Complex Blends in Religious Language

Cognitive Blending Theory is versatile in describing a range of network types and can be applied to both relatively simple and more complex, multifaceted levels of integration, which are sometimes themselves built over previously established blends.

An example of these complex structures occurs at the end ofThomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in a poem he penned as an elegy to his brother, who died in World War II. In the middle of the poem, Merton writes:

When all the men of war are shot And flags have fallen into dust,

Your cross and mine shall tell men still Christ died on each, for both of us.

(Merton, 1990, p. 404)

Merton invites the reader to imaginatively integrate several distinct ideas. In the poem, two related scenes with parallel structures are set up: Thomas Merton’s brother, who had to carry his “cross” as he struggled and ultimately succumbed to the brutality of war, and Thomas Merton himself, who faces his own challenges of living up to the Christian spiritual ideal. Their acts of sacrifice, represented through the act of carrying a cross, are then blended with Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of dying for sinners on the cross and their crosses.

Merton’s poem could be understood as simply a combination of figurative expressions, but the interactions of the various processes coalesce to produce a synergetic and coherent effect. For example, in the stanza from Merton’s poem, the structure from the first input (the crucifixion of Jesus) provides the guiding

The three crosses blend

FIGURE 7.4 The three crosses blend

structure for the blend with the other two input spaces (the spiritual struggles of Merton and his brother) conforming to this structure. The connections between the different elements in Merton’s poem and how they relate to one another are depicted in Figure 7.4. For ease of presentation, the links between mental spaces have been marked with geometric symbols.

The blend relies on the familiar notion that a spiritual person, out of a sense of compassion, selflessly makes sacrifices for others and, by doing so, serves as a spiritual example. Since these general ideas are common to all the inputs and help link them, they are listed in the generic space. The three separate input spaces contain three separate people who all encounter very different challenges in life: crucifixion in the case of Jesus; death in war in the case of Merton’s brother; and the arduous challenges of monastic life and a spiritual quest in the case of Merton. These three difficult life paths are all identified within the blend through reference to the cross, which is already an established blend involving the various events leading up to and surrounding the crucifixion and the significance of the resurrection. These are brought together through reference to a highly salient feature of the crucifixion narrative; namely, the cross on which Jesus died. Fauconnier and Turner use the term syncopation to refer to this partial activation of a point within chained elements that are held together through the vital relations of time, space, cause-effect, change, part-whole, and intentionality. Merton and his brother’s struggles are then figuratively represented as carrying a cross, a mapping facilitated by the metaphor difficulty is a burden, which is based on the embodied experience of carrying heavy objects, and the knowledge that the struggles associated with spiritual burdens receive a positive evaluation in Christian scripture (Charteris-Black, 2004).

The evocative nature of the stanza stems partly from the way it resolves structural clashes between the three inputs. Jesus carried his own cross to the crucifixion and then died on it, resulting in the redemption of mankind. Through analogy, Merton and his brother are both expected to die on the crosses they carry, but this does not occur in the blend where the crosses they bear also have Jesus upon them. In addition, the Jesus who dies on their crosses (through the vital link of identity) is the same Jesus who died on the cross two millennia ago in Judea. The compression is crucial to Merton’s message because it expresses a recurrent feature in religious discourse: a temporal collapse in which the crucifixion mysteriously reoccurs and continues to produce effects.

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