At the beginning of his defining book, Totality and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas offers the following provocative synopsis of what he takes to be the history of metaphysics, which serves as the backdrop of his own account of the absolute alterity found in the ethical relation:
“The true life is absent.” But we are in the world. Metaphysics arises and is maintained in this alibi. It is turned toward the “elsewhere” and the “otherwise” and the “other.” For in the most general form it has assumed in the history of thought it appears as a movement going forth from a world that is familiar to us, whatever be the yet unknown lands that bound it or that it hides from view, from an “at home” which we inhabit, toward an alien outside-of-oneself, toward a yonder. (Levinas 1969, p. 33)
For Levinas, the metaphysical “alibi” is such that we are stable in ourselves and, thus, able to move beyond ourselves toward this objective order that lies beyond the illusory world of embodied sense and meaning. Epistemology as a search for that which is transcendentally stable forms much of the general metaphysical account of numerous philosophers from Plato to Hegel, and beyond. Famously, or perhaps infamously depending on who you ask, the postmodern turn in philosophy (in both the continental and also the analytic traditions), amounts to a humbling of such epistemic pretense regarding the narrative of metaphysical stability. The “alibi,” as it were, has begun to wear thin and questions have rightly been raised about whether or not it remains plausible. The consequences of such questions on human inquiry are significant indeed.
In the wake of this general postmodern awareness, the issue that now presses upon us is not how to get beyond ourselves to some sort of stable objective reality, but how best to understand who it is that we are as confronted by the epistemic realities that attend embodied, contextual existence. In this way, postmodernism does not preclude metaphysical realism, but simply the idea that we could somehow have access to that reality outside of where it is that we currently find ourselves. We are in the world. Whatever true life there is, if it is to be known by us, must be available to us as the beings we are, not the beings we would like to be if we somehow could escape the limitations of physicality and finitude. Indeed, it is precisely because of such limitations that the task of inquiry presents itself to us as a task in which to engage ever more deeply, rather than as a goal to be finally achieved. The end of inquiry, if there is such a thing, is not fixed and waiting for us, but stands as the vanishing point of the human condition itself. When inquiry stops, so does our finitude. Since it doesn’t seem like we are going to become infinite anytime soon, inquiry continues . . . but now humbly aware of itself as a contingent human practice. Thinking is no longer best conceived as a divine activity in which humans are able to participate insofar as they overcome their current situation and obtain direct access to that “elsewhere” and that “yonder” of which Levinas speaks, and toward which traditional metaphysical inquiry has striven.
What is especially striking about this postmodern realization is that it is not at all distinctively postmodern. Instead, it is quite ubiquitously, and extremely mundanely, human . . . all too human. We are bodies in motion. Inquiry amounts to bodies asking questions. Accordingly, regardless of our discipline, our training, or our discursive goals, we should all be attentive to the ways in which our bodies form the ground from which any such inquiry could spring forth and become categorized as philosophy, or theology, or psychology, or sociology, or whatever. Advances in cognitive science, and especially cognitive linguistics, have helped to refocus our attention away from the Truth (always with a capital-T) “out there” to the inescapable truth (whether with a capital or not) that language is always a product of one’s embodied (prelinguistic) experiences. Language may or may not be the house of being, but embodiment is the soil upon which any such house would be able to be built.
As obvious as it might seem to say that we only speak and think as we do because of the vocal chords and brains that we have, this realization is often ignored or even outright rejected due to two general worries. On the one hand, this account of embodiment and its impact on language and concepts might be viewed as metaphysically restrictive. On the other hand, this account can also be read as epistemically (and ethically) reductive. In the first case, one might point to thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, who is sometimes read as suggesting that since we can’t escape our perspectives that there really is nothing other than these perspectives—there is no state of affairs by which one perspective could be deemed better than any other. In the second case, one might offer any number of reductive physicalist accounts of knowledge and moral theory. When confronted with the options of problematic metaphysical anti-realism or problematic scientistic reductionism, perhaps it is better to abandon the assumptions that led to such options.
