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What is a symbol?

In a symbol (etymologically speaking) two things, meanings or worlds, are 'thrown together'. Many writers on symbolism offer their own definition of a symbol. Some exercise great ingenuity in distinguishing between symbols and signs, signals, indexes and icons. It will help us to try to reach a working definition straight away. This is possible because there is a broad consensus as to the essential features of symbolism. At its simplest, a symbol means imagining one thing in the form of another. Two aspects of this basic definition—imagining one thing in the form of another—are worth underlining.

First, both when we employ a symbol and when we respond to or 'read' a symbol, we are using our imagination: we are not passive in symbolising, we have to exert our creative, constructive powers. This may seem self-evident applied to creating or generating symbols, but it is equally true of the reception of symbols: to receive what a symbol has to give us, we need to participate in it by imaginative indwelling and that is how we are enabled to participate in the reality of what it symbolises. Imagination is the milieu of symbolism.

Second, form is the key to symbols: we have the ability to abstract the form or essence of a symbol from all its other constituents—the substance from the accidents we might say. Thus we distinguish the fatherly care of the Creator from biological fatherhood; the purity and sacrificial associations of a lamb from the stupidity and herd (flock?) instinct of sheep; the illumination of a candle from the mechanics of combustion; the liturgical significance of vestments from sartorial eccentricity, etc. Susanne Langer, a pioneer of the philosophy of symbolism, says: 'The power of understanding symbols, i.e. of regarding everything about a sense-datum as irrelevant except a certain form that it embodies, is the most characteristic mental trait of mankind' (Langer, 1956, p.72).

The centrality of form in symbolism brings it into close connection with beauty, for philosophers of the aesthetic have generally identified form (Latin, species) as one of the attributes of beauty, along with radiance (lumen) and the capacity to give pleasure (dilectio). The title of the first volume of Von Balthasar's great work on the theology of beauty suggests immediately the connection between the perception of beauty and its embodiment in the symbol: Seeing the Form (Schau der Gestalt) (Von Balthasar, 1982-9, vol. 1).

However, as we shall see, these two components of symbolism—imagination and the abstraction of form—lay it open to distortion and manipulation. Symbols clearly have the potential for harm as well as health. They can be hijacked for ulterior purposes. They always serve specific socio-economic interests. They are not ideologically innocent nor are they self-authenticating. Sometimes iconoclasm is precisely what is called for.

Symbol and metaphor

Why are symbols so central to the human world and to theological thinking? It is because through our symbol-making capacity we make sense of the world and find meaning in life. Our capacity for symbolising gives us our characteristic ability to transcend, through imagination, our immediate environment and so envision freedom. The symbolising faculty is the mark of humankind: Susanne Langer claimed that 'the use of signs is the very first manifestation of mind' (Langer, 1956, p.21) and that 'the power of understanding the most characteristic mental trait of mankind' (ibid., p.72). Langer was taking her cue from the massive system of Ernst Cassirer, the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (Cassirer, 1955). Cassirer has taught us to see that symbols are the common denominator (and by no means the lowest!) in all human cultural activities—not just religion, but language, poetry, art, myth, philosophical speculation and even science (Cassirer, 1946a, p.45).

By means of symbols our mental and emotional life is organised and advanced. Symbolisation is at work in basic perception (since, as we have seen, metaphor is a primary mental activity and metaphor is a subdivision of symbol): there is no bare uninterpreted awareness of the world—'our sense data are primarily symbols' (Langer, 1956, p.21). The symbolising process continues through conceptual thinking, where we organise and deploy the information gained (as raw material) in perception (Price, 1953, pp.145ff.), and on to the higher reaches of overall interpretation of the world through ideas. The driving force of the escalator that promotes us from sensation to perception, from perception to conception, from conception to reflection and from reflection to constructive interpretation is the human power (that humanly mirrors the divine) to create true symbols.

Though I am obviously deeply sympathetic to Ricoeur's approach, I cannot quite agree with the way in which he distinguishes metaphor and symbol. In Interpretation Theory (1976), Ricoeur seems to suggest that while metaphor belongs merely to the sphere of words, symbols belong to the realm of reality:

Metaphor occurs in the already purified universe of the logos, while the symbol hesitates on the dividing line between bios and logos. It [the symbol] testifies to the primordial rootedness of Discourse in Life. It is born where force and form coincide.

