This summary sheet outlines a few key ways to approach religious language that might suggest there is meaning in it. All of them say: “Religious language is meaningful if…” and give us a way to look at RL differently.
A favourite of Maimonides, who argues that RL is meaningful if we only use language describing what God is NOT. He accepts that positive language about God is meaningless because words like “love” are always limited to human experience, which God transcends. However, instead of saying “God is loving” we can say “God is not evil” with confidence because it leaves an appropriate level of mystery. He gives the example of describing an object by negative attributes and at the end declares that only possible thing that can be imagined from this description is a ship.
Brian Davies challenges the claim that we can get a sense of what something is by the negative attributes. He looks at the example of a ship and says that “one could equally well be thinking of a wardrobe”. The point is that the via negativa only works if one already has a positive sense of what is being described in negative terms, and this totally defeats the purpose.
Aquinas attempts to respond to the problem of positive attributes of God in another way. He says that we cannot use language about God univocally (in the same way) because to say “God is loving” and “My dog is loving” doesn’t do justice to God’s love if you understand the word “loving” in the same way. However, language about God is not equivocal either, because if there is no connection between God’s love and a dog’s love then it’s hard to know if God’s love means anything. This leads Aquinas to say that RL is meaningful if it is used as an analogy. There are two kinds of “analogy”: attribution and proportion. The analogy of attribution says that any virtues that we see in human terms are reflections of the perfect attributes of God and so to say God is “good” is to say that God’s goodness is a perfected version of any goodness we see. The analogy of proportion is the claim that any adjectives we use for earthly things are understood as in proportion to the thing in question: a dog’s “goodness” is in proportion to a human’s “goodness” is in proportion to God’s “goodness”.
Does “analogy” really tell us anything at all? Even if we accept that God’s “goodness” is in proportion to a dog’s “goodness” do we actually learn anything more than God being a bit more “good” than a dog? Also, proponents of the VP will always argue that none of the language, however used, is verifiable so it totally meaningless.
Wittgenstein argues that RL is meaningful if it is understood within its own “language game”. He takes a coherence view of truth (that “truth” is what conforms to a coherent world-view that makes sense within its own parameters. Every world-view has its own way of using language, which makes sense within that world.