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John Stuart Mil

'A Critique of

Equivocal Predication2

Biographical Summary. J.S. Mil (1806-1873) is the outstanding representative of


the empirical and liberal traditions of

Mr. Mansel may be affrmed, by a fair application of the term, to be, in

Victorian England. Born in London, Mil's early life, detailed in his posthumous Autobiography (1873), was remarkable. Educated

entirely by his father, James Mil, a utiltarian philosopher and friend of Jeremy Bentham (1747-1832), Mil was subjected to a rigorous education: precocious to
a degree, by eight he could read Aesop's Fables in Greek, and at twelve began studying Scholastic logic. His education completed, and after a year abroad in France, in 1823 Mill, aged seventeen, followed his father into the East India
Company, where he remained until the Company's Closure in 1858. Unsurprisingly, when ne was twenty-one, he suffered a nervous breakdown. The death of Bentham

metaphysics, a pupil of Sir W. Hamilton. I do not mean that he agrees with him in all his opinions; for he avowedly dissents from the peculiar Hamilonian theory of Cause: stil less that he has learnt nothing from any other teacher, or from his own independent speculations. On the

in 1832 and of his father in 1836 left him as the leading exponent of utiltarianism, modifying but not departing from Bentham's view that the criterion of moral action should .be the utility principle - pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. The principal works of this period are his A System of Logic (1843) and Principles of Political Economy (1848). In 1851 he married Harriet Taylor (died 1860), whose impact

contrary, he has shown considerable power of original thought, both of a good and of what seems to me a bad quality. But he is the admiring editor of Sir W. Hamilton's Lectures; he invariably speaks of him with a deference which he pays to no other philosopher; he expressly accepts, in language identical with Sir W. Hamilton's own, the doctrines regarded

as specially characteristic of the Hamiltonian philosophy, and may with reason be considered as a representative of the same general mode of

on his life was considerable, stimulating an interest in libert, women's rights and
social progress. The most significant work attributed to this influence is On Liberty (1859), his most controversial book. In 1865 Mil was elected Member of Parliament for Westminster, holding his seat unti 1868, and in 1866 Rector of St Andrews University. He died on 8 May 1873 at Avignon, where he is buried. Philosophical Summary. Mill's main work in the philosophy of religion is Three Essays on Religion (1874), published posthumously. The section on 'Miracles' in

his A System of Logic contains his critique of Hume's rejection of supernatural


intervention (see pp. 1:217-232 above). He attacked :equivocal predication in his Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy (1865) singling out a Hamilton

thought. Mr. Mansel has bestowed especial cultivation upon a province but slightly touched by his master - the application of the Philosophy of the Conditioned to the theologicl deparment of thought; the deduction of its crollaries and consequences as directly concern religion. such of The premises from which Mr. Mansel reasons are those of Sir W. Hamilton. He maintains the necessary relativity of all our knowledge. He.holds -that the Absolute and the Infinite, or, to use a more significant expression, an Absolute and an Infinite being, are inconceivable by us; and

that when we strive to conceive what is thus inaccessible to our faculties,

disciple, Henry Lort Mansel (1820-1871), later Dean of St Paul's Cathedral,


whose Limits of Religious Thought Mill describes as 'morally pernicious'. Mansel,

like Hamilton, held that knowledge of the absolute. and infinite was impossible, a
conclusion derived from their doctrine of the 'relativity of knowledge': while belief in God was reasonable, conceptions of the deity were bound to be inadequate. Mill's response is that the difference between, say, divine and human knowledge is not one of kind but of degree, and that unless there is a univocity of terms, all talk of God must
be disallowed. The book contains Mil's celebrated line: 'i wil call no being good, who is not what I mean when i apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a
being can sentence me to hell for not so callng him, to hell i wil go'. Bibliographical Summary. Primary Sources: A System ofLogic(1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), On Liberty (1859), Representative Government (1861), Utilitarianism (1863), An Examination of Sir William Hamilon's Philosophy (1865),* Autobiography (1873) and his posthumously published Three Essays on Religion

(1874). The Collected Works of John Stuart Mil, publiShed by the University of Toronto Press and Routledge (1963-1991), runs to thirt-three volumes. Most

of Mills work is available on the internet. Secondary Sources: Helpful general introductions are provided by Plamenatz (1966), Anschutz (1986), Britton (1953)

we fall into self-contradiction. That we are, nevertheless, warranted in believing, and bound to believe, the real existence of an absolute and infinite being, and that this being is God. God, therefore, is inconceivable and unknowable by us, and cannot even be thought of without selfcontradiction; that is (for Mr. Mansel is careful thus to qualify the asseition), thought of as Absolute, and as Infinite. Through this inherent impossibility of our conceiving or knowing God's essential attributes, we are disqualified from judging what is or is not consistent with them. If, then, a religion is presented to us, containing any particular doctrine respecting the Deity, our belief or rejection of the doctrine ought to depend exclusively upon the evidences which can be produced for the divine origin of the religion: and no argument grounded on the incredibility of the doctrine, as involving an intellectual absurdity, or on its moral badness as unworthy of a good or wise being, ought to have any weight, since of

these things we are incompetent to judge. This, at least, is the drift of

Mr.
2. From An Examination of

and Skorupski (1998). On religion see Sell (1997, 2004) and Raeder (2002).
Mil's Autobiography is a classic of the genre; and for a well-known contemporary . assessment of Mil see Leslie Stephen (1900). The standard biography is by Packe (1954) and a more recent one by Capaldi (2004).

