Agency and Force Dynamics in Mystical Language

Believers acting in relationship to and being acted upon by the object of their beliefs is an integral and pervasive characteristic of religious language. Much can be learned from analyzing patterns of agency in terms of what the believer does, what the divine entity does, and how these two patterns of activity interact over the course of a text or stream of religious discourse. However, examples of religious language that exhibit a mystical component can introduce an extra level of complexity into the analyses of patterns of agency. In their survey of mystical language in the main world religions, Carmody and Carmody (1996) argue that one of the principal characteristics of mysticism is a direct experience of divine reality. Their description of this type of experience inevitably involves a powerful sense of divine agency.

Mystics meet ultimate reality (God, the holy,Brahman).They become aware of it, drawn into it, raised up and transformed by it. ... The reports of the mystics tend to stress that ultimate reality bypassed intermediaries. It shone in their minds or warmed their hearts directly. If they began with a book or by holding hands with another person, the book or other person receded from the center. In the center, of both the experience and the mystics themselves, ultimate reality' gave them a light, created a sense of union, that revealed their very constitution.

(Carmody and Carmody, 1996, p. 11)

The words “drawn”, “raised”, “transformed”, “shone”, “warmed”, “gave”, and “created” all construct a strong sense of the perception of being systematically acted upon. However, it is the reference to a sense of union being created that highlights the most unusual aspect of much mystical language. Thomas Merton (2013), in an essay on the similarities and differences between Zen and Christianity, highlights D. T. Suzuki’s (1949) argument that Zen is not about the intuitions that believers have about an object of belief, but about the disintegration of those intuitions. Merton goes on to argue that a fundamental aspect of his understanding of Christianity is that the divine, as much more than a mere object of belief, exists in union with the subject. He illustrates this through a reference to 1 Corinthians 18-23 and the phrase “message of the cross” (King James Version), which he refers to as the “word of the cross”.

To fully “hear” and “receive” the word of the Cross means much more than simple assent to the dogmatic proposition that Christ died for our sins. It means to be “nailed to the Cross with Christ”, so that the ego-self is no longer the principle of our deepest actions, which now proceed from Christ living in us ... To receive the word of the Cross means the acceptance of a complete self-emptying.

(Merton, 2013, p. 358)

Merton is undoubtedly aware of the boundaries of Roman Catholic theology' and the insistence that God acting from within people does not mean that God and humans become indistinguishable. However, these theological constraints still allow for a distinctive event structure that Merton’s language echoes.

BELIEVER as instrument event structure:

  • 1. The divine acts on humans; for example, “Christ died for our sins”.
  • 2. In defiance of the ego-self, the believer accepts the divine action; for example, “[tjo fully ‘hear’ and ‘receive’ the word of the Cross”.
  • 3. The divine indwells the believer; for example, “Christ living in us”.
  • 4. The divine, overcoming the ego-self, acts through the believer on others; for example, “so that the ego-self is no longer the principle of our deepest actions, which now proceed from Christ living in us”.

There is a stark contrast between the language of accepting and receiving and the powerful and violent figurative image of the self being nailed to Christ’s cross. The essential self and multiple selves (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999) conceptualization underpinning this image involves the struggle between the old self (which naturally resists its own death) and the new spiritual self (Figure 6.11). The conflict attains resolution as the spiritual self (with Christ living within) accepts the violent death of the old self. This can be viewed in force dynamic terms as the new spiritual self in conjunction with the divine having a greater force tendency than the ego-self, with the believer then becoming an antagonist that is ready to act on the world (which has an inherent tendency toward sin) as a divine instrument.

In the second stage of the sequence, the world as agonist is marked with dotted lines to represent the fact that a specific force dynamic relationship between the

The struggle between the old self and the new spiritual self

FIGURE 6.11 The struggle between the old self and the new spiritual self

believer and other people remains implicit (along with its outcome) in this section of the text.

Both within monotheism and across a wide range of religions that stress patterns of direct experience and union, this same event structure occurs.Yet, paradoxically, it sometimes exists side by side with overlapping figurative conceptualizations that stress the disintegration of agency when the believer and the divine become one. An example of disintegration can also be found in the language ofMerton (1990).

God would direct all things, and where I would be expected to act so much and so closely under His guidance that it would be as if He thought with my mind, as He willed with my will. It was to this that I was called. It was for this that I had been created. It was for this Christ had died on the Cross, and for this that I was now baptized, and had within me the living Christ, melting me into Himself in the fires of His love.This was the call that came to me with my Baptism, bringing with it a most appalling responsibility if I failed to answer it. Yet, in a certain sense it was almost impossible for me to hear and answer it.

