How the Human Mind Thinks of God: A Cognitive Linguistic Analysis of Anthropomorphic God Concepts

Draft version of  The Jerry Jackson Lecture given to the Honors College at Western Carolina University. March 18, 2013.

Some important features of cognitive linguistics.

The “Cognitive Commitment”: The general principles for understanding language should be in accord with what we know about the mind and brain from a range of disciplines. Linguistics is thus not a self-contained system but “a cognitive faculty interacting with other cognitive abilities such as perception, attention, memory, imagination, emotion, and reasoning.”

Five Common Themes

  1. Human cognition is deeply dependent upon embodied human experience.
  2. All human understanding is perspectival.
  3. Meaning is encyclopedic.
  4. Linguistic meaning is grounded in usage and experience.
  5. Linguistic meaning is flexible and dynamic.
  1. Human cognition is deeply dependent upon embodied human experience.

Leonard Talmy’s pioneering work demonstrated the ways in which physical forces play a key role in cognition in concepts such as permission, hindering, and helping. For instance, our ability to use our muscles and limbs to move objects gives rise to a vast range of causal concepts such as “must” and “possible.”

There are also numerous experimental studies demonstrating that language comprehension regularly activates perceptual and motor regions of the brain. For instance, when a linguistic utterance includes an action such as grasping a cup of water fMRI studies show that parts of the brain associated with motor processes, not just linguistic processes, are activated.

Even morality is shaped by our embodied activities. For example, experiments investigating the so-called “Macbeth effect” have shown that physical dirtiness or cleanness affects moral judgments:

(1) that after experiencing disgust the act of physically cleaning oneself reduced the severity of the moral evaluation,

(2) that wiping the hands with an antiseptic wipe prior to rating the degree of immorality of items on a list led subjects to rate acts more immoral than those who were not asked to wipe their hands,

(3) that clean smells were shown to promote virtuous actions, and

(4) that physical cleansing lowered the need to justify our actions and even works to wipe the slate clean of previous moral failures.

  1. All human understanding is perspectival.

Due to our neuro-anatomical architecture, we have a species-specific view of the world. If we had bodies like jellyfish yet retained our enhanced cognitive capacities I am sure that our cognition would be very different than as is the case with our present bodies. We would not, for example, have the concept “in front of” or use “grasping,” “seeing,” or “hearing” to mean understanding something.

Imagine a situation where you are in the backyard and want to communicate where you left your bicycle. You could say either “it is behind the house” or “it is in front of the house” depending upon the perspective you wanted to convey. From the point of view of the speaker in the backyard your view of the bicycle is blocked by the house so you say “it is behind the house.” Or, you could adopt the point of view of the house and say “it is in front of the house.”

  1. Meaning is encyclopedic.

Linguistic expressions almost always underspecify the meaning involved. If someone says “We never open ours until the morning” the audience has to construct meaning and we use incredible amounts of background knowledge to do so. The expression does not mention Christmas but those with this background are able to put the meaning together. Thus, words serve as points of access to incredible stores of knowledge—they prompt or trigger access to meaning. Words do not come with fully stipulated prepackaged meanings.

  1. Linguistic meaning is grounded in usage and experience.
  1. Linguistic meaning is flexible and dynamic.

Meaning of concepts can change over time or between cultures. Phone. Father.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory

Consider the following three common statements: He did not see the main point of the book. Our country is growing weaker on family values. She is in trouble. These ordinary and easily understood remarks are typically thought to be “literal” but they are not.

A conceptual metaphor is when we understand or experience one thing in terms of another.

Source and Targets:

“He did not see the main point of the book” uses our experience of vision (source) to conceptualize understanding (target);

“Our country is growing weaker on family values” understands societal changes in terms of our physical strength;

Love Is understood as A Journey

Our relationship has come a long way.

We are at a crossroads.

Oh, we had some bumps along the way.

Our marriage is not going anywhere.

We need to get back on track.

Ideas are understood in terms of Food

The article contained a few raw facts and half-baked ideas.

