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Religious Language

A2 Religious Language unit

Andrew Midgley

on 7 October 2018

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Transcript of Religious Language

Religious Language
The main question investigated by students of religious language is:

Can we speak meaningfully of God?
Speaking about
, such as a book, is easy because the language used is
. Univocal language always means the same thing.

By contrast, speaking about
, who are more than mere objects, is
- that is, carrying a multiplicity of possible meanings, and therefore requiring interpretation.

When we begin to talk about
, the language is even more equivocal, since there is no apparent physical root for the language.
Why is it more difficult to describe God
than it is to describe a book?

Answer in your notes.
For your exam, you need to be able to explore your own views on this subject, having first understood, analysed, and evaluated the views of several philosophers, including Aquinas, Tillich, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Popper, Flew, Buber, and others. A typical exam question might look like this:

'Statements about God are meaingless since they cannot be verified.' Discuss.


Critically assess the views of Paul Tillich on religious language.
Let's begin our attempts to understand this by learning the ideas of
A.J. Ayer
A.J. Ayer (1910-1989)
- Ayer was part of a philosophical group called the Vienna Circle, based in Austria. Other big names here were Mauritz Schlick and Rudolf Carnap.
- Ayer developed the
verification principle
. This stated that only statements that can be verified empirically (ie by experiment) are meaningful.

Give 5 examples of verifiable, and 5 examples of unverifiable statements in your notes.
The Verification Principle states that
only statements that are verifiable empirically may be considered meaningful
. ‘I love God’ or ‘fornication is wrong’ are therefore both meaningless statements. There are several versions of this principle:
- which cannot admit the meaning of statements of history, or indeed anything that cannot be directly verified right here and right now.
- which acknowledges that if it is known how a statement may be verified, then the statement may be considered meaningful. If the statement is historical (e.g. 'the Battle of Hastings was in 1066'), it could be considered meaningful.
C] verifiable
in practice
- the statement can be verified immediately, e.g. 'this writing is white'.
D] verifiable
in principle
- A physicist makes statements about the universe that might be proved wrong in the future but they are meaningful because they are based on experiments.
‘The criterion, which we use to test the genuineness of apparent propositions of fact, is the criterion of verifiability. We say that a sentence is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false.’
(Ayer: Language, Truth and Logic, 1936)

On the basis of this statement from Ayer, why do you think he would reject propositions such as ‘God loves me’ or ‘God is good’?
There have been several challenges to the verification principle.
1. The verification principle is not itself verifiable.
John Hick
eschatological verification
. He said that, at least in theory, many statements (particularly ones about God) would be proven true or false at the end of time (the eschaton).
3 a) Sense experience could count towards statements such as ‘God is creator’ because of the design of the world.
3 b) There is historical evidence for the statement ‘Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday’, even though it is interpretatively dependent.
Karl Popper
(and others, such as
Antony Flew
) responded with the
Falsification Principle
The falsification principle was developed by
Karl Popper
in the 1950s. His contention was that
a statement is unscientific when there is nothing that can count against it
- such statements, including religious statements, can’t be shown true or false because believers do not accept any evidence to falsify them.
... For example, said
Antony Flew
, religious people continue to claim that ‘God is good’ regardless of evidence offered against it. Reasons why God remains good are given -
'it's all part of a bigger plan'
'God must be good because of the good in the world'
- and these countless qualifications render the original statement meaningless. Flew said that such statements die the
‘death of a thousand qualifications’
since they cannot be conclusively falsified.

What is the difference between verificationism and falsificationism?
: a statement is
if it can be empirically verified.

: a statement is
if one can state the conditions under which it could be proven false.

(with falsificationism) was not actually trying to make any claims about philosophical meaning in the same way that
(with verificationism) was. Popper said that he just wanted to provide a methodological norm for conducting empirical enquiry - in other words, he wanted
rules for doing empirical experiments,
rules for deciding what was meaningful and what wasn't
. He said that lots of things that can't be verified still have meaning, and in his stress on falsification as concerned with science, he
restricted the scope of his assertion
to dealings with
, as opposed to
Karl Popper
Richard Swinburne
challenged the falsification principle.

