Theological Muscle-Flexing: How Human Embodiment Shapes Discourse About God

Draft version not for quotation or citation. For the published version see Thomas Jay Oord ed., Creation Made Free (Pickwick 2009), 219-236.

Thomas Aquinas said that “we come to know and name God from creatures” meaning that  our understanding of God is dependent upon the conceptualizations of which human creatures are capable.[1] John Calvin agreed, saying, that “God cannot reveal himself to us in any other way than by a comparison with things we know.”[2] If God is going to communicate with us then God has to do so in ways in which we can understand. Human language and concepts are all we have to talk about God. This claim is nothing new but I want to examine it in light of the field of cognitive linguistics. In particular, cognitive linguists argue that our reasoning is dependent upon our embodiment. If much of our language and reasoning draws upon our experience as physical beings then what might this imply about our understanding of God? How does embodiment shape our theological weight training?

In this paper I will limit my discussion to only a few areas of research from cognitive science and then apply these to our language about God. The specific claims of cognitive linguists that I will survey are: (1) the mind is inherently embodied, (2) our thinking is constrained by basic-level image schemas, and (3) abstract concepts are largely metaphorical and (4) these metaphors are grounded in our embodied experience. I intend to illustrate the value of this work for theology in the hope that others will join me in this research project.

  1. The mind is inherently embodied

We seek to understand our world in terms of that which we know best and what we know best is our embodied experiences in relation to others. We use our embodied experience to conceptualize what is important to us. Consider the following expressions: the heart of the problem, to shoulder a responsibility, the head of a department, a healthy economy, my feelings are hurt, exports flourished last year, his finances are ruined, he received a warm welcome, and spend your time wisely.[3]  Each of these statements uses something from our embodied experience in order to conceptualize other topics. We are seldom aware that we are using embodied experiences to understand our world.

Not only do we have bodies but humans have particular kinds of bodies with particular abilities to do some things and not others. We have a visual system with orientation-sensitive cells that enable us to conceptualize spatial relations. We have the ability to move and so motion plays a significant role in understanding the world. We have arms and legs with muscles that allow us to apply force to pick up objects and this gives rise to causal concepts.  It is important to understand our visual systems, motor system and the general mechanisms of neural binding because the same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason.

That embodiment is fundamental for thought is seen in the research on how infants learn. Infants with normal vision attend to movement more than anything else.[4] The repeated activation of the neural visual system develops permanent neural connections between parts of the brain dedicated to different types of perception and experience.

Infants are also highly attuned to other human faces. The face of the primary caregiver provides security and peace. Being held by the caregiver provides literal warmth and protection. These initial experiences give rise to several of our basic cognitive image schemas. The claim is not that infants have innate concepts, rather, it is that they have an innate capacity to conceptualize and this capacity is developed by the neural stimulation brought about by bodily experiences. In an experiment with normal infants ranging in age from forty-two minutes old to seventy-one hours, the researcher used various facial expressions such as sticking out his tongue, pursing his lips and a wide open mouth to see if infants could imitate the expressions.[5] Even the forty-two minute old infant was able to perform the imitations. From this and many other experiments Gallagher concludes, “Before children have a theory of mind, they already have an embodied understanding of other people.…before you know it, the body is working to shape the mind.”[6]

  1. Basic-level Image Schemas

Image schemas are notions such as up-down, part-whole, center-periphery, front-back, near-far, and source-path-goal. They are spatial structures that are mapped (applied) to conceptual structures.[7] According to Mandler, “Even though image-schemas are derived from perceptual and . . . motor processes, they are not themselves sensorimotor processes.”[8] Perceptual information leads to a small number of image schemas of which we are largely unconscious and the image schemas become the main generator of the conceptual system. For example, because we have eyes on one side or our head and tend to interact with people with our eyes on them and their eyes on us we form the image schema front-back. The concepts “in front of” and “in back of” are based on the type of bodies we have. Similarly, we have bodies that are bounded by skin such that there are objects that are outside our bodies and this gives rise to the inside-outside image schema. Some of the other image schemas are: whole-part orientation (our bodies consist of parts), center-periphery (we sense that our head and torso are central and that our limbs are peripheral since life goes on without a finger but not a head), container orientation (we take things into the body and expel things from the body), up-down (our erect posture and lying down), and source-path-goal (to reach an object or place requires movement from our present location to the location of the object).

