A symbolic understanding of religious language does not render religious discourse incomprehensible.
As Paul Tillich explains in his “Dynamics of Faith”, symbols cannot be arbitrary or created intentionally; no one person can create a symbol or determine its meaning by themselves. Rather, symbols grow out of the collective unconscious, something akin to what Hegel called the zeitgeist. The process of symbols being created, and dying away, is an organic one and it is difficult to see why symbols would be created – as they so obviously are – if they were indeed “incomprehensible”. If religious communities produce symbols together, then it seems likely that the symbols will at least be comprehensible to members of those communities. Further, as Wittgenstein observed, meaning depends on usage, so within a form of life – such as a religious community – symbols are meaningful and, presumably, comprehensible – when they follow the rules of the agreed “language game”. It is clear that people “comprehend” many symbols and claims that cohere with their cultural frame of reference, whether they refer to things that we can see, touch, taste or smell or not. Take the portcullis, a symbol of the British Parliament and of parliamentary democracy… in terms of what people can see, it refers only to a gate to the palace of Westminster, but everybody in the UK is able to comprehend its broader and deeper meaning. Similarly, the cross refers only to the way Jesus of Nazareth died, but all Christians are able to comprehend its broader and deeper meaning as a symbol of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and triumph over death, and of the hope for eternal life that those who believe in Jesus sustain. Because it is so obvious that people do comprehend symbolic religious (and other) language, Tillich rejected the “logical” criticisms of philosophers such as Paul Edwards, who argued in his paper “Professor Tillich’s Confusions” that symbols are incomprehensible because they do not point towards anything that we can clearly understand or experience. Tillich maintained that the comprehensibility of symbolic religious language is demonstrated by its adequacy, by the fact that it works for those who use it and sustains the faith of more than two billion Christians.
As Wittgenstein observed, and Tillich would surely have agreed, insisting on meaning depending on reference and on comprehensibility depending on a symbol corresponding with an external state of affairs – in the way that Paul Edwards seems to demand – is unrealistic and betrays a superficial understanding of how language of any type can work. As David Hume pointed out in his “Enquiry concerning Human Understanding” 1748, our empirical senses do not deliver objective, external experience of anything; instead they deliver a narrow range of data which must then be interpreted according to subjective categories, values and ideas. The ball is not red in itself; redness is a property of the way most human eyes see the ball, not of the ball in itself. Further, as Wittgenstein noted, our experiences of the world are like beetles in boxes, necessarily private. Nobody can peer inside my mind to find the external point of reference which would make any claim, religious or otherwise, meaningful according to the standard of the Verification Principle. The meaning and “comprehensibility” of language, including religious language, can only depend on what coheres within a form of life, not on correspondence. Indeed, the idea that meaning depends on verifiability has long been rejected, even in the context of science. Scientists need to discuss states of affairs which can never be verified, including how the “Big Bang” happened, what will happen in billions of years’ time as the universe cools and slows etc. Karl Popper showed how scientific method relies not on verifiability, but on falsification and being willing to modify or drop any hypothesis which conflicts with the evidence. Further, in quantum science the state of the object is changed by the act of observing it, so the meaningfulness of scientific claims about the probability of quantum events can only be tested by the extent to which these claims work. For example, how mobile phones share limited bandwidth is worked out using quantum mechanics; the fact that I can make and receive calls demonstrates that quantum mechanics is meaningful. Richard Swinburne argues that religious claims are a bit like claims in quantum science; we cannot observe what they refer to and so the meaningfulness of religious claims has to be evaluated in a different way. He used the analogy of “toys in the cupboard” to make this point; can a child talk meaningfully about his belief that his toys come out of the cupboard at night when he is asleep? Obviously enough, they will all be in the cupboard when he sets out to check – there is no doubt that his belief might reasonably change how he feels about his toys and how he behaves towards them. Similarly faith-claims are based on faith; we cannot set out to demonstrate their basis, because to do so is impossible and undermines their very nature. Religious symbols cannot be validated because they point towards something that we can experience or clearly define, nor can they be validated because they are falsifiable, and yet the fact remains that they work and have profound effects on religious believers, so in some sense must be “comprehensible”.
Paul Edwards would reject this argument, arguing that “comprehensible” refers specifically and narrowly to being cognitive. As religious symbols do not refer to clear and distinct ideas or to states of affairs that we can see, hear, smell or taste, they cannot be cognitive and must, therefore be regarded as non-cognitive. Nevertheless, being non-cognitive in character does not equate to being “incomprehensible”. As Tillich’s colleague Randall argued in “The Role of Knowledge in Western Religion” chapter four, although symbols are in no sense representative, they still do things in provoking emotional and/or actual responses in both individuals and communities, in communicating shared experiences effectively and in revealing or disclosing insight or vision. While they may be non-cognitive, symbols work in communicating religious experiences and concepts and inciting specific forms of understanding and religious actions. It is, therefore, not reasonable to say that symbols are “incomprehensible”, even though they may be impossible to reduce or explain in terms of other things and even though they refer to what is beyond empirical experience or clear, logical definition.