Ricoeur goes on to claim, very suggestively, that 'symbols are bound within the sacred universe: the symbols only come to language to the extent that the elements of the world themselves become transparent' (ibid., p.61). Metaphor is unconstrained, almost arbitrary ('a free invention of discourse') while symbol is determined by the nature of things ('bound to the cosmos') (op. cit.).

I respond gratefully to the 'symbolic realism' in Ricoeur's statement that 'in the sacred universe the capacity to speak is founded upon the capacity of the cosmos to signify' (ibid., p.62). Such affirmations are a welcome antidote to the Derridean denial of 'presence'. I concur with all that Ricoeur says about the cognitive value of symbol, but I regret his apparent downgrading of metaphor. Metaphor also can reveal reality and evoke presence. A metaphor can be a compressed and condensed symbol; symbols can be enlarged and elaborated metaphors. Both can be the instruments of 'the truth of imagination'.

Language is itself an act of symbolisation through metaphor. In language, meanings are articulated symbolically and shared within a speech community: expression and communication are one (Urban, 1939, p.67). Because language symbolises reality it can be trusted to reveal authentic human meaning—the community's experience of reality. To say this is not to espouse the untenable idealist view that language is the expression of mind which is the ground of the world, but to adopt a fiduciary approach that trusts language to reveal the truly human. From there it is still a great leap to affirmations about the real, and other considerations come into play.

Such fundamental religious images as God the father, Christ the good shepherd, God's grace embodied as it were in bread and wine, God's forgiveness conveyed in cleansing water, are symbols rather than simply metaphors because they have been elaborated through reflection and formal (liturgical) use, leaving behind the original impetus of spontaneous creative insight (on the human side) and revelatory self-communication (on the divine side) to evolve into forms or models that are embedded in tradition.

Symbols, like metaphors, are ubiquitous and may be put to helpful or harmful uses. Just as metaphors are the basic constituents of thought and language, so symbols are the lifeblood of a living faith and the currency of identity formation within the religious community. Symbols (together with myths) sacralise identity and give us, individually and corporately, our orientation to the transcendent. Symbols invest our lives and actions with significance. They thus form one of the primary materials for theological reflection.

Symbol and sign

Though there is always an element of arbitrariness in definitions, symbols should be distinguished from signs. Symbols include signs for they incorporate signification, but symbols transcend mere signs. Symbols are living, dynamic, the product of creative imagination. Symbols effect a connection between the mundane and the transcendent, the particular fact and the universal truth, the present moment and eternity. They cannot be contrived or thought up at will. A sign has no such force. It belongs to the ordinary course of life. It is not dynamic like a symbol. It does not stand for new possibilities: it is not open to the future. Signs are usually conventional and arbitrary: there is no necessary reason why a red light should stand for 'Stop!'—except perhaps some residual symbolic value: red:blood:danger:stop. Symbols cannot be invented or contrived; there is a continuity between the symbol and what is symbolised. For example, the priest's white alb and the bride's white gown are not arbitrary but stand for purity (at least ceremonial purity—that is to say, consecration)—for symbols, but not signs, have the 'capacity to consecrate certain styles of life' (Duncan, 1968, p.22)—whereas the clerical collar is merely a sign, a matter of convention. All symbols are signs, but not all signs are symbols

Signs point to something on the same level of reality: they are not (as Coleridge would say) translucent, as symbols are. Signs serve to remind us of what we already know; symbols speak to us of things beyond our ken. Signs evoke an instinctive response or conditioned reflex—we automatically stop at a red traffic light—but symbols require some existential involvement. Symbols, unlike signs, have a reference to transcendent reality and themselves participate in that reality, as Coleridge and Tillich emphasised. Their function is to connect us to that salutary reality and they thus have a mediatory purpose. Jung distinguishes sign and symbol by the fact that a symbol always points to a beyond: 'An expression that stands for a known thing always remains a mere sign and is never a symbol. It is, therefore, quite impossible to create a living symbol, i.e. one that is pregnant with meaning, from known associations' (Jacobi, 1959, p.80).

