A Critical Analysis of William Alston’s View of Religious Language, with a Comparison with Classical and Modern Islamic Theories

Sajedi, Abolfazl, Ph.D. Concordia University (Canada), 2001. 312 pages. Adviser: Despland, Michel. Publication Number: AAT NQ59222.

The twentieth century is considered to be the century of the linguistic turn. Because of the close relation between philosophy and religion, this recent philosophical interest in language has had a great effect on the understanding of religious language. The present work concentrates on two controversial questions regarding religious language: (1) What are the characteristics of religious discourse? Is there a language peculiar to religion? (2) How should we interpret religious statements? Should we conceive them symbolically, analogically, literally, or in other ways?

I critically analyze the treatment of these questions by William Alston (1921), a distinguished American philosopher of religion. Alston developed new approaches to the topic. Unlike most of the theories proposed regarding religious language, Alston’s theory expounded, in his recent works, defends a moderate traditional position regarding religious language. Alston accomplishes this by employing current approaches, including analytical philosophy and functionalism. Alston’s answer to the first question lies in his realism, while he answers the second with a theory of “partial literalism.” I also compare Alston’s view with other contemporary theologians, including D. Z. Phillips, Paul Tillich, John Hick, and finally, Muhammad Husayn Tabtabi, a contemporary Iranian Muslim theologian and philosopher. In light of the last comparison, we can see what kinds of common or different elements are found in the analysis of religious language of two different belief systems, Islam and Christianity

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