Religious Language Archives



More Generally: Philosophy (551) » Philosophical Theology (51)

August 24, 2021

Apophaticism and Religious Pluralism

Many world religions include some tendency toward, or tradition of, apophaticism, the view that the divine (or ultimate, or absolute, the object of our religious devotion) defies description in human language, and we must therefore restrict ourselves to saying what the divine is not. However, most of these religions are also committed to texts or traditions which appear to describe the divine in various positive ways. Puzzles arise when we attempt to combine these traditions of negative (or apophatic) theology and positive (or kataphatic) theology. If we can speak truly of God only by negation, what are we to make...
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March 18, 2021

A Brief Reflection on the History of Apophaticism

Apophaticism is the view that affirmative statements about God cannot be both literal and univocal. 'Literal' is here opposed to 'metaphorical'. (How precisely to spell out that opposition is a rather difficult question that I won't pursue here—I will just assume we have some kind of grasp of the concept of metaphor.) 'Univocal' means that the word has the same meaning when applied to God as in its other uses. So, for instance, to say that 'wise' is used univocally in 'God is wise' would be to say that it has the same meaning in this sentence as in the...
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February 24, 2020

Making (Non)Sense of Apophatic Theology

Recently, I've been trying to sort out the historical context of Berkeley's remarks on the divine attributes—and particularly the doctrine of analogy—in Alciphron 4. As this text shows, early modern philosophers were much more knowledgeable about, and influenced by, medieval philosophy than is often assumed. So I've been reading up on medieval understandings of analogy and apophaticism. Unrelatedly, I've also been reading through Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief. This is a hugely influential book, and I'd read—and even taught—the crucial central portion of the book but (I must admit) this is my first time reading it cover to cover. In part...
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February 19, 2020

Aquinas on the Meaning of 'God'

In the recent analytic philosophy literature on the meaning of the word/name 'God', it is common to begin by distinguishing two positions. In the first place, we might think of 'God' as abbreviating a definite description like 'the being than which none greater can be conceived' or 'the being which is worthy of worship' or 'the omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good creator of the universe'. Some philosophers stipulate that they are using the word this way, but this kind of account is unsatisfactory as a description of how the word 'God' is used in English (or how its translations are...
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May 21, 2019

Berkeley on Divine and Human Spirits

It is pretty widely accepted, among those scholars who have considered the matter, that Berkeley endorses a univocal account of theological language. That is, Berkeley holds—contrary to traditional philosophical theology—that the word 'wise' is applied to God and to Socrates in the same sense, although with an infinite difference of degree. Philosophers who hold such a view are often said to anthropomorphize God (see, e.g., O'Higgins). However, comparing Berkeley's account with the prior tradition, it would be more accurate to say that Berkeley divinizes the human being than that he anthropomorphizes God. The strongest indication in this direction is found...
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April 11, 2019

Browne and Berkeley on the Influence of Words

At the beginning of the final (and by far the longest) chapter of his 1733 Divine Analogy, Peter Browne reports that "JUST as this Treatise was finished and sent away to the Press, I was very accidentaly surprised with a threatning Appearance of a powerful Attack upon the Doctrine of Divine Analogy, from an anonymous Author under the Disguise of a Minute Philosopher" (p. 374). The reference is, of course, to Berkeley's 1732 Alciphron: or, the Minute Philosopher. Browne proceeds to offer a lengthy critique of the account of religious language found in Berkeley's fourth and seventh dialogues. Browne correctly...
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January 2, 2018

Berkeley and Toland on the Homoousion

EUPHRANOR. There is, if I mistake not, a practical faith, or assent, which sheweth itself in the will and actions of a man, although his understanding may not be furnished with those abstract, precise, distinct ideas, which, whatever a philosopher may pretend, are acknowledged to be above the talents of common men; among whom, nevertheless, may be found, even according to your own concession, many instances of such practical faith, in other matters which do not concern religion. What should hinder, therefore, but that doctrines relating to heavenly mysteries might be taught, in this saving sense, to vulgar minds, which...
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March 25, 2015

"Matter, God, and Nonsense: Berkeley's Polemic Against the Freethinkers in the Three Dialogues"

I have posted a new draft to my writings page, "Matter, God, and Nonsense: Berkeley's Polemic Against the Freethinkers in the Three Dialogues". The final version of the paper is expected to appear in Berkeley's Three Dialogues: New Essays, ed. Stefan Storrie (Oxford University Press). In the meantime, comments are welcome.
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June 18, 2013

Quote of the Day: D. Z. Phillips on the Christian 'Image'

Consider the following example. There is a gentleman who appears advertising cigars on television. No sooner does this immaculate man light up cigars than women come from all quarters to gather round him. We can imagine people reacting in certain moods by saying, 'What a man!' Here, 'man' is clearly not a purely descriptive term. They are extolling, praising, wondering. A cluster of images influence their attitude: success, flair, charm, panache, the great seducer, etc., etc. At the heart of Christianity is a very different event. It is that of a torn body on a cross. Here, too, it was...
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February 23, 2013

Berkeley, Analogy, Matter, and God

On May 15, 1709 William King, archbishop of Dublin, preached a famous sermon (it was really more of a lecture in philosophical theology with a Scripture quotation at the beginning, but this was not too unusual in the Anglican Communion at the time) entitled "Divine Predestination and Fore-knowledg, consistent with the Freedom of Man's Will." The sermon was published shortly thereafter in both Dublin and London and is therefore now available on Google books. (I have written about King before.) King considers three atheistic arguments: the argument from the inconsistency of divine foreknowledge with human freedom, the argument from the...
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