The Nature of Religious Language

This theme will cover two views of the nature of religious language: i) that religious language is SYMBOLIC; and ii) that it is ANALOGICAL.

Religious Language as Symbolic

One of the most famous and subtle theologians of recent times to write at length on the symbolic nature of religious language is the German born Paul Tillich (1886-1965). Tillich was expelled by Hitler in 1933 and immigrated to the U.S.A. where he became a very influential academic.

Tillich was an existentialist theologian; i.e he attempted to relate theology to the question of human existence. For him, theology was a work of mediation – mediating the theos (God/mystery) to the logos (word/understanding). He believed that every period of history was marked by deep characteristics.

The Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus was dominated by the questions of death and fate; the Middle ages by that of guilt; and the modern period by that of meaninglessness. Therefore, as a person living in this third period, Tillich saw his task as that of correlating the sense of the meaninglessness of life with the theological answers. He did not mean this in a superficial sense. It was no use, according to Tillich, to trot out stereotyped Christian answers. The  theologian himself or herself must also share, to some degree – even perhaps a great degree – the sense of meaninglessness and despair.

Tillich’s General Theological Position

Before looking in more detail at Tillich’s views on the symbolic character of religious language, it is necessary to have some idea of his general theological position. For some years Tillich led a joint seminar on religious language with his colleague. John Herman Randall Jnr.  

Tillich believed, as we would say today, that religious language is cognitive, although not in a matter of fact way. Randall disagreed. For Randall, religion was important but religious language was not non-cognitive; i.e. the religious symbols do not point to any reality external to themselves. We can draw more attention to this disagreement later on when we look at Randall’s view in more detail.

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