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Kenneth Head

The status of religious language

In recent work on the philosophy of religion, there has been a great deal of concentration on what John Hick, in his Philosophy of Religion [Prentice Hall International Editions, 1990, Chapter 7] calls "the peculiarity of religious language".

What Hick is referring to is the fact that when language is used either to describe God, or to make any kind of religious statement, it is used in ways that quickly reveal inherent difficulties of meaning. These problems have to do with the fact that while religious statements seem to have all the authority of factual statements, it is quite clearly not possible to regard them as actually being equivalently authoritative. It is not difficult to demonstrate this:

a) Jesus loves Bob and Edna. Edna loves Bob.

b) God has ordered me to do this.

c) My parents have ordered me to stay in this evening.

In the case of statements a), it would be straightforward, in all kinds of ways, to discover evidence for or against the truth of the statement that "Edna loves Bob". If one could listen to their private conversations over dinner, for example, it would not be difficult to interpret the affection of Edna for Bob and, hopefully, of Bob for Edna. If Bob were ill or unhappy, Edna's conduct towards him would demonstrate her love.

We could go on with this list and, without any difficulty, lengthen it considerably in ways which, despite the theoretical possibility of our being deceived, would be generally verifiable and agreeable not only to Bob and Edna, but also to anyone else not devoutly sceptical to whom we might talk about Bob and Edna and their relationship. It would, though, surely, be rather more difficult to provide similar validation of the statement that "Jesus loves Bob and Edna", for, in attempting to do so, one would need to address such intractable questions as the following:

* how would we go about demonstrating either the truth or the falsity of this statement

* if Bob said that he did not believe it was true and Edna said that she did, who would be speaking the truth

* if the statement were made by a friendly neighbour, worried about Bob and Edna never attending church, on what basis might the statement be said to be veritably either true or false

* if Bob and Edna won a large amount of money in the national lottery, would this demonstrate that Jesus loved them

* if the roof was blown off their house in a terrible storm, would this indicate that Jesus did not love them;

*if this statement is neither true nor false, would Bob and Edna be justified in regarding it as meaningless?

The same kinds of problem are apparent in statements b). On the one hand, we would be very likely to agree as to what is meant when someone says that he or she has been grounded for an evening, but, on the other, would be much less clear about what was being said by someone who told us that they had been ordered to do something by God. We might interpret this statement in a variety of ways and our interpretation might be exactly what the speaker was thinking, or, it might not. We might, equally justifiably, decide that the speaker was in a peculiar emotional condition quite inexplicable to us, mad, or that illegal chemical substances had upset the balance of his mind temporarily.

What is clearly the case is that religious statements are not factual statements in the usual sense of this term, because they are not verifiable in any of the ways that lie behind our usual, mundane usage of language. If this is the case, they must either be meaningless statements or factual statements, of a very singular and special type, which have, perhaps, some sort of special emotive or mystical significance for those who use them. If we assume that, at least for believers, such statements of religious fact are meaningful, we are faced with the need to consider the ways in which they may be said to differ from, for example, statements of scientific or technical fact.

If, despite all our good intentions, however, we find it impossible to regard the idea of a special category of non-verifiable facts or propositions as being a sensible one, we are left with only two options:

* to regard all statements about religion as intrinsically meaningless;

* to regard all such statements, despite their similarity to factual statements, as being examples of language used for a purpose completely different from any of those of which we make use in the normal daily range of our linguistic interactions.

There is a good deal of what might be termed 'religious vocabulary' in our language, much of it also used in a variety of mundane contexts. This is necessitated by the fact that, in order to state that there is a God and to make other religious claims, theists use words in general use such as personal, creator, free and good, terms which we first learn to use from seeing them applied to everyday objects, states and feelings. Technical terms, such as omnipotent, for example, are also defined ultimately in terms of the standard usages of other everyday words. We might, to develop this point, consider the following vocabulary, often used in the context of statements of a religious nature, and ask in what 'special' ways it might be being used:

love, loving, beloved; forgive, forgiving, forgiveness; hear; speak; command; purpose; prayer, Heaven; salvation; soul; spirit.