He gave an example of toys in a toy cupboard. Children might believe that when no-one is looking, the toys come out of the cupboard and run around. This belief is unfalsifiable, yet it still holds meaning.
Basil Mitchell
said that statements are meaningful even it they are not straightforwardly verifiable or falsifiable. Flew, said Mitchell, is wrong to say that believers never allow anything to count against belief.
, he pointed out,
have a prior commitment to trust in God and therefore seek qualifications
that can explain why, for example, there is evil in the world and still accept a loving God. That does not mean their beliefs are meaningless, but that they are complicated.
R.M. Hare
asserted that
falsification is for cognitive statements but religious language is non-cognitive
. This means that the 'truth' of religious statements depends on more than mere rational/empirical analysis by your cognitive abilities (brain).

Religious language, said Hare,
cannot make factual claims but has meaning because it influences how people look at the world
. Hare used the example of a student who imagines that the university dons are trying to kill him. He may well be wrong, but his beliefs influence him, and manifest in trying to escape from his lecturers. This kind of belief is what Hare calls a ‘
’. Religious beliefs are bliks because they impact the way people look at the world and live their lives. They may not be falsifiable, but they still have meaning since they have an observable effect.
- certainly in its strongest form - would deny validity to religious language.
would be more cautious, but perhaps also tend that way.

Another philosopher, too, stated that the answer to the question

Can we speak meaningfully of God?

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite
) believed that it was not possible to talk about what God
, only what he
is not

This is because any mystical experience of God is ineffable (indescribable).

Pseudo-Dionysius' theory was known as the
via negativa
, or the
apophatic way
Problem with the
Via Negativa

Although other philosophers agree that negative propositions take people nearer to understanding God, they do not think that they help people to understand what God is, or say anything about God that is definitely true.
, it is difficult to categorically say what God
is not
unless you already have idea of what he

A religious claim is primarily a moral claim
expressing an attitude – devotion to a
code of behaviour.

They are different to a moral claim
as a religious one will refer to a story
as well as an intention.
It is not necessary for a religious person
to believe the story’s factuality in order
to resolve to adopt a certain way of life.
Thomas Aquinas' suggestion was that it
possible to
use human qualities
to help the understanding of God.
we need to understand the difference between the application for humans and the application for God.
What is an analogy?

Write in your notes three analogical ways of describing
a] love
b] a genie
c] the sky
Aquinas said that when we talk about God, it is obvious that we are using analogies – we only have our day to day language to use.

Other philosophers, however, criticise this position on analogy because analogy has to have
some shared understanding or basis for comparison
. This is not possible when we are talking about God if analogy is all we have.
also claimed that there
a relationship between the world and God since God created and sustains the world. His character may be discerned through it.
Aquinas proposed
two kinds
of analogical
way of speaking about God.
Analogy of Proportion
A quality that a thing possesses in proportion to the kind of thing it is
e.g. a dog is loyal in the way dogs are loyal, humans are loyal in proportion to loyalty of being a human. So comparing human loyalty to canine loyalty
aids understanding
. (Again, Scotus' criteria of one univocal basis here is met by the 'animal' factor.)
Therefore, we can understand
God as all-powerful
because we have the idea of
human power
. God is
more powerful – we cannot fully understand God’s omnipotence but
we have an insight into
his power.
Analogy of Attribution
This is when a term, originally used with reference to one thing, is applied to a second because
the one causes the other
e.g. we can attribute the 'goodness' to a
good baker
on the basis of having tasted their
good bread
- which the baker has caused.
Therefore, Aquinas saw human wisdom as
caused by
God’s wisdom - we recognise wisdom, so we can recognise its originator too. Likewise
itself. The qualities these things have may be attributed to their cause - God. Therefore ‘God is love’ has meaning.
Ian Ramsey
added to Aquinas' suggestions on
. He talked about

We have a
in the earthly examples, e.g. ‘There are
people in the world.’
We then
this by saying that ‘God is
How could you use, but also qualify, the following models?

1] My aquarium is like a house.
2] My girlfriend is like a whale.
3] Syria is like a furnace.
4] The Roman Catholic church is like a bee's nest.
5] Harry Kane is like a car engine.

