Philosophy Word of the Day – Religious Language

The term “religious language” refers to statements or claims made about God or gods. Here is a typical philosophical problem of religious language. If God is infinite, then words used to describe finite creatures might not adequately describe God. For example, is God good in the same sense that Kofi Annan is good? This difficulty challenges us to articulate the degree that attributes used for finite beings can be used for God and what these attributes mean when they describe God. The ambiguity in meaning with respect to the terms predicated of God is the “problem of religious language” or the “problem of naming God.” These predications could include divine attributes, properties, or actions. Since the doctrines of the divine in Eastern religious traditions differ radically from the doctrines of the Abrahamic traditions, the problem of religious language has not been accorded much attention in Eastern philosophy.

The problem of religious language also provides a challenge for philosophers of religion. If there is no adequate solution to the problem of religious language, large discussions in the domain of philosophy of religion will also be rendered unintelligible. For example, philosophers of religion debate the nature of divine foreknowledge and human freedom. These claims about God would be rendered unintelligible if human speech about God is impossible. Thus, the problem of religious language is a philosophical problem that must be solved in order to provide a framework for understanding claims about God in both the house of worship and the academy. (Continue)

(Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

One helpful way to address this problem is understanding our language about God analogically, as suggested by Thomas Aquinas.

“For Aquinas, God is known by analogy with the creation.  Claims to possess univocal knowledge (terms applying identically) of God are always false according to Aquinas, since our knowledge of God is always limited, finite, and mediated through the natural order.  God may only be seen in the reflection of the creation.  Humans may use words about themselves (e.g., good) and try to apply them to God, but they must not forget the radical differences between themselves and God.  The difference between the goodness of humans and the goodness of God is the difference between the finite and the infinite.  This does not render our knowledge of God null and void.  It merely reminds us that the creature and the Creator are vastly different even if they are also similar in some respects.”

“Thomas Aquinas” in 101 Key Terms in Philosophy and Their Importance for Theology, Kelly James Clark, Richard Lints, and James K. A. Smith (Westminster John Knox, 2004), 7.

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