Letemdangle Lets it Rip!

 Religious language can be the most powerful form of communication a human can experience.  Wonderful narratives, expressions of absolute love, a solemn prayer shared within a community are all examples of religious language.  Though anyone who communicates in this way truly believe that they speak absolute truths, often statements would seem contradictory and logically false.  Therefore, an examination about what is being communicated and finding the most accurate way of interpreting any such religious language can be valuable pursuits.  Not only for the believer who speaks these words and preforms these gestures but for the observer who seeks to reconcile reason and faith can this inquiry into the true meaning of religious language be helpful in deciphering the mysteries of this whole realm of communication.
Before venturing deeper into the meaning of religious language it would be valuable to distinguish differing types of religious language.  In what is perhaps the broadest sense of the word, the actions that are preformed, in totality, within a religious state of being can be considered a language in itself.  Gestures, such as candle lighting and folding hands to pray, are expressions of the language and imply certain ways of thinking and presuppositions about the nature of existence in lieu of actually words.  This is the first kind of religious language and it is as varying as each individual who practices religion in any sense.  This is the language of practice and can be used with in a religious community or in solitude.  It is hard to critique this language on any grounds from the observers stand point because without words the meaning on a personal level is incommunicable; the observer would truly have to submerse himself within the experience and find meaning before he can justly criticize any expression of the language of practice or paradoxically deem it void of meaning.
The second type of religious language is the theorizing of a believer about his religious activities.  This spectrum of religious language is used in different ways depending on the attitudes and perspectives of the listener.  If the listener himself is a believer in the sense that he shares the primary practices and the presuppositions of the speaker, this type of language is used as teaching and expanding the knowledge within the preexistent religious attitude and fore running beliefs of the listener.  A priest talking to his congregation is one of many possible examples of this teaching kind of communication.  In the case of the listener being a non believer or not sharing the primary beliefs of the speaker the language becomes that of apologetics.  The biggest question asked to apologetics is, why?  Why should I believe these claims?, why are you justified? and more generally: why do you believe what you believe? 

This type of religious language often must remove itself from the dogma that creates a need for it so that common ground can be found.  In other words, to effectively communicate the cause for religious faith to non believers it is imprudent to speak only about what you believe and a better practice is to justify religious claims on mutual territory, such as logic or love.  When a person writes or thinks in language about his own belief as a personal theologian this second type of religious language becomes a reflection that may or may not be easily communicable to others.
Prayer and direct worship constitute the third and final category of religious language.  Whether worship is accomplished through words, sounds or thoughts, it still constitutes religious language for who ever uses it.  It is believed that through prayer or specific types of worship, meaningfulness and feeling can transcend the material and the intentions be understood. Though this type of language is similar to the other two it is distinguishable in the fact that it assumes direct communication with an extraordinary object. 
The second type of religious language will be primarily talked about here.  The reasons for this is because the first and the last types of language are not really intended to be understood through philosophical dissection.  Another reason is because the indirect object of communication (ie: a community of believers or a diety) is not us and to critique language used in this way is to miss entirely what the point of it is.  Though it would seem that the scope of what religious language we can now consider is considerably more narrow, it does not have to be so.  Meaning and intentions from the first and third kind are translated into the second kind of religious language, a language meant to be heard and hopefully understood by people.  The love that can be experienced during prayer may not be evident in the words used while praying but when the experience is described in words we might stand a better chance at understanding faith.  Similarly, an action within a community might appear to be silly and irrational but when this action is described in the second category of religious language we might see that this action is a tradition for this community and the symbolic meaning behind it.
A huge problem within the study of religious language, and the problem that this essay will primarily focus on, is the concept that regular words are used to describe things that are not at all within regular earthly existence.  Beings and events that are neither material nor within the usual concept of space are described using words for objects within our concept of space and time.  Words, when used in a non religious sense, are limited in what they can mean.  Words, used in a religious sense, are used to describe what is limitless.  Limited words get qualified such that they lose all of their original meaning.  Words like 'limitless and infinite are not true understandings of what they stand for but rather are the opposite of the things we know quite well, limited and finite respectively.  Religious language speaks about things beyond our possible experience but our words can only come directly from experience. 
 For example, when we say that, God made the world, what does the word made actually mean?  In our realm of human experience we can readily see things being made.  But anything that is made logically comes from a preexisting component.  When we make bread, it does not become substantiated from will alone as a religious person might believe is the case with the creation of the world.  It might be said that God made the world from nothing but this is only the opposite of making from a thing. Since we can not imagine nothing, the word made, then, is not used in a way that is conceivable.  Does it follow that religious language is therefore necessarily meaningless?  Is religious language just recognizable yet meaningless words strung together in such a way that they obey syntactic structure?  To answer that question, a reexamination of the way that words are used in religious language and the purpose they communicate is necessary.
If descriptiveness is seen as the main purpose of language then in order for religious language to be justifiable as a language it must at least be partially descriptive. To describe events both historical and non-spatiotemporal accurately would be the motivating drive of religious language if the constituents of a certain faith believe literally in the happenings and mythologies perpetuated by their religion.  For Jews that would mean believing in the historical authenticity of their texts.  For Christians it would mean believing that the description of  God having three persons within one being is the proper and literal way of seeing Gods nature.  These examples are both fairly dogmatic for their respective religions and dont really conflict with a vitrifiable/scientific truth as is the case with creation.
When confronted with narratives about creation in our scientific world the general trend is to accept the more commonly held scientific explanation for the creation of the world.  The stories of the Earth being created in seven days and the imaginative forming of human beings from earth are in direct conflict with the scientific explanation of how we got here when the religious language is taken as descriptive.  It appears that even though the creation story is not scientifically true and often not taken literally it still retains meaning for many people.  This would mean that logic truth is not necessary for a religious truth.  The problem here lies with in the way of seeing language as only meaningful when it is descriptive. 
Language is not only used, though, to describe.  Many non-descriptive ways of using language exist, such as: commands, questions, performance and emotional.  When you use language in a non-descriptive way, truth values (true and false) are removed because they are inappropriate.  For example, if one was commanded to sing a song, it is incorrect to assign truth value to the command itself because it is a command whether or not it is followed.  A truth value could be assigned to whether or not historically the command has been made or if it was followed by whom ever was commanded but the command itself retains meaning. 
Two easily defined schools of thought emerge from these questions.  The Descriptivists, who see the language of their faith as the literal truth and historically correct, and the Nondescriptivists, who see religious language as expressing emotional positions and existential attitudes towards that which transcends human existence. 
The Descriptivists come from the long tradition where the language of religious texts and the narratives that come from these texts are held to be the actually progression of things in the most true way.  Belief in certain things and happenings are the primary focus of faith for the Descriptivists.  For example, Christians would recite the creed and in doing so confirm their belief in the accuracy of what is contained therein.  The belief in hope would be secondary and come from the belief in the literal salvation of the soul through Jesuss sacrifice.  Religious devotion comes only from the facts of the religion.  The thinking is very sensible because without objective facts to substantiate beliefs there can be no other proper justification. 
The idea of objective facts as the only proper basis of belief in this Descriptivist view is when it comes to the subjectivity of religious experience.  For the person with a religious experience the subjectivity and the felt emotional power is not and can not be false.  The religious experience is an infallibility with out dependence on fact.  For example, one might claim that he had fallen and Christ lifted him up.  A Descriptivist, who is none the less very religious, would watch the person objectively and say that they never saw Jesus giving the fallen man a hand back up or that he was standing the whole time and had never fallen.  The person who had this experience would almost certainly not mean to say that the physical Jesus pulled them up or even that the fall was observable but rather that the subjective awareness of Christ empowered him and brought him towards a more righteous existence when he had fallen to sin or whatever else.  The Descriptivist and the person with this religious experience are at a stalemate because the Descriptivist is trying to empirically view something that is by definition non-empirical. 
Another trap of the Descriptivist school is that is leads to religious esotericism.  The problem with this is the idea that the only ones capable of religious belief are those individuals who make the assent of faith prescribed by their religion.  This can readily lead to hierarchical control of the masses because in order to attain salvation certain things must be known and when facts are withheld or not easy to assent to as per the social situation one is in, unjust power structures can form with religion as justification.  This is a historical problem with the Church and comes in part from the traditional Descriptivist view of religious language.  With this in mind the importance of the understanding of religious language grows when we see the possible effect it has had on the history of the world.
To avoid the pitfalls of Descriptivism, Nondescriptivists see religious language as expressing a emotional state of mind or an ethical stand point stemming from un-empirically verifiable truths.  The implications of this are huge.  Instead of a theists point of view, of Gods existence, being in direct opposition to the atheists view, that God does not exist, they are both neither right or wrong but stating emotional attitudes.  This conception of religious language removes inverifiable claims from the science of logic and places it in a separate category.  In this way belief in God is not just a stance on a refuted fact but rather a motivation to live life for God.     

