Religious Symbols

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American patriotism is surrounded by a latticework of symbols: the stars and stripes, the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, the White House, fireworks, the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, Gettysburg, Apollo, cowboys and the Supreme Court, to name a few. An outsider would see a flag, a bell, a parchment, a building, an explosive, an obelisk, a statue, a battlefield, a rocket, a herdsman, a courthouse. But to an insider each of these objects is a vessel in which something sacred is stored. Each one of these ordinary objects transcends itself and rises to the status of being a religious symbol.

According to Tillich, we encode our ultimate concerns in the language of religious symbols. In order to speak of the ultimate, we must borrow from our experience of ordinary reality. Thus, in the Bible, God is referred to as creative, compassionate, powerful, good, abiding, just, wrathful, steadfast, fatherly, loving, etc. These terms all describe a range of attributes and actions drawn primarily from human behavior, and then, by analogy, extended to describe God. This has the dual effect of making the mystery of the divine comprehensible and valorizing certain human traits. "Religious symbols are double-edged," Tillich writes, "they force the infinite down to finitude and the finite up to infinity." For example, to speak of God as father makes the divine approachable by diminishing the infinite to a finite, familiar condition, while at the same time it consecrates parent - child relationships.29

Even the exalted words we use to describe the classic attributes of God - that is, transcendent, eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient - are derivative and symbolic. They are negations of things with which we are very familiar, the standard markers of finitude -our boundedness to physical substance, time, space, and causality, and the conditionedness of all knowledge. None of these words for God's attributes tell us anything except that the divine is not like us. The divine is not limited by the things that limit us and the world as we know it. Our words for God are either extensions of our own powers, or negations of our own limitations. To borrow a Buddhist image, human efforts to describe transcendent reality is like fish trying to explain dry land. We use a watery vocabulary to speak of things dry. But again, this is what we must do if we are going to say anything at all.

Tillich enumerates six characteristics of religious symbols that help both in identifying them and in understanding how it is they work.30

First, symbols point beyond themselves. Symbols draw attention to something other than themselves. They are like frosted panes of glass -not crystal clear, but still revealing of shapes and shades of light and color on the opposite side. Like an old song that plays on the radio, triggering memories of people, places, and earlier phases and events in one's life, symbols have the power to transport one beyond the immediate sensory data of the symbol to other mental associations and memories. In this capacity, symbols are like signs, in that one thing signifies another.

Second, symbols are different from signs because they participate in that to which they point. Symbols are not arbitrarily related to what they signify. A simple sign would be a traffic light, for which we have agreed, by social contract, that green means go and red means stop. It would be hard to argue that there is any obvious connection between these colors and the actions they mandate. The opposite might even be argued, namely, that green conjures up feelings of tranquility and suggests that one might slow down or pause, while red indicates energy and heat and suggests that one get moving, and fast. Symbols, in contrast to signs, participate in what they signify; there is some resemblance of properties between the symbol and the reality it represents. A few examples: trees are common religious symbols. Cosmic trees that allow traffic between the heavens and the earth are found in religious symbolism with some frequency - think of the Yggdrasil tree in Norse mythology, or the cross of Christ. That ordinary trees have roots plunging deep into the earth and branches ascending far into the sky, and that they provide homes to birds who do not seem bound by gravity, lend credence to this image of trees serving as a conduit between the world above and the world below. Or the notion that there is a tree of life where fruit or leaves grow that, if eaten, will rejuvenate life, can be seen as an extension of the observable rejuvenation of the tree itself, dying each winter and reviving each spring. Water is another prevalent symbol in religious traditions. It is found as an element in most creation myths, as might be expected from anyone who knows that water is essential for life, or who has observed the discharge of water before the birth of a child. It is also a common ingredient in initiation rituals, and just as a flood obliterates everything in its path then recedes to permit a new season of crop growth, initiates are dipped in water to obliterate their old identities and emerge to begin anew. Water, like other objects or processes that lend themselves to symbolism, has certain inherent powers that evoke the power they point toward, the power of being in the depths of reality.