We take these image schemas for granted in that they are assumed in order to develop more complex patterns of thought and this is important because it is the particular make up of our bodies that shape our conceptualization and categorization processes.[9] If we had different sorts of bodies then there would be some different image schemas. For instance, if we had bodies similar to those of jellyfish then we would not have the front-back schema since there is no front or back for jellyfish. Our basic image schemas are derived from our embodied experience and imprinted in our neural network.

Image schemas form the conceptual building blocks for basic-level concepts. Examples of basic-level concepts are time, quantity, state, change, action, cause, purpose and category.  For example, the image schema in-out is developed into the concept of category. The very notion of category presumes a container with a definite boundary such that it has an interior and an exterior. To categorize something is to place it into a cognitive container. In other words, the properties of containers are used to understand categories. Thus, the logic of containers (you put the carton of milk into the bag) is mapped onto the concept of categories (if X is in A and A is in B then X is in B).

Containers are the basis for another important aspect of our conceptual structure. The physical experience of putting water into a container makes the container fill up. The water poured into a cup rises until it reaches the top of the cup. Our experience of this is the basis for the conceptualization more is up and less is down. There are many other languages that have the more is up conceptualization but none in which more is down and less is up. The reason is due to the human experience of the physical link between more and up.[10]

  1. Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical and these are grounded in our embodied experience.

Since image schemas are quite skeletal we put some meat on the bones by way of metaphorical extensions. The chart below contains some examples.[11]

Image Schema Metaphorical Extension
In-out I’m out of clothes.
Head She’s at the head of her class.
Up-down I’m feeling low.
Motion She went crazy.

In opposition to the “traditional” theory of metaphor in which conventional language is literal rather than metaphorical, conceptual metaphor theory holds that metaphors are used to conceptualize and reason about our world.[12] They are not used simply to speak about the world and our experience. Our conceptualizations about interpersonal relationships, time, purposes, and categories are largely metaphorical in nature.[13] This does not mean that all statements are metaphorical. For example, the famous “the cat is on the mat” is not metaphorical. If we say “these colors are similar” we are speaking literally while if we say “these colors are close” we are speaking metaphorically since colors are not actually near or far. The statement “these colors are close uses the SIMILARITY IS PROXIMITY metaphor. Literal statements are usually skeletal as far as meaning is concerned but humans want to think about more complex aspects of life such as purposes, love and time. In order to think about these more abstract areas of life we draw upon metaphors. Take the statement “as we pursue the topic of metaphor we must be clear about its basis in embodiment.” I dare say that most of us would consider this a literal remark. However, we do not literally pursue an idea. Nobody in the audience gets out of his seat to chase an idea around the room. Niether can ideas be literally clear since they do not have matter or color.

Cognitive linguists distinguish several types of metaphor but only some of these will be discussed here.[14]

Primary metaphors are fundamental ones that form the building blocks for complex metaphors. Primary metaphors are based on our embodied experiences. For example, we know what it is to have experiences such as having a fluid inside the body, to feel pressure when we are angry, and to feel hot or cold in parts of our bodies. Primary metaphors are connected to our embodied experiences in that we use our sensorimotor abilities to conceptualize abstract experiences. For instance, physical grasping of an object is used for understanding concepts (he could not grasp the topic), sight is used for knowledge (I see your point), hearing is used for internal receptivity (My parents just don’t hear me), touch/feeling are used for emotions (I feel great today), and taste is used for personal preference (the room was tastefully decorated).

It was mentioned above that sighted children who experience repeated patterns of movement form particular correlations in the brain. When we say to children “let’s see what is in the box” we are using the verbs for vision in such a way that knowing what is in the box depends upon vision. Eventually, we develop conceptual schemes such as KNOWING IS SEEING. However, on the way to developing this conceptual metaphor young children conflate the actual use of vision with the metaphor of seeing. It can be confusing when adults use “seeing” to mean something that is not visually seen at all in a statement such as “I see what you mean.”  In time, children are able to separate the literal seeing from the conceptual metaphorical.[15] As an aside, it is interesting to note that many of the words we consider literal such as “idea,” “speculate,” “theory,” “intuition,” and “aspect” are derived from the Greek and Latin use of the KNOWING IS SEEING metaphor.[16]

Some other key primary metaphors are AFFECTION IS WARMTH (give grandma a warm welcome), HAPPY IS UP (I’m feeling up today), INTIMACY IS PHYSICAL PROXIMITY (they are close friends), DIFFICULTIES ARE BURDENS (he’s weighed down with responsibilities), MORE IS UP (the price of the toy is too high), CATEGORIES ARE CONTAINERS (lions are in the feline family), TIME IS MOTION (the party went fast), and PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS (she is well on her way to being a success).

