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"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." – Aristotle

Many of us have a dim and distant memory of early childhood gaffes with words, of those occasions when you thought you had grasped the meaning of a word only to discover sometimes in a rather embarrassing way that you had got the wrong end of the stick and were using the word in an odd and different way. My wife recalls one such tricky occasion with her use of the word "stoned".

Interestingly, it is perfectly possible to have a mistaken understanding of a word and yet use it correctly for quite a while. Imagine, for instance, a person who was taught the word "Everest" by having it pointed out to him in a book. Initially, he seems to have grasped the word correctly, using the word "Everest" appropriately in conversations. But then, when he refers to Mount Blanc as "Everest", it is clear that something is amiss. Perhaps he took the pointing out of "Everest" in the book to mean that "Everest" is a big pile of rock with snow on top?

So how then do we ever know that we have properly understood the words that we use daily? In latest article, a commenter puts up a question about religious language, which got me thinking?

Has Language made our thoughts into bigotry or has God/Gods made this figural into a practicable way of segregating its followers/believers from others?

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 the ex-Secretary-General of the UN 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 a particular God? The ambiguity in the meanings with respect to the terms predicated of God is the “problem of religious language” or the “problem of deciphering the words of any God”.

However, the problem of religious language considers whether it is possible to talk about God meaningfully if the traditional conceptions of God as being incorporeal, infinite and timeless are accepted. Because these traditional conceptions of God make it difficult to describe him, as religious language has the potential to be meaningless. The theories of religious language either attempt to demonstrate that such language is meaningless, or attempt to show how religious language, while mainly problematic, can it still be meaningful!

In 1938, Ludwig Wittgenstein gave a series of three lectures on religious belief at Cambridge. We do not have his own lecture notes but we do have some twenty odd pages of notes taken down by one or more of his students/followers attending those lectures. Wittgenstein did not check their accuracy of notes taken down when he lectured and they may not in fact be as accurate in every detail? Nevertheless, they are the most complete and accurate accounts we have of his Lectures on paper!

Many of the major themes contained in those lectures that are elusive and subject to various interpretations by the note takers/translators. Here, Wittgenstein can be interpreted in different ways; Wittgenstein's views can be briefly stated as the Words spoken by him in those lectures, yet it may vary by the jotters views, grammar, writing styles and even flow of listening. Some words may be garbled, some excluded, yet some just added figuratively to comprehend that “it made sense to me” [thoughts] or it could be suggested as it was interpreted. A reader of Wittgenstein's lectures today might well be puzzled about how they should be understood or be interpreted. On the one hand, they seem to present a general view of the nature of his lectures when Wittgenstein gave, but the jotters completely interpreted differently when that was translated into another language of certain contexts. So, this is how traditional religion came into being, as the jotters did from memory or even when jotting down Gods spoken words by his Prophets!

Traditionally, religious language has been explained as via-negativa, analogy, symbolism, or myth; each of which describes a way of talking about God in human terms. The via-negativa is a way of referring to God according to what he is not; analogy uses human qualities as standards against which to compare divine qualities; symbolism is used non-literally to describe otherwise ineffable[i] experiences; and a mythological interpretation of religion attempts to reveal fundamental truths behind religious stories. Alternative explanations of religious language cast it as having political, performative, or imperative functions.

These predications could include divine attributes, properties, or actions and even godly laws/commandments. Since the doctrines of the divine in religious traditions differ radically from the doctrines of the Abrahamic [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] traditions, the problem of religious language has not been accorded much attention in today’s philosophy.

In today’s concepts of God, it has ranged from the detached transcendent demiurge of Aristotle to the pantheism of Spinoza. Nevertheless, much of western thought about God has fallen within some broad form of theism. Theism is the view that there is a God or Gods which is the creator and sustainer of the universe and is unlimited with regards to knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence), extension (omnipresence), and moral perfections? Though regarded as sexless, God has traditionally been referred to by the masculine pronoun.

The concepts of God/gods in philosophy are entwined with concepts of God/gods in religion. This is most obvious in figures like Augustine and Aquinas, who sought to bring more rigor and consistency to concepts found in the language of religion.

To me, religious language is as worrisome to practitioners of these Abrahamic religious traditions, because it has the potential to undermine those traditions. As all the three faiths proclaim truths about God in written texts, commentary traditions and oral teachings! In fact, speech about God is essential to both personal praxis and organized celebration in these traditions. Without adequate solution to the problem of religious language, human speech about God is called into question? Without the ability to speak about God and to understand those meanings of what is spoken, the Abrahamic faiths are vulnerable to the criticism about the same Prophet that they believe to theirs, that their sacred texts and teachings are unintelligible from each other’s beliefs.

Moreover, the problem via-negativa of religious language also provides a challenge for common philosophers of these three religions. If there is no adequate solution to the problem of same 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 of speech. These claims about God would be rendered unintelligible if the human speech about God is impossible to understand when translated from language to language. Thus, the problem of religious language is a philosophical problem that must be solved in order to provide a framework for understanding claims about the spoken words of God in both the house of worship and the academy. For, the orthodox forms of all the three Abrahamic religions, have embraced the language of theism, though each religion has also yielded a wide array of other views of one followed Prophet named Abraham? Issues related to these concepts of God/gods include the nature of his divine attributes, and how they can be known if or how that knowledge of Language can be communicated; the relation between such knowledge, language and logic, the nature of divine causality, and the relation between the divine and the human will.

Hence, philosophy has shown a similar variety. If your beliefs are so strong, then you should have no issues with anyone challenging them (respectfully of course). If you do have an issue, perhaps they are not as strong as you thought. This is the time for self-reflections and to lose that which does not agree with you anymore.


[i] [Ineffability is concerned with ideas that cannot or should not be expressed in spoken words (or language in general), often being in the form of a taboo or incomprehensible term. This property is commonly associated with philosophy, aspects of existence, and similar concepts that are inherently "too great", complex, or abstract to be adequately communicated. In addition, illogical statements, principles, reasoning, and arguments may be considered intrinsically ineffable along with impossibilities, contradictions, and paradoxes]