Third, symbols open up for us levels of reality that are otherwise hidden. Science, history, and philosophy are forms of discourse that investigate and speak about reality at different levels with the aim of reducing our dependence upon symbolic forms of expression. The long history of their establishment as disciplines autonomous from religion2 is largely a story of their rejecting religious symbols as the currency of their inquiry, and developing more precise nomenclatures. This, as has been said above, is a genuine achievement in the history of the West. Nevertheless, Tillich insists, there are layers of reality, particularly at the level of the grounding of the meaningfulness of existence itself, that cannot be apprehended or spoken of adequately without religious symbols. Perhaps the clearest case for this can be made by considering the power of artistic symbols to delve into regions of meaning untouched by science, history and philosophy. Music, poetry, visual arts and architecture interpret reality through symbols that enable us to experience the world in ways that are not possible through these other kinds of expression. Paint and canvas in the hands of Franz Marc and Van Gogh, Tillich liked to point out, can capture dimensions of the ground and abyss of being, the "depth-content" of the world, and allow the sacred to shine through even simple paintings of animals or the sky at night.

Fourth, symbols unlock dimensions of our own being. This is an extension of what has just been said of the power of symbols to disclose levels of reality otherwise hidden, except that here the emphasis is not on the outward structures of reality but on the inward dimensions of the soul. For Tillich, musical rhythms and melodies are particularly effective at this, as is the theater. The Bible, of course, is a vast repository for symbols that shed light on the soul. Returning to the opening chapters of Genesis, for example, one can find the following: At the outset of creation, "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep." This compact string of symbols describes reality before there was reality; it describes the nothingness out of which the cosmos was called into being. But as the story is told, this nothingness is not eliminated. It is simply distinguished from the ordered cosmos as a chaos that persists, hovering at the edges of being. It is the nothingness from which we were snatched, and the nothingness we remain on the brink of returning to but for the ongoing creative activity of God. As such, it is an awareness deep within us of our dependence upon a power that sustains us;

we do not give existence to ourselves, and we are at all moments at the edge of returning to the nothingness from which we have come. These symbols - the void, darkness, the deep - illuminate impulses felt in the subterranean regions of all human beings, impulses that touch upon our anxieties, yearnings and hopes, which these symbols have endured for ages to help us name and manage.

Fifth, symbols cannot be artificially produced. Clifford Geertz has written: "Meanings are 'stored' in symbols: a cross, a crescent, a feathered serpent. Such religious symbols, dramatized in rituals and related in myths, are somehow felt to sum up, for those for whom they resonate, what is known about the way the world is."31 Such summary symbols, rich and teeming with significations, are limited in any given culture, limited to guard their value as sacred referents. Because the reliability of sacred symbols is taken for granted in a culture, as self-evident windows onto meaning, "individuals who ignore the symbols," Geertz notes, "are regarded not so much as evil as stupid."32

The process by which symbols take on meaning and carry this meaning over time is not one that is easily contrived. Geertz highlights two important features of this process. First, the capacity of symbols to carry meaning is reinforced through their appearance in rituals and myths. In rituals our bodies internalize the symbols through repeated performance; in myths our imaginations learn to conceive of the world by relying on symbols as fundamental reference points. Second, symbols are effective in orienting our lives because they are "felt to sum up, for those for whom they resonate, what is known about the way the world is." Gathering this kind of authority does not happen overnight, but is a long process, and it requires, according to Tillich, the consent of both the individual and the collective unconscious. Tillich cites for evidence the claim of psychoanalysis that we even dream in symbols, the same symbols that appear with frequency in religious myths, iconography, and liturgy. Living symbols serve as a code between the conscious and unconscious self, and between the individual unconscious and the collective unconscious. This code is the consolidated (and evolving) memory of a people or a tradition that has been entrusted to its symbols.