(p. 221)

The first part of the extract follows the believer as instrument event structure (outlined above) with the divine acting through the believer (“it would be as if He thought with my mind”). However, the second part, drawing on the source domain of one object melting into another through the application of heat, suggests its dissolution. The figurative relationship appears to switch from the agent executing an action through the use of an instrument to the agent and the instrument becoming indistinguishable (not in terms of being, but in terms of their actions toward others).This second event structure is given below.

BELIEVER AS united with the divine event structure:

  • 1. The divine acts on believers; for example, “for this Christ had died on the cross”.
  • 2. The believer accepts the divine action; for example, “ [ijt was to this that I was called”. (We read this as subevent for the whole event metonymy in that the whole process here includes calling someone, that person answering, and acting in accordance with the content of the call.)
  • 3. The believer and the divine unite and therefore ...
  • 4. “believer to the divine” or “the divine to the believer” actions cease, but the divine being/believer still has a responsibility to act on others; for example, “melting me into Himself” and “bringing with it a most appalling responsibility”.

The main difference is in 3 and 4, and this suggests an important shift in focus. The conceptual ramifications of this become clearer when viewed from the perspective of force dynamics. In the believer as instrument event structure, the divine as antagonist exhibits the stronger force tendency and overcomes the force tendency of the believer as agonist. However, as in the case of enlightenment and en-darkment, the believer as united with the divine event structure starts off as a force dynamic relationship but resolves itselfby collapsing the relationship. In other words, it is not the case of the antagonist overcoming the force tendency of the agonist, but the agonist merging with the antagonist to become a single antagonist that then enters into new force dynamic relationships with other agonists.

Similar to the force dynamics depicted in Figure 6.11, the sequence begins with God (the antagonist) acting on believers (the agonist) by dying on the cross for the sins of mankind. Merton’s allusion to the notion of failure and his description of the process as virtually impossible indicates that there is an ever-present resisting force (the believer’s natural force tendency to resist God). This must be continually dismantled, resulting in the believer continually being dissolved in God. In many ways, the remaining pages of Merton’s autobiography detail this ongoing process. As this new self is being established, the second stage in the sequence begins, where he is also being reconstituted as an antagonist representing God’s action toward others in the world.The force dynamic relationship involving the believer in unity with the divine acting on others is left implied through the statement that it was “for this that I had been created ... for this Christ had died” in conjunction with the sense of “appalling responsibility”. Just as Christ created him, died for him, and called him, he also believes Christ created others and died for others and that he has a part in calling them. However, the agonist representing others is marked with dotted lines because it is not explicitly identified in the extract above (it becomes explicit later in the book when, for example, he prepares his brother for baptism).

These shifts between two distinct event structures illustrate the importance of situating statements within their wider contexts and viewing them as distinct attractor states that represent different conceptualizations along the continuum of a speaker’s beliefs. Merton shifts from a believer as instrument to a more profound believer as united with the divine event structure, only to switch back again when referring to himself in “This was the call that came to me” when in the previous line his self had been dissolved. This is a common occurrence in mystical language, where a text can, for example, shift back and forth between descriptions of the divine as within to descriptions of unity with the divine and then back to describing the divine as an external entity existing in proximity to the believer.

Analogous event structures also appear in Buddhist sects that emphasize salvation through a higher external power. One example can be seen in the figurative use of light in Jodo ShinshG Buddhist texts. Amida Buddha, the key figure in this school of Buddhism, is often figuratively represented as light, as is the overlapping concept of wisdom. The following extract comes from Unno’s introduction to Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.

First, light is identified with Amida Buddha, as is evident in the original Sanskrit, amitabha or “Immeasurable Light”. Second, light is symbolic of wisdom, since the illumination by Immeasurable Light endows us with the ability to see delusions, both within and without. The principal characteristic of Immeasurable Light is that it takes in foolish beings of blind passion without judgment or hesitation and transforms them into awakened beings endowed with wisdom. These qualities are experienced internally, but they cannot be known objectively.

(Unno, 2002, pp. 101-102)

Two spatial representations are juxtaposed in this extract.The first views Amida as a container of light that foolish beings are taken into.The second views the process of enlightenment as something that happens inside foolish beings.

Unno goes on to develop this second internal representation of light.

We also mistakenly believe that the light that illuminates our existence and brings us self-knowledge comes from the outside, but it, too, comes from within ourselves.