There is too much data in the book to digest.

That claim is too much to swallow.

Arguments are understood in terms of Struggle

He attacked the weak points in my argument.

She shot down my main claim.

His criticisms were on target.

You will not win the argument with that evidence.

Source domains supply cognitive structure–inferences and entailments—to understand the target.

Source: Journey                                   Target: Love

the travelers                             →        the lovers

common destinations              →        shared life goals

selection of routes                   →        decisions about what to do

the vehicle                               →        the relationship itself

distance covered                     →        progress made toward life goals

difficulties encountered          →        obstacles to achieving goals

Hence, using different source domains = different understandings of the target. Eg. we think of love as a Nutrient (“he was starved for affection,” “ her love sustains him”); as Fire (“burning with love”); as Magnetism (“he is strongly attracted to her”); as Natural Forces (“he was swept off his feet”); as Insanity (“he’s madly in love”); as Unity (“she is my better half,” “they are a perfect fit”); and as a Game (“she’s playing hard to get”).

Though some CM seem to be used in all cultures this is not necessarily the case and often cultures use different source domains to understand the target.

Metaphors shape our values and policies.

A series of five experiments examined the results of thinking about crime as either a “virus” or a “wild beast”. American participants were given a report about crime in a city that contained statistics along with one of the two test concepts and were then asked should be done about the problem. The participants who read the report in which the virus metaphor was used suggested investigating the root causes and working to inoculate the city via social reforms. Participants who read the report in which crime was understood as a beast proposed rounding up the criminals and enacting harsher penalties. The metaphors systematically influenced what people thought should be done regardless of whether the participants were Republican or Democrat or male or female. Of particular interest is the finding that, when asked which ideas in the report were most influential upon their conclusions, the participants cited the crime statistics (the same in each report) and ignored the different metaphors. The researchers conclude that the participants were covertly and powerfully shaped by the two metaphors. This shows that we can be unaware of why we think the way we do about social issues.

Use time as an example for many of these points?

Time as movement over a plane.

Time as a commodity.

Is the future ahead of us or behind us?

Thinking of God

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah chided his contemporaries for making idols of the incomparable God when he wrote, “to whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (40.18). Many have interpreted this statement to mean that any comparison of God with creatures is illegitimate. However, that can hardly be what Isaiah had in mind because the passage repeatedly conceives of God in human like terms. God seeks to comfort the Israelites (1-2) which compares God to someone who seeks to help others. God calls them “my people” which associates God as a leader of a people. God is described as “coming” to the people to render a moral accounting (9-10). God is a “shepherd” who will gently care for the sheep (11

John Calvin, admitted that “God cannot reveal himself to us in any other way than by a comparison with things we know.

There is no special cognitive capacity for thinking about God. There is no evidence that the brain processes ideas differently when the subject is God rather than more mundane subjects like zebras, galaxies, or love.

Biblical writers used a wide array of metaphors or God—especially interpersonal ones: shepherd, king, father, mother, husband

But conceiving God in human terms is anthropomorphic—is this not childish?

The sixth century BCE Greek thinker, Xenophanes, railed against anthropomorphic deities saying, “If oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen.” Yet, his God sees and knows!

So, just what is meant by “anthropomorphism?”  Some have said it means the attribution of body parts such as hands and nostrils to God. Philo of Alexandria (first century CE) went further and held that the depictions of divine emotional states in the Hebrew Bible were not real since that would imply that God changed in some respect which would be an imperfection. The biblical portrayals of divine emotional states are for the benefit of “duller” folk who cannot understand what God is truly like.

Caputo ridicules the views of ordinary religious people who consider God a being who answers prayer but also views such as Philo’s that continue to think of God as a causal agent with a mind. “By ‘God,’ . . . I do not mean a being who is there, an entity trapped in being, even as a super-being up there, up above the world, who physically powers and causes it, who made it and occasionally intervenes upon its day-to-day activities to tweak things for the better in response to a steady stream of solicitations from down below . . . . That I consider an essentially magical view of the world.”

