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The Function of Metaphor in Religious Language

Accessibility and Understanding of Mystery

Metaphor provides a powerful means of making complex ideas more accessible. This is especially true of metaphor as used in religious discourse, and this stems from the fact that metaphors generally draw on embodied, physical source domains. In other words, a more concrete and, therefore, more accessible domain is being used to talk about a more abstract and less accessible domain (Sweetser, 1990). Metaphor may be particularly important since, as Sweetser and DesCamp (2014) remind us, some religious experiences lie “at the far end of the spectrum of intersubjective inaccessibility” (p. 11).

Yet in religious language (as well as in creative language such as that found in poetry or song lyrics), metaphor can also add a layer of ambiguity; and, as Sperber (2010) points out, ambiguity can leave statements open to varied interpretations. For religious institutions, figurative language may thereby have a self- serving function, as believers could interpret doctrines so that they are in line with their own experiences and preferences. They would then be more likely to be affected by confirmation bias (the tendency to favor information that confirms their beliefs). Sperber further suggests that communities may unwittingly be recruited into the work of developing convincing doctrines, as individual believers strive and compete to develop interpretations of the vague statements put forth by authority figures. In contrast with Sperber’s somewhat cynical understanding of how ambiguous and vague language is employed for institutional purposes, many literary theorists (e.g.,Wheelright, 1962) and religious scholars (e.g., Searle, 1981) counter that such language plays an important positive role as it promotes an openness to experience and greater engagement with life’s deeper mysteries.

One way to illustrate this issue is to return to the example of the god is father mapping. On the one hand, a widespread process of conventionalization in the use of this conceptual metaphor can be observed, based on its occurrence across all forms of Christianity. On the other hand, Christians display a great deal of variation and ambiguity in how they understand this specific metaphor. When this type of metaphorical mapping is applied to a divine entity, believers need to establish what characteristics of fatherhood are being mapped onto God and what elements of the source remain unutilized (DesCamp & Sweetser, 2005; Sweetser & DesCamp, 2014). Consider some of the possible mappings that motivate the god is father metaphor, as shown in Figure 3.1 (the attributes and Biblical references are based on those listed in Spencer, 1996, pp. 439,440).

Figure 3.1 illustrates how fatherhood is a rich source domain with a wide range of elements available for mapping. As a result, Christians from different faith communities may have divergent interpretations of the god is father

Possible mappings for god is father metaphor based on selective application of these mappings

FIGURE 3.1 Possible mappings for god is father metaphor based on selective application of these mappings. They can therefore associate varied degrees of sternness, accessibility, intimacy, and formality to their conceptualization of God. Although not shown in the figure, there are other elements of fatherhood that are not being mapped from the source to the target. A person may have memories of their father playing catch with them or traumatic memories of their father and mother having a fight, but such source elements are dormant in the metaphor. Likewise, the fact that children in most cultures take care of parents when they get old is inert source content (Sweetser & DesCamp, 2014).

A good illustration of the variety of conceptualizations (and tensions) that the god is father mapping can produce is found in the disagreement within Christianity about how to paraphrase “Abba Father” (Romans 8:14-17). Christians who wish to maintain a formal level of respect in addition to some level of intimacy when they address God argue for the use of Dear Father or Dear Father in heaven. Their technical arguments can often be accompanied by words associated with high levels of respect, such as reverence, and markers of distance, such as expressions emphasizing the elevated location of God in heaven. In contrast, those Christians who wish to emphasize a stronger conception of informal familial intimacy often argue for the use of Daddy or even Daddy Cod. In this case, they tend to use terms that mark physical affection and closeness, such as being in God’s arms. Different levels of an intimacy is closeness mapping can be overlaid on the god is father metaphor in different ways, spawning divergent conceptualizations.

Particular conceptual metaphors will therefore produce diverse conceptualizations depending on which aspects of the source domain are mapped onto the target domain.Therefore, it may not be enough to simply identify and list conceptual metaphors when analyzing a text or stretch of discourse. The analyst must also dig deeper and try to determine from the context whether the metaphor is being understood in specific ways rather than others. Of course, the language analyst cannot peer directly into the language user’s head, so the underlying psychological motivations and activated mappings for any individual metaphor are often impossible to determine definitively. Even so, the analyst can often overcome such difficulties by looking at the systematic patterning of metaphors relying on the same or related source domains within a text (Cameron, 2010). For example, other textual evidence (both figurative and nonfigurative) alluding to the stern nature of God would support the supposition that the god is father metaphor, occurring in a text, is motivated by mappings related to an idealized cognitive model of the stern father.

Metaphor and source-target mappings are, like all aspects of language, in a constant state of flux. Diachronic change can be driven by alterations in either the source or target domain. Christians’ understanding of the god is father metaphor has undoubtedly shifted over time in modern Western societies where fathers have less power over children and are more nurturing (Sweetser & DesCamp, 2014).

In other words, as understanding of the source domain fatherhood shifts, the meaning of the metaphor shifts with it.

Transformations in the target domain can also occur. Consider the Buddhist bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (commonly called the Goddess of Mercy in English). Originally depicted in male form, the bodhisattva came to be regarded as female around the 10th century in China (Yii,2001).Yii speculates that this shift reflects a domestication process reflecting the need for female devotional figures during a time when Chinese religions exhibited an anti-feminine bias. Bodhisattvas in the Mahayana tradition are commonly thought to be able to transform their bodies at will, so strictly speaking the bodhisattva cannot be said to possess any fixed gender. Even so, from a cognitive linguistic standpoint, the shift in popular representations to feminine depictions is natural considering the great emphasis put on the bodhisattva’s love and compassion—target domains that are readily associated with motherhood.

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