(Unno, 2002, pp. 101-102)

This extract blends the conceptual metaphors amida is light and wisdom is light so that the illuminating work of the Buddha fuses with the inner workings of self-realization. There is also a blending of the idea that light allows someone to see reality as it really is (making it beneficial to them) with the concept that the same light shines on the world and allows that person to help others to see

(making it beneficial to others). Unno illustrates this by drawing on a story he heard from a friend about the placement of a light in a cave causing new life to grow and flourish.

My friend suddenly realized a simple and obvious truth—without light there is no life, but with light new life is born and grows, even in the darkest of places.

(Unno, 2002, p. 106)

Within Mahayana forms of Buddhism, the result of enlightenment is that an enlightened being becomes a Buddha and is thereby transformed into a source of light for others.

Moreover, each one of those buddhas emits hundreds of thousands of rays of light that spread out everywhere in the ten quarters and proclaim the subtle and sublime Dharma. In this way, each of these buddhas firmly establishes innumerable living beings in the Buddha’s True Way.

(Unno, 2002, p. 106)

In addition, just as the light from Amida Buddha becomes blended with the light coming from within, the concept of many buddhas and many living beings also becomes blended with the interconnectedness of all things. This culminates in Unno’s comments on the Buddha’s paradoxical statement “I alone am the World-Honored One”.

For everything to be given its due place, the human-centered standpoint must be shed. When we do so, we realize that each form of existence— human, animal, plant, flower, rock, mountain, and river—constitutes the vast network of interdependence and interconnectedness of which each is a significant part. That the task of each form of life is to attain such a realization is already implicit in the first pronouncement made by the infant Buddha, “Above heaven and below heaven, I alone am the World-Honored One”. But this personal awakening means a deeper commitment to changing the world, as demonstrated by the life of the Buddha and its impact in the history of humankind.

(p. 142)

To ensure that readers do not misinterpret the infant Buddha’s statement as a boast that reinforces the ego, Unno focuses on the nature of the personal pronoun. He notes that there are two different possible usages of“T: the dualistic sense of I used in ordinary discourse, and the non-dualistic sense of I that is found in the Buddha’s proclamation” (Unno, 2002, p. 144). However, this perceived experience of oneness and non-dualism does not preclude acting on (helping) others, but rather actively encourages it. Just as Merton follows his perceived experience of divine unity with a reference to “appalling responsibility”, Unno (2002) follows his reference to non-dualistic oneness with a “deeper commitment to changing the world” (p. 142).

There are of course important differences here between the Jodo ShinshG worldview and Christian worldview. Merton does not talk about mystical union occurring between God and people who have rejected Christian beliefs, and he does not view all forms of life as being on a path to enlightenment. Additionally, Merton also does not hold that the believer and the divine entity' become onto- logically indistinguishable in the act of divine union. Another difference is that Merton adopts the typical Christian perspective that the relationship between the divine entity and the believer changes when the believer accepts and is accepted by the divine (before, the believer was not saved but, afterward, they are). In contrast, in Jodo ShinshG Buddhism, interdependence and interconnectedness are the very fabric of ultimate reality, and therefore the only thing that changes is our eventual realization of the relationship that has always existed between all things, not the relationship itself.

Yet even after taking into consideration these important differences, the schematic similarities remain in terms of developing patterns of agency and force dynamic relationships (and their dissolution). Both authors describe being acted on by a divine entity' and the entity being within them and working through them. They also both describe, to varying degrees, unity' with the entity and the resulting greater commitment to help others. The question here in terms of further research is why these schematic similarities exist across two very different religious systems.This question could be approached from a theological perspective (such as in the work of, for example, Rudolf Otto and John Hick), but it may also be fruitful to examine this further from a cognitive perspective. How humans detect and conceptualize agency and perceive the working of spiritual, mental, and emotional forces may explain these similarities.

Analysis of force dynamic relationships is invaluable in identifying and tracking the development of underlying conceptualizations in religious thought. At a general level, this type of analysis also has the potential to reveal both similarities and differences across religions. When focused on a more fine-grained level, the analysis can reveal the various way's that force dynamic relationships are construed in the religious discourse of diverse individuals, or even within the same individual across time.

Discussion Questions

  • 1. Analyze an extract from a sermon or talk on YouTube that involves multiple force dynamic relationships. For each relationship, create a figure that depicts the antagonist and agonist, their relative strengths, and the outcome of the opposition. Do the speakers construe force dynamic relationships in a similar way? Do their construals of the force dynamic relationship shift during the discourse?
  • 2. Choose a religious tradition.Then consider the key force dynamic relationships that underlie the tradition’s doctrine.
  • 3. Analyze the force dynamic relationships associated with sin in the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) and with karma in the religious traditions that first developed in India (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism).


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