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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]

This, in and of itself, is relatively harmless. We all know that there are conservative types of Christians, and liberal types of Christians, just like there are conservative and liberal politicians. Most of us also know that going to one extreme or the other misses the point of Christianity. In fact, speaking about Christianity as if it is primarily about morality and being good, rather than being about Christ, also misses the point. Yes, Christianity does have a lot to say about morality (as do Lakoff and Johnson). Indeed, one of the central claims of Christianity is that we have all failed morally. But, the point of that claim is that our moral failure separates us from God. God is the goal of the Christian, not a moral life.

But it is understandable that would misunderstand what Christianity is really about. Many (perhaps most) people who call themselves Christians make the same error. It is particularly understandable given that they are writing in a North American context where ‘evangelicalism’ has become greatly mixed up with right-wing politics. In this view of things, developing ‘purity of heart’ is what matters, so it wouldn’t make all that much difference if God did not exist. The story and example of Jesus makes for a beautiful demonstration of a ‘good’ (moral) way to live, but nothing more. Unfortunately, to hold this view, one has to ignore a large amount of what Jesus says about himself in the four gospels.


[1] Lakoff, G. 1987 , Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind, The University of Chicago press, Chicago.

[2] Lakoff, G. 1996 , Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, University Of Chicago Press.

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

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

Tags: christianity, jesus, morality, philosophy, theology
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