Religious Language


The problem of religious language

Religious language is language which is about God or religion.

The issue of understanding. There is a problem for religious language, which is that most theologians agree that God is beyond human understanding. God is typically thought to be transcendent, infinite, timeless – these are not quality we can really comprehend or understand. However, we normally think that to meaningfully talk about something requires an understanding of it. Yet, if God is beyond human understanding, then there is a problem for religious language. Religious theories of religious language aim at solving this problem.

Religious language would include sacred texts and religious statements, including everyday statements like ‘God be with you’ or ‘God exists’. If they are about something (God) beyond understanding then this is a challenge to them that they are unintelligible.

The issue of subjective interpretation. Religious language in texts can have multiple seemingly subjective interpretations, so there can be no shared understanding or experiences taken from religious language.

The issue of the requirement of shared experience. If you aren’t religious, or are of a different religion then you’re just not going to understand the religious language. It’s meaning is not universal, it depends on subjective experiences. If to understand language you have to be part of a shared experience (like a congregation) then that suggests that the language is not inclusive nor accessible nor objective. If it’s not objective then that questions whether it’s about reality.

Cognitive vs non-cognitive

When words come out of someone’s mouth, they are coming from, being triggered by or, most accurately said, ‘expressing’ a certain part of their mind. If you say “The table is made of wood”, that is expressing the part of the mind that contains beliefs. Philosophers call such language cognitive.

If you are in pain and say “ouch”, that word is not expressing the part of the mind which contains beliefs. Philosophers call that non-cognitive, to indicate that it is a non-belief. In this case, it would be an expression of a feeling of pain.

The debate is where religious language fits into this distinction. When a religious person says “God is exists”, it looks like they are expressing a cognitive belief, but some philosophers argue that it is really more of a non-cognitive feeling/attitude.

When a religious person uses religious language and says ‘God exists’, do they believe that God exists, or feel that God exists?


Logical Positivism is a philosophical movement aimed at rejecting non-empirical language as meaningless. Philosophers like Comte and Mill, impressed at the power of science, wanted to universally extend the use of the scientific method, thinking scientific knowledge the only factual knowledge. Comte coined the term positivism to describe the scientific method of reliance on objective empirical data used to make empirical generalisations with predictive power. This was developed to focus on language by Russell and early Wittgenstein. ‘Logical’ emphasises Russell’s influence of focusing on the logical form and use of language.

Verificationism was invented by the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers, the most famous of which was A. J. Ayer. They believed that metaphysical claims (a priori reasoning about reality beyond empirical investigation), including religious language, is meaningless.

Ayer argued that the classic debates between empiricists and rationalists “are as unwarranted as they are unfruitful”. The empiricists claim that knowledge must be derived a posteriori from sense experience. However, rationalists/metaphysicians often claim that their premises are not based on their senses but derived from an a priori faculty of intellectual intuition which enables them to know about reality beyond sense experience.

Ayer claims that it is impossible for an empiricist to prove that a priori reason/thought cannot know things beyond a posteriori reason, because empirical thought cannot tell us about anything beyond empirical thought, including whether or not there anything beyond it. In other words, the problem with denying metaphysics is that it requires a metaphysical claim to do so.

So, Ayer concludes that the elimination of metaphysics should not be based on empirical claims, but on logic. It cannot be attacked by factually criticising its method of a priori intuition. Ayer claims instead he can eliminate metaphysics not by suggesting a factual limit to empirical thought but by accusing the metaphysician of disobeying the rules governing the significant (meaningful) use of language. So, Ayer thinks he can avoid the question of whether there really is in fact a faculty of intuition by claiming that metaphysical language is meaningless.

The verification principle is how Ayer did this. It states: “A sentence if factually significant (meaningful) if, and only if, we know how to verify the proposition it purports to express – that is, if we know what observations would lead us to accept the proposition as true or reject it as false.” If a claim cannot be verified by sense experience, then it is not factually significant and only has a non-cognitive emotional significance. This allows Ayer to avoid having to make the metaphysical claim that metaphysics is impossible. Instead, he can say that metaphysical utterances are meaningless because they cannot be verified in sense experience.

