PowerPoint No. 3 -- The Meaningfulness of


The Meaningfulness of

Religious Language

• The Problem of God-Talk

– A problem that that puzzles all who engage in philosophical theology.

– Human language is designed to express truths about finite, created beings.

– How can language so designed be used to express truths about an infinite Creator?

– In other words, does the vast

(indeed, infinite) difference between

God and human beings make it impossible for humans to say anything meaningful about Him?

• Via Negativa

– The Way of Negation or Negative


– An approach to the problem of God-

Talk often associated with the 12 th

Century Jewish philosopher Moses


– The fundamental idea of Negative

Theology is that humans can never say what God is. They can only say what He is not.

– Even seemingly affirmative statements about God should be interpreted as saying what God is not, rather than saying what God is

– “[W]hen we say of this Being [God] that it exists, we mean that its nonexistence is impossible . . . .

– “[W]e . . . say that it is living, expressing thereby that it is not dead

. . . . [W]e say . . . it has power, wisdom, and will, that is it is not feeble or ignorant, or hasty, and does not abandon it creatures . . . .”

Moses Maimonides, The Guide to the


– Negative predication does tell you something about God. It tells you what He is not.

– If, however, one can only express what

God is not, then why bother to say anything about Him.

– If one follows the Way of Negation exclusively, then, for all practical purposes, God remains utterly mysterious and unknowable.

• Via Analogiae

– The Way of Analogy or Analogical


– Often associated with the 13 th Century

Christian philosopher Saint Thomas


– Analogical Predication is a middle course between the extremes of

Univocal Predication and Equivocal


• “If names [terms] apply in entirely different senses to God and to creatures [Equivocal Predication], then there could be no reasoning about God that did not commit the

Fallacy of Equivocation. This is the fault of using the same word in more than one sense

• “when the argument depends on a single sense (e.g. Brass is a metal; metals are elements on the periodic table; therefore, brass is an element on the periodic table ).

Nevertheless, a term like ‘wisdom’ cannot mean the same thing when applied to God as it does when said of a human being [Univocal

Predication]. That would be the verbal equivalent of idolatry.”

Stephen H. Phillips, Philosophy of Religion:

A Global Approach , pp. 281-82

– In Analogical Predication, a term applied to God means something similar to (neither entirely the same nor entirely different) what it means when applied to human beings.

– Take, for example, the term ‘good.’

• We know what ‘good’ means through our experience of the goodness of finite beings.

• God’s goodness, however, is infinitely more excellent than the goodness we experience in finite beings.

• In reality, only God is truly good.

Finite beings are good only insofar as they are reflections or images of

God’s goodness.

– From the standpoint of Classical

Theism, the greatest reflection or image of God’s goodness (or of any other of His properties) is the human person.

• “And God said: Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .


• “So, God created man in His own image; in the image of God created

He him; male and female created He them.”

Genesis 1:26a & 27 (KJV)

Human beings are, thus, the imago Dei

(image of God).

– The Implications of the Concept of the imago Dei .

• What we see as good in humans is not goodness itself; rather, it is an image of God’s goodness, which is goodness itself.

• Thus, when we predicate goodness of God, we do not predicate of Him the goodness we see in humans.

• Rather, we predicate of God a quality of which the goodness we see in humans is merely an image.

• “[O]ur knowledge of God is derived from the perfections which flow from Him to creatures; which perfections are in God in a more eminent way than in creatures.

• “Now, our intellect apprehends them as they are in creatures, and, as it apprehends them, thus does it signify them by names.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

I, 13, iii

• “As we are good in a finite way, so is God infinitely good; as we are wise in a finite way, so is God infinitely wise. In this way, creatures exhibit relatively and proportionately the perfections

• “that exist infinitely in God. It should be noted, however, that what is epistemologically prior is metaphysically posterior. The term

‘good,’ as we know it applies first to creatures and second to God, whereas the fact [reality] of goodness exists primarily in God and only derivately or secondarily in creatures.”

Ed. L. Miller, God and Reason , p. 217

–An Analogy

– Let’s say there’s a man who has been stranded on a desert island since he was born.

– All his life, the only other humans he’s actually seen are the other males stranded on the island with him.

– The only knowledge of women he has comes the tattered photographs of them he’s seen.

– When he says Some humans are women, he is truly predicating a property of some humans, i.e. being a woman.

– What he has in mind, however, when utters this true statement is

NOT really the property he is truly predicating.

– Rather, what he has in mind, is a very imperfect image (the tattered photographs of women that he’s seen) of the actual property he is truly predicating.

– Saint Paul expresses the implications of the Concept of imago Dei very well:

– “For, now, we see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face. Now, I know in part, but then I shall know even as also I am known.”

First Corinthians 13:12 (KJV)

• A question

– Accepting Aquinas’ view that we know God’s perfect excellences analogously through knowing creatures’ imperfect excellences, we are left with a question.

– To wit: What images, analogies, metaphors drawn from creatures most aptly reveal God?

– Instructions

• In your groups, answer these questions about the texts I asked you to bring to class today:

– Why do you think the images, analogies, metaphors for the divine in these texts are particularly striking?

– If you come from a particular religious tradition, what role does the tradition play in your interpretation of these images of the divine?

– How does the tradition accomplish this role?

• Religious Traditions and Images of God.

– Janet Martin Soskice argues that the origin of images of the divine is what people take to be actual experiences of the divine.

• Such experiences might be personal, e.g. the mystical experiences of the divine had by Saint John of the Cross.

• Such experiences might also be

“diffuse,” e.g. a collective experience of the divine in a communal worship service.

– When people try to describe experiences of the divine, they rely on images rooted in the particular religious traditions they come from.

• “[E]ach speaker is a member of a particular linguistic community and, thus,

[is] connected by means of his fellows to a range of experience far exceeding his own

. . . . When individual[s] . . . decide upon a particular model or image as a means of elucidating [religious] experience[s], they do so as heirs to an established tradition of explanation and a common descriptive vocabulary.”

Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious


– Soskice is making a point very similar to the one we saw C. S. Lewis make last time.

• Lewis maintains that a religious tradition’s conception of God allows individuals to make sense of experiences of the divine.

• Soskice maintains that a religious tradition’s language allows individuals to describe experiences of the divine.

– What is the upshot of Soskice’s and

Lewis’ points?

• Trying to go it alone in making sense of and/or describing experiences of the divine is very difficult.

• A religious tradition seems to be essential to doing both.

– An objection to Soskice’s and Lewis’ points

• Doesn’t committing oneself to a religious tradition limit one’s ability to understand and express experiences of the divine?

– A response to the objection

• “I . . . agree [with the point], but I also affirm that this objection is irrelevant from the perspective of life. If we are alive, we cannot choose not to choose .

. . . To live with passion and authenticity, we must risk becoming

Buddhists, or Christians, or Humanists, or Pagans. We must risk standing for something, or we will fall for anything, and end up being nothing.”

Anthony David (former Blinn College

Philosophy Instructor), “The Other Side of


• David argues that, to be worthwhile, religion requires a commitment to some religious tradition.

– “[The] worry is that some people lose themselves in . . . diversity of thought . . . and then come to love the feeling of never having to commit to anything . . . Religion – with all its demand for sincere commitment and faithfulness to some saving vision, some gospel – withers into an undisciplined consumption of religious fads and fashions.

• “Religion – with all its solemn concern for divinity, spirituality, salvation, sin, enlightenment, and grace – withers into one hour a week of fellowship . . . during coffee hour.”

Anthony David, “The Other Side of


– I leave it to you to decide whether

Soskice, Lewis, and David are correct.