Putting God on the Map

Theology and Conceptual Mapping

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Erin Kidd, Jakob Karl Rinderknecht
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , September
     268 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The “linguistic turn” of the 20th century continues. While several new volumes—such as Religion, Language, and the Human Mind—explore the cutting edge of cognitive science and religion in general, as the title implies, Putting God on the Map: Theology and Conceptual Mapping chooses a more specific approach.

Authors in this collection of articles define “conceptual mapping” as “metaphorical mappings derived from our embodiment … Physical motion, for example, provides underlying conceptual mapping that guides much of our thinking about time, change, and actions … We conceptualize time as ‘flying,’ as ‘ahead of us,’ as behind’ us, as ‘stopping’ …” (xii). Consider other “prime” metaphors such as “warmth is affection” or “good is up.” These conceptual frameworks are built from real-life, embodied experience in the physical world—and we adopt them without even knowing it. This concept stems from a thesis of cognitive linguistics, namely that “words prompt for meaning rather than capture it. Language is an underspecified top of a giant iceberg of underlying and mostly unconscious cognitive processes of categorization and metaphorical mapping” (xii). 

But Putting God on the Map’s orientation goes further. One of the most sophisticated and interesting ways in which metaphors map meaning is through “double-scope blending.” In contrast to single-scope, mirroring, and simplex, with double-scope blends “multiple—often disparate—input spaces play a role in framing the blend, giving shape and structure to new conceptual relations within the blended mental space …” (73). The authors frequently use the example of “the surgeon is a butcher.” Note that “… neither clumsiness nor undesirable effects are found in the conceptual frames of either meat-carving or surgery” (73). Both semantic domains share similar ideas and contexts (steel tools, cutting, etc.). But when those two ideas are blended, a new space and concept emerges that wasn’t initially there (clumsiness or crudeness).

To some readers, this may sound simple and perhaps uninteresting. But the implications of this process are the capacity to provide understanding on how meaning emerges (or doesn’t emerge) and why we haven’t been able to understand some phenomena. Consider the classic problem of “light as particle” and “light as wave.” In the end, “[t]he cognitive mechanism behind Einstein’s theory of relativity is the same blending that occurs in our everyday interactions with the world” (4). In a similar way, the notoriously complex issues of theology can be more profoundly understood. As Robert Masson writes in the foreword, “[f]ully and accurately charting the diversity of our religious topography calls for new kinds of theological mapping just as advances in medicine have required new ways of imaging and mapping the human body” (xii). 

For example, the concept of human beings as God’s images is diagrammed and analyzed as a blend between Neo-Babylonian Ideology (Marduk; might makes right; bringing order through violence; elites re-present creator’s royal relation to creation/others; resting through forced labor, etc.,) and Israelite ideology (Lord God; pronouncements of good/bad; bringing order through speech; humans re-represent royal relation to creation; resting on seventh day from own labor). These two worlds blend into the new mental space of Genesis: image of God and knowledge of good and bad/evil belong to a shared human condition, a dignity; the “image” emerges vis-à-vis other mythologies; the “Lord God” is beneficent creator God but doesn’t need violence to create (86-88; see Figure 4.2 here). The author then proceeds to explore how this re-blends into contemporary biological evolution to re-make “image of God” into evolving products and processes of nature. 

Other essays bring this process to bear on stem cell research and ethics; sacramentalism in Roman Catholicism and the thought of Edward Schillebeeckx; Christology and kenosis on Paul. In every case study, one finds some form of metaphorical blending. Other essays focus on related issues such as Erin Kidd who, in the second chapter, provides important corrections to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s faulty anti-theistic claims.

Three things struck this reviewer while reading the book. First, if metaphor is primary in language and human thought, to insist on the superiority of the propositional, quantifiable, and literal would inevitably result in a more meaningless society. (Owen Barfield essentially made this argument back in his 1977 book The Rediscovery of Meaning.) Books like Putting God on the Map provide analysis for larger social problems—like vanity in a modern world that prizes the “hard” sciences. Projects similar to those adopted by ultra-modernist intellectuals such as Sam Harris—who insist that religious symbolic systems can be wholesale replaced for secular, “fact-based” meaning-making systems—are doomed to fail. 

Why? According to Ellen Feder, “… human kindship structures are symbolically organized, human space is symbolically organized, and human care or neglect is symbolically organized. If the human symbolic imagination is foundational to the structure of human relationality, the divine-human relationship is also structured according to human modes of symbolic imagination” (52). In other words, an attack on complex symbolism, metaphor, and narrative is an attack upon our species (60).

The second is how the book’s focus explains some classic debates in theology. This was evident in Stephen Shaver’s essay, “Eucharistic Spirituality and Metaphoric Asymmetry,” which looks at some of the Reformation debates about the concept of “this is my body.” Shaver argues that “Neither Luther nor Zwingli questioned an assumption they both shared: that only literal language is adequate to express proper truth claims … Both parties assumed that to agree that the words of institution contained a metaphor would be to agree that they were not, strictly speaking, true, but could rather be translated into an underlying literal equivalent” (150). 

This gives rise to the third and most profound point: metaphors predominate because they are not interchangeable for literal equivalents. To extract a propositional, literal summary of John Keats’s poetry would be to “kill the animal” so to speak. This is true of more than literary types; it’s true for individual metaphors and conceptual frameworks. Blended linguistic concepts are frequently “inconvertible.” As a theologian, this reviewer has always been disappointed by “analytic philosophy” and its attempts to put theological concepts into (literal) formulas of symbolic logic. This entire enterprise seems to be based on the same faulty assumption behind the debate between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli—and (worse) it assumes that reduction to numbers and single-letter symbols indicates we understood it.

I enjoyed reading Putting God on the Map and consider it essential for getting a handle on some “first principles” of theology. The high price of the volume may limit it’s audience, but the content and quality of writing might justify the cost. Putting God on the Map is exemplary theological prolegomena and a genuine example of how interdisciplinary studies can be beneficial. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamin A. Hübner is Professor and Research Fellow at several institutions and resides in Rapid City, SD.

Date of Review: 
February 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Erin Kidd is Assistant Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at St. John's University.

Jakob Karl Rinderknecht is Director of the Pastoral Institute at the University of the Incarnate Word.


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