& Company, Ltd., 1865, Chap. 7, 'The Philosophy of

Sir Willam Hamilton s Philosophy, London: Longmans, Green the Conditioned as Applied by Mr.

Mansel to the Limits of Religious Thought'.

The Philosophy of Religion


-'

7: Religious Language (1)

83

Mansel's argument: but I am bound to admit that he affrms the conclusion with a certain limitation; for he acknowledges, that the moral character of the doctrines of a religion ought to count for something among the reasons for accepting or rejecting, as of divine origin, the religion as a whole. That it ought also to count for something in the interpretation of the religion
as it is in itself?

We do not clim any other knowledge of God than such as we have of

when accepted, he neglects to say; but we must in fairness suppose that he would admit it. These concessions, however, to the moral feelings of mankind, are made at the expense of Mr. Mansel's logic. If his theory is
correct, he has no right to make either of

man or of matter. Because I do not know my fellow-men, nor any of the powers of nature, as they are in themselves, am I therefore not at libeity to disbelieve anything I hear respecting them as being inconsistent with their character? I know something of Man and Nature, not as they are in thems'elves, but as they are relatively to us; and it is as relative to us, and

There is nothing new in this line of argument as applied to theology. That we cannot understand God; that his ways are not our ways; that
we cannot scrutinize or judge his counsels- propositions which, in a

them.

not as he is in himself, that I suppose myself to know anything of God.

The attributes which I ascribe to him, as goodness, knowledge, powei~ are all relative. They are attributes (says the rationalist) which my experience

enables me to conceive, and which I consider as proved, not absolutely,

reasonable sense of the terms, could not be denied by any Theist - have often before been tendered as reasons why we may assert any absurdities and any moral monstrosities concerning God, and miscall them Goodness and Wisdom. The novelty is in presenting this conclusion as a corollar
from the most advanced doctrines of modem philosophy - fi'om the true
theory of the powers and limitations of the human mind, on religious and on all other subjects. My opinion ofthis doctrine, in whatever way presented, is, that it is simply

by an intuition of God, but phenomenally, by his action on the creation,

as known through my senses and my rational faculty. These relative attributes, each ofthem in an infinite degree, are all I pretend to predicate of God. When I reject a doctrine as inconsistent with God's nature, it

is not as being inconsistent with what God is in himself: but with what he is as manifested to us. If my knowledge of him is only phenomenal, the assertons which I reject are phenomenal too. If those asseitions are

inconsistent with my relative-.,knowledge of him, it is no answer to say

the most morally pernicious doctrine now current; and that the question it involves is, beyond all others which now engage speculative minds, the decisive one between moral good and evil for the Christian world. It is a momentous matter, therefore, to consider whether we are obliged to adopt it. Without holding Mr. Mansel accountable for the moral consequences of the doctrine, further than he himself accepts them, I think it supremely important to examine whether the doctrine itself is really the verdict of a
sound metaphysic; and essential to a true estimation of Sir W. Hamilton's

that all my knowledge of him is relative. That is no more a reason against disbelieving an alleged fact as unworthy of God, than against disbelieving another alleged fact as unworthy ofTurgot, or of Washington, whom also I do not know as Noumena, but only as Phenomena. There is but one way for Mr. Mansel out of this diffculty, and he adopts it. H must maintain, not merely that an Absolut Being is unknowable

in himself, but that the Relative attributes of an Absolute Being are

unknowable likewise. He must say that we do not know what Wsdom,

philosophy to enquire whether the conclusion thus drawn from his principal
doctrine is justly affliated on it. I think it will appear that tlie conclusion not only does not follow from a true theory of the human faculties, but is not even correctly drawn from the premises from which Mr. Mansel infers it. The fundamental propeity of our knowledge of God, Mr. Mansel says, is that we do not and cannot know him as he is in himself: certain persons, therefore, whom he calls Rationalists, he

Justice, Benevolence, Mercy are, as they exist in God. Accordingly he

does say so. The following are his direct utterances on the subject: as an implied doctrine, it pervades his whole argument. It is a fact which experience forces upon us, and which it is useless,

when they reject any statement as inconsistent with the character of God. This is a valid answer, as far as words go, to some of the later
Transcendentalists - to those who think that we have an intuition of the DivIle Nature; though even as to them it would not be difficult to show
that the answer is but skin-deep. But those 'Rationalists' who hold, with

condemns as unphilosophical

were it possible, to disguise, that the representation of God after the model of tlie highest human morality which we are capable of conceiving, is not suffcient to account for all the phenomena

exhibited by the course of his natural Providence. The infliction

of physical suffering, the permission of moral evil, the adversity

of the good, the prosperity of the wicked, the crimes of the guilty

involving the misery of the innocent, the tardy appearance and

partial distribution of moral and religious knowledge in the world

Mr. Mansel himself, tlie relativity of human knowledge, are not touched by his reasoning. We cannot know God as he is in himself (they reply); granted: and what then? Can we know man as he is in himself, or matter

-these are facts which no doubt are reconcilable, we know not how,

with the Infinite Goodness of God, but which certainly are not to be explained on the supposition that its sole and suffcient type is to be found in the finite goodness of man.

