Monday, May 23, 2005

Puzzling over Lakoff on Theology

* From Lakoff, Moral Politics, Chapter 14:

There are those who claim that their politics is simply a matter of following what the Bible literally says. This assumes that there is such a thing as a literal interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, whole branches of Christianity are based on such a claim, but it is straightforwardly a false claim.

Nobody believes that "the Lord is my shepherd" is said literally by a sheep that has fleece and eats grass. Nobody believes that "Our Father Who art in heaven" is literally daddy. Virtually every page of the Bible is filled with passages that can only be, and always are, interpreted metaphorically. There simply is no fully literal interpretation of the Bible.

This annoys me a lot. When certain Christians say that they believe in a "literal interpretation of the Bible," the sense of "literal" historically derives from a use of the word that has nothing to do with the figurative/literal distinction. While there may be some people who confuse the two senses of the word 'literal', this confusion does not lie at the roots of "whole branches of Christianity." When they say that they believe that the Bible is literally true, they mean that the Bible is true in the plain, straightforward sense of the text (a sense which contains both literal and figurative discourse); the opposing term here is not "figurative" but "allegorical" or "spiritual." It does not take any deep research to figure this out. It is an error easily avoided. It involves the interpretation of the simplest formulation of a basic sola scriptura doctrine. And yet Lakoff can't even take the trouble to determine whether the straightforwardly false claim he attributes to "whole branches of Christianity" is even what they are actually claiming.

* I'm a little puzzled by this point in Lakoff's discussion of metaphors in theology and politics:

Infinity metaphors. The all-seeing, all-knowing, the all-good, the all-powerful, the first cause, and so on.

Now, very generally, a metaphor consists of conceiving one kind of thing in terms of another; but these infinity metaphors don't do that ('all-seeing' does, but not in virtue of the 'all', which is intended quite literally). As to whether 'knowing', 'good', and 'powerful' are metaphorical, this seems rather dubious. I suppose Lakoff could be assuming that any application of any word in a non-physical context is metaphorical, but as I've noted elsewhere, there's no reason to hold such an absurd (as in straightforwardly false!) view.

[It is possible that Lakoff is linking these implicitly to his account of mathematical infinity, which he thinks is metaphorical. But besides the fact that there are problems with this view, it is clear that the theological use of the infinite is rather different from the mathematical infinite. It is easier to understand, it arises more spontaneously, and is developed to a much finer degree earlier than the mathematical infinite. Plus, if one really wants a cognitive science explanation, Hume has a much, much more plausible suggestion that has a lot more promise. But I don't really know what Lakoff means here.]

I'm also not sure what 'first cause' is doing here in the infinity metaphors batch, particularly given that the next of the four general classes of metaphor is:

The Source of Good. God is commonly seen as source of all good things.

* Lakoff suggests that one replace 'secular' with 'realist' or 'rationalist'; I can think of nothing more absurd. First, because 'realist' and 'rationalist' come loaded down with an immense amount of baggage. As in:

"Hi, I'm a realist in politics; I think it reasonable for a government to make use of any means necessary in order to fulfill its democratic mandate, whatever that may be."

"Hi, I'm a realist about God, heaven, the angels, and the like."

"Hi, I'm a rationalist; like Descartes, Malebranche, and Leibniz I believe that the ontological argument is sound, and that Reason requires that we subject ourselves in certain matters to the authority of the Church."

'Secular' is actually an excellent term for what Lakoff has in mind; he rejects it because it "is a religious term, defined as outside of a taken-for-granted religious norm," but this is blatantly false. It is not a religious term, although it is used in religious contexts; it just means 'having to do with this world'. As such it does quite well for what Lakoff wants. Lakoff's suggestions are just placards saying in large letters, "RIP ME APART." If you feel you have to pick one, though, pick 'rationalist'; if you call yourself a 'realist', you're just asking to be trounced intellectually.

[Links are via Caleb at Cliopatria; Caleb's post is cross-posted at Mode for Caleb.]

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