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The Language Gap and God: Religious Language and Christian Education by Randolph Crump Miller

Dr. Miller is Horace Bushnell professor of Christian nurture at Yale University divinity school. He is the author of The American Spirit in Theology (Pilgrim, 1974.) Published by Pilgrim Press, Philadelphia and Boston, 1970. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This book is written for Christian educators, trainers, teachers, and lay people who are facing the question: "How can we say what we mean about God so that our assertions will be understood, accepted, and responded to?" When we speak of God, many people do not realize what the word means or to whom it points. The influence of Western technological culture has infiltrated the thinking of educated people throughout the world and the categories of secular concepts are used to explain everything from repairing a bicycle to interpreting the scriptures.

Part of thc problem lies in the nature of religious language. We have become aware of the difficulty of communicating the mythic images of the Bible, due partly to Rudolf Bultmann’s theory of demythologizing, but the difficulty is more likely with the language itself. The high poetry of the Gospels is often considered to be fantasy by those who think only within the limited framework of verification of sense experience. Even when liturgical forms are deeply moving, the emotional response is not considered to be grounded in reality.

Within the Christian community, there are many who are at home with the traditional forms, which continue to have meaning for the initiated. These people tend to resent the efforts to communicate in new words and liturgical acts, object to translations of the Bible into current language, and fail to see the distinctions between various categories of language usage. Yet, they find increasing difficulty in communicating what they believe in societies influenced by modern secularism or by differing religious viewpoints.

One important resource, it seems to me, for overcoming some of these difficulties, is language analysis, a philosophical study of the use and meaning of language. Words and sentences are used in different ways in order to express various levels of thinking. We work by means of systems of words, and these systems cannot be mixed except with the greatest care. These systems or categories of language usage are called language-games by Wittgenstein. Each language-game has its own logic and means of verification, and it is important to establish the logical placing of the language of faith.

This book is not a critical study of language analysis. It is an attempt to present the findings of such study in terms of their application to Christian education. In each chapter, a survey is made of a significant view of the use of language, followed by comments on the educational implications. We are concerned with the use and meaning of language for the purpose of Christian education. This book is an extension of the thinking that began in a portion of chapter 5 of my Christian Nurture and the Church (1961) and presupposes the overall theory of Christian nurture espoused there.

It is important to recognize, the self-imposed limitations of this study. We are to deal with the key problem of how to talk about God, as this issue is illuminated by our understanding of how religious language works. This book does not pretend to offer a full-fledged doctrine of God; it deals with the doctrine of Christ only in passing; it mentions other doctrines by illustration. The full picture can be seen in other books I have written.

The approach is straightforward. We begin with a summary of the language of the Gospels, recognizing that Christianity is what might be called a speech-event. Then we turn to a survey of early language analysis, drawing on Paul van Buren’s development of this kind of thinking and his views of Christian education. This sets the stage for asking if there is a God who exists about whom we may talk, and at this point we rely on the writings of F. S. C. Northrop, Alfred North Whitehead, and Charles Hartshorne, and then we consider the educational results of their approach. Against this background, we begin a consideration of the use of language with the study of biblical myth, relying on Bultmann and Schubert Ogden, and we see what religious discourse means for Christian education according to Bultmann or Ogden or Amos Wilder. Now we are ready for more constructive suggestions, beginning with Ian T. Ramsey’s analysis of religious language as logically odd, a kind of speaking which may evoke a disclosure and lead to a commitment; his own examples provide an approach to how Christian education works through models and qualifiers. This approach is continued from another perspective in the thinking of Horace Bushnell and Francis H. Drinkwater who work through the language of the heart and provide us with the category of poetic-simple. But language does more than produce disclosures or reach the heart, and in the thinking of Donald Evans we come to the self-involving and rapportive language that does things; this gives us an opportunity to see how a changed onlook can lead to effective confirmation results. This problem of change in persons is looked at again in the next chapter, using the convenient labels of bliks and onlooks as a basis for seeing what education can do as initiation. One step beyond this is the issue of how one looks on God and his world, which brings in the problem of a world view in which Christian education can operate effectively today. The concluding chapter seeks to wrap up the discussion by consideration of the thinking of Reuel L. Howe, David R. Hunter, and Gerard S. Sloyan in Christian education, followed by a brief treatment of worship and ecumenical education.

This approach is, I hope, not too technical. I have omitted most of the difficult jargon, the critical evaluations, and the detailed extension of the arguments. The primary purpose is to use these insights in order that the verbal side of Christian teaching may be more effective. Certainly, if we take these findings seriously, we who teach will avoid many of the worst blunders. At least, we will be conscious of the language-game we are using and will assist our students in understanding how we point and show in religious language in a way that is different from how we do so in a chemistry laboratory.

The reading of Ian T. Ramsey’s Religious Language (1957) started my thinking in the direction of the thesis of this book. In 1965, I gave a seminar covering some of this material at Union Theological College, Vancouver, BC. The following fall, I repeated the seminar at Yale Divinity School, and for this I wrote a paper on "Linguistic Models and Christian Education," which I later read at the Professors and Research Section of the National Council of Churches and published in Religious Education for July-August 1966. The seminar was repeated at Union Theological Seminary in the summer of 1966, at Yale in the fall of 1967 and 1969, and at Drew in the fall of 1968.

A sabbatical year gave me the opportunity to do some additional study while teaching at Serampore College, India, and later at the Near East School of Theology, Beirut. Schubert Ogden, Donald Evans, and Paul van Buren have written to me after reading earlier drafts of the chapters on their positions, and I have been helped by their criticisms. Mrs. Miller and I were the guests of Bishop and Mrs. Ramsey, and I benefited from his response to the chapter on his position. The students in my seminars have provided me with criticisms that have helped in this final redrafting of the material. Philip Scharper, Chairman of the Board of the Religious Education Association, put the current version on the right track. My wife, who is always helpful about such things, listened to each chapter as it came out of the typewriter.

I have used translations of the Bible marked as follows:

G -- The Complete Bible: An American Translation, by J. M. Powis Smith and Edgar J. Goodspeed (copyright 1939 by the University of Chicago Press)

NEB -- The New English Bible (copyright 1961 by the Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press)

P -- The New Testament in Modern English, by J. B. Phillips (copyright 1958 by J. B. Phillips, the Macmillan Co.)

TEV -- Today’s English Version of the New Testament (copyright 1966 by the American Bible Society)

The unmarked scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946 and 1952 by the Division of Christian Education, National Council of Churches.

I am indebted to these and other publishers in cases where they have granted me permission to quote copyrighted material, indicated in the footnotes.


Randolph Grump Miller
Yale University
The Divinity School

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