In other words, it is necessary to suppose that the infinite goodness

ascribed to God is not the goodness which we know and love in our fellow-

creatures, distinguished only as infinite in degree, but is different in kind, and another quality altogether. When we call the one finite goodness and the other infinite goodness, we do not mean what the words assert, but something else: we intentionally apply the same name to things which we regard as different. Accordingly Mr. Mansel combats, as a heresy of his opponents, the opinioh that infinite goodness differs only in degree from finite goodness. 'The notion that the attributes' of God differ from those of man in degree only, not in kind, and hence that certain mental and moral
qualities of which we are immediately conscious in ourselves,

space, did anyone ever suppose that it is not space? that it does not possess all the properties by which space is characterized? Infinite space cannot be cubical or spherical, because these are modes of being bounded: but does anyone imagine that in ranging through it we might arrive at some region which was not extended; of which one part was not outside another; where, though no Body intervened, motion was impossible; or where the sum of two sides ora triangle was less than the third side? The parallel assertion may be made respecting infinite goodness. What belongs to it as Infinite (or more properly as Absolute) I do not pretend to know; but I know that infinite goodness must be goodness, and that what is not consistent with goodness, is not consistent with infinite goodness. Ifin ascribing goodness

furliish at the same time a true and adequate image of the infinite perfections of God. (the word adequate must have slipped in by inadvertence, since otherwise it would be inexcusable misrepresentation) he identifies with 'the vulgar Rationalism which regards the reason of man, in its ordinar and normal
operation, as the supreme criterion of religious truth'. And in charcterizing the mode of arguing of this vulgar Rationalism, he declares its principles to be, that all the excellences of which we are conscious in the creature, must necessarily exist in the same manner, though in a higher degree, in the Creator. God is indeed more wise, more just, more merciful than man; but for that very reason, his wisdom and justice and mercy, must contain nothing that is incompatible with the corresponding attributes in their human character.

to God 1 do not mean what 1 mean by goodness; if I do not mean the

goodness of which I have some knowledge, but an incomprehensible attribute of an incomprehensible substance, which for aught I know may be a totally different quality from that which I love and venerate - and even must, if Mr. Mansel is to be believed, be in some important particulars opposed to this - what do I mean by callng it goodness? and what reason have I for venerating it? If I know nothing about what the attribute is, 1 cannot tell that it is a proper object of veneration. To say that God's goodness may be different in kind from man's goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good? To assert in words "'hat we do not think in meaning, is as suitable

a definition as can be given of a moral falsehood. Besides, suppose that certain unknown attributes are ascribed to the Deity in a religion the
external evidences of

which are so conclusive to my mind, as effectually

It is against this doctrine that Mr. Mansel feels called on to make


an emphatic protest. Here, then, I take my stand on the acknowledged principle oflogic and of mortality, that when we mean different things we have no right to call them by the same name, and to apply to them the same
predicates, moral and intellectuaL. Language has no meaning for the words

to convince me that it comes from God. Unless I believe God to possess the same moral attributes which I find, in however inferior a degree, in a good man, what ground of assurance have 1 of God's veracity? All trust in a Revelation presupposes a conviction that God's attributes are the same, in all but degree, with the best human attributes.

Just, Merciful, Benevolent, save that in which we predicate them of our fellow-creatures; and unless that is what we intend to express by them, we have no business to employ the words. If in affrming them of God we do not mean to affrm these very qualities, differing only as greater in degree, we are neither philosophically nor morally entitled to affrm them at all. If it be said that the qualities are the same, but that we cannot conceive them as they are when raised to the infinite, I grant that we cannot adequately
conceive them in one of their elements, their infinity. But we can conceive them in their other elements, which are the very same in the infinite as in the finite development. Anything carried to the infinite must have all the properties of the same thing as finite, except those which depend upon the finiteness. Among the many who have said that we cannot conceive infinite

