Religious language A* grade summary notes


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Via Negativa – Pseudo-Dionysius

  • This theory claims we cannot meaningfully say what God is – all we can meaningfully say is what God is not.
  • Philosophers talk about positive/negative language with a different meaning to ordinary english. Ordinarily, positive means good and negative means bad. It has a different meaning here.
  • Negative language is describing what a thing is not. E.g. I could say ‘my cat is not orange’.
  • Positive language is describing what a thing is. E.g. I could say ‘my cat is black’
  • Pseudo-Dionysius says we need to give up on saying what God is – all we can meaningfully say is what God is not. 
  • This is talking about God through or ‘via’ negative language (meaning saying what God is not).
  • By saying God is not darkness, we aren’t saying that God is light, however. We are saying that God is beyond the dark/light distinction completely.
  • Negative language is meant to show us that God is beyond anything we could ever say.
  • This theory is by pseudo-dionysius 


  •  The Via Negativa approach avoids anthropomorphising (describing God in human terms) God by ensuring that we do not apply any concept we humans can understand to God.


  • 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 positiva language (cataphatic way) about God is valid. The Via Negativa approach seems to go against the Bible.

Optional further 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 this simply refers to God’s jealous actions in the world. So he’s saying the Bible doesn’t actually use positive language about God – it only seems to.

Aquinas’ theory of analogy

  • Aquinas rejects univocal and equivocal language about God.
  • Univocal language is when a word has one meaning. So when we say ‘God is loving’ the word ‘loving’ means the same as when we say ‘humans are loving’.
  • This cannot be right, since God is beyond our understanding. We understand what it means for humans to be loving, so we can’t apply that same meaning to God – God’s love is on a different level to human love.
  • Equivocal language is when a word has multiple meanings. So when we say ‘God is loving’ the word ‘loving’ has a totally different meaning as when we say ‘humans are loving’.
  • Aquinas says this fails too – since God is beyond our understanding, we simply wouldn’t know what the word ‘loving’ means when applied to God if it is totally different to the meaning when applied to humans.
  • Univocal language fails because we aren’t the same as God (so can’t just use the same word)
  • Equivocal language fails because we aren’t totally different to God.
  • Aquinas’ solution is to point out that there is a middle ground between these options. We aren’t the same as God, nor are we totally different – we are like God. We are analogous to God.
  • We can’t say what God’s qualities actually are – but we can say that, whatever they are, they are like our qualities.
  • Genesis: we are created in God’s image and likeness
  • Analogy of attribution: So, we can meaningfully say that e.g. God has a quality of love that is like/analogous to our human quality of love.
  • Analogy of proportion: God’s qualities are infinite – greater than ours.
  • So, we can say God has a quality of love that is analogous to our quality of love, but proportionally greater.
  • This is managing to meaningfully say something about God while respecting the fact that God is beyond our understanding.
  • Analogy is communicating the meaning of something by comparing it to something else.


  • Aquinas manages to find a way that we can meaningfully speak about God Via Positiva (cataphatic way) without contradicting the key Christian doctrine that God is beyond our understanding. Analogical language manages to respect God’s transcendence and avoid anthropomorphic (language about humans) language. We are saying – not what God is – but what God is like.


  • The issue of bad qualities. 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. Aquinas’ logic suggests that God has a quality of hatred that is analogous to our quality but greater.

Further 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 bad qualities we acquired after due to original sin.

Tillich’s theory of religious language as symbolic

  • Tillich claims that religious language is not literal – it doesn’t try to actually say what god is.
  • Instead, it is symbolic.
  • Symbolic language tries to connect a person’s mind to a thing.
  • Religious language tries to connect a religious person’s mind to God – sort of like a religious experience.
  • So, when a religious person speaks or hears religious language like ‘God be with you’, their mind feels connected to God in that moment – and that’s how it is meaningful.
  • It’s not a literal description of what God is – that is impossible – it is more of an emotional/spiritual feeling.
  • Think about a Christian looking at at crucifix – they will feel connected to God in that moment – this is because a crucifix is a symbol for Jesus’ sacrifice. It has symbolic meaning – it connects a Christian’s mind to God.
  • Tillich is saying that hearing or speaking religious language is just like looking at a crucifix. It works by connecting your mind to God and feeling close to God.
  • Symbolic language works by pointing to something beyond itself, participating in what it points to and opening spiritual levels of reality and dimensions of our soul.
  • The words of religious language are not meant to describe God – they are meant to connect our soul to God – that’s how they are meaningful.
  • Tillich says that God is a symbol – a symbol for the ‘ground of being’.
  • Religion is a symbol for our ‘ultimate concern’.
  • Religious language is not literal – it’s symbolic – it involves symbols which helps us to spiritually connect to the mystery of existence – the ground of being – which is our ultimate concern – the thing which matters most to humans.
  • Tillich is an existentialist – they think to be human is to be faced with mysteries about the meaning and purpose of life that we can’t really answer. Religious language helps us to connect to those questions about the ultimate meaning and ground of being.

Strength of Tillich: 

  • The Bible contains symbolic and metaphorical elements. The Psalms say that the trees will sing the glory of God – that is clearly symbolic. Tillich thinks the creation story and fall can be understood as symbolizing the fragile and finite nature of human life.

Evaluation: Tillich & the Bible

  • 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.

Further 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. He’s really trying to explain the religious language that religious people use on a daily basis – he’s saying that is symbolic. 

Critical comparison of the three theories regarding their ability to capture the meaning of everyday Christian language.

Strength of the via Negativa view on everyday Christian meaning: 

  • The average Christian probably is in some danger of anthropomorphizing God. 
  • In popular imagination, God is seen in human terms due to his depiction in religious art and because many Christians don’t think carefully enough about God’s otherness.
  • The Via Negativa approach prevents this mistake, helping Christians realise that God is beyond anything they can imagine.
  • Pseudo-Dionysius further argues that his method encourages Christians to give up on trying to grasp God through their understanding, which is impossible. He claims that when we let go of our attempt to grasp God with our mind, the result is actually a greater ‘unity’ with God. 
  • Pseudo-Dionysius explains that this experience is like what Moses experienced, climbing Mount Sinai, climbing into the clouds to encounter God. We too need to climb into the cloud of unknowing by letting go of our futile attempt to understand God. Only then can we actually be united with God.
  • This makes the via Negativa seem like the best approach for guiding everyday Christian language.

Evaluation: Aquinas’ rejection of via negativa regarding everyday Christian meaning

  • 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.”
  • Aquinas thinks his theory best captures everyday Christian meaning, better than via negativa and he would argue better than symbol too.
  • Aquinas’ analogy of attribution and especially proportion arguably actually are ideas 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 by analogy, yet accepting that God is nonetheless infinitely greater.
  • When Christians (or the Bible) says ‘God is love’, Christians know that God’s love is beyond anything we can understand, but it is still analogous to human love, though proportionally greater.

Strength of Tillich’s theory regarding everyday Christian meaning

  • Tillich’s theory is arguably more successful than (Via Negative / Analogy) because it better describes the way everyday Christian language actually functions.
  • Tillich successfully captures the feature of everyday 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.
  • So, Tillich captures the actual everyday Christian meaning of religious language much better than Via Negativa and Analogy does.

Evaluation: Tillich vs Alston

  • William Alston criticised Tillich, arguing that important Christian doctrines like heaven and hell have to be taken as factual, not as symbolic. 
  • 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. 
  • Furthermore, 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. Tillich fails for not adequately accounting for the cognitive element of religious language.
  • 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. So, it looks like Tillich’s non-cognitive approach is not useful for understanding religious texts.