The idea is that words get their meaning by connecting to things in our shared experience, or by being true by definition. If a word connects to the world, that connection should be verifiable. 

For Ayer, language can only be meaningful if it is cognitive and either analytic or verifiable.

‘God’ is a metaphysical term according to Ayer, which means it is about something beyond the empirical world, so there can be no way to empirically verify it.

Overly restrictive: Ayer’s theory was criticised for being overly restrictive of meaning. Wouldn’t History be considered meaningless because it can’t be empirically verified?

Ayer’s response was to come up with weak verification. We can weakly verify anything for which there is some evidence which provides probability for it being the case. E.g. Historical documents and archaeological findings can be verified, and on the basis of those we can weakly verify that there were certain civilisations in the past with certain histories to them.

Arguably Ayer has opened the door to religious belief here, however. For example, the teleological argument attempts to infer God’s existence from experience of the world.

Ayer initially argued for weak verification, but later decided it ‘allows meaning to any indicative statement’. So, he developed:

          • Direct verification – a statement that is verifiable by observation. E.g. ‘I see a key’ is directly verifiable and so has factual meaning.
          • Indirect verification – when things we have directly verified support a statement which we haven’t directly verified but know how to verify, we can be said to have indirect verification for it. E.g. ‘This key is made of iron’.

This seem to rule out the possibility of verifying God since we don’t know how to verify God.

Eschatological verification. Hick argued that there is a way to verify God and religious language, because when we die, we’ll see God and then we’ll know. Parable of the celestial city.

However, we can’t be sure that there really is a celestial city at the end of the road – that there is an afterlife where we can experience and verify God. It’s only a possibility. So arguably Hick only shows that religious language is ‘possibly’ verifiable, he hasn’t shown that it is verifiable in principle.

The verification principle cannot be verified.

It states that to be meaningful a statement must be analytic or empirically verifiable. However, that means that in order for the verification principle itself to be meaningful, it must be analytic or empirically verifiable. If we try to take the verification principle empirically then it would be an empirical claim that if we investigate what kind of meaning people use then we will see that it is either analytic or empirical. But that appears to be false since empirical evidence shows that people have meant something else by meaning throughout history e.g. Plato found it meaningful to talk of the world of forms and theologians find it meaningful to talk of God, both of which involve unempirical metaphysical terms.

Ayer responds by admitting that the verification principle cannot be a factual statement about the meaning of factual statements and claims instead that it is a methodological stipulation, a tool which the logical positivist adopts for methodological purposes. It is a tool which enables us to figure out whether a statement has empirical meaning.

The tools of empiricism do not disprove rationalism: this appears to reduce the verification principle into a tool one might use if you already agree with empiricism. A priori metaphysical statements are now only meaningless to this particular empirical tool, rather than categorically meaningless. In that case, Ayer has not shown that the non-empirical approach leads to meaningless metaphysical statements, only that they are meaningless from the perspective of the tools of empiricism. This no longer shows that we have to accept empiricism to avoid saying meaningless things, only that if we accept empiricism, we will find the results of a non-empirical approach meaningless.


Karl Popper thought he could capture empiricism better than verificationism could. Popper was impressed with Einstein who claimed Mercury would wobble in its orbit at a certain time in the future because if that prediction was wrong, Einstein’s theory would be falsified. Popper was less impressed with Marxists and Freudians because they only looked for verifications of their views without ever admitting a way they could be falsified. True empiricism operates by falsification, not verification, Popper concluded. Furthermore, Popper thought verficationism couldn’t capture empirical generalisations, which he illustrated with the claim ‘all swans are white’. To verify that would require knowing that at no point in time nor at any place in the universe did a non-white swan ever exist. However, the claim is falsifiable because we can say what would prove it wrong; seeing a non-white swan.

