Religious language: Negative, Analogical or Symbolic


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The problem of religious language

Religious language is language which is about God or religion. It includes sacred texts and religious statements, including everyday statements like ‘God be with you’ or ‘God exists’.

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.

Via Negativa, Analogy and Symbol are three theories from religious philosophers who are, in very different ways, trying to solve this problem.

Via Negativa

Pseudo-Dionyisus argued that since God is completely beyond our understanding, it means we cannot possibly talk about what God is. This approach is also called the apophatic way.

Positive language means talking about what something is. Negative language means talking about what something is not

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, Dionysius does not mean privation. On the Via Negativa view, saying ‘God is not living’ is not the same as saying ‘God is lifeless’. It means that God is beyond the living/lifeless distinction.

By saying ‘God is not darkness’ we aren’t saying ‘God is light’. We are saying that God is beyond the light/darkness distinction.

If God is beyond all language, then God is beyond all distinctions we can make. It’s like saying God does not exist on any spectrum of meaning that we can possibly imagine.

“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.” – Pseudo-Dionysius.

Knowing God by knowing nothing. Pseudo-Dionysius 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-Dionysius 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’.

“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” – Pseudo-Dionysius

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-Dionysius means by the unity is a matter of debate. He clearly at least thinks that following the Via Negativa method and giving up on trying to understand what God is actually helps you become closer to God in some way.

Via Negativa & the Bible

Strength: The Via Negativa approach avoids anthropomorphising God by ensuring that we do not apply any concept we humans can understand to God.

Counter-Weakness: The Bible describes God in positive terms. “God is love” and “God is spirit”. God even himself describes himself in positive terms: ”I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:5). The Bible therefore seems to suggest that via posititiva language about God is valid. The Via Negativa approach seems to go against the Bible.

Evaluation: 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.

Counter-evaluation: However, while this response is logical it’s not very plausible because the Bible gives no indication or reason to think that it should be interpreted in this way.

Whether the Via Negativa is pessimistic

Strength: The Via Negativa approach fully accepts and deals with the consequences of God being beyond our understanding. It requires that we be humble and accept the impossibility of human language ever capturing anything about God.

Counter-Weakness: Pessimistic. Some might argue that the Via Negativa approach is pessimistic because all it leaves humanity with is a sense of our utter inability to understand or say anything about God. This helps with our appreciation of God’s radical otherness, but it does not capture the close relationship that defines much of Christian life.

Evaluation: However, this weakness is unsuccessful because Pseudo-Dionysius explains that ‘unity’ with God can be gained once we give up on attempting to understand God through reason. The spirituality involved in a relationship with God is not only captured but strengthened once we give up on our false and spiritually distracting rational conception of God.

Pseudo-Dinonysius & the vagueness of ‘unity’

Strength: Pseudo-Dionysius realises that the human attempt to intellectually grasp God is not only pointless but actually gets in the way of genuine spirituality, i.e., ‘unity’ with God. His Via Negativa approach helps us to cease trying to say what God is.

Counter-Weakness: Pseudo-Dionysius’ claim that his approach can bring ‘unity’ with God is quite vague and is the subject of much debate amongst theologians as to what he means. It sounds like some kind of religious experience. This opens up the criticism that this ‘unity’ he claims the Via Negativa can result in is actually just completely subjective.

Evaluation: The idea that ultimate experience of the divine involves ‘unity’ with the divine is found in all different cultures, religions and theologians, however. For example, William James and Theresa of Avila also agree that religious experience is defined through unity with the divine. Arguably it’s not such a purely subjective claim since it is so universal.

The Via Negativa & everyday Christian meaning

Strength: In the popular imagination, amongst average Christians, God appears to sometimes be thought of as some type of imaginable super-being. The Via Negativa approach prevents this mistake, helping Christians realise that God is beyond anything they can imagine.

Counter-Weakness:Talking about God Via Negativa is not really how most religious believers want or intend to talk about God, however. Aquinas claims of negative language that it is “not what people want to say when they talk about God.”

