Chapter: 2: The Challenge of Language Analysis

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

Chapter: 2: The Challenge of Language Analysis

The use of words and sentences derived from the Bible as a basis for Christian education has led to more and more difficulties in the modern world. When one adds to the Bible such forms as catechisms, theological propositions, literary sources not based on the Bible, and the normal discourse of teaching situations, it is clear that the results are less than satisfactory.

We have chosen to explore the findings of contemporary language analysis as one way of mapping, however roughly, the logical placing of the language of faith. Linguistic analysis is a use of philosophical tools to get at the verification, use, and meaning of words in their contexts. We take religious assertions, examine their functions, check the possibilities of testing them in experience, and come to conclusions about the meaning that may be communicated.

Such a study should prove valuable for anyone involved in the communication of Christian beliefs, especially teachers of religion in churches and schools but also those who participate In the educational process at every level. Some of the findings, being primarily negative, can serve only as a warning to those with minds that tend to literal interpretations of religious language. More recent findings, however, point to more creative and imaginative uses of religious assertions that move beyond an empirical base.

Early Linguistic Analysis

A new tool was introduced into philosophy in the late 1920’s. A group of scientifically trained philosophers meeting in Vienna began asking about the proper use of language, beginning with a minimum of propositions. At this early stage, the movement had no place for religious or metaphysical propositions, and there was no direct contribution to Christian education. But we need to understand why this was so, both because the warnings were important and because of the development of this movement of analysis to the point at which it is extremely valuable to the building of a theory of Christian education.

Is it meaningful to talk about God at all? In the early days of linguistic analysis the answer was an unqualified "No!" The key issue turned on the verification principle. A logical analysis of the use and meaning of words, it was said, led to two types of language: (1) tautologies, where what is said is logically true, as in mathematics or in such statements as "a rose is a rose" or "I am I," and (2) synthetic or nonanalytic sentences, in which the meaning is its method of verification. For example, if one says," It is raining outside," the listener can look outside and see it or go outside and get wet. The way in which even a scientific formula makes sense to a layman is to reduce it to the tests which verified it. Thus, only sentences which can be verified in sense experience have validity.

Now it is obvious that many sentences do not fit these two categories, but for the early linguistic analysts no other kinds make sense. If a sentence cannot be tested in sense experience, it is said to have "emotive" meaning but it is literally "nonsense. All poetry, religious and metaphysical thinking, and ethical principles fall into this category, and therefore cannot be called true assertions. This was the extreme position, and it became popular among a small number of philosophers. However, it reflected one kind of scientific mentality and can be found among many people who would not be able to expound it.

This point of view was popularized by A. J. Ayer. He modified the position slightly by making room for probable knowledge based on history, provided it was tested in someone else’s experience, calling this "weak’’ verification. He still dismissed all ethical, metaphysical, and religious statements as having no meaning except to make people feel good. "‘We often say that the nature of God is a mystery which transcends the human understanding. But to say that something transcends the human understanding is to say that it is unintelligible. And what is unintelligible cannot be significantly described." He was equally condemnatory of the mystic with his visions of God, who, "so far from producing propositions that are empirically verifiable, is unable to produce any intelligible propositions at all.’’(A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic [2d ed.; London: Gollancz, l936], p. 118.) Ayer was perfectly willing to agree that a person who thought he was experiencing God had experienced a certain kind of sense content, but this does not lead to the verification of a statement about a transcendent God.

The other side of the coin, which seems to some people to be equally devastating, is the principle of falsifiability. If someone believes in God, say, on the evidence of experience or tradition, what kind of evidence would falsify this belief? how much evil in the world would cause a believer to cease to believe? The believer makes vast assertions about the power and goodness of God which seem to be factual, and then he begins to qualify them, until finally, as Antonv Flew put it, the belief dies a "death by a thousand qualifications." "Now an assertion, to be an assertion at all, must claim that things stand thus and thus; and not otherwise. Similarly an explanation, to be an explanation, must explain why this particular thing occurs; and not something else. Those last clauses are crucial."(Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology [London: SCM Press, 1955], p. 106; see also Antony flew, God and Philosophy [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966] for a full-fledged attack on belief in God.) Many religious thinkers, says Flew, try to hold to two conclusions at once, either as a paradox or as an unrecognized contradiction, and this is a form of doublethink as described by George Orwell: "‘Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The party intellectual knows that he is playing tricks with reality, but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated.’" (1984, p. 220; quoted in Flew and MacIntyre, op. cit., p. 108.)

