Hendrix Professor Bridges Research in Cognitive Linguistics with Theology

Cognitive linguistics has found an unlikely new home—the Department of Religious Studies at Hendrix College. Dr. John Sanders, Professor of Religious Studies, is a Christian theologian who is at the forefront of utilizing cognitive linguistics in his field to think about morality, sin, biblical interpretation, and other key debates.

Cognitive linguistics, broadly speaking, investigates how language and the mind work together to form meaning. Research in this field typically focuses on the types of cognitive tools that humans use to make sense of their lived experiences in the world. According to cognitive linguists, bodily experiences and cultural norms are integral to forming the cognitive concepts and categories that we use to describe our world. Dr. Sanders research investigates how cognitive linguistics, and specifically a branch of it known as conceptual metaphor theory, can explain how and why Christians interpret the Bible and discern the nature of God using figurative language.

Dr. Sanders has always researched the intersection of narrative, metaphor, and biblical interpretation. He noted, however, that his previous work regularly received criticism for relying on metaphor. In Christian circles, and especially amongst evangelical practitioners, metaphors are seen as purely rhetorical rather than cognitively meaningful. Thanks to the suggestion of a colleague at a theology conference, Dr. Sanders learned about conceptual metaphor theory (CMT)—a niche part of cognitive linguistics that describes how metaphors consciously and unconsciously frame our intellectual reasoning.

A conceptual metaphor is a metaphor in which one idea is understood in terms of another. Our brain has conceptual categories and domains that aids in developing metaphors used in everyday language. CMT, according to Sanders, can be used to show how metaphors are crucial in discerning theological doctrine by providing inferential clues into what we truly believe about God, the bible, and moral systems.

“There are two parts to cognitive linguistics: one is the embodiment part, and the other part is culture and how different cultures will shape and influence the ways we think. Here you get into languages that force you, because of their grammars, to attend to particulars.”

Dr. Sanders’ research combines interdisciplinary research in cognitive science and CMT with Christian theology and common metaphors used to approach biblical and moral issues. In his 2016 book Theology in the Flesh, he argues embodied experiences—our everyday actions and worldly affairs—actively influence the way we construct metaphors on the divine due to the way our minds conceptualized ideas of God. His work suggests that anthropomorphic language, and a variety of views on God, is unavoidable when conceiving doctrine on the nature of the divine.

One example of CMT at work amongst Western Christians, according to Dr. Sanders, is the metaphor of morality as ‘accounting.’ Under this view, morality is like a ‘balance sheet’: moral actions provide positive value while immoral actions are assigned negative values. Other cultures and languages, according to Dr. Sanders, might instead cognize morality using the metaphor of ‘journey’ or ‘path,’ where one’s moral actions are measured in the context of their life and future direction rather than valued or calculated in an isolated manner.

“So I apply all of this [CMT] to Christian theology and try to show that there is going to be what I call ‘constrained pluralism’ in most areas. So there’s not going to be a single correct view. So when you’re talking about universals—the ‘one way’ to think about the work of Jesus—for me, there are probably several plausible ways, but not unlimited ways, to think about Christian doctrines,” Dr. Sanders said.

Dr. Sander’s research was partially supported by the Templeton Foundation, a philanthropic organization with a competitive research grant scheme. The foundation funds research that explores what it identifies as “Big Questions,” such as the intersection of science and religion, free will, evolution, and other areas. Ultimately, he hopes that his work can help Christians become more open minded when faced with a plurality of views regarding the nature of the divine and morality.

“So I’m hoping that the different sides will at least say, ‘oh, I need to understand why you think the way you do,’ instead of just dismissing them as irrational or uneducated, or whatever. So that’s the first step—you understand. Secondly, once you understand, and you also then grasp that ‘hunh, there may be one or two legitimate ways of understanding the situation,’ that, I think, is powerful…I’m hoping that people won’t be as dismissive towards one another, that it will at least endanger conversations,” Dr. Sanders said.

Although Dr. Sanders is optimistic that his work can bring positive change to the Christian community, he noted that his research does not aim to reconcile all theological disagreements.

“Can it [his research] bring about agreement? That’s a whole further step. I’m not sure that on everything we’ll reach agreement…but that’s because I don’t think there is one right way to understand each matter,” Dr. Sanders said.

Dr. Sanders is teaching a course during the Spring 2019 semester on cognitive linguistics and Christian theology titled “Embodied Mind, Language & Religion.”

Photo Credit: Hendrix Faculty Directory

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