Complex metaphors utilize primary metaphors. This will be illustrated by looking at two complex metaphors. First, we use the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor when we says things like: We’ve come a long way in our marriage, Our relationship is at a crossroads, and Our romance is moving right along. In this metaphor the lovers are travelers, their common life goals are destinations, the journey is events in the relationship, distance covered is progress made, and the relationship is a vehicle. LOVE IS A JOURNEY draws upon primary metaphors such as INTIMACY IS PHYSICAL PROXIMITY and PURPOSES ARE DESTINATIONS.

Second, we use the metaphor AN ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING when we speak of giving support for the argument so that it does not collapse, laying the groundwork for a good argument, the framework for a solid argument, and whether the argument is strong and can withstand criticism. The ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING metaphor is comprised of two primary metaphors: LOGICAL STRUCTURE IS PHYSICAL STRUCTURE and PERSISTING IS REMAINING ERECT.

Why should we think of arguments as buildings? In our culture we are so used to these metaphors that we typically fail to ask what grounds them to reality. After all, there is no necessary connection between journeys and love or buildings and arguments. In fact, the target domain of love was not conceptualized in terms of a journey until that particular source domain was mapped onto it. We created the conceptualization of love in terms of journey but we need not have.[17] Does this mean that our conceptualizations are arbitrary and have no connection to reality? The answer is “no” because primary metaphors are derived from bodily experience. We have concrete embodied experiences of making buildings and going on journeys. Though we do not have to conceptualize arguments in terms of buildings or love as a journey, these complex metaphors are connected to our embodied experience by the primary metaphors they draw upon.[18]


There are some other aspects of conceptual metaphors that are important for this essay.

(a) Partial mapping. The elements that are selected from the source domain to apply to the target domain are always limited.[19] Typically, only a few aspects of the source domain are utilized while others are ignored. For instance, in the ARGUMENTS ARE BUILDINGS metaphor elements of physical structure such as foundations and supports are applied to argumentation but not plumbing or chimneys. It is suggested that this is due to the desire to highlight the construction and design of arguments as well as the ability to persist despite questions.[20] If metaphors are used to highlight some specific aspects of a target domain this means that other aspects that could be used are not. In other words, the partial mapping of metaphors filters some elements out while letting others through. This means that a single metaphor does not disclose all that can be understood about a target.

(b) Different Sources Change the Understanding of the Target. If we want to highlight other aspects of the target which a particular metaphor does not involve then we use other sources because different source domains lead to different entailments in the target. For example, there are several other ways that speakers of English conceptualize arguments and these bring out different features. First, we think of arguments as containers when we say “your argument has a great deal of content.” Second, we understand arguments as journeys when we say “the reasoning proceeds step-by-step” or “we have covered a lot of ground.” Third, we conceive of arguments as war when we say “he could not defend the point” or “she attacked his major premise.” Kövecses suggests that each of the ways of conceiving arguments highlights different aspects unavailable in the other sources. The container metaphor highlights the content while the journey metaphor brings out progress and the war metaphor seems to focus on control and persistence. While the “CONTAINER metaphor highlights issues of content and basicness, it simultaneously hides such other aspects as progress, control, construction and strength.”[21] Also, sometimes what is highlighted in one metaphor may be in tension with that highlighted in another. For example, thinking of arguments as going on a journey together is in tension with thinking of arguments as war between the same parties.

(c) Several Sources for the Same Target. Given that different sources highlight different elements in the target domain, it is not surprising that we have a variety of conceptual metaphors in order to understand our experiences. Take the experience of love, for example. There are literal elements to love: a lover, the beloved, feelings of affection and a relationship which has a temporal beginning. This is rather skeletal, however, which is why we have a rich assortment of metaphors for conceptualizing love. In addition to LOVE IS A JOURNEY we think of love as a NUTRIENT (he was starved for affection, her love sustains him), as FIRE (burning with love), as PHYSICAL FORCES (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 or they are a perfect fit) and as a GAME (she’s playing hard to get). Apart from conceiving of love in terms such as nurturance, heat, magnetism, madness, closeness, unity and playing games, our understanding of love would be minimal.

