Problem of religious language - Студенческий научный форум

XI Международная студенческая научная конференция Студенческий научный форум - 2019

Problem of religious language

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Problem of religious language

The problem of religious language considers whether it is possible to talk about God meaningfully if the traditional conceptions of God as being incorporeal, infinite, and timeless, are accepted. Because these traditional conceptions of God make it difficult to describe God, religious language has the potential to be meaningless. Theories of religious language either attempt to demonstrate that such language is meaningless, or attempt to show how religious language can still be meaningful.

Traditionally, religious language has been explained as via negativa, analogy, symbolism, or myth, each of which describes a way of talking about God in human terms. The via negativa is a way of referring to God according to what God is not; analogy uses human qualities as standards against which to compare divine qualities; symbolism is used non-literally to describe otherwise ineffable experiences; and a mythological interpretation of religion attempts to reveal fundamental truths behind religious stories. Alternative explanations of religious language cast it as having political, performative, or imperative functions.

Empiricist David Hume's requirement that claims about reality must be verified by evidence influenced the logical positivist movement, particularly the philosopher A. J. Ayer. The movement proposed that, for a statement to hold meaning, it must be possible to verify its truthfulness empirically – with evidence from the senses. Consequently, the logical positivists argued that religious language must be meaningless because the propositions it makes are impossible to verify. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has been regarded as a logical positivist by some academics because he distinguished between things that can and cannot be spoken about; others have argued that he could not have been a logical positivist because he emphasised the importance of mysticism. British philosopher Antony Flew proposed a similar challenge based on the principle that, in so far as assertions of religious belief cannot be empirically falsified, religious statements are rendered meaningless.

The analogy of games – most commonly associated with Ludwig Wittgenstein – has been proposed as a way of establishing meaning in religious language. The theory asserts that language must be understood in terms of a game: just as each game has its own rules determining what can and cannot be done, so each context of language has its own rules determining what is and is not meaningful. Religion is classified as a possible and legitimate language game which is meaningful within its own context. Various parables have also been proposed to solve the problem of meaning in religious language. R. M. Hare used his parable of a lunatic to introduce the concept of "bliks" – unfalsifiable beliefs according to which a worldview is established – which are not necessarily meaningless. Basil Mitchell used a parable to show that faith can be logical, even if it seems unverifiable. John Hick used his parable of the Celestial City to propose his theory of eschatological verification, the view that if there is an afterlife, then religious statements will be verifiable after death.

Problem of religious language

Religious language is a philosophical problem arising from the difficulties in accurately describing God. Because God is generally conceived as incorporeal, infinite, and timeless, ordinary language cannot always apply to that entity. This makes speaking about or attributing properties to God difficult: a religious believer might simultaneously wish to describe God as good, yet also hold that God's goodness is unique and cannot be articulated by human language of goodness. This raises the problem of how (and whether) God can be meaningfully spoken about at all, which causes problems for religious belief since the ability to describe and talk about God is important in religious life. The French philosopher Simone Weil expressed this problem in her work Waiting for God, in which she outlined her dilemma: she was simultaneously certain of God's love and conscious that she could not adequately describe him.

The medieval doctrine of divine simplicity also poses problems for religious language. This suggests that God has no accidental properties – these are properties that a being can have which do not contribute to its essence. If God has no accidental properties, he cannot be as he is traditionally conceived, because properties such as goodness are accidental. If divine simplicity is accepted, then to describe God as good would entail that goodness and God have the same definition.[1] Such limits can also be problematic to religious believers; for example, the Bible regularly ascribes different emotions to God, ascriptions which would be implausible according to the doctrine of divine simplicity.

The theologian Sallie McFague believes that the more recent problem of religious language is based on individual experience, owing to the increased secularisation of society. She notes that human experience is of this world rather than regular encounters with the divine, which makes the experience of God uncommon and potentially unnecessary. Because of this, she argues, religious language is both idolatrous because it fails to express sufficient awe of God, and irrelevant because without adequate words it becomes meaningless.

Classical understanding of religious language

Via negativa

Jewish philosopher Maimonides believed that God can only be ascribed negative attributes, a view based on two fundamental Jewish beliefs: that the existence of God must be accepted, and that it is forbidden to describe God. Maimonides believed that God is simple and so cannot be ascribed any essential attributes. He therefore argued that statements about God must be taken negatively, for example, "God lives" should be taken as "God does not lack vitality". Maimonides did not believe that God holds all of his attributes perfectly and without impairment; rather, he proposed that God lies outside of any human measures. To say that God is powerful, for example, would mean that God's power is beyond worldly power, and incomparable to any other power. In doing so, Maimonides attempted to illustrate God's indescribable nature and draw attention to the linguistic limits of describing God.


Thomas Aquinas argued that statements about God are analogous to human experience. An analogous term is partly univocal (has only one meaning) and partly equivocal (has more than one potential meaning) because an analogy is in some ways the same and in some ways different from the subject. He proposed that those godly qualities which resemble human qualities are described analogously, with reference to human terms; for example, when God is described as good, it does not mean that God is good in human terms, but that human goodness is used as a reference to describe God's goodness.

