Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 12

This is the last one in the series. If you're interested there's also a full, printable, PDF version of Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God.

An Embodied God?

If understanding the bible is made difficult because of temporal, geographic and cultural differences, it becomes even more difficult when I try and understand things from the perspective of a transcendent God—one who has always existed, is everywhere, knows everything, and is all powerful. We said earlier that all humans have a couple of things in common: a body and a brain. The Almighty is spirit. Spirits, by definition, don’t have bodies. They don’t inhabit the world of matter. How then can we hope to understand him?

Of course, Christians believe that, in Jesus, God became a man with a body and experienced real, bodily experiences. This is one thing which differentiates Christianity from most other religions. God didn’t just make himself look like a man for a little while in order to have sex with a particularly pretty female who took his fancy—no, he was born to a real mother, and lived as a real human being. He lived the whole thing as one of us—birth to death, and then some.

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Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 11

The God who Communicates

Another implication of the limitation of human reason is that there are things we simply cannot know about God. If God is transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc., then we will always have trouble understanding God’s perspective. We have no experience of what it is like to be omnipresent or omniscient, and we can only conceptualise them in terms of things we already know. Hence, like the mystics before us, we are forced to admit that such a God is beyond us: inconceivable; indescribable; unfathomable. How can embodied, finite beings ever hope to understand a God who is infinite spirit?

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Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 10

Limitations of Human Reason

One thing that comes out of Lakoff and Johnson’s analysis, almost as an aside, is that there are limits to what we can know because our reasoning is metaphorically based. That is, because we experience the world entirely through our bodies, we cannot really understand things that cannot be conceptualised bodily. This is not to say that we cannot engage in any kind of abstract thought, but rather that our range of senses, and therefore our conceptual ability, is limited.

By its very nature, it is very difficult to give an example of this—how can I give an example of something I completely fail to comprehend? The nearest I can think is the example of a photon. According to Wikipedia, “the photon is the elementary particle responsible for electromagnetic phenomena”*—in particular, light. We know that photons of light exhibit wave-like properties and particle-like properties at the same time. This is almost impossible to conceptualise because we do not experience anything like this through our bodily senses. Yet, these properties have been well documented. Even this is a poor example, however, since we can conceptualise both light and particles.

Applying this to street-level theology, this may be one of the reasons people find the doctrine of free-will versus predestination so confusing. In our conceptual models of causality, if something is predestined, choice does not exist, hence we do not have free will. The bible holds that we are morally responsible for our choice to accept or reject God. Yet, at the same time, it holds that God predestines some people for salvation (and, by implication, not others).

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Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 9

The Death of Objective Morality?

In another chapter of Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson discuss conclusions after their critique of western philosophy. In one instance they make a point which I must disagree with:

[There is no] “Higher” Morality: Our concepts of what is moral, like all our other concepts, originate from the specific nature of human embodied experience. Our conceptions of morality cannot be objective or derive from a “higher source.” [1, p. 556]

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Amnesiac Bear

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 8

Implications for Theology

What are the implications of this understanding of knowledge and communication? In their books, Lackoff and Johnson [1,2,3,4] draw some far-reaching conclusions for philosophy, politics and ‘morality’. The things I discuss here are really just the tip of the iceberg. I will begin with some of the conclusions that Lackoff and Johnson draw themselves, then move on to some of my own thoughts on embodied knowledge and theology.

Lakoff and Johnson on ‘Morality’

What do Lakoff and Johnson think about God? While they detail at length how their research and understanding challenges modern philosophy on many different fronts, they are largely silent about religion. I can only speculate as to why this is. Perhaps they wish to avoid treading on others’ personal treasured beliefs—although they seem to have no qualms about suggesting the basis for much philosophical reasoning is flawed. Perhaps they simply operate with an implicit assumption that there is no God, and thus they do not need to say anything about it. I don’t know.

Lakoff and Johnson do have a lot to say about morality, however. In Moral Politics, Lakoff argues that all of American politics is based around morality, and most moral reasoning centres around conceptions of the ideal family. This, he argues, explains why the conservative right and liberal left cannot understand each other; they conceptualise morality in completely different ways. It is an interesting read, but American politics is slightly outside the sphere of my discussion here.

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson devote a whole chapter to ‘Morality’. They analyse the metaphorical bases for moral reasoning and thinking, then show how these metaphors are tied together by conceptions of what the ideal family is like. They propose two ‘ideal’ models, one called the ‘Strict Father’ model, and the other the ‘Nurturant Parent’ model. In Moral Politics Lakoff equates the strict father model with conservative (right wing) politics, and the nurturant parent model with liberal (left wing) politics. In Philosophy in the Flesh, extend this to ‘Christian Ethics’. This is what they have to say:

In monotheistic religions, […] the moral authority is God the Father Almighty, creator and sustainer of all that is and source of all that is good. On the Strict Father interpretation, God is the stern and unforgiving lawgiver who rewards the righteous and punishes wrongdoers. The key to living morally is to hear God’s commandments and to align one’s will with God’s will. This requires great moral strength, because one has to overcome the assaults of the Devil and the temptations of the flesh.

When God is conceived as Nurturant Parent (sometimes as Mother), he is the all-loving, all-merciful protector and nurturer of his people. God is Love, and, in the Christian tradition, Jesus is the bearer of that nurturant and sacrificing love for all humankind. Although there is a place for moral law (“Think not that I come to abolish the law and the prophets; I come not to abolish but to fulfill,” Matthew 5:17), moral commandment and law are not the central focus. Instead, morality is about developing “purity of heart” so that, through empathy, we will reach out to others in acts of love. [4, p. 321]

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Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 7

The Possibility of Communication

Communication is possible, even though different people may have very different conceptual systems. It is just difficult.

The way people think varies greatly between cultures because there are many ways to form a conceptual mapping from bodily experience to abstract concept. For example, in English, when I say ‘The elephant is in front of the tree’, I mean that the elephant is between the tree and myself. In the Hasua language, saying the Elephant is in front on the tree would mean the opposite: That the elephant was on the other side of the tree [1]. In Hasua, ‘front’ means facing the same direction I am. Both are valid ways of conceptualising orientation.

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Crying Man

Communication, Knowledge, Bodies and God: Part 6

Embodied Knowledge

So are we doomed to complete subjectivity? The basis of our understanding anything is through the category structures and cognitive models in our minds. These are not hard-wired, but based entirely on our experience of the world through a body. Our experience of the world varies hugely across various cultures, languages and geographies. Not even our bodies are the same, but male differs from female and our bodies have larger or smaller bits, and some of us even have bits missing. How can we ever hope to understand anything another person communicates?

Conceptual Metaphors

In spite of the variations in our experiences, we all have two things in common.

Firstly, we all have a brain (more or less). If we don’t have a brain then we die. Our brains are quite similar too. Most of us have a cerebral cortex, limbic system, cerebellum etc. and they all have fairly specific roles. The basic architecture is much the same for everyone. This means that our brains work in quite similar ways.

Secondly, we all have a body (more or less). Our bodies may not all have the same bits, but we all have some sort of body. Again, if we don’t have one, we die. Our bodies all come from a roughly similar blue-print, even if there are infinite variations. Having two legs, two arms, a face and hands is fairly common amongst human beings. And having these various appendages shapes the way our brains function because all the input a brain receives, it receives from the body.

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[1] Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. 1980 , Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 2003 reprint with new afterword.

[2] Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. 1999 , Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, Basic Books, New York.

*Actually, the concepts I have described here are made up of conceptual models that are even more basic, but going into all the detail would take too long here. See [2] for more information.