It seems to me that the “problem of anthropomorphism” is misplaced since we have no alternative but to use the only cognitive processes we have to think about God. The real issue is which features of our human cognition we believe appropriate to God. What do we consider dignified or fitting for God (dignum Deo) to be like?

Some alternatives:

Apophasis = God is unique and incomparable.

Gregory of Nyssa (third century) refers to God as “that Being which is above all being.” The word above prompts The Great Chain of Being metaphor which conceives of existence as a hierarchy of beings extending upward from lower forms of being to higher forms. God is at the top and all beings depend upon God for their existence. The beings lower on the chain less fully exemplify what it means to be than do the beings above them. They are less real and only that at the very top, God, is fully real. Hence, one must negate more and more characteristics as one rises upward until one arrives at that which is neither darkness nor light but beyond assertion or denial.

God is not a genus or kind. God is the creator whereas everything else is created and thus part of the space-time realm. Since human words arise from within the space-time realm our ideas apply only to created entities.

One of the key motivations for the idea that human concepts do not apply to God is the Neoplatonic notion that words name the essences of things and since the divine essence has nothing in common with created things, our words cannot name God. One might conclude that this would mean that God is completely unknowable: a Teflon God to whom no predicates stick. But Gregory and the majority of Christian thinkers in the apophatic tradition believe that God is a creator who cares for creatures and redeems the world through Christ. They manage to say something positive about God by distinguishing between the divine essence which is unknowable because it is completely different from any of the essences we know through our cognitive faculties and the divine energies or works of God which occur in the space-time realm and are thus knowable by normal human cognition

A cognitive linguistics approach finds agreement as well as problems with the apophatic approach. From the perspective of embodied cognition we do not know anything unrelated to us. Our knowledge is dependent upon the cognitive capacities arising from our particular types of bodies as we interact with entities in our environment. We do not know dogs, galaxies, or electricity apart from our embodied cognitive processes.

Criticisms of the God is unique approach:

  1. All human knowledge of anything, not just God, is “in relation.”
  2. Cognitive linguists do not believe that words name the essences of entities. Language is about interactional and relational characteristics rather than an abstract essence in itself. Hence, the distinction between the divine essence and the divine energies is moot. We do not interact with essences but with entities.
  3. The notion of “Being” is an abstraction from our embodied existence. Humans do not experience “Being,” rather we experience dogs, desks, language, events, and actions.

SUPERORDINATE              ANIMAL                    FURNITURE             TOOL

BASIC LEVEL                      DOG                           CHAIR                       SCREWDRIVER

SUBORDINATE                   COLLIE                     RECLINER                PHILLIPS

  1. The abstract concept Being uses the Categories Are Containers metaphor.

Divine transcendence is typically thought of in spatial terms of boundaries, locations, and containers: God is beyond, above, or outside whatever is considered inappropriate for God to be in. Traditionally, God has been understood as “outside” or “beyond” the container of creation whereas process thought places God “within” the space-time container. Both sides use the spatial imagery.

Colin Gunton uses Karl Barth’s ideas to develop dynamic transcendence. Barth’s God is transcendent in that he is able to become immanent in Jesus Christ. . . . God’s transcendence is his freedom to be present to the creature and, more than that, to become what he is not.

Gunton’s approach resonates with the biblical authors who, though they use the spatial terms such as above and high in reference to God, do not use them in reference to abstract being but to an agent.

Divine transcendence in the Bible:

  1. God is “above” means having authority over someone else.
  2. God as the one who guides. The shepherd or guide transcends the people, not as a category of being, but as the one who knows the way and seeks to provide for the well-being of the people as they journey. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann adopts this journey metaphor: “God is not ‘beyond us’ or ‘in us,’ but ahead of us.
  3. God as the ideal model. God transcends his people in that God is the moral exemplar to emulate. Isaiah 55.

