Does theological language still have any real use? Sometimes a half a millennium of modernity has seemingly taught us that the center not only can’t hold, but didn’t. But theological language is just that, a language: a system of inexact metaphors whose correspondence to a literal reality is constantly shifting.
And yet, is this not the great strength of religious language, of religious stories? Inerrancy is a fallacy, literalism an error, and no more so than with religious language. Rather it is the adaptability of theological language that is its great power, and it is the ever-changing yet continuous historical chain of the emotionally powerful language and stories of faith that allow this vocabulary to still have such resonance, a power which other ways of speaking don’t have. To ignore this power is a mistake.
Religion is a fiction – this does not mean that the social phenomenon of religion isn’t real – it obviously is. Rather it means that the claims and principles of religion are fictional. But there, there is the crux. For if religion is a system of fiction, more of a way of speaking than anything, it still contains the seeds to redeem itself, and indeed, to redeem us. The assertions of religion may be fictional, they may not be real, but the words are potent, and can still contain power in a way that other systems do not.
“Good,” “Evil,” “Salvation,” “Sin,” “Redemption,” even “Heaven” and “Hell.” These may perhaps be literally meaningless words to our dominant paradigms today, but even if God is asleep those words need not lose their meaning. In fact, these may be the exact words we need. If we do not let them control us but rather use them as our own tools of expression they provide a means to encapsulate certain human experiences.