Evaluation: What people want to say about God is irrelevant unless a better way can be found. Only if Aquinas’ theory of analogy (or some other theory?) works will this weakness be valid.

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 (cataphatic way) if we speak analogically. 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 first explains why standard cataphatic approaches fail.

Univocal: words have one meaning. E.g. when I say God is loving, the word ‘loving’ means the same as when I say humans are loving.

This fails because God is beyond our understanding. We can’t apply the same word to God as we do for humans because God is a transcendent being. We can understand the word when applied to humans, but we can’t understand God, so can’t use the same word for God.

Equivocal: words have different meanings. E.g. when I say God is loving, the word ‘loving’ has a different meaning to when I say humans are loving.

This fails because since we can’t understand God, we simply wouldn’t know what the word loving means when applied to God, so it would be meaningless to us.

Aquinas thinks he can find a cataphatic way which is a successful middle ground between these approaches to show how we can meaningfully talk about God.

We are not the same as God – that’s why univocal language fails. However, nor are we totally different to God. As Genesis says, we are created in God’s image and likeness. We are not the same as God, nor are we totally different to God. The middle ground is that we are like God. We are analogous to God.

So, religious language such as “God is love” can be understood analogically, as claiming that God has a quality of love that is like/analogous to the human quality of life.

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 (and therefore meaningfully say) 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 (and therefore meaningfully say) that our creator also has qualities of power, love and knowledge that are analogous to our own. 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 – our own.

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.

The issue of bad qualities

Strength: Aquinas manages to find a way that we can meaningfully speak about God Via Positiva without contradicting the key Christian doctrine that God is beyond our understanding. Analogical language manages to respect God’s transcendence and avoid anthropomorphic language.

Counter-Weakness: If God has qualities that our like/analogous to ours, what about bad qualities? The logic of the analogy of attribution seems to suggest that God would also have qualities like greed, selfishness and hatred, since those are human qualities too.

Evaluation: This weakness is unsuccessful because bad human qualities clearly come from original sin. When Genesis said we were made in God’s likeness, it was referring to Adam and Eve in their pre-lapsarian state, before original sin had corrupted human nature and caused bad human qualities. The analogy between Gods qualities and human qualities only refer to the qualities we had when first created in God’s likeness, not those we acquired after.

Analogy & Aquinas’ Natural theology

Strength: Aquinas’ theory of analogy is based on his natural theology which makes use of human reason to gain knowledge about God. Aquinas accepted that human reason could never know or understand God’s infinite divine nature. However, he argued that human reason can gain lesser knowledge of God, including God’s nature by analogy, through the analogies of attribution and proportion. This Aquinas a proponent of natural theology through reason, which he claimed could support faith in God.

Reason is involved in Aquinas’ theory of analogy, in figuring out and understanding the analogies of attribution and proportion. On the basis of that reasoning Aquinas concludes that we can meaningfully talk about God’s qualities by analogy.

Counter-Weakness: Augustine & Karl Barth on Original Sin vs Aquinas’ Natural Theology. Karl Barth was influenced by Augustine, who claimed that after the Fall our ability to reason become corrupted by original sin. This is a problem for natural theology which wants to make use of reason.

Barth’s argument is that is therefore dangerous to rely on human reason to know anything of God. He said “the finite has no capacity for the infinite”, meaning our finite minds cannot grasp God’s infinite being. Whatever humans discover through reason is not divine, so to think it is divine is idolatry – putting earthly things on the level of God. Idolatry can lead to worship of nations and even to movements like the Nazis. After the corruption of the fall, human reason cannot reach God. Only faith in God’s revelation in the bible works.

Barth is responding that reason is corrupted by original sin and therefore Aquinas’ natural theology is dangerous for relying on it.

Evaluation: Aquinas defends his natural theology from original sin. Aquinas claims that pre-fall human nature contained three ‘goods’:

  1. the properties of a human soul, e.g. rationality.
  2. An inclination towards the good (telos) as a result of being rational.
  3. Original justice/righteousness; perfect rational control over the soul.

