"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell













PRABUDDHA BHARATAWestern Philosophic View of Religious Language  




               Western Philosophic View of Religious Language




               Dr. Lekshmi Ramakrishnaiyer




     Language is the chief tool for effective communication. Be it science, politics or religion, it is language that plays the crucial role in the propagation of axioms and ideas. There are different kinds of languages that are peculiar to the physical, natural, and social sciences. But whether there is any specific language in the discourse of religion is a question that needs to be discussed and analysed. If we undertake a comparative study of different religions the world over, it becomes quite clear that there is no specific or universal language of religion. This is because unlike other sciences, which are purely empirical in their nature, religion is fundamentally an experience or awareness involving transempirical elements within its ambit.


     Religion as a system of lived experiences includes the first-order language through which we communicate our feelings, thoughts and actions in relation to an object of devotion. Galloway defines religion as mans faith in a power beyond himself whereby he seeks to satisfy emotional needs and gains stability of life. (1) Here, faith in a power beyond man is regarded as the essential feature of religion. This power has the ability to satisfy the emotional nature of man; that is, it responds to man and his prayers seeking help in troubled moments or expressing gratitude in the hours of victory. This means that religion is a matter of commitment to an object of devotion or an attitude to life. But since neither commitment nor attitude can be deemed cognitive, religious statements or utterances too cannot be counted as cognitive; they cannot be regarded as either true or false like scientific ones. But though empirically unverifiable, religious statements are not meaningless. The significance of religious language in human life cannot be simply brushed aside. Religion as a distinct kind of commitment has its own field and its own distinctive language.


     Language analysis is one of the fundamental tasks of a philosopher. Though we can find sophisticated elements of linguistic analysis in the Vyakarana, Nyaya, Mimamsa, Jaina and Buddhist schools of Indian thought, linguistic analysis as a school of philosophy is mainly a western thought movement. A good number of western theologians have dealt with religious assertions as if they were empirical. However, Ludwig Wittgenstein in his philosophical investigations came up with the view that religious language is used not to convey any information about a fact but to tell people to live with a picture, though not a picture which can be sensed. One very old view is that theistic statements are quasi-cognitive; they are said to be analogical in nature. Besides these, there are a number of other theories holding the view that theistic assertions are non-cognitive.


     A recent development in the philosophy of religion is much occupied with the problems concerning the religious uses of language. One such is that concerning the descriptive terms applied to God and another is that dealing with the basic function of religious language.


     John Hick has pointed out that many of the terms that are applied to God are used in a special sense and differ from the way they are used in ordinary mundane contexts. When it is said that God is great, God is love, or God is good, it does not mean that God occupies a large volume of space or that God has a physical body which expresses itself in a range of actions. In cases where a word occurs both in secular as well as theological contexts, its secular meaning is primary in the sense that it has developed first and has acquired an established meaning of its own. The meaning that such a term bears when it is applied to God is an adaptation of its secular use. Consequently, terms like great, love, or good, when applied to God in religious discourses, raise a number of questions. There are different opinions among philosophers regarding the status and meaning of such terms and the function of religious language.



     Analogical Expression



     In the Christian tradition, the philosophers of the scholastic period like St Thomas Aquinas developed the doctrine of analogy to explain the nature of religious language. Aquinas says that when a word such as good is applied to God, it is in a different sense from that used in relation to human beings. According to him good is applied to God and man neither univocally nor equivocally but analogically. Qualities like goodness, love and wisdom are the perfect qualities of the Godhead that are known to us only by analogy.

     When we say that God is good, we are saying that there is a quality of the infinitely perfect Being that corresponds to what at our own human level we call goodness. It is the divine goodness that is the true, normative and unbroken reality, whereas human life shows at best a faint, fragmentary and distorted reflection of this quality. Only in God can the perfections of being occur in their true and unfractured nature: only God knows, loves, and is righteous and wise in the full and proper sense. (2)


     Aquinas is sure that we do not know what perfect wisdom or perfect goodness is like. The doctrine of analogy intends to indicate the relation between the different meanings of a term when it is applied both to humanity and to God. He further states that we know that God is but we have to take the help of analogy when we want to know what He is like.


     The doctrine of analogy derives its force from the assumption that cause and effect are similar in nature. Men and other finite things have been created by God. So finite creatures reflect the nature of their creator, God. Terms signify God to the extent that our intellect knows Him. And since our intellect knows God from creatures, it knows him to the extent that creatures represent Him. (3)



     Symbolic Statements



     Paul Tillich has discussed the symbolic nature of religious language in his works like Systematic Theology and Dynamics of Faith. In this view, all theological statements concerning God - that he is the creator, a good and personal being, and so on - are symbolic. To Tillich religious faith, which is the state of being ultimately concerned about the ultimate, can express itself only in symbolic language. (4) He says that a symbol participates in the reality to which it points. A symbol opens up our vision to dimensions of reality (as also our own being) that otherwise remain uncognized. A symbol deals with the ultimate and the fundamental symbol of our ultimate concern is God.

     According to Tillich, in the notion of God two elements can be distinguished - the element of ultimacy or the Being of God, which is not a symbol, and the element of concreteness, which is borrowed from our experience and is symbolically applied. (5) A Christ or a Krishna has both the elements: the ultimate concern and a concrete image of what concerns a believer ultimately.


