CHAPTER THREE

 

THE CONCEPT OF RELIGIOUS LANGUAGE

 

 

It is not possible to analyze the religious speech form ‘in general’, as we already noted above, because religious discourse exists only as Christian discourse, Islamic discourse, Buddhist discourse, etc.

Now however we arrive at a different problem. How is religious discourse, and especially Catholic discourse, different from other, non-religious speech forms? More precisely, how are we to distinguish the way in which Christians speak, that is, the way in which they employ language in the context of their faith, from the way they speak outside of the religious context?

To clarify this problem we will use the analytical method of Wittgenstein, as set forth in the preceding chapter. The first question we need to answer is: does there exist a Christian religious discourse alongside of common speech? The response to this question is in the negative!

 

There Does Not Exist a Christian Language To One Side of Ordinary Language

 

If, on the level of ‘superficial grammar’,1 we compare the way in which Christians employ language in the context of their faith with the way in which they speak outside of this context, we do not note real differences. For the most part, any concrete religious language — in our case, Christian religious language — does not differ from the non-religious, non-Christian speech forms which human beings, Christians included, commonly speak. Christian religious speech, and other religious speech forms as well, does not differ from ordinary non-religious discourse as spoken by these same Christians or by adherents of the other religions. As we shall see, this is rather important, but it does not however dispense us from a further analysis at the level of ‘deep grammar’, which will reveal genuine differences between the use of religious language and non-religious language.


Religious Language Does Not Differ from Ordinary Language as Regards Its Vocabulary

 

The words used in a Christian religious context are the same that one uses in daily speech: ‘father’, ‘grace’, pardon’, etc., etc.

The specific technical terms of the language of faith that are used in Christian discourse are relatively rare and not indispensable, because they are explainable by means of common terms. Examples of such technical terms would be: ‘prayer’, ‘salvation’, ‘redemption’, etc. A goodly number of these terms specific to Christian discourse are of a practical and juridical nature, for example: ‘church’, ‘parish’, ‘chalice’, ‘bishop’, etc., and in a number of cases are taken from other languages, notably Latin and Greek.

Theology, on the other hand, as the reflective science of faith — or as Wittgenstein would say, the grammar of the language of faith2 has, as does every science, a number of special terms: ‘transubstantiation’, ‘circumincession’, ‘trinitarian’, etc.

Religious Language Does Not Differ from Ordinary Language as Regards Its Grammar

 

The grammar which Christians employ, even when doing theology, is simply that of the language which they speak — Greek, Latin, Italian, English, etc. It is not true that religious discourse is grammatically ‘strange’.3 An error in English grammar is an error even when found in a book of theology.
Religious Language Does Not Differ from Ordinary Language as regards Its Style

 

In a religious context, also and especially in a specifically Christian context, one can use all or almost all of the styles that are used in any other context: poetical or prosaic; elevated or everyday or banal; infantile, adolescent or adult; learned or simple; correct or poor.
Religious Language Does Not Differ from Ordinary Language as regards Its So-called Language Games

Wittgenstein, in his Philosophical Investigations, offers the following list of what he calls language games,4 a list that is obviously incomplete and indeed cannot be completed:

 

To command and to act according to a command.

To describe an object according to it speech appearance and dimension.

To construct an object according to a description (design).

To make hypotheses concerning a phenomenon.

To elaborate a hypotheses and submit it to a test.

To make up a story and read it.

To recite in the theater.

To sing in nursery rhymes.

To solve riddles.

To make a joke; to tell it.

To resolve a problem of applied arithmetic.

To translate from one language to another.

To ask, thank, beg, greet, pray.5 

 

Certainly not all language games can be ‘played’ in all situations, and therefore not all can be played in religious situations either. One such example from the above list would be "To represent the results of an experiment by means of tables and diagrams". But that fact in itself is not what makes up the special character of religious language. Moreover the overwhelming majority of the language games of everyday life are in fact played also in a Christian religious context. To be sure, in such cases there are specific nuances at work and sometimes even a special name, different than the name given when these games are played in a non-religious context: for example,: "to request - to pray"; "to declare a conviction - to make a profession of faith", etc.


