The value of myth and symbol in religious language

  • Religious language is not cognitive language it does not appeal to reason but to the emotions and is therefore affective.
  • Myth and symbol are part of the complex structure and character of religious language and are used when factual statements would be inappropriate.
  • Non-cognitive statements about religion are neither true nor false (they cannot be verified or falsified) but have a meaningful function in the right context.
  • Myth and symbol are pictorial forms of language which communicate religious truths about the nature of God, his relationship with his creation or the purpose God has for humanity which cannot be communicated any other way.
  • Rudolph Bultmann said the only way to get at the meaning of religious stories was to strip away the myth.
  • He believed that there was a kerygma – an abiding truth within the gospel message but miraculous details had no place in it.
  • But is myth dispensable?
  • They are surely meant to aid not hinder our understanding of the message?
  • Religious language needs to be appreciated as non-cognitive in order to understand the essential truth underlying the stories without imposing a literal understanding of them.
  • Symbols likewise convey more than just surface meaning. They open up deeper levels of reality. The sacrament of eucharist for example conveys a deeper spiritual meaning below the outward physical reality.
  • Symbols are flexible. The cross for example has many meanings. Likewise referring to Jesus as the Lamb of God conveys gentleness, humility, sacrifice and atonement.
  • Symbolic language reveals the most important elements of belief.
  • However symbols can become over used and empty rituals, like baptism.
  • They can be come the very focus of religion themselves, wherein for example the very acts of eucharist or baptism become essential to salvation.
  • Both myth and symbol are essential to non-cognitive religious discourse but can become obscured by layers of tradition and culture. Each generation needs to rediscover their real meaning for themselves.


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