Journal of Cognitive Historiography, Vol 2, No 1 (2015)

(Religious) Language and the Decentering Process: McNamara and De Sublimitate on the Ecstatic Effect of Language

Christopher T Holmes
Issued Date: 10 Jun 2016


This article outlines how the perspective of De Sublimitate concerning the effect of great literature resembles ancient and modern notions of religious experience. To demonstrate this similarity, the article draws on McNamara’s concept of the decentering process in religious experience. This concept of the decentering process serves as a framework for understanding how an encounter with writing that the author deems to be hupsos (“sublime” or “elevated”) has similar decentering effects. The article engages, but also moves slightly beyond, McNamara’s understanding of the role of language in the decentering process. The first part of the article provides an overview of McNamara’s concept of decentering. In particular, it highlights four aspects of the decentering process: (1) the loss of agency; (2) the experience of ecstasy; (3) the role of the emotions; and (4) the cognitive changes that occur during and after the process. The second part of the article demonstrates the presence of similar ideas in De Sublimitate’s discussion of the effects of encountering literature that is characterized as hupsos. The concluding section considers how this reading of De Sublimitate aids in an understanding of the relationship between religious texts and religious experience, drawing a connection with Celia Deutsch’s concept of “text work” as religious experience.

Download Media

PDF (Price: £17.50 ) HTML (Price: £17.50 )

DOI: 10.1558/jch.v2i1.30987


Austin, J. L. 1975. How to Do Things with Words: The William James Lectures Delivered at Harvard University in 1955, ed. J. O. Urmson and Marina Sbisà. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Deconick, April D. ed. 2006. Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Deutsch, Celia. 2008. “Visions, Mysteries, and the Interpretative Task: Text Work and Religious Experience in Philo and Clement”. In Experientia, Volume 1: Inquiry Into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity, eds. Frances Flannery, Colleen Shantz and Rodney Alan Werline, 83–103. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

– 2006. “The Therapeutae, Text Work, Ritual, and Mystical Experience”. In Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, ed. April D. Deconick, 1–24. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Flannery, Frances, Colleen Shantz and Rodney Alan Werline, eds. 2008. Experientia, Volume 1: Inquiry Into Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Christianity. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Grube, G. M. A. 1957. “Notes On the Peri Hupsous”. American Journal of Philology 78(4): 355–74.

Halliwell, Stephen. 2011. Between Ecstasy and Truth: Interpretations of Greek Poetics from Homer to Longinus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hill, James J. 1966. “The Aesthetic Principles of the Peri Hupsous”, Journal of the History of Ideas 27(2): 265–74,

“Longinus.” 1927. De Sublimitate, On the Sublime, trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McNamara, Patrick. 2009. The Neuroscience of Religious Experience. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Malinar, A. and H. Basu. 2008. “Ecstasy”. In The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion, ed. J. Corrigan, 241–58. New York: Oxford.

Russell, D. A. 1964. ‘Longinus’ On The Sublime: Introduction and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wildman, W. J. and L.A. Brothers. 1999. “A Neuropsychological-Semiotic Model of Religious Experiences”. In Neuroscience and the Person: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, eds Robert J. Russell, Nancey Murphy, Theo C. Meyering and Michael A. Arbib, 347–418. Berkeley, CA: Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Equinox Publishing Ltd - 415 The Workstation 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)114 221-0285 - Email:

Privacy Policy