If, instead of the 'glad tidings' that there exists a Being in whom all the excellences which the highest human mind can conceive, exist in a degree inconceivable to us, I am informed that the world is ruled by a

being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, nor what are the principles of his government, except that 'the highest human morality which we are capable of conceiving' does not sanction them; convince me of it, and 1 wil bear my fate as I may. But when 1 am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this being by the names

which express and affrm the highest human morality, 1 say in plain terms

that 1 wil not. Whatever power such a being may have over me, there is one thing which he shall not do: he shall not compel me to worship him. I wil call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not

so callng him, to hell I wil go. Neither is this to set up my own limited intellect as a criterion of divine or of any other wisdom. If a person is wiser and better than myself, not in some unknown and unknowable meaning of the terms, but in their known hwiian acceptation, I am ready to believe that what this person thinks may be true, and that what he does may be right, when, but for the opinion I have of him, I should think otherwise. But this is because I

understand by the tenns. He would, and does, admit that the qualities as

conceived by us bear some likeness to the justice and goodness which

belong to God, since man was made in God's image. But such a semiconcession, which no Christian could avoid making, since without it the whole Christian scheme would be subverted, cannot save him; he is not relieved by it from any diffculties, while it destroys the whole fabric of
from human godness, but of

believe that he and I have at bottom the same standard of truth and rule

of right, and that he probably understands better than I the facts of the
particular case. Ifl thought it not improbable that his notion of be my notion of wrong, I should not defer to his judgment. In like manner, one- who sincerely believes in an absolutely good ruler of the world, is not warranted in disbelieving any act ascribed to him, ,merely because the very small part of its circumstances which we can possibly know does not suffciently justifY it. But if what I am told respecting him is of a kind which no facts that can be supposed added to my knowledge could make me perceive to be right; if his alleged ways of dealing with the world are

his argument., The Divine goodness, which is said to be a different thing which the human conception of goodness is some imperfect reflection or resemblance, does it agree with what men call

right might

such as no imaginable hypothesis respecting things known to him and

unknown to me, could make consistent with the goodness and' wisdom which I mean when I use the terms, but are in direct contradiction to their
signification; then, if the law of contradiction is a law of

goodness in the essence of the quality - in what constitutes it goodness? If it does, the 'Rationalists' are right; it is not ilicit to reason from the one to the other. If not, the divine attribute, whatever else it may be, is not goodness, and ought not to be called by the name. Unless there is some human conception which agrees with it, no human name can properly be applied to it; it is simply the unknown attribute of a thing unknown; it has no existence in relation to us, we can affrm nothing of it, and owe it no worship. Such is the inevitable alternative. To conclude: . . . The proposition, that we cannot conceive the moral attibutes of God in such a manner as to be able to affnn of any doctrine

human thoughts,

I cannot both believe these things and believe that God is a good and wise

being. If I call any being wise or good, not meaning the only qualities which the words import, I am speaking insincerely; I am flattering him
by epithets which I fancy that he likes to hear, in the hope of

or assertion that it is inconsistent with them, has no foundation in the laws of the human mind: while if admitted, it would not prove that we should ascribe to God attributes bearing the same name as human qualities, but nt to be understood in the same sense: it would prove that we ought not to
winning him

ascribe any moraJ:attributes to God at all, inasmuch as no moral attibutes known or conceivable by us are true of him, and we are condemned to
absolute ignorance of

over to my own objects. For it is worthy of remark that the doubt whether words applied to God have their human signification, is only felt when the words relate to his moral attributes; it is never heard of in regard to his power. We are never told that God's omnipotence must not be supposed to mean an infinite degree of the power we know in man and nature, and that perhaps it does not mean that he is able to kil us, or consign us to eternal flames. The Divine Power is always interpreted in a completely human signification, but the Divine Goodness and Justice must be understood to be such only in an unintelligible sense. Is it unfair to surmise that this
is because those who speak in the name of God, have need of

him as a moral being.

the human

conception of his power, since an idea which can overawe and enforce obedience, must address itself to real feelings; but are content that his goodness should be conceived only as something inconceivable, because they are often required to teach doctrines respecting him which conflict irreconcilably with all goodness that we can conceive? I am anxious to say once more, that Mr. Mansel's conclusions do not go the whole length of his arguments, and that he disavows the doctdne that God's justice and goodness are wholly different from what human beings

Bibliographical Summary. See also p. 1:15-16 above. Extended accounts of

Aquinas' doctrine of analogy are given by Klubertanz (1960), Lyttkens (1953), Mascall (1949), McInerny (1986, 1996), Montagnes (2004), Mortensen (2006), Phelan (1941) and Ross (1981).

Biographical Summary. See p. 1:15 above. Philosophical Summary. Aquinas' theory of analogy steers a middle course
between univocal and equivocal predication. According to him, there are two types of analogy: 1. Th.e ana/ogyot attribution. This is sometimes known as the analogy of'causation' and also, rather confusingly, as the analogy of 'proportion'. Here we attribute a predicate to two things (the two analogates) by virtue of the relation they have to each other. To give Aquinas' own example: we call people 'healthy', and this term we use lierally or univocally; but we also say that medicine is 'healthy', but
do not use this term lierally but rather to indicate that to be healthy. In the first case the predicate is applied 'formally' to the analogate and in the second relatively or derivatively: the first sense, in other words, is the primary application of the term, and the second only applied by reference back to

