Language, Truth and Religion – 2

When Christians speak of the birth of the Saviour to a virgin, when they speak of the Son of God coming to earth as a baby to save sinners, they tell a powerful tale which resonates within the human psyche. For the story tells us that God  has revealed Himself through a babe-in-arms, and the only possible and reasonable reaction to a baby is wonder and love. The story tells us that God, through a child, has great power, but that it is up to us to accept that power in our lives.

It tells us, above all, that God is a personal God, that the world is a personal creation, and that God loves us. It tells us, in the end, that if we return God’s love, we are ultimately forgiven and achieve salvation; loneliness, despair and death have been defeated.

But all these feelings and reassurances are what come to men and women in prayerful meditation through the primal religious experience itself which we attempted to describe previously. The sense of belonging, of love and peace, of wonder and power, of acceptance and of eternity comes from the primal experience, but is here expressed through Christian concepts, stories and beliefs.  The Christian religion has developed a language in which to tell the primal story. The concepts, beliefs and structures that that language expresses constitute Christian theology. The almost inexpressible  and ineffable primal perception has been mediated to us in terms we can take in, think about and develop.

The key notion here is that in order to communicate the primal experience to others, and in order to think about it ourselves, we have to invent concepts, figures, stories and beliefs that allow us, at least partly, to hold the ineffable in words.

The story of the birth of Christ, therefore, can be seen as an allegory about the nature of human existence and its relation to the universe, an allegory being defined here as a story used to communicate complex, fundamental and difficult ideas. This allegory attempts to express the ineffable. It attempts to express that primal religious experience, much of which is common to all societies, of a transcendant and yet immanent truth and reality beyond ordinary sense.

Other men and women, other cultures and other historical settings lead to other allegories expressing related perceptions of the same experiences, each powerful and each leading people into what we may call the light. Thus Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism each have their own power to do this.  Mahatma Gandhi said at one point: “I am a Hindu and also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” Perhaps we can come  through this discussion to glimpse part of what he meant.

We have said we need to have stories, figures, concepts and beliefs, expressed in words, in order to contemplate and think about the ineffable that comes to us through our spirituality.

Let us pause for a moment to comment on language.

We humans are language-using beings. Language is a system of symbols (spoken or written) related to our individual and communal experience, used for communication and for rational thought.

The idea that these symbols allow communication is commonplace, but it may be thought surprising that I say language allows thought. Why do I say this?

By thought /thinking I do mean the more or less rational processes, using logic and argument  to come to conclusions.

I do not mean any mental process – just rational thought.

We have words, representing ideas or concepts, and we manipulate and process them according to our understanding of rules of logic.

This process cannot take place except through language, i.e. through words signifying ideas and standing in some relation to experience. You have to have something to process or manipulate.

So, how do ordinary words gain their  meaning? And how is their meaning explained?

The meaning of the word “chair”, for example, is explained by pointing to chairs, and identifying the idea of a chair and the word chair in our common experience of chairs.

The meaning of such words derives from our experience of the world.

And whenever we wish to apply rational thought to an area of experience, we must have (or must develop) a language to think our thoughts in (i.e. words, with meaning attached).

How does all this apply to religious language?

When we speak of religious language we are thinking of terms such as salvation, redeemer, soul, spirit,  god(s), enlightenment (perhaps), angels and eternity (agencies, states and actions in a world beyond the ordinary).

But we cannot point to an angel to define the word “angel”.

So from what experience do such notions arise?

Well, the prime candidate is the range of spiritual experience outlined earlier – the ultimately ineffable experience of love, peace, all-embracing unity and eternity that mystics speak of.

So, as the Christian story of Christmas holds the ineffable in words, so do, across religions, other stories and other allegorical figures.

We have, across the world, invented stories, involving allegorical figures, so that we can talk about the ineffable, the spiritual

In illustration, an obvious example of an allegorical figure or being is Satan.

In the past he was accepted as a real being, with his own history, interfering in our lives, rampaging round the world, defying God.

Now he is seen by most people as part of an allegorical story (not literally true at all), but the story  nevertheless communicates something about the spiritual nature of evil.

Is there any limit to where the notion of allegory can be applied?

The most fundamental notions of religion (God, immortality, soul,  salvation, incarnation, re-incarnation, godliness, karma and so on) are, perhaps, all allegorical

God is, perhaps, an allegorical figure, giving us a word or words, allowing us to talk about our most fundamental  and ineffable spiritual experiences.

Such words are a means to try to think about and communicate what mystics perceive, and to help others to come towards, to get a sense of that perception, i.e. the primal religious experience, beyond language, of what seems to be reality and truth. But the stories and figures we find in these words are all allegorical.

To be continued


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).

You may also like...