thus, I engage in the "conversation" throwing in all kinds of things. So it isn't systematic, it's more of a stew. My goal in the blog is to make a better and better stew (throwing in more and more ingredients or achieving different flavors via contrast and juxtaposition) rather than to achieve rigor or consistency. Basically, I want to be the Paula Dean rather than the Karl Barth of theology blogs. Second, I only really get concerned in these conversations insofar as they impinge upon ethical actions. If a theological configuration has pernicious ethical effects than I get fired up. Again, my psychology helps here as I can observe the way ideas affect behavior. I like to map the idea/behavior correlations. Finally, as a Christian I have a belief that, in the end, the witness of Jesus and the "facts" of psychology will and do converge. This convergence could be the product of my own a priori assumptions. However, I would be deeply suspicious of a faith that poisoned people intra- and interpersonally.

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