Chapter 4: Models in Religion

Myths, Models and Paradigms: A Comparative Study in Science and Religion
by Ian Barbour

Chapter 4: Models in Religion

One of the functions of models in science is to suggest theories which correlate patterns in observational data. One of the functions of models in religion, I submit, is to suggest beliefs which correlate patterns in human experience. The testing of scientific theories and the corresponding testing of religious beliefs are the topics of subsequent chapters. In this chapter I will propose that the character of religious models is in several respects similar to that of scientific models. First, religious models are analogical. The analogical basis of metaphor, symbol and parable were outlined in Chapter 2 above. The role of analogy in the more systematically-developed interpretive images which we have called models must now be examined.

Models in religion are also extensible and unitary. I stated in Chapter 2 above that models can represent the enduring structures of the cosmic order which myths dramatize in narrative form. Images which originated in religious experience and key historical events are extended to interpret other areas of individual and corporate experience. As models of an unobservable gas molecule are later used to interpret other patterns of observation in the laboratory, so models of an unobservable God are used to interpret new patterns of experience in human life. Ultimate interpretive models -- whether of a personal God or of an impersonal cosmic process -- are organizing images which restructure one’s perception of the world. One may notice features which might otherwise have been ignored. Moreover, religious models are readily grasped as unitary wholes. Because of their vividness and immediacy, they are strongly evocative of personal response, but they also help to integrate the interpretation of diverse areas of experience.

I will argue that religious models, like scientific ones, should be taken seriously but not literally. On the one hand, they are not literal pictures of reality. In the biblical tradition the limitations of models are recognized. The prohibition of graven images ‘or any likeness’ (Ex. 20.4) is both a rejection of idolatry and an acknowledgment that God cannot be adequately represented in visual imagery. ‘His ways are not our ways’, for he is ‘beyond our farthest thought’. Perhaps with auditory symbols (e.g. ‘the Word’, ‘the voice of the Lord’) one is less tempted to think one can visualize God. In any case, biblical language is reticent about claiming to describe God as he is in himself, though it uses models freely. The creative theologian, like the creative scientist, realizes that his models are not exhaustive descriptions. Neither God nor a gas molecule can be pictured. An additional safeguard against literalism is provided by the sense of awe and mystery associated with religious experience.

But if we insist that religious models are not literal descriptions, can we avoid the opposite extreme of treating them as useful fictions? Braithwaite, who considers scientific models dispensable, in turn treats religious language as a morally useful fiction. Its function is to express and evoke distinctive ethical attitudes. Stories about God, he says, are parables whose only point is to recommend attitudes. We don’t ask whether they are true or false but how they are used. Parables are imaginative ways of endorsing an ethical policy or affirming one’s commitment to a pattern of life. They are declarations of one’s intention to act in a particular way -- with unselfish love, for example. A model of God, on this reading, would be a psychologically helpful fiction which supports moral behaviour. Braithwaite’s instrumentalism is discussed in Section 2 below.

In addition to these questions concerning the status of religious models, this chapter asks about the diversity of functions which they serve. I indicated earlier that historians and anthropologists have delineated the variety of tasks which myths perform in human life. Contemporary philosophers have also shown some of the varied ways in which religious language is used. Sometimes it does, as Braithwaite says, recommend a way of life or endorse a set of moral principles. Again, it may express and evoke a distinctive self-commitment. It may propose a particular kind of self-understanding or engender a characteristic set of attitudes towards human existence. It produces, that is, a typical form of personal life-orientation. Religious language may also express gratitude, dependence and worship. These are all functions very different from any of the functions of scientific language. Another proposed role for religious models, the evocation of ‘disclosures’, has been presented by Ian Ramsey; I have given in Section 3 below a critique of his scheme.

But beyond all these non-cognitive uses, I will maintain that a religious model may also direct attention to particular patterns in events. It provides a perspective on the world and an interpretation of history and human experience. In particular, religious models are used in the interpretation of distinctive kinds of experience, such as awe and reverence, mystical joy, moral obligation, reorientation and reconciliation, and key historical events. An even wider scope has been claimed for ‘metaphysical models’, concerning which I will express some reservations iii Section 4 below. In subsequent chapters the crucial problems of verification, falsification, and the testing of the beliefs derived from models, will be taken up.

1. Models in the Interpretation of Experience

In the previous chapter I mentioned Black’s contention that both metaphors and models involve ‘construing as’ (e.g. construing man as a wolf, or construing a gas as a collection of tiny elastic spheres). I would like now to set forth Wisdom’s idea of ‘seeing as’, Hick’s idea of ‘experiencing as’, and the idea I would favour, ‘interpreting as’. I will take these three phrases to represent alternative renditions of the way models are used in the interpretation of experience.

