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Religious Language

November 11, 2013

relig languagemyth, symbol

God is great does not mean he occupies large volume of space God without parts or passions so how can he speak, hear, see, love?

Tillich – both signs and symbols point beyond themselves

signs arbitrary e.g. red for stop

a symbol ‘participates in that to which it points’

e.g. flag participates in the dignity of the nation it represents

symbols grow out of collective unconscious

unlock dimensions of our souls

religious faith concerned with ‘ultimate concern’ which cannot be expressed in any other language

The only literal statement which can be made is ‘God is Being-itself’

All other statements are symbolic

Our terms can only be derived from out own, finite experience

warning against idolatry, anthropomorphism

Does not fully define participation

What does it mean that symbols open up otherwise closed levels of reality? – seems more appropriate to arts then to religion

problem that many regard ‘myth’ as untrue

but myth tells us great truths in story form

Logical positivism

All language about God is nonsensical.

Moritz, Schlick and A. J. Ayer were logical positivists Formulated the verification principle – for a statement to be meaningful it had to be verifiable by the sense experiences. This eliminated most metaphysical statements.

cognitive language deals with fact, true or false, e.g. ‘The population of China is one billion.’

swearwords, commands, baptismal formula – we don’t ask whether they are true

functions are to vent feelings, direct someone’s actions or perform a baptism

When say ‘God loves humankind.’ – is this cognitive or noncognitive?

Maybe depends on what the speaker intends

historically, most religious people have intended their statements cognitively

Logical positivists – all language is true if it is empirical or analytic

analytic i.e. ‘a biped has two legs’ atheism and agnosticism’s statements also meaningless

moral statements hard to verify so they too become meaningless Braithwaite – some religious statements can be verified e.g. historical-ness of Jesus

Randall believes religious activity like composers, artists &c. contribute to culture

works with a body of symbols and myths symbols do things, achieve things in people    they arouse emotions, stir people to actions, strengthen commitment to what they believe to be right, stimulate co-operative action, bind community together,  communicate quality of experience which cannot be expressed by ordinary language,  evoke and foster clarification of our experience just as a painter teaches us how to use our eyes

God is not a reality independent of the human mind

Religion is a sort of psychology

Question to be asked of religion is not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Does it work?’

The products of human Imagination did not exist before humans

Christians say God DID exist before us

So Randall’s God is a fleeting ripple of imagination in a tiny corner of space-time

assumes that scientific verification is only method at arriving at truth

Braithwaite’s religious statements serve an ethical function

God is love = speaker’s desire to follow an agapeistic way of life

difference between religions not important compared with their behaviour stories help people to carry out tasks which they’re not keen on psychological impact not weakened by knowing that the stories are not factual e.g. influence of Pilgrim’s Progress ‘Lying is wrong’ means ‘I Intend never to lie.’

He doesn’t handle statements e.g. ‘God was In Christ reconciling the world to himself, so much as stories – yet Christianity has many dogmatic statements

It is people’s beliefs which motivate their behaviour – yet these actual beliefs go unanalysed

Jesus did not intend to set up a series of ethics but to change the way we see the world.    Egoism is materialistic – Jesus was theistic and he trusted God wholeheartedly to be real

The notion of a person whose essential attributes are non-empirical is not an intelligible notion at all.

Verification principle itself cannot be verified.

Logical positivists replied that it was not a true statement, for use of words.

People do regard as meaningful statements which the verification principle seems to dismiss.

Swinburne’s e.g., before there were people or any other rational creatures the earth was covered by sea

Keith Ward – God can verify his own existence

Hick looks for eschatological verification, i.e. we shall find out at the end of our lives/of the world. If there is no after life then we shall be dead and won’t know any better.

Can prove that someone is converted – look for their liberation from guilt, new purpose, sense of freedom – i.e. psychological impact of religious language

If find corpse, say that killing is outrageous, horrifying. GO on to describe the killer as outrageous, horrifying. i.e. we describe causes in the way we describe their effects.    Similarly, can say God is good because he causes good things.

Yet criminals can give birth to saints.

Does all knowledge come to us from our senses?

What about value judgements in art? Are these verifiable by empirical means?

Linguistic philosophers state that language has 2 functions: to aid clarity of expression by defining words (analytic propositions) or to inform us about new facts about the world (synthetic propositions)

Isn’t this a serious oversimplification of language? ‘Tom is tall.'(synthetic) and ‘People of six feet or more are tall.’ (analytic) but what about. ‘I wish I were tall?’

