Critically Asses the Views of Paul Tillich on Religious Language

Critically Asses The Views Of Paul Tillich On Religious Language Paul Tillich was a renowned American Protestant theologian born in Prussia 1886. As a self-proclaimed philosophical theologian, Tillich saw the very nature of Christian faith expressed in religious symbols that demanded constant reinterpretation. He was famous for believing that it is possible to speak meaningfully about metaphysical concepts and therefore came up with the theory that religious language, because it is symbolic in nature, has an overwhelming effect upon humans.

Tillich argued that religious language is symbolic. This means that religious symbols communicate the most significant values and beliefs of human beings. In his theory, Tillich firstly establishes the difference between signs and symbols and he does this by saying signs are something that point towards a statement and have no other effect as this therefore means that without understanding that sign, it is meaningless to you. An example would be a road sign indicating that you can now travel at the national speed limit and has no other effect of meaning.

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On the other hand, symbols possess much more meaning and power according to Tillich as they are actually involved and take part in what they are symbolising thus having an impact on it. For example the Cross that represents Christianity, Not only does it stand as a marker for that religion, but it also makes a powerful statement. It immediately reminds Christians of the sacrifice they believe Jesus to have made on the cross for them; it also reminds them of their beliefs about God and his plan for the salvation of human beings.

After the distinction between the two had been made, Tillich claimed that religious language worked as a symbol for those who use it as it has meaning and impact on what it represents. He maintained that religious faith is best expressed through symbolism because a symbol points to a meaning beyond itself and best expresses transcendent religious beliefs. He believed that any statement about God is symbolic and participates in the meaning of a concept.

Tillich famously used the example of a national flag to illustrate his point: a flag points to something beyond itself, the country it represents, but also participates in the meaning of the country. He believed that symbols could unite a religious believer with a deeper dimension of himself as well as with a greater reality. He also believed that symbols must emerge out of an individual collective unconsciousness, and can only function when they are accepted by the unconscious.

For Tillich symbols cannot be just invented, but instead live and die at the appropriate times. Also Tillich suggests that religious faith, can express itself only in symbolic language, because “whatever we say about that which concerns us ultimately… has a symbolic meaning” presumably because it is of greater concern and import than the mere language, which can only point towards it. “The language of faith is the language of symbols”

Tillich then went onto develop his idea of a symbol further by outlining the functions in which a symbol carries out which are Point to something beyond themselves, Participate in that to which they point, Open up reality that otherwise are closed to us and finally They also open up the levels and dimensions of the soul that correspond to those levels of reality. Tillich furthermore argued that symbolic language operates in a similar way that a piece of music, art work or poetry might.

This is because they can heave a deep overwhelming effect upon us that we can’t explain or can only explain in a limited way and therefore, the person listening will not understand the effect unless they have felt the same effect of the same piece of art. Also, symbols, like artwork can open up new levels of reality for us and offer a new outlook on life that we would not previously of had, without looking at the symbol/art. Tillich Finally talked about how religious language acts as a symbolic way of pointing towards the ultimate reality, the vision of God which he called ‘Being-Itself. Being-Itself is that upon which everything else depends for its being and Tillich believed that we came to knowledge of this through symbols which direct us to it. One critique of Tillich is the English philosopher of religion and theologian John Hick who argued that Tillich does not make clear how the symbol participates in that to which it points and claims in failing to do so produces a simplistic theory. Also he claims that there are religious statements which do not appear to “unlock dimensions and elements of our soul”, which is part of Tillich’s definition of a symbol.

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