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The Meaningfulness of Religious Language


The Meaningfulness of Religious Language The Problem of God-Talk A problem that that puzzles all who engage in philosophical theology. Human language is designed to ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: The Meaningfulness of Religious Language

The Meaningfulness of Religious Language
  • The Problem of God-Talk
  • A problem that that puzzles all who engage in
    philosophical theology.
  • Human language is designed to express truths
    about finite, created beings.
  • How can language so designed be used to express
    truths about an infinite Creator?

  • In other words, does the vast (indeed, infinite)
    difference between God and human beings make it
    impossible for humans to say anything meaningful
    about Him?
  • Via Negativa
  • The Way of Negation or Negative Theology
  • An approach to the problem of God-Talk often
    associated with the 12th Century Jewish
    philosopher Moses Maimonides

  • The fundamental idea of Negative Theology is
    that humans can never say what God is. They can
    only say what He is not.
  • Even seemingly affirmative statements about God
    should be interpreted as saying what God is not,
    rather than saying what God is
  • When we say of this Being God that it
    exists, we mean that its non-existence is
    impossible . . . .

  • We . . . say that it is living, expressing
    thereby that it is not dead . . . . We say . .
    . it has power, wisdom, and will, that is it is
    not feeble or ignorant, or hasty, and does not
    abandon it creatures . . . .
  • Moses Maimonides, The Guide to the Perplexed
  • Negative predication does tell you something
    about God. It tells you what He is not.

  • If, however, one can only express what God is
    not, then why bother to say anything about Him.
  • If one follows the Way of Negation exclusively,
    then, for all practical purposes, God remains
    utterly mysterious and unknowable.
  • Via Analogiae
  • The Way of Analogy or Analogical Predication
  • Often associated with the 13th Century Christian
    philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas

  • Analogical Predication is a middle course
    between the extremes of Univocal Predication and
    Equivocal Predication.
  • If names terms apply in entirely different
    senses to God and to creatures Equivocal
    Predication, then there could be no reasoning
    about God that did not commit the Fallacy of
    Equivocation. This is the fault of using the
    same word in more than one sense

  • when the argument depends on a single sense
    (e.g. Brass is a metal metals are elements on
    the periodic table therefore, brass is an
    element on the periodic table). Nevertheless, a
    term like wisdom cannot mean the same thing
    when applied to God as it does when said of a
    human being Univocal Predication. That would
    be the verbal equivalent of idolatry.
  • Stephen H. Phillips, Philosophy of Religion A
    Global Approach, pp. 281-82

  • In Analogical Predication, a term applied to God
    means something similar to (neither entirely the
    same nor entirely different) what it means when
    applied to human beings.
  • Take, for example, the term good.
  • We know what good means through our experience
    of the goodness of finite beings.
  • Gods goodness, however, is infinitely more
    excellent than the goodness we experience in
    finite beings.

  • In reality, only God is truly good. Finite
    beings are good only insofar as they are
    reflections or images of Gods goodness.
  • From the standpoint of Classical Theism, the
    greatest reflection or image of Gods goodness
    (or of any other of His properties) is the human
  • And God said Let us make man in our image,
    after our likeness . . . .

  • So, God created man in His own image in the
    image of God created He him male and female
    created He them.
  • Genesis 126a 27 (KJV)
  • Human beings are, thus, the imago Dei (image of
  • The Implications of the Concept of the imago
  • What we see as good in humans is not goodness
    itself rather, it is an image of Gods goodness,
    which is goodness itself.

  • Thus, when we predicate goodness of God, we do
    not predicate of Him the goodness we see in
  • Rather, we predicate of God a quality of which
    the goodness we see in humans is merely an image.
  • Our knowledge of God is derived from the
    perfections which flow from Him to creatures
    which perfections are in God in a more eminent
    way than in creatures.