St Thomas Aquinas

The Doctrine of Analogy 4

Article 5: Whether What is Said of God and of his Creatures is


UnivocaIy Predicated of

Them? Objection 1. It seems that the things attributed to God and creatures are

medicine 'causes' people

univocaL. For every equivocal term is reduced to the univocal, as many are

the first,i.e~, it is being used neither univocally nor equivocally but analogously. When a predicate is applied theologically, however, where :the comparison is to be made between God as the first cause and his creatures as effects, the situation is reversed: the primary application now lies with God. In other words, when describing God as 'good' we are applying the predicate 'formally' - and saying, therefore, that the divine goodness is the only true and normative reality;

and when describing human beings as 'good' we are applying the predicate derivatively or analogously, and saying, therefore, that human goodness is a fragmentary or distorted reflection of God's perfection. Here it is not that\God has
God. 2. The analogy ot proportionality. This involves a more complex form of predication in which we attribute a predicate to two things by virtue of a likeness between them proportionate to their nature. We should first note a difference between the
analogates involved here and those in the analogy of attribution. In the latter the comparison was uneven and between two analogates whose characteristics were predicated either 'formally' or 'derivatively'. But in the analogy of proportionality both analogates have 'formal' status and thus ascribe properties equally in a a likeness to his creatures, but that his creatures have a likeness to

reduced to one; for if the name 'dog' be said equivocally of the barking dog, and of the dogfsh, it must be said of some univocally - viz. of all barking dogs; otherwise we proceed to infinitude. Now there are some Univocal agents which agree with their effects in name and definition, as man generates man; and there are some agents which are equivocal, as the sun which causes heat, although the sun is hot only in an equivocal sense. Therefore it seems that the first agent to which all other agents are reduced, is an univocal agent: and thus what is said of God and creatures
is predicated univocaUy.

Objection 2. Further, there is no similtude among equivocal things.


of

Therefore as creatures have a certain likeness to God, according to the word Genesis (Genesis 1 :26), 'Let us make man to our image and likeness', it God and creatures univocally.
seems that something can be said of

Objection 3. Furt~, measure is homogeneous with the thing measured.

univocal and actual sense. Consider, for instance, Mascall's example of what is involved when we .say that both cabbages and men have /ite.3 What we do mean by this is that these analogates have life in a 'formal' sense - that both cabbages

and men are quite lierally alive; but what we do not mean by this is that they are
alive in exactly the same way: it is rather that a cabbage possesses life in a mode appropriate to cabbages and that a man possesses life in a mode appropriate to ' men. Thus, although the predicate ('having life') is the same in both cases, how that predicate is applied wil be proportionate (or appropriate) to the distinctive nature or being of its subject. Applied theologically, the analogy of proportionality

But God is the first measure of all beings. Therefore God is homogeneous with cratures; and thus a word may be applied univocally to God and to creatures. On the contrary, whatever is predicated of various things under the same name but not in the same sense, is predicated equivocally. But no name belongs to God in the same sense that it belongs to creatures; for instance, wisdom in creatures is a quality, but not in God. Now a different genus changes an essence, since the genus is part of the definition; and the same applies to other things. Therefore whatever is said of God and of creatures
is predicated equivocally.

is simply extended. A term predicated of God - for example, that he is 'good'

- belongs properly and proportionately to his nature, in the same way that a
term predicated of human beings belongs properly and proportionately to their natures. Thus Aquinas concludes that divine goodness is neither equivocally
unrelated to man's goodness nor univocally identical with it, and that this analogy
of proportionality holds for any and every one of

Further, God is more distant from creatures than any creatures are

predicated of God.

those characteristics that can be

from each other. But the distance of some creatures makes any univocal predication of them impossible, as in the case of those things which are not in the same genus. Therefore much less can anything be predicated univocally of God and creatures; and so only equivocal predication can be

3. Eric MascalI, Existence and Analogy London, Longmans, 1949.

4. Summa Theologica, i, Question 13, New York, Benziger Brothers, at www.gntenberg. org.

in knowledge, inasmuch as substance is put in the definition of accident; and therefore 'being' is predicated of substance before it is predicated of
accident, alike in point of the nature of the thing and in point of

attaching to the name. But when what is prior in nature is posterior in knowledge, in such cases of analogy there is not the same order alike
in point of the thing named and in point of the concept attaching to the name. Thus the power of healing, that is in healing remedies, is prior by nature to the health that is in the animal, as the cause is prior to the effect: bu't because this power is known from its effect, it is also named from its effect: hence, though 'healthful' or 'health-producing', is prior in order of fast, yet the application of the predicate 'healthy' to the animal is prior in point of the concept attaching to the name. Thus then, because we arrive at the knowledge of God from the knowledge of other realities, the thing
signified by the names that we apply in common to God and to

the concept

Biographical Summary. See also p. 1:274 above Philosophical Summary. Tillch's discusssion begins by contrasting symbols

with religious symbols. Symbols have four essential functions: (1) they are figurative in that they point beyond themselves to something for which they

realities - the thing signified, I say, is by priority in God, in the mode


proper to God: but the concept attching to the name is posterior in its application to Him: hence He is said to be named from the effects which He causes.

