Agency and Frames

Just as it is possible to talk about different levels of intensity in terms of agency in religious discourse, it is also possible to analyze this in terms of the frames that particular types of agency evoke. Frames are networks of knowledge and beliefs that are used to structure and make sense of the world (see Chapter 2), and by viewing agency through the lens of frames, the choice of particular types of agency can reveal how a believer conceptualizes their way of being religious. Several examples of divine agency in Christian andJodo Shinshu Buddhist language help illustrate this point.

  • 1. Not long after the fall, the world plunged so deeply into sin that God judged the earth by destroying almost every human being and animal on the face of it.
  • (MacArtliur, 2009, p. 218)
  • 2. So He dispatched Elijah to Ahab to remind the king—and the people— that the living God was about to judge the nation.
  • (Jeffress, 2018, p. 73)
  • 3. God created you to glorify Him in everything you do.
  • (Jeffress, 2018, p. 33)
  • 4. Ed left the shoe store rejoicing that God had used him—a simple carpet salesman—to share the good news of Jesus with this eighteen-year-old shoe clerk.
  • (Jeffress, 2018, p. 15)
  • 5. Amida’s light pervades all things so, in entrusting ourselves to it, we allow it to ferry us towards Nirvana, like a steady ship on a stormy ocean.
  • (Paraskeuopoulos, 2009,pp. 46-47)
  • 6. The paramount transformation in Mahayana Buddhism occurs when even a foolish being attains Buddhahood by the wondrous working of boundless compassion.
  • (Utmo, 2002, p. 21)
  • 7. God is restoring health back to me.
  • (Osteen, 2016, p. 4)
  • 8. The same God who can give you an apartment can give you a beautiful house.
  • (Osteen, 2016, p. 31)

Examples 1 and 2 relate to a punishment/judgment frame where a metaphysical agent punishes a patient for the transgression of a particular code of behavior or lacking a required level of belief. Punitive divine agency of course plays an important role in religious belief, especially in terms of traditional variants of the monotheistic religions. It can be directed at the believer, but it is also commonly directed at unbelievers, as in examples 1 and 2. If a particular example of contemporary religious discourse exhibits emphasis on the latter type of punitive agency, this could be a marker of a type of religious discourse that leads to conflict in a contemporary multifaith context.

Example 3 evokes a divine support frame in that it represents a type of divine action that is beneficial to the divine being. Note that this frame does not necessarily carry the entailment that the divine being is in need of the support (that would depend on the religion in question). It contrasts with Example 4, which represents a divine action that benefits someone else (not the divine being directly or the person being acted upon), and examples 5 and 6, which involve a divine action that is beneficial to the person being acted upon. The type of supporting agency in examples 4, 5, and 6 differs from that in examples 7 and 8 in that the former concern the domain of salvation or some form of spiritual development. These outcomes, viewed from a nonbeliever’s perspective, would not be evaluated as beneficial; the metaphysical beliefs of the religion are essential to the establishment of a positive construal. Examples 4, 5, and 6 therefore evoke a metaphysical human suppqht frame that is specific to a particular religious belief and practice.

While examples 7 and 8 also exhibit supporting agency, the crucial difference here is that the act is conferring benefits (health and a beautiful house) that have no direct connection to the metaphysical domain. The examples thus evoke a mental/physical/matemal human support frame. This distinction reflects two very different approaches to being religious. On one hand, the focus is on the spiritual domain and ideas about the next world or life, while on the other hand, the focus is predominantly on success, health, and happiness in this life. Another point of added complexity is that this agency type can also involve situations in which a divine being calls on believers to help others achieve health and happiness. This calling can even extend to believers perceiving, for example, that they must help others to the point of putting themselves in danger. The analysis does not imply that a specific believer consistently uses one type of agency or another. Rather, it comes down to a matter of frequency, distribution, and emphasis across a range of text types.