Naturally enough, Edwards would reject this, arguing that the very fact that religious symbols are irreducible makes them – at least Tillich’s account of them – circular. You can’t understand symbols unless you understand symbols, you can’t comprehend symbols unless you already comprehend whatever generally incomprehensible thing they refer to. Edwards would conclude that this shows that the religious symbols themselves are incomprehensible and add nothing in themselves to the business of trying to understand what it is that they refer to. Nevertheless, Tillich would rightly defend the comprehensibility of symbols, drawing on Aristotle to argue that they are both cognitive and successful in communicating new meaning, thus helping people to open up understanding and develop their comprehension of what would otherwise be closed and opaque. Symbols are not the same as metaphors, which are more carefully constructed by an individual author or speaker, but they rely on the same process of new meaning being created through concepts coming together, in what Aristotle called the epiphora between them. As Nietzsche and later Heidegger argued, we communicate entirely by placing one word next to another with the intention of meaning being transferred in the process of connecting them, from the space and tension between them. Real human communication is not just pointing (whether physically or auditorily) to a series of things as a chimpanzee might do, it is about creating rich and dynamic pictures in other peoples’ minds. It is wrong to reduce human language to a string of words and their verifiable points of reference. Just as it would be wrong to think that by writing “the life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than the life of an oyster” Hume was only making a point about bivalves, it would be wrong to see language as a series of signs pointing towards specific points of reference in a static and predictable way. Hume chooses the oyster, then cheap and plentiful fast-food sold by the pint in the London streets – as a symbol for a disposable form of life. The use of this symbol enabled readers to comprehend Hume’s position on the sanctity of life more quickly and precisely than many hundreds of other words and arguments. This is demonstrated by the fact that this quotation is much better remembered than any other part of Hume’s essay “On Suicide”. Symbolic language, therefore, often supports comprehension more effectively than more straightforward uses of words.
Edwards – along with thinkers such as Ayer and Flew – would again reject this argument, drawing on Frege’s 1898 essay “Sense and Reference” to distinguish between claims supported by reference – which are meaningful in a strict, logical sense – and those which can have sense, but which lack reference and so include much room for misunderstanding and speculation. The word “symbol” comes from a Greek root meaning “thrown together”, which points to the essential problem with symbolic language, that there is nothing to regulate how symbols are developed or used and no standard against which to check their comprehensibility. While this criticism might just apply in the case of metaphors, which are chosen by individuals with more or less success, symbols develop organically and are projected by groups, not individuals. The standard against which the comprehensibility of religious symbols can be checked is the extent of their adoption and the length of their life within the community of faith. Further, as Plato suggested in his Cratylus, in a sense the whole of language is built out of symbol, not out of bald and arbitrary auditory signs. Words participate in what they refer to, either intentionally or, over time, otherwise. Plato’s own example was the Greek word “Anthropos”, which according to Socrates appears to break down into anathrôn ha opôpe, ‘one who reflects on what he has seen’ – the word does not point to a meaning beyond itself, but – through the creation of what Ricoeur called a “semantic kernel” – actually participates in the meaning to which it points. In this way, translation is not just a matter of swapping one sound for another, referring to exactly the same object or concept, but is more of an art which involves a deeper understanding of what words connote in each language and the attempt to convey not just the superficial meaning as in reference of words, but their full sense. Critics of symbolic language like Paul Edwards miss the essence of what language is and what it means to “comprehend” something. Comprehension does not come from somebody pointing at an object – say a ball – or having something rephrased for us – by Paul being a bachelor I mean that he is an unmarried man. Rather, real comprehension comes from the new connections that words in combination create in our minds. Further, as Hume acknowledged, but his empiricist disciples too often choose to ignore, we do not experience the world directly but rather through the conceptual filter of our minds, which is surely built and enriched not only through direct sensory experience and rational reflection, but also through real communication, which enables us to deepen our understanding by sharing in others’ experiences and reflections. These points show that lack of formal regulation does not render religious discourse (understood symbolically) meaningless, because the same lack of formal regulation applies to non-religious discourse, when it is understood properly, and because insisting on such regulation betrays a misunderstanding of the essence of all forms of linguistic communication.
In conclusion, a symbolic understanding of religious discourse does not render it incomprehensible. Certainly, religious discourse is often incomprehensible to those outside the religious community or “form of life” which generates and validates the symbols it draws on. Certainly, religious symbols cannot be checked and their comprehensibility resists normal measurement. Nevertheless, religious discourse is successful in sustaining faith; its many symbols are widely used and live for generations, doing more than just pointing towards an external reality but actively participating in and animating the faith experience. Perhaps, in the end, it comes down to what “comprehensible” actually means. While it is fair to say that both religious discourse and its object is often baffling, even to those trained in Theology, this does not mean that either the discourse or the religious symbols it employs are “incomprehensible”. There is no question that labelling something “incomprehensible” is pejorative, and that to agree with the title-statement would be to dismiss the value of a symbolic understanding of religious discourse. There is a difference between discourse which is rich and sophisticated and which cannot be reduced or explained in other terms and discourse which has no value. While few, if any, religious people will ever completely “comprehend” religious discourse, let alone its object, a symbolic understanding of religious discourse goes some way to explaining the value of continuing to engage in the process of discussing what can never be fully understood. It is in that process that faith resides and grows.