A number of philosophers have attempted to focus on this problem of the special nature of meaning in the usage of religious language, among them St. Thomas Aquinas, who put forward in Part I of his Summa Theologiae what is known as the doctrine of analogical predication, a difficult-sounding concept but one that can easily be explained by reference to simple examples. Aquinas explains that the word "good", for example, can be applied to both God and created beings, but that it is neither used in exactly similar ways to describe both [Aquinas's term is univocally ), nor in completely different ways [equivocally I . Instead, he argues, the term is used of both God and created beings in a third way: it is used analogically.

A very simple example, given by Hick, serves to make this clear:

God is good..

Man is good.

Dog is good.

It is clear that 'goodness' in a dog would be defined in terms of the qualities which serve to make a particular dog, a guide dog, for instance, a good example of its kind. The same might be said of men and women, that their'goodness' is part of what makes them good examples of their kind, although if we defined the 'goodness' of a guide dog as involving the idea of being 'faithful' [Hick's example], we would not be referring to the same quality as that to be found in the sexual fidelity of a man and woman towards each other.

The example works both from human beings 'down' to other creatures and 'up' to God, because God's 'goodness' is as different from ours as is the guide dog's. We cannot hope fully to understand the goodness of God, any more than we can fully understand that of a dog, but we can recognize the correspondence between them in terms of what they refer to and the ways in which statements about them require language to be used.

In Aquinas's argument, therefore, language, in religious contexts, is used analogically. Its function is to illustrate correspondences of meaning between statements whose factual meanings may differ widely and which may be too metaphysically vast to be made to fit within the usual conceptual parameters of language use. Whilst doing nothing to prove the existence of God, it may, perhaps, be considered to allow those who believe in God or who wish to discuss religious matters, to do so in a way that makes use of shared meanings. Clearly, it remains a moot point as to whether or not this way of looking at the religious use of language contributes meaningfully to a grasp of religious ideas or an ability to make use of them in developing deeper philosophical insight. There can be no verification, for example in speaking analogically of the qualities and attributes of God, of whether or not the analogy has been correctly' or 'truly' grasped, so that the issue of the correspondence between reality and the images in an individual's mind remains unresolved.

Aquinas is not the only philosopher to have grappled with the intractable problem of meaning in religious language. In his writings on religious language, as Hick points out, the theologian Paul Tillich [1886-1965] draws an important distinction between signs and symbols. A sign, he argues, is simply something to which people make a response conventional in their particular society [for example, a traffic light on red or green], but not a response which is in any way deeply significant for them; the connection between an individual person and a sign, Tillich thinks, is external and arbitrary. A symbol, on the other hand, he argues, participates in that to which it points; in this sense, a national flag participates in' the dignity of the nation which it represents; an inner connection with reality is symbolized.

Tillich develops his argument by saying that symbols and the significances which we feel them to hold, grow out of the individual or collective consciousness and have their own life- span of meaning before, along with their users, they decay and die. For Tillich, a symbol opens up levels of reality which would otherwise be closed to us and, in so doing, unlocks elements of our soul. Although these ideas seem complex and perhaps unfathomable when expressed in this way, there are plenty of instances which serve to clarify them, such as, for example, the significance, in many societies, of the symbolic 'value' of the Cross, or of statues of the Virgin Mary. Both of these examples have a religious context, but there are plenty of other examples which would serve to make the same point and which have nothing to do with formal religion at all, although they might have a great deal to do with our feelings about the spirituality of the world. For example: the sun and moon; the rose; snow-covered mountain peaks; the ocean; cherry blossom.

Tillich takes the view that religious faith, which he describes as a feeling of being ultimately concerned, can only express itself through such symbolic language. The language of faith is the language of symbols, he argues, so that when we make statements such as that God is the creator of the universe, or that God is eternal, we should recognize that we are using language symbolically, rather than literally. This idea is, perhaps, easier to grasp if we think of the ways in which language can be used figuratively, in metaphor or simile, for example.

Like Aquinas, Tillich is arguing that we cannot use our language, which is derived from finite human experience, as we would usually use it, when we talk about God, the divine or the ultimate. Our words, he says, cannot be adequate to express our meanings and so, when used theologically, their meaning is incomplete, partial. Language is a development of human beings and is therefore subject to all the limitations of human beings. God, however, is not simply a super-large human being and there are aspects of his divine nature which are qualitatively completely different from human nature. He possesses attributes and characteristics which we do not possess and so have no language to describe in any really adequate way. Words are not able to grasp all of what God is. There are plenty of questions to be asked about this view of religious language: the problems of ambiguity and 'flexibility' in defining terms is certainly an issue which needs thinking about.