However, many scholars have rightly demonstrated that the implications of cognitive linguistics and postmodern epistemology avoid both of these worries. In fact, no metaphysical implications follow at all from a postmodern awareness of embodied human inquiry and the impact of lived experience on our speech and thought. All that follows is an increased humility regarding the pretentions to being able to get beyond ourselves to check what it is that we claim to know. Whether or not Derrida engages in a non sequitur, we shouldn’t do so. Just because we can’t know Truth other than as engaged and interpreted as truth available to bodies like us doesn’t mean that there is no Truth, but simply that we can’t stop being who we are in order to know it. As Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus rightly warns, to try to know objective Truth in this way would be so inhuman that it is not clear that any existing individual could recommend it. We are stuck with ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that we are all that there is (see Kierkegaard 1992).
Similarly, reductive physicalism might indeed be true, but it is not at all required by the conclusions drawn by cognitive linguistics. That our speech and thought is shaped (necessarily and inescapably) by embodied experience doesn’t mean that we are merely, or only, or reducible to vocal chords and brains. It simply means that even if we are ultimately souls, or minds, we are now unable to understand anything outside of the embodied lived experience that forms our framework for meaning. So, just because we can’t make sense of disembodied ethical decision, for example, doesn’t mean that there are not moral facts. Just because we can’t know reality as God does, say, doesn’t mean that there is not divine knowledge of reality. It simply means that moral facts and divine knowledge would only be knowable by us if they are knowable by the sorts of beings that we are. This should seem trivial because it is. Again, the upshot of postmodernism is not something new and radical about how to conceive of ourselves, but something deeply universal to the human condition that has simply been forgotten at various points in our history—viz., being concerned about giving an alibi can often prevent us from being concerned about speaking truly. Cognitive linguistics, even if a recently emerging field, is not itself suggesting something that we didn’t know previously, but simply helping us understand how it is that we know anything at all.
One of the truly slow adopters of these realizations about embodiment and its impact on inquiry and discourse is Christian theology, and especially Evangelical Christian theology. Perhaps this hesitancy is due to the reasons mentioned above. Indeed, surely metaphysical anti-realism and reductive physicalism would pose serious problems for the worldviews of many within Christian faith communities. Unfortunately, though, adopting such problematic interpretations leads to a genuinely missed opportunity for theological discourse to be maximally relevant to the human condition—the condition to which faith is, itself, supposed to speak most directly. In his new book, Theology in the Flesh: How Embodiment and Culture Shape the Way We Think about Truth, Morality, and God, John Sanders sets out to correct these misconceptions and demonstrate with clarity and precision the resources offered by cognitive linguistics for both Christian theology and Christian life. This book is comprehensive in its scholarship and probing in its challenge to the complacency that so often characterizes Christian thinking.
The participants in this symposium are Bonnie Howe, James Van Slyke, Sharon L. Baker Putt, and Scot McKnight. They all offer careful engagements with Sanders’s thought but all apply it to different areas of intellectual and religious concern. First, Howe focuses on the way that cognitive linguistics impacts moral interpretation. Then, Van Slyke turns to questions of political existence and the dominant metaphors used to situate individuals into social groups. Next, Baker Putt moves into a more directly theological vein and considers traditional models of the atonement in order to explore new resources offered by cognitive linguistics for avoiding the moral problems associated with the satisfaction and penal substitution theories. Finally, Scot McKnight considers theological epistemology and the possible ways that cognitive linguistics can invite a better awareness of how specific theological claims might be read by different individuals and groups because of different social histories.
Ultimately, in these essays, and in Sanders’s replies to each of them, what we find is a robust demonstration of how humility and hospitality need not lead to a watered-down homiletics. Standing confidently within one’s religious tradition, and engaging confessionally in the theological reflection occurring within that tradition, should not be threatened by an awareness of one’s own embodied finitude. Indeed, in light of the Christian notion of kenosis, it seems much more likely that we are better able to understand the account of God revealed in Christian scriptures when we no longer attempt to overcome our embodiment, but instead stand, in our full fleshy reality, in a personal relation to a God who took on flesh in order to be related to us. Although Levinas provides a profound account of how ethics requires a relation to the absolutely other, Christianity, at least according to the model of it presented by the authors in this symposium, shows how the absolutely other is not lost in mystical distance, but perhaps found most radically, most intimately, most humanly, when we realize that all knowledge of God is embodied knowing.
Kierkegaard, Søren. 1992. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments Vol. I. Ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1969. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.