The point of departure must be the page of Wittgenstein’ s Philosophical Investigations on which appears a famous sketch which can be seen as a rabbit or as a duck.1 Wittgenstein says that we do not simply see; we ‘see as’, interpreting according to a pattern. John Wisdom applies the phrase to the world in its totality, which can be seen in more than one way. He tells a now-classic parable about two men who return to their long-neglected garden, in which both flowers and weeds are growing. One man is convinced that ‘some gardener must tend this plot’; he points to evidence supporting his view. The other is sure that there is no gardener, and points out opposing evidence. Similarly throughout their lives, people use ‘models with which to get the hang of the patterns in the flux of experience’ 2

Later comments by Flew and others on Wisdom’s parable have dwelt on one point in it: the two men do not differ concerning the facts about the garden. But Wisdom himself went on to say they do differ concerning their interpretations, and that the difference is significant and discussable. Each can try to help the other person to see the garden as he himself does by drawing attention to certain patterns among the facts, by connecting them up in distinctive ways and by mentioning features which might have been overlooked. Like a judge trying to decide in a law court whether there was negligence in a controversial case, the men in the parable must weigh the cumulative effect of many factors. ‘Reasons for and against may be offered.’ The men differ not simply in attitudes but in beliefs. ‘It seems to me’, writes Wisdom, ‘that some belief as to what the world is like is of the essence of religion.’3 Religious models, then, serve an ‘attention-directing’ function, accentuating the patterns which we see in the facts.

John Hick develops the idea of ‘seeing as’ a step further into ‘experiencing as’, in which there is a greater involvement of the total person. Someone might say, ‘In the twilight I experienced the tuft of grass as a rabbit.’ All experience, says Hick, is ‘experiencing as. To recognize an object as a fork is ‘to experience it in terms of a concept’, rather than to receive it as a bare observation. So religious faith, Hick proposes, consists in ‘experiencing life as encounter with God’:

The Old Testament prophets, for example, experienced their historical situation as one in which they were living under the sovereign claim of God, and in which the appropriate way for them to act was as God’s agents. It is important to appreciate that this was not an interpretation in the sense of a theory imposed retrospectively upon remembered lacts. It was the way in which the prophet actually experienced and participated in these events at the time. He consciously lived in the situation experienced in this way.4

According to Hick, experiencing life as encounter with God involves one’s whole person and transforms one’s total life. It leads one to act in terms of the interpreted experience. ‘All of life is for him a dialogue with the divine Thou; in and through all his dealings with life he is having to do with God.’ Yet Hick’ also insists that there is considerable ambiguity in the given. ‘What we can know depends in consequence, to an important extent, upon what we choose to be and to do.’ God safeguards our freedom by leaving room for more than one interpretation. The need for ‘a voluntary act of interpretation’ and ‘a freely offered response’ protects man from total domination by God.5

Although I agree with Hick’s general position, it seems to me preferable to use the expression interpreting as’ rather than ‘experiencing as’. In Hick’s example, I would say ‘I interpreted the tuft of grass as a rabbit’, acknowledging that I had misinterpreted it (whereas it would seem strange to say that I misexperienced it). Similarly a man converted from theism to atheism would probably say that he had previously misinterpreted his experience. Hick’s phrase is perhaps more appropriate for the unselfconscious experience of biblical man than for the reflective outlook of a person today who is aware of a plurality of interpretive frameworks. But my phrase differs from his only in emphasis, since he also acknowledges that there is no sharp line between experience and interpretation. We cannot isolate uninterpreted experience.

We can, however, reflect on the distinctive types of experience which have been most prominent in religion and try to describe them without explicit reference to any particular religious interpretation. The first two are discussed in detail in the next chapter, the others in subsequent chapters:

1. Awe and reverence. Men in many cultures have described a sense of mystery and wonder, holiness and sacredness, in a variety of contexts. Rudolf Otto’s classic study finds in numinous experience a combination of fascination and dread. Often there seems to be a sense of otherness, confrontation and encounter, or of being grasped and laid hold of. Correspondingly, man is aware of his own dependence, finitude, limitation and contingency.6

2. Mystical union. The mystics of many religious traditions have spoken of the experience of the unity of all things. Unity is found in the depth of the individual soul and in the world of nature. It is achieved in the discipline of meditation and is characterized by joy, harmony, serenity and peace. In its extreme form, the unity may be described as a loss of individuality and the joy as bliss or rapture.

3. Moral obligation. Decisions on ethical questions sometimes demand an inescapable responsibility and the subordination of one’s own inclinations. Though the voice of conscience is in part the product of social conditioning, it apparently is not entirely so; it may lead a person to express judgment on his culture and to oppose his society even at the risk of death. According to Peter Berger, moral outrage in the face of evil, courage in defiance of death, and trust in an underlying cosmic order are among the ‘prototypical human gestures’ which can be interpreted as ‘signals of transcendence’. Donald Evans holds that indignant compassion and courage in spite of anxiety are depth experiences which can be interpreted as revelations of God. When men fail to respond to moral demands they experience guilt.7

4. Reorientation and reconciliation. In individual life, acknowledgment of guilt and repentance may be followed by the experience of forgiveness. Persons unable to accept themselves are somehow enabled to do so. Such reorientation may lead to a new freedom from anxiety, an openness to new possibilities in one s life, a greater sensitivity to other persons. Grace is experienced in the healing power of love at work in our midst when reconciliation overcomes estrangement.8

