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HUMA 1860
Jason Robinson

J.C. Robinson Lecture Notes W EEK TWENTY J.H. Randall, Jr. on Religious Belief & Religious Language Readings: Hick 313-333 Introduction In this unit you will be introduced to Randall’s understanding of the main features and functions of religious symbolism, and you will be asked to rethink the nature of language and its relationship to reality, i.e., its factual and mythical connection or correspondence to the world, as well as to formulate your own opinion as to the relative merits of nonliteral discourse. Outline Part I Introduction to our Topic Part II Randall, “A Form of Religious Naturalism” Part III What is Religious Symbolism? Part IV Differences Between a Sign and a Symbol Learning Objectives Upon successful completion of this unit you will be able to:  explain Randall’s understanding of religious symbols  describe the main features and functions of religious symbols You will have begun to:  rethink the nature of language and its relationship to reality, i.e., its factual and mythical connection or correspondence to the world  formulate your own opinion as to the relative merits of nonliteral discourse Thought Probes (questions to ponder ... because you can) 1. What are some of the implications of defining religion in terms of the language we use, instead of conceiving of religion primarily as a response to the nature and character of God? That is, what do we gain or lose by thinking of religion in terms of social and cultural roles, rather than first and foremost as a response to a transcendent reality? 2. Is God being replaced by religion? 3. Do you think nonliteral language is useful in the ways Randall suggests? Why or why not? 4. What kind of problems might emerge if we accept Randall’s descriptions of “knowledge,” “belief,” “truth,” and “vision?” 5. Answer Randall’s question found on page 327: “Is there any religious ‘knowledge’ significantly different from the verifiable and explanatory knowledge of scientific truths, 1 J.C. Robinson Lecture Notes so that the two never compete but rather supplement each other?” This question requires that you respond to the more specific question: Is religious language meaningful or useful in some sense? If so, why? If not, why not? Be specific and offer examples. 6. What are the differences between signs and symbols? Part I Introduction to our Topic  How do we use religious language?  In what ways might we say it conveys truth to us?  When we speak of God as “hearing our prayers” or “speaking creation into being,” what are we really saying?  Obviously, God has no ears and he has no mouth, so whatever we are saying when we utter these statements is said in a special way.  And while many rational theists may readily accept such statements as nonliteral, they often claim that religious statements are factual in some sense.  If such statements are not truthful or factual in some sense (and these two concepts are not synonymous), is there any sense in which our religious statements may be useful and/or meaningful?  During this unit we will test our own preconceived notions of what constitutes meaningful and truthful discourse. First, a few quick words about Randall.  Randall, who was most active in the late 1950s and 1960s, was an American historian and philosopher who produced a number of influential works during his lifetime.  His contributions to philosophy focus primarily on the nature of philosophy and religion.  His position has and continues to be characterized as “naturalism,” and is influenced by the likes of Woodbridge, Dewey, and Aristotle, to name a few. Randall’s closest philosophical mentor was Aristotle. Two more points by way of introduction: 2 J.C. Robinson Lecture Notes First: “Naturalism” is a term employed in reference to that general position in accordance with which all explanation is to be given in natural terms (as opposed, for example, to super natural terms). Second: Randall concentrates on these distinctions and characteristics: Religious: experience belief, knowledge language it’s: not cognitive not factual or not literal theoretical so it’s: emotional practical symbolic Part II Randall, ‘A Form of Religious Naturalism’ Let us consider the central question that arises in Randall’s influential work, The Role of Knowledge in Western Religion (Boston, Beacon Press, 1958): [313] “What, in the light of this long history of relations intimate if not always legitimized between them, is the rightful place of knowledge in religion?” We may ask this question another way. Are (some/most/all) religious statements factual in character? That is, do they somehow correspond to, reflect or connect to reality in a literal or specific sense? When one claims that “God spoke to Moses,” what is being said here? Again, we know God has no mouth, so how should we understand this religious claim? Ultimately, as we will see, Randall contends that religious statements are “an imaginative and symbolic rendering of men’s moral experience and