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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.


Chapter 9: A World View and Christian Education


We have discussed various types of language and their implications for Christian education. Each of the categories of language has its specific uses, and the problem is to be clear about which language-game one is using and to avoid improper mixing. As language leads one into theology, either through a moment of disclosure or through the adoption of a new on-look, the religious person has the problem of fitting what he comes to believe about God into a world view. His idea of God, whether as an immanent being working through natural events, a transcendent being above yet influencing events, or a transcendent-immanent God both related and not related to history, has to be placed within some kind of world view. He comes to look on God not only as a loving being but also as related in some way to the world and to the universe. Thus his theological questions become metaphysical ones as he asks about the nature of reality, of existence, of being.

The Christian is neither an expert theologian nor an expert philosopher, but as he does theology on his own terms he is covertly doing metaphysics. His view is probably like that described by van Buren: "somewhat empirical, somewhat pragmatic, somewhat relativistic, somewhat naturalistic, but also somewhat aesthetic and somewhat personalistic."(Paul M. van Buren, "Christian Education Post Mortem Dei," Religious Education, LX [Jan-Feb. 1965], p. 5; also Theological Explorations [London: SCM Press, 1968], p. 64). This is a somewhat vague and descriptive approach and should remain such even if it fails to satisfy the experts, for it is enough for most people to build on, according to van Buren.

Frederick Ferré finds this view inadequate, however, partly because it fails in its descriptive aspect and chiefly because it lacks a normative element. A descriptive metaphysics is unable to evaluate properly even a "common sense" view.(See Frederick Ferré, "Paul M. van Burenís A theology of Christian Education," Religions Education, LX [Jan-Feb. 1965], p. 22.) We need to make things comprehensible, even if we are limited in our vocabulary so that we say things obscurely through metaphors, analogies, and paradoxes.(See H. H. Price, H. D. Lewis, ed., Clarity Is Not Enough, pp. 39-40.) "Speculative philosophy," writes Whitehead, "is the endeavor to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element in our experience can be interpreted," but they "are not dogmatic assertions of the obvious; they are tentative formulations of the ultimate generalities."(AN. Whitehead, Process and Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929; New York: Macmillan, 1929), pp. 4,12.)

Man becomes a metaphysician because he is seeking to realize his own nature as a person; he is seeking to overcome the depersonalizing that nature forces on him by interpreting the mystery at the center of all existence;(See Jan T. Ramsey, ed., Prospect for Metaphysics (New York: Philosophical Library, 1961; London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1961), pp. 191, 204.) or as C. B. Daly puts it, "metaphysics is the ĎIsí quest for the why of being and for the why of the self as the questioner of being. There are no whys in science."(CB. Daly, ibid., p. 193; also Dallas M. High, New Essays in Religions Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 114.)

The theologian and the lay person have been wary of metaphysics, the former because he is concerned with the religious dimension of life in isolation from metaphysical questions, the latter because of the technical demands for thinking on the nature of reality writ large. But the issue will not die, because the moment we begin to do theology we arc involved in questions about the nature of reality. If I look on God as creator or redeemer, my onlook includes the claim to deal with reality. As Dorothy Emmet writes, "The question cannot be avoided, since religion loses its nerve when it ceases to believe that it expresses in some way truth about our relation to a reality beyond ourselves which ultimately concerns us."(Dorothy Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking [London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., 1945], p. 4.)

From the standpoint of the use of language, we can say that religious language is incipiently metaphysical language. The logic is much the same, although perhaps more generalized in metaphysics. Is there, as Ramsey indicates, "some kind of language-map by which, in some way, to understand the whole Universe"?(Prospect for Metaphysics, p. 154) If we can locate and identify such a language map, we must use it for the proper purposes.(See Frederick Ferré "Mapping the Logic of Models," Dallas M. High, ed., New Essays in Religious Language, pp. 70-71.)

Ramsey as usual approaches the topic from an oblique angle. He suggests that we look at some uses of language which take us beyond ordinary language. In arithmetic, we can use the concept "five" to apply to cows, fingers, balls, stars, and dumplings. Mathematics and allied sciences provide generalized theories that unite various items of experience that are otherwise diverse. The idea of gravity, for example, unites falling apples, the moon and stars, and tides. It is a subordinate or ancillary scheme that helps us bring things together. Metaphysics, says Ramsey, is like this. Logic, likewise, brings things together in a specialized language, although it touches ordinary language at vital points.