Finally, symbols are organic, they are born, grow and die. A symbol emerges when the situation for it is ripe. It grows and matures, unfolding over time as succeeding generations use it to interpret their lives and devote themselves to reflect on the meaning that is encoded in it. Jesus would be the best example of this in Christianity. Over the centuries layers of meaning have been accruing, so that from the vantage of the twenty-first century we can look back and see a multitude of images through which Jesus has been viewed: carpenter, miracle worker, friend of children, suffering servant, teacher of Gnostic wisdom, ruler of the universe, crusading warrior, moral teacher, divine Logos, revolutionary, prince of peace, CEO.33 The fecundity of Jesus as a symbol is an indication of how potent the situation of revelation was in which he first appeared. The same could be said of Moses, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Muhammad. This fecundity is a feature of the founding figure of any religion.

A symbol can also die. History is strewn with dead symbols, and those which die usually do so at the hands of the religions that gave birth to them in the first place. In time, the revelatory situation that produced them can become obsolete and have nothing to say any longer. When this happens, the symbols that represented that revelation grow silent and eventually lifeless, either disappearing or persisting only as clichés. "In this way," Tillich claims (perhaps prematurely), "all of the polytheistic gods have died; the situation in which they were born has changed or does not exist anymore, and so the symbols died."34 It is in this manner that Mary as a symbol of devotion has died for most Protestants, although she remains as a less potent symbol of a sort of faithfulness to God that ought to be emulated.

And a symbol can go into hibernation, ready to be awakened when the conditions are right, although this is not a possibility Tillich seems to have anticipated. The resurgence of goddess worship and druidic cults, of Celtic "spirituality," or of the use of medieval spiritual disciplines, icons, and speculation about purgatory that can be found among Protestant Christians in recent years would be examples of this. The ever-percolating centrality of various images of Jesus would be another instance. Jesus as rabbi, as stoic philosopher, and as lover of the soul in mystical rapture are making a comeback. And ever since the late nineteenth century there has been in the West a fascination with primitive myth, fetishes and sacred symbols from Africa, Asia, Australia and the indigenous peoples of the Americas, which coincided with a flagging interest in traditional Western religions among the educated classes. Even when this has been pursued out of aesthetic interest, it carried an undertow of expectation that a reconnection to raw primordial powers is possible through these symbols.

For Tillich, symbols that cease pointing beyond themselves become idols. John Calvin contended that while human beings were created to find their "chief delight" in God, the Fall signaled our relocating this delight into some fragment of reality, and often some work of our own hands, absolutizing or deifying nature or our own powers. Thus, for Calvin, human nature "is a perpetual factory of idols,"35 and this is the heart of apostasy, the origin and perpetuation of our brokenness. Like Calvin, Tillich believed that there is a human tendency to coax symbols into becoming opaque to the reality "to which they are supposed to point, and to become ultimate in themselves. And in the moment in which they do this, they become idols. All idolatry is nothing else than the absolutizing of symbols of the Holy, and making them identical with the Holy itself."36 Symbols, intended to be instruments, are transmuted into ends in themselves, graven images before which we worship. When this occurs, religious symbols become "demonic," leading us astray from worship of the true God.

Nevertheless, it is our divinely given capacity for ultimate concern, according to Tillich - the very homing device that keeps us restless until we find rest in God - that craves symbols. In a cultural situation in which the inherited symbols have lost their power, this craving can be either rejuvenating or destructive. Hitler was disturbingly brilliant in this regard. In the 1930s he "realized that an empty space existed in the whole German nation, and this empty space had to be filled." He filled it with the symbol of "the German race." Communism did something similar, producing a great new set of symbols that put in motion a social movement which drew on these symbols for its meaning. "[E]mptiness drives the human mind toward certain strong reactions," Tillich argued, "and if they are not creatively good ones they can become very evil indeed."37

But our proclivity for religious symbols need not be at either extreme of good or evil. There is a vast middle ground in which we exercise our facility with symbols with ambiguous results. A phenomenology of symbols, which Tillich outlines for us, can be useful in identifying this great middle range of symbols that are emerging and the values in which they participate.

