Religious language C/B grade summary notes


Full notes      A* summary notes      This page: C/B summary notes


  • It’s not possible to meaningfully talk about things you don’t understand.
  • The problem of religious language is that most Christians agree that God is beyond our understanding.
  • In that case, how can Christians meaningfully talk about God?
  • The three theories in this topic each attempt to explain how it’s possible to meaningfully talk about God, despite God being beyond our understanding.

Via Negativa

  • 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’
  • The Via Negaiva theory 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 fails because it goes against the Bible.

Aquinas’ theory of analogy 

  • Aquinas argues that although we cannot say what God is, we can say what God is like. We can use analogical language about God. E.g. instead of saying ‘God is loving’, we can say ‘God has a quality of love that is like human love, but greater’.
  • 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.

Evaluation: criticism of Aquinas

  • 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: defence of Aquinas

  • 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.
  • 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.

Strength of Tillich’s theory: 

  • Tillich 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.

Evaluation: criticism of Tillich 

  • William Alston argues 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. 
  • 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.