5. Interpersonal relationships. The interaction between two persons is sometimes characterized by directness, immediacy, mutuality and genuine dialogue. In an ‘I-Thou’ relationship, as Martin Buber describes it, there is availability, sensitivity, openness, responsibility, freedom to respond; one is totally involved as a whole person. Buber suggests that one can interpret the neighbour’s need as a divine summons. Encounter with the human Thou is a form of encounter with the eternal Thou. One understands oneself to be addressed through events. ‘The sound of which the speech consists are the events of personal every-day life.’ A person replies through the speech of his life; he answers with his actions. Events in daily life can be interpreted as dialogue with God.9

6. Key historical events. In addition to individual aspects of experience, the data of religion include the corporate experience of communities which have arisen in response to historical events. Key events in the past continue to illuminate the present life of a community. In H. R. Niebuhr’s words, ‘such events help us understand ourselves and what has happened to us’. The message of the Hebrew prophets was an interpretation of the pattern of events in Israel’s national life. The Christian community arose in response to the life of Christ, which is the continuing centre of its common memory. Every community celebrates and re-enacts particular historical events which are crucial to its corporate identity and its vision of reality. 10

7. Order and creativity in the world. The teleological argument has been debated by philosophers from Aristotle and Aquinas to Hume and Kant, continuing into the present century. It has not, however, been as prominent in the actual life and thought of religious communities -- even in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the argument from design was frequently presented by Christian apologists. Yet it cannot be denied that many persons have been impressed by the order and beauty of the world, the intricate complexity and interdependence of natural forms; a response of wonder in confronting nature is not confined to primitive man. In their reflective moments, many men have speculated about the ultimate ground of order and creativity in the cosmic process.11

Now each of these seven very diverse areas of experience is subject to a variety of interpretations. Cultural presuppositions condition all interpretive categories. Interpretation influences experience, as will be stressed in later chapters. I am not claiming that moral and religious experience or particular historical events can constitute a proof for the existence of a personal God. I am only saying that it is reasonable to interpret them theistically and that it makes a difference whether one does so or not. ft makes a difference not only in one s attitudes and behaviour but in the way one sees the world. One may notice and value features of individual and corporate life which one otherwise might have overlooked. Construing the world through a model of ultimate purpose unifies a diversity of experiences, for the same power is understood to be at work in all of them.

A variety of analogies has been used in the interpretation of the corporate experience of communities. Israel understood the pattern of events in her national life as the working out of a divine covenant analogous to the covenant agreements familiar in the ancient world. Historical situations were interpreted by the prophets in relation to an image of God and his purposes for the nation. In the prophetic literature, various specific kinds of familiar person are the analogues for images of God as King, Judge, Shepherd, Husband, Father, etc. In biblical religion, these various images form a model of God as a personal being, which is used in interpreting corporate as well as individual experience.

Through such a model, in short, characteristic areas of experience, such as those listed above, are interpreted as manifestations of God. ‘Interpreting as’ is very much like ‘construing as’ discussed in previous chapters. We can take it to include ‘seeing as’, as a special case, since interpretation includes visual interpretation. If the experiential basis is stressed, and the inseparability of experience and interpretation acknowledged, it differs only in emphasis from ‘experiencing as’. Models not only direct attention to particular aspects of and patterns in experience but provide a framework within which a variety of types of experience can be integrated. A person with a theistic model will interpret his whole life as lived in the presence of God.

2. Models in the Expression of Attitudes

We shall now consider some alternative views. The first of these is the instrumentalist claim that religious models are useful fictions whose function is the expression and evocation of distinctive attitudes. I will take attitudes to include feelings, value judgments, and policies of action. Braithwaite argues that religious assertions are ‘primarily declarations of adherence to a policy of action, declarations of commitment to a way of life’.12 Religious language is a form of moral language, an affirmation of one’s intention to act in a particular way. It is prescriptive rather than descriptive. But it is not merely emotive or expressive of feelings, since policies of action are resented. In a religious tradition such a declaration of ethical policy is associated with ‘stories’ or ‘parables’ which Braithwaite treats as morally useful fictions:

For it is not necessary, on my view, for the asserter of a religious assertion to believe in the truth of the story involved in the assertions: what is necessary is that the story should be entertained in thought.... Many people find it easier to resolve upon and to carry through a course of action which is contrary to their natural inclinations if this policy is associated in their minds with certain stories. And in many people the psychological link is not appreciably weakened by the fact that the story associated with the behaviour is not believed. Next to the Bible and the Prayer Book the most influential work in English Christian religious life has been a book whose stories are frankly recognized as fictitious, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.13

As we have seen, the term parable traditionally referred to a fictitious story whose main point was the attitude it suggested (e.g. the Parable of the Good Samaritan). Braithwalte extends the term to include all references to God, since he holds that these are likewise oblique ways of recommending attitudes. One does not ask whether a parable is true or false; one asks only whether it is psychologically effective in inspiring people to adopt the policies it endorses. Since they are not believed, they need not be consistent. ‘Indeed a story may provide better support for a long range policy of action if it contains inconsistencies.’14 Parables about God, in this view, are narratives offering a kind of imaginative model which, like Braithwaite’s scientific models, have the status of psychologically helpful fictions.