(d) Unidirectional. In most cases metaphors are unidirectional and cannot be reversed. Though we talk about love as a journey, the illness of society and the machinery of political processes, we do not talk about journeys as love, the society of illness or the political processes of machines.


Because the issue of the nature of time is so important to the openness of God debate I want to illustrate the preceding points via a discussion of time. Our understanding of the nature of time is deeply connected to our embodied experience of motion and events. All of us have experienced one event followed by another event and we know what it is to move from one location to another. Also, we know that our actions cannot be undone. It is from these embodied experiences that we develop our conceptualizations of time.[22] We experience events as directional and irreversible—events cannot “unhappen.” Consequently, we conceptualize time as directional and irreversible. We experience events, such as a song, as continuous and so we understand time as continuous. Yet, because events can be segmented from beginning to end we map these characteristics onto time such that time becomes a linear series. We can count regular iterations such as days or heartbeats and so we apply this to time in order to quantify time. We also conceptualize time in terms of space. Try to think about time without spatial concepts such as distance, movement over distance, front-back directionality, or containers.

Though we apply our embodied experiences of movement and events to time we develop several different metaphorical conceptions of time. Our visual orientation plays a role in the development of understanding time as a spatial orientation. We understand time in terms of physical objects, locations and motion. In English the spatial location of the observer is the present, the space in front of the observer is the future (we look where we are going) and the space behind the observer is the past. We take this for granted and assume it is the correct way of conceiving time. However, there is a language in Chile in which the time orientation is reversed: the past is in front of us because we can see in front of us and we know the past. The future is behind us because we cannot see behind us. Both languages utilize our visual orientation but not in the same ways.

When movement is added to time as an orientation we develop the TIME IS MOTION metaphor. In English we have two versions of this metaphor which shape the way we reason about time. For us, either time moves and the observer is stationary or the observer moves and time is stationary. In the TIME PASSING IS MOTION OF AN OBJECT metaphor time is understood as an object which moves towards us then passes us and finally is behind us. We have this metaphor in mind when we say things like: The summer flew by. Christmas is coming up on us. I’m looking ahead to vacation. The time for action has arrived. According to this conception, before and after are thought of as movement in reference to the observer’s location. Time is conceptualized as an object traveling over distance to reach us. The other version of the TIME IS MOTION metaphor is TIME PASSING IS AN OBSERVER’S MOTION OVER A LANDSCAPE. In this conception time is a linear distance and does not move. Rather, the observer moves over the terrain of time. Examples of this metaphor are: We’re getting close to Christmas. My retirement is far away. Grandma’s visit extended over several months. I will meet you at three o’clock (at is a location). It will be a long time until we arrive. Indeed, we often speak of lengths of time but time is not actually long or short, near or far.[23] Nevertheless, in this version we think of time as a series of discrete points over which we travel. It should be noted that the “block theory” of time depends upon the TIME PASSING IS AN OBSERVER’S MOTION OVER A LANDSCAPE metaphor.

In both versions of the TIME IS MOTION metaphor, whether time moves or the observer moves, distance and space are involved. We are not actually thinking about pure temporality. To be honest, we are hard pressed to think of temporal events apart from conceiving of them via spatial metaphors. Also, we only partially map from the source to target. For example, though we can stop and remain still on a journey, time does not remain still.

Furthermore, we use more than one source domain to conceive of time and different source domains map different characteristics onto the target. In English we have another common way to conceptualize time and in this metaphor distance is not involved but it nonetheless draws upon our experience of physical objects in order to map certain characteristics onto time. In the TIME IS A RESOURCE metaphor we think of time as finite amounts of physical materials. The source domain is our experience of using up supplies of resources such as food. We do not want to run out of coffee, for example, so we budget our consumption. We have to spend the money from our paychecks wisely because our income is finite. Examples of TIME IS A RESOURCE are: You’ve used up all your time. I’ve got plenty of time to do that. She wasted her afternoon. This shortcut will save you time. Thinking of time as a commodity is so ingrained in our language that it is very difficult to think about time without conceiving it as a resource which can run out or be wasted.

Both the TIME IS MOTION and TIME IS A RESOURCE metaphors make it possible for us to manage our affairs, send space ships to the moon, and operate businesses. If we did not map from our embodied experiences of movement and consuming resources our lives would lack the basic structure they have.

