Sample essay – Myth and Symbol

An A-grade essay on Religious Language.


Faith and religion is considered to be something beyond human comprehension and experience. Therefore language of faith does not seem to operate in the normal way and it is considered “meaningless” by many philosophers. The Logical Positivists argue religious language to be meaningless on the basis that is cannot be verified according to AJ Ayer’s Verification Principle, as in any talk of God is neither verifiable from evidence nor true by definition. It does not add anything to our view of reality so it is not literally significant; it is “pseudo-language” as Ayer put it. Similarly, religious language is seen to be meaningless by the Falsificationist Flew but on the grounds that it cannot hypothetically be proved wrong, therefore talk of God tells us nothing about this world. There are many approaches to attempt to overcome the “so-called problem of religious language” including that it has a symbolic and mythological nature as opposed to being factually accurate. Scholars who support a mythological view of Religious Language claim that the Falsificationists and Logical Positivists have made a misdiagnosis on what the language is really trying to convey and express.

A myth is a story or narrative which points to something more than its basic literal interpretation. It consists of metaphors, symbols, analogies and allegories to express the inexpressible and reflect an exploration of human purpose and destiny which can be better understood if it is “demythologised”. Within theological traditions, the concept of mythology is extremely significant throughout history. The professor Ninian Smart claims that myths are an essential component of any religion to be able to explore fundamental questions of meaning through a narrative form.

Philosophers who argue that religious language is the language of myth do not see a problem in the linguistics of faith. They see mythology and symbolism to be used to express our faith rather than attempting to prove the existence of God or to express any historically factual accounts. The Theologian Rudolph Bultmann claims that much of the New Testament is “mythological”. It should not be judged with a literal mindset but re-interpreted relative within a context of contemporary society and culture. This allows us a better understanding and insight of what the text is dealing with. In Bultmann’s Op cit, he claims that “The whole conception of the world which is presupposed in the preaching of Jesus as in the New Testament generally is mythological” in particular the resurrection stories to be an example of this. The idea of a “resurrection” could be interpreted as a metaphor for a kind of transformation man experiences when committing himself to faith. By unpeeling and “demythologising” the layers of meaning within religious text, one can better understand the nature of God and the human condition.

A problem arises with the notion of “demythologising” a given text with misinterpretation of the translation. It is likely that a text read today might mean something significantly different to someone reading it five hundred years ago due to radical culture and society differences. Some argue that there is still a problem with religious language due to this ambiguous aspect of its character assuming it is of mythological nature. However, this might be the case when attempting to interpret an individual section of Biblical scripture but may become more coherent when reviewing several passages and their relation to each other.

Paul Tillich was a philosopher who defended the notion of symbolism solving the “so-called problem of religious language”.  He famously stated: “The language of faith is the language of symbols”. For Tillich, faith is a state of “ultimate concern” which cannot be expressed directly as incorrectly assumed to have been by certain philosophers who argue religious language to be meaningless. He emphasises that there exists different sorts of symbols which are distinguished into “signs and symbols” in his “Dynamics of Faith”. He suggests that symbols “participate in the reality of that to which they point to”. A flag is an example of a symbol as opposed to a sign as it represents the history, hope and values of the country. Its imagery has layers of meaning and something we share and “participate” in what it stands for. Tillich claims that symbols “open up levels of reality which are otherwise closed for us”.

A number of scholars have criticised Tillich’s distinction between signs and symbols, including the theologian John Macquarrie. The notion of a sign only ever having an arbitrary link with that to which it points is refuted with an example of saying something like “This rain is a sign of autumn coming”. The use of the word “sign” suggests an intrinsic link between what it means to have autumn coming and the reality of the rain.

However, Macquarrie himself defends the notion of religious language having a mythological nature but uses different technical language in order to avoid the misunderstanding Tillich seems to make between symbols and signs. Like Tillich, Macquarrie makes it clear that in order to accurately interpret religious language of a mythological nature; we need to distinguish the symbols within the myth. In his book Principles of Christian Theology, Maquarrie indicates the importance of symbols within a myth: “… although it is often said that myth is indispensable to the expression of religious truth, this statement is not accurate. What is meant is that religious or theological language cannot dispense with symbols, the symbols drawn from myth …” Macquarrie suggests that it is the individual symbols embedded within the myth that need to be reviewed and illuminated in order to understand the meaning of the religious language. He also argues that in order for the idea of religious language having significance through its symbols, we have to make a distinction between conventional symbols and intrinsic symbols (as with Tillich’s signs and symbols). Conventional symbols have an arbitrary, unrelated link with the thing that it points to. For example punctuation; it bears no relation to its meaning and could equally be entirely different and have the same function if it had been learnt.  On the other hand, an intrinsic symbol has a “kinship” or kind of relationship with that that which it represents. For example; in the Gospel of John “the Good Shepherd” is representative of something beyond what it means to literally be a “good shepherd” although they still correlate in their different proportions.

Some theologians, including many Orthodox Christians and fundamentalists, want to defend a realist position. They uphold that what is written in the Bible should be interpreted mostly literally and it is not a symbol for something else. The philosopher Alvin Platinga notes that to claim “God exists” is an existential assertion and not to talk of his existence symbolically. In addition to this criticism, John Hick takes the example of the affirmation “God is good” to prove his point that the idea of God’s goodness is important to believers that he is “good” in the literal sense and it is not symbolic of anything else. But how can we mean “good” in the same sense as “this weather is good” to describe a level of divine goodness? It seems inevitable that when using the term “good” to describe God we mean something analogous to a greater proportion of the word’s assumed meaning. In addition to this, stories such as the creation account in Genesis have been proved scientifically inaccurate therefore for them to have any use or relevance to this world for a Christian, they must be seen to have a level of mythological nature.

The dispute over the problem of religious language has been on-going over hundreds of years. What the argument from mythology proposes is that groups of philosophers such as the Verificationists and Falsificationists are missing the point when attempting to label religious language as “meaningless”. It seems most plausible that what religious text is trying to convey is something that people already with faith mean when they talk about God. Human language does not encompass the complexities of what we are trying to express about our belief and therefore symbolism acts as a tool to achieve this, thus seeming to solve the “so-called problem of religious language”.

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