A Non-Realist Critique of J. Gill's
Ian Ramsey: To Speak Responsibly of God

Summary of Ramsey's Views

Ramsey wanted to avoid the logical empiricism that rendered religious language obsolete and yet meet the challenge for the empirical rooting of religious language (unlike with the existentialists). His method was to use the complexity of language rules after Wittgenstein and yet to give a place to factually based disclosure.

Miracles are, as such, historical events of disclosure and call for responding commitment. They are identified by their needed language where significance supersedes the fact: in other words they need God-talk. The talk of God is based on the talk of the subjective I: a rules mystery directly equatable with the use of the term God.

Old theology was done in terms of picture models alone based around realist concepts: which Ramsey laments. His central theoretical approach is that of the model-qualifier. The model is rooted factually and contains the disclosure-commitment; the qualifier signifies depth based not on metaphysics but rules of the God language of evocation, contrasts and the taking beyond.

Thus language is helpful to people rather than descriptive of God and in this sense the Trinity is a model-qualifier containing the disclosure-commitment of Christian experience. Model-qualifiers allow for logically explorable paradox and set together model-qualifiers of the different doctrines of Christianity together create a large scale integrative map of the religion. Creeds differ according to the conciliar language of 'believing in' (Apostles) and disclosure language of 'believe that' (Nicene), but while the Articles are descriptive the people at the time need to be understood for their intentions in the kind of language they employed.

There remains then a connection with modern science in that both have to transcend empirical experiments with overall theories. But the difference is that science can achieve precise experimental verification whereas religion has flexible experimental confirmation. As for modern philosophy and religion - and here the connection with the empirical is shown - it is not that the world stays the same and we change our perception but that the disclosure comes from the as such changed world to the person.

Basic Criticisms

On the one hand Ramsey uses the Wittgenstein model of language as games of discourse and on the other he attempts to keep some empirical rootedness. This is to suggest that Wittgenstein's approach was too subjective and that there is a need for some contact with objectivity in all language.

The problem is what kind of God he has created. It is intentially not metaphysical and not understood in the old model sense, but against that is the problem of the status of the miracle disclosure which demands commitment using God talk. Is this a supernatural delusion requiring only the language of God talk or does it truly need God talk because the miracle is supernatural? Or alternatively is religion around the miracle simple a liguistic God of the gaps around events that go beyond the limitations of the regularities which a part and parcel of science talk?

The effect of empirical grounding is surely to relate the language of the qualifier to the empirically grounded model and suggest transcendence. This is similar to the transcendence of Berger's A Rumour of Angles in that a number of aspects of human life give rise to the feelings of transcendence but these can only ever lead to a rumour of overall transcendence rather than prove transcendence itself in the form of a God. This is not Ramsey's intention anyway: rather he sees God as an integrative linguistic device.

Yet the question must be asked whether the God created based on a response to real events is itself realist. Model based Christianity is a closed circle of interconnecting doctrines which tell its story but also identify its God: thus the virgin birth, empty tomb and the resurrection appearance stories are details by which Christ becomes of God and thus God itself is an acting agent in history which is incarnate in Christ. That God is real because the events are real. If Ramsey believes that religious language must connect with empirical events - that it is they that change rather than the person - than presumably his God must be the overall coherence giving description of that story as a model. Surely can it not be that the series of perceived miracles that give rise to religious language are reliably part of one overarching perceived miracle by which God talk is the response? God language then does not integrate: the perceived miracle disclosure of the whole story at the macro-level.

Indeed Christianity allows for revelation as an historical event at macro-level. If this is so then the miracle disclosure must either create a God that is realist and metaphysical, or the miracle is an unexplained by science delusion which, when explained, ceases to be a miracle and the God dies.

The model-qualifier approach as a result produces a 'now you see it now you don't' realism and non-realism God which becomes unsatisfactory, and becomes rather like avoidable paradox (like wave/particles) that he criticises. It cannot be empirically rooted because logical empiricism disallows it and so it primarily lives in the realm of the qualifier, but then because it absorbs the empirical it becomes like the old model approach which logical empiricism disallows!

A Non-Realist Alternative

A new approach therefore has to be found based on similar philosphical grounding consistent with Wittgenstein and developing other lingusitic philosophies.

In the everyday world common sense dictates that objects are 'there' but as soon as any description takes place we are into the world of language and concepts which are dependent on language and concepts. So the objective-subjective distinction is lost in a sea of language signs. For words to have meaning needs a relationship with other words. All sentences contain a multiple of meanings and language games take place.

In the case of religion there are cultural-linguistic patterns taking place and language games happening, but these are games of personal and corporate evocation and direction. The question of miracles as in the case of Ramsey does not arise because all events and the language that makes and surrounds them can give rise further to language games of evocation and direction and become the packaging that can be called religion. This is a personal or collective perspective and is goal centred around evocative and directional packages of language (usually coded within forms of liturgy).

No situation exists where the world changes and the person does not, nor necessarily does the opposite happen where the world stays the same and the observer change his view. Rather, the participant makes more of the language he deals with and adds to it so that the mental constructs which make the world have been altered and enlarged. The need for a concept of miracles, disclosure-commitment and the model-qualifier approach evaporates. Rather there is just language and perception and any notion of transcendence is simply the biological and meaning feeling gained from the language used.

Parables and nursery rhymes are often quoted as examples of language games creating images which transcend the events they use. There is, however, nothing special about these forms. They can be deconstructed for what constitutes their elements and other sentences with the same elements used to the same effect.

The 'now you see it now you don't' world of Ramsey no longer takes place. The issue of responding to the challenge of logical empiricism also no longer takes place because its philosophy does not count. Because Ramsey tried to combine logical empiricism and insights from Wittgenstein it is not suprising that he did create a paradox which he himself found unacceptable. This does not happen with a consistent so called non-realist approach.


Ramsey, as sympathetically summarised by Jerry Gill, attempted to keep the Christian religion of history historically rooted (unlike with Bultmann) but in tune with modern theories of language use. In so doing he created an overall package that lost consistency on his own grounds due to its paradox. He kept the subjective-objective division which, once discarded in a linguistic theoretical approach removes inconsistency. Of course such a more consistent approach cannot employ model-qualifiers as checks to heresy. Perhaps the real issue is to look at the function of the language of model-qualifiers as devices to sound Christian, look Christian and keep Christian (whilst beginning to saw off the branch on which it all stands).


Adrian Worsfold: written in 1989 at Unitarian College, Manchester


Gill, J. (1976), Ian Ramsey: To Speak Responsibly of God, George Allen and Unwin.

Rorty, R. (1989), Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridege University Press.

Lindbeck, G. (1984), The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, SPCK.

Cupitt, D. (1987), The Long Legged Fly, SCM.