A similar instrumentalism in both science and religion has been espoused by T. R. Miles. In discussing the billiard-ball model he writes: ‘Models of this sort are not normally shown to be true or false by crucial experiments; it is rather that they work well or badly for particular purposes, and when they work badly they gradually fall into disuse.’15 When he turns to religious language, Miles describes a believer as a person who accepts ‘the "theistic" parable -- the parable of a loving father who has called us all to be like him and to become his children’. Acceptance of the theistic parable commits us to distinctive kinds of action, but we cannot ask whether the parable is objectively valid since it is neither true nor false. Adopting it is not like trying to discover facts, but is a decision to make an act of personal commitment. ‘To accept the theistic parable is to commit ourselves to a particular way of life.’ All men live according to some dominant parable:

All of us alike are confronted with the question of how we ought to live; and whatever way of life we choose, we can be said to be implicitly accepting one set of parables or another. If the parable which we accept is not that of the loving father, it is likely to be that of a purposeless world, indifferent or actively hostile to man’s highest endeavours. Such a parable cannot be shown to be wrong. But to live in accordance with it involves a commitment no less than does living in accordance with the theistic parable.16

Now I would agree that religious language does indeed express and evoke distinctive attitudes. It does encourage self-commitment to a way of life; it acknowledges allegiance to ethical principles and affirms the intention to act in particular ways. But I would maintain that these non-cognitive uses presuppose cognitive beliefs. To be sure, religious faith is not simply assent to the truth of propositions; but it does require the assumption that certain propositions are true. It would be unreasonable to adopt or recommend a way of life unless one believes that the universe is of such a character that this way of life is appropriate. ‘Useful fictions’ are no longer useful if they are recognized as fictions or treated as ‘parables’ whose truth or falsity is taken to be irrelevant. Pilgrim’s Progress, cited by Braithwaite, was an influential guide to behaviour only because it was read as an allegory faithfully representing the way of life recommended by the Bible and supported by the claims therein about God and the world. In addition, we should note again that religious language expresses worshipful as well as ethical attitudes, and thereby implicitly affirms an object of worship.

In Donald Evans’ view, the functions of religious language are very diverse and go far beyond the support of moral behaviour. Yet for him also the expression of attitudes is central. He starts from a general discussion of ‘self-involving language’ which expresses attitudes, feelings and commitments rather than neutral facts.17 He then asks us to consider sentences of the form ‘I look on x as y’. If I say ‘I look on Tories as vermin’, I indicate that my attitude towards Tories is similar to my attitude towards vermin, but I give no indication of objective similarities between Tories and vermin themselves. If I say ‘I look on Henry as a brother’, I commit myself to treating him as a brother, even though in fact he does not act like a brother. I acknowledge similar attitudes in two situations, without specifying analogies between the situations themselves. ‘Looking on’ differs from ‘seeing as’, ‘interpreting as’, and other expressions mentioned earlier in this chapter, for it refers only to attitudes and policies.

So also, says Evans, scripture provides analogies for our attitudes towards God, rather than analogies concerning God himself. I am to ‘look on God as a father’; I am to have the kind of respect and trust I ought to have towards a father, even though I cannot say in what respects God resembles a father since he is not describable. Similarly the creation story is ‘a parable suggesting attitudes towards the world’. If I look on God as father, creator, etc., my resulting conduct will be appropriate.

Evans enjoins us to adopt these attitudes because they are recommended by scripture, not because we understand in what way they are appropriate. By appealing to revelation, he does manage to avoid treating parables as ‘useful fictions’, but they remain devoid of cognitive content beyond the endorsement of distinctive attitudes:

When I look on God as y, I can only specify the similarity between God and y attitudinally; I believe and hope that God is such that the attitude which is appropriate towards him is similar to the attitude which is appropriate towards yThe expression of an onlook commits me to a way of behaving and thinking, a mode of life. Moreover, such an onlook is not a case of ‘Let’s pretend.’ I do not merely act as If I believed that there is a God who is like a potter (or a victor, etc.). I act in accordance with a positive belief that God is like a potter; but I cannot describe this likeness except by referring to human attitudes.18

Evans claims that biblical language is predominantly parabolic; once again, it is said that to accept a parable is simply to adopt the attitude it suggests. But even if such parables are taken to be revealed (rather than treated as useful fictions), can the recommended attitudes be sustained in total isolation from specifiable beliefs about the object of the attitudes? The appropriateness of a response surely depends on one’s understanding of that to which one is responding. Does not the biblical model of God as father offer analogies for God’s fatherly nature as well as for our filial stance? In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is not the analogy between God and the forgiving father as important as that between ourselves and the two Sons? In scripture, attitudes are often justified as a response to what is understood to be the case; for example, ‘We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4.19). Models in religion not only encourage distinctive attitudes but purport to tell us something about God, man and the world.

