A2 Philosophy - Religious Language

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Religious Language

St Thomas Aquinas

Rejected the method of the via negativa because he believed it does not actually tell us enough about what God is.

He did however agree with the idea that we cannot use human language to describe God.

We cannot use the same language we might use to describe a human experience to describe God for example, Christian descriptions of God as the living God is saying a lot more than that God is simply alive.

Univocal language – Using the same word to mean the same thing e.g, God is good, Brian is good. They both show qualities of goodness.

Aquinas rejected the idea of univocal language.

Equivocal language – using the same word to mean different things for example a bat could mean the animal or the one used in sport.

Aquinas also rejected the idea of equivocal language. He believed we cannot use equivocal language to describe God because we can only describe what we have experienced and we have not experienced God.

Aquinas therefore argued that the only way we could talk about God is through the use of analogy.

Analogy – a simple way of describing something far more complex.

Which means when we call God good we have an idea of what goodness is due to our experience of good humans in life. However, by saying this it does not mean that we know what God’s goodness is like. We are simply using something we do know to help us to understand something we don’t.

Two ways Aquinas suggested we could use analogies to talk about God were:

Analogies of attribution – This is using words to draw parallels to similarities between the world and God. Aquinas believed we can do this as God is the creator of the universe and therefore human’s concept of goodness comes from God originally.

Analogies of proportion – This is using language in proportion to the thing being discussed for example this car is good, uses the word good to describe how well this particular car works. However, this would change if applied to a good essay or a good God.

There are two major criticisms of using analogies to describe God:

Some philosophers have described the use of analogies to describe God as meaningless because God is beyond human experience and therefore transcends our understanding.

Aquinas rejected the literal use of words when they apply to God Swinburne argued that they could be used univocally (the same word to use different things) for example, that a good man and a good God suggests that God has the same goodness as the man but to a greater degree,

Models and qualifiers

Ian Ramsey

The words and phrases used to describe God should be called models i.e. they represent that which they stand for but not the reality of the object like a model plane may be a scale representation of the actual aircraft but will always be inferior to the real thing.

He argued…


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