those ,other

stand; (2) they participate in the reality of that which they symbolize; (3) they cannot be invented or replaced arbitrarily, but 'grow and die'; and (4) they alone can open up levels of being, disclosing dimensions of reality which can only be experienced through symbols. The religious symbol has all these characteristics, plus one: it also points to the ultimate level of reality, God as 'being-itself. It is at this point that Tillch's theory becomes ambiguous. Is the statement 'God is being-itself a literal or symbolic statement? Initially holding that all knowledge of God is symbolic, Tilich was led by criticism to make an important adjustment in his Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (1953): that in order to avoid the charge of circularity, the statement that 'God is being-itself must be a literal statement. This leads Stiver to conclude that Tillch is a univocalist.6 Alas! Tillch was to change his mind again, and in Systematic Theology Vol. 2 (1957) the pansymbolic view

is reinstated. That aside, Tilich nowhere departs from his argument that every

statement about God as being-itself is symbolic, and this is because God, as the ontological and ultimate 'ground' of the finite 'structure of being', cannot be determined by that structure himself. To confuse literal-univocal and symbolic language is therefore to confuse not merely two distinct forms of language, but, since language expresses reality, to confuse the two different dimensions of reality to which these different kinds of language refer. Herein Tillch explicitly

acknowledges his debt to St Thomas' doctrine of analogy.

Tbis non-literal requirement is evident in the two main types of religious

symboL. Objective religious symbols are the primary religious symbols and point

to God directly, either in (a) symbols of God as the Supreme Being or (b) in

characterizations of God's qualities or actions or (c) in the 'immanent' symbols of divine appearances, whether as historical personalities (for example, the Christ or Buddha) or as particular elements of reality (such as the Lord's Supper, the Crucifix). Self-transcending religious symbols cover the whole range of cultic actions and holy objects involved within the religious attitude. Their function is to

point to and support the objective religious symbols ofthe first group, although they

may themselves be taken as belonging to (c) of that group but 'reduced to a lower

power'. It is an important feature of Tillch's argument that religious symbolism

quickly degenerates and 'dies' when not 'correlated' with its cultural environment.

Bibliographical Summary. Primary Sources: See also p. 1:274-275 above.

Tilich wrote six major articles on religious symbolism and they span his entire career, from 1928 to 1961. Five of these are included in volume 4 of the Main WorkslHauptwerke (ed. Clayton, 1987). There are also significant passages in the relevant sections ofTilich's three-volume Systematic Theology (1953-1964). Secondary Sources: The criticism which led to Tilich's revision of his theory of pan-symbolism was made by Wilbur Urban (1940), and there are various

accounts of the theory in Adams (1965), Dreisbach (1992) and Palmer (1984). The most important and extended analysis, however, is by Rowe (1968).
22.

6. Dan Stiver, The Philosophy of Religious Language,

Oxford, Blackwell, 1996, pp. 21-

Paul Tilich

The Religious Symbol'


We distinguish two levels of religious symbols, a supporting level in which religious objectivity is established and which is based in itself; and a level supported by it and pointing to objects of the other leveL. Accordingly we call the symbols of the first level the 'objective religious symbols' and thos~ of the second level, the 'self.transcending religious symbols'. The

objective religious symbols wil occupy the central place in our discussion. Indeed, all the previous discussion has been concerned with them. They are themselves to be subdivided into several groups.
The first and basic level of objective religioUs symbolism is the

world of divine beings which, after the 'breaking' of the myth, is 'the
Supreme Being', God. The divine beings and the Supreme Being, God, are representations of that which is ultimately referred to in the religious act.
They are representations, for the unconditioned transcendent surasses

possessing certain definite qualities is present in the consciousness. But the religious consciousness is also aware of the fact that when the word 'God' is heard, this idea is figurative, that it does not signify an object, that is, it must be transcendent. The word 'God' produces a contradiction in the consciousness, it involves something figurative that is present in the consciousness and something not figurative that we really have in mind and that is represented by this idea. In the word 'God' is contained at the same time that which actually functions as a representation and also the idea that it is only a representation. It has the peculiarity of transcending its own conceptual content: upon this depends the numinous character that the word has in science and in life in spite of every misuse through false objectification. God as an object is a representation of the reality ultimately referred to in the religious act, but in the word 'God' this objectivity is negated and at the same'time its representative character is asserted. The second group of objective religious symbols has to do with character-

every possible conception of a being, including even the conception of a Supreme Being. In so far as any such being is assumed as existent, it is again annihilated in the religious act. In this annihilation, in this atheism
manifest. Wherever immanent in the religious act, the profoundest aspect of the religious act is this aspect is lost sight of, there results an objectification

of the Unconditioned (which is in essence opposed to objectification), a


result which is destructive of the religious as well as of the cultural life.
Thus God is made into a 'thing' that is not a real thing but a contradiction in ten11 and an absurdity; demanding belief in such a thing is demanding a religious 'work', a sacrifice, an act of asceticism and the self-destruction of the human mind. It is the religious function of atheism ever to remind us that the religious act has to do with the unconditioned transcendent, and

izations of the nature and actions of God. Here God is presupposed as an object. And yet these characterizations have an element in them that indicates the figurative character of that presupposition. Religiously and theologically, this fact is expressed in the awareness that all knowledge of God has a symbolic character. The question concerning the reality and the real differentiation of the attributes of God likewise indicates that we are concerned with symbols here. But this by no means signifies that these statements are lacking in truth or that these symbols are interchangeable

at wilL. Genuine symbols are not interchangeable at all, and real symbols

provide no objective knowledge, but yet a true awareness. Therefore, the religious consciousness does not doubt the possibility of a true awareness

of God. The criterion of the truth of a symbol naturally cannot be the

that the representations of the Unconditioned are not objects concerning whose existence or non-existence a discussion would be possible.

