THERE – Theory and Empiricism of Religious Evolution: Foundation of a Research Program

6.2. How Religion Proceeds and Science Observes It

Against the backdrop of the relationship between metonymy and metaphor, the process of how religion relates to its environment can be understood. Religion refers to its environment in an other-referential and analogic manner and transforms respective semantic energy into coded literalism in order to thereafter refer to transcendence under immanent conditions by means of a metaphorical surplus. At the same time, from an internal religious perspective, however, the surplus constitutes the literal sense—made evident and plausible, for example, by means of divination or revelation—, and the environmental reference constitutes the metaphorical sense, which makes it possible to fold in and understand the environment. The double-direction of self-reference and other-reference only comes into view when the metaphor is understood in accordance with the triadic-relational sign model: it contains the difference between literal and figurative and, at the same time, it generates and represents its unity. This unity makes it possible for the transmission to take place in both directions of the difference. The reality status of both ‘is’ and ‘is not’ lies not only on one of the two sides of the distinction between religious and other kinds of communication, but moves at their interference points. The digitization of analogous, simultaneous, and equally valid relationships is carried out within a system by means of self-reference.

The formal considerations shall be briefly substantiated based on empirical data. The data stems from the treatise The Flowing Light of the Godhead (FLG), whose authorship is attributed to the Christian mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg (b. ca. 1207, d. ca. 1282).

Middle High German Version10 (Mechthild von Magdeburg 1869, 37)

English Version (Mechthild von Magdeburg 2003, 43)

Wie die sele beruͤret gottes vrîheit in aht dingen

Wie die sele beruͤret gottes vrîheit in aht dingen Herre, min fuͤsse sint geuerwet mit dem bluͦte diner waren loͤsunge, min vedren sint verebent mit diner edeln erwelunge, min munt ist gerihtet mit dinem heligen geiste, min ŏgen sint geklaͤret in dinem fu̇rigen liehte, min hŏbet ist geslehtet mit diner getru̇wen beschirmunge, min wandlunge ist lustlich von diner milten gabe, min flug ist gesnellet mit diner unruͦwigen lust, min irdensch sinken kunt von diner einunge mines lichamen. Je groͤsser loͤsunge du mir gist, je langer ich in dir muͦs sweben.

How the soul interprets God’s wooing in eight things

Lord, my feet are stained with the blood of Your true act of redemption, my feathers have been smoothed by Your noble favour, my mouth has been formed by Your Holy Spirit, my eyes transfigured by Your fiery light, my head is made sleek by Your faithful protection, my movement is delightful because of Your generous gift, my flight is made swift by Your restless desire, my sinking back to earth is because of Your union with my body. The more You free me, the longer I may hover in You.

This passage—like the entire text FLG—is characterized by two metaphorical fields: physical gravity and eroticism. Both metaphors are folded in by religious communication and provided with specific religious meaning. In the perspective of the construction of religious meaning, ‘upwards’ is the positive (transcendent) value of the religious code, and ‘downwards’ is the negative (immanent) value (for the case of Jewish mysticism, see Idel 2005; for Daoism, cf. Eskildsen 2007). Within religious communication, both directions have a religious value. Hell, for example, is—typically though not universally—placed below (Bernstein 1993, 60.146; Bremmer 2014; Stausberg 2009; Le Goff [1981] 1990), while paradise is in heaven above (Lang and McDannell 1990). “Vertical orientation is […] commonly used in metaphors that describe religious concepts. Jesus and god are considered the ‘most high’, whereas the antithesis of god, satan, is considered to be a ‘lowly’ being. Such metaphors likely develop through the historical belief that god resides high in the heavens, whereas satan resides deep in the underworld” (Meier, Scholer, and Fincher-Kiefer 2014, 51). Religion as a special coordination system connects the space determined in physical terms with meaning determined in non-religious terms—for example, with attributions of social status such as “HIGH STATUS IS UP” or political attributions such as “POWER IS UP” (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 16) (11)—and transforms this combination into specific religious meaning. In referencing the quoted passage of the text FLG: min irdensch sinken (my sinking back to earth) goes down, and loͤsunge (literally: release, seperation from; religiously: salvation) from the body goes up. Both directions are mediated by sweben (hover). Sensual perception of space is aided by the sign lichamen (body) as its medium hovers between heaven and earth (or even deeper: hell). sweben is the corporeal equivalent to the metaphor of flowing that is often used in the text FLG, as well as to the spatial metaphor of unio mystica.