  1. Application to God

Now we need to discuss the relevance of the preceding material for our understanding of God.[24] I have argued that abstract concepts are largely metaphorical and that these are grounded in our embodied experience. Moreover, metaphors are used to conceptualize and reason about our world rather than simply to speak about it. Our conceptualizations about interpersonal relationships, time, purposes, and categories are largely metaphorical in nature. All of this is also true of the way we understand God and our relationship to God. Also, just as the metaphors are grounded in our embodied experiences so is our understanding of God. The different points discussed above will be applied to our reasoning about God. Some points will receive very brief attention while others will receive more. The main examples will be drawn from the Bible.

  1. First of all, our embodiment plays a key role. If God is going to communicate with us and have a relationship with us it will have to be in ways which we can comprehend. If we are to think of God in rich rather than skeletal ways then we are going to use conceptual metaphors and these will be grounded in our embodied experience.
  1. Recall that the human face of a caregiver provides things such as security, affirmation and peace to an infant. Repeated face-to-face interaction with a child helps it to develop its sense of personhood. It is little wonder that this initial experience in infancy becomes a prototype for the experience of God in the Bible. The biblical writers repeatedly speak of the “face” of God.[25] The Hebrew term panim in most English Bibles is usually translated as “presence” or “face.” The Greek term prosōpon is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew panim and it occurs in the New Testament as well. In the Hebrew Bible the worshippers sought the “face” of Yahweh (Ps 24:6; 42:4). When God’s face is turned toward the worshipper, one experiences affirmation and peace (Num 6:24-26). When God hides his face the worshipper experiences anxiety (Ps 13:2; 104:29). In the New Testament Paul writes that the glorified face of Christ manifests the glory of God (2 Cor 4:6). Also, believers are promised that the eschaton will contain the experience of the face of God (Rev 22:4). The biblical writers used the powerful human experience of the physical face of the other in order to conceptualize their relationship with God.
  1. Biblical writers frequently used basic-level image schemas in order to comprehend religious experience.[26] Two examples will have to suffice. First, the BODY IS A CONTAINER image is frequent. Believers are temples of God in which the Spirit of God dwells (1 Cor 3:16). Some people seem outwardly to be righteous but inwardly are hypocrites (Mt 23:28). The heart is a container for good or evil thoughts (Mark 7:21-23) and the Israelites are instructed to put God’s word into their hearts (Deut 30:14). The up-down schema is used in a variety of ways. It seems that all cultures share the valuations that Good IS UP and AUTHORITY IS UP while SUBMISSION IS DOWN. Hence, the biblical writers speak of God’s love as higher than the heavens are above the earth (Ps 103:11). The prayers of God’s people rise up to God (Ex 2:23). Greater security is conceived as up when it is said that God will set the believer securely on high (Ps 20:1). Higher authority is conceived as up when the Centurion says to Jesus that he is under authority and he has authority over others (Mt 8:8-9). This explains why biblical writers conceptualize God as looking down from heaven (Ps 14:2; 102:19) and even descending from heaven (Gen 18:21). It would be improper to conceptualize God as coming from below us. This may also explain why the architecture of traditional church buildings point to the heavens.[27]
  1. Primary metaphors form the building blocks for complex metaphors and these occur in the Bible as well. For example, KNOWING IS SEEING is used of both God and humans. God sees what is created and knows it is what he desired (Gen 1). God investigates to see if the humans in Sodom are beyond help (Gen 18:21). God looks down to see if anyone understands (Ps 14:2; 53:2). Humans are able to see whether God has blessed someone (26:28) and see whether God’s word is true (Num 11:23). When humans see their sins they know they have disobeyed God (1 Sam 12:17). Moses asked to see the divine glory but God refused. Instead, he allowed Moses to see (know) the divine goodness (Ex 33:18-23). We are asked to see that God is good (Ps  34:8). Human failure to see the works of God are indications they do not understand (Isaiah 6:10; 26:10-11; Matt 13:15-6;  Mark 4:12; 8:17). Phillip asks Jesus to show them the father in order to know God (John 14:8). Paul says that because we see dimly our knowledge of God is limited (1 Cor 13:2).

Other examples of  primary metaphors are INTIMACY IS PHYSICAL PROXIMITY and Emotional Distance is Physical Distance. Deeply spiritual persons are said to be physically close to God. Enoch walked with God for many years (Gen 5:22-24). God carried the Israelites in his arms as a father carries a son (Deut 1:21). Moses had a face-to-face relationship with God (Ex 33:11; Num 12:8). When worshippers experience problems in their relationship with God they ask God to be near them (Ps 22:11; 35:22; 38:21). In the new Jerusalem worshippers will experience a clear presence of God for they will be close to God (Rev 22:4).

