New Life for Old Words

This article was written by Trevor Greenfield, associate lecturer and postgraduate researcher at University College Chichester. It first appeared in SOF43 (September 2000)

Writing in the May 2000 edition of SOF, David Boulton devoted his editorial to a discussion about religious language. By way of conclusion he asked members to consider "What place is there today for "Lord", for "kingdom", for "heaven", for "hell"? What do we mean when we say "God", "Saviour", "grace", "redemption"? How long can we go on pretending that it's all right to say the old words provided we give them new meanings, just because that's less demanding than finding new words?"

David's call is for a more radical approach to religious language and a drive to find new words and meanings. But are new words necessary in the development of a nonrealist (dare one say it) theology, or are we better off using existing language to redefine religious concepts and offer updated meanings?

Ascribing new meaning to existing words is not a modern process; it's been a feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition since the earliest times. Consider, for example, the word God. In an early Jewish tradition Yahweh appears to have been thought of as a local or regional deity, literally and only a God of the Jews. Only later did theological perceptions change such that he came to be understood as sole creator of the universe and God of all humanity.

Similarly in the Christian tradition the last two thousand years have witnessed a steady continuous development of the concept of deity. The notion of a "beneficent old man" located in a physical heaven just above the clouds developed into a more amorphous spiritual being and then again to a concept such as the ground of our being or the sum of human values. Such developments in definition are conceptually enormous. The difference in a locatable God who possesses a personality and cares for all the constituent parts of creation and the sum product of all that is good about humanity (as judged by humanity) could hardly be greater. Yet relative to an individual's belief the term God more than adequately describes both interpretations and all those in between.

In the Western philosophical tradition, when we read particular philosophers and theologians, many use the word God in ways radically different from other thinkers, but although the legitimacy of the view may be challenged the right to use the term God is generally accepted. Thus we can read Hegel, Barth and Tillich and understand that although the concept is different the fundamental nature of what each of them is talking about is that of deity. Would that still be true if they each decided to embark on redefining language and finding new words rather than adapting those that the tradition uses?

The problem, perhaps, comes into sharper focus when we consider other words like "grace", "salvation" and "redemption". These, at first glance, may seem specific not to an object or category that may or may not be redefined (or even may or may not exist) but rather to a particular way of thinking linked to belief in a specific world view.

In Christianity, redemption, of course, has classically been thought to be the gift of Christ to the faithful. But if the alternative, banishment to hell, is no longer on the agenda, the possibility of redemption or being saved by grace doesn't occur. As the prospect of hell has receded, so has Christian consciousness evolved to grasp at new alternatives. As dualism has been destroyed, one of these has been a more reflexive, inward-looking, meditative approach along the lines of individuals seeking spiritual awakening or enlightenment. But these aren't new words, these are old words and concepts borrowed from other traditions. And when words such as salvation and grace are used they are afforded a less supernatural, more existential meaning.

Ultimately the problem nonrealism has in adequately defining meaning is bound to the rejection of objectivity and the recognition of the validity of subjectivity and the many different ways people have of making sense of the world. But subjectivity, of course, inevitably brings with it a plurality of meaning. There cannot be for nonrealism a single definition for words such as God or salvation, but the acceptance of the multiplicity of meanings, and of their fluidity, simply represents another step in the development of what remains, essentially, a theological tradition. Obviously these things take time, but movements in the collective social imagination do clearly occur. If they did not we would still be thinking of Yahweh as the God of Mount Sinai or of hell as being under the earth.

There is no need for nonrealism to abandon the theological language it has inherited. Rather, one might say it actually has a duty to embrace it, re-mint it and offer it afresh to people who can't make sense of old meanings in a modern world. Surely the very fact that nonrealism is something other than atheism is because of its recognition of the value and centrality of religious and spiritual experience in people's lives. The origin, nature and function of God in nonrealism may be radically different from realist concepts but the reality of God remains unchallenged. Salvation may be an existential rather than a supernatural experience. Grace may be encountered in the depths of one's being and the acceptance of self, and not dependent on the will of an almighty creator. But for nonrealists the words God, salvation and grace are as potentially meaningful as they are for anyone else.

Nonrealism originates from a tradition that has survived primarily because of its ability to redefine itself in the face of changing circumstance. In terms of nonrealism's own continuing development, the abandonment of the religious language it has inherited would seem to me to profit no one.

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