Theology in the Flesh, John Sanders. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.
Summary: A survey of how the field of cognitive linguistics lends insight into how we understand theological matters ranging from morals to the nature of God to understanding the Bible.
There are some who would deny that it is possible to speak of God, who is “wholly other.” Any speech about God, to them, would be to make God in our image. Some would allege that is all that we ever do. However, others, who believe we exist in the image of God, would say that we are both like and unlike God, and that some form of communication about God rooted in our “like-ness” may be possible.
John Sanders does not try to argue this matter, but rather helps us understand that any talk of God or other religious subjects such as truth, morality or the Bible, is deeply rooted in our embodied nature and even the kinds of bodies we have. As bipeds, we have a vertical orientation (up and down) and a front and a back associated with movement forward or in reverse. He contends that our embodied character, including our perceptual apparatus, are the tools we use to perceive and communicate anything. We don’t have a separate apparatus for religious perception and communication. He believes we do well to draw on the field of cognitive linguistics, which studies that interaction between language and our thought processes in how we make meaning of our world, shaped by our embodied nature and informed by our particular cultural setting. He would contend this is critically important to how we understand the nature of truth, morality, the Bible and God, and how we speak of these matters and the differences we have with each other.
The book consists of three parts. The first lays out basics of cognitive linguistics, with a particularly helpful chapter on metaphor, which helps one understand how large a role metaphor and other figurative language plays in our everyday communication and that often metaphor communicates both more fully and more accurately than a “literal” statement. In this section we are also introduced to image schemes, frames, and other conceptual tools used by cognitive linguists. The second is an exploration, using cognitive linguistics, of how, in general, our understanding of truth, how meaning is perceived differently in different communities and why differences in moral thinking arise.
The third section, then focuses in on Christian reasoning about doctrines, the Bible and the nature of God may be understood through a cognitive linguistic lens. For example, the section on Christian doctrine looks at the different metaphors for sin, salvation, and divine judgment. The chapter on the Bible explores how our cultural frames shape our reading of the Bible, using the example of how different cultures read passages on anger and distress. The chapter on God observes how “anthropogenic” if not anthropomorphic our language about God is.
Sanders does not advance particular theological positions. Nor does he make a case for cultural relativism. Indeed, Sanders observes both universal or nearly universal ways we frame certain things such as God and heaven being “up,” as well as how our cultural frames, uses of metaphors, and so forth, lead to different perceptions of the same phrase in scripture, for example. It is here, Sanders argues, that a grasp of cognitive linguistics, and using this as a tool in cross-cultural (or cross-era) conversations may be important to better understanding of each other or even shared understandings.
Certainly not all theological or interpretive or ethical discussions may be resolved on these terms. But the reminder that how we make meaning of language is inextricably connected to our embodied nature and our cultural frameworks should contribute to a kind of epistemic humility in conversations that foster at least greater understanding, if not always agreement. That, it seems to me, would be an advance in theological as well as in other forms of conversation.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.