3. ‘Disclosure Models’

In addition to the interpretation of experience and the expression of attitudes, there is a third function of religious models, namely the evocation of disclosures, of which Ian Ramsey has been an articulate proponent. Since he has made extensive use of the idea of models, we should examine his view with care. In some passages he says that models in religion, like those in science, derive from analogies between observations, ‘the perception of significant isomorphism’. He states, for example, that there is a resemblance between patterns in the world and patterns in the behaviour of fathers which leads to the model of God as father. But he does not develop these remarks.

Again, Ramsey says that we can test the ‘empirical fit’ between a religious model and reality. ‘It stands or fills according to its success (or otherwise) in harmonizing whatever events are at hand.’19 A model ‘is able to incorporate a wide range of phenomena’; it ‘chimes in with the world’ and is ‘authenticated by reality’. Unfortunately he says nothing about the relation of models to theories, which we have seen to be essential in any testing procedure in science. Although he defends what he calls the ‘empirical fit’ of religious models, he grants that there can be no strict ‘empirical verification’ because no predictions or testable deductions can be made, and because God is a mystery which we cannot comprehend. Elsewhere he writes that a model is verified by its consequences in distinctive behaviour (e.g. the power of love) and by its ability to lead to articulations which provide ‘the most comprehensive and most coherent map of the universe’.20

Ramsey puts his main emphasis, however, on the way models are disclosed in both science and religion. He calls them ‘self-authenticating models in which the universe discloses itself to us’.

The contemporary use of models in science or theology -- models which are not picturing models -- points us back, then, to that moment of insight where along with a model there is disclosed to the scientist or the theologian that about which each is to be, in his characteristically different way, articulate.21

I must confess that lam rather dubious about this notion of ‘disclosure models’ in either field. Ramsey is evidently impressed by the suddenness and conviction of the ‘moment of insight’ in scientific discovery. But is any model in science ‘self-authenticating’ or ‘disclosed as true’? A scientific model is initially a very tentative conjecture which leads to a testable theory; it may have to be modified -- or more probably discarded, for most sudden inspirations in science turn out to be useless. Ramsey’s illustrations of supposedly self-authenticating disclosures in science are almost invariably taken from mathematics: one suddenly ‘sees the light’ in looking at a geometrical theorem; ‘the penny drops’ as one grasps the significance of the sum of an infinite convergent series, etc. Now in mathematics insight into the relationship among ideas may indeed be ‘self-authenticating’, at least within the framework of accepted axioms and rules; but in science this is not the case because one is not dealing with relationships among ideas alone.

On the religious side, Ramsey holds that models are ‘occasions of divine self-disclosure’. We are to take the model ‘loving father’, for example, and then imagine a ‘very loving father’, developing it in the direction of ‘infinitely loving father’. The latter is not part of the series, but a logically different realization which ‘breaks in on us’ as we develop the model:

For theology (I would say) is founded in occasions of insight and disclosure when, to put it at its most general, the universe declares itself in a particular way around some group of events which thus take on a cosmic significance. These events then become, and naturally, a self-appointed model which enables us to be articulate about what has been disclosed... So a qualifier like ‘infinite’ will work on a model of human love until there dawns on us that particular kind of family resemblance between the various derivative models which reveals God -- God as ‘infinitely loving’. God is revealed in the cosmic disclosure which may occur at some stage as the pattern of models is developed without end, just as there may dawn on us that to which an infinite convergent series points, as its terms are endlessly developed.22

Ramsey stresses the ‘logical oddness’ of the qualifying adjectives and sees it as a reminder that we are not talking about ordinary events.23 The direction in which the model is to be developed is one that leads to a sense of mystery and wonder, thereby safeguarding the transcendence of God. By underscoring the inadequacy of the model Ramsey prevents it from being interpreted literally, but does he not run the risk of eroding the positive analogy completely? Are there logical reasons, rather than purely psychological ones, for the ability of some models and not others to lead to disclosures? Ramsey is not simply proposing a method of meditation or a technique for achieving an experience of enlightenment. What then is the connection between the model and the disclosure? Does the model suggest any conceptual frameworks which can be discussed apart from the moment of disclosure?

Ramsey occasionally attributes this process of disclosure or ‘breaking in’ to divine initiative:

Whether the light breaks or not is something that we ourselves cannot entirely control. We can certainly choose what seem to us the most appropriate models, we can operate what seem to us the most suitable qualifiers; we can develop what seem to us the best stories, but we can never guarantee that for a particular person the light will dawn at a particular point, or for that matter at any point in any story. Need this trouble us? Is not this only what has been meant by religious people when they have claimed that the ‘initiative’ in any ‘disclosure’ or ‘revelation’ must come from God?24

More typically Ramsey says that ‘the universe discloses itself to us, which may or may not imply an initiative on the part of the universe. Most of his examples, however, seem to illustrate an act of intuitive awareness on man s part. Apparently it is the immediacy of the insight, rather than its suddenness, which authenticates it. That Ramsey sees religious models as leading to an intuitive awareness is suggested also by the frequent parallels he draws ‘with self-awareness. He repeatedly cites examples of the recognition of the ‘I’ which is neither observed nor inferred. Language about oneself, about moral awareness, and about loyalty and self-commitment, is said to be logically similar to religious language.