There is no easy way to resolve such contradictions. One answer is that we "know by faith." But if the belief is contradictory or incomprehensible, it is not clear what is being believed whether by faith or otherwise. "If you do not know what it is you are believing on faith," asks Bernard Williams, "how can you be sure that you are believing anything?"(Ibid., p. 209.)

Thomas McPherson, in a cryptic statement, summarizes this point of view: "What to the Jews was a stumbling-block and to the Greeks foolishness is to the logical positivists nonsense." He takes seriously the reports of mystical experience as the experience of the inexpressible and agrees that what is essential in religious beliefs cannot be put into words. Therefore, "the way out of the worry is to retreat into silence."(Ibid., p. 133-34.) McPherson claims to be a friend of religion but an enemy of theology, because "religion belongs to the sphere of the unutterable." By "nonsense" he means what is not verifiable by sense experience. He places Rudolf Otto, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Buber in the same category and suggests that the "I-Thou relation" vanishes when one tries to analyze it, because it then becomes "I-It."(Ibid., p. 141, n.) Or as Martin Buber put it: "A God about whom one can talk is not a God to whom one can pray"(As quoted by Heinrich Ott and reported by Dietrich Ritschl, Memory and Hope [New York: Macmillan, 1967], p. 158, n.)

The results so far are primarily negative. They seem to leave Christian education with nothing to do except perhaps to provide the opportunity (in silent worship?) for an experience (hopefully) of the holy. What these findings serve to do, however, is to be a warning to all teachers that pupils who have been trained in strictly critical scientific thinking may want to apply the categories of literal sense experience to religious beliefs, with similar negative results. If they do this, one cannot get out of such a situation by the application of doublethink, appeals to knowing ‘‘by faith,’’ or even by relying on tradition as authority. We will return to these issues in chapter 3.

Functional Analysis

The reliance on strict rules of verification, however, was seen by the philosophers of language to be so limiting that very little was left to talk about. Language simply is not used in this limited wax-. It is obvious that many sentences function in such a way that meanings are communicated, although such meanings cannot be equated with a hard-nosed empiricism. Wittgenstein saw this clearly when he listed many possible language-games, by which he meant that there are different levels or orders or categories of use of language in which sentences find their meaning in their use. He listed some of them as follows:

Review the multiplicity of language-games in the following examples, and in others:

Giving orders, and obeying them --

Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements --

Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) -- Reporting an event --

Speculating about an event --

Forming and resting a hypothesis --

Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams --

Making up a story; and reading it --

Play-acting --

Singing catches --

Guessing riddles --

Making a joke; telling it --

Solving a problem in practical arithmetic --

Translating from one language to another --

Asking, thanking, cursing. greeting, praying --

-- It is interesting to compare the multiplicity of the tools in language and of the ways they arc used, the multiplicity of the kinds of word and sentence, with what logicians hayc said ahont the structure of language. (Including the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.) (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (2d ed.; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958; New York: Macmillan, 1958), pp. 11e12e.)

The concept of language-game is not frivolous, and it may prove of profound importance in the communication of religious assertions. It indicates that there are different uses of language according to sets of rules. Just as cricket and basketball have little in common besides having their own rules, so language-games have sharp differences. But there are families of language-games just as softball, Little League baseball, and professional baseball have similar rules with a few significant differences. But this does not mean that you can play checkers while I play contract bridge, and that we will have no dealings with each other.

