Religious Language by Ian Ramsey

  • Early 20th century Russell and Moore protested against this kind of language. The talk of ‘Being’ which when ‘freely floating in the air’ provided the subject matter of logic they regarded as mere juggling with language. The watchword became for Russell ‘Clarify’. What can be said, can be said plainly. If not we should be suspicious of its claim to be said at all.
  • The Verification Principle claims to give a touchstone for clear and unambiguous language. Acc to it we must exclude from language all propositions which cannot be verified by experience.
  • In particularly ethics and theology would have to be excluded from meaningful language.
  • However it was soon realised that the Verification Principle itself cannot be meaningful in the same sense!
  • Wittgenstein concluded that the Verification Principle may only be one clue as to meaning so that propositions may yet have a meaning of their own.
  • When we come to God we find that believers wish on the one hand to claim that he is indescribable and ineffable and yet on the other to talk a lot about him. More, when they speak of God hey say that he is transcendent and immanent, impassible yet loving etc. but if we speak like this are we talking significantly at all.
  • The characteristic claim of religion is that there are situations which are spatio-temporal and more.
  • Butler’s famous phrase was ‘probability is the very guide of life.’ He meant that we actually live our lives by it. It is not just a weak acceptance. The example Ramsey gives is that of a child drowning in the water; the rescuer is aware that there is little likelihood he can succeed in a rescue yet he still tries. In fact we would expect him to; not to give up and accept probability.
  • Existentialists stress the significance of ‘authentic existence’ in contrast to merely ‘existing.’
  • There are disclosures when for example we are told someone’s name. Previously we may know all sorts of facts but when they give their name they become a person.
  • The claim of free will is that there are occasions of human activity which will not be exhaustively unpacked in scientific language however far those languages go.
  • There is a difference between choosing to do X and being told to do it. This is a discernment commitment. Kant says this characterises morality and is identical with that which defines religion.
  • A man’s total commitment to cricket, or a captain’s to his ship, are discernment commitments – these are like religious commitments. A commitment suited to the whole job of living.
  • Agape love is like this – something by which one organises one’s whole life.
  • So we see religious commitment as a total commitment to the whole universe; something in relation to which argument has only a very odd function; its purpose being to tell such a tale as evokes the ‘insight,’ the discernment from which the commitment follows as a response.
  • [in other words the function of religious language is to evoke a commitment response.]
  • Even mathematical language has oddities: ‘absolute space’, ‘continuous creation’ and even ‘evolution’ are in themselves not verifiable though they may be within the larger theories.
  • There is an important place for ‘odd’ language; that odd language may well have a distinctive significance.


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