Religious Language

Understand analogy, myth and symbol in the context of religious language. Look at the falsification principle, Aquinas on the language of analogy, Flew’s Parable of the Garden, Hick’s Parable of the Celestial City, Ayer on God-talk and Tillich on symbol. With advice on past questions and essay tips.

An Explanation of Religious Language

If I am walking along the street where I live and someone driving by stops and asks me the way to the local church, and I give her directions so she can find it, I have used a word, a noun, “church”, a part of common speech in English. It denotes a religious building within the Christian religion. Have I, in using this word, been using some “religious language”? In a general sense, I have.

In a similar way if I was asked directions to the local football stadium by a visiting fan, and I explained how she could get there, would I be using the “language of football”? Again, in a general sense I would be.

However, suppose I enter a church, cross myself before the altar, kneel and begin to recite “Our Father, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us …” Have I used religious language? Have I used religious language in a way that is different from giving directions to the church?

Or suppose I go the football stadium, find my friends who are all there to support the home team, and join in with them with the gestures, songs and chants that express our support for the team, and engage in discussion over who is playing and whether 4-4-2 will really be effective against today’s opposition. Have I been using “the language of football”? Have I been using it in a different way from the way I used it when giving someone directions to the stadium?

In both cases, going into the church and praying, and going to the football ground to actively support my team, my language-use is surely qualitatively different from my mode of language-use when giving directions. In the street and giving directions my usage is FUNCTIONAL, OPERATIONAL, and UNCOMMITTED. In the church at prayer and in the stadium supporting my team my language signals COMMITMENT, ENGAGEMENT and PARTICIPATION in the faith perspective of my church and my football team.

From this we can see that when we discuss “religious language” it is important to keep in mind that what we are examining will be the language of religious faith, commitment and engagement. This would include the language of prayer, devotion, meditation, creeds, hymns, theological doctrine, scriptural writing, and over and above what will follow in this book, having plenty of examples of such language to hand to use to illustrate what else you might want to argue is a good idea.

Note too that in the examples what went on was not just spoken language: a part of a faith commitment is the language of gesture; faith is expressed through actions as well as through words – and this appears to be the case whether you observe what goes in a church or at a football match.

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