Religious Language and
|Introduction: The Language of the Sacred
the sacred is “ineffable” (indescribable) we are forced to try to
describe it using ordinary objects and language. Consequently, we
can only talk about the sacred indirectly. That is, we can only talk
about what the sacred is like. Not surprisingly, religions tend to
use a specialized language to express what the sacred is like.
|Types of Religious
When we talk about the language of the sacred, it is important to
make a distinction between first order discourse and second order
- First order discourse is the Scripture and sacred
stories of a religion. Often first order discourse is metaphoric
and poetic. First order discourse also includes symbols, parable
- On the other hand, second order discourse
usually takes the form of commentaries, interpretations and
sermons that seek to explain first order discourse. Put another
way, second order discourse translates symbolic language into
concepts and doctrines (teachings)
In this unit we are primarily concerned with first order
discourse. We can divide our consideration into symbol, metaphor,
parable and myth.
A religious symbol can be defined as an object or sound
that points beyond itself to the sacred realm or to some aspect of
ultimate reality. Typically, religious symbols actually embody some
aspect of sacred reality; that is they are ordinary objects, but
they participate in the sacred. Symbols also have multi-layers of
meaning and are experienced at the non-rational level. Consequently,
symbols may evoke a strong emotional response (not unlike Otto’s
Symbols can be representational or presentational.
- Representational Symbols establish a relationship
between two things even when there may not be a natural or
obvious point of contact. For example, a traffic light
establishes a relationship between the color red and the act of
stopping. There is nothing inherent in red that means “stop;” it
is simply something that must be learned.
- Presentational Symbols participate in or are similar
to or present the thing they symbolize. In other words
presentational symbols manifest or make present the sacred.
|Examples of presentational symbols include religious
images in both Hinduism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
- In Hinduism the term darshan means to see the
deity through an image/statue. In other words, the image or
statue is a visual symbol through which one makes visual contact
with the deity. Worship (puja) is performed in the
presence of the image and the image is treated as an honored
guest. The image functions as a presentational symbol since it
“presents” the sacred to the one viewing the image. It also
participates in the sacred since the presence of the deity is
thought to be infused into the image.
- Icons: A similar concept is found in the use of Icons
in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Icons are stylized
representations of Jesus and the saints. The use and veneration
of icons is an essential part of worship in the Eastern Orthodox
tradition. In fact, an entire “wall” of icons, known as an
iconostasis, is placed at the front of the sanctuary. Through
icons, the Orthodox Christian receives a glimpse of the