Psychology of Religion:
      Religious Language

        Now all this, if taken literally, is absurd. If it is taken symbolically, it is a profound expression, the ultimate Christian expression, of the relationship between God and man in the Christian experience. But to distinguish these two kinds of speech, the non-symbolic and the symbolic, in such a point is so important that if we are not able to make understandable to our contemporaries that we speak symbolically when we use such language, they will rightly turn away from us, as from people who still live in absurdities and superstitions. -- Paul Tillich

If Tillich's words ring true for the intellectual, faith for many people is not an intellectual activity or defined as a way of acting based on one's way of seeing the world. The truth of their faith must be concretely, literally true -- based on a actual, not archetypal, event that occured within the confines of matter, energy, space, and time. To have faith in such a context requires an act of will to belief in an event for which there is no proof.

The Character of Religious Language

In the simplest of terms, a symbol is something that stands in the place of some other thing. All words are symbols for ideas. In religious language, the symbols we call words stand in the place of other symbols, symbols which point beyond the literal, concrete object symbolized to tell more about the speaker's experience.

The character of religious language, the words with which people communicate religious experience and interpret that experience

is closer to poetry than prose.

is both mythic, heroic, and imaginal.

evocative of the experience it seeks to describe.

Psychology of Religion's attempts to understand religious experience and behavior can be defined by whether a literal or symbolic experience was being addressed.

Literal Interpretations

People use the same religious language to mean events that they consider factually, if unverifiably, true and for events that are archetypally true in human experience but not factually true. Many believers, perhaps the majority, hold that the scriptures of their tradition are literally true. It is a condition of their faith that this is so, despite repeated failures to substantiate literal claims. One such famous failure is Albert Sweitzer's Search for the Historical Jesus.

The positivist response to literal interpretations is to dismiss religion entirely as meaningless because the religious language doesn't refer to anything real and tangible.

Freudian and Object-Relations theories of psychology of religion have focused on fuandamentalist, literal interpretations of religious experience.

Symbolic Interpretations

Our experience of a object tells us more about ourselves than the object itself. The words we choose to describe the experience reveal what is important to us in that experience.

    The Master said:
    Writing cannot express words completely.
    Words cannot express thoughts completely.
    Are we then unable to see the thoughts of the holysages?
    The Master said:
    The holy sages set up the images
    in order to express their thoughts completely. (Ta Chuan)
The tendency to literalize and concretize the symbols of our experience has been much criticized by Carl Jung, and archetypal psychologist, James Hillman.

Communication Styles and Personality Types

The literal and symbolic interpretations correspond to the S and N attributes on the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. A more thorough discussion of personality typing and religious understanding will be dealt with later in these pages. Such differences can also be seen as stages in language development.

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