  • Now, our intellect apprehends them as they are
    in creatures, and, as it apprehends them, thus
    does it signify them by names.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, 13, iii
  • As we are good in a finite way, so is God
    infinitely good as we are wise in a finite way,
    so is God infinitely wise. In this way,
    creatures exhibit relatively and proportionately
    the perfections

  • that exist infinitely in God. It should be
    noted, however, that what is epistemologically
    prior is metaphysically posterior. The term
    good, as we know it applies first to creatures
    and second to God, whereas the fact reality of
    goodness exists primarily in God and only
    derivately or secondarily in creatures.
  • Ed. L. Miller, God and Reason, p. 217

  • An Analogy
  • Lets say theres a man who has been stranded on
    a desert island since he was born.
  • All his life, the only other humans hes
    actually seen are the other males stranded on the
    island with him.
  • The only knowledge of women he has comes the
    tattered photographs of them hes seen.

  • When he says Some humans are women, he is truly
    predicating a property of some humans, i.e. being
    a woman.
  • What he has in mind, however, when utters this
    true statement is NOT really the property he is
    truly predicating.
  • Rather, what he has in mind, is a very imperfect
    image (the tattered photographs of women that
    hes seen) of the actual property he is truly

  • Saint Paul expresses the implications of the
    Concept of imago Dei very well
  • For, now, we see through a glass, darkly, but
    then, face to face. Now, I know in part, but
    then I shall know even as also I am known.
  • First Corinthians 1312 (KJV)

  • A question
  • Accepting Aquinas view that we know Gods
    perfect excellences analogously through knowing
    creatures imperfect excellences, we are left
    with a question.
  • To wit What images, analogies, metaphors drawn
    from creatures most aptly reveal God?

  • Instructions
  • In your groups, answer these questions about the
    texts I asked you to bring to class today
  • Why do you think the images, analogies,
    metaphors for the divine in these texts are
    particularly striking?
  • If you come from a particular religious
    tradition, what role does the tradition play in
    your interpretation of these images of the
  • How does the tradition accomplish this role?

  • Religious Traditions and Images of God.
  • Janet Martin Soskice argues that the origin of
    images of the divine is what people take to be
    actual experiences of the divine.
  • Such experiences might be personal, e.g. the
    mystical experiences of the divine had by Saint
    John of the Cross.
  • Such experiences might also be diffuse, e.g. a
    collective experience of the divine in a communal
    worship service.

  • When people try to describe experiences of the
    divine, they rely on images rooted in the
    particular religious traditions they come from.
  • Each speaker is a member of a particular
    linguistic community and, thus, is connected by
    means of his fellows to a range of experience far
    exceeding his own . . . . When individuals . .
    . decide upon a particular model or image as a
    means of elucidating religious experiences,
    they do so as heirs to an established tradition
    of explanation and a common descriptive
  • Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious

  • Soskice is making a point very similar to the
    one we saw C. S. Lewis make last time.
  • Lewis maintains that a religious traditions
    conception of God allows individuals to make
    sense of experiences of the divine.
  • Soskice maintains that a religious traditions
    language allows individuals to describe
    experiences of the divine.

  • What is the upshot of Soskices and Lewis
  • Trying to go it alone in making sense of and/or
    describing experiences of the divine is very
  • A religious tradition seems to be essential to
    doing both.
  • An objection to Soskices and Lewis points
  • Doesnt committing oneself to a religious
    tradition limit ones ability to understand and
    express experiences of the divine?

  • A response to the objection
  • I . . . agree with the point, but I also
    affirm that this objection is irrelevant from the
    perspective of life. If we are alive, we cannot
    choose not to choose . . . . To live with passion
    and authenticity, we must risk becoming
    Buddhists, or Christians, or Humanists, or
    Pagans. We must risk standing for something, or
    we will fall for anything, and end up being
  • Anthony David (former Blinn College Philosophy
    Instructor), The Other Side of Freedom

  • David argues that, to be worthwhile, religion
    requires a commitment to some religious
  • The worry is that some people lose themselves
    in . . . diversity of thought . . . and then come
    to love the feeling of never having to commit to
    anything . . . Religion with all its demand for
    sincere commitment and faithfulness to some
    saving vision, some gospel withers into an
    undisciplined consumption of religious fads and

  • Religion with all its solemn concern for
    divinity, spirituality, salvation, sin,
    enlightenment, and grace withers into one hour
    a week of fellowship . . . during coffee hour.
  • Anthony David, The Other Side of Freedom
  • I leave it to you to decide whether Soskice,
    Lewis, and David are correct.