Original sin completely destroyed original justice, which caused us to lose perfect rational control over our desires. Nonetheless, Aquinas argues that our rationality and its accompanying inclination towards the good was not destroyed by original sin.

Aquinas argues that only rational beings can sin. It makes no sense to say animals sin, for example. The doctrine of original sin claims that post-lapsarian humans are sinners, so, we can sin. It follows that we must still be rational beings to some degree. Our reason therefore still inclines us, through synderesis, towards goodness.

Furthermore, Aquinas diverges from Augustine, claiming that concupiscence can sometimes be natural to humans, in those cases where our passions are governed by our reason.

Aquinas concludes that original sin has not destroyed our orientation towards the good nor is our reason always corrupted. Original sin can at most diminish our inclination towards goodness by creating a habit of acting against it. Sometimes, with God’s grace, our reason can discover knowledge of God’s existence and natural moral law. So, natural theology is valid.

“Participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law”. – Aquinas

Arguably Aquinas has a balanced and realistic view, that our nature contains both good and bad and it is up to us to choose rightly.

Counter-evaluation: However, Barth still seems correct that being corrupted by original sin makes our reasoning about God’s existence and morality also corrupted. The bad in our nature unfortunately means we cannot rely on the good.

Humanity’s belief that it has the ability to know anything of God is the same arrogance that led Adam and Eve to disobey God. Humanity believing that it has the power to figure out right and wrong is what led to the arrogant certainty of the Nazis in their own superiority. This arrogance of natural theology is evidence of a human inability to be humble enough to solely rely on faith.

The accuracy problem

Strength: Aquinas successfully finds a middle way between Univocal language which assumes we are the same as God, and Equivocal language which assumes we are completely different. The truth seems to be in the middle – that we are like God, that God has qualities analogous to ours but proportionally greater.

Counter-Weakness: The accuracy problem. Analogies are only meaningful if we know both things being analogised. For example, the analogy that ‘electricity behaves like water’ is meaningful because we know what both electricity and water are and the qualities they share (flow, current and power), and do not share (danger, state of matter). The problem is, in the case of God, we clearly do not have the required knowledge for any analogy with God to be meaningful nor for us to know their accuracy.

Evaluation: 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.

Counter-Evaluation: This depends on his approach of natural theology being valid, however.

Aquinas & everyday Christian meaning

Strength: Aquinas defends the cognitivism of religious language. Christians tend to think that when using religious language, they express beliefs about God which can be true or false. Cognitivism is a key element of religious meaning for many Christians.

Counter-Weakness: The average Christian is unlikely to think of or intend their religious language to be analogical. Aquinas may have successfully figured out a philosophically defensible way for religious language to be meaningful, but he has not captured the role it actually has in people’s spiritual lives.

Evaluation: Aquinas’ analogy of attribution and especially proportion arguably actually are things that the average Christian accepts. When speaking about God, they probably do accept that their description depends on their human experience/understanding which they are attributing to God who is nonetheless infinitely greater.

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.

Religious language does not have literal meaning. Literal meaning is when words refer to objects or things. Religious language cannot directly refer to God, since God is beyond our understanding. So,

The meaning of religious language is simply the emotional connection to God that it inspires through being symbolic.

To understand symbolic meaning, 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. To explain symbols, Tillich explains how they do more than mere signs. A sign attaches a label, but a symbol participates in it what it points to (e.g. the cross is a powerful symbol because it points to Jesus’ sacrifice). 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’. We have come to know this through symbols.

Religious language points to Christianity, is part of it and thereby becomes a bridge for our soul to connect to God.

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.

Tillich vs Alston

Strength of Tillich’s theory: successfully captures the feature of religious meaning 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 about that sort of meaning, rather than simply reporting cold hard factual/literal content.

Counter-Weakness: William Alston argues that important Christian doctrines like heaven and hell have to be taken as factual, not as symbolic. He claims “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. The purpose of salvation and an afterlife is quite linked to its objectivity.