The key idea is that scientific knowledge is only ever our current best explanation of the available evidence; all scientific knowledge could be false, it never attains absolute certainty. In general, all our beliefs about reality could be wrong. You might think it is certain that the Sun exists, for example, but you could be in the matrix, dreaming, or in an alien reality TV show. You can’t know anything about reality for certain. Empiricists tend to accept this.

The important consequence of this is that all our beliefs about reality could be wrong. Therefore, if there is a belief that is unfalsifiable – that we can’t imagine how it could be wrong – then it cannot be about reality. This means that we can test whether a belief is about reality by asking whether we can imagine how it could be false.

It’s important to see that falsifiable doesn’t mean false. Consider Popper’s example of Einstein again. When Einstein made his theory, he predicted Mercury would wobble in its orbit. It was easy to imagine what evidence, were we to discover it, would prove Einstein’s theory wrong: if we observed Mercury and it didn’t wobble at the time predicted. Just because we can imagine what evidence, were we to discover it, would make a belief false – doesn’t mean the belief is false. It would only be false if we actually discovered that evidence.

Anthony Flew applied this to religious language. He claimed that because religious people can’t say what logically possible state of affairs is incompatible with their claim that God exists (in other words, because they can’t say what would prove them wrong), they are not actually asserting anything about the way things are (since there is no entailed claim about the way things are not).

Flew concludes that religious language is meaningless. Religious language fails to assert anything about reality. Cognitive meaning requires expression of belief, but a belief is a mental representation of reality. In order for a belief to be about reality, for Flew it must be falsifiable. So, even though religious language expresses beliefs, since they are unfalsifiable beliefs religious language fails to have cognitive meaning.

The parable of the gardener

Flew illustrated his approach using belief in a gardener as an analogy for belief in God. Two people are walking and see a garden. One claims there is a gardener who tends to it, so the other suggest waiting and seeing if that is true. After a while, the other says ‘actually, they are an invisible gardener’, so they set up barbed wire fences and so on to try and detect this invisible gardener, at which point they then say ‘actually, it’s a non-physical gardener’.

At this point the other person gets annoyed an asks what is for Flew the crucial question: “But what remains of your original assertion”. The religious person claims to believe in a God, but in order to protect that belief from empirical testing they continually add qualifications to the belief, saying it’s ‘not this’ and ‘not that’, etc. Well eventually, it’s going to be nothing, is Flew’s point, causing the concept of God to ‘die a death of a thousand qualifications’.

Flew ends with the question – what is the difference between a world in which this gardener (God) exists, and a world in which it doesn’t exist. If belief in God is consistent with any possible discovery about reality, then its existence surely can make no difference to reality. It cannot be about reality. Flew claims Religious language therefore ‘fails to assert’ anything. It is unfalsifiable and so meaningless.

The falsification principle cannot be falsified and is therefore meaningless.

Popper responded to this criticism by claiming that falsificationism was not a criterion of meaning, just a method of distinguishing the empirical from the non-empirical.

Since Flew used falsificationism as a criterion of meaning, however, it seems he makes falsificationism vulnerable to the same criticism verificationism had.

St Paul claimed that if Jesus’ body were discovered then belief and faith in Christianity would be pointless. This suggests Flew is incorrect to think religious language is always unfalsifiable as there are at least some believers whose belief is incompatible with some logically possible state of affairs. That would show that Paul’s religious language would pass Flew’s test of falsification and so would be meaningful.

The parable of the gardener suggests, however, that if we did discover Jesus’ body, Christians including St Paul might make some excuse as to why it’s actually not a valid test after all. For example, Christians might be tempted to think that the body is a fake put there by the devil. Tempting though that is, it underlines Flew’s point that there really is no way to falsify belief in God.