The second metaphorical field in text FLG, which is also used in the cited passage, is eroticism. It is a common metaphor within mystical communication (Bataille 1986, 221–251). In the text FLG, Mechthild’s soul is the bride and the lyrical ego “is produced in part by the vicissitudes of erotic experience” (Newman 1995, 143). One of the strongest statements with sexual allusions is: „Ich bin in dir und du bist in mir, Wir moͤgen nit naher sin" (“I am in you and you are in me, we could not be any closer“) (Mechthild von Magdeburg 1869, III.5, 66). In addition, the metaphor of flowing has connotations of semen and vaginal fluid during sexual intercourse. However, mystical union, though it contains references* to physical sexual intercourse, is not identical to it (Keul 1999, 96).

The last part of the cited passage can be illustrated in the model of the semiotic system as follows (Figure 13):

min irdensch sinken (R1) connects metaphorically to the preceding semiosis and is encoded by the interpretant I1 diner [= God] einunge mines lichamen religiously. The second interpretant I2 du (you) (= God), which takes the position of other-referential transcendence, draws semantic energy from the environment of religious communication in the form of loͤsunge as the first sign object O1. This word functions as a metaphorical metonym and is transformed by the interpretant I2 du (= God) from the semantics of physical release into a specific religious meaning. In religious meaning, loͤsunge stands for the other-referential unity of transcendence (salvation) and immanence (physical release). The second object reference (O2) exists in ich as the lyrical ego. At this point, the semiotic system draws energy from the self-referential environment in the form of mentally represented body perception. in dir muͦs sweben occupies as the representamen R2 the position of a self-referential unity of transcendence (in the spatial metaphor: up) and immanence (in the spatial metaphor: down). This sign element completes the entire sign, and as a metonymic metaphor it represents the starting point for further semiosis. During the follow-on communication in the form of reading or reciting this text, the reader (as an environment of communication) can take the place of the lyrical ego. Since the lyrical ego presents itself as one with God (12), the reader or recitor (and thus the listener) can comprehend the uttered experience. The lyrical ego becomes the religious perfoming entity: an empty, context-free framework into which the readers or reciters can slip easily (Linden 2011, 379) and turn from external observers to communicatively addressed participants in religious communication (Nemes 2012, 47). In this way, religion can feed itself with further semantic energy, which it draws from the mental environment, and transform it into religious information.

Science in general, including the study of religion, also uses analogies to extract semantic energy from its environment (in this case: from religious communication as its empirical data and from certain academic approaches as the basis for modeling) and transforms it into system-specific information by means of the scientific code true/false (Luhmann 1990, 170). Every scientific model has a metaphorical character (Black 1962; Hesse 1966; Boyd 1993; Kuhn 1993; Holland 1998, 202–210; Hallyn 2000; Brown 2003; Drewer 2003; Kretzenbacher 2003; Gutmann, Rathgeber, and Syed 2010, 15–16). It is “an imagined mechanism or process, postulated by analogy with familiar mechanisms or processes and used to construct a theory to correlate a set of observations(Barbour 1974, 30). A scientific model can only be verified by the code true/false to the extent that it attempts to include reality in the form of empirical evidence into scientific knowledge and to compare it with theoretical assumptions. (13)

Through mutual observation, religion and its scientific study cause interferences in the respective system. The religious statement “The Church is the Body of Christ” (14), for example, contains a lot more, much less, and a very different meaning than the sociological proposition “The Church is a religious organization”. The opposite is true as well. The difference is expressed in the following assertion made by the former Pope Benedict XVI: “The Church is not to be deduced from her organization [other-reference; VK]; the organization is to be understood from the Church [self-reference; VK]. But at the same time it is clear that for the visible Church visible unity is more than ‘organization’ [system-referential unity of other-reference and self-reference under the condition of visible immanence; VK]” (Ratzinger 2004, 210–211). From a sociological perspective, however, the church is nothing more than a religious organization, a certain, albeit complex, social form. “Self-description problems of this kind arise particularly in those cases where religious institutions or ‘associations’ (Max Weber) claim all sacredness for themselves and regard their order and hierarchical structures as manifestations of God’s will. Religious collectives of this type resist equation to ‘profane’ or ‘secular’ organizations. This type of ‘egalitarianism’ overturns the asymmetric self-distinction between the sacred and the profane, between the ‘holy church’ and the ‘world’ (as a social environment)” (Petzke and Tyrell 2012, 275).

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