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Overview of the Book

The book has been organized so that each chapter builds on the ideas of the preceding chapters, but each can also be read independently. Each chapter roughly follows the same pattern of introducing key terms and research on the given topic as a prelude to discussing how the topic and frameworks can be applied to specific texts and discourse.

Chapter 2 lays the foundation for the book with its discussion of cognitive models, embodied cognition, frames, and domains. It begins with a discussion of how we categorize the world around us by constructing idealized cognitive models that exhibit clear prototype effects.This is then connected to the principle of embodied cognition: the idea that our minds and how we think are shaped by the fact that our minds are part of a human body that constantly interacts with the physical environment in specific ways. It then explores how this accounts for similarities in how religious believers talk about the divine across a wide range of different belief communities. Frames and domains are then explored with an emphasis on their connection to embodied cognition and the tendency of religious language to draw on physical, concrete domains to talk about the spiritual.

Chapter 3 extends the discussion of domains to metaphor, exploring how metaphor tends to involve use of a more concrete source domain to say something about a more abstract target domain. The Metaphor Identification Procedure is then introduced as a method for identifying metaphor in texts and conversations. The chapter then describes how metaphor is an invaluable feature within religious discourse for several key reasons, which may sometimes exist in tension with each other. For example, figurative language allows believers to talk about intangible and highly abstract perceptions in familiar and concrete terms while simultaneously encouraging a wide range of interpretations and reinforcing a sense of mystery and ineffability.

Chapter 4 introduces metonymy as a device distinct from metaphor in that it involves a single domain rather than a mapping across two domains. An identification procedure for metonymy is then discussed along with practical issues related to its application. The use of metonymy in religious language is then examined along with a review of key studies of its use in Christian and Buddhist texts. The idea that many metaphorical mappings have their origin in metonymy is then explored. The chapter concludes with an analysis of a conversation between a Muslim and a Christian that exhibits both metaphor and metonymy.

Chapter 5 discusses agency and how various scholars have described the agency of the supernatural or divine in its relationship with humankind. The importance of agency in language is first discussed as it relates to social power and control. Different figurative and literal depictions of agency are then examined, particularly in relation to how the action of the divine in the physical world can be understood in literal ways. Finally, different levels of agency are considered in relation to religious language, specifically looking at how the framing of the actions of humans and supernatural entities reveal important elements of belief and doctrine.

Chapter 6 describes force dynamics as an exploration of how various forms of language are often based on a relationship between two competing force tendencies. It shows how religious figurative language can be explored in terms of both competing forces and patterns of agency; for example, the relationship between believers and the divine, nonbelievers and the divine, the divine and other supernatural beings, and finally the competing forces perceived to exist within individual minds.

Chapter 7 focuses on conceptual blending, the idea that some expressions or statements depend on the integration of two or more distinct clusters of concepts. The structure and processes underlying such blends are explained, beginning with the representation of two conceptual clusters as separate mental input spaces, which are then combined within a single blended space. It also discusses how “running” a blend produces unique emergent elements not present in the input spaces. Examples are then provided, showing how blends play a key role in conveying complex religious ideas—including the expression of doctrinal innovations—and how elaborate multimodal blends are created in ritual. The reasons for the popularity of using different types of conceptual blending in cognitive linguistic studies of religious language are then examined.

Chapter 8 focuses on the application of Complex Systems Theory to religious language by first explaining the basics of complex systems and how the theory has been used in applied linguistics generally and metaphor research specifically. The concept of emergence is explained with a focus on how different components in a system interact to produce stable states at varying timescales. Building on concepts from complex systems, the discourse dynamics approach is then explained with reference to interaction around religious issues, highlighting the benefits of investigating discourse as a dynamic system.

Chapter 9 briefly reviews the different strands of the book and connects them to an overall discussion of the value of applying Cognitive Linguistics to religious language. The chapter then reviews major themes while highlighting further theoretical and methodological frameworks that can be employed within Cognitive Linguistics to explore religious language. Finally, the potential future directions for analysis are suggested with reference to existing gaps in research.

At the end of every chapter, there are discussion questions that readers may consider individually or as part of a class. The point of these questions is to foster engagement with the concepts and frameworks, drawing on examples that are familiar. Although the concepts in this book are often inherently complex, they are better grasped through application to real problems.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Which elements of the family resemblance model presented in this chapter seem most central to you when defining religion?
  • 2. Think of some examples of language that are clearly religious and some that are more ambiguous. What are the differences between your examples?
  • 3. Think of two different religions with which you are familiar. What special language is used in each to mark special rituals or occasions? What similarities or differences can you see in their use of language?
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