A2 Religious Studies – Religious Language

3rd Feb 2004

A logical positivist would summarise so far:

There are two kinds of meaningful statement:

  • those you verify by defining (2+2=4)and
  • those you verify by testing (this tea has gone cold)

So into which category do religious statements go?

If the first you’re saying the same thing twice: God is good

If the second we need some proof.

However the logical positivist’s attitude to meaningful statements has been thrown out since the 1960s but particularly since AJ Ayer himself once a leading light in the school of thought himself declared the logical positivists to have been mightily mistaken!

It is now agreed that there can be any number of meaningful statements like games but each game has to be played by its own rules.

The positivist rules about language are only valid for statements which can be verified but verification is not the same as meaningfulness.

Here remind yourself of both Logical Positivism and the verification and falsification arguments.

The language of Myth and Worship.

So what kind of language should we use when talking about God?

Living truth or religious truth cannot be grasped just by the intellect so to define it in hard terms kills it. It can only really be known by the emotions, gut feelings, by intuition and experience.

What Christians believe about God and Christ may be defined in the Nicene Creed but to get the flavour of the person of Jesus believers turn to the gospel stories.

But we need both – fact and symbol.

Without disciplined definitions e.g. what is left and what is right our lives would be chaos but without the inspiration of stories our lives would lack an essential dimension.

And since the most important questions we ever ask are about life, what is it? Why and where are we going? We can only turn to symbol to answer.

Myth has come to be synonymous with lies, falsehoods and delusions but they are better described as deep stories.

They were never meant to be taken literally.

They are meant to be taken seriously!

They deal with realities so profound mere scientific language cannot express them.

The characters in myths are archetypes – originals: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah….

The ‘Once upon a time’ or ‘In the beginning…’ are not dateable occasions but timeless in the sense that they are always true!

They deal with insights, fears and hopes…

For example: the Christian Last Day of Judgment: does not mean a day that will not come but a symbol of divine judgment taking place at every moment. The relationship between good and evil is not something trivial. It is of ultimate importance. Christians believe that God’s victory over evil is eternally true. There is no way of proving this or verifying it but those who live by it have a different attitude to those who do not.

Myths are not true in the sense that they are about events which actually happened but in the sense that the truths are always true; e.g.

We need to be very careful when people suggest the need to demythologise religious language – we run the risk of having nothing left worth having.

In this 21st century world it is too tempting to have nothing to do with anything which cannot be weighed and measured, verified, but we lose an important dimension to life itself. Myth is not that sort of reality.


How do we talk about or to God without using language which is at best inadequate?

What criteria should be used when translating holy books for use in modern worship?

Do we go for poetry and beauty or accuracy and intelligibility?

Do we update at the risk of losing all contact with the past? All continuity?

Some believers believe archaic language is the best because ordinary language loses the sense of God, of ritual, of mysticism.

Islam refuses any other language for worship and reading the Qur’an than Arabic.

The Roman Catholic Church in the mid-20th century allowed the Mass to be said in native languages

Yet for some antiquated language is inaccessible and puts them off.

Language and a literal God

From Edexcel Revison pack

Anthony Flew and his Death by a Thousand Qualifications suggests that language about God can reduce him to nothing.

For Flew this is because He is nothing. Remember the Parable of the Gardener and his take on it?

He said that you can qualify the attributes of god down to nothing – remember Job and God will protect him? God didn’t protect him from disease, loss of health, family, wealth, anything tangible in fact, so how would God protect him? Job says He’ll protect his immortal soul; Flew said this is meaningless because it cannot be verified.

Believers answer this by saying that this is because God is Being itself not a being. He does not exist in a literal way, if He did He would not be God!

What is the purpose of religious language?

  • Used in prayer – talking directly to God for some purpose
  • Used to theorise about the origins of life and the universe
  • Describes past historical events
  • Tells traditional tales which involve supernatural elements
  • Formulates moral guidelines

What kinds of words does religion use?

Free/ sin / atonement / sacrifice/ grace / mercy / soul / judgement / hell / heaven /

Create / love / save / infinity / forgiveness / …

While we can demonstrate the qualities of zinc and nutmeg, we can only hint at the nature of God by analogy. John Hick.

Wittgenstein made the same point – the idea of redness can be illustrated only by things that are red, redness per se is ineffable – indescribable (particularly to a blind man)

Simile and metaphor

Useful for drawing parallels between the numenon and the phenomenon.

Amos describes God’s justice as like a plumb line with which he will measure the uprightness of the people of Israel.

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