Notes for class use on Religious Language

Introduction Religious language has some substantial problems regarding its use and comprehension:

  • Difficulties of extending language from one context to an entirely different use
  • Some people claim it is meaning less
  • The difficulty of objectivity


The language of proof and evidence ends to be not much use for talking about God


Poetry or myth and symbol might be much better


The only thing we can understand about God is that He can’t be understood. If you can grasp it, it is not God.St John of Damascus

He is always totally beyond what we can know.’ St Gregory of Nyssa


God does not even name himself when asked by Moses, he replies, ‘I am who I am.’ i.e. I’m not telling, I can’t be named!


Thomas Aquinas maintained that it is possible to speak about God in a meaningful way by analogy.

He understood language as having 3 different uses:



Ian Ramsey (1915-1972) suggests we use many models about God and each one is modified by a qualifier:

God is not just a judge, He is the Supreme Judge, whose love is infinite; He is the True Vine, the Good Shepherd. Hence He is like but yet not.


We speak about God not because we know anything about him but because the alternative is to say nothing.’ St Augustine


Some groups have taken this saying to its logical conclusion and worship God in silence: some monastic traditions and the Quakers.


A Zen story tells how a teacher specified two things were required in the search for God:

To realise all efforts to find God are useless

To act as if you didn’t know that!


Apophatic Theology

Suggests that God is not any of the things he is called therefore even traditional theology tends to negative descriptions:









This is known as the Via Negativa


Inadequacy of language and symbols

Jewish Muslim and Puritan traditions forbid the representation of God in images, statues etc Muslim philosophy developed the double negative:

God is not a being ——> but he is also not a non-being!!

Hindus’ experience of images is such that worshippers know the statue is not the God but they become a concrete focus for prayer or worship.


Conclusion: we can only talk about God at one remove, our symbols, images, metaphors are just that and no more. They point to God, put us in touch with God, lead to God…

(It is understood that if a person asks where someone lives and you show them on a map; eating the map won’t get them there!!)


The sceptic would ask – if our language can only say what God is not are these statements true?

What is truth? It isn’t something which can be broken down into neat little chunks and verified in this case.

A believer says: ‘I believe,’ not a list of truths.


So what one person believes in is just as good as what another one believes in if it can’t be checked. However if you want to be taken seriously then you need to be able to explain it to a non-believer. Therefore you have to use language however inadequate.


Kierkegaard said that truth is subjective; really important truths are personal – true for me; 2+2= 4 is true, certain and verifiable but not relevant. If you fall into deep water you are not concerned with whether you will drown but if you will live or die.


He believes that therefore there is a fundamental difference between the philosophical debate over whether God exists and the individual’s take on the same question – the first is objective and irrelevant the second is subjective and all important.


Reality is therefore not confined to what is subject to reason – there are non-rational realities: values and imperatives.


Feuerbach asserted that God was only a projection of our desires.


However while it might be true that God can only be experienced as a projection it does not follow that there is no reality behind the experience. An answer to Freud‘s psycho-analytical critique.


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