One illustration used by Ramsey is as old as an elementary course in theory of knowledge. Is the stick in the water "really" crooked, as it looks in the water, or straight, as it looks on dry land? Once we understand how light rays work, we can use this theory to explain how the stick may appear crooked but really be straight. We are using a special language to get at the situation which common sense acknowledges without knowing why.

Metaphysics is concerned with getting at the nature of reality, using similar specialized language-games. It "is no mere extension of ordinary language," but by its specialized function in a subordinate role intends to be "illuminative of common-sense assertions as a whole." (Prospect for Metaphysics, p. 159.) It does not replace ordinary language and it is not a higher form of scientific language. However, metaphysical language seeks to unify the logically diverse languages of science and common sense, to provide a unified view by which we look on "reality." This takes what Ramsey calls "integrative concepts." For the theist this is the concept of God. Other integrative concepts have been used in the history of philosophical thinking, but from the standpoint of religious philosophy we come back to the key word, God.

This word, says Ramsey, is modeled after the word I. There is no purely descriptive way to get at my private knowledge of myself as a person. Something more is involved, for I can "reveal" myself to another. Such a disclosure is more than descriptive analysis. Ramsey elaborates this point as follows:

If there were no other disclosures but those around persons, we might be content with a pluralistic map; if there were no other disclosures but those reached by ethical techniques we might be believers in "Absolute Values -- ethical thinkers like Russell at the present time. But disclosures are more diverse than this, and in outline the justification for theism arises because the word God is such an admirable integrator. Disclosures can occur which do not arise around personal or moral behavior but around cosmic events or microcosmic phenomena. These can occur when we reflect on causal sequences, when we look at daffodils in a particular way, or penetrate into the secrets of the ocean-bed. In all such disclosures we are aware of some "other," which cannot be thought to be another "I." Such situations as these are preeminently those which afford the empirical basis for theism. For they connect "God" with all those features of the world that a metaphysics confined to persons or values would have to ignore. "God" can now integrate not only talk about persons and values but talk about science and perception.(Ibid., p. 173.)

At this point, when Ramsey describes our talking about God, he consistently develops what he has already said in Religious Language, and which we evaluated in chapter 5. Such language, we recall, is logically odd and evokes disclosures. We become as certain of God as we are of ourselves, but not in terms of description.

This places metaphysics in the area of mystery. It begins with intuition, insight, disclosure, revelation, just as theology does. However, metaphysics is not satisfied with a statement of mystery. It "cannot end," says Daly, "until it has rendered such reason of that mystery that it shall not become instead absurdity. The true alternative is not mystery or clarity, but mystery or absurdity."(Ibid., p. 204; High, op. cit., p. 126)

Toward a Metaphysics

One way of starting to develop a metaphysics is to take seriously what Ramsey and Poteat say about "I" language. In other words, the model is derived from generalizing on oneís own inner experience. Our own existence is the key. The experiencing person is not a substance or a thing; he is experiencing himself as relational or social, as a process that moves from past to present to future. He is related to his own body. He is affected by the complex state of his own organism. Through all the complexities of experiences, he affects his surroundings and is affected by them, and he has to make decisions. He is a process of creative becoming.

One can think of God as supreme, unique, and qualitatively different from man, and yet interpret him in strict analogy with ourselves. Gone is the unrelated and nonsuffering Absolute, who is timeless and indifferent. As Schubert Ogden says:

God is now conceived as precisely the unique or in all ways perfect instance of creative becoming, and so as the one reality which is eminently social and temporal.... God is related to everything. -. - He... is understood to be continually in process of self-creation, synthesizing in each new moment of his experience the whole of achieved actuality with the plenitude of possibility as yet unrealized.(The Reality of God, p. 59)

Such a deity is working for our good and is affected by what we do. His perfection does not eliminate his sharing of our suffering, his sorrow over our sin, or his joy over our turning to him. He is in our midst; he is "everywhere," says John B. Cobb, Jr., "but he is not everything. The world does not exist outside God or apart from God, but the world is not God or simply part of God. The character of the world is influenced by God, but it is not determined by him, and the world in its turn contributes novelty and richness to the divine experience." (John B. Cobb, Jr., God and the World [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969], p. 80.)

Such a concept of God, developed to technical fullness by Whitehead and adapted by others such as Ogden, Cobb, Norman Pittenger, Peter Hamilton, Daniel Day Williams, and preeminently Charles Hartshorne, is part of a metaphysical structure of thinking. The idea of God has not been tacked onto another system, whether it be Platoís, Aristotleís, or Kantís. Whiteheadís metaphysics requires a dipolar concept of God, much more complex but similar to what we have described. (None of the writers cited agrees wholly with Whitehead, but he is their inspiration at many points. They more or less agree in the way they look on the universe around us, and their vision of God is built into their metaphysical thinking.)