There may be good reasons not to affirm such biblical ideas. Many Jews and Christians have, in their own ways, critiqued or reinterpreted biblical understandings of God they believe to be inappropriate. Many have thought, for instance, that divine transcendence must be conceived as beyond the categories of space and time even though the writers of the Hebrew Bible did not believe this. If God experiences time, for example, then we think of God as existing “in” time which is considered inappropriate for God since time is the container in which God exists.  Many have thought it unbecoming to attribute emotions in general and anger or jealousy, in particular, to God. The doctrine of divine impassibility was developed, in part, to protect God from emotions considered unworthy of the divine.

In Defense of God as Agent

Divine agency implies that God is “a being.” à problem of the container schema.

  1. It begins with the Christian story rather than with the philosophical notion of being [Heidigger]. Key to the Christian narrative is that God comes to us. Jean-Luc Marion’s book, God Without Being, in which he argues that Christian thought should begin with the love of God rather than the concept of “Being.” “Does Being define the first and the highest of the divine names? When God offers himself to be contemplated and gives himself to be prayed to. . . . When he appears as and in Jesus Christ, who dies and rises from the dead, is he concerned primarily with Being? [1] He goes on to say, “No doubt God can and must in the end also be” (i. e., God has being) but this is not the beginning of Christian thought. If we begin with “God is love” then God as an agent who loves is a primary concept for Christian thought, not the highly abstract notion of being.
  1. The attempt to use only abstract concepts for God is fraught with problems. To begin, statements such as “God is love,” “God is good,” and “God is an agent” have skeletal meaning. Even when used of humans, concepts such as goodness do not communicate much by themselves. The statement “Mary is good” does not tell us much until it is associated with scenarios of what good people are like. We have to put flesh on the bones by connecting these abstract ideas with prototypical scenarios of specific behaviors and attitudes culturally associated with love, goodness, and agency. We also need metaphors.
  1. Theological richness. Dutch Reformed philosopher, Vincent Brümmer, observes that “the rock metaphor does not lend itself for systematic development as a theological model. In contrast . . . . The analogy between God and human persons is so rich that it has been developed as the most fundamental and characteristic conceptual model in theistic god-talk. A personalist theology is feasible. A ‘rock’ theology is not.”[2]
  1. Liturgical and devotional life does not begin with Being but with a story of persons in relation. Heidegger, that one can sing to a God conceived as a personal agent. Thinking of God as a personal agent who interacts with creatures has led the development of robust forms of spirituality, liturgy, and hymnody.
  1. It is the natural starting point. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga when asked whether God is a being, replied, “Of course, what else is there to be?”

Cognitive science of religion supports the claim that thinking of God as an agent is the default mode for human cognitive development.

Cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett has conducted a number of experiments regarding God beliefs in children and adults in different cultures. His book, Why Would Anyone Believe in God?

Barrett argues that religion makes use of the same cognitive tools we use every day to understand and successfully live in our world.

  1. Chief among these tools is our “agency detection device” or ADD. This tool allows us to distinguish between entities such as rocks and trees that simply respond to actions from those such as animals that initiate action on the basis of their own internal states. Barrett says that our agency detection tool is “hyperactive” in that it finds agents in all sorts of phenomena. Our ADD errors on the side of caution—it is better to be safe than sorry if there is a potentially dangerous agent around. Our HADD (hyperactive agency detection device) is “prone to find agents around us, including supernatural ones. . . . This tendency encourages the generation and spread of god concepts and other religious concepts.”[3]
  2. Theory of mind or ToM. When we detect an entity which seems to initiate its own actions our theory of mind kicks in to attribute to the agent features such as thoughts, desires, and memories that guide its actions.

Barrett says that in order for particular conceptions of God to become widespread they must find a balance between being too ordinary and too bizarre.