‘Tom is leaving the room,’ but what about ‘Tom! Leave the room!’ – if he refuses, does this mean the sentence is without meaning?

I could say of the Mona Lisa that ‘She is beautiful yet she is not beautiful.’ -logically meaningless but it has meaning, deeper insight. Paradox can be a way of pointing to a deeper insight

Braithwaite – Moral statements are not a statement about right and wrong. They are statements about the attitude of the person speaking. Or they are a statement of intention to act in a certain way.

falsification debate

Antony Flew looked at opposite perspective from the verification principle.

How can a statement be meaningful if no experience can ever count against it, if nobody can change their belief.

Flew’s e.g. parable by John Wisdom – 2 at jungle clearing – gardener. No difference between the believer’s gardener and no gardener at all.

Flew – In gardener parable, what starts as an assertion becomes so qualified, can’t be seen or heard, no footsteps, to ‘Just a way of looking at the garden, a statement about its order’ ends up as stretching language unacceptably.

Believers keep changing their beliefs to account for experiences which falsify –   ‘death by a thousand qualifications’

Flew – ‘God’s love is Inscrutable’ used to explain why child dies tragically

Basil Mitchell countered this with parable about a resistance leader – who sometimes seems to be working against the movement but person believes he is doing this as disguise and is really the good leader

Swinburne e.g. toys coming to life at night when can’t be detected- meaningful yet not possible to falsify

Some argue that can’t speak of God by using positive attributes.

God different from anything else. Yet theists do seem to want to make positive assertions.

via negativa – can only say what God is not

way of mystics

experience ineffable

God is totally other

Distinct from everything created

God created all that is – so can’t be PART OF all that is

Only something without a body could create bodies

But this means we can’t understand anything that is said about God

If I say there is something in my room and then deny every guess you make, how can you know what I’m talking about?

People DO want to say positive things – God is good, love, powerful &c.

To say God is mysterious doesn’t mean we can’t have some understanding – I can describe a volcano even though I’ve never seen one and don’t fully understand them.

language games

Wittgenstein – ‘picture theory of meaning’ language has to be about something other than language meaningful language involves words being defined by the real world of objects close to the verification principle – demands that language be used empirically concerned more with way language is used than with truth or falsity science and religion are different games with different sets of rules

each are of life develops its own unique criteria of meaning and truth – is this a danger

Wittgenstein lists uses of language as:

giving orders and obeying them

  • describing appearance of an object
  • constructing (e.g. drawing) an object from a description
  • reporting an event
  • forming and testing a hypothesis
  • presenting results of an experiment in tables and diagrams
  • making up a story and reading it
  • play-acting
  • singing catches
  • making a joke; telling it
  • solving a problem in practical arithmetic
  • translating one language into another
  • asking, thanking, cursing, greeting, praying

So the meaning of language is found in its use – functional analysis

In tennis, 30 rises to 40. In maths, this would not be acceptable.

Language of tennis, as of religion, is a private language – meaning can only be ascertained by asking the players what they intend to convey.

Need to ask of Christianity, and of other religions, whether statements can be verified in whether they are consistent, coherent, all-embracing

Way we use language changes the way we see the world e.g. hag and rabbit

May use parables &c. but are referring to something real – incarnation shows that

Ian Ramsey – disclosure situations- shouldn’t be treated like ordinary statements

difference between knowing about a person and knowing them religious statements involve total commitment

Some translate religious statements, e.g. ‘God created the world’ = ‘Everything which we call material can be used in such a way that it contributes to the well-being of human beings,’

‘The resurrection is a way of affirming the forgiving purposes of God’ = new, invigorating life comes to us when by faith we accept that God in Christ truly loves US. It is not a belief about something which happened to Jesus’s body.

‘To say that God is personal is to say that in personal relationships we touch the final meaning of existence as nowhere else.’ (J. A. T. Robinson)

Van Buren – prayer is a preparation for action

language games evaluated

Ian Ramsey models which bring about disclosure leading to response

model is representation of something which assists us to understand the original situation with which we are all familiar, can be used reaching a situation with which    we are not familiar.

models accompanied by qualifiers – e.g. good qualified by ‘infinitely’ – evokes admiration, not some language ending in an empirical void

don’t ask the meaning, ask the use

immune from charges of incoherence as has own internal criteria of coherence

Departure from trad. theism follows this:

D. Z. Phillips – eternal life has nothing to do with life after death

Randall – finding God does not mean there is an objective God

God = our controlling values

Tillich – God = ground of being

J. Robinson & D. Cupitt popularised.

Language is symbol – psychological account of mental reactions occurring in theist’s mind

Doesn’t adequately explain theists’ experiences

some regard eternal life as more than, though it includes, Phillips’ view

reductionism deprives religious expressions of cosmic implications

Patrick Sherry – Must have some way of knowing whether the language is true or justified

So ‘father’ means what we usually mean by the term.