In Ramsey’s view, each use of a model is a separate occasion of discernment, and one does not need to seek any consistency between diverse models. He urges us to use as many models as possible; but we are to avoid mixing discourse deriving from different models. He tells us that when we come across apparently contradictory theological doctrines, we need only trace them back to their respective models which cannot conflict since they are used independently of each other. It seems to me that by making models instrumental to the evocation of disclosures, Ramsey bypasses the problem of their relation to each other and to anything outside man. He rightly insists that models are not literal descriptions or pictures of reality, but he does not discuss the development of a coherent set of beliefs based on the models.25

Are there criteria for evaluating religious models themselves, or are they to be judged solely by their psychological effectiveness for particular individuals in evoking disclosures? Ramsey says that one can judge models in part by their effectiveness in producing loving behaviour; this criterion, taken alone, would raise again all the problems encountered in Braithwaite’s instrunlentalism. We have also seen that Ramsey occasionally talks about ‘empirical fit’ in the use of models, but this more empirical side of his thought is not systematically set forth. As he presents them, models are to be judged more by their ability to produce personal disclosures than by their ability to order experience. Ramsey maintains that the functions of religious language are the evocation of commitment and worship, which are non-cognitive functions, and also discernment, which is presumably cognitive.26 For Ramsey, the cognitive claims apparently rest on both divine revelation and human intuition in the moment of disclosure.

If I understand him correctly, Ramsey takes intuition to be a form of immediate and indubitable knowledge which is not subject to revision or correction; if it is ‘self-authenticating’, the problem of distinguishing genuine from spurious disclosures can never arise. It appears that for him models are occasions for moments of intuitive certainty. But do we not run the risk of being arbitrary and subjective if there is no way to tell true from false disclosures? If, instead, we said that disclosures involve the evocation of experience and its interpretation by models, we could acknowledge the possibility of misinterpretation and subject our models to critical evaluation.

4. Metaphysical Models

A fourth and final function of religious models is the construction of metaphysical systems. This resembles the first function, the interpretation of experience, except that the scope of metaphysics is broader, its motives more speculative, and its approach more systematic. Metaphysics has traditionally been understood as the search for a coherent set of general categories for the interpretation of the whole range of human experience -- scientific, religious, aesthetic, moral, etc. In metaphysical thinking, says Dorothy Emmet, a pattern of relationships drawn from one area of experience is extended to coordinate other areas. The metaphysician takes a ‘co-ordinating analogy’ from some relationships he judges to be specially important and from it derives a model which can order a diversity of kinds of experience:

Such ideas share something of the character of scientific models, but whereas scientific models suggest possible patterns for the coordination of data of a homogeneous type, the metaphysical model has to suggest a possible pattern of co-ordination between data of different types.27

Emmet acknowledges the selective and partial character of metaphysics, in which judgments are influenced by cultural assumptions and individual sensitivities. She concludes that perhaps no one analogy is comprehensive enough to encompass the diversity of modern life; we may have to be content with several analogies only loosely related to each other. Stephen Pepper ascribes a similar role to metaphysical models, which he calls ‘root-metaphors’ (note once more the reference to metaphor). He develops five basic models and concludes that none of them should be abandoned since each illuminates certain aspects ofexperience.28

Frederick Ferré has given a careful and, in my judgment, balanced account of models in religion. He views the metaphysical use of theistic models as important but subordinate to their practical use in focusing values and influencing life styles. The vivid ‘ultimate images’ of religion provide a basis for ordering valuational commitments and orienting life and action:

For it is without doubt the imagery of the models in theology which evoke the communal adoration, obeisance, awe, devotion, ecstasy, courage -- the emotive and cognitive dimensions of faith that constitute it religious faith rather than philosophical speculation or metaphysical system-building. I am not claiming that imagery alone can support such non-cognitive elements -- courage without belief that courage is appropriate in the situation is something less than courage! -- but it is precisely because the models of faith are taken as trustworthy, that is, believed to be in some sense true, that their non-cognitive functions are possible. Towards a theory without the vividness and immediacy provided by the biblical model, however, such responses could never be expected.29

Ferré points out that in science, and in metaphysics considered as a speculative theory, models are ancillary to the theories into which they are developed. But in religion, and in the more existential side of metaphysics, models are more influential than theories:

For the purposes of pure theory, a model must be subordinate to its theory and must be alterable or dispensable according to the dictates of theory; but theistic imagery is not used -- even on its speculative side -- for theoretical purposes alone. As long as it remains religious imagery, the motivation to think in its terms is overridingly practical. This is not necessarily so different, however, from the normal metaphysical situation as it may sound. Seldom, if ever, can metaphysical models, ‘visions of ultimate reality’, be held entirely dispassionately. A metaphysician’s view of his world and of himself, as well as his sense of order and intelligibility, is wrapped up in the conceptual model he uses.30

In the metaphysical articulation of the theistic model, as Ferré shows, various conceptual schemes have been used -- for example, the categories employed by Plato, Aristotle, Whitehead, or Heidegger. Conversely, the metaphysical system adopted may lead to emphasis on particular features of the model (e.g. Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions lead to emphasis on God’s changelessness, self-sufficiency and omnipotence, whereas Whiteheadian thought minimizes each of these aspects). Theistic imagery can ‘suggest patterns and unity in the totality of things’ by virtue of ‘an appeal to personal purpose, volitional power, and moral principle as the ultimate explanatory categories’. Ferré maintains that a metaphysical system can be evaluated by criteria not unlike those used in judging scientific theories. Coherence refers to consistency, interconnectedness, conceptual unity and the reduction of arbitrariness and fragmentation. Inclusiveness refers to scope, generality and ability to integrate diverse specialized languages. Adequacy is a matter of relevance and applicability to experience of all kinds.