Highlight the model being used, and the qualification applied.
How useful do you think analogy is when communicating about God? Why?
Is analogy a more or less helpful approach than that of Ayer, Popper, or Flew? Why?
Tillich believed that a
‘unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul’.
It is through symbols, he said, that religious experience may be communicated. Religious language is merely an interpretation of an experience, and is therefore closer to poetry than prose. Poetry is rife with symbols, and is supposed to be
; it may not be empirically meaningful.
Religious language is symbolic because it
opens up new levels of reality
. E.g. with the concept of a ‘kingdom of God’, the symbol of a kingdom is concerned with the reality of God’s power, intention, and rule.
Paul Tillich
How Does a Symbol work?
We first need to dislodge the idea that only
enable valid communication.
Symbols effectively communicate something that is too big to put into words. Empiricism, if you like, concerns the realm of
things that can be measured
. Symbols acknowledge that
some things cannot be measured
, and try to communicate something about them.
Entire cultures, periods of history, abstract concepts, and feelings may not be expressible in ways accessible to verification or falsification. Can symbols do the job?
This is Picasso's
On the one hand - to outsiders - this painting is an example of the Cubist style.
On the other hand, to many Spanish people this communicates feelings, values, beliefs and thoughts regarding the Spanish Civil War. It is a window, inviting the viewer to
in something bigger, if they only have the will to
go deeper
Tillich argued that this is the function of the symbol: It
reveals something by participating in it, and by inviting the viewer to participate also
. It encourages an experience for the whole person - not just their mind - and is thus capable of communicating more about God than mere words could.

next up, it's ...
One simple example would be that of a
lighted candle
in a church. For Roman Catholics, this candle symbolises, and communicates, the
sacred presence of God
. Ideas about God as a
light in the darkness
are also involved.
But to a non-religious person,
the candle is merely a candle
. Interestingly, a non-Christian could be taught about the ideas above, but unless they
accept the invitation to experience
it, the meaning is not fully conveyed - even though it might become clearer.
ground of being
Tillich thought of God as the
ground of being
: the basis for existence, the meaning behind existence, and the ultimate concern of everyone (whether they realise it or not).
The ground of being, said Tillich, cannot be known in a purely intellectual way. Neither can it be known in a personal way. Yet it can be known by engagement with and participation in symbols.
Symbols that reveal the ground of being would
not only
but also

, such as
, or
Jesus' life and work
function as symbols to communicate the ground of being.
Symbols cannot be
. Usually where this is attempted, the symbol endures, and gains a new facet - that of
resistance to oppression
Symbols can have their meanings
, however. Let's look at one
, and one
: the swastika. This was originally a Sanskrit symbol of
. However, it was co-opted by Hitler and the Nazi party as a symbol of their movement, and came to be viewed with fear and loathing by all those who suffered under the Third Reich.
: equality. Originally the idea that humans have the same rights, privileges, and freedom from discrimination irrespective of who they
, 'equality' is now used with reference to what people
choose to do
For example, under the old meaning, you would say black and white people are equal. Under the new meaning, we have 'equal opportunities' which, though often used for good, is also used to discriminate in other ways - in case minorities accuse an organisation of restricting their equal choice. The identity of the person is confused with their ability.
problem with symbols
They can be interpreted in different ways. When reading Genesis 1-3, some Christians reject the idea of the text's symbolic value, saying it is
all factual
. Other Jews and Christians see the text as a
symbolic representation of ideas
such as sin, creativity, God's character, and human fallibility. Others who aren't Christian or Jewish may view the text simply as a
literary curiosity
To sum up: When we say a symbol
in something, we mean that it somehow both
it, and
gives access to a deeper understanding
of it. It is
an invitation to an experience that words alone cannot convey
the same thing as a
. A myth is a
story that
, whether factually true or untrue,
communicates the values and beliefs of its originating culture or author
Here is an example of a myth. What values are communicated in this clip?
Myths may even directly impart moral statements that could persuade the hearer. But what enables the communication is not only the words. It is also the character presenting them. In this teaching from Gandalf, ask yourself whether another character saying it would carry the same weight.
See if you can identify the values of JK Rowling in the Harry Potter myth ...
This story, by CS Lewis, has
mythic qualities
, but would be better categorised as using
analogy of attribution
. Can you identify both features?
There are many different myths. In the ancient world, Norse, Greek, and Hebrew myths communicated a worldview to their hearers or readers. The modern world - as you have just seen - has its own versions, some of which reflect the ancient myths as well.
Via Negativa
(It is very important to note that myths do not have to be fictional. Their facticity may be important, but it is not the main point of the myth. The main point is to communicate values.)
Rudolf Bultmann
, a 20th century theologian, wondered if the true message of the Bible's stories could be detached from the 'mythological', story elements. He set about a project called
. In this, he would examine a part of the Bible story, and try to pare it back to the value he thought it was trying to communicate, getting rid of the mythical elements.
For example, Jesus turning water into wine at Cana.
Bultmann said that the mythical element was obviously the water into wine bit - that couldn't have happened.
The fact behind the story was that Jesus thought that celebrating marriage was a good idea.
So the point of the demythologised story is: celebrating marriages is good.