An alternative approach to the problem of meaning in religious language takes the view that the moral attributes of God have been embodied, or incarnated, as far as possible, in the finite human life of his son, Jesus. One important effect of this line of argument is to separate Christianity from Judaism. In addition, the doctrine of incarnation makes it possible to show what is meant by religious use of language, in such statements as "God is good,", for instance, by pointing to the biblical record of the life of Christ as an exemplum.

Proponents of this doctrine will argue that the moral attitudes of God towards humanity are held to have been incarnated in the person of Christ and expressed via his dealings with men and women. When Christ shows forgiveness or compassion, for example, he is demonstrating the view of God also. On this basis, the life of Christ, as depicted in the New Testament, offers a foundation for statements about God; it might be argued, therefore, that this approach enables us to talk about God in parables.

There are some problems with this view, not the least of which is that when we assert or deny what we take to be a fact, we use language cognitively, rather than figuratively, as in the following examples:

This cup of tea is hot.

Your dog definitely does not have fleas.

This makes for some difficulty in accepting the notion of incarnation and the issue for philosophers is whether or not theological statements can be construed either in this way or as being non-cognitive. A cognitive statement is verifiably either true or false and statements about God or religious faith need to match these criteria if they are to be said to have cognitive meaning.

If, on the other hand, they are non-cognitive, we come back to the issues of what variety of meaning they can be said to have and in what terms their truth or falsity can be measured. The other question that needs to be asked concerns the issue of whether or not non-cognitive statements about religious matters can, nevertheless, fulfil a valuable purpose. There have been a number of conventional responses to this question:

* that they arouse emotion and stir people to action;

* that they stimulate co-operative action and bind groups or communities together

* that they communicate qualities of experience that cannot be expressed via the literal use of language

* that they evoke, foster and clarify our human experience of an aspect of the world that we might refer to as "the divine".

Incarnationists assert that religion is a distinctive human enterprise and its language uses can be seen to have kinds of meaning valid in their context, the context of human culture. Religion, it is argued, is a major cultural force on the planet, with its own meaningful language-rules within which the question of the existence and nature of God are, in fact, a sub-topic only. This notion that language-rules and usage are specific to interest-groups and the contexts in which such groups make use of them may be argued to be derived from the language-game theory of the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951], although it has, subsequently, been developed by others.

This theory, sometimes known as Wittgensteinian fideism, takes the view that participation in different kinds of human activity requires participation in different types of language use. These so-called language-games are the linguistic aspects of different life-activities, so that to know how to play a language-game is to know how to participate in a given sphere of human activity. Examples such as the specialist vocabularies and jargons of the legal, the scientific or the political worlds might be offered to illustrate this view.

Hence, it may be said to follow that to know how to use religious language to express ideas about God or aspects of faith is, as a consequence, to know God and to know particular religious truths. On the other hand, it may be held that for a religion simply to assert that it has its own criteria by means of which the truth or falsity of its propositions may be known and for deciding when, where and in what ways prayer and worship are appropriate, is to do no more than attempt to justify superstition.

Whether or not Wittgenstein's theory of the contextual specificity of language use may be said to represent either an interesting approach to the problem or an unreasonable reinterpretation of the ways in which religious discourse is traditionally practised and believed, it would seem to leave unaddressed the not inconsiderable problem that although people have the idea of God and confidently make use of theistic language, there is, in fact, no God.

Based on his less subtle notion of factual meaning, this is certainly the view that A. J. Ayer takes in the course of his attempt to "dispose of the argument from religious experience" [Language, Truth and Logic, Gollancz, 1964, p. 1, 19]. Ayer argues that whilst it is rationally acceptable to believe that someone who states, for example, that "There exists a transcendent God" "is merely asserting that he is experiencing a peculiar kind of sense-content", the proposition cannot be regarded as possessing literal significance of any kind, since it allows of no possibility, even in principle, of any form of verification and so cannot be significantly contradicted. Such sentences, Ayer argues, like ail statements of a religious nature, make use of metaphysical terms and can, therefore, be accepted as neither true nor false, but only nonsensical.