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  5.2.2 Symbols (Religious Language)

5.2.2 Symbols

A. Paul Tillich on symbols

Signs and symbols

Paul Tillich distinguishes between signs and symbols by way of their application. Signs are arbitrarily chosen and can mean whatever the collective mind decides. Whereas symbols are have a kinship with that which they represent. In Dynamics of Faith, Tillich articulates that a symbol must participate in that which they represent. He argues that religious language must be symbolic as at its very nature there is a sense of kingship between the terms used and the events they represent.

[A sign points to something by arbitrary convention, but a symbol] participates in that to which it points. Symbols are not arbitrarily instituted...but grow out of the individual or collective unconsciousness. [This] growing out of the unconscious [means they] unlock hidden elements of our soul [and] open up levels of reality which otherwise are closed to us. Whatever we say about that which concerns us ultimately [i.e. Religion] ...has a symbolic meaning. The language of faith is the language of symbols.

This can compare to John MacQuarrie’s use of signs and symbols. In Principles of Christian Theology, MacQuarrie said there were two types of symbol, conventional ones and intrinsic ones.

The Conventional symbol has no connection with what it symbolises other than the fact that people have arbitrarily agreed to let it stand for this particular symbolizandum. The intrinsic symbol, on the other hand, has in itself a kinship with what it symbolises. When we speak of ‘Symbolic Language’, we generally have a fairly definite kind of language in mind, a kind in which the words are not understood in their direct or proper reference but in which they, so to speak, bounce off that to which they properly refer so as to impinge at a distance on a more remote subject-matter, to which the speaker wishes to refer.

Exercise A1

i) What is the difference between a sign and a symbol for Tillich?

ii) What does Tillich mean when he says that symbols participate in that to which it points?

iii) Is all language symbolic?

iv) Compare Tillich’s signs and symbols with MacQuarrie’s conventional and intrinsic symbols.

v) MacQuarrie said that signs also participate in that to which they point, for example dark clouds are a sign of rain. To what extent does this undermine Tillich’s point?

God as the Ground of our Being

In Systemic Theology, Tillich argued that the very nature of God as being transcendent and the basis for all that exists means that any conventional language rooted in human experience is insufficient. Therefore, language must take on a different function in order to mean anything about God. In this way, language is purely symbolic and can only make sense to users who understand the symbols in their religious context.

There can be no doubt that any concrete assertion about God must be symbolic, for a concrete assertion is one which uses a segment of finite experience in order to say something about him. It transcends the content of this segment, although it also includes it. The finite segment of reality which becomes a vehicle of a concrete assertion about God is affirmed and negated at the same time. It becomes a symbol, for a symbolic expression is one whose proper meaning is negated by that to which it points. And yet it is also affirmed by it, and this affirmation gives the symbolic expression an adequate basis for pointing beyond itself.

Exercise A2

i) What does Tillich mean when he says ‘a concrete assertion is one which uses a segment of finite experience in order to say something’?

ii) What does it mean to call God the ground of our being?

iii) What does Tillich mean when he says that a symbolic expression is on whose proper meaning is negated by that to which it points?

B. The need and use of symbols

Symbols in scripture

Genesis 1 and 2 are deeply symbolic. Written post Babylonian Exile they carry stories and myths of the Babylonian people and reveal the ideas of God as shared by the Israelites. The idea of God creating in six days, the order in which things were created, e.g. light before sun etc. are all symbolic in that they represent ideas about God far beyond the literal meaning of the words.

Additionally, the Psalms are hymns about the glory and majesty of God which are not meant literally. They are reflections of a people in awe of the creator and are meant to be read as such. They are not historical or scientific but are reflecting and the language is like that of a love letter, not meant to be taken literally but rather to emphasise the relationship between the two parties.

Exercise B1

i) Give three examples of symbolic language in the Bible.

ii) What does it mean to say that Genesis is true but not literal?

Historic use of symbols

Symbols were used by religious practitioners since the start of religion. Examples are of the ICTHUS within early Christianity, the Chi Rho, the idea of Christ as the Lamb of God and the cross itself. Each has a symbolic significance and goes beyond the sum of their literal component parts.

Exercise B2

i) What does ICTHUS mean? How is it a symbol of Christianity?

ii) What is the Chi Rho? How is this a symbol of Christianity?

iii) Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate to be sacrificed for the sins of mankind. How does that belief make sense of the symbol Lamb of God?

Symbols in religious tradition

Tillich used examples like atonement and baptism to show how language was ultimately symbolic. The act of atonement means little in literal terms but shared by users who understand the practice and feel represented by the symbolic meaning it represents, the term has life changing meaning.