The danger is that someone will want to play solitaire and claim that his game is the only legitimate one, so that all words and sentences are used with arbitrary and artificial meanings. Or, on the other hand, someone will claim that he has a game that includes all the others, just as the Olympic Games Committee controls all the sporting events at the Olympics. But track and swimming and sailing remain different games, and this is where the players are.(See ibid., pp. 31e- 32e; William Hordern, Speaking of God [New York: Macmillan, 1964], p. 87; James A. Martin, Jr., The New Dialogue Between Philosophy and Theology [New York: Seabury Press, 1966], pp. 108-9, 154-60.)

"The term ‘language-game’ is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life," says Wittgenstein.(Wittgenstein, op. cit., p. 11e.) The human form of life stands behind all language. There is no higher order of language than that provided by human beings who are both responsible and responsive. A person backs his language by his life as a whole, and yet he participates in many language-games.(See Dallas M. High, Language, Persons, arid Belief [New York: Oxford University Press, 1967], pp. 99-106.) It may be, then, that as a religious person speaks, he uses language that reflects the meaning to be found in his own life style.

The meaning of a word or a sentence is found in its use rather than in its testing. Analysis is used to uncover misuses and to clarify actual uses. The use of a word in one sentence can be compared with its use in another in which its meaning is admittedly clear. Key words used religiously, if the meaning is not immediately clear in our modern culture, can be placed in their ordinary secular setting in order to clarify the meaning. For example, when "redemption" is discussed in a religious setting, its meaning may be clarified by using the word in relation to the redemption of bonds or of stamps at a "Green Stamp Redemption Center." When its crasser meaning has become clear, it may be possible to transfer its use back to its religious significance, possibly with adequate limiting qualifiers.

A variation of this principle of meaning according to use is modified by R. B. Braithwaite. He takes seriously the claim that we cannot verify statements about God, thus eliminating this issue from the discussion, and moves directly to the use of religious assertions for moral purposes. "A statement," hc says, "need not itself be empirically verifiable, but that it is used in a particular way is always a straightforwardly empirical proposition."(An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, l955], p. 11.) By using ‘empirical" in this way, he lets ethics into the discussion, but he has already applied a more stringent empirical test for the word God. What he has done is to reduce all meaningful religious assertions to moral statements, so that one may "follow an agapeistic way of life,"(Ibid., p. 19.) which is the way of love.

The purpose of religious teaching is served by telling stories that encourage Christian love. The purpose of a story is to strengthen one’s resolutions to follow a way of life, and different religions have different stories. It is irrelevant whether the stories are true, and this irrelevance is considered important. Braithwaite writes:

My contention that the propositional element in religious assertions consists of stories interpreted as straightforwardly empirical propositions which are not, generally speaking, believed to be true has the great advantage of imposing no restriction whatever upon the empirical interpretation which can be put upon the stories. The religions man may interpret the stories in the way which assists him best in carrying out the behavior policies of his religion.(Ibid., p. 29. See Ian T. Ramsey, ed., Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy [London: SCM Press, 1966], pp. 74-94, for comments on Braithwaite’s position and Braithwaite’s response.)

On Braithwaite’s grounds, the teacher could select any story that serves to strengthen moral intentions.

It is easy to demonstrate that such stories, with no basis in fact, do serve this purpose. Jesus told parables that have had profound effects on men’s behavior, without there being such a person as a good Samaritan, a wicked steward, or a prodigal son. Children have been nurtured on stories from secular sources, from Aesop’s Fables to Batman, which have had moral implications. But there is more to Christian education than this.

The Easter Event

The most serious and consistent attempt to deal with the Christian story from the point of view of verification of assertions about God and Jesus is that of Paul M. van Buren. "Christian faith," he writes, "has to do with the New Testament witness to Jesus of Nazareth and what took place in his history. Christology, however it may be interpreted, will lie at the center of our understanding of the gospel."(Paul M. van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel [New York: Macmillan, 1963], p. 8.)

The difficulty with talk about God, says van Buren, is that the word does not refer to anything that can be described in empirical language. All statements about God can be translated into statements about man without losing their meaning. Today, we do not know enough to say that "God is dead," but it is certain that "the word God is dead."(Ibid., p. 103.)