Basil Mitchell argued against flew’s conclusions with the parable of the partisan. Mitchell is not happy with Flew’s characterisation of religious belief as irrationally blind to any evidence which goes against it. Mitchell argued that rather than need to say what would prove them wrong, religious belief can be said to be connected to empirical reality if it allows empirical evidence to count against it, like the problem of evil. Mitchell imagines the example of a soldier fighting for the resistance against the government in a civil war. One day someone comes to them and claims to be the leader of the resistance, on their side, but a double agent pretending to be on the other side. The soldier decides to have faith in this person, even when they see them fighting for the government. This is analogous to faith in God, despite the counter evidence of the problem of evil. Mitchell’s point is that religious people do allow empirical evidence to count against their belief, they simply judge overall to retain faith. Their belief is connected to empirical reality as a consequence however, and can therefore be said to be cognitively meaningful according to Mitchell.

Arguably Mitchell’s criteria for falsifiability are insufficient. Merely allowing evidence to count against your belief doesn’t make it falsifiable. Only being able to say what would prove it wrong, not merely count against it, makes something falsifiable. Explaining what evidence runs against your belief is not sufficient to explain what evidence could disprove your belief.


R. M. Hare disagreed with veriticationism and falsificationism and instead argued for non-cognitivism. Hare argued that religious language doesn’t get its meaning from attempting to describe the world, but from expressing ‘attitudes’ – which he called a Blick. The expression of attitudes is not an attempt to describe the world, therefore they cannot be true or false. Hare illustrated this with the example of a paranoid student who thought his professors were trying to kill him. Even when shown the evidence that they were not trying to kill him, by meeting them and seeing they were nice people, the student did not change their mind. Hare argued this shows that what we say about the world is really an expression of our Blick rather than an attempt to describe the world. If it were an attempt to describe the world, the meaning could be changed by that description being shown to be false. Because the meaning in the students mind was not changed by contrary evidence, Hare concluded that meaning must be connected to a non-cognitive attitude or Blick. Hare concluded that since Bliks affect our beliefs and behaviour, they are meaningful.

Blicks might look like beliefs about the world, but ultimately they are rooted in attitudes brought to the world and thus we should understand their true meaning to be as an expression of non-cognitive attitude.

Criticism: Although Hare saves religious language from being disregarded as a meaningless failed attempt to describe the world, nonetheless he only does so by sacrificing the ability of the meaning of religious language to have any factual content. So when a religious person says ‘God exists,’ for Hare they are really expressing their attitude rather than actually claiming that there objectively exists a God. Many religious people would claim however, that they really do mean that ‘there objectively exists a God’, irrespective of their attitude. Aquinas wrote many long books attempting to prove the seemingly cognitive belief in God true. So arguably Hare fails to capture the true meaning of religious language

Defence: Hare could respond that although many religious people may indeed feel like they are making factual claims about reality, their conception of reality is really just an aspect of their Blick. Saying God exists therefore really serves to add psychological force and grandeur to what is actually just their attitude.

Language Games

Wittgenstein advanced two theories of meaning in his life. The first was quite similar to verificationism however his second theory – language games – completely contradicted it.

The first theory is called the picture theory of meaning where Wittgenstein argued that words get their meaning by connecting to the world. More specifically, the logic of our language somehow connects to the logic of reality. Our words ‘picture’ reality by connecting to its logic.

Wittgenstein later in his life repudiated the idea that words got their meaning by connecting to the world and instead argued they got their meaning by connecting to social reality. A language game exists when multiple people communicate. Wittgenstein called it a ‘game’ because he argued that language games consisted of rules. In each social situation the people participating in it act in a certain way because they have internalised and are following a certain set of rules which govern behaviour including speech. Therefore, the meaning of their speech will be connected to those rules i.e to the social situation. There can be as many different language games as there can be different types of social interaction, I.e potentially unlimited. Nonetheless, they will all be differentiated by the set of rules which constitute them. The meaning of a word is not found by looking for what it refers to but by seeing how it is used.

Religious people play the religious language game. Scientists play the scientific language game. For Wittgenstein, to uproot a word from the religious language game and try to analyse it within the context of the scientific language game is to misunderstand how meaning works. Words get their meaning from the language game in which they are spoken. So it’s no surprise to Wittgenstein that Ayer finds religious language meaningless, since Ayer is not religious and therefore isn’t a participant in the religious language game as he doesn’t know the rules of it.