Whitehead speaks of God in two ways: in the first (primordial) he is the conceptual realization of what might be; he is the structure of possibilities; he is the eternal orderer of the world. "He is," says Whitehead, "the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire. His particular relevance to each creative act as it arises from its own conditioned standpoint in the world, constitutes him the initial Ďobject of desireí establishing the initial phase of each subjective aim." (Process and Reality, p. 522.) In the second (consequent) way, God is sharing with creatures the power of his being, so that all increase of value in the world increases the richness of his being. He is conscious, personal, and fully actual. He has infinite patience. "He is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness." (Ibid., p. 526)

Whitehead is protesting against some of our inherited ideas of God on both religious and metaphysical grounds. He is violently opposed to concepts of God derived from autocratic forms of government, at whose word everything began, whose rule is by divine fiat, and who is ultimately responsible for all evil and suffering. But Christianity in its original Galilean form says Whitehead,

does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious as to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.(Ibid., pp. 520-21.)

Reality finds itself transformed and "everlasting in the Being of God. In this way, the insistent craving is justified -- the insistent craving that zest for existence be refreshed by the ever-present, unfading importance of our immediate actions, which perish and yet live for evermore.(Ibid., p. 533.)

The absolute monarch with his arbitrary control and transcendent majesty is overcome by this approach, for he has no place in a process metaphysics. But the question remains: Can a deity who is not absolute bring about the transformation of reality? ( See Daniel Day Williams, "Deity, Monarchy, and Metaphysics," Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead (London: George Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 368.) Is persuasion enough? Does love conquer all? If an approach that is primarily metaphysical points toward such hope, the result approximates what many consider to be the Christian hope based on some aspects of scripture, and therefore the views of Whitehead and those who seek to interpret Christianity within a similar metaphysical framework can be commended to Christian educators.

The way of looking on God and the world derived from process metaphysics is only one possibility. There is a long tradition based on various kinds of idealism that affected theological thinking in previous years and found its modern exponents in such men as William Temple and Paul Tillich, although these two men emphasized different aspects of this tradition. There is a peculiarly American tradition based on pragmatism and pluralism exemplified at its best in William James. There is a strong trend today toward existentialism, as found in the thought of Heidegger and Bultmann. There is the denial of metaphysics as part of theological thinking, as in the theology of Karl Barth. There is the attempt to come to terms with secular views of metaphysics, as in the thought of Paul van Buren and Harvey Cox. In some thinkers, these various strands are mixed.

The point to be made is that theological and metaphysical language-games are closely related. It can even be claimed that metaphysical models are basic to theological meaning and belief ( See Frederick Ferré, "Mapping the Logic of Models," op. cit., p. 85.) Theological and metaphysical assertions are attempts to speak in generalized terms about the nature of God and the world, to back up the way one looks on the world in terms of some degree of coherence, consistency, and consideration of the nature of experience. For Whitehead, there is an overlapping between theology and metaphysics, although they are separate disciplines. "Rational religion," he writes, "must have recourse to metaphysics for a scrutiny of its terms. At the same time it contributes its own independent evidence which metaphysics must take account of in framing its description." ( AN. Whitehead, Religion in the Making [New York: Macmillan, 1926], p. 79) Both theology and metaphysics are speculative and seek to go "behind the scenes," to explain what is hidden or what is perceived by the use of concepts.(See Victor Lowe, "The Approach to Metaphysics," Ivor Leclerc, ed., The Relevance of Whitehead, op. cit., p. 200) Such language is neither descriptive in any scientific sense nor self-involving in the religious sense. The person who uses self-involving language to speak of his faith in God, however, is led to the speculative language of theology and metaphysics in order to talk about his way of looking on God and the world.( See Donald D. Evans, "Differences Between Scientific and Religious Assertions," Ian C. Barbour, ed., Science and Religion [New York: Harper & Row, 1968], pp. 125-33.)

IMPLICATIONS FOR CHRISTIAN EDUCATION

Our educational task, if we accept Whiteheadís view of metaphysics, is to assist the student to look on the world or the universe as a process or organism in which God is at work; to understand how God can be in our midst and yet stand behind the process as eternal and changeless. The interaction of everything can be a starting point.

With elementary grades, one might start with Tennysonís poetry:

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies; --
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower -- but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.( The Poetical Works of Alfred Tennyson (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1875), p.416.)