God’s will, duty &c. but isn’t there more to religion than morality? Or is one thing to say religious language has an elusive character, another to take it out of realms of reality/truth altogether

Religious people don’t regard their views as opinion but as something they know.

Facts confirmed by their experiences

Non-cognitivists cannot account for differences between theists and atheists in matters of fact

Brushes aside thorniest questions e.g. whether there is an entity or power not ourselves that acts in or influences history

Religious language – only understood in context of religious belief and contemporary culture?

religious language is so specialised and distinctive that It forms a system of its own unless one is a participant in a particular language game, the language will be meaningless    meaningful for believers

it conveys depth of meaning not intended in everyday conversation

want it to be understood by wider community for evangelism purposes

religion won’t grow otherwise

but can’t understand some of the language until you have joined and started to experience    artists, literary critics &c. all have to learn their languages

religious language a vehicle for conveying deeper truths e.g. Jesus is lamb of God – draws on Old Testament sacrifices, Christian belief about sin and atonement, Jesus’s suffering and relationship between Jesus and passover lamb and lamb of Revelation chapter 5

Some jargon off-putting until explained, e.g. washed in blood of lamb

born again – rings wrong bells, e.g. fraudulent televangelists

Outsiders may not realise some language needs decoding

some confuse two languages, e.g. try to reconcile Genesis 3 with scientific accounts of how the world was made

Randall’s use of religious language is widespread in today’s culture.

‘Religion’ and ‘faith’ used synonymously to replace God

Questions about God replaced with questions about religion’s nature, function, pragmatic value

Religion often discussed as a form of human culture

Universities study religion as a branch of anthropology and ‘God’ becomes a subtopic

At popular level, religion regarded in a psychological mode as a human activity designed to help humans develop harmoniously

 J. S. Mill – God becomes a symbol

Religion’s usefulness follows without other proof

advantages of analogy in understanding religious language

Aquinas – effects flow from causes – World contains things which show us what God is like because he made it. It contains life and goodness so these must have come from God who is living and good

 Aquinas ‘analogical predication’

words not used univocally (with exactly same meaning) when words used both of people and God

not equivocally – with completely different meanings

equivocally with complete different meanings e.g. cricketers ask for bats from the belfry analogocally eg. starting downwards – dog is faithful cf. man and wife faithful

God is perfect goodness &c. we cannot know what that is like

Words like father, good, living usually apply to world around us.

God without body so problem.

 Colin Brown – divine truth refracted and expressed in terms of human words and finite   images

analogy of proportion – God’s attributes proportional to his nature as are humans’ attributes analogy of attribution – e.g. human wisdom reflects God’s wisdom

Barth – religious language can only talk about god in pairs of opposites, e.g., God is love-but not as humans understand love

comes from hegelian logic – truth in synthesis of thesis and antithesis

Otto – humans experience numinous It attracts and repels, we fear and adore – not referring to the beyond but to our apprehension of it Otto criticised for leaving out moral and dealing only with transcendent

use of analogy leads to agnosticism?

Flew has set up the game in such a way as to exclude a priori the evidences which the believer finds compelling.

Some claims need insider evidence and this has been ruled out of court.

Believers say that their sort of truth is a more profound sort of truth

Involves not merely their Intellect but their whole selves

Talk about God is talk about the extraordinary So can’t be judged by ordinary grounds

The world is larger than the merely literal

Prophets proclaimed messages which were not verifiable. They were good people and God cannot deceive good people so their message must have sense, even if they were wrong on some details.

Theist and atheist can agree about religious language being a way of talking about or encouraging morals – but there is still the question of whether there is a real entity/power acting in/guiding history

Theists see problems to be explained whereas atheists and agnostics don’t have a problem, e.g. why does God allow suffering? Can there be a God if there is suffering?

 D. Z. Phillips: Depends on your point of view – there Is a God/ there is not a God are not two opposing statements of fact. They are two people expressing different outlooks on life. The one who says there is no God has limited his horizon, cut himself off from a further  exploration and way of seeing the world. Disagreement is not about a fact but about having different perspectives on life.

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From → Doctrine, Philosophy

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