Cognitive Linguistics Perspectives Elucidate Religious Beliefs, Ethical Arguments and Ideological Constructs

Watts Chapel, Compton, Surrey, England, UK, June 28, 2007 | © Courtesy of Nick Garrod/Flickr.
Watts Chapel, Compton, Surrey, England, UK, June 28, 2007 | © Courtesy of Nick Garrod/Flickr.

In the special issue on Cognitive Linguistics and Theology, published in Open Theology in 2018, interrelations between specific cognitive factors, religious texts and concrete real-world contexts are explored in light of linguistic concepts, social issues and theological discourse.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

In this topical collection of articles, also explored in the previous post of the OpenScience blog, John Sanders, who has served as an editor of this special issue, critically engages with the contribution of Robert Masson to it. More specifically, in his paper on “Divine Agency as Literal in Cognitive Linguistic Perspective: [in] Response to “Conceiving God: Literal and Figurative Prompt for a More Tectonic Distinction” by Robert Masson,” Sanders argues that “divine agency must be understood only in an extended sense,” while concluding that “religious believers can legitimately claim that some of their ideas of God are literal” (489). Moreover, Sanders effectively suggests that “different metaphysical commitments regarding divine transcendence” (489) result in disagreements over whether “concepts of God can be used in non-extended senses” (493).

These variant opinions pertain to cognitive factors, as Bonnie Howe, in his paper on “Cognition and the Crisis of Citizenship and Care,” indicates, while proposing that “alternatives to conservative ways of framing healthcare, ways that are arguably more coherent and more in keeping with biblical calls to love of neighbor and to building communities of the beloved” (99), exist. As Howe shows that “[c]onceptual frames drive and shape the American healthcare debate” (116), he also points out that “[t]here is strong disagreement about how the U.S. should provide healthcare” (99). This is echoed in Erin Kidd’s paper on “The Subject of Conceptual Mapping: Theological Anthropology across Brain, Body, and World,” in which she develops “a picture of the human being as one who develops in transaction with her environment, and whose highest forms of intelligence and meaning-making are rooted in the body’s movement in the world” (117). Kidd tackles the topic of white supremacy, in order to demonstrate that “that ideologies like white supremacy are culturally sustained habits of the body—which persist even in the absence of malice” (132).

Jim Harries takes a different path in his exploration of “Theology that Emerges from Cognitive Science: Applied to African Development,” to construct an argument that, “[b]ecause human thinking is embodied, God also is perceived by people through his embodied impact” (15). Harries has sought to demonstrate that “recent work in cognitive science […] has discredited what was a hegemony of abstract thought” (26), while invalidating “arguments previously put up to defend positivist, naturalist, and atheist positions” (26).

In his study on “Cognitive Factors as a Key to Plain-Sense Biblical Interpretation: Resolving Cruxes in Gen 18:1–15 and 32:23–33,” David E. S. Stein has contributed to “recovering an under-appreciated yet cognitively based narrative convention regarding messengers” (545) in these passages. In an effort to draw “upon insights from cognitive linguistics or related disciplines such as psycholinguistics, cognitive psychology, and discourse linguistics” (546), Stein argues that ancient readers of this biblical text have navigated “among the narrator-created expectations and existing social and narrative conventions,” which has constituted “a mutually reinforcing dynamic” (566).

Likewise, Eugene R. Schlesinger in an exegesis on “Sacrifice, Metaphor, and Evolution: Towards a Cognitive Linguistic Theology of Sacrifice,” in order to argue that “Fauconnier and Turner’s account of double-scope blends is set within an evolutionary account of human development and is the condition of possibility for language, art, science, and religion” (1).  More specifically, according to Schlesinger, “a cognitive linguistic perspective offers creative insights into the nature of theological meaning and the relation between theology and culture, [which] has the potential to resolve recent theological controversies, holds out ecumenical promise, and provides enlightening insight into the thought of particular theologians” (1).

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: Watts Chapel, Compton, Surrey, England, UK, June 28, 2007 | © Courtesy of Nick Garrod/Flickr.

This blog post is based on an article that originally appeared in OpenScience, 15/2/2019,

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