However, to speak at all we need to realize that behind all that we claim to know there is a "blik." This word, derived from R. M. Hare, is used to refer to a basic conviction, probably grounded in the unconscious, that cannot be falsified. The classic example is the student at Oxford who thought that all dons wanted to murder him. No evidence to the contrary could be accepted. This is, says Hare, an "insane blik," and what we need are sane ones. A blik, then, is not based on impartial evidence from without by someone who does not care, but arises from self-involvement and deep caring. It is from the focus of one’s blik that he observes his world and provides his explanations. Flare writes, "Certainly it is salutary to realize that even our belief in so-called hard facts rests in the end on a faith, a commitment, which is not in or to facts, but in that without which there would not be any facts." (In Basil Mitchell, ed., Faith and Logic (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957), p. 192. See Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology [London: SCM Press, 1955], pp. 99-103. "Blik" is a Dutch word [German blick] meaning "glance, look." Si jn heldere bilk means "his keen insight." This use may or may not have a connection with Hare’s.)

The language of faith, for van Buren, even though it has no reference to God, has meaning because it is the language of one who has been "caught" by the gospel, whose blik is functioning, who is addressing himself to his situation in the world. This faith turns on what happened at Easter.

The idea of Jesus as "a free man" is essential to van Buren’s portrayal. Jesus was free from many claims on him in terms of family, law, and authority; he was free to speak on his own authority and to do so without making any claims for himself. ‘He was above all free for his neighbor." (Van Buren, op. cit., p. 123.) This, says van Buren, is the "logical meaning" of faith.

This freedom was not evident in his followers and there were "no Christians before Easter." After Easter, the disciples were changed men. "Whatever it was that lay in between, and which might account for the change, is not open to our historical investigation. The evidence is insufficient. All we can say is that something happened." "The freedom of Jesus began to be contagious." (Ibid., pp. 128, 133.)

As van Buren recounts this story, he is careful about his choice and use of words. He says that "contagious" may be used in a figurative sense, as in "He has a contagious smile." "It carries the sense of our ‘catching’ something from another person, not by our choice, but by something which happens to us. We use it to point to the event of Easter, not of course to describe it." (Ibid., p. 133.)

So we can point to the liberating effect that Jesus has on those who are gripped by him. It is the story which is central, as the Gospel narrative is essential for this work to go on. For the believer in the Easter event, the gift of freedom is offered, and the result is a meaningful life with a historical and ethical dimension. All of this can become operational without reference to assertions about God.( For evaluations of van Buren’s position, see my article, "The Easter Event and Christian Education," Near East School of Theology Quarterly (April 1967); symposium, "Linguistic Philosophy and Christian Education," Religious Education, LX (Jan-Feb. l965), pp. 4-42, 48; David M. McIlhiney, "Paul van Buren and the Christian Stories," Religious Education, LXII (Jan-Feb. 1967), pp. 32- 37; Gerard S. Sloyan, Speaking of Religious Education (New York: herder & Herder, 1968). pp. 42-51; Robert L. Richard, Secularization Theology (New York: Herder & Herder, 1967), pp. 36-42, 49-50, 74-119; Schubert M. Ogden, The Reality of God (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 13-15, 85-90; E. L. Mascall, The Secularization of Christianity (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1965), pp. 40-105.)

Values for Education

For those who rest easily and uncritically within the uses of language in the Christian community, the kinds of questions posed by the philosophers of language may lead to uneasiness and therefore rejection, or the questions may not even be considered. Yet in the world of today, we are aware that what is said is not understood, and if this is so, the blame must be placed squarely where it belongs -- on those who fail to communicate.

As we turn to Christian education, we are faced first with the question of verification, which does not seem to bother such men as van Buren and Braithwaite. Then we can see how van Buren makes use of stories as stories and speaks of teaching about love. At this point we take up some hints from the distinctions between various kinds of language-games, which is a particularly important insight for Christian educators. We find that we can still talk about a world view or metaphysics, even though language is a weak stem on which to build ultimate meanings. Finally, we note some elements in the discipline of education as pointed out by Marc Belth.

