Is it Possible to Speak of God?
*Editor’s Note: This is a portion of a paper Travis once submitted for class. Travis is in class right now working diligently and provided this paper as a post for this week.
Every Sunday morning there are pastors standing behind their pulpits talking about God. As a matter of fact, I am one of them, and I would be fascinated to know how many other pastors are preaching at the exact same time I am every Sunday. You would have to imagine that thousands of men are talking about God in the same thirty to forty five minute span every Sunday morning.
Yet that is only less than an hour of the week accounted for. That is also only taking pastors into consideration, and they are not the only ones who talk about God. Every single day people have conversations about God in their homes, cars, offices, and wherever else they may go. God is a popular subject!
Even though this is the case, some would ask if God is even a valid topic of conversation. Is it a linguistic possibility to talk about the infinite and transcendent God? This post will examine the arguments for and against the ability to speak about God, as well as present my personal position on the matter.
When we speak about God, we are using what is called religious language. Donovan explains that “Language becomes religious language in being used religiously; being used, that is to say, in the pursuit of the various goals, and the expression of the various beliefs, which we find in religions.” Therefore religious language is not a new language altogether, it is the employment of one’s natural language to speak of God or anything else religious.
The Problem of Religious Language
Do common words maintain their meaning when used to describe or discuss God? Does it mean the same thing to say, “I speak,” as it does to say, “God speaks”? Or does the mention of “God’s hand” mean the same thing as if someone were to mention my hand? If it does not, then why not? Davies says,
“This problem is thought to derive from two facts. The first is that people who speak of God do so by attributing to him certain properties (usually ones implying perfection or excellence) which are normally attributed to things in the world. The second is that God is also often said to be very different from anything that comes within the range of our experience. On the one hand, God is said to be, for example, good or wise. On the other, it is said that God is unique and that our talk of him fails to do him justice.”
If we want to say that God is unique or above all else, then it seems contradictory to speak of Him using the same language we use to speak of earthly things. How can God be unique if He speaks the same exact way human beings do? How can we say God the Creator is any different from His creation if He has the same hands as us?
The problem is that we have no other language to use, and we cannot just invent one, although it has been proposed.
The Meaninglessness of Religious Language
Those who object to using our common language to talk of God do so because they say it is meaningless. They ask the question, “How can we speak meaningfully of God?” and answer, “We cannot” (at least not without inventing a new language or giving completely new meaning to words).
The Existence of God
One reason people find it difficult to say we can talk meaningfully about God is because they do not believe God exists, or do not accept any proofs for His existence. Ayer says,
“It is now generally admitted, at any rate by philosophers, that the existence of a being having the attributes which define the god of any non-animistic religion cannot be demonstratively proved…What is not so generally recognized is that there can be no way of proving that the existence of a god, such as the God of Christianity, is even probable.”
He and others claim that if you cannot objectively prove or demonstrate that God (or any god, for that matter) exists, then He (or he/it) does not. Why?
“For to say that ‘God exists’ is to make a metaphysical utterance which cannot be either true or false. And by the same criterion, no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a transcendent god can possess any literal significance.”
Ayer claims that to say “God exists” (a use of religious language) does not mean anything because it cannot be proven true or false. It cannot be proven either way because the referent is unknown or not accepted.
The Meaningfulness of Religious Language
Against Ayer, Flew, and the verification principle, some believe that God does exist and that His existence can be verified. There are even some who say talk about God cannot be verified, yet that does not void it of any meaning. As the introduction pointed out, people talk about God every day. Apparently every one of these people believe religious language contains meaning, because I am sure they would argue that their conversations about Him mean something. What arguments are made for the validity and meaningfulness of religious language?
Other than the fact that the arguments consider religious language to contain meaning, they are far from united. Aquinas explained it using the doctrine of analogy, while Tillich did it using signs and symbols. There is even a concept known as “Negative Theology” that contends it is only possible to describe or explain by God by saying what He is not. Davies says that, “Historically speaking…it is analogy that has most interested those who agree that even unique God can be spoken about significantly,” and so to that we will turn.
Aquinas and Analogy
Aquinas developed the use of analogy as a way to make religious language viable. Campbell explains well the problem Aquinas faced and the development it lead to:
“According to Aquinas, religious language has to walk the narrow road between the Scylla of agnosticism and the Charybdis of anthropomorphism. If, on the one hand, the terms used in speaking of God have no connection with ordinary language, we are in effect saying that we know nothing about God. If, on the other hand, the terms used in speaking of God have exactly the same meaning when used in ordinary discourse, God has been thereby reduced to a finite, creaturely level, and his utter transcendence has been compromised. The road between these extremes Aquinas marked out in terms of analogy, a subtle metaphysical and logical tool that could avoid the dilemma by going between its horns.”
How is religious language somewhat connected to and somewhat disconnected from every day language?
It is analogous. It is not univocal; it does not have the same exact meaning. “It is impossible that anything should be predicated of both creatures and God univocally.” Neither is it equivocal; it does not have a completely different meaning. “But the terms are not used purely equivocally either, as some have claimed.” Instead, it is analogical. “We have to say, then, that the terms are used of creatures and God analogously, that is, according to an ordering between them.”
Does the the principle of analogy solve the problem of religious language? You tell me.