When Wittgenstein remarks that we have to ‘know’ the rules of a game to play it, he doesn’t necessarily mean consciously. For perhaps most of human social interaction we are following rules that we have unconsciously internalised. For that reason it can be very hard to say exactly what the rules of the religious language game are, as opposed to the scientific language game which is more cognitively formalised.

Wittgenstein argued that the scientific language game can be about reality, since it is about evidence, experience and reason, whereas the religious language game is about faith and social communities, conventions & emotions.

Language games leads to theological anti-realism. Wittgenstein fails to capture religious meaning. If Wittgenstein is right, it means that when a religious person says ‘God exists’ they aren’t actually claiming that in a scientific sense that there objectively exists a God. Really, they are just speaking in a certain way based on how they have learned to speak by internalising a set of behavioural rules developed in a culture over centuries. However, most religious people would object that they really do mean that there objectively exists a God. This point is most salient when considering the works of Aquinas who attempted to argue for the existence of God. Aquinas believes the proposition ‘God’s goodness is analogous to ours’ to be cognitively and objectively true. He doesn’t think he’s just following a social convention in saying so.

Defence of Wittgenstein: It’s true that religious people claim to be describing reality when they say God exists, however perhaps their word ‘reality’ is informed by their religious language game and is different to the word ‘reality’ as used in the scientific language game. So when religious people like Aquinas say ‘God exists in reality’, the word ‘reality’ is actually not referring to the scientific conception of reality.

Scientific and religious meaning can be linked. Arguably the scientific and religious language games can in fact be fused together. Polkinghorne believed you could argue for God’s existence through science through the anthropic fine-tuning argument, for example. 

Defence of Wittgenstein: However, we could respond on behalf of Wittgenstein that this particular fusion of religion and science is really itself a unique language game, dissimilar to either the religious or scientific games. Alternatively, Polkinghorne could be argued to not be playing the scientific language game since most scientists reject his ideas.

Aquinas’ theory of Analogy.

Aquinas agreed with the Via Negativa to an extent since he thought humans were fundamentally unable to know God in his essential nature. However he thought we could go a bit further than only talking about God negatively – he argued we can talk about God meaningfully in positive terms by analogy. An analogy is an attempt to explain the meaning of something which is difficult to understand by using a comparison with something familiar and easier to understand. Aquinas rejected univocal and equivocal language when talking about God.

Univocal: statements that mean the same thing for God and humans (e.g. God’s love and my love – love means the same thing)
Equivocal: statement that mean different for God and humans (e.g. God is wise and I am wise)

We cannot interpret God univocally because we are anthropomorphising him, how could words describing us apply to a transcendent infinite being? We cannot interpret God equivocally because it leaves us unable to understand what our words mean when applied to God since we don’t know God. That would leave religious language meaningless

So, it’s wrong to say we are completely the same as God, but it’s also wrong to say we’re completely different. The middle ground Aquinas finds is to say we are ‘like’ God – Analogous to God.

Aquinas thought through analogy (explaining something complex by comparing it to something simple/brain and computers), we can talk about God meaningfully. Religious language attempts to describe the attributes or qualities of God. Aquinas believed there were 3 types of analogy that could allow religious language to be meaningful.

Analogy of Attribution. We can attribute qualities to the creator of a thing that are analogous to those of its creation. Aquinas used the example of seeing that the urine of a Bull is healthy, from which we can conclude that the Bull is has an analogous quality of health, even if we can’t see the Bull. Similarly, we humans have qualities like power, love and knowledge, so we can conclude that our creator (God) also has qualities of power, love and knowledge that are analogous to ours. We cannot say what these qualities of God actually are but we can know and therefore meaningfully say this minimal statement; that they are ‘like’ – analogous – to ours.

Analogy of Proportion. A being has a quality in a degree relative to its being. Consider this example: A virus has life, plants have life, humans have life, God has life. This illustrates that different being have a quality like life to different degrees of proportion depending on their being. God is the greatest being and thus has qualities to a greater degree of proportion than humans. Thus we can now add to our statement that God has qualities analogous to ours that he has them in greater proportion. So God’s love/knowledge/power is like ours but proportionally greater.