Normally, when we make assertions, we do not even bring up the question of verification. Language arises from persons who speak, and the uses are as varied as the persons.(See Dallas M. High, op. cit., p. 42) Language deals with experience in the broadest meaning of the word, and it is a mistake to limit its basis to a narrow interpretation of experience (See Brand Blanshard, "The Philosophy of Analysis," in H. D. Lewis, ed., Clarity Is Not Enough [New York: Humanities Press, 1963; London: George Allen & Unwin, 1963], pp. 80- 109.) We know enough about the neurological system to be aware of the way in which the human brain can absorb impressions, retain concepts, understand relations, and create imaginative ideas which can be communicated to move beyond the senses as the only source or test of knowledge.

Van Buren has looked at the classroom in his article "Christian Education Post Mortem Dei." (Religious Education, LX [Jan.-Feb. 1965],pp. 4-10. Reprinted in Theological Explorations [New York: Macmillan, 1968], pp. 63-77.) In this situation, "the teacher can (1) teach the Christian story, (2) clarify the relations between faith and knowledge, and (3) clarify the relations between believing and living." (Religious Education, op. cit., p. 6.)Crucial to Christian education is the teaching of a story as story, leaving the telling of the story to pulpit and holy table. The stories are not to be understood as factual or critical histories, but simply as stories which can be appreciated and hopefully lead to ways of understanding and being understood.

As soon as one comes up against religious assertions, the pupils will have questions. One can verify the statement that the Rev. Mr. Blank is the rector of the parish, but one cannot in the same way verify the assertion that Jesus is Lord. Here is where clarification about language enters the educational process. Van Buren suggests that one way of resolving this issue may be found in a consideration of art. Trying to explain the beauty of a painting after it has "come alive" is different from reporting the score of a baseball game. One learns to talk about art, music, or love, but he needs to understand that the logical placing of such language is different from reporting the score of a ball game. This logical placing of the language of faith is something that must be learned.

A helpful illustration is that we cannot "teach love" but we can "teach about love." Van Buren suggests that the literature of love stories and poetry might be a starting point. In the process there would be a discovery of the different kinds of language that are used. But this analogy cannot be pushed too far, for "believers have stories to tell, not a photograph to look at." (Ibid., p. 10.)

Wittgenstein’s suggestion of the great variety of language-games is possibly the most important clue derived from this approach to language analysis. The teacher can help the student, possibly from about the age of seven, to recognize different categories of language use. For example, there is the simple distinction between factual and imaginative language. When a seven-year-old asks, "Is it true?" he has in mind empirical evidence. If he has heard Bible stories, he interprets them in a literal manner. It is at the age of from seven to eleven that we have the problem of their reducing other language-games to the descriptive, thereby providing a false base for future religious belief or for the rejection of it. Ronald Goldman’s studies, supported by many others, indicate that only after the watershed of the beginning of puberty do we find the capacity to think in terms of abstract propositions and especially in terms of analogical and imageless concepts.(See Ronald Goldman, Religious Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (New York: Seabury Press, 1968; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963); Violet Madge, Children in Search of Meaning [London: SCM Press, 1965]; Edwin Cox, Sixth Form Religion [London: SCM Press, 1966]; Harold Loukes, Teenage Religion [London: SCM Press, 1963]; J. W. D. Smith, Religious Education in a Secular Setting (London: SCM Press, 1969], pp. 71-81.)

To take another example, if a seven-to-eleven-year-old child should ask if the ascension story is true, the proper reply is "No." For in his framework, "true" means empirically and descriptively so. If the question, "How fast did Jesus go up?" is improper, we need to find a way of distinguishing between the language of myth and that of the astronauts. We can say that it is just a story, or that it is early science fiction, or that it was an attempt of the early Christians to tell of a unique experience. The problem is one of meaning for those who told the story. We have some evidence that children of this age can deal successfully with parables and other imaginative stories in just this manner. They will say of a parable, "It’s not true, but it helps me to understand."

