Where is God? Spatial metaphor, spatial theography

Bodo Winter, Sarah Duffy and Jeannette Littlemore recently published a research paper in Metaphor and Symbol entitled “Power, Gender, and Individual Differences in Spatial Metaphor: The Role of Perceptual Stereotypes and Language Statistics.

Their study investigates connections between vertical language (for example, “at the bottom of the social hierarchy” or “rising to the top”) and power, using a reaction-time study and a corpus-study. Among their findings are, perhaps unsurprisingly, that we do tend to associate power with vertical space (POWER is UP).

But it’s more complex than that. It turns out that the male participants in the study were more likely than the female participants to show a vertical bias. And the POWER is UP metaphor was also understood differently as a function of gender stereotypes associated with particular professions. Professions that are stereotypically seen as male (soldier, doctor, for instance) were more strongly associated with vertical metaphor.

This research advances our understanding of the ways metaphor shape and reveal thought and behaviour. And as someone who frequently uses corpus linguistics, I found their use of corpora to enhance their experimental research particularly interesting.

But there’s another significant factor here to discuss, the powerful religious component of vertical language, which the linguist Jean-Pierre van Noppen has written extensively on. Van Noppen points out that there is something inherently human in the ways we structure our relationship to the cosmos using spatial language.

The most obvious place to begin thinking about this is the way members of various organized religions use spatial metaphor to locate God, to reveal God’s character, to position God in relation to humans and to the world.
Is God above us, alongside us, below us?
Is God close or far away?
Is God central or peripheral?
Is God external or internal to us?
The answers we provide via metaphor need not be fixed but shift according to context and need, according to the aspect of God’s character being considered. And yet, when talking about God as powerful, sacred texts often rely on vertical metaphor.

The links between spatial metaphor and religion are undeniable insofar as they reflect our deepest held beliefs about the cosmos, who we are, where we came from, who and what has value, etc. And this is true whether we associate ourselves with organized religion or no religion at all. Van Noppen writes,

Even in the language of everyday secular existence, our metaphors seem to be based on an underlying oriented, discontinuous view of space : thus we speak of important things as central, and of secondary concerns as peripheral; of a significant experience as profound, and of one that leaves little impression as superficial; of ambition as climbing the social ladder, and of failure as a downfall; we speak of getting nowhere, of toeing the party line or following a line of thought, of straying off the point or reaching a dead end — as if mental activity were physical movement in a space where certain directions (upwards, inward, forward) are endowed with desirable values1.

But where do these spatial metaphors come from? Why do we use space in this way to understand abstract concepts? Does this inclination arise primarily from sacred texts? Or is it somehow grounded in actual experience with the body? Some have claimed that the notion that the head (up) is superior to the feet (down) quite simply reflects our biology and is a universal way of thinking.

Wherever and however these connections arise, perhaps you can see where we can connect spatial representations of God and our broader ways of using spatial metaphor to talk about power. Feminists have long pointed out that our language indicates that (unjustifiably or not) we equate being male with being God. This adds a significant layer of meaning, then, to the findings of Winter, Duffy and Littlemore. If POWER is UP and MALE is UP, then men are indeed closer to God than women, at least in the minds of men.


1 See van Noppen’s chapter, “Language, Space and Theography” in R. Dirven & M. Pütz’s edited collection, The Construal of Space in Language and Thought (Mouton de Gruyter, 1996, pp. 679-690).

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