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Figurative and Literal Conceptions of Divine Agency

Theologians in monotheistic traditions have often wrestled with how to think and talk about the divine. Central to this struggle is the avoidance of overly narrow, anthropomorphic conceptions evoked by traditional terms like God. In one attempt to develop alternative expressions, Rudolf Otto (1923) refers to the divine as “the numinous”, while John Hick (2004) sometimes uses the term “the Real” or “the Ultimate”.These terms raise the question of what religious believers mean when they talk about a divine being acting on people and the world. Is the divine entity conceived of as a literal agent, or is there an inherent metaphorical component when believers refer to a notion of divine agency?

Two nonreligious examples of agency from the Corpus of Contemporary American English provide a good example of these issues, seen in the use of save:

  • 5. You can turn a chicken salad into a nice pita sandwich. This also saves you time, as you don’t have to plan a separate lunch.
  • 6. I told a story about the time my mother saved me from drowning.

Example 5 is a metaphor based on the time is money conceptual mapping, and therefore turning “a chicken salad into a nice pita sandwich” cannot be viewed as a literal agent. By contrast, Example 6 is a very physical usage of “saved”, and the mother is therefore clearly being represented as a literal agent in the act of rescuing her son. In the common Christian statement Jesus saves us from hell, one difficult issue is whether the divine being should be seen as a straightforward, literal agent in the same way that the mother is a literal agent in Example 6.

Academics and philosophers opposed to a simplistic, literal conception of divine agency often point out that it is deeply problematic to posit a divine being that suddenly breaks into reality, suspends and then shatters the laws of physics by directly acting on something or someone, and then jumps back out again. Masson (2018) argues that such conceptions of the divine are naive and overly simplistic. His approach is to instead draw on blending theory (discussed in detail in Chapter 7) and tectonic shifts in human understanding; that is, certain ideas require a paradigm shift of such magnitude that it forces people to look at things in a completely different way.

In relation to the divine, one illustration he uses for this is Thomas Aquinas’s statement that “God is simple”. In order to understand this statement, a doublescope blend (see Chapter 7) must be drawn on; this involves radically adjusting what simple means in this context. A standard understanding of simple must be integrated with a unique conceptualization of divine simplicity Running the blend creates a tectonic understanding of simplicity as applied to God. Masson (2018) then applies the same approach to understanding God as an agent. Although Masson does not provide the details of this blend, on the grounds that it would be overly complex to visualize, he suggests that the conceptualization of God as an agent establishes a radically new way of viewing God that presumably reconfigures our understanding of both God (as much more than some abstract and nebulous force) and agency (as the actions and intentions typical of humans and animals).

In contrast, Sanders (2016) observes that agency fits with many believers’ perceptions of their interpersonal relationships with the divine and their understanding of being created and redeemed by divine power. He argues that anyone who values connection to historic religious traditions will tend to view as intuitively true the notion of God as an agent. In his response to Masson (2018), Sanders (2018) goes on to note:

The key point is that the reason Masson and I disagree whether any concepts of God are non-extended (literal) is because we have different views of divine transcendence and the nature of God’s relationship to creatures. We have different metaphysical commitments that are, in part, a result of very different theological heritages in which we work. Though we both use Cognitive Linguistics to understand theological reasoning, we have different understandings of divine transcendence.

(p. 494)

Sanders emphasizes that the nature of Jesus as a divine revelation provides knowledge about the nature of God and how he behaves, while also foregrounding the view that humans are made in the image of God. This allows a literal, non- extended understanding of some aspects of God, such as his love and agency in terms of, for example, sending Jesus to save mankind. Masson’s tectonic shifts, on the other hand, foreground the incorporation of radical transcendence into conceptions of divine action. This demands the blending of aspects of agency, as it typically occurs in sensorimotor experience, with a radically new conceptualization, which compels viewing the new, emergent meaning in figurative, extended terms.

From a discourse analytic perspective, both Sanders and Masson provide invaluable insights into how the interaction between a perceived divine being and humans can be conceptualized. Different believers at various times will have a range of conceptions relating to divine agency, including a continuum that runs all the way from literal agency to Masson’s proposal of a double-scope blend. Sanders’s arguments for a literal conception are tentatively expressed and highly nuanced, but Richardson’s (2013) work has examples of religious believers describing divine agency in a way that could clearly be placed at the far end of the literal conception on the agency continuum. In a conversation between Muslim and Christian participants, the Christian refers to God speaking through her and later refers to herself as being moved by the spirit. She says, “When I was moved by the Spirit ... I have experienced the Spirit in the sense of prophetic dancing” (Richardson, 2013, p. 219). Evangelical Christians commonly refer to themselves as being moved by the Spirit to describe a kind of nagging feeling or the sense of being “led” to do something.The statement is therefore often intended to convey a more indirect, figurative conception as opposed to an experience of being literally moved from one location to another by a direct physical force. However, in this case, the reference to prophetic dancing suggests a more literal conception. This was further confirmed in a follow-up email.

Yes, it has been classified/named as prophetic dancing when I tried explaining it in the English context. I received it when I was 13 ... when we were worshipping in church. It is a dance/movement prompted by the spirit that I can’t control. It usually happens during praise and worship (singing). All I can say is, it looks absolutely bizarre! But it’s something I cannot control. I don’t receive it every time we worship either. It is a spiritual gift, a form/part of worship.

(Richardson, 2013, p. 2(9)

While it appears that the spirit is being perceived as a physical agent engaging in direct, coordinated, and very precise control of parts of her body, the occasioned nature of discourse also needs to be emphasized.This participant was studying for a degree in theology', and it is very possible that if the focus of a conversation were on the omniscience or omnipresence of God, she would have switched to a conception of agency that would have been somewhat closer to the other end of the continuum. The conclusions about this participant’s conceptualization of divine agency must therefore be restricted to her specific utterances regarding her perception of this experience of prophetic dancing.

The issue of how believers perceive and conceptualize divine agency is a key, unique issue in the analysis of religious discourse. Although the examples so far have focused on Christianity, the continuum running from literal, more physical conceptions to extended, figurative conceptions could be applied to a wide range of religions. As Sanders points out above, the reason why this question is so important is that it reveals that believers within the same religion can conceptualize the divine in very different ways.

To further add to the challenge, analysts must also be aware of the occasioned nature of discourse and the fact that conceptions shift depending on the context. Just because someone says that they believe in a literal conception of divine agency, that does not mean that every instance of divine agency that they produce will be literal. People can express one conceptualization (e.g., God is everywhere) when describing a doctrinal tenet of their faith, but then show evidence of inconsistent conceptualizations (e.g., God is in one specific place at a time) in their reasoning (Barrett & Keil, 1996). This is also true of conceptualizations of religious texts. A religious adherent might claim that something is completely and literally true while still exhibiting an understanding based on metaphorical or figurative construals and language. Analysts must therefore carefully consider exactly what people are saying, in what circumstances, and for what audience.

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