There are a number of language-games which pupils may be helped to recognize. If I say, "Shut the window please," this is an imperative. One does not normally ask for verification of the window, but one responds by closing it. It would have nothing to do with proof if the hearer replied, "Close it yourself." Imperative language operates with meaning outside the limits of verification. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19)" is an imperative from a biblical source.

If John says, "I, John, take thee, Mary, to he my wedded wife," the words do something. Without these words, the marriage does not occur. The words are the act, provided that there is no impediment. The words are completed publicly, and the clergyman says, "I pronounce you man and wife." Such language is performative and self-involving, and, as we will see, is significant for Christian education. "I accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior" is such a performative statement.

"Art thou the man?" represents an interrogative form of speech and is equally essential for meaningful discourse. The question may be rhetorical or may be for the purpose of stimulating thought. In some cases, it demands a direct answer.( See Frederick Ferré Language, Logic, and Cod (New York Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 55-57.)

Religious experience carries one into an area of mystery, and sometimes silence is the only possible result. But we try to explain and this leads to the use of paradox, sometimes in very helpful ways. John Wisdom has called paradoxes "symptoms of linguistic penetration."(Philosophy and Psychoanalysis [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953], p. 41.) Language is at work in such a case, even though the result does not resolve the paradox.

We can and do speak of a world view, of metaphysics. We need a way of looking on life and the universe as Christians. As long as a world view is rooted in empirical facts, it may provide a reasonable way of looking on things. Various maps of the world may show its mineral resources, its mountains and rivers, or its national boundaries. It may be a globe or Mercator’s projection. I may need a map to get from New Haven to New York City, or a sea chart to sail to New London. In any case, I am trying to gain perspective on where I am going.(See H. H. Price, in H. D. Lewis, ed., Clarity Is Not Enough, p. 37.) Ultimately, I need to connect things together, or find out that God has already done so. For the Christian, metaphysics helps place God at the center of meaning, as the key word.

The above examples may prove helpful to teachers, but what is essential is to be willing to explore these distinctions with children. The foundation of Christian education lies in the stories, myths, legends, poetry, and history of all people. Out of an attack on language and its meanings, probably in adolescence, belief in God may begin to emerge as one s own belief. In the current confusion, this is where the difficulty is greatest.

"Language," writes Brand Blanshard, "is a very dim and flickering taper with which to explore infinity, or freedom, or causality, or substance, or universals. In such questions, commonsense meanings can, at best, provide a point of departure, and one from which thc critical mind makes its departure rapidly and into distant places." (In H.D. Lewis, ed., op. cit., p. 103.) But these distant places are difficult to talk about, and this is where the problem is most crucial. Van Buren will let us talk about Jesus and contagious freedom, but for him the word "God" does not operate. This is not a new problem, however. As far back as 1928, Henry Nelson Wieman suggested that "we do not know what we arc trying to do in religious education because we have no common understanding concerning the word God. All sorts of diverse ideas are held concerning what the word stands for. . . . If we could banish the problem by simply banishing the word, all would be well. But it is not so simple as that." (Religious Education, XXIII (Oct. 1928), p. 715. For some of the difficulties presented by current theologies, see Theodore McConnell, "The Scope of Recent Theology: New Foundations for Religious Education," Religious Education, LXIII (Sept-Oct. 1968), pp. 339- 49.)

What Education Is

We can be helped further with this kind of analysis if we turn our attention to some logical distinctions in the study of education. First, according to Marc Belth, we need to distinguish between education and schooling. A school is a reflection of the interests, needs, and purposes of a community and therefore does many things in the interest of the students’ welfare which are not strictly education, such as concern with health, athletics, manners, citizenship, and other desirable services. A church school or a parish school may have similar concerns, plus such activities as worship, within the framework of an objective that includes indoctrination.

Education, however, says Belth, "deals with the relationship between concepts and powers nurtured in learners, and with the methods of creating concepts as the inventions of intelligence, in whatever fields these methods come to be employed Education becomes a way of raising and answering a question not otherwise asked, a question centering on the problems of improving the ability to think. . . . It is . . . concerned with the development of powers of thinking, symbol manipulation, and identification of theoretical bases for the acting and speaking, the exploring, and the describing which identify man."(Marc Belth, Education as a Discipline [Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1965]. pp. 7,13, 39. See Charles F. Melchert, "The Significance of Marc Belth for Religious Education," Religious Education, LXIV (July-Aug. 1969), pp. 261-65.)