  1. memorable, interesting, and useful to explain life events and phenomena.
  2. “minimally counterintuitive” because if they are too different from our normal understanding of agents they lose plausibility. “If they are too hard to conceptualize, people might not be able to make sense of them in real time to solve problems, tell stories, or understand the implications of them for their own behavior.”[4]

Concepts of God that are minimally counterintuitive are more likely to spread if they have good “inferential potential.” It is no accident, says Barrett, that in many religions the most central concepts of God embedded in stories, prayers, and devotional practices involve Gods with minds who function as agents because agents have incredible inferential potential. Unlike rocks or Being or Khora we can anticipate what agents might do and interact with them in dynamic ways. Conceptions of God as superknowing and caring are appealing because such beings are potential allies. Barrett claims such views enjoy some transmission advantages over other god concepts.”[5] These properties are typical of God concepts in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and some forms of Hinduism.

The recent findings of both cognitive science of religious belief and cognitive linguistics dovetail in support of the natural and normal conceptualization of God as possessing the features of personhood.

A caveat: this does not prove that God as agent is true. Rather, it only shows that thinking of God as agent is natural and the default position for humans.

God as agent has definite advantages over thinking of God as wholly other or Being itself. First of all it resonates much better with our cognitive processes since it arises out of our normal cognitive development. Second, it provides richer conceptual entailments because it draws upon interpersonal relations. Third, it resounds better with the typical worship and devotional lives of religious believers. Fourth, because God as agent is much more likely to be used by communities in religious rituals it is far more readily transmitted to future generations. Fifth, it fits better with biblical teachings on divine transcendence according to which God is in authority over, ahead of us on the journey, or is the moral exemplar. Hence, divine transcendence is understood as transcendence in relationship rather than as transcendence apart from relationship. Sixth, it begins it begins with the Christian story rather than with the philosophical notion of being [Heidigger]

Apophatic approaches provide a worthwhile reminder to safeguard the divine uniqueness. Yet, apophasis is dependent upon kataphasis or the way of affirmation.

Those who think of God as wholly other or as  Being itself or who think of ultimate reality as without any definite characteristics (“The Real” of John Hick or the Khora of John Caputo) may be correct but the burden of proof is on them. They face an extremely difficult challenge because their hands get full of splinters going against the grain of our cognitive processes. Also, they have never been able to disseminate their ideas widely from generation to generation. That which has no form or name is untouched by our prayers and does not care about our worship and so will never be found interesting, memorable, or useful to the lives of most people.[6] Those who believe God created us with some features of the divine image find that this idea fits well with what cognitive science says about our cognitive tools. Again, this does not prove that the typical human understanding of God is correct but it ought to prohibit the proponents of the wholly other from simply classifying most religious believers as “duller folk” on account of their so-called anthropomorphic God concepts.

Which metaphors we select shapes our views on a number of topics.

America’s Understanding of God

George Lakoff maintains that Americans have two main understandings of morality derived from different parental metaphors: “Strict Father Morality” and “Nurturant Parent Morality.” [7]

  1. Nurturant Parent model = children learn to be responsible and self-disciplined by being cared for, respected, and by exemplars. Some key goals of this model are to learn empathy for others and what it takes to sustain community. In this model children learn primarily through attachment to parents rather than by rewards and punishments.
  2. Disciplining or Authoritative Parent model = children learn to be responsible by acquiring self-discipline in the pursuit of self-interest. Being independent and self-reliant is a key goal of this model and children learn this through repeated rewards and punishments.

These two models of morality correspond to two models of God.[8]

  1. God Is a Nurturant Parent = divine grace is seen as primary for nurturance. Divine love comes first which results in respect for divine authority. God accepts people into the divine family and through love empowers them to transform sinful ways of living to loving ways. God exemplifies loving nurturance in the history of God’s interaction with people. Jesus is the divine-human exemplar showing us how to live a life of love towards others and the one who overcame the powers of evil to liberate us and return us to God. God demonstrates that God is trustworthy and is a model for humans to imitate. God wants to produce communities where people are nurtured in the ways of grace and love for others are stressed. For the Nurturant God model sin is primarily understood as harming others and atonement is restoration to loving relations.
  1. God Is a Disciplining Parent = God sets out rules that humans are to obey. God wants people to develop self-sufficiency and moral strength. Respect for divine authority comes first and then God rewards those who obey with acceptance. Each individual has failed to obey and so must suffer the consequences in order to learn responsibility. Jesus, however, takes the punishment due each of us and is condemned in our place. In this way, the divine moral accounting between obedience and disobedience is balanced because someone pays the price and is punished for disobedience. God gives those who accept Jesus’ atonement a second chance. God wants each of us to obediently follow the divine rules and be upstanding children who follow the instructions of those higher up in the social and religious hierarchies. For the Authoritative God model sin is primarily understood as breaking rules and atonement is payment for wrongdoing.

