According to Brown “devine truth has to be refracted and expressed in terms of human words and finite images” and in many ways this is what religious language is seeking to do. One of the key things about religious language is even though it is based on experience it is always going to be equivocal as it is very difficult to understand God. It is often argued that this causes religious language to be meaningless. Karl Bath attempted to overcome this problem by exploring the ides of “via negativa”. According to mystics due to lack of understanding, we cannot say what God is by but we can say what he is not i. e. God is not evil.
Maimonidies expanded this suggesting there is “no necessity to use positive attributes of God”. Even though this idea could not be proved incorrect, it lacks meaning, not helping people understand God. Due to this religious language has begun to take place in a number of forms. A key one of these are metaphors, which are often used to describe aspects of God’s character – for example God is Rock implies his dependability. Both Bohr and Soskice argued that this was crucial, comparing the use of metaphor in religion with its use in science.
Metaphor is often used to capture a concept which can be difficult to describe (i. . a Black hole is not literally a hole), so why can it not be the same with religious language? This is often said to be because scientific ideas can be verified here, where as religious ones have not – they rely on belief. The verification principle in fact is often used to suggest statements can only have meaning if they can be empirically verified. First introduced by Wittgenstein and later expanded logical positivists, it claims that only two types of statement are meaningful; analytical and synthetic statements. Religious statements being neither of these and are in fact cognitive could not be empirically verified.
Even though this is true and religious language can often be accused of being a language game it can be said this theory does not in fact work. As it fails to allow for the reality of certain aspects of life that do not easily lend themselves to empirical verification but raise significant questions. So perhaps the fact scientific principles cannot be verified does not matter, as there are a number of parts of accepted reality, which cannot be empirically verified but are dominant in the world today. Hick also suggests that religious statements will be verified after we die – in the form of “eschatological verification”.
Brown went onto to say metaphor could be meaningful as it reflects people’s human experience that must be true. Wittgenstein also added to his theory later on – that religious metaphor cannot be denied as a source of religious language because the idea is about faith – just because you may not shore the faith does not mean it has not got meaning for the believer. Tillich looks at symbol as another important form of religious language suggesting all “God talk” is symbol and religious symbol is “evocative of experience, opening up new levels of reality that we are closed to”.
Many ideas in religion are expressed through images people acquire from the world today i. e. fire symbolises the Holy Spirit. They are not always important as they re drawn from everyday experience, as it is impossible to capture the infinity of God in a finite image. Jung acknowledged this but suggested symbols keep in touch with our collective unconscious – helping people gain a deeper understanding of God. Even though, there is no way of verifying symbols and knowing they are correct – for we do not know God so how can we compare him to Human concepts.
Some people would say that this is unfair criticism to make as if we believe in God do we not know him through his creation of the world? Myth is another form of religious language, which attempts to explain aspects of God. Myths can often be said to bring about religious truth regardless of factual credibility. Even though myth is a powerful way of explaining religious significance it has a tendency to give God anthropomorphic qualities which can often be see as denying his transcendence. It may convey insight but the way this is done can often distort ideas and cause religious untruths to be confused for religious truths.
This is why it is important to look past the facts of myth and into the real meaning – which is not often done, leading them to be a dangerous form of religious language even if they are successful in capturing an image. Aquinas suggests analogy is the most successful form of religious language. Using human words to make comparisons with God helps people draw understanding while realising that it may not be entirely true. For example; God is perfect isn’t false but it is important to understand we are comparing God to human understanding of perfection which is impossible as he is infinite.
This is a major problem with the meaning of religious language – how can a statement be meaningful if it’s describing something we do not know? Ramsey suggests it is only effective in explaining the existential significance of God for human beings. Creating this understand can bring on enlightenment leading to faith commitment. Therefore, religious language has restricted meaning in various forms but as Wittgenstein suggested this meaning can convey understanding of what theists mean to atheists but does not encourage belief. Belief depends on the individual interpretation of God and can only really be eschatologically verified.