comparison of it with the reality to which it refers, just because this reality is absolutely beyond human comprehension. The truth of a symbol depends

This oscillation between the setting up and the destruction of the religious object expresses itself immediately in the living idea of God. It is indeed true that the religious act really signifies what it refers to: it
signifies God. But the word 'God' involves a double meaning: it connotes the unconditioned transcendent, the ultimate, and also an object somehow endowed with qualities and actions. The first is not figurative or symbolic,

on its inner n~cessity for the symbol-creating consciousness. Doubts concerning its truth show a change of mentality, a new attitude toward the unconditioned transcendent. The only criterion that is at all relevant is

this: that the Unconditioned is clearly grasped in its unconditionedness. A symbol that does not meet this requirement and that elevates a conditioned thing to the dignity of the Unconditioned, even if it should not be false, is demonic.

but is rather in the strictest sense what it is said to be. The second,
however, is really symbolic, figurative. It is the second that is the object envisaged by the religious consciousness. The idea of a Supreme Being
7. 'The Religious Symbol', Journal of Liberal Religion (Chicago), 2 (1), 1940, pp. 13-33.

The third group of oi:jective symbols are the natural and historical

objects that are drawn as holy objects into the sphere of religious objects and thus become religious symbols. In the foreground stand the histoiical

Also in Main Works/Hauptwerke, ed. John Clayton, Berlin and New York, De GruyterEvangelisches VerJagswerk, 1987, pp. 254-269. Urban's criticism is included in that
edition: pp. 269-271.

personalities that have become the object of a religious act. It would of course be entirely contradictory to the religious consciousness if one
them, as symbols. For the peculiarity of

characterized these personalities, or what they did and what happened to this kind of object of the religious

consciousness depends precisely upon their historical reality, their reality in the objective sense. The use of symbolism with regard to this world in which the holy is supposed to be really present would involve a denial of its presence and hence the destruction of its existence, And yet this denial is inevitable as soon as these holy realities are looked upon as being rationally objective. For in the context of the rational world of concrete
objects they have no place. And ifit were possible to give them such a place,

__ other that symbolize the religious attitude. In the hrst category belong, lor

for instance, with the help of occultism, the thing aimed at in the religious act, that is, the intuition of the unconditioned transcendent, would not be grasped. These historical personalities, in so far as they are considered as symbols, therefore, have no place in the objective world. More than this, they cannot have such a place even though it be to their advantage as historical figures. This signifies, however, that these objects that possess a holy character are not empirical, even if they can only be conceived of as existing in the empirical order. This means that they are symbols, they represent the presence of the unconditioned transcendent in the empirical order. That this presence is viewed as an empirical event (for example,
the resUlTection), indicates the figurative character that attaches to every the transcendent. It is therefore cOlTe~t to say that Christ
objectification of

tic gestures, to the second, all ilustrative symbols, such example, all cui as the cross, arrows and the like. An elaboration of this class of symbols religion the phenomena of would be tantamount to working out a theory of in general. This is not at the moment feasible. Only one point significant for the principle in question may be mentioned here. All these symbols can be conceived as objective symbols of the third group reduced to a lower

power. They all had originally more than 'pointing'

significance. They

were holy objects or actions laden with magical sacramental power. To the degree in which their magical-sacramental power was reduced in favor of the unconditioned transcendent on the one side, and in the direction of the their reality on the other, they were brought down to the objectification of level of the 'pointing' symboL. This process is never wholly completed.

Even in radically critical religions like Judaism and Protestantism the conthe religious mentality has preserved the magical-sacramental servatism of attitude towards reality. Concerning the other great forms of religion it is much better to be silent. Even in the mere 'pointing' symbols, so long

or the Buddha, for example, in so far as the unconditioned transcendent

is envisaged in them, are symbols. But they are symbols that have at the same time an empirical, historical aspect and in whose symbolic meaning the empirical is involved. Therefore both aspects, the empirical and the transcendent, are manifest in this kind of symbols and their symbolic power depends upon this fact. The same thing holds for them as for the
name of God: all of

as they are living, there remains a residue of their original sacral power. If this is wholly lost, it is no longer justifiable to speak of symbols; the symbol is now replaced by conventional idioms which may then be

raised by means of religious art into the purely esthetic sphere. And this can happen not only to divine signs and attributes but also to the divine beings themselves, as history has demonstrated. This observation leads to the ~onclusion that the second level of religious symbols, the 'pointing'

these are symbolic, and in such a way that in both cases

the unsymbolic reality is expressed - in the one case, the empirical, in the other, the transcendent. ltis the task of historical criticism, which runs along parallel to atheistic criticism, to prevent these groups of symbols from degenerating into false objectifications. Religion is greatly indebted to modern research on the life of Jesus, in that it has accomplished this
task by recognizing the problematic character of the empirical element

symbols, are transitional in character. And this is based on the nature of things. So long as symbols are imbued with sacral power the religious

and by emphasizing the importance of the symbolic element. It is never


possible, however, to alter or to re-create a symbol by means of

act is oriented towards them. When the religious act is no longer oriented towards them, that is, when they lose their sacral power, they degenerate the into mere signs. This transition, however, involves so large an area of religious life that one is justified in assigning to it a special place. At all events, this one conclusion is evident, that the real religious symbol is the objective symbql, which in its three groups represents the unconditioned
transcendent.