Symbols of transcendence

Ricoeur, interpreting Freud, has argued that the ambiguity of symbolism is not confined to its censoring, reconstructing functions in the unconscious, but is general. Gurvich suggests that this ambiguity is what attracts our participation in the symbols (Gurvich, 1971, p.40). One of the essential characteristics of symbols is that 'they reveal while veiling and veil while revealing, and that while pushing toward participation, they also restrain it' (ibid., p.xv). Symbols are 'tensive' in Ricoeur's sense: they subsist only in tension, they pull both ways. This is important in the theological context because, as Berdyaev points out: 'Symbolism is justified by the fact that God is both knowable and unknowable' (Berdyaev, 1948, p.65). The mediation of symbols between the known and the unknown gives them their orientation to transcendence.

So let us look at some other definitions of symbolism that emphasise their function of referring us to the transcendent. The sociologist Alfred Shutz describes a symbol as an object, fact or event within the reality of our daily lives that refers to an idea or reality that transcends everyday life (Shutz, 1967, vol. 1, pp.332f). Symbols point beyond the mundane: they refer to the ideal or universal; they embody important values. Symbols can reveal new truths, new worlds. Goethe's use of the word 'revelation' in the following statement is not fortuitous: 'True symbolism', Goethe said, 'is where the particular represents the general, not as a dream and a shadow, but as a vivid instantaneous revelation of that which cannot be explored' (ibid., p.356).

Coleridge is our Anglo-Saxon connection with German Romantic thought. Coleridge's way of indicating the potential transcendent import of symbols was to connect them with 'Ideas'. 'An IDEA in the highest sense of the word cannot be conveyed but by a symbol' (Coleridge, 1965, p.85). Ideas, as we have seen in an earlier chapter, represent for Coleridge the inmost essence of something and approach the status of Platonic forms. They are intuitable only by the creative Reason/Imagination (as opposed to the merely associative Understanding/Fancy). The 'living educts of the Imagination' convert ideas into symbolic form, for imagination is that reconciling and mediating power, which incorporating the reason in Images of the Sense, and organising (as it were) the flux of the senses by the permanence and self-circling energies of the reason, gives birth to a system of symbols, harmonious in themselves, and consubstantial with the truths, of which they are the conductors.

Symbols, for Coleridge, are 'the visible tips of an ontological iceberg' (Swiatecka, 1980, p.59).

It belongs to symbols to mediate a reality or meaning that transcends the symbol itself. This need not necessarily be a supernatural reality, the subject of theology, the sphere of divinity. The transcendent realm may be the spirit of a nation, a tradition, a cultural legacy, an ethical or political ideal. But it always carries a value greater than the individual. The crucial point about symbolism is that there is no access to this transcendent realm apart from its symbols. Symbolism (like metaphor) is not an adornment of truth already gained on other grounds: it is itself the path to truth. It is the making present of something absent—something that would remain absent and inaccessible without the symbols. Symbols above all connect. As Tillich often puts it, symbols open up reality to human knowing and open up human knowing to that reality. In symbolism mimesis (representation) leads to methexis (participation). Symbols have this power because in some sense they participate in the reality that they symbolise. Symbols of the sacred are themselves sacred and are treated as such. We bow to the altar, kneel to receive Holy Communion and do not use Bibles as doorstops. We need to recapture the sense that the ancient world had that symbols participate in and make present the reality that they signify—this is particularly crucial for Christian sacramental theology (see Crockett, 1989, esp. pp.78ff.).

For Coleridge the relation between symbol and reality is that of 'translucence'— especially 'the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal'. A symbol 'always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative' (Coleridge, 1972, p.30). For Coleridge, the symbolic is a bridge between God and the world. If this sounds a little too metaphysical and speculative, let us consider the matter from a more specifically theological angle.

Sacramental symbols

Christian theology presupposes and confirms this realist view of symbols. It does this in three ways: first, with regard to the inherent capacity of the creation to reflect and mediate the Creator; second, in connection with the Christian sacraments as means of grace; third, with regard to the Incarnation itself.