God is, indeed, personal for the Nondescriptivist.   Perhaps so personal that it becomes problematic to speak of God outside of our ethical and moral stances.  Religious language might be reduced to only moral language.  For Braithwaite, a philosopher who takes this reductionist stand point on religious language believes that mythical stories are the only thing that separated a religious believer from everyone else.  Braithwaite thinks that the humanistic moral intentions of religious individuals are only different in their justification in psychologically supporting religious narratives. 
 When religious language is under the scrutiny of a Reductionist it often looses its categorizing as its own realm of communication and the transcendent meaning can be lost.  It would be difficult to maintain a belief in the validity of religious thought when the practical outcome becomes directly available with out the complexity and the apparent absurdity of religious language.  Again a stalemate is reached when Nondescriptivism is pursued on its natural course. 
Descriptivism and Nondescriptivism see religious language, respectively, as being objectively true and objectively inverifiable yet subjectively true.  Each point of view leads to problems.  Though this is an obstacle there still remain unexplored avenues of thought.  What if religious language spoke of what is subjectively infallible and those truths translate to a different kind of objective truth? 
Religious analogy can accomplish exactly this when our categories for truth are reexamined.  It can work like this: A subjective feeling (God is loving) is infinitized on the objective such that it retains meaning while transcending the regular meaning.  In this example, God is loving but not loving in the same way that you or I could be loving, He is infinitely loving.  This is possible because the meaning of the word 'love (like good or knowing or powerful) changes when applied to different objects.  When we love a person it is quite different then when we love a type of food and that is quite different from when we love a certain activity.  The power of love also changes from person to person as a subjective reality that can be objectively observed. 
The religious analogical understanding of language is not without its own drawbacks.  In the same way that we can not fully understand what it is like for another to love we are even farther from understanding how God loves.  If we allow room for these words to be changed so that they can apply to an infinite being these words become meaningless for us or at least anthropomorphized.  The mystery is always retained as to what is meant by claims attributed to God and to the meaning of historical religious narratives.  For example, the creation stories might be one hundred percent correct because when the word 'make is applied to God it can very well mean produce something from nothing but we are no closer to understanding what make means when applied to God.
To be Continued   
Uploaded 12/01/2010
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