In some cases, different types of agency can be implicitly and sometimes explicitly in tension with each other, especially in the case of metaphysical and material support frames.The spiritual domain is usually (but not always) associated with types of thinking and behavior that many believers feel should be qualitatively different from natural, materially orientated types of behavior (Bulbulia, 2004). Desiring a beautiful house or expensive car, for example, can be negatively evaluated in more conservative Evangelical churches for being a material (rather than spiritual) desire. The tension between these two types of supporting agency can be seen within many religions, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Shinto. One argument made by more conservative religious believers is that the true form of a particular religion is anti-materialistic, or at least unrelated to one’s personal material or physical gain, and that popular forms of religion that focus on prayers for material success, lucky charms, and rituals to confer physical benefits subvert the true meaning of religion. However, it is also possible to argue that concerns about some forms of material gain, such as a successful harvest or helping the poor and sick, have been key concerns within many religions from their beginning.

The following examples from Evangelical discourse illustrate how spiritual development can be a painful experience.

  • 9. God had a difficult mission for Elijah—a purpose that did not entail cocktail parties and diplomacy.
  • (JeJfress, 2018, p. 38)
  • 10. Understanding your unique purpose gives you a different prism through which to view the difficulties that God allows or even brings into your life.
  • (JeJfress, 2018, p. 45)
  • 11. God uses the valley of trials to expose our weakness and mature us.
  • (MacArthur, 2009, p. 194)

Examples 9,10, and 11 evoke a refinement frame, where a metaphysical agent acts on a patient in a way that is challenging or testing for the patient but is ultimately intended to encourage some kind of positive development. The difference between refining and supporting agency can become somewhat blurred as contexts and situations shift and evolve. For example, what begins as refining agency may shift to supporting agency once believers adjust their perception and begin to conceptualize a particular divine action as desirable.

Analysis of refining agency can reveal calculations related to the “cost” of religious commitment. Sosis (2000) and others have argued that “significant time, energy, and financial costs” can serve as a key signal of commitment and that this commitment explains the greater longevity of some religious groups over their secular counterparts (p. 72). Religious discourse that repeatedly emphasizes refining agency over supporting agency is a strong marker for a “costly signal” (p. 81). This would especially be the case when refining agency is systematically combined with punitive agency directed at the believer.

  • 12. From the beginning, the story God was communicating was that obedience to and fellowship with Him were the secret to experiencing abundant life.
  • (Jeffress, 2018, p. 32)

Finally, Example 12 can be analyzed both in terms of divine agency and speech acts. The key point here is that agency and speech acts are not mutually exclusive. Language, after all, is one way in which people act on others (Austin, 1975). Speech acts in religious language can evoke a wide range of frames from warning and declaration to education, support, and promise, and therefore they may overlap with some of the frames discussed above. The intensity and nuance of speech acts can also be modulated by modals, in the form of words like may, should, must, and have to.

By tracking the shifts between these different types of agency in the language of believers across varied contexts, the analyst can construct a rich picture of how a believer conceptualizes the metaphysical agent across multiple contexts. Some forms of religious language may consist almost entirely of examples that evoke only one or two of the frames outlined above, while other forms may suggest a rich, interlaced network that encompasses all the frames. It may also be possible to detect when an individual or group’s interpretation of their religion is evolving into a more aggressive and intense form by tracing an increase in the frequency and intensity of agency patterns situated within the refinement and punish- ment/judgment frames. There is therefore value in identifying and tracking different levels of agency and the frames they evoke, as it reveals how believers conceptualize their experiences with the divine.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Think about the position of the divine or supernatural in a religious tradition with which you are familiar. How is their agency described? Are there limits to it? Are there metaphors associated with supernatural agency?
  • 2. Think about the position of humans in a religious tradition with which you are familiar. How is their agency described? Are there limits to it? Are there metaphors associated with human agency?
  • 3. What commonalities and differences can you see across different religious traditions in relation to agency? What might explain the differences?


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