Philosopher Taede Smedes argued that religious language is symbolic. Denying any conflict between science and religion, he proposes that 'to believe' means to accept a conviction (that God exists, in the context of Christianity), which is different from 'knowing', which only occurs once something is proven. Thus, according to Smedes, we believe things that we do not know for sure. Smedes argues that, rather than being part of the world, God is so far beyond the world that there can be no common standard to which both God and the world can be compared.[14] He argues that people can still believe in God, even though he cannot be compared to anything in the world, because belief in God is just an alternative way of viewing that world (he likens this to two people viewing a painting differently). Smedes claims that there should be no reason to look for a meaning behind our metaphors and symbols of God because the metaphors are all we have of God. He suggests that we can only talk of God pro nobis (for us) and not in se (as such) or sine nobis (without us). The point, he argues, is not that our concept of God should correspond with reality, but that we can only conceive of God through metaphors.

In the twentieth century, Ian Ramsey developed the theory of analogy, a development later cited in numerous works by Alister McGrath. He argued that various models of God are provided in religious writings that interact with each other: a range of analogies for salvation and the nature of God. Ramsey proposed that the models used modify and qualify each other, defining the limits of other analogies. As a result, no one analogy on its own is sufficient, but the combination of every analogy presented in Scripture gives a full and consistent depiction of God. The use of other analogies may then be used to determine if any one model of God is abused or improperly applied.


Philosopher Paul Tillich argued that religious faith is best expressed through symbolism because a symbol points to a meaning beyond itself and best expresses transcendent religious beliefs. He believed that any statement about God is symbolic and participates in the meaning of a concept. Tillich used the example of a national flag to illustrate his point: a flag points to something beyond itself, the country it represents, but also participates in the meaning of the country. He believed that symbols could unite a religious believer with a deeper dimension of himself as well as with a greater reality. Tillich believed that symbols must emerge from an individual collective unconsciousness, and can only function when they are accepted by the unconscious. He believed that symbols cannot be invented, but live and die at the appropriate times

Louis Dupré differentiates between signs and symbols, proposing that a sign points to something while a symbol represents it. A symbol holds its own meaning: rather than merely pointing someone towards another object, it takes the place of and represents that object. He believes that a symbol has some ambiguity which does not exist with a sign. Dupré believes that a symbol may deserve respect because it contains what is signified within itself. A symbol reveals a reality beyond what is already perceived and transforms the ways the current reality is perceived. Dupré differentiates between religious and aesthetic symbols, suggesting that a religious symbol points towards something which "remains forever beyond our reach". He proposed that a religious symbol does not reveal the nature of what it signifies, but conceals it.

Langdon Brown Gilkey explained religious language and experience in terms of symbolism, identifying three characteristic features of religious symbolism which distinguish it from other language use. Firstly, religious symbolism has a double focus, referring both to something empirical and to something transcendent; Gilkey argued that the empirical manifestation points towards the transcendent being. Secondly, he believed that religious symbolism concerns fundamental questions of life, involving issues important to an individual or community. Finally, he argued that religious symbols provide standards by which life should be lived.

In the Sikh religious text the Guru Granth Sahib, religious language is used symbolically and metaphorically. In the text, Sikh Gurus repeat that the experiences they have while meditating are ineffable, incognizable, incomprehensible, and transensuous – this means that there is no object of their experience that can be conceptualised. To overcome this, the Sikh Gurus used symbolic and metaphorical language, assuming that there is a resemblance between the mystical experience of the divine (the sabad) and those experiencing it. For example, light is used to refer to the spiritual reality.


William Paden argued that religious language uses myth to present truths through stories. He argued that to those who practice a religion, myths are not mere fiction, but provide religious truths. Paden believed that a myth must explain something in the world with reference to a sacred being or force, and dismissed any myths which did not as "folktales". Using the example of creation myths, he differentiated myths from scientific hypotheses, the latter of which can be scientifically verified and do not reveal a greater truth; a myth cannot be analysed in the same way as a scientific theory.

Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann proposed that the Bible contains existential content which is expressed through mythology; Bultmann sought to find the existential truths behind the veil of mythology, a task known as 'demythologising'. Bultmann distinguished between informative language and language with personal import, the latter of which commands obedience. He believed that God interacts with humans as the divine Word, perceiving a linguistic character inherent in God, which seeks to provide humans with self-understanding. Bultmann believed that the cultural embeddedness of the Bible could be overcome by demythologising the Bible, a process which he believed would allow readers to better encounter the word of God.

Christian philosopher John Hick believed that the language of the Bible should be demythologised to be compatible with naturalism. He offered a demythologised Christology, arguing that Jesus was not God incarnate, but a man with incredible experience of divine reality. To Hick, calling Jesus the Son of God was a metaphor used by Jesus' followers to describe their commitment to what Jesus represented. Hick believed that demythologising the incarnation would make sense of the variety of world religions and give them equal validity as ways to encounter God.


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