Religious language: Analogy, Symbol, Myth and Language Games


The problem of religious language.

Religious language is language which is about God or religion. There is a problem for religious language, which is that most theologians agree that God is beyond human understanding. In that case, how can we meaningfully talk about something that we don’t understand? Religious theories of religious language aim at solving this problem.

Aquinas’ theory of Analogy.

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’.

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.

Hick, Bultmann & Myth.

Hick claimed that Jesus was not the son of God in a unique sense and was only a ‘guru’ and moral ‘role model’. Hick was influenced by Bultmann. Bultmann & demythologisation. Bultmann thought that the Bible had become difficult for modern audiences to accept because of how scientifically and historically minded people have become since the enlightenment period. The main issue was that the Bible contains supernatural occurrences, or ‘myths’.

Bultmann observed that two theological approaches developed in response to this problem.

  1. The literalist approach was to believe the myths literally by denying the modern advances in knowledge that contradict them. Bultmann rejected this sort of blind faith as spiritually empty.
  2. The liberal approach ignores the myths and focusing only on the moral teachings found in the Bible. Bultmann rejected this approach because it reduces Christianity to a mere moral philosophy, a set of teachings, rather than an encounter with a way of life.

Bultmann thought there was another approach to the myths in the Bible, which was not to ignore them, nor take them literally, but take them as a record of human spiritual experience which had been put into words fitting ancient culture.

If we could translate the myths into words which would fit modern culture, we might be able to reveal the deeper truths about spiritual experience that they were intended to express. Bultmann called that process ‘demythologizing’, whereby we unearth the deeper meaning the mythic stories were expressing about the early Christian’s encounter with a new spiritual way of life; the early message of Christianity which first spread the faith. This might then give modern audiences a confrontation with the call to a spiritual life committed to Christ.

For example, the resurrection and Easter, when demythologised, is not about the rising of Jesus but the raising the early church due to the raising of faith of the disciples which inspired them to preach. Successful preaching and spreading the message of Jesus causes resurrection to take place within individual people.

Hick, following Bultmann, thought that the Bible contains ‘true myths’ meaning ‘not literally true’ but inspiring us spiritually and morally. Hick claimed the resurrection was a myth not a historical fact because the Gospel accounts of the resurrection couldn’t be taken as historically valid sources for the following reasons:

  • Their discrepancies.
  • Jesus appeared in a locked room with his disciples making the rolling away of the stone covering his tomb confusingly pointless if he could simply have appeared where he wanted at will.
  • Jesus’ disciples and Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize him at first.
  • The gospel writers wrote long after Jesus’ life, so they were not eyewitnesses.

Hick concluded that instead of being viewed as historical record, the resurrection story should be demythologized and viewed as symbolising ‘God’s gift of renewal’ and ‘life transcending death’. This suggests that Jesus did not rise from the dead and was not the son of God in a unique sense.

Jesus’ role in our salvation shows he was divine. Jesus’ sacrifice of his own life to save us from our sins is called the atonement and is something only a divine being could do. A mere human’s death would not have the significance nor power to save us from our sins. Christians believe that Christ’s defeat of death when he was resurrected was an offer of eternal life to all who have faith in him. So, the resurrection story must have been true in order to make sense of the purpose of Jesus’ life in saving us from our sins, which is a prevalent biblical theme.

The moral exemplar theory of the atonement, such as the version proposed by Hick, doesn’t require that Jesus’ death had a literal and direct effect on our sinful state, so his theory of the atonement undercuts the importance of the trinity for salvation. Hick claims that Jesus was just a human and so certainly died, but that the power of his sacrifice was merely as an example of moral life so inspiring that it influences us to be better and thereby saves us from our sins in that sense. So, Jesus didn’t have to be a divine being to save us from our sins.

N. T. Wright’s criticism of Bultmann. Wright claims that the sources we have for history, such as the Gospels, do not merely and simply tell us something about the gospel writers, but that through their writing we can actually learn something about historical events. So, Wright claims Bultmann goes too far when he reduces the meaning of the Gospels to mere expressions of deeper truths about how the writers felt. Wright acknowledges there is some truth to that but claims that the Gospels actually do also tell us something about what happened in the past.

“Of course, in principle, writers who intend to write about other things than themselves will give you quite a lot of themselves en route, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t telling you about things that actually happened. Yes, you have to read them critically, but you have to be a realist as well. So critical realism.”

Critical Realism is the theory that everyone has their own worldview, their own lens through which they perceive the world, which informs, frames and biases their perception. “Realism” refers to the idea that there is a real world that we can perceive and understand, “critical” refers to the idea that we understand the world from our own evaluative perspective.

Subjectivity issue: Aren’t the ‘deep truth’ Myths intend to convey down to interpretation and therefore subjective? How could we ever know we had ascertained the ‘true’ meaning?

Many parts of the bible seem to be literal – e.g saying Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Nor does the bible anywhere say you shouldn’t take it literally. So is there really biblical support for this view?

Bultmann responds that parts of the bible are myth, whereas other parts are literal.

But then how do we know which parts are which?

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.