ideals” (9), and therefore do not directly correspond to reality in a factual sense. Consider the following statements by Randall. [313] “It is necessary to be precise about just what we mean by ‘knowledge,’ lest our arguments turn into quarrels about the mere use of words. It is beyond doubt, there can be no serious conflict between religion and ‘knowledge’ in this sense, “knowledge” taken as factual descriptions or theoretical explanations of anything, as propositions that are ‘warrantedly assertible’ or ‘true.’” [313-4] “For religion offers no descriptions and no explanations whatever independent of men’s best secular knowledge--though its presence and its challenge may, and historically has, come to influence that knowledge profoundly.” [314] 3 J.C. Robinson Lecture Notes “We can assume, therefore, that all religious beliefs without exceptions are ‘mythology.’ That is, they are all religious “symbols.” If such symbols can be said to possess any kind of ‘truth,’ they certainly do not possess the literal truth of the factual statements of the descriptive sciences or of common sense, or the ‘warranted assertibility’ and explanatory value of the well founded theories of science and philosophy.” [314] “To this negative conclusion, that there is no literal description of fact or explanatory truth to be found in religion in general or in Christianity in particular, there would today be widespread agreement.”  Randall believes that religious symbols (religious language) are both nonrepresentative and noncognitive.  If I were to say “Today is 21 degrees Celsius” or “My dog is fat,” I would be making a cognitive statement that may be proven either true or false.  You are able to work with the subject matter of my informative (or indicative) statement because it somehow connects with reality (or perhaps because it doesn’t connect).  Religious statements are not like this in any obvious way.  Thus, Randall suggests that we look not to what symbols represent in regard to some external reality (as if we were using a scientific language), bto the role or service they provide “in and of themselves .”  He is clear that regardless of the content of one’s faith and belief, it cannot be said to be literal.  And yet, Randall finds that the content of faith and belief does not necessarily conflict with scientific explanations. [314-5] “The full implications of this position, however, seem not always to be realized. It means, for instance, not only that the ‘existence of God’ is a ‘myth’ or symbol; Neo-Orthodox theologians can easily take this in their stride. It means also that the doctrine of Original Sin is likewise a ‘myth’ or symbol, and supplies no literal truth about man that other adequate analyses of human nature cannot and have not been able to arrive at. Between a religious, even a Christian, view of human nature, and a sound psychological analysis, there can be no conflict-- as explanations, as truth.”  To be clear, while Randall may speak of God in a general sense, he is definitely not thinking of the one we might commonly associate with the Bible or Koran.  There is something else going on with the “idea” of God for Randall, something else that religion is accomplishing besides connecting humanity with the divine.  In fact, Randall’s notion of religion doesn’t seem to be about God in the traditional sense at all. 4 J.C. Robinson Lecture Notes [315] “... adequate analyses of human nature and sound psychological judgments are not easy to come by—as yet. For it is not very difficult to suspect certain limitations in behavioristic psychology.... And as for depth psychology, despite the spate of candidates, it has still to give birth to its Newton; as yet we have had only a number of rival Keplers. In this far from stabilized climate of psychological opinion, it is not surprising that genuine insight is still to be won from poets like Paul or Augustine.”  Randall is looking for new insight into human nature and believes that the symbolism or poetic discourse of religious thinkers (and non-religious thinkers) offers us a venue for precisely this sort of new vision.  In Randall’s account, the role and nature of the divine (as embodied in our various religions) seems very close to that which we saw during our discussion of the psychological criticism of religion, namely, a mental construction or projection … a temporally contingent figment of our imagination (our values, our will, our ideals).  While science may offer insight into human nature, argues Randall, so does art, religion, and the like. [317] “Again, while ‘religious experience’ can be supremely valuable, it is clearly not an experience of ‘values’ about which we can come to learn in no other way. It cannot tell us what those values ‘are’: their nature, their consequences, their relations to their causes and conditions and to other values. Only inquiry can do that. Scientific method and logic can of course deal with values, in answering precisely these questions
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