1 Creation Christian theology implies a spiritual interpretation of the material world. More correctly, it denies that the world is adequately understood in purely material terms. It points to a transcendent creativity at the heart of the universe and holds that the ultimate ground of all reality is to be perceived in and through the things that have been made. It speaks of a sacramental universe (e.g. William Temple) and affirms the spiritual potentiality of matter. The Fathers held that all created things, and particularly the human psyche created in the divine image, could become symbols of divine truth. Augustine found his inner life lit up as though by a floodlight of divine illumination and postulated various psychological analogies to the unity-in-relation of the Holy Trinity, such as memory, understanding and will. In the Anglican tradition, it is above all John Keble who endorses this. The Keble of The Christian Year had learned from the Fathers and from Bishop Butler's Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed to see spiritual significance in everything. This was naturally congenial to Keble's Romantic outlook. It has been claimed for Keble that 'beyond any doubt' he 'founded his symbolic apprehension of natural reality on the distinction between Fancy and Imagination'. As early as 1814, before Coleridge's theories were fully developed, Keble, though only a poet of Fancy rather than Imagination (in Coleridge's terminology), was speaking of the imagination as 'creative energy' (Beek, 1959, pp.91f.).

Incidentally, we cannot claim Newman in support of the sacramental universe. The Apologia reveals a sense of the absence of God from the world at large, though certainly not from Newman's own consciousness and conscience:

Starting then with the being of a God, (which. is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world simply seems to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if I denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into the living busy world, and see no reflection of its Creator, The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet's scroll, full of 'lamentations, and mourning, and woe.'

Newman points to an analogy, rather than a symbolic identity and communion, between God and the world. A comparative study of symbolism in early nineteenth-century religious thinkers concludes:

The 'analogy' between God and the world which Newman maintained, and which was the basis of his 'sacramental principle', did not, then, involve such an affirmation of the presence of God within the world, as would enhance its own proper being, making it a 'symbol' translucent [Coleridge's key word] to that presence.

(Swiatecka, 1980, pp.114f.)

Goethe's Faust: Part II, ends with the famous words: 'All things corruptible [or terrestrial] are but a parable' (Goethe, 1959, p.288). Elsewhere Goethe says: 'All that happens is symbol, and as-it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest' (Kaufman, 1968, p.121). Here we have a vision of a world of symbols in which the whole is contained in the part and the part inheres in the whole. Goethe is not a Christian thinker,

God and the Creative Imagination 97 so let us hear Coleridge, our greatest Anglican lay theologian:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

('The Destiny of Nations', ll. 18f.; Coleridge, 1969, p.132)

Rocking the cradle of his infant son in 'Frost at Midnight', he writes (echoing it seems Psalm 19—'Their speech is gone out into all the world'):

so shall thou see and hear The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible Of that eternal language, which thy God Utters, who from eternity doth teach Himself in all, and all things in himself. ('Frost at Midnight', ll. 58ff.; ibid., p.242)

2 Sacrament The sacramental life of the Church rests on a realist understanding of symbolism. It is because there is a real complicity of God with created matter—which is, moreover, inherently good—that God can make his presence known through material signs. Because we are not Platonic dualists God can be found in, with and under the material form. William R.Crockett has developed this systematically in Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation, where he asserts that 'the Christ who meets us in the eucharist meets us in and through the real structures of historical existence—matter, time, space, language, community, culture, and social, economic, and political relationships' (Crockett, 1989, p.261). Article 25 of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England describes the sacraments as 'not only badges or tokens .but. effectual signs of the which he [God] doth work invisibly in us'. And Hooker insists that the sacraments 'really give what they promise, and are what they signify' because the work of the Holy Spirit, 'the necessary inward cause' of grace, is by divine institution inseparable from 'the necessary outward mean', the sacrament (Hooker, 1845,V.lx.1):

For we take not baptism nor the eucharist for bare resemblances or memorials of things absent, neither for naked signs and testimonies assuring us of grace received before, but (as they are indeed and in verity) for means effectual whereby God when we take the sacraments delivereth into our hands that grace available unto eternal life, which grace the sacraments represent or signify.

In receiving the sacraments of the Gospel we-receive Christ; symbols of the sacred are themselves sacred because they participate in what they represent.

