Religious language – starter

The topic of religious language has a number of subdivisions (see map below) and ranges across a number of issues. 
Dr Guy Williams has written an excellent introduction to this topic, with a presentation (scroll down to “Religious Language 2 page summary” and “Religious Language powerpoint”), now hyperlinked to a number of original sources and extracts.

  1. What does religious language claim to mean?
  2. 2. Can religious language be verified (Ayer said not) or falsified (Flew thought so) or weakly verified in terms of probability (Hick thought so)?
  3. 3. Is religious language a special sort of language game (to use Wittgenstein’s term)?

The map below charts the territory covered in this section. There are a number of authors, and they use parables to illustrate their case. There is Flew’s parable of the gardener, Hare’s parable of the paranoid lunatic, Hick’s parable of the Celestial City and Mitchell’s parable of the resistance fighter/stranger.
At least the parables give us a way of remembering what is otherwise a rather complex map – and ironically, Aquinas and others have been arguing that we should think of terms of religious language as some kind of analogy or symbol (Tillich). John Hick caused quite a stir when he wrote “The Myth of God Incarnate” in 1977, but it is a possibility that religious language is not describing but rather explaining religious truth in terms of myth – where myth has a particular meaning. Bultmann was one theologican who argued this before Hick, whereas Aquinas was one philosopher who argued that God-talk was a form of analogy (see Victor Shepherd link). Hick rejects both absolutism and non-realism. He believes there is an objective reality of God, but there are many ways of finding that reality – the pluralist view: “the great post-axial faiths constitute different ways of experiencing, conceiving and living in relation to an ultimate divine Reality which transcends all our varied visions of it”.

Here is a great discussion of the issues Hick raises. Hick’s definition of myth is worth pondering:

“This relationship between the ultimate noumenon and its multiple phenomenal appearances, or between the limitless transcendent reality and our many partial human images of it, makes possible mythological speech about the Real. I define a myth as a story or statement which is not literally true but which tends to evoke an appropriate dispositional attitude to its subject-matter. Thus the truth of a myth is a practical truthfulness: a true myth is one which rightly guides us to a reality about which we cannot speak in non-mythological terms”

From An Interpretation of Religion (1989), 248.3.


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