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Religious Language



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  • 1. Religious Language
  • 2. The Verification Principle
    • “ We say that a sentence is factually significant if he knows how to verify the proposition….that is, if he knows what observations would lead him to accept the proposition as being true or reject it as being false.”
    • A. J Ayer ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ 1936
  • 3. Verification Principle
    • How we use language as the means of conveying knowledge.
    • Only those propositions that can be verified empirically have meaning
    • Analytical propositions: - a priori by which knowledge gained through logical reasoning e.g. bachelors
    • Synthetic propositions: a posteriori by which knowledge could be proved true or false – verified by some sort of sense experience = verification principle e.g. James is tall
    • If it not possible to prove statement true or false then it is meaningless e.g. meaningless to talk about God.
  • 4. Often contradictory or paradoxical
    • “ God is the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”
    • God is both one and three.
    • Jeremy Jones can be a father and a son, because there exist separate persons, but it is hard to understand how God can be father and son to himself.
    • The claim ‘God is omnipotent’
    • An omnipotent being both can and cannot give itself a task which it could not perform.
    • Does this mean these claims are meaningless?
  • 5. A J Ayer
    • Strong verification: anything that can be conclusively established as true/ false here and now e.g. Aimee’s Dad has no hair.
    • Weak Verification: experience renders something probable e.g. Columbus discovered America, the world is evolving.
  • 6. Evaluation
    • The Principle of Verification itself cannot be verified using the Verification Principle
    • John Hick – eschatological verification it may be that religious statements will be verified at the end. We don’t know yet how to verify religious statements. So statements like ‘God exists’ can be meaningful.
    • Some statements could be provable to one person and ‘meaningless’ to another e.g. some witnessed Jesus raising from the dead. To them this is verifiable, to others not verifiable and to others could be weakly verified.
  • 7. The Falsification Principle
    • Anthony Flew:
    • Religious statements are meaningless.
    • For a statement to be meaningful, it must be known what empirical evidence could count against it (or prove it wrong)
    • E.G Aliens live on mars = meaningful as we can prove it wrong.
    • Religious statements like ‘God is good’ are not falsifiable as religious believers do not allow anything to count against them
  • 8. Falsification Principle: Counter criticisms
    • R. M. Hare – Religious Language is meaningful. Flew/ Ayer make mistake of treating it as cognitive when it is in fact non – cognitive.
    • Cognitive: knowable as a fact outside human mind e.g. water boils are 100c whether humans involved or not
    • Non Cognitive – dependant on human thought and opinion – not existing independently of human belief.
    • Religious language is still meaningful even if not verifiable or falsifiable. It gives knowledge and influences the way people see the world.
  • 9. R.M. Hare
    • Used the example of a lunatic who believes all his teachers are trying to kill him
    • This is the way in which the lunatic saw the world and nothing could change his view of the world.
    • Hare coined the word ‘blik’ to describe the way in which people see and interpret the world.
    • The importance of a ‘blik’ is that they are not falsifiable and it does not make factual claims.
    • No evidence or argument can demonstrate the falseness of a blik.
  • 10. Counter criticisms
    • Basil Mitchell: Flew and Ayer missed the point that religious believers hold certain things on trust.
    • Flew was wrong to say religious believers never allow anything to stand against their faith. They do, but they have a prior commitment to God – trust and faith.
    • Richard Swinburne: - Flew was wrong – we can understand ideas even though they may not be falsifiable.
    • E.g. toys in a cupboard – we cant prove they don’t move around when we’re not in the room but the idea is meaningful to us.
  • 11. Purpose of religious language
    • R. B. Braithwaite: VP and FP (verification/ falsification) make mistake of regarding religious language as cognitive when its non cognitive. Religious language is ultimately moral language.
    • Any religious claim is primarily a moral claim , it expresses intention to follow certain code of behaviour “God is good.”
    • Refers to a story as well as an intention
    • Not necessary to believe story in order to adopt a certain way of life.
  • 12. Dionysius (c.500 CE) State of knowledge 1:
    • Believed there are 3 states of knowledge and meaning in what we can know and say about God:
    • 1. One approach is the Via Negativa (the Apophatic Way)
    • It is possible to talk about God, not by saying what he is, but what he is not .
    • E.g. “God is not evil”, “God is not human”, “neti neti” (not this and not that)
    • God is:
    • “… not soul or mind…It is not number or order, greatness or smallness…It is not immovable, moving or at …”
  • 13. State of knowledge 2:
    • Having established that God can only be referred to in negative terms, what can be known of God
    • The “State of Affirmation”- what we can say about God, albeit inadequately
    • Source of this knowledge is the Bible
    • God is loving/ just etc. though this is symbolic language
  • 14. State of knowledge 3:
    • To try and convey that God is beyond human understanding by adding that God is “beyond” the human condition
    • E.g. “God is beyond goodness”
    • This is metaphorical language, but leads people to greater spiritual awareness
    • In ‘The Mystical Theology’ Dionysius explains God is beyond all categories of human thought
    • John Hick (1999): Dionysius…
    • “ God is utterly transcendent…indescribable and incapable of being conceptualised by the human mind.”