3 Incarnation The Incarnation itself is the ultimate validation for a realist understanding of symbols. It is one of the great merits of Karl Rahner's theology that his understanding of Christology, ecclesiology and sacramental theology is unified by a grasp of the symbolic character of all created reality. As rational beings we are inescapably symbolic beings, Rahner asserts, because we are compelled to express or project ourselves in order to attain our true nature. Rahner affirms that the symbol is united with the thing symbolised, 'since the latter constitutes the former as its own self-realisation'. This is the fundamental structure of all Christianity (Rahner, 1965-92, vol. 4, pp.24, 152). Rahner favours the term signum efficax for an efficacious sign or real symbol (ibid., vol. 21, p.250). Thus Christ is the signum efficax of God and the Church is the signum efficax of Christ. In the Christian scheme of things, symbols are ordered hierarchically so that lower symbols point to higher, human to divine, the world to God, the Church to Christ and he to God.

Whether or not it is appropriate to speak of the Incarnation as myth (we will discuss that question shortly), it certainly seems right to speak of Jesus Christ as the metaphor and symbol of God incarnate and there is nothing necessarily reductionist about that (though Hick, 1993, does deploy it in a reductionist way). Wilson Knight believed that 'the process which is at the heart of metaphor is exactly the most important thing in Christianity. The Incarnation is itself one gigantic metaphor whereby the divine Logos is married to a human form' (Knight, 1933, p.46). Using David Lodge's summary of Jakobson's study of the difference between metonymy (which is association by continuity, coherence within a single world of discourse) and metaphor (the combination of different worlds), Ruth Etchells brings out the metaphoric identity between Jesus and God on the cross.

The metonymy of destruction and dereliction is built up powerfully for us in the events between Palm Sunday and Good Friday: but when we see him on the Cross as the metaphor of God we begin to conceive how a coherent world picture, detail by detail, has been cut across by the conjunction of disparate worlds, the divine and the human, at the point where similitude is total. A plurality of worlds is joined, each interpreted in terms of the other. The metaphoric mode of the Gospel here totally alters the cumulative effect of that coherent and suffocating metonymic world of plotters whispering, thirty pieces of silver, armed guard at night, law court, splintering wood of the Cross, and agonising fleshly pain.

I would add that the whole person and destiny of Jesus Christ, from Bethlehem to the Ascension, constitutes the metaphor of God and the conjunction of divine and human worlds, in identity and difference, not only Jesus on the cross—though this remains the climax and paradigm of Christology.

Implications for doctrine

The implications of symbolism for Christian theology will be fully explored in Part IV, but for the moment it may be helpful to make brief mention of some issues that immediately suggest themselves.

1 Modern theology (especially Protestant theology, but with the exception of Tillich) has dangerously neglected symbolism and the modern Church tends to be symbolically insensitive and illiterate. We need to learn a new respect for our sacred symbols and a deeper understanding of them. The work of Hans Urs Von Balthasar on theological aesthetics can help us here.

2 Doctrines have their symbolic equivalents in the repertoire of humanity's symbolic inheritance, as Jung has shown. For example, the symbols of new birth, spiritual marriage and wholeness run parallel in the Christian doctrine of salvation and in Jungian psychotherapy. This suggests that it is possible to make fruitful connections between the Christian symbols of salvation and the spiritual needs and aspirations of human culture beyond the boundaries of the Church (a method of correlation, essential in evangelism and apologetics). The Church's sacramental ministry, through the so-called rites of passage (baptism, confirmation, marriage, funerals), is the pivotal point at which the connections are made.

3 The symbolic construction of Christian doctrines is not a unique case on which we need to be sensitive in this scientistic age, but an instance of the evident truth that all claims (in ethics, metaphysics and cosmology) that go beyond the here and now and attempt to make broad affirmations about a realm that is not open to empirical inspection, must be made in a symbolic mode.

4 The realist intention of figurative statements will be thoroughly aired in the next section, but for the present it is enough to note that religious symbols are intended to make informative assertions about reality. As Soskice puts it:

A model in religious language may evoke an emotional, moral or spiritual response, but this does not mean that the model has no cognitive or explanatory function. In fact the reverse is true; the model can only be effective because it is taken as explanatory... The cognitive function is primary.

5 Finally, we should be alert to the emergence of new or recovered symbols of the sacred, informed by Christian commitments, that can help Christian doctrine to address the needs and aspirations of our generation. Among these, two stand out: the immanental and holistic models of God's relation to the world and the personal, relational, social models of salvation in feminist theology (they are connected of course).

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