The notion of baptism in literal terms is ridiculous. The thought of water washing away sin means nothing. However, within the Christian setting, carrying the beliefs about sin and the association to ritual cleansing, baptism means something far more significant and only has its meaning in symbolism.

Exercise B3

i) How essential are symbols for religious practice?

ii) Is it true that all religious language is symbolic?

iii) To what extent does analogy use symbolic language?

iv) Does symbolic language reduce God to human terms and risk loss of faith as Moses Maimonides feared?

Limitations in the use of symbols

There are obvious limitations to the use of symbols. Some symbols change in meaning, e.g. the Swastika, other symbols lose their significance over time as cultures change, e.g. the ICTHUS becoming a bumper sticker etc.

It may be that religious language is symbolic as believers use it to participate in their faith, but it does not bridge the epistemic distance between God and Man. Calling God a shepherd may be a quaint symbol but it still does not tell us anything significant about God, only that shepherds in the past used their terms to label God.

Exercise B4

i) Give three examples of symbols that have lost their significance and meaning over time.

ii) How does the fact that language has changed over time affect the usefulness of religious language as being symbolic?

iii) To what extent is symbolic language more useful than Via Negativa if at all?

5. Essay Skills

Types of questions

Questions on this topic might focus on Via Negativa, Analogy or Symbolism or religious language as a whole. Question may ask for an analysis of one of the three types or may ask for an evaluation of one as the best or better than another. Depending on the nature of the question, candidates must be ready to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the type of language in question and if necessary make direct comparisons with other types. Some examples of questions you might be asked are these:


What it is asking

‘You cannot talk positively about God.’ Discuss.

You are being asked to analyse Via Negativa itself. There is no need to mention analogy or symbolism if you have enough to say without it.

To what extent does analogy tell us anything about God?

This is a question about analogy itself. Any link to Via Negativa or symbolism should be only to emphasise the usefulness of Analogy.

‘The only way to talk about God meaningful is through symbols.’ Discuss.

This question is asking for a comparison as it specifically says ‘the only way’. Since there are other ways – Via Negativa and Analogy, they should be used as comparisons.

Assess the claim that talking about God positively will ultimately result in a loss of faith.

This question is specifically referring to Moses Maimonides so he should be the main scholar. Since the question is asking about how positive language will lead to loss of faith, you can discuss analogy and symbolism as they are positive language. But be careful to keep the essay on track. It is not an analogy essay.

Exercise 1

Analyse this question: Assess the claim that you cannot talk about God without using Via Negativa.

Essay Skills – Writing conclusions

The introduction and conclusion should, by themselves, tell the reader what the essay is about, what you think and why you think it. Where the introduction should lay out your plan and thesis statement, the conclusion should weigh up the main arguments you have signposted in the introduction and fully addressed in the essay proper. You need to leave 3-5 minutes for your conclusion otherwise it will look like a superficial sentence that does not serve a purpose.

Your conclusion has an important function: you need to show the reader that your thesis statement is justified. You need to use the conclusion to show that you have considered the different perspectives and resolved all the challenges. This is so important as if you do not resolve the challenges in the essay proper, you cannot justifiably draw your conclusion.

Your conclusion should include three things:

1. A summary of the House’s position.

2. A summary of the Opposition.

3. A reiteration of your thesis statement and why this is the correct position.

Most importantly, there should be nothing new in the conclusion.

When summarising the House or the Opposition it is important that you are not re-writing anything you have said. You are merely picking out the main scholar that represents that position and one or two important things they said and why they so well represent and defend that position.

A bad example of a sentence in the conclusion might be this: ‘In conclusion, Tillich says that symbols are really important but some people disagree.’ This tells us nothing about Tillich’s position or why some might disagree. It is not a summary, it is a skimming over the point.

Another bad example of a sentence in the conclusion would be: ‘In conclusion, Paul Tillich argued that God is the ground of our being, therefore, all language must be symbolic as it is only through symbols we can really bridge the gap between our language and God’s nature; in the same way that we use the ICTHUS to understand about the nature of Jesus Christ, we use symbols in order to better understand God’s nature and so build a positive relationship with Him.’ This is far too detailed. This kind of analysis should be in the essay proper and not the conclusion.

A better sentence would be this: ‘In conclusion, Tillich argues that all language is symbolic as it represents another idea and since we cannot know God directly, we can only use symbols to point to a transcendent idea.’ This is detailed and simply. It encapsulates the point of Tillich’s argument without going over the top. Follow this up with a sentence for the opposition and then defend your thesis statement.

Exercise 2

Write a conclusion for the essay title in exercise 1. Remember the three sentences.