Language Truth and Religion – 3

So there is a big difference between the language of religion and the language of science and everyday life. Scientific and everyday language refers directly to objects (such as chairs) and particular events in our experience of the physical world.

The language of religion refers allegorically to the nature of the world and our place in it ——- but is not part of that objective world of physics amenable to rational, logical thought.

Problems arise when we try to apply rational thought to the ideas, structures and stories we have invented to try to think/communicate about our ineffable spiritual world. For we are then making the fundamental error of applying rationality to what is fundamentally non-rational.

So theology gets into immediate muddles, theologians fall out, churches split, and people get burned and slaughtered.

I have used the notion of an allegory – a story, picture, figure, invented to try to communicate complex, difficult and wonderful experiences. These spiritual experiences are, perhaps, otherwise incommunicable.

We are forced to use the invented language of religion.

When spiritual people come together and start to communicate using allegories, they  form a religion – and their developing language often starts to diverge from their primal spiritual experience.

But it is still experience.

The problem with spiritual experience, as opposed to physical experience, is that the latter is universally accepted while the former is strongly denied by some and strongly affirmed by others.

But THAT spiritual perception is, perhaps, inexpressible does not mean that it is not real – and that some seem not to be able to imagine or acknowledge it has no bearing on the question of its reality.

A person blind from birth cannot imagine what I mean by “red” – but “red” is as real as real can be.

Are there not, you might say at this point, other forms of communication than ordinary words for communicating spiritual experience?

Perhaps we should turn to the arts – fine art, music – and, indeed, architecture. The most wonderful expressions of the spiritual in the world are, perhaps, the paintings, sculptures and music that are characteristic of religion – usually still, of course, expressing spirituality through the figures and stories of each different religious culture. A statue of the Buddha; a mass by J. S.Bach. Bach communicates the divine to many.

Architecture is a little freer than this; the churches, cathedrals, temples, and mosques across the world are often glorious expressions of spirituality, and can communicate this to those who come to them.

And finally, the deliberately non-literal use of words in poetry and in literature can communicate very clearly what are spiritual perceptions of reality.  “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways” by the Quaker poet Whittier.

So the language of the arts is, perhaps, the only viable language of spirituality – seen as the perception and expression of existential reality. Otherwise, we have just silence.

So, abandon literalism completely but, nevertheless, have no fear of abandoning your  spirituality.

Accept that religious language is allegorical, and that it is not to be taken literally.

What remains for us is the silent, wordless spirituality of all things, through which we may come to real insight, as have the mystics of all ages.

To return to Charles Dickens… he invented the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come. One does not interpret the story literally or believe in their existence, but the story communicates a number of truths about people.

We human beings invented God and the gods and all the angels, heaven, hell, incarnation, reincarnation, and Nirvana. One does not take these notions literally, but they communicate spiritual truth by giving us a sense of the ineffable reality of our existence..

Beyond all this about language, what I have called the wordless spirituality of all things remains – and this can , through prayerful contemplation, and worship, bring us to convictions that we can and should accept with joy.

Rumi: “Silence is the language of God; all the rest is poor translation.”


Alan York is a St Davids city councillor and deputy mayor. A retired teacher and lecturer, he read philosophy at Keele University and astrophysics with the Open University before going on to take a master’s degree in the philosophy and theology of education from Birmingham University. He has a special interest in language and its functions, particularly in relation to religious experience and spirituality.

Alan has been a Quaker since the 1970s, and is a member of St Davids Quaker Meeting.

To learn more about this subject you may obtain an expanded version of the philosophical discussion we are serialising here in his booklet The  Language of Spirituality (QUG Pamphlet No. 39; price £4).

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