What is the ‘Language of Religion’ in Religious Studies?

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The investigation into the language of religion was first nestled within the intellectual interests of the enlightenment period, a time in European history when numerous influential philosophers and religious minds were actively at work.

In particular this point of inquiry grew out of Immanuel Kant’s work in which he famously asked, “How is knowledge possible” (in his Critique of Pure Reason), as well as his is work on aesthetics (in Critique of Judgement) (1). As such, from the time of the enlightenment onwards numerous points of inquiry rose in respect to the investigation into the language of religion. A major development was in the advent of different schools, movements, and theorists concentrating on either non-discursive or discursive forms in the expression of religion. For many, the central central point of inquiry was in religious expression, namely, “How is religion expressed?” (2). Engaging this question, theorists sought after means to understand how religion was expressed which, in turn, brought about an analyses of the language of religion.

As we will soon see in the work of some notable thinkers, theorists have proposed hypotheses in answer to this question, many of which have focused on symbols, symbolic forms, and the process of symbolization. The likes of symbols and myths have been noted to belong intrinsically to the world of religion. An example of a religious or sacred symbol is a specific object or entity (whether empirical, transcendent, superhuman, or supernatural) deemed sacred. Such symbols have been a tree, a land, a rock (especially in primal animistic religions) or prophet, God, or a sacred text (in more sophisticated and developed religions). As scholar of religion David Chidester elucidates, religions claim unique ownership and access to symbols deemed sacred (3). Theorists, historical and present, have noted this, and thus myths and symbols have been both viewed and approached as products or expressions of aesthetic consciousness. Continental theorists, for example, focused on the non-discursive forms of religious expression, and concerned themselves with the workings of symbology. They focused on symbolic forms and on the process of symbolization, and effort was put in to analyze the “data” of religious content and language. As also become clear was that these points of inquiry had its foundations in philosophy and subsequently engaged questions entertained in the philosophy of languages, some of which include: “Can one think a thought without a language?” “What is the relationship between an object and language?” “How do languages construct a subject’s world?” and so on.

For some theorists, symbols have been accounted for these genetic terms, which led them to suggest that they had their origins within human consciousness or within the powers of the human imagination. For many theorists, including scholars of religion today, attempts are made to determine how ideas are transposed into symbols and symbols into are translated into ideas that are expressed.


1. Capps, W. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. p. 210

2. Capps, W. Ibid. p. 209

3. Chidester, D. 1989. Worldview analysis of African Indigenous Churches. Journal for the Study of Religion, 2(1), 15–29


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