Ferré grants that these criteria are not at all precise and that they are often in tension with one another, but he believes they can be used to evaluate metaphysical systems. No predictions can be made from such systems, however, since their categories are very general; presumably all types of past experience have already been taken into account, and no radically new types are likely to occur in the future. The absence of prediction is a major point of distinction between metaphysical and scientific models, but in other features Ferré sees considerable similarity:

Barring this one logically inappropriate means of testing the reliability of models, the metaphors of religion lie open to evaluation along very similar lines to the models used in the sciences to represent a subject matter that lies beyond our powers of direct inspection. As organizing images through which we see ourselves and all things, the powerful images of religion should bring certain aspects of our experience into prominence, should minimize the importance of other aspects, and should throughout function to illuminate our total environment by discovering to us otherwise unnoticed parallelisms, analogies, and patterns among our data. They are reliable, and thus candidates for reasonable adoption, to the extent that our experience of life as a whole (not, remember, just specific bits and pieces of experience) is open to organization in this manner without distortion, forcing, or ill fit; and to the extent that the total account of things that they suggest is consistent, unified, and free from uninterpreted disconnections.31

In Chapter 7 below I will discuss the verification and falsification of metaphysical systems, and the difficulties in applying criteria for evaluating them. Such difficulties lead me to seek a role for religious beliefs which is less comprehensive than metaphysical synthesis. That is, religious language makes cognitive claims which go beyond practical and attitudinal uses, but such claims are more modest than those of all-inclusive metaphysical systems. The primary context of religious beliefs, I will urge, is the interpretation of distinctive types of experience. Beyond this, beliefs are indeed relevant to the interpretation of personal and social life-situations and significant events in the lives of individuals and communities. The additional task of systematizing these beliefs into a theology and relating them to metaphysical categories used to interpret a variety of other types of experience must indeed be undertaken.

But the further one has moved from the primary domain of religious language, the greater is the danger of imposing on other domains categories which distort their data. 1f in constructing a theistic metaphysics, one’s interests are predominantly speculative, the distinctively self-involving functions of religious language will be forgotten. Moreover the theologian is not interested in the detailed structures of ordinary kinds of experience as such, but rather in their relation to the events and experiences which for him have special religious significance. Thus I will consider the metaphysical function of religious models as a speculative extension of the interpretation of experiences of the sort described in Section I above, rather than as another primary function in its own right.

5. The Functions of Religious Models

Models are only one aspect of religion, abstracted from the total matrix of life and thought of a community; we would not expect them to perform all the tasks of religious language. Some of the characteristic functions of myths, mentioned in Chapter 2 above, are not prominent in the case of models: sociological functions in integrating a group, psychological functions in reducing anxiety, ritual functions in communal celebration. Four proposed functions of models have been outlined in the present chapter: (1) the Interpretation of experience, (2) the expression of attitudes, (3) the evocation of disclosures, and (4) the construction of metaphysical systems. I have advocated that whatever is valid concerning disclosures can be subsumed under the first rubric, since disclosures involve the interpretation of experience rather than the acquisition of self-authenticating knowledge. Likewise, metaphysical systems can be considered as speculative extensions of interpretive categories which within religious language itself are applied to distinctive types of experience and key historical events. The first two functions, then, will be taken as primary for religious models.

We must not underestimate the importance of the expression of attitudes. Religion is, first and last, a way of life; its main interest is practical rather than theoretical. Religious models do indeed present what Braithwaite calls ‘policies of action’. They have the capacity to inspire devotion, serenity, new patterns of living. Whiteley is right that ‘what men seek from religious experience is not information; it is encouragement, consolation, moral balance, mystical rapture’.32 The life-orienting and valuational power of religious images cannot be denied. But we can acknowledge these non-cognitive functions without agreeing that they are the only functions of religious models.

I have defended the role of models in the interpretation of experience, adopting the phrase ‘interpreting as’ in preference to ‘seeing as’ or ‘experiencing as’, while acknowledging the inseparability of experience and interpretation. Organizing images restructure our perceptions and alter the way we see the world; they help us notice patterns among the facts which we might otherwise have missed. Models lead to religious beliefs (see Chapter 6 below); religious traditions make assertions, as well as recommending attitudes. The critical realism which I have advocated allows models to fill both interpretive and expressive functions, whereas instrurnentalism does not. Cognitive models can fill both cognitive and non-cognitive functions, but non-cognitive models cannot.