Though both models understand God as a parent, very different idealized cognitive models of parenting lead to distinct models of divine grace and what God is seeking to accomplish in the world.

Similar ideas are found in the work of two sociologists: America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God–& What That Says About Us.[9] They surveyed people regarding the extent to which God is involved in the world and the extent to which God judges the world. The responses lead to four views of God.

  1. Distant God is disengaged and nonjudgmental. God is never involved in human affairs, not now or in the afterlife. This view has affinities to views such as Caputo and Tillich.
  2. Critical God is judgmental but disengaged. God is not active in human lives at present but there will be a moral accounting in the afterlife in which justice shall be meted out.
  3. Authoritative God is both engaged and judgmental. God expects individuals to uphold God’s moral standards. When people disobey then God punishes. God is upset with the United States because of acceptance of, for example, abortion and homosexuality. Consequently, God punishes via natural disasters or national events. For example, God punished New Orleans for its debauched lifestyle via hurricane Katrina and did not protect the United States from the terrorist attack of 9/11 because of the widespread disobedience to God’s morals.
  4. Benevolent God is engaged but nonjudgmental. God wants to transform our lives but that God does not cause suffering such as that in hurricane Katrina, particularly since that storm disproportionately affected the poor. Rather, God seeks to get us to care for one another and help those suffering from tragic events.

The book presents a number of correlations between the model of God one affirms and the stances one takes on a host of moral, social, and political issues. For instance, American proponents of the Authoritative God tend to believe that poverty is the result of moral weakness manifested in bad individual choices. Poor people tend to be lazy or drug abusers or do not restrain themselves sexually and so have children out of wedlock. “American’s with the lowest incomes have the angriest and most judgmental Gods.” [10] They are much more likely to think God is angry at their personal sins and conclude that poverty is God’s means of punishment.

Also, they do not think of human contributions to climate change as sinful behavior and so do not associate the destruction produced by increasingly intense storms and draughts as divine punishment. In fact, they are more likely to believe that God will protect humans from the results of climate change. It is all in God’s hands.

Proponents of the Distant God believe humans must take responsibility for our actions because God does not act in world affairs. It is all up to us.

Proponents of the Benevolent God can take a position between the Authoritative and Distant Gods by arguing that God nurtures us to care for all people and creatures and that God delegates responsibility to us. Hence, what transpires in the future is up to both God and us.

The Benevolent and Authoritative God models each find support in the biblical texts and they have existed side by side in Christianity for millennia. For example, the Authoritative God is a key motivation for the development of the doctrines of penance and purgatory in medieval Catholicism. These allowed believers to pay off their acts of disobedience to a disapproving God. On the other hand, medieval mystics, such as Julian of Norwich, portray God as accepting and desiring to embrace us.

The same two models are operative in different understandings of the eschatological judgment. In contemporary North American evangelicalism there is a debate about how hell should be understood: as eternal conscious punishment, as the impenitent cease to exist (annihilationism), as hell is remedial for some, and as all people will eventually be redeemed (universal salvation). Proponents of eternal conscious punishment affirm the Authoritative God while proponents of the other three views affirm the Benevolent God.[11]

Furthermore, adherents of eternal conscious punishment tend to move away from talk of God as father or parent when discussing damnation. Instead, the metaphors tend to be those of a Western courtroom and contracts. Conceiving God as one who makes business-type agreements with people has different inferences from God as father or mother. Formal legal contracts typically require cancellation if the obligations are nullified by one of the parties. The relationship between the parties ends. Disobedience on the part of children, however, seldom results in the dissolution of the parent-child relationship. Prototypically, the parent-child relationship perseveres through such occasions. This is why Frymer-Kensky says that even “when Israel breaks the terms of its covenant with God, God will not act in strict judicial terms and discard Israel, for God remains bonded to Israel by the strong emotive bonds of parenthood.”[12]