So, Tillich provides us with these instruments for scanning the culture for images and figures that are functioning as religious symbols. They point beyond themselves, participate in that to which they point, open up otherwise hidden dimensions of reality, and cannot be artificially contrived or forced. When something can be determined to be operating in all of these ways, it indicates that an ultimate concern is making its presence known. Tillich's demarcation of what constitutes a religious symbol has been influential on both theologians and anthropologists of religion, but it is not absolutely unique. Others have used other terms to describe similar phenomena. The historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, for instance, suggests that the hierophany is the basic element of religion. In a hierophany something sacred (hiero) shows itself (phania) to us. Religions are composed of great numbers of hierophanies, which, for Eliade, include "rites, myths, divine forms, sacred and venerated objects, cosmologies, theologoumena, consecrated men, animals and plants, sacred spaces, and more."38 But archaic symbols are first order hierophanies. For the religious person, "every cosmic fragment is transparent; its own mode of existence shows a particular structure of being, and hence of the sacred."39 Whenever human beings brush up against something that seems to manifest the structure of reality itself, of what is what, that something impresses us as a vessel of the sacred. The phenomena we encounter every day, for example, the sunrise, dirt, seeds, food, water and vegetation, are common hierophanies in the historical religious traditions because we are aware that our existence depends upon them.

To push this inquiry into symbols in a direction that neither Tillich nor Eliade would have been likely to pursue, but fully in keeping with their theories, consider the lowly hamburger. British sociologist Mike Featherstone has commented on the iconic potency of the hamburger and other symbols of the American way of life as it is introduced around the world through globalization. While it is generally acknowledged that McDonald's represents a certain corporate ethos of standardization and efficiency, it represents more than this as a symbol in the cultures where it has set up operation. As anyone can testify who has stood in line with eager patrons at a McDonald's outside of North America, and witnessed or heard reports of vandalism of McDonald's franchises in these same places, the hamburger both attracts and repels. What is the holy reality to which it points that elicits this response? According to Featherstone,

[T]he burger is clearly American and it stands for the American way of life. It is a product from a superior global center, which has long represented itself as the center. For those on the periphery it offers the possibility of the psychological benefits of identifying with the powerful. Along with the Marlboro Man, Coca-Cola, Hollywood, Sesame Street, rock music and American football insignia, McDonald's is one of a series of icons of the American way of life. They have become associated with transposable themes which are central to consumer culture, such as youth, fitness, beauty, luxury, romance, freedom. American dreams have become transposed with those of the good life.40

Youth, fitness, beauty, romance and freedom are not necessarily bad things. Bound together in a gestalt of corporate logos, American power, and consumption, however, they begin to resemble a religious system organized around an ultimate concern. The hamburger can be both a symbol and a sacrament of this emerging religion. Eating it is a way of participating in a pantheon of powers to which it points.


"Myth" is a strange concept in that it has had considerable prestige among scholars for more than 200 years, but is often used in ordinary language as a pejorative term to indicate that a given account is untrue or mistaken. This is an old discrepancy. With the rise of the Enlightenment there emerged an effort to separate the reasonable elements of Christianity from its implausible elements, namely its miracles and myths. John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant were key figures in this critique of religion. In 1785, in reaction to this accelerating critique of religion's mythical elements, Johann Gottfried Herder contended that "If we consider the mythologies of peoples to be merely teachings about false gods, lapses of human reason, or lamentable cases of blind superstition, then in my opinion our outlook is too narrow." In his estimation, myths began as elementary exercises of human reason seeking to ascertain the natural and moral order of reality and the feelings that it elicits, which were then secured for future generations by suturing the images and ideas together into stories. Myths increased in their refinement over time, each generation testing and retelling them, and should, in light of this, be viewed as a treasury of symbols, limited in some ways, but full of genuine wisdom about what matters in life. Because of this, the myths of the different peoples of the earth should be "observed and treated with humanity," for although each people went its own way, in some manner and to some degree "God ... revealed himself to them all,"41 much of which was captured in their myths. Through myths, we are inducted into strains of wisdom thousands of years in the making.

Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, while there was a sustained dismissal of myth by a variety of philosophers and biblical scholars, there was a parallel line of defense that followed Herder. Among the defenders of myth can be found three broad arguments. For some, myths are to be read literally for what information they provide us about what happened a very long time ago and for the explanations they offer about the origin of certain phenomena and customs. Others argue that myths are not intended to give information at all, but are intended instead to encourage and console, to render the world a habitable place where human beings can be oriented to transcendent meaning. Schleiermacher and Troeltsch, for instance, offered theological arguments for mythos as essential for replenishing the deepest energies of religion, a need that the human race will never outgrow, and for orienting believers to God and the world in a trustworthy way. A third group, arising outside of the churches, claim that myths are not true in either the literal or transcendent sense, but that they are true in a functional sense, performing the essential function of ordering the world for the purpose of gaining some level of control over it. For them, myths have provided an indispensable template for instructing us how to wrestle what is necessary for life out of nature (James Frazer), organizing ourselves into moral communities (Emile Durkheim), and calming our psychic anxieties (Freud and Jung).

Tillich was an heir to the second and third groups of these defenders of myth. Parallel to his accounts of both ultimate concern and religious symbols, he insisted that "One can replace one myth by another, but one cannot remove the myth from man's spiritual life."42 There is no substitute for myths, which, for Tillich, are the natural repositories of religious symbols; they are necessary to the ongoing vitality of religious symbols in that discrete symbols only have meaning when they are lodged within stories and thus connected to the other symbols, spinning out, as one myth is hooked onto others, until the world in all its parts is sacralized by a great narrative of symbols. In this way religious symbols find their way into myths that guide us in determining our relationship to the world.

Furthermore for Tillich, myths are stories in which divine figures appear as characters. True, myth "puts the stories of the gods into the framework of time and space although it belongs to the nature of the ultimate to be beyond time and space."43 Myths, that is, submit the infinite divine to the same finite limitations and ambiguities that we are mired in, which is problematic. Nevertheless, as both Tertullian and Augustine recognized, human beings need images and stories. Our imaginations demand concrete symbols and master plots that are thick and rich enough for us to insert our own lives into as they are retold through the generations. Bare metaphysical schemes and moral codes have little longevity outside of narratives. Moreover, myths are a religious and cultural trust that matures over time. As they age, and as the historical conditions in which they are received change, different insights and emphases that were formerly unseen in them can rise to the surface.

But Tillich insisted that myths must be "broken" in order to release their revelatory power. A myth must be broken open, as an egg is broken open, to allow the nourishment it contains to be poured out. An unbroken myth is read as a literal account of past events, as if it were a journalist's report of what actually occurred. A broken reading interprets the myth for what it might illuminate regarding the structure of human nature, the human task, or the forces and limitations that we can expect to encounter in life.

Perhaps the person most associated with the study of myth in the twentieth century is Mircea Eliade. Like Tillich, Eliade contended that we are mythmakers because there is a mythic space in human consciousness that demands to be filled. But Eliade enables us to think more thoroughly about what it is we do with our myths, what it is that makes them indispensable. Myths provide us with the templates we need to conduct our most significant activities. "The supreme function of myth," he writes, "is to 'fix' the paradigmatic models for all rites and all significant human activities - eating, sexuality, work, education, and so on."44 Myths narrate for us how it is that the cosmos and everything in it came to be what it is, laying before us a blueprint of its structure and telling us about the specific actions that brought it all into existence.

According to Eliade,

Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the "beginnings." In other words, myth tells how, through the deeds of Supernatural Beings, a reality came into existence, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality - an island, a species of plant, a particular kind of human behavior,

an institution.45

The creative process narrated in myths is often ritualized into human creative activity. When it comes time to do something, particularly to build something, for example, a house, canoe, or the tools of one's trade, or to install a new political leader or constitution, or to plant crops at the beginning of the growing season, myths are either recited or ritually enacted to consecrate the new creation.46 Two reasons can be given for this.

First, the adage "as above, so below," is a fixture in the archaic understanding of creativity. The creation of the cosmos established a procedural precedent. If the cosmos was created according to a particular procedure, that procedure must be the only effective recipe for any creation. If, for instance, the universe was made from the slaughtered body of a primeval god, as in the Norse myth of Ymir and the Babylonian myth of Tiamat, the building of a new house or the planting of a new field might be ritually supplemented with a blood sacrifice. In whatever fashion reality itself was created, subsequent additions to reality must be prepared in a similar manner.

