The best approach to understanding Religious Language is through the Cataphatic Way. [40]

The word “cataphatic” comes from the Greek “kataphasis” meaning affirmation.  To take the Cataphatic Way is to affirm things positively of God and to assume a univocal understanding of words and claims.  By this approach, if somebody says “God is good”, they mean much the same as if they said “St Anselm is good”.  The Cataphatic Way is sometimes called the Via Positiva; it uses language confidently and positively to describe God, as a painter might use paints confidently and positively to represent what is in front of them.

There is no doubt that the Cataphatic Way supports people in understanding what is said about God.  Insofar as people understand what is said generally, people can understand what is said about God through the Cataphatic Way.  For those believers and theologians working with an everlasting, personal model of God supported by religious experience and/or a priori faith in the revealed status of the Bible – arguably mostly for Protestants – the Cataphatic Way is the natural and therefore the best way to understand religious language.  In the same way as I might affirm things about any other thing that I experience or read about, I can affirm things about God.  Nevertheless, this model of God is philosophically unsatisfying.

  • Firstly, many believers have no personal experience of God to support their affirmations, and those who do often suggest that their experience was ineffable (James) and resisted normal description in any case.  It is difficult to confirm religious experiences as genuine, so there is no quality control when it comes to things affirmed of God on the basis of them.
  • Secondly, Biblical criticism makes believing in the revealed status of the whole Bible very difficult, both because it seems to have been compiled by multiple authors and editors over a very long period of time – before even considering the late and politically influenced development of the Canon – and because it seems to reflect several different models of God rather than one unified model.  The God of Genesis 2-3 walks in the Garden of Eden and has to look for Adam and Eve, whereas the God of Job 38 – who asks “where were you when I set the foundations of the earth” – seems beyond such anthropomorphic descriptions.

It seems fair to conclude that saying that the Cataphatic Way is the best way to understand Religious Language may be limited to Theistic Personalists.  It might be the best way of understanding what somebody already knows about God and/or religion on some other basis, but it might not be the best way of coming to understand something new about God and/or religion.

Certainly, for believers and theologians who are Classical Theists and believe in an eternal, timeless God, the Cataphatic Way raises questions about the meaning of what is said, whether what is said and understood about God refers credibly to actual attributes of God and whether a theologian taking the Cataphatic Way can mean what they say and so be understood.  For many Roman Catholics, but also for others whose faith relates to if not depends on reason, God cannot be a thing that we can experience and observe in any normal way.  Religious experiences, if any are genuine, are best understood to be non-sensuous (Stace) and noumenal (James), an experience of ultimate reality that goes well beyond normal sensory experience and normal description.  It is certainly fair to suggest that the Cataphatic theologian is not like a painter representing a normal subject on canvas; what is affirmed of God is much further removed from what it could mean than the 2D canvas is removed from the 3D subject.  For most theologians, God’s nature cannot properly or fully be conceived or understood.  As God said to Moses in Exodus 3 “I am what I am” and as He said through the Prophet Isaiah

“my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways.” Isaiah 55:8-9

When the cataphatic theologian affirms attributes of God univocally they seem to be going beyond possible experience and beyond what the human mind can possibly comprehend.  In this way, using language confidently and univocally to describe God seems like trying to represent a singularity in paint… it wouldn’t do to rely on the artists’ impression because in many ways the nature of what is being represented is beyond and even the opposite to the medium being used.  Because it is highly likely to lead to misunderstandings about God, it seems that the Cataphatic Way is not the best way to understand Religious Language.

Further, as Pseudo-Dionysus argued, affirming things positively of God seems to limit Him.  To say that God is good in the same way as Anselm is good implies that God’s goodness is changeable, moral, relative to other things, because goodness when referring to things in this world implies such conditions and limitations.  For Classical Theists, God’s nature cannot be understood in the way that we understand other things because God is necessarily unlimited, timelessly perfect.  Words cannot, therefore, be applied univocally to God and the Cataphatic Way fails to support any true understanding of God’s actual nature and attributes.  Because of this, in the 11th Century Moses Maimonides argued that the only credible approach to religious language was the very reverse of the cataphatic way, the apophatic way.  For Maimonides, human words refer to human experience and are inescapably tied to the spatio-temporal framework that encompasses human experience.  Applying human words to God can only lead to misunderstanding.  The changeable, contingent nature of things in the world which leads people to recognize God’s necessary existence and to understand that whatever we can experience, understand and say then God is not that.  For Maimonides, this leaves open the possibility of using language in a negative sense to leave an impression of what God is.  Like a sculptor chipping away what is unnecessary and leaving an impression of what they are trying to represent, Apophatic theology takes away what it is not possible to affirm of God.  For example, God cannot be evil, because to be evil is to fall short, something which a changeless, timeless, perfect God cannot do.  For another example, God cannot swim because to swim requires a body to move through water from position a to position b.  God is changeless, timeless and perfect, which precludes his acting or moving in time and space in any way, aquatic or otherwise.    For some Classical Theists, it is the Apophatic Way, not the Cataphatic Way, that is the best way to understand religious language.

