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.
(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.
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.
- Humans possess the same qualities like those of God (goodness/wisdom/love)
- Because we were created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26)
- 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.
- Pointing to something beyond itself. The crucifix ‘points’ to Christianity, religious language ‘points’ to religion or God.
- Participation: symbolic language participates in what it points to. The crucifix is part of Christianity, it doesn’t just point to it.
- Reality: To be symbolic has to reveal a deeper meaning, they open up spiritual levels of reality that are otherwise closed to us.
- 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:
- Arouse emotions and motivate action
- Stimulate cooperative action, bind community together
- Communicate aspects of experience that cannot be expressed with literal language.
- 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.