Proper Proportion:

  1. Humans possess the same qualities like those of God (goodness/wisdom/love)
  2. Because we were created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26)
  3. But, because we are inferior, we possess the qualities in lesser proportion

Verificationists can criticize analogy as unverifiable.

Aquinas’ Natural Theology

Aquinas believed that human reason could never know or understand God. However, Aquinas is a proponent of natural theology through reason which he claimed could support faith in God. Human reason can gain knowledge of:

  • God’s existence: through the teleological (design) and cosmological arguments.
  • God’s moral law through natural law theory.
  • God’s nature by analogy, through the analogies of attribution and proportion.

Karl Barth argued that Aquinas’ natural law theory was a false natural theology which placed a dangerous overreliance on human reason. Barth argued that if humans were able to know God or God’s morality through their own efforts, then revelation would be unnecessary. Yet, God clearly thought revelation necessary as he sent Jesus.

Barth also argued that “the finite has no capacity for the infinite”; our finite minds cannot grasp God’s infinite being. Whatever humans discover through reason is therefore not divine so to think it is must then amount to idolatry – the worship of earthly things. Barth argued idolatry can lead to worship of nations and then even to movements like the Nazis. It follows for Barth that after the corruption of the fall, human reason cannot reach God or figure out right and wrong by itself. Only faith in God’s revelation in the bible is valid.

In defence of Aquinas, he is not suggesting that our finite minds can understand God’s infinite nature. Aquinas is only suggesting that reason can understand the analogies of attribution and proportion. If reason only has this goal of supporting faith in such ways, then it cannot make revealed theology unnecessary.

The accuracy problem: the analogy that ‘electricity behaves like water’ works because we can determine the shared qualities (flow, current and power), and the differences (danger, state of matter). But we can only know this by comparing knowledge of both things. When we make analogies to God, we cannot know how accurate we are.

However, Aquinas thinks the accuracy of analogy between us and God is justified by the analogy of attribution, however, which claims that we can attribute qualities to a creator that are analogous to the qualities of its creation even if all we know of is the creation.

Arguably Aquinas makes an assumption in his claim to know which attribute of ours (e.g. goodness, wisdom or power) are the ones that are analogous to God’s attributes. The bull and urine is an example which supports Aquinas because both urine and a bull can be healthy and indeed the health of the urine justifies attributing health to the bull. However, our creation by God might not be of the sort where attributes in the creator are bestowed to its creation, e.g. a potter is conscious but creates unconscious pots.

There is still the justification from the Bible which says we were created in God’s ‘likeness’, however. So although the philosophical arguments for analogy might fail, there could still be a basis for it in faith in the Bible.

Tillich’s theory of symbolic language

Paul Tillich thought that religious language could be meaningful by being symbolic and that most religious language was symbolic. Consider what happens when a Christian looks at a crucifix. It means something to them. A crucifix is not a word, but it still inspires meaning in the mind of a person who sees it. Tillich thinks religious language functions like that. When a person hears religious language, e.g. “God be with you”, the effect on their mind is just like the effect of seeing a crucifix. The meaning they feel is a result of the words functioning symbolically.

Tillich’s theory on how symbolic meaning works.

Tillich makes a clear distinction between: words as signs v words as symbols. What is the difference from a sign saying Fiji, and the Flag? A sign attaches a label, but the symbol participates in it what it points to (e.g. the cross is a powerful symbol because it represents Christianity and points to the death of Jesus). There are four things that symbols do which make give them symbolic meaning, for Tillich, which is called theory of participation.

  1. Pointing to something beyond itself. The crucifix ‘points’ to Christianity, religious language ‘points’ to religion or God.
  2. Participation: symbolic language participates in what it points to. The crucifix is part of Christianity, it doesn’t just point to it.
  3. Reality: To be symbolic has to reveal a deeper meaning, they open up spiritual levels of reality that are otherwise closed to us.
  4. Soul: Symbols open up the levels of dimensions of the soul that correspond to those levels of reality.

Tillich thought that the language of faith was symbolic language. He thought symbolic language was like a poetry or a piece of art – it can offer a new view of life or a new meaning to life, but is hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it, or not heard the poetry or seen the piece of art. Tillich thought that religious language is a symbolic way of pointing towards the ultimate reality The vision of God which he called the ‘ground of being’.

So, Tillich has a very different approach to the Via Negativa and Aquinas. He side-steps the issue of human inability to understand God and the resulting problem for our meaningfully talking about God by suggesting that religious language is symbolic which points to God, participates in God, opens up spiritual levels of reality which connect to dimensions of our soul. Essentially religious language functions as a kind of religious experience which connects human minds to God without their needing to fully understand God. Religious language is meaningful insofar as it participates in the being of God.

Aquinas argued that religious language functions analogically, which means he would not accept that it functions symbolically. If Aquinas is correct then Tillich must be wrong.

Verificationism/Falsificationism would argue that symbolic language is meaningless.

William Alston argues that, for symbolic language, “there is no point trying to determine whether the statement is true or false. For Alston, an objective factual content is required for religious language because religion is concerned with objective factual things such as our salvation and whether we will go to heaven or hell. In that case, religious language cannot merely be symbolic.

Tillich’s theory arguably does successfully capture what is arguably the feature of religious meaning which is most important to religious believers – spiritual experience. When a Christian looks at a crucifix or prays, there are deep spiritual feelings and experiences which can be the most significant and meaningful thing to them. Tillich’s theory is successful then in understanding that religious language is usually about that sort of meaning, rather than simply reporting cold hard facts.

Tillich vs subjectivity. Tillich doesn’t think his theory makes religious language completely subjective. He says:

“The term ‘ultimate concern’ united the subjective and the objective side of the act of faith.”

“In terms like ultimate, unconditional, infinite, absolute, the difference between subjectivity and objectivity is overcome. The ultimate of the act of faith and the ultimate that is meant in the act of faith are one and the same.”

However, this attempt to argue that symbols have more than merely subjective meaning makes Tillich vulnerable to criticisms which focus on the difficulty of a symbol being more than merely subjective. For example, how could Tillich possibly know that symbols have a meaning beyond our subjectivity? Couldn’t his experience of the ‘ultimate’ and ‘unconditioned’ just be part of his subjective mind, rather than something which somehow goes beyond the subjective/objective distinction, as he tries to argue it does? Spiritual experiences where a person loses their sense of subjective self are possible, but they are still just happening inside subjective experience. Tillich’s theory can be criticised like religious experiences – as purely subjective.

Additionally, symbols only mean something to someone educated and raised in a certain historical and cultural context, which is also suggestive of their subjectivity

Finally, Symbolic language is changeable and prone to mistakes, stale through overuse, lost meanings over time. Tillich tries to counter this, arguing we can rediscover the questions Christian symbols are an answer to, that are understandable in our time, but that is still arguably subjective.

Randall has his own theory of symbolic language. Whereas Tillich seems to think that symbols have at least some non-subjective features whereby they connect our souls to the spiritual levels of reality, the ‘ultimate’ and God, Randall views symbols as completely non-cognitive and thus completely subjective. Tillich is stuck with the perhaps impossible difficulty of explaining how he could possibly know that symbolic language has the spiritual power he thinks it does. Arguably by accepting that symbols are completely subjective and don’t have some mysterious power extending beyond our subjective minds, Randall’s theory is more successful while still retaining the strengths of Tillich’s, that it accurately captures most religious meaning in the lives and experiences of Christians.

Randall makes an analogy between the power of music, art and poetry to affect us, arguing that religious language functions similarly.

For Randall, symbols should not be understood as symbolising some external thing, they should be understood by what they do; by their “function”. Randall argues that symbols do four things:

      1. Arouse emotions and motivate action
      2. Stimulate cooperative action, bind community together
      3. Communicate aspects of experience that cannot be expressed with literal language.
      4. Evoke, foster and clarify human experience of the divine.