As children work over the words of this poem, they may begin to see something of the interrelationships of all growing things. If they trace the flower back to the root back to the soil back to the water back to the rain back to the sky back to the sun and back to the structure of things, at some point the light may dawn and there will be a disclosure of the way in which all things work together. This order in nature points to aesthetic order, and "the aesthetic order is derived from the immanence of God."(Religion in the Making, p.105)

- This is obviously an oversimplification, but it may start children to thinking about God as at work in the order of things and not as far off in the sky somewhere. Furthermore, it may lead to a moment of religious insight that is more than nature worship.

The yearning for a God who shares our problems is expressed in a modern version of Psalm 61:

Donít you hear me crying, God,
And hear what I got to say?
Wherever we are we call ya
When we are all bugged up about something.

Help me he something better than I am
So I can have more hope
And be very strong
When I should be.

Iíll try to live where you do
So you can watch me.

God, you know what I want and need
And give something to live for
To those that trust you.

We hope you will give a long life
To people we like
And we may always remember them
ĎCause they were good.
Help them to live like you want them to
And let all your good things protect them.

Then we will know we can trust you
And do what you want us to do.(Carl F. Burke, Treat Me Cool, Lord [New York: Association Press, 1968], p. 71.)

This is an expression of religious yearning on the part of a youngster in trouble with the law. Yet, against the background of Whiteheadís concept of God, his appeal can be understood in terms of a God who participates in the life and joys and sufferings of a boy and provides a tower of strength to him. Junior high students could approach this kind of material with appreciation and depth.

A similar approach, identifying God with people in distress, is found in Robert Castleís "Litany for the Ghetto."

O God, who lives in tenements, who goes to
segregated schools, who is beaten in precincts,
who is unemployed . . .

Help us to know you.

O God, who is cold in the slums of winter,
whose playmates are rats -- four-legged ones
who live with you and two-legged ones who
imprison you . . .

Help us to touch you. . . .(Quoted by John A. T. Robinson, Exploration into God [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967], p. 138. Used by permission of Robert W. Castle, Jr.)

This portion reflects Matthew 25:3-46, TEV: "Whenever you refused to help one of these poor ones, you refused to help me.

Carl F. Burke, Treat Me Cool, Lord (New York: Association Press, 1968), p. 71.

Quoted by John A. T. Robinson, Exploration into God (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), p. 138. Used by permission of Robert W. Castle, Jr.

John A. T. Robinson provides a biblical approach to this way of looking on God with a paraphrase of the first chapter of John:

The clue to the universe was present from the beginning. It was to be found at the level of reality which we call God. In- deed, it was no other than God nor God than it. At that depth of reality the element of the personal was there from the start. Everything was drawn into existence through it, and there is nothing in the process that has come into being without it. Life owes its emergence to it, and life lights the path to man. It is that light which illumines the darkness of the subpersonal creation, and the darkness never succeeded in quenching it.

The light was the clue to reality -- the light which comes to clarity in man. Even before that it was making its way in the universe. It was already in the universe, and the whole process depended upon it, although it was not conscious of it. It came to its own in the evolution of the personal; yet persons failed to grasp it. But, to those who did, who believed in what it represented, it gave the potential of a fully personal relationship to God. For these the meaning of life was seen to rest, not simply on its biological basis, nor on the impulses of nature or the drives of history, but on the reality of God. And this divine personal principle found its embodiment in a man and took habitation in our midst. We saw its full glory, in all its utterly gracious reality -- the wonderful sight of a person living in uniquely normal relationship to God, as son to father.

From this fullness of life we have all received, in gifts without measure. It was law that governed the less than fully personal relationships even of man; the true, gracious reality came to expression in Jesus Christ. The ultimate reality of God no one has ever seen. But the one who has lived closest to it, in the unique relationship of son to father, he has laid it bare.(Ibid., p. 104.)

This passage hardly qualifies as the poetic-simple language of Canon Drinkwater, but perhaps neither does the prologue that it paraphrases. If these two passages are placed side by side, however, by a high school or adult group, the comparison may lead to both metaphysical and religious insights. Bishop Robinson has portrayed in this paraphrase of a familiar passage the basic thrust of the Whiteheadian approach to a philosophy of religion without doing violence to the fundamental religious insight of the original. Or, at least, this might be the disclosure evoked by comparative study. In it is portrayed the call of God, the "lure" of Whiteheadís concept, as well as the work of God both as immanent spirit and as a brooding purpose.

