Compare and Contrast the Distinctive Problems of Religious and Ethical Language

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Compare and contrast the distinctive problems of religious and ethical language.

The problem or religious language has troubled philosophers since earliest times. How do we speak of a transcendent God, beyond direct human experience, infinitely more perfect in all ways than human beings, in the limited language that is available to us? At the same time, believers want to be able to speak of God so they have to find a way that expresses how God is different from all other things and beings, and yet is meaningful to them. Religious language is language that deals with God and other theological matters, including religious worship, practice, behaviour and doctrine. It includes terms which we ascribe only to God -in their primary context (i.e. omnipotent) and words which are about distinctively religious beliefs (i.e. the Last Judgement). However, even when we speak of religious issues we invariably have to use language that is drawn from our common linguistic and lexical store, and this raises problems of a particular kind.

Ethical language poses peculiar problems too. Important ethical words — or as A, J. Ayer called them, ethical symbols in a proposition such as good, bad, right or wrong, are very difficult, if not impossible, to define. Similarly, there are considerable problems in determining what we consider to be an objectively true statement about a matter of morality and what is merely subjective opinion. Before we can begin to establish what constitutes good or bad moral or ethical behaviour we need to consider whether we can define what morality is. The branch of moral philosophy that is concerned with this issue is meta-ethics, which examines the issue of what we mean when we say that a thing or an action is good, bad, right, wrong, moral or immoral. A primary consideration is whether ethical language can be said to have any meaning. If we are unclear as to the meaning of basic ethical terms such as these, then how can we begin to make authoritative, or at least convincing, claims about the morality of particular actions? The statement ‘Killing is wrong’ is complicated enough, since we are immediately faced with a vast range of different situations In which not everyone would agree that killing was wrong, but if we are not even sure about what we mean by wrong, then ethical debate will be fraught with difficulties. There are many ways of approaching both this problem and that of religious language which can be considered, and in so doing their distinctive characteristics are exposed.

Perhaps the primary characteristic problem of religion can be summarised as the problem of how to talk meaningfully about God. Aquinas observed that we could talk of two things as either completely different (equivocally) or as meaning exactly the same thing (univocally), but that neither of these approaches works for talking about God. If we use human language of God — saying that he is wise or loving, for example we don’t intend to say that he is exactly the same in his possession of wisdom or love as human beings are, if we did mean this, then we would be saying that God is no better than or different from, humans, and so would he really be God at all? Would he be a god worthy of worship (assuming, perhaps wrongly, that God must be perfect to be worthy of worship)? At the same time, we don’t mean that his love or wisdom is so different from man’s that it is beyond our comprehension. We have some concept of what love means when applied to man and although we apply it to God differently, something of that original concept remains. Neither way is totally satisfactory however, since it s effectively a compromise, and neither too could the principle of the via negativa — speaking of God in terms of what he is not — ever satisfy the believer who wants to make positive claims about him. Aquinas suggested, therefore, that analogy provided the means of speaking successfully about God, which preserved his difference, while allowing...
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