Nevertheless, scholars such as St Anselm rejected this approach, arguing that God gave being to this world as it is, so it is reasonable to affirm of God attributes of the being He created.  In the Monologion St Anselm argued that we are able to understand the world through concepts that exist in our mind because our mind comprehends God as their ultimate form.  We judge things to be unjust, more or less just… and this suggests that we have something against which to measure justice in our minds.  God is that against which we grade perfections in other things that we encounter in the world that God created.  God is not a thing in the world, but God created those things and we understand their goodness, greatness, perfection in relation to God.  In a way, Anselm’s philosophy relates back to Plato’s.  For Anselm, the world of the forms – the metaphysical concepts of justice, beauty, truth – are more real than the partial, contingent world we experience through the senses.  For Anselm, human beings understand what they experience through the senses through the concepts that already exist in the mind.  Words are just signs, attached to concepts that are hard-wired into reason by God, our creator, so it follows that these signs can be traced back to and applied to God.  Anselm safeguards against the possibility that people affirm just anything of God by arguing that signs are in a sense controlled by what it is that they point towards, so it is not possible to say something about God which is not consistent with His nature.  Given that only “the fool says in his heart that there is no God” (Psalm 14:1, Proslogion 2) we all have the concept of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived of” in our minds (in intellectu) and would understand the impossibility of affirming attributes that are not consistent with God’s supremely perfect nature.  As Marcia Colish suggests, Anselm sees language like a mirror reflecting some of the being of God very precisely, but only when it is directed correctly.

Clearly, Anselm’s Cataphatic approach is much more sophisticated than the seemingly naive univocicity of believers who affirm things of God such as “God is so pleased to see you here this evening!”  Nevertheless, it assumes a world-view which is very much in the minority in the modern world.  Most people, and most Philosophers, tend towards the Aristotelian model of concepts being built out of experiences, which are primary, rather than experiences being understood through concepts which precede them as in the Platonic way. Although neuroscientists are now gathering in support of Chomsky’s nativist approach to language acquisition, which seems to support Plato’s world-view, the dominant framework remains empiricism and the idea that human beings start as tabula rasa (as Locke put it) and that concepts and reason itself is constructed out of experience and socialization.  In addition, Anselm’s argument makes the assumption that human beings have an idea of God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived ofin intellectu, something which St Thomas Aquinas rejected.  Before moving on to his famous five ways, Aquinas dismissed the possibility of proving God’s existence a priori, as in Anselm’s Ontological Argument.  He wrote

because we do not know the essence of God, the proposition is not self-evident to us; but needs to be demonstrated by things that are more known to us, though less known in their nature — namely, by effects.” Summa Theologica 1, 2, 1

He continued, arguing that “univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures...” Summa Theologica 1, 13, 5 because the cause and effect relationship is too slight to support a single meaning for what is affirmed of the two.  For Aquinas, what can be affirmed of God and in what sense needs to be even more strictly controlled than Anselm suggests, to prevent the imprecision in the use of religious language that attends on Cataphatic theology and subsequent misunderstandings.  Aquinas was persuaded by Maimonides arguments for apophatic theology, saying

The reason why God… is said to be above being named, is because His essence is above all that we understand about God, and signify in word… Because we know and name God from creatures, the names we attribute to God signify what belongs to material creatures… these kinds of names fail to express His mode of being, forasmuch as our intellect does not know Him in this life as He is.” Summa Theologica 1, 13, 1

For Aquinas, the most that can be affirmed of God is analogous, affirmed in a strictly limited “timeless” sense.  As John Milbank explains, words have primary and secondary usages which are connected but not the same.  A person is healthy in a primary sense and a yoghurt in a secondary sense… what it means for the two to be healthy is different but still linked.  Similarly, the primary sense of words like “good” belongs to God and only the secondary sense to things in this world.  The meaning of attributes affirmed of God is not to be understood univocally, although there is still some meaning.  For Aquinas, the Cataphatic way is not the best way to understand Religious Language because it depends on the flawed claim to know or understanding the nature of God and because it conflates the two distinct meanings of attributes affirmed of God into one misleading claim.  While Aquinas’ argument is compelling, it leaves religious believers with a very limited set of things that they can say about God which makes it difficult to hold on to the spirit of doctrines, if not the letter.   Analogy may be a philosophically better way to understand religious language than the Cataphatic way, but it is not in practice much more helpful to religion than the apophatic way.

In conclusion, religion demands a different approach to language, one which is neither cataphatic nor apophatic, nor yet as abstract and technical as analogy.  The Cataphatic Way, for all the possibilities that it seems to offer in terms of making religious language understandable, fails to support any true understanding of God’s actual nature and attributes and actually symbol offers a better balance between the need for religious people to affirm their beliefs about God and the need for theologians and philosophers to conduct quality control by testing the possible meaning of those affirmations.  Symbol has the advantage of requiring people to learn a new religious language rather than seeking to apply ordinary words positively, negatively or with the use of implied or stated qualifiers (Ramsey).  Symbolic language draws attention to its difference and its specific relation to theology and in both cases, what is affirmed of God invites discussion and interpretation and discourages people from taking things on face value.  Symbolic language has clear roots in the Bible and in how believers have sought to express their religious experiences, but it resists facile, superficial interpretations and the misunderstandings about the nature of God that attend upon Cataphatic univocicity.  As Tillich suggests, the symbol starts to participate in the meaning it refers to, so that in using it words become more than just pointers to meanings beyond themselves.  God becomes present in the use of symbols; symbols acknowledge the need to draw on as many means of communication as possible, indirect as well as direct, when trying to express ultimate reality.  As Randall argues, symbols also invite a response and so acknowledge that what people are doing when they affirm God’s attributes is not just inert description.  Religious language does not just describe a state of affairs more or less accurately, it calls people to action.  In these several ways symbol and not the Cataphatic way is the best way to understand religious language.



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