  • 15. ‘ God’ refers to a being beyond human experience
    • Many theologians believe God is beyond our understanding
    • And our language is woefully inadequate to talk about God.
    • Every positive attribute of God (e.g.... all-loving, all knowing) must be balanced by recognition that human language is inadequate to describe God
    • Do our attempts to talk about God fail because of his transcendent nature?
  • 16. Evaluation of the via negativa
    • May give people an insight into nature of God by pointing beyond the language used
    • But Hick believes Dionysius contradicts himself by saying God is ineffable, yet revealed in the Bible
    • Ultimately, does the via negativa move us any nearer to saying anything about God that is definitely true?
  • 17. What are symbols?
    • Have deeper significance and ‘point beyond themselves’
    • “ A pattern or object which points to an invisible metaphysical reality and participates in it” (Erika Dinkler-von Schubert)
    • They can be pictorial, abstract, verbal or active (a symbolic action)
    • E.G. A white light burning over a Tabernacle in a Catholic church= the presence of Christ
    • The light could mean so much to a Catholic Christian…Christ/ tradition/ worship/ familiarity…
  • 18. Paul Tillich (1885-1965) ‘Systematic Theology’ 1951
    • God is what concerns us ‘ultimately’
    • But Tillich did not see ‘God’ as a physical reality bound up in the physical world
    • “ God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him”.
    • Any language beyond the statement “God is Being-Itself” is symbolic
    • “ The language of faith is the language of symbols.” (Dynamics of Faith, p.45)
  • 19. Paul Tillich
    • Argued that when you say something about God in concrete terms, you are using physical, contingent language
    • Yet what you are saying about God is likely to be non-physical and non-contingent
    • The language you employ points beyond the concrete concepts to a transcendent reality
    • Tillich held belief that symbols ‘participate’ somehow in the object they refer to.
    • E.g.. The national flag-
    • it represents national pride and is also part of that national pride.
  • 20. Four functions of symbol:
    • J. H Randall argued symbols work by:
    • Motivating- by firing up emotions and inspiring people to action
    • Socially binding people with the same understanding of the symbol
    • Communicating- things that are not literal
    • Disclosing- revealing hidden depths to us about spiritual matters
  • 21. Problems/ criticisms of seeing religious language as symbolic
    • There are some things that believers would want to claim are literal, e.g.. “God is good”
    • John Hick argued Tillich’s view of symbols ‘participating’ in their object is vague about what this means
    • Symbols can become objects of worship in themselves
    • They can be trivialised and their original meaning lost
    • Symbols are intended to ‘point beyond’ themselves to a metaphysical reality, but there is no way of knowing if the symbol gives the right or wrong insight into the ultimate reality, therefore we cannot know if they are appropriate.
  • 22. Problems/ criticisms of seeing religious language as symbolic
    • They can become outdated
    • Paul Tillich wrote, “It is necessary to rediscover the questions to which the Christian symbols are the answers in a way which is understandable to our time”
    • Paul Edwards did not believe symbols convey any factual knowledge and are meaningless
  • 23. Myth and religion
    • William Paden sees belief in God- and gods, as living pieces of myth
    • All religious language is mythic- two levels:
    • 1. Voice of myth- the foundational stories of the religious world (first-order)
    • 2. Doctrine, commentary and religious law which speaks about 1. above (second- order)
  • 24. Myth and Religious Worlds
    • Myth gives meaning to past, present and future
    • Sets the participant’s life in a context
    • Paden goes on to describe how mythic language has a special type of power
    • Mythic power can be seen in the absolute status of scripture or oral equivalents in non-literate cultures
    • It is recited, chanted, intoned, learned…
    • Anthropologists have found tribal communities distinguish between stories of entertainment and sacred stories
    • The ‘sacred stories’ contribute to the worldview, in terms of people’s moral, social and metaphysical existence.
    • He argues religion gives a person a particular ‘Worldview’ and that this colours all their experiences
  • 25.
    • Myth is not fixed and unchanging, but can adapt, transform, re-seed itself, wither
    • According to a community’s needs and interpretations
  • 26. The immanence and application of myth
    • Paden goes on to discuss, with examples, how myth has an applied function, e.g..
    • The calendar
    • Sacred places
    • Ritual and re-enactments
    • Rites of passage
    • Healing ceremonies
    • Recollection in times of need or crisis
    • In moral behaviour
  • 27. Ludwig Wittgenstein
    • Various situations in your life involve you communicating in different ways e.g. talk differently at college/ work/ family
    • The meaning of language is the way in which it is used – depends on society, people etc. each activity has its own language – like a game without own set of rules.
    • Language games: used in all forms of human activity
    • People not in game do not understand language – meaningless
    • Religious belief has its own language but you cannot say it is meaningless due to you not understanding it.
  • 28. Analogy
    • Comparison between two things
    • Univocal – uses word in same way exactly – meaning is the same e.g. Paris is a city, Rome is a city
    • Equivocal – language is unclear/ ambiguous e.g. John is on the right – could mean 2 things ‘right’ in terms of location or political view
    • Aquinas: language is said by God = is an analogy e.g. God is love or god is my father. This language is being said equivocally
    • Brian Davies: “The bread is good; the baker is good.”