  1. In the Bible a wide array of metaphors are used to understand what God is like. Mary Therese DesCamp and Eve Sweetser have cataloged these metaphors and found 44 separate metaphors for God in the Hebrew Bible and 50 in the New Testament.[28] Their interest was to discover which characteristics of God were most important to the biblical writers by cataloging which metaphors were applied to God. A few of the metaphors they list are father, king, warrior, husband, woman, master, fortress, heat, eagle, bear, potter, smelter, planter, and land owner. They note that some metaphors are sparse (God is a rock) while others are frequent (God is a father).  For each metaphor they map the entailments from the source domain which are attributed to the target domain (God). In the Hebrew Bible they find six characteristics that occurr throughout the mappings of the 44 metaphors. These are (1) protection and sustenance (husband, father), (2) mutual relationship though asymmetric in authority (father, judge), (3) physical control (smelter), (4) the ability to change one’s state or essence (king, woman in labor), (5) authority (king, teacher) and (6) the power to punish (father, bear). These are the characteristics of God that the writers of the Hebrew Bible considered most important. Two metaphors appear in each of the six categories: father and king. That is, the source domains of father and king were used to highlight each of the six entailments. This does not mean that each occurrence of the GOD IS KING metaphor in the Bible maps all six characteristics. Rather, some texts use GOD IS KING to highlight protection while other texts use the same metaphor to highlight God’s ability to change the human situation.

It is interesting that the New Testament writers use the same six characteristics but with one important addition: extravagance. God as father, woman, and land owner, has the characteristic of incredible extravagance in dealing with humans by giving them lavish parties, lighting a lamp to sweep the house which uses up a precious commodity,  paying workers much more than what is expected, and throwing propriety to the wind in order to welcome home prodigal children. The metaphor of father occurs in each of the seven entailments while the metaphor of king occurs in six out of seven (they do not list it for the transforming one’s state of being category). That father is used in each category in both testaments implies that this metaphor communicates aspects of God’s character that the biblical writers considered most important.[29]

DesChamp and Sweetser draw two main conclusions from their detailed study. First, mutual relationships are the ideal form of relationship between God and humans. Even though the relationships are asymmetric in terms of authority (e. g. father-child, king-subject) there is two-way mutuality between the subjects. Each gives and each receives though not in equal measure. Second, human-to-human metaphors are usually preferred over metaphors of inanimate objects or animals. The reason why is because human metaphors have richer entailments due to the ongoing and dynamic nature of the relationship. However, in two categories, protection and transformation, the preferred metaphors are inanimate objects or animals. Humans need protection from danger and so metaphors of rocks, gates and armor are helpful to communicate this. Humans often find themselves in situations in need of transformation but lack the power to change the situation themselves. In such cases the power of God is emphasized. God, as shepherd or potter, has the requisite ability to change the situation of the sheep or clay.