"Religious Language"6 Does Not Differ from Non-Religious Language in the Way That German or French, for Example, Does from English

 

A Christian Englishman does not speak two languages: English and ‘Christian’. One does not translate from ‘Christian’ into English, just as one does not translate from scientific language into English. At the same time, there is no translating from religious language into empirical or ‘lay’ language, nor from ‘Christian language’ into common language.

 

Religious Language Does Not Differ from Non-Religious in the Way That a Dialect Differs from the Official, Accepted Language

 

Religious Language Does Not Differ from Non-Religious in the Same Way That the Jargon of a Particular Group Differs from Other Types of Speech

 

There exist forms of discourse peculiar to guilds, social groups, age groups, etc. All of these differences are found within a religious, Christian, Catholic use of language as well. A Catholic youth group develops its own group language. Indeed every church movement has its jargon. The great and varied forms of Christian spirituality have all developed their own terminology. These speech forms too must be learned, and their diversity can create problems.

The way of using language in the context of a particular religion (and also within a particular movement), with words of special significance (grace, Eucharist, penance) and with a predilection for certain expressions (way, path, exodus) serve also as a means of identifying the group and the individual within the group. Precisely for this reason this specific way of speaking is acquired by means of a process of linguistic socialization.

 

Religious Language Does Not Differ from Non-Religious in the Same Way That a Technical/ Scientific Language Differs from Common Language

 

In addition to Christian-Catholic discourse exists also the discourse of theology, which is often a technical language. Even practicing believers, with a good religious formation, do not generally possess a linguistic competence in this special language — notwithstanding that they are in possession of a true common linguistic competence in the context of their faith.

 

THERE IS A SPECIAL WAY OF USING LANGUAGE IN A RELIGIOUS CONTEXT

 

The above notwithstanding, it is a fact that the way of speaking in a religious context is a specific way, different from the way of speaking in a non-religious context. This is seen in the difficulty in understanding the special linguistic usage within the various religions, even within Christianity and among the diverse Christian denominations, as for example, between Catholics and Evangelicals. Even a person who genuinely possesses full linguistic competence in his or her given language can not understand this faith-specific way of speaking, especially today. If he lives in a culture which has not been determined by Christianity, then he will surely either misunderstand or simply ignore the Christian way of speaking about God. Therefore one has to learn, acquire religious linguistic usage. Often this occurs in a normal process of religious socialization. In the case of Catholics the catechism and the preparation for the sacraments of "Christian Initiation" also serve this function. Notwithstanding, even among Catholics there is too often a lack of reflective competence with respect to the religious language they use, with the consequence of not infrequent misunderstandings, and even superstitions.

 

CONCLUSION

 

1. Not only the term ‘language’ but also ‘religious language’ are analogous terms, sometimes even ‘equivocal’ perhaps, but in no case univocal.

2. Religious discourse stands in strict relation to common everyday discourse. In this regard the structure of Christian religious language mirrors the relation between faith and life and between grace and nature, according to Aquinas’ statement: "Gratia supponit et elevat naturam."

3. The differences found between the Christian religious usage and other uses of speech are to be determined positively:

a) because of the central role played by the word "God" or its equivalents;7 

b) because of the special significance that all other ex-pressions acquire when use in reference, direct or indirect, to "God".

NOTES

 

 1. Wittgenstein, PU 664: In the use of a word one can distinguish a ‘superficial grammar’ ("Oberflächengrammatik") from a ‘deep grammar’ ("Tiefengrammatik"). That which expresses itself immediately in us, with the use of a word, is the way it is employed in the construction of a proposition ("im Satzbau") – that aspect of its use which, so to speak, we grasp with the ear.

 2. Cfr. PU 373.

 3. Cfr. J.T. Ramsey, Religious Language on an Empirical Basis (London: SCM, 1967).

 4. Cfr. PU 83, passim.

 5. PU 23.

 6. It would be preferable to say "the way of speaking in a religious context", but for simplicity we will continue to say, "religious language".

7. See chapter 4.