But even if God Is Judge is the operative metaphor much depends on the identity of the judge and which cultural expectations about why the judgment is occurring and the goals the judge seeks to achieve. Is the judge the father of the household seeking to restore the honor of the family or is the judge an impartial authority whose job is to ascertain the guilt of the individual accused of a crime? In her discussion of judgment in 1 Peter Bonnie Howe says, “It matters very much who is doing the final auditing of the moral books—a Father God who is nurturing and merciful, or a by-the-book accountant god whose idea of how to rectify the books is punitive quid pro quo.”[13] Our understanding of divine eschatological judgment is greatly shaped by who we think is doing the judging as well as our cultural frames of what judgment involves. Those who affirm an Authoritative God and think of judgment as punishing individual guilt for breaking the rules will tend towards eternal conscious punishment whereas proponents of a Benevolent God and who think of judgment in order to restore family or community relationships are more open to understanding hell as remedial.

Conclusion

Though some believe that thinking of God as a personal agent is too anthropomorphic, there is simply no way to think of God except by using the cognitive capacities we have. The natural or default setting for our cognitive processes is to think of God as an agent. Conceptualizing God as an agent offers richer entailments over thinking of God as wholly other or Being itself. Metaphors are the primary means of fleshing out the concept of divine agency. Biblical writers and Christians have used a wide array of metaphors to understand what God is like and what God has done for creatures. Each metaphor highlights specific entailments while omitting others. Just as our experience of love is so rich that we need multiple metaphors to understand it so our experience of God requires multiple metaphors in order to try to express what God is like. The key debate becomes which metaphors are deemed fitting for God (dignum Deo). Deciding what is appropriate for God is not easily resolved since it depends upon diverse theological, cultural, and psychological factors. Various theological models will emphasize some metaphors over others and this is inevitable. It matters deeply which metaphors we emphasize since our model of God profoundly affects our views on important social and political issues as well as how we understand sin, atonement, and eschatological judgment. In short, what we think the gospel story is about depends upon our key metaphors.


[1] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-texte (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), xx.

[2] Vincent Brümmer, The Model of Love: a Study in Philosophical Theology (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 14.

[3] Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? 31.

[4] Justin L Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2004), 24.

[5] Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? 67.

[6] For a similar critique see John E. Benson, “The ‘New Cognitive Science of Religion’ and Religious Pluralism,” Dialog 46, no. 4 (Wint 2007): 382–389.

[7] George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[8] Lakoff, Moral Politics, 245-262. I do not always agree with the specific theological ideas Lakoff associates with each model but it should be kept in mind that he is not a theologian.

[9] Paul Froese and Christopher Bader, America’s Four Gods: what We Say About God– & what that Says About Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[10] Froese and Bader, America’s Four Gods, 114.

[11] See John Sanders, “Raising Hell About Razing Hell: Evangelical Debates on Universal Salvation.” Perspectives in Religious Studies (forthcoming fall 2013).

[12] Frymer-Kensky, In the wake of the goddesses, 163. Walter Brueggemann disagrees, claiming the God of the Hebrew Bible is so sulky and abusive that Israel is never finally sure of God’s love. See his Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 268, 227.

[13] Howe, Because You Bear This Name, 215. Gomola also sees this as the critical division. He suggests that God Is a Contracting Party dominates over God Is a (Loving) Father in Christian eschatology resulting in an act of justice, not mercy. See Gomola, “From GOD IS A FATHER,” 399.

John Sanders

John E. Sanders is an American theologian who is a professor of religious studies at Hendrix College. He has published on four main topics: (1) open theism, (2) Christian views on the salvation of non-Christians, (3) Christian views on the nature of hell, and (4) applying cognitive linguistics to theology.

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