Religious Language

This topic at A2 used to terrify me. I think the standard text book approaches the whole issue back to front, ties you in knots with loads of different theories about verification etc. It then seems to start again asking how can we talk about God?


Essentially your examiner wants you to look at two issues.

  1. How, using human language, can we talk meaningfully about God who is not human?
  2. Can statements we make about God be verified or falsified?

ie are they meaningful in a factual sense.

Task 1 How can we talk about God
The first thing to do is to get out of the way via negativa and via positiva

Via Negativa – merely talks about what God is not – not mortal hence immortal etc. It is worth looking up Pseudo Dionysius and Maimonides.

Via Positiva (apophatic way) – which deals with the highest human qualities which are then applied to God. God is ultimate kindness, ultimate wisdom etc.

Aquinas and Analogy
I think you need to move on to Aquinas and tackle what he says about analogy.
Language about God cannot be univocal – ie  where the word has only one meaning
Language about God cannot be equivocal – ie where the word can have more than one meaning like swallow or duck or gay.St-Thomas-Aquinas

Analogy is a way of applying to God qualities based on those valued within human experience.
Make sure you Are able to differentiate between analogy of proportion and analogy of attribution. Books usually give a few examples of each.

Ian Ramsey in the twentieth century developed the concept of analogy by introducing the ideas of models and qualifiers. In many areas of research these days we use models to explain an idea. But to save us from taking the model at face value, Ramsey feels we need to qualify it in order to apply it to God.

A third stage in how humans talk about God is by using
Metaphor or Symbolic language.
Theologians in the 19th century began pointing out that many of the early stories at the beginning of the Bible had roots in ancient myths and legends. Stories such as Noah’s Ark and the creation narratives. Nevertheless these stories are saying something important about the nature of God.

Rudolph Bultmann proposed a similar use of myths in the New Testament gospels.

Paul Tillich suggests that signs and symbols found both in the New Testament and contemporary Christianity unlock ideas about God for Christians.

Task 2 Given that there is religious language and that people do use religious language – can these statements be verified.words
This is where most text books digress. They don’t initially address the question can religious language be verified? The plough in to the deeper issue – how can statements (any statements) be verified.
A J Ayer – really a most attractive character. He will be associated with:-

VERIFICATIONISM – don’t be in any doubt he was an atheist and what your book will describe for you is how he thought statements could be verified. On the grounds of his rules, statements about God though constituted nonsense. But you have to know his rules.
A J Ayer and his initial classification of verification based on his book Language Truth and Logic.
Then he had a bit of a change of mind and you have to know his later conclusions.
Work hard at these – they are a bit complex – but worth following.
You must also know why verificationism failed. That is great fun because Ayer’s main statement about what must happen for something to be verified, can’t itself be verified!

I have a great love and respect for Professor Ayer. So much of what he said sort of came crashing down – not just in philosophy, but also in ethics as well – and people rather make fun of him, but he was a pioneering thinker. Never underestimate him.

You need to know about Karl Popper – not too much
Antony Flew must also be known and his dealing with John Wisdom’s gardenerParable of the Gardener. Flew almost accuses religious people of cheating, by saying that it does not matter how much evidence on amasses against religion, the believer will always search out an explanation, which he feels becomes more and more futile.

Richard Swinburne with his story of the toys in the cupboard suggests that even unproven ideas may still be meaningful.

Basil Mitchell with his Parable of the double agent attempts to show that religious faith copes with positive and negative input.

R M Hare has a very interesting suggestion that religious people have “blicks” an unshakable idea which persists despite contrary evidence. His story of the deluded student is a good one, but I am sure you could devise other examples of the same condition.

Finally in this section you need to consider
Language games.
Essentially this idea is very straightforward. Within a discipline there is always specific meaningful language, which can be confusing or nonsensical to those who do not participate in the subject.

Consider the language game of computing. We talk about a desktop, a mouse and a laptop. To a person who is conversant with IT this is all very acceptable and meaningful, but to a person who has never even seen a computer, let alone used one, those three terms would be very confusing.

The implication of this is that religious language is a language game. It has its own logic, rules and application. It does not have to adhere to general rules of verification any more than computer language does, or the terms used in rugby, hockey or tennis.

The person who suggested the idea of language games was Ludwig Wittgenstein (who incidentally never saw a computer). Most books will explain at length how language games work. You need to be aware of the points that are made, but be slightly careful Wittgenstein himself had little to say about religious language. The person you ought to research in this respect is D Z Phillips.

Those I think are the main points you need to be aware of in religious language.

Books and things that might help in addition to Philosophy of Religion by Matthew Taylor
Chapter 4 of Questions about God – a guide for students PJ Clarke Nelson Thornes
Chapter 6 Philosophy of Religion by John Hick (ancient but readable)
Part 7 of Philosophy of Religion – selected readings Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger. This is stern stuff and deals with a few specific scholars in depth.

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