The concept of God as immanent in the process of living raises another issue, especially with those who think in terms of substance. If God is a person, how can he and a human person occupy the same area of space-time? On a more childish level, if God is everywhere, do I inhale him when I breathe? Spirit and breath come from the same root (ruach). John B. Cobb, Jr., provides an illustration which may prove illuminating to high school and college students and to adults: If we think of God and man as subjects instead of objects, the situation changes:

My subjective experience has its own spatiotemporal standpoint. In one sense it extends out over the room and through the past as it brings a new synthesis out of the data it inherits. But it inherits these data from a particular spatiotemporal locus. Spatially, this locus seems to include much if not all of the brain. There is no reason to exclude this possibility on the grounds that the presence of my subjective experience would exclude that of the electrons or vice versa. The electrons can enjoy their subjectivity from their very limited standpoints within the brain while I am enjoying mine from the more inclusive one. Each has its self-identity independent of the other. The electronic events in my brain influence my human thought and feeling. My human thought and feeling influence some of the energy-events in my brain in ways that lead to specific bodily functioning obedient to my conscious intentions. Thus the events occupying the inclusive space and those occupying the included space act upon each other in complex ways, but they have also their distinct individuality and autonomy. They are independent as well as interdependent.

Cobb believes that this "offers us our best analogy for thinking of the spatial relation of God and the world." (John B. Cobb, Jr., op. cit., p. 79,) The educational issue is that a group could struggle with this relationship until the members either fitted it into a metaphysical and theological onlook or rejected it.

The material for taking a class through the exercise of thinking metaphysically is provided in the opening sections of this chapter. For education in the religious significance of process philosophy, there are some clues in Whiteheadís summary of the major elements of religious response: worship, adventure, meaning, companionship, and peace.

Worship. Religion is a vision, says Whitehead, of that "whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach." (AN. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World [New York: Macmillan, 1927]. p.275.)"The power of God is the worship he inspires."(Ibid., p. 276.) Education makes whatever is worshipful subject to thought, and the task is to analyze what it means to worship God, who calls it forth. This is the central factor in religious response, and conduct is only a by-product.

Adventure. Whitehead means this in a specialized sense, in that all achievements of men and cultures tend to become dull and prosaic, and that the religious man is always pressing on to new forms of beauty not yet realized. There will be times of unrest and turmoil as a result of being captured by the vision of what might be, but God urges us on.

Meaning. Whitehead could see the meaning of life in the midst of evil and suffering. He could see all things perishing. At this level, Whitehead writes, "human life is a flash of occasional enjoyments lighting up a mass of pain and misery, a bagatelle of transient experience."(Ibid., p. 275.) God, because he acts by persuasion within the finite realm and vet is the source of infinite potentials, is not responsible for the evil in the world. But he takes this evil into himself and transforms Ďit. "Values are after all worth achieving," says Cobb, because "all things in the world are taken up into Godís experience." (John Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965], p. 219. I am basing my outline of these five points on pages 216-23.) Thus, there is permanence in the midst of transience.

Companionship. Here Whitehead drops into the simple language that describes relationships. God is a "companion" who shows "tender care." This is nontechnical rather than analogical language. "He is the mirror which discloses to every creature its own greatness." (Ibid., p. 220.) Such language needs to be qualified, as Ramsey suggests, but the model has its own validity. God is "the fellow-sufferer who understands." (Process and Reality, p. 532.)

Peace. This is a dynamic concept, combining freedom from self-concern with serenity, and it comes as a gift. It comes through the vision of God, and vet is beyond manís reach. It enables one to live normally, with God in the background.

Studdert Kennedy caught the spirit of peace when he wrote:

Peace does not mean the end of all our striving,
Joy does not mean the drying of our tears;
Peace is the power that comes to souls arriving
Up to the light where God himself appears.(C. A. Studdert Kennedy, The Unutterable Beauty (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927), p. 4. Used by permission of the publisher.)

Such a vision of the world as we are given is not guaranteed. But metaphysics is significant for religion just because it provides a basis for our understanding of the universe around us, for our acceptance of the world of sense experience, and for our capacity to look on the world as Godís world. It is an onlook, and therefore performative and self-involving.

Christian education is capable of dealing with the kinds of thinking we have described in this chapter. Indeed, if it fails to do so, it also fails to provide for a way of looking on the world in which God is active. Because our intimations of God are so often placed within the wrong kind of world view, operating with the wrong kind of language, our students are liable to conclude that the whole story is nonsense, and therefore they are frustrated because they have no place to fit whatever visions they may have into a world view that makes sense of their visions. So their visions take them out of the church into other worlds. And in this way the church loses its case for the wrong reasons and without benefit of an accurate hearing. Maybe metaphysics is more important than we think.

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