Non-cognitivism is non-traditional. However, Randall is then left with the issue that non-cognitive religious language cannot express factual objective true statements. Randall doesn’t think that is an issue because he thinks religion is about human experience since he, like Tillich, is influenced by existentialism. Traditional theologians would not accept that fundamental starting point however, they would argue that religion actually is about much more than human experience, it is about reality and therefore religious language must be cognitive.

Non-traditional doesn’t mean wrong! Randall and Tillich are part of a protestant movement in theology which was influenced by Schleiermacher to think that religion is primarily about human experience, whereas doctrines, dogmas and beliefs are secondary in importance. Tillich thinks religious meaning is not purely subjective, whereas Randall thinks it is.

Conclude that it is therefore the religious meaning in human experience that is most important for a theory of religious language to capture.

Via Negativa

(Apophatic way). Pseudo-Dionysus argued that God is ‘beyond every assertion’, beyond language. He therefore cannot be described is positive terms i.e by saying what he ‘is’. God can only be described negatively or ‘via negativa’ – by saying what God is ‘not’.

By negation, Dionysus does not mean privation. By saying that God is not ‘living’ it doesn’t mean merely the absence of life, i.e. ‘lifeless’, it means that God is beyond the living/lifeless distinction.

Pseudo-Dionysus claims that God:

“is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech or understanding … it cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, quality or inequlity, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immoveable, moving or at rest. It does not live, nor is it life. It is not substance, nor is it eternity or time .. there is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth – it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial.”

“as we plunge into darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing. The more we climb, the more language falters, and when we have moved to the top of our ascent, language will turn silent completely, since we will be near to One which is indescribable”

The Bible describes God in positive terms. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:5). God himself describes himself in positive terms.

Pseudo-Dionysus would respond that the Bible is limited by being written in human language.

Maimodenies responds that the Bible was written in limited human language and thus requires careful interpretation. He argues we should interpret such passages as referring to God’s actions rather than his nature. For example, when the Bible describes God as jealous or refers to him having an “eye”, this simply refers to God’s jealous actions or actions that involve intellectual understanding.

Maimodenies also argued for the via negative because humans cannot know God in his essential nature and therefore cannot speak about what God is. Maimodenies used the illustration of a ship. By describing what a ship is not, we get closer to describing what a ship is. 

The ship analogy fails: Arguably we only get closer to describing what a ship is because we already know what it is. If we describe everything a ship is not, this leaves a ship shaped hole in our description. However describing everything that God is not does not leave a God shaped hole in our description. So we don’t get closer to describing what God is by saying what he is not.

However: If we say that God is not human or physical or earthly then we do at least avoid anthropomorphasising God which gets us closer to describing God than if we were left with our confused via positiva view.

Pseudo-Dionysys: Knowing God by knowing nothing. Pseudo-Dionysys argues that we may not get closer to understanding what God is through the via negative – that is impossible – however we can get closer to God in another important sense. Pseudo-Dionysus claims that knowledge of God can result from fully engaging with the Via Negativa approach. You can only know God when you fully realise that God is beyond your ability to know and you stop trying. He illustrates this with the example of Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments from God. He describes Moses as plunging into the ‘darkness of unknowing’, ‘renouncing all that the mind may conceive’.

This means realising the inadequacy of our ability to understand God and breaking free of the attempt to do so. The result is breaking free of your normal self and its vain grasping for knowledge, such that you are not yourself but nor are you someone else. This causes an ‘inactivity of all knowledge’ which leads one to be “supremely united to the completely unknown”. By this, one “knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing”. This is not knowledge in the sense of the mind grasping God; that is impossible. It is knowledge gained through unity with God by a mind which has renounced its attempt to grasp what God is.

It’s like knowing God personally rather than knowing facts about God. Exactly what Pseudo-Dionysus means by the unity is a matter of debate.