Education is concerned with bringing the old and the new together, so that the learner will continue to increase his powers and to find deeper meaning in the world. This goal points to three criteria: (1) Expansiveness, or the pursuit of liberation, is the broadening of the base of study and the refusing to accept premature conclusions. It is the recognition that no "derived or inherited system of beliefs is beyond further inquiry." (Belth, op. cit., p. 41.) (2) Exploration makes use of everything that is available in experience and moves on to a consideration of literacy as a source of further information. The power to compare, test, and evaluate must accompany any exploration. We need to remember that Germany was the most literate nation in the world when I Hitler took over and used an uncritical literacy as a means for maintaining his power. (3) Analysis is the power to discover and modify structure and meaning. This needs to begin at an early age. We now have evidence, says Belth, that "children, even at the kindergarten age or earlier, learn science in a way which enables them to understand the interrelationship of elements in an operation being explored." (Ibid., p. 43.) This is particularly so of mathematics. But children may also develop the power to analyze different forms of language-games and thus escape from the unwitting literalness which Goldman reports is typical in the religious thinking of those from seven to eleven.(See Ronald Goldman, Readiness for Religion [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965, New York: Seabury Press, 1968], p. 18.)

The fundamental functions of education are probably universal, although they may be stated in different forms. The suggestion of Belth is that there are supportive, preservative, and deliberative functions, which can be outlined briefly as follows:


1. Powers of observation or perception

2. Sign or symbol manipulation operations

3. Instrument skills


4. Memory


5. Inference making

6. Test making and test performing (See Belth, op. cit., pp. 75-76.)

Most education, especially religious education, gets cut off somewhere along the way, or there are serious omissions that make the last step impossible. The stress on the authoritative teaching of Bible or church often leads to stopping at step 4. If the learner can repeat the answer, whether a theological proposition, a catechetical response, or a Bible verse, this is sometimes satisfying. But it is not education.

It is proper, educationally, to speak of students who "do" theology or Bible study or moral analysis, utilizing the skills which we have helped them to develop. These include skills of logical analysis and straight thinking based on the gathering of sufficient data, in an atmosphere in which differing with the teacher is considered a normal response. Indeed, in one set of curriculum materials this is recognized in a teacher’s guide in which there is a warning against becoming an "answer man or calling in the clergyman as the supreme "answer man." The teacher, as an enabler or equipper or coach, no matter how expert he is as a scholar, is in his teaching function asked to help the student to release and develop powers of observation and reasoning that will serve him as a continuing learner.

If the above can be said of all education, what can be said that makes it "Christian" or "religious"? First, there is the subject matter to which education as a discipline is applied. Second, there are the overtones of commitment and loyalty to the object being studied, so that the personal element enters fully into the picture. Third, it takes place within a community which is empirically anchored in worship of God, who is the object of study. Fourth, the teacher, and presumably the pupil, at least potentially, are loyal members of a community of believers. There is, then, a nurturing atmosphere in which the process of education per se is found, so that commitment is encouraged.

Belth suggests that the model of education we choose will determine both goals and outcomes. In order to help both teacher and pupil cope with the world, we need a model that is effective.(See Melchert, op. cit., p. 265.)

One way of moving toward such a model is through a consideration of the philosophy of language. Because all education, especially in the liberal arts and in religion, is so highly verbal, we need to be able to make the distinctions between models of language use that will clarify the issues and make intelligence a competent factor in religious thinking. This is not all there is to Christian education, which is rooted in the issues which arise and the needs which exist in the lives of people, and we need to recognize this limitation in language study, but it is clear that we cannot get very far unless we know how we are using words and what our assertions mean.

First, we need to look at the kinds of intellectual operations we can use in relation to the data for thinking about God as real, and to this we turn in the next chapter.