     Tillich further expresses his view that a symbol has truth: it is adequate to the revelation it expresses. No symbol should be treated as an existential thing. If a symbol is objectified and secularized in the form of a thing, then it is no more a religious symbol. Every symbol points to the infinite, which it symbolizes, and the finite, through which it symbolizes. Hence it is finite-infinite. It forces the infinite down to finite things and elevates and opens up the finite things for the divine. (6)


     A symbol is a statement which a believer makes with all his heart, soul and strength. The true awareness of the transcendental or ultimate reality, which the symbol represents, is an existential grasping of it. Hence no symbolic statement can be impersonally, literally or factually true; that is to say, they cannot be classified as true or false like cognitive judgements. They are authentic or inauthentic - authentic when they evoke an ultimate concern for mans destiny or when they represent the transcendent with an immediate awareness. But symbols are not merely expressions; they have their root in reality: They are not merely different subjective ways of looking at the same thing. They have a foundation in reality, however much the subjective side of mans experience may contribute. (7) Tillich, however, says that the sole literal and non-symbolic statement that can be made about the ultimate reality called God is that God is Being-itself. All other theological statements about God are symbolic.



     Religious Language as Non-Cognitive



     As a matter of historical fact, many religious people have taken such statements as God is love to be not only cognitive but also true. However, recently there have been a number of theories that treat religious language as non-cognitive. Three of such theories are discussed below.

     In his book The Role of Knowledge in Western Religion, J. H. Randall holds that religion works with a body of symbols and myths which are both non-representative and non-cognitive. According to him they have a fourfold function:


     First, they arouse the emotions and stir people to actions; they may thereby strengthen peoples practical commitment to what they believe to be right. Second, they stimulate cooperative action and thus bind a community together through a common response to its symbols. Third, they are able to communicate qualities of experience that cannot be expressed by the literal use of language. Fourth, they both evoke and serve to foster and clarify our human experience of an aspect of the world that can be called the order of splendour or the Divine. (8)


     This fourth statement of Randalls is rhetorical. To him the Divine is a mental construct, a product of the human imagination and not the creator or ultimate ruler of the universe. As John Hick rightly points out, this way of thinking has led to the replacement of the word God by religion, a use that is becoming widespread today. In contexts pertaining to God and His nature or purpose, the corresponding notion, which is of concern today, is religion, its nature and function.


     This attitude has resulted in a shift in focus in the type of issues that presently interest both the student of religion as well as the common man. One is less interested in questions about the existence of God and the validity of religions than about the utility of religions. Gods existence may be doubted, but not that of religions. It may not be very discreet to question the truth of religions; opinions about utility, however, appear more consonant with the spirit of scientism.


     A profound view about the non-cognitive nature of religious statements is offered by R B Braithwaite. He holds that religious statements, especially ethical ones, express or dictate a general policy or a way of life. For example, a Christians assertion that God is love (agape) is an indication of his intention to follow an agapeistic way of life. Though not empirical, in his view, religious statements have meaning: A theistic statement may be empirically vacuous but then it has meaning, for theists do talk and understand one another. (9) Braithwaite holds that a theistic statement is primarily a moral statement backed by stories. According to him, it is not necessary that these stories be true, but they act as psychological aids for people to resolve upon and carry through a course of action. A great many times the moral policy of action goes against ones psychological temperament; but when it is associated with a parable, the resolution to carry it out comes spontaneously. However, the fundamental characteristic of a religious statement is the resolution to follow a way of life and not the story with which it is invariably associated. The story has no truth claim. Braithwaite holds that religious statements are a matter of existential decision making and commitment to a certain way of life and action.


     Another view of religious language as non-cognitive comes from R. M. Hare. He, like the later Wittgenstein, conceived language as a kind of game with many possible rules of play. Scientific or factual use is not the only context for the use of language. Hare holds that religious statements are both prescriptive and descriptive. According to him, religious statements do not describe facts but express our attitude to facts. A statement expressive of an attitude to facts may be called a blik statement. (10) Blik is the mode or manner in which things appear to a perceiver in the light of his deep-seated disposition. Bliks, according to Hare, are neither true nor false: they determine whether something is perceived as fact or illusion. Hare says that religious statements are blik statements. In his view, just as Kant regarded causal necessity to be an a priori or non-empirical blik of the scientists of his day, God as the source and cause of beings is a blik.


     The blik theory of Hare seeks to emphasize two things: First, belief or disbelief in God may not have any predictive value concerning facts; yet it makes a great difference to the world of theists. Second, he holds that religious statements are not factual assertions; yet a religious belief is never bereft of factual reference. Bliks, according to Hare, may include faith and commitment. A religious blik is right or wrong in relation to a certain religious community accepting a certain prescriptive religious value. He does not hold that religious bliks are indispensable but says that they are ultimately matters of personal decision and commitment which help to choose a kind of life we want to live.


     Religious language, whether we describe it as analogical, symbolic or non-cognitive, is unique, and its uniqueness is something which springs from the uniqueness of what that language is about. The language of religions is one that tries to comprehend the incomprehensible. As Sri Ramakrishna says, No one can say with finality that God is only this and nothing else. (11) Though not definitive, religious statements can act as ladders for people groping in worldly darkness to reach transempirical heights.






     1. G. Galloway, The Philosophy of Religion, 184.
     2. John H. Hick, Philosophy of Religion (New Delhi: Prentice Hall, 1993), 84.
     3. Y. Masih, Introduction to Religious Philosophy (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1971), 99.
     4. John H. Hick, op. cit., 86.
     5. Y. Masih, op. cit., 134.
     6. Religious Experience and Truth, ed. Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1961), 306.
     7. Ibid., 143.
     8. John H. Hick, op. cit., 90.
     9. Y. Masih, op. cit., 116.
     10. Ibid., 107.
     11. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 148.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








 Rambler's Top100