There are, then, several similarities between religious models and theoretical models in science, which can be summarized as follows. First, they share the characteristics outlined previously: they are analogical in origin, extensible to new situations, and comprehensible as units. Second, they have a similar status. Neither is a literal picture of reality, yet neither should be treated as a useful fiction. Models are partial and inadequate ways of imagining what is not observable. They are symbolic representations, for particular purposes, of aspects of reality which are not directly accessible to us. They are taken seriously but not literally. Third, the use of scientific models to order observations has some parallels in the use of religious models to order the experience of individuals and communities. Organizing images help us to structure and interpret patterns of events in personal life and in the world.

There are also important differences between religious and scientific models. First, religious models serve non-cognitive functions which have no parallel in science. Sometimes religious models seem to survive primarily because they serve these functions effectively. Second, religious models elicit more total personal involvement than scientific models. Religious language is indeed self-involving, as both Ramsey and Evans insist. Religion asks about the objects of man’s trust and loyalty, the character of his ultimate concern, the final justification for his values. The call to decision and commitment, pointed out in the discussion of parables in Chapter 2 above, is present throughout religious language. Third, as Ferré observes, religious models appear to be more influential than the formal beliefs and doctrines derived from them, whereas scientific models are subservient to theories, even though a model may outlast a series of theories developed from it. Theories are the instrument for specifying positive and negative analogy, and for correlating observations. Religious images have a more direct relationship to experience, especially in worship, ethics, and the life of the religious community.

In later chapters, additional similarities and differences between science and religion will be evident. We will see that scientific theories influence observation, but that religious beliefs influence experience in a more problematic way. Scientific theories, while not subject to any absolute verification or falsification, can be supported or undermined by empirical evidence. We will examine the scientist’s commitment to paradigms, which in both science and religion are highly resistant to falsification; but I will maintain that criteria of assessment are not totally paradigm-dependent. Distinctive features of religious commitment and its relation to critical enquiry will also need consideration. Any conclusions about religious models must await these further comparisons.


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell 1953, p. 194e.

2. John Wisdom, ‘Gods’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 45, 1944, p.187; reprinted in Antony Flew (ed.), Logic and Language, vol. 1, Basil Blackwell 1951.

3. John Wisdom, Paradox and Discovery, Basil Blackwell 1965, p. 54.

4. John Hick, Faith and Knowledge, 2nd ed. Macmillan 1967, pp. 142f.

5. Ibid., p.122; see also John Hick, ‘Religious Faith as Experiencing-As’, in G. N. A. Vesey (ed.), Talk of God, Macmillan 1969.

6. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy trans. J. W. Harvey, Oxford University Press 1923; see also Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind, Bobbs Merrill Co. 1969; H. D. Lewis, Our Experience of God, Allen & Unwin 1959.

7. Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels, Doubleday and Co. 1969, chap.3; Donald Evans, ‘Differences between Scientific and Religious Assertions’, in Ian G. Barbour (ed.), Science and Religion: New Perspectives on the Dialogue, Harper & Row 1968.

8. See Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1948, pp.162ff.

9. Martin Buber, l and Thou trans. R. G. Smith, T. & T. Clark 1937; and Between Man and Man, Macmillan 1947.

10. H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation, Macmillan 1941, chap. 3.

11. See John Cobb, A Christian Natural Theology, Westminster Press 1965, for a recent example.

12. Richard Braithwaite, An Empiricist’s View of the Nature of Religious Belief, Cambridge University Press 1955, reprinted in John Hick (ed.), The Existence of God, Macmillan 1964 p.239.

13. Ibid., pp. 246-247.

14. Ibid., p.249.

15. T. R. Miles, Religion and the Scientific Outlook, Allen & Unwin 1959, p.74.

16. Ibid., p.178.

17. Donald Evans, The Logic of Self Involvement, SCM Press 1963, chap. 3.

18. Ibid., pp. 227, 251.

19. Ian Ramsey, Models and Mystery, Oxford University Press 1964, p.17.

20. See Ian Ramsey, Christian Discourse, Oxford University Press 1965, pp. 25, 60, 82.

21. Ramsey, Models and Mystery, p.20.

22. Ibid., pp. 58, 61.

23. Ian Ramsey, Religious Language, SCM Press 1957, chap. 2.

24. Ibid., p.79.

25. See William Austin, ‘Models, Mystery, and Paradox in Ian Ramsey’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 7, 1968, p.41.

26. Ramsey, Religious Language, chap. I.

27. Dorothy Emmet, The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking, Macmillan 1949 p.215.

28. Stephen Pepper, World Hypotheses, University of California Press 1942.

29. Frederick Ferré, ‘Mapping the Logic of Models in Science and Theology’, The Christian Scholar, vol.46, 1963, p. 31.

30. Frederick Ferré, Basic Modern Philosophy of Religion, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1967, p. 381.

31. Frederick Ferré, ‘Metaphors, Models and Religion’, Soundings, vol. 51, 1968 pp. 341-342.

32. C. H. Whiteley, ‘The Cognitive Factor in Religious Experience, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 29, 1955, p. 85.