  1. The metaphors used for God do not map every characteristic of the source domain onto the target. Even those metaphors used a great deal such as father and shepherd do not map every aspect of human fathers and shepherds onto God. God does not, for example, have a penis to impregnate a goddess in order to give birth to Israel nor does God sheer humans or sometimes roast them for a feast. Only those aspects of the source domain that the biblical authors deem fitting are applied to God.[30] In his excellent study of the metaphor God as king, Marc Brettler, notes that the biblical writers frequently used this metaphor for God yet they were very selective about which aspects of the source domain (human kings) they applied to God.[31] Though some aspects of human kingship are ascribed to God, most aspects are qualified such that God is king in a special way that either surpasses or is contrary to human kings. For example, human kings and God are both called shepherds but only God uses his staff beneficially rather than for punishment. Also, though both have “power,” God can use his power for peace and justice. Finally, God uses his strength to forgive and his right hand for righteousness whereas human kings often use their right hand for bloodshed.
  1. Different source domains change the way we conceptualize the target. For example, conceptualizing God as an eagle has some entailments very different from understanding God as a rock. We must be careful not to mix the entailments from the different metaphors. Consider that God as father and as lover each have rich entailments but if these two are brought together at the same time we have incest which is an inappropriate entailment for God. God as potter conveys the important message that God has the ability to transform our condition. However, the way God transforms our condition must not be allowed to override the key metaphors of father and husband who, if they are good, do not treat their wives and children as clay by pounding on them or putting them in kilns.[32]
  1. Several source domains are often used to conceptualize the same target. We need multiple metaphors for God in order to obtain a well rounded understanding even though some metaphors are more important to us than others. The biblical writers used over fifty metaphors for God though they emphasize father and king more than others. The apostle Paul speaks of making disciples via two different metaphors: working in a field and constructing a building (1 Cor 3:5-9). Our relationship with God is conceptualized in various ways: bride to bridegroom, shepherd to sheep, and as going on a journey. The journey metaphor is particularly rich. One variation of this is JESUS IS THE GUIDE ON THE JOURNEY metaphor. Examples of this are: the one who follows Jesus never walks in darkness (John 8:12) and will be safe from the following the path to destruction (Matt 7:13-14). We are invoked to fix our eyes on Jesus the trailblazer (Heb 12:2).  A different variation is JESUS IS THE PATH (John 14:6). According to this metaphor believers are to walk on Jesus as a road. A final example of several sources being used to conceptualize the target is the multiple metaphors for the atonement of Jesus.[33] Jesus is the ransom that freed us from slavery; the one who leads the new exodus out of bondage; the sacrifice whose blood is placed on the mercy seat; the Passover lamb; and the scapegoat that is led into the wilderness.
  1. Most of the metaphors are unidirectional and cannot be reversed. We speak of ARGUMENTS ARE BUILDINGS but not BUILDINGS ARE ARGUMENTS (unless my wife and I are trying to remodel the house together). Some metaphors can be reversed but when they are then different metaphors develop. For example, some feminists assert that the metaphor GOD IS FATHER is reversable to FATHER IS GOD. However, this is incorrect.[34] To conceptualize one’s father as God is to map the characteristics of omnipotence, creator, and omniscience onto a finite being. To conceptualize God as a father is to map characteristics such as sustenance, providing an inheritance, and protection onto God.
  1. Our conceptual metaphors sometimes have valuations that help us determine whether a metaphor is appropriate or not when applied to God. For example, Moltmann’s claim that “God comes to us from the future” sounds like an exalted notion of God (as opposed to “God comes to us from the present”). God has the ability to bring the future into our present and transform our present state. Yet, we tend to forget that the statement “God comes to us from the future” conceives God as moving towards us from a point ahead of us. It utilizes the TIME PASSING IS AN OBSERVER’S MOTION OVER A LANDSCAPE metaphor. We tend to forget that Moltmann’s statement is metaphorical. Similarly, some critics claim that open theism entails that God is “in time” and it rubs us the wrong way to think of a container larger than God. However, to speak of God as “in” time is to take as literal the TIME IS A CONTAINER metaphor. Though open theists affirm that God has temporal experience we are not committed to the claim that God is “in time” since we reject the TIME IS A CONTAINER metaphor that our critics utilize.


This paper has argued that our reasoning is deeply derived from our embodied experiences. From birth we are attuned to motion and faces and these play a huge role in the way we think. The particular kinds of bodies we have and the nature of the world around us give rise to particular ways of conceiving our various relationships. We form basic-level schemas that become our primary categories of thought (up-down, near-far). These are used to develop primary metaphors based on our physical experiences that are then mapped on to abstractions such as emotions, social relationships and even God. Though complex metaphors are more removed from our direct bodily experiences they remain grounded in primary metaphors and image schemas. A number of different aspects of conceptual metaphors were discussed to illustrate the strong connections between our embodiment and the way we think. All of this was then applied to the way we think about God and our relationship with God. Since so much of our reasoning is by means of conceptual metaphors that derive from our physical experiences it is not surprising that we utilize the same processes to conceptualize God. Our thinking about God is largely by way of conceptual metaphors derived from our embodiment.

If we do not regularly heft conceptual metaphors for God then our understandings amount to ninety-eight pound weaklings. On the other hand, frequent use of conceptual metaphors for God result in a ripped understanding of God whose muscle-flexing gets lots of attention at the beach.

[1] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, ed. Anton C. Pegis, 2 vols. (New York: Random House, 1945), 1, q. 13, a. 1.

[2] Calvin, is here discussing Isaiah 40:18. See The Commentaries of John Calvin on the Old Testament in 30 vols. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1843-1848), vol. 15 p. 223 and Intitutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.13.21.