A second reason for this is, as Eliade describes it, that "they hope to recover the vital reserves and the germinal riches which were made manifest for the first time in the majestic act of creation."47 Recitation of the creation myth conjures up the compost from the outset of time, when undifferentiated energy could barely be contained, bursting at its seams for a chance to be and to breed. At that time of the beginnings, vitality charged the atmosphere. Anything was possible because "the species were not yet fixed and all forms were fluid."48 The creation narrative returns the matter at hand (the wood or stones for the house, the soil and seeds for the field) to its pre-differentiated, chaotic state, and narratively escorts it through a consecrated sequence to new creation on a smaller scale.

Reciting the myth opens up the immediate situation to powers of transcendent origin. The recitation of the myth is itself a hierophany, bringing all within the range of its utterance into the presence and rejuvenating powers of the sacred. After entering the mythic story and re-encountering its symbols and plot, we can ourselves be rejuvenated and re-equipped with fresh insights into who we are and what we are for, revived for our return to regular time. Only upon returning the world is bathed in mythical meanings - an effect that dissipates with the passage of time, then is restored with the next ritual interruption.

Eliade derives his account of myth from what can be observed, he claims, in "archaic" societies - societies in which people conscientiously model their lives according to their myths. He admits that this archaic veneration of myth is broken in the modern period. Nevertheless, he argues, myths are still operating - just not in plain sight. As Eliade sees it, although they have been driven underground they still carry on the work they have always done, shaping and empowering the prevailing world-views. Pushed down to the depths of the psyche, lurking at the bottom of the unconscious, are the rejected plots, personages, and symbols of myth that once disclosed the nature of reality to our ancestors. From there, they continue doing their work, as best they can, in a variety of disguises.49

So, our myths feed us our scripts. We imitate the quests and struggles of the dominant figures in the myths and rehearse our lives informed by mythic plots. We awaken to a set of sacred stories, and then proceed to apprehend the world and to express ourselves in terms of these stories. They shape us secretly at a formative age and remain with us, informing the ongoing narrative constructions of our experience. They teach us how to perceive the world as we order our outlooks and choices in terms of their patterns and plots.

When religious2 myths are on the wane, other myths appear to take their place. For the purpose of doing a theological analysis of culture, the assumption is that there are myths in place, and that they can be found in popular culture. Identifying them is a matter of determining which of our cultural stories are performing this function of providing the plots and exemplary figures and actions around which we form our identities, measure the dignity of our own actions, and derive the sense of meaning we grant to the world. Because they feed us our scripts, myths are the stories that we never get tired of hearing; consequently, discerning which plotlines and exemplary figures recur with great frequency is a way to discover the operative myths in our culture. Given the prominence of television, advertising, and movies today as our culture's most prolific generator of exemplary figures and visions of the good life - our preeminent storytellers - it will prove worthwhile to turn to these media for an understanding of the myths we are circulating.

Novelists, poets, filmmakers, and painters are reliable indices to the currently vital myths in a culture, as will be explored later. But so are astronomers, political scientists, sociologists, and historians. We moderns and postmoderns do have metaphysical plots with which we tell the story of the forces that have made the world what it is: survival of the fittest, rational choice, secularization, globalization, the war of all against all, dialectical materialism, chaos theory, the cunning collusion of power and knowledge, the triumph of the therapeutic, the decline of civilization, the

"end of history," the "clash of civilizations," the Big Bang, and Murphy's Law ("Anything that can go wrong, will")50 to name a few - all have their adherents, and all have their heroic figures and rituals through which the forces they reveal are enacted, displayed, resisted and placated. These grand plots function as myths - indeed they are often re-warmed archaic myths, as has frequently been pointed out in the case of biblical millennial-ism and Marx's dialectic materialism, or as might be argued in the cases of Eden and the decline of civilization, Odysseus and the Big Bang, Dionysus and the will-to-power, or Narcissus and the triumph of the therapeutic.51

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