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Compare and contrast two of the following and evaluate their significance for understanding religious language Essay

Essay Topic:

This essay will compare and contrast analogy and symbol and relate this to understanding religious language. Aquinas founded the argument for analogy with his starting point being that we only have our day-to-day language to talk about God. He explains that a word, when applied to God has a different meaning from when we use it in everyday life. He explains that a word such as ‘perfect’ when applied to a created being has a different meaning to when it is applied to God; it is not being used univocally. This is because we understand God to be perfect which is what Aquinas explains to be analogy. This is contrasted to Paul Tillich’s starting point as he explains that it is through metaphors and symbols that we are helped towards an understanding of God. He begins by distinguishing between symbols and signs by expressing that symbols are more powerful than signs as they include emotions. For example, a symbol like the Union Flag displays unity, dignity and emotions of the British people. He explains that it is through symbols that religious language communicates religious experiences.

Tillich describes religious language to ‘open up’ new levels of reality and expresses that symbols go beyond the external world to what he describes as their ‘internal reality’. To demonstrate this he uses the example of the Bible speaking about the Kingdom of God. He explains that the symbol of a kingdom is concerned with God’s power and rule and we can understand a kingdom on earth. He goes on to explain that we can go beyond this to understand the ultimate reality of the power in the universe that is God. In some ways this is similar to Aquinas’ analogy as he explains in his two theories of Analogy: Analogy of Proportion and Analogy of Attribution.

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Tillich’s theory of symbol is most similar to Aquinas’ Attribution of proportion as this explains that when a world is used to refer to a quality that a thing possesses in proportion to the kind of reality it possesses. In other words we understand God to be all powerful as we have a human understanding of power. This is similar to Tillich’s theory because they both refer to us having an understanding of word in day to day terms but it having more emphasis or meaning when used in a religious context to describe God. Aquinas’ and Tillich’s theories differ here as Tillich’s theory of symbol implies we can actually understand the true meaning of the word we use to describe God where as Aquinas’ theory explains we only have an idea of the word from the use in our everyday lives. Tillich says that symbol:

“…opens up levels of reality which otherwise were closed to us.”

Where as Aquinas, using the example of God being all-powerful explains that we know the properties of power in the world we live in but we do not know the extent of the word power when referred to God: we only know it in proportion to how we see power in our lives.

Aquinas’ theory of analogy explains that only in God can the perfections of power, love, righteousness etc be seen in the true sense. What we know to be power, love and righteousness of earth is only a mere shadow of the true meaning of the word displayed by God.

Tillich’s explains that the power of symbols used to direct ways of thinking changes through time. This is because the meaning and impact of words change and the symbol is no longer able to direct us towards what “concerns us ultimately” as it did in the past. This differs from Aquinas’ theory as he does not express any idea of his analogy changing over time. Having said this, Ian Ramsey has developed the theory of analogy in the twentieth century. Ramsey explained that if we say ‘God is good’ the model is the word ‘good’ so we have an understanding of the word ‘good’ therefore when applied to God we have a model understanding of God’s goodness. However he goes on to explain that we have to adapt the model to quantify it so we realise that it is not literally what God is like. The qualifier can be a word such as ‘ultimately’ as this leads us to realising that God’s goodness is greater than our own.

Ian Ramsey’s main function of religious language is not so much to describe religious facts about God but to express existential significance of God for mankind. Meaning he is trying to explain the important thing is to create an understanding of God which helps us to begin to understand God. Ramsey’s main aim is to show that language used in religious context is less descriptive and dynamic and that its main purpose is to increase religious and moral awareness. This I contrasted to Tillich’s theory of symbol as symbols are intended to convey facts and they cannot be falsified or verified empirically. This is a weakness of the theory of symbolic language as people find it hard to understand solid facts when relating to God. Aquinas’ theory of Analogy is more accepted and significant in the understanding of religious language.

Both Tillich’s theory of Symbol and Aquinas’ theory of analogy come to the same problem. That is that we cannot use human language literally or univocally when we speak about God. This is because our terms can only come from our human (finite) experience and so cannot be adequate in relation to God. So when used in religious language their meaning is always partially “negated by that to which they point.” In religious terms this principle makes a warning against the worship of thinking of God as merely a greatly magnified human being, this is known as anthropomorphism.

As Aquinas derived his theory many hundreds of years ago this may lead people to thinking that it is less significant in religious language than the theory of symbol as Ian Ramsey developed the theory in the 20th century. Many people would argue that the theory of symbol has perennial value unlike Aquinas’ analogy. On the other hand many people claim that religious symbols can become outdated. For example Sallie McFague in ‘Models of God in Religious Language’ claims that religious symbols are anachronistic because of their patriarchal roots. She suggested that symbols such as Father and Son should be adapted to Mother and Friend. Paul Tillich himself addressed this point and wrote:

“It is necessary to rediscover the question to which the Christian symbols are the answers in a way which is understood in our time.”

The psychological power of symbols was an important factor for Carl Gustav Jung who further developed the theory of symbol and he believed that symbols exercises great power over the mind because they enable us to get in touch with the archetypes of the collective unconscious. He classes God’s image as one of the collective unconscious images. Many people class this as insignificant as they believe that religious symbols do not have an objective significant to non-believers. This only gives them the value of being ‘psychologically true’ for the believer,

Paul Edwards expresses his view that symbols do not convey any factual knowledge. Many people share this approach and it leads them to believing that symbols in religious language are meaningless and therefore insignificant. It is often thought that it is not possible for religious symbols to successfully represent that which is beyond human understanding. Following from this it is argued that there is no way of knowing if the symbol gives the wrong insight about the ultimate reality. Not only this but symbols are seen to many as being neither adequate nor appropriate as a symbol is intended to point the way to understanding something. As Tillich does not apply symbols to an objective reality, this means that many interpretations of symbols are available leading to people have different interpretations causing all of them to be regarded as highly insignificant.

From these points considered above it is clear that Aquinas’s theory of Analogy when used in religious language is more significant that Tillich’s theory of religious symbolism. This is mainly due to the fact that analogy is easier to accept. We can all accept that we have an understanding of the word ‘power’ and that although we use this word in describing God we understand that we do not know the true extent of God’s power because it is something a finite human has never experienced. Symbol has the added problem that it can become outdated and also that it can lead to symbols themselves becoming the focus of worship and the object of adoration. Aquinas’ theory of Analogy of Proportion is more significant in religious language especially when backed up by Ian Ramsey’s modern development of it. Personally I do agree that Aquinas’ theory of Analogy is more significant in the context of religious language as it is easier to relate to and does not attempt to explain a fact which is inconceivable to finite human beings.

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