[3] See Zoltan Kövecses  Metaphor: a Practical Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 16-24. Kövecses  does not claim that all thought is directly related to physical experience.

[4] Shaun Gallagher, How the Body Shapes the Mind (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005), 247. See also the work by Raymond Gibbs, Embodiment and Cognitive Science (New York. Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination and Reason (Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[5] Gallagher, How The body, 70-72.

[6] Gallagher, How The body,245.

[7] See Jean Mandler, “How to Build a Baby: II. Conceptual Primitives, Psychological Review, 99. no. 4 (1992), 591-2; and George Lakoff, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): 416-461; and George Lakoff and Mark Johnsn, Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 31-35.

[8] Mandler, “How to Build a Baby,” 591.

[9] Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh, 19.

[10] George Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” in Andrew Ortony, ed. Metaphor and Thought, second ed. (Cambridge University Press, ), 240-1.

[11] These examples are drawn from Kovesces, Metaphor, 37.

[12] See Lakoff, “The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor,” 202-251.

[13] For an excellent overview of conceptual metaphor theory and the key literature see Bonnie Howe, Because You Bear This Name: Conceptual Metaphor and the Moral Meaning of 1 Peter (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), chapter 2.

[14] See Kövecses, Metaphor.

[15] See Lakoff, Flesh, 48-56, Sweetser, Metaphors for God, 216-7.

[16] Kövecses, Metaphor, 218-9.

[17] Proponents of the traditional theory of metaphor typically claim that metaphors involve a similarity between the source and target domains. Though there are similarities in some cases there need not be any similarities between the two domains. For instance if we say “She is a firecracker” it is the source domain that imposes a structure on the target domain. There is no literal similarity between the woman and a firecracker. Rather, it is the application of firecracker that enables us to understand an abstraction about the woman.

[18] Kövecses, Metaphor,83-4, Lakoff, Philosophy, 63-4.

[19] Kövecses, Metaphor,chapter seven.

[20] Kövecses, Metaphor,84 cites the research of Grady on this point.

[21] Kövecses, Metaphor,80.

[22] The following draws upon Lakoff’s discussion of time in Philosophy in the Flesh, 137-169.

[23] Augustine sees this problem in his Confessions, chapter 11. Zeno took the metaphor literally and so developed his paradoxes. See Lakoff, Philosophy, 157.

[24] For a helpful overview of cognitive science and its applicability to theology see Gregory R. Peterson, Minding God: Theology and the Cognitive Sciences (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). For an excellent introduction to conceptual metaphor theory and its application to biblical studies see Bonnie Howe, Because You Bear This Name. For the relevance of cognitive linguistics to biblical translation see Kenneth A. McElhanon, “From Simple Metphors to Conceptual Blending: The Mapping of Analogical Concepts and the Praxis of Translation” Journal of Translation 2. no. 1 (2006): 31-81.


[25] See The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975) 1. 585-7 and The Faces of Foregiveness: Searching for Wholeness and Salvation, F. LeRon Shults  and Steven J. Sandage (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2003), 105-124.

[26] The following section is deeply indebted to several unpublished papers by Kenneth McElhanon.

[27] Kövecses, Metaphor, 58. He also suggests that the taller pyramids symbolize the greater power of the pharaoh.

[28] Mary DesCamp and Eve Sweetser, “Metaphors for God: Why and How Do Our Choices Matter for Humans? The Application of Contemporary Cognitive Linguistics Research to the Debate on God and Metaphor,” Pastoral Psychology, vol. 53, no. 3 (January 2005): 207-238.

[29]  The authors suggest that the reason why the mother metaphor is not used as much is due to the fact that mothers in ancient Israel did not have the ability to convey inheritance and lacked the degree of authority that fathers had.

[30] Also, the same word can have different entailments which is why not every entailment of “father” can be applied to God. The claim that “the Pope is the father of the Roman Catholic church” does not entail sexual relations. See Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way we Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexitites (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 141-142.

[31] See Marc Zvi Brettler, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor.  Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 76 (Sheffiled, England: JSOT Press, 1989).

[32] See also my discussion in The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, revised ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 25.

[33] See Joel B. Greene and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Perspectives (IVP, 2000), chapters 2-3.

[34] See DesChamp and Sweetser, “Metaphors for God,” 221. This is opposed to the claim of Sallie McFague that metaphors are reversible.

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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