Spiritual Pollution, Part 7: A metaphorical interlude

Before going on to consider other theological perspectives regarding sociomoral disgust and love, I'd like to spend this post laying down some ideas we'll need later on in our journey. I want to discuss the metaphorical nature of cognition.

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.)

To carry our argument forward next post, I'd like to think about Sin/Salvation metaphors in the Bible. In my upcoming paper "Spiritual Pollution" I attempt to take an inventory of such metaphors. I undoubtedly missed some. So, once you see my list, feel free to post metaphors you've seen I've omitted. The Sin/Salvation metaphors I've noted 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

That's the list I'm publishing as a part of the paper. See any omissions? I'd like to make the list as exhaustive as possible.

More relevant is that each sin/salvation metaphor structures sin and salvation via a certain schema. And those schemas have consequences for how we experience and reason about Kingdom living. Next post I'll explore some of those consequences.

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4 thoughts on “Spiritual Pollution, Part 7: A metaphorical interlude”

  1. A double comment:

    1. answering your question: the prophets often use sexual (in)fidelity as a metaphor for sin; and in some places (at least I think so) the realm of (ritual) purity is used as a metaphor for sin.

    2. on how "natural" our metaphoric language is: I've just been reading Terry Pratchett's Thud! which has a hillarious take on this, for (of course) the Dwarfs have a "low-king" and admire people who are "deep downers" and the like!

  2. relationship: widowed/abandoned/adultress : married

    fertility : barren : fertile/fruitful

    nourishment: (? - not usually used on the negative side) : feast/bread/wine

    social boundary: excluded/cast out : included/invited/welcomed

    It seems there's also a connection between the "freedom" and "familial" ones you've listed ... someone who was a "slave", after freed, becomes a son.

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