... But this account of myths was deemed unsatisfactory by later scholars. Apart from its
presumptions, reducing the story to a single sentiment
robs the myth of its depth and character
Issues with Myth
What counts
as a myth?
2] What do we do with
competing myths
, e.g. Genesis v Gilgamesh?
3] What if the
values of the myth change
over time? For example, there was a long period where Christians used
Gen. 1:28
as a reason to dominate the earth, because God tells Adam and Eve to 'rule over the earth and subdue it'. More recently, interpreters of this myth have used it as a spur to stewardship.
How can we be sure which is right?
Language Games
Ludwig Wittgenstein introduced the idea of
language games
as a way to express our difficulty in communicating abstract ideas, such as religious ones. In answering the question '
Can we speak meaningfully of God?
', his response is a qualified
The limits of my


mean the limits of my

Wittgenstein suggests that the meaning of words is determined by the
language game
of which they are a part. This means that a word's meaning comes
not from within itself
, but from the
circumstance in which it is uttered
, and the
meaning of the other words around it
Wittgenstein compared language with the game of
. In chess, you have
for how to play, and
if you don't know the rules, the game will be meaningless
to you. Words like '
' and '
' will not make sense because they will appear to be out of context.
Every different context in which language is used is a 'game', said Wittgenstein. In chess, I can say, 'a bishop may only move diagonally', and it will make sense. The same sentence would make less sense in other contexts, or 'games'.
To which language game do the following apply?:
Au revoir
Expecto patronum
Language games are
not private
. They are shared within particular groups - a rugby team, a film club, a nation, a generation, a subject area, or a religion. It is possible to communicate across these games, but you would have to invest in greater learning about the target area!
The problem with theories like verificationism when applied to religious belief is that they are applying a language game that is more appropriate for discussing empirical statements to statements about God.
Wittgenstein's theory gives believers a way to express the meaningfulness of their language while also explaining why religious language does not have the same meaning for a non-believer.
Answer in your notes
1] Which language games do you think you know well?
2] Which language games do you know very little of?
3] How could someone from a Chinese Buddhist language game communicate with someone from an Arabic Muslim language game?
4] How could someone from an equestrian language game communicate with someone from a tennis language game?
5] What value, if any, is there in Wittgenstein's ideas?
6]How may Wittgenstein's ideas be applied to religious language?
How are each of the approaches to religious language useful?
How are each of the approaches flawed?
Is it possible to speak meaningfully of God?
... or the values of George RR Martin, as seen in Game of Thrones.
= different meanings of the same sound/word, e.g. 'bow'/'bow'/'bough'

= use of a comparative object to explain

= the same understanding of the same word universally
John Duns Scotus
said that there is a shared basis for comparison of God and humans - the basis is that of
. He referred to this as
univocity of being

Likewise, if we needed to compare a
with a
, our basis for comparison could be that of
Another philosopher who followed the
apophatic way
Moses Maimonides
. He said: 'you will come nearer to the knowledge and comprehension of God by the negative attributes ... I do not merely declare that he who affirms the attributes of God has not sufficient knowledge concerning Creator ... but I say that he unconsciously loses his belief in God.'

What do you think Maimonides means?
Aquinas acknowledged the equivocal character of much God-talk. The use of ordinary human language will always limit God, since it places him within our own limits of understanding. Aquinas used the term
via eminentiae
(the way of eminence) to show that what we know of God is only partial.

However ...
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