criticism. This group of symbols can also be measured by the standard

historical

of how effectively the unconditioned transcendent is expressed in them. The rise and decline of symbols is a matter of tlie religious and not of the scientific mentality.

The third group of objective religious symbols involves the level of symbols that we have characterized as 'pointing' symbols. It is the
immensely large class of signs and actions of a special significance that
contain a reference to religious objects of the first leveL. This whole class of symbols can be divided into actions on the one hand and objects on the

Religious Symbols The Rise and Decline of Religious symbols are created in the course of the historical process of religion. The inner impulse of this historical process has been made clear It is a tendency that is two-fold, through the consideration of the myth.

towards religious transcendence, and towards cultural objectification.

Religious criticism manifests itself in the opposition of the divine and the demonic. As a result of this criticism religious symbols are forced inevitably into the status of the demonic. At first their reality is not destroyed, but it is weakened; the real symbolic power lives on in the

sphere of the divine. The thus weakened demonic symbols can stil have a long life; eventually, however, they tend to withdraw and become mere signs, or wholly to disappear. Scientific criticism does not in itself have the power to make religious symbols disappear. Wherever it seems to have this power, a deflection in the religious consciousness has already taken place. Wherever scientific criticism is effective, it leads not to a demonization, but rather to a profanization of the symbols. The decisive means for bringing about the profanization of symbols is the exposing
of their symbolic character. For this reason the religious consciousness

the religious If this were really possible, the deepest demand of suspended. consciousness would be fulfilled: religion would no longer be a separate thing. This in no way signifies, however, that religion should be reduced to an aristic or scientific approach to reality. It signifies rather an immediate

concern with things in so far as they confront us unconditionally, that is,

in so far as they stand in the transcendent. But against this idea, which would involve especially in our day a great unburdening of the religious consciousness, an emancipation from the burden of a symbolism that has lost its self-evident character, there
arises a serious

always protests against the characterization of its objects as symbols. In this respect nothing is changed by proving that reality can, indeed must
j! objects to which the concept of Ii I,

objection: the idea rests on the presupposition that an

unmythical treatment of the unconditioned transcendent provides the

be embraced in the symboL. The shimmering quality that attaches to all the symbol is applied can, by the peculiarly
religious sense for reality, be recognized only as a negation of its reality.

religious possibility offully penetrating reality. This possibility, however, presupposes that reality stands in God, that is, that reality is eschatological

and not present. In our time the idea prevails that certain realities with

I
i 1 !

Thus the question arises as to what can be or become a religious symbol in


the cultural situation of our day.

On the whole the situation is such that the contents of categories arising out of the scientific and philosophic mode of creating concepts have the immediate persuasive power that fits them to become symbols. The fact that in the most highly educated circles the attitude of certainty towards scientific concepts is shattered and that the mythical character of these concepts is recognized, does not even in these circles greatly affect the
self-evident symbolic power of these concepts. The idea of God ilustrates the kind of change to which religious symbols have been subjected. The idea of God has by misuse through objectification lost its symbolic power the unconditioned

symbolic power must be placed above other realities without symbolic power and this very fact indicates that reality as a whole is separated from what it ought to be, it is not transparent of its ultimate meaning. Only in

so far as this were the case, would reality acquire symbolic power and

thus the realm of special symbols would become unnecessary: reality and

symbol would become identicaL.

in such measure that it serves largely asa concealment of

transcendent rather than as a symbol for it. The recognition of this its
unobjective, symbolic character has a chance of influence only in so far as the 'ring' of the unconditioned transcendent can stil be heard in the word 'God'. Where this is not the case, the proof that the intellectual content of the idea of God is symbolic can only hasten its loss of

power.
('-

This situation with regard to religious symbols, a situation which is fraught with great danger, may give rise to the desire to treat that which is refelTed to in the symbol without using symbols. Of course this cannot mean that beyond all symbols the unconditioned transcendent should be directly intuited. Rather it signifies that reality should no longer be used as material for symbols. It signifies that reality itself should be- looked at immediately and be spoken of in such a way that its position in and before the unconditioned transcendent would receive direct expression.
Undoubtedly, it might well be the highest aim of theology to find the point where reality speaks simultaneously of itself and of the Unconditioned

in an unsymbolic fashion, to find the point where the unsymbolic reality becomes a symbol, where the contrast between reality and symbol is
itself