Evaluation: Alston’s critique is successful because it shows that Tillich goes too far in reducing almost all religious language to symbols. Religious language is only sometimes symbolic. Factual belief in heaven and hell is just as important to Christian believers as the spiritual experience gained from using religious symbolic language.

Tillich refocuses Christianity towards the spiritual aspect of human life. Religion is about our ‘ultimate concern’, which isn’t anything historical, scientific or otherwise factual. It is about surrendering to our need for spiritual fulfilment. Religious language doesn’t need to be literal/factual to be spiritually fulfilling.

Tillich vs subjectivity

Strength: Tillich doesn’t think his theory makes religious language completely subjective, because it is connected to the objective. He says:

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

“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.” – Tillich.

Tillich seems to be saying that the faith is directed towards something objective, such as God or the ground or being. When we use symbolic religious terms, we express our personal subjective faith. Yet, we thereby also make an objective act of faith through our souls connecting to spiritual levels of reality.

Counter-Weakness: Symbols are too subjective. However, this attempt to argue that symbols have more than merely subjective significance faces difficulties. 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?

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

Evaluation: This critique of Tillich is successful. 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.

Tillich vs logical positivism

Strength: Tillich solves the problem of religious language, that we can’t meaningfully talk about a God that is beyond our understanding. Religious language functions as a sort of spiritual or religious experience which connects human souls to God. We don’t need to understand God to be connected to God. Religious language is meaningful insofar as it participates in the being of God.

Counter-Weakness: Logical positivists would point out that this so-called connection of our souls to higher divine levels of reality is unverifiable/unfalsifiable.

Evaluation: Logical positivism faces its own issues, however.

Symbols can

Counter-Weakness: Symbolic language is changeable and prone to mistakes, stale through overuse, lost meanings over time.

Evaluation: Tillich tries to counter this, arguing we can rediscover the questions Christian symbols are an answer to, that are understandable in our time,

Evaluation: However, that is extremely difficult, arguably impossible to do with enough certainty.

Tillich & the Bible

Strength: The Bible contains symbolic and metaphorical elements. Tillich thinks the creation story and fall can be understood as symbolizing the fragile and finite nature of human life.

Counter-Weakness: Much of the religious language in the Bible is clearly not symbolic. For example, Jesus being born in Bethlehem is hard to view as symbolic, it just looks like a fact that has to be taken literally.

Evaluation: However, this weakness is unsuccessful because Tillich didn’t really have a problem with viewing the Bible as a historical document which might have historical facts. However, Tillich argued that historical/scientific facts are not our ultimate concern. They are irrelevant to religion, which is a matter of our ultimate concern; the spiritual element of human life. If one wants to identify facts in the Bible that’s fine, but it’s not really religion. Tillich’s claim is that religious language is symbolic. Facts in the Bible are not really religious.

Randall’s development of symbol

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.

Possible exam questions for Religious language

Assess the apophatic way (via negative)
Assess the cataphatic way (via positiva)
‘God can be talked about symbolically’ – How far do you agree?

‘Analogy is more effective than symbol for talking about God’ – Discuss.
Does Tillich capture religious language better than the apophatic way?
Critically compare analogy and via negative as methods of approaching religious language.
Is God a symbol?
Can Religious language be understood through Aquinas’ analogy of attribution and proper proportion?
Critically assess whether theological language is best approached by negation.
Does the apophatic way enable effective understanding of theological discussion?

Does Aquinas’ analogical approach support effective expression of language about God?
Is symbolic religious language comprehensible?

Quick links

Year 12 philosophy topics:
Plato & Aristotle. Soul, Mind & Body.
Design/Teleological argument. Cosmological argument. Ontological argument.
Religious experience. Problem of evil.

Year 13 philosophy topics:
 Nature & Attributes of God. Religious language. 20th Century philosophy of language.

OCR Ethics
OCR Christianity
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions