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- Divinity is often represented by images and symbols. Does the use of religious images and symbols distract or help us in understanding the divine?
- People know divinity by different names. Muslims know divinity as Allah, Jews as Jehovah, and Christians as God. Famous theologians such as Paul Tillich and John Randall argue that God can only be understood through symbols; as Tillich puts it, “God does not exist.” This is because God is manifested in ways we do not understand, “beyond existence and essence.” In this essay, I will be writing to argue that religious images and symbols help us to understand the divine - that is, God.
- Tillich asserted that religious symbols can help us understand more about God, claiming that arguing to prove God’s existence would instead prove the opposite - that God did not exist. For if we derive God from the world, how could he be that which ‘transcends the world infinitely?’ Instead, for Tillich, symbols were the best way to understand the divine, opening up new levels of reality. He made a distinction between signs and symbols, which are often used interchangeably in everyday life; signs are specific and easily recognised, clearly communicating what they stand for, while symbols are representative of something else. They are meaningful but multi-layered, evoking emotions and indicate what a group of people think. Symbols participate in the nature of which they represent, and signs do not.
- Religious symbols have several characteristics according to Tillich. In addition to being intrinsically connected to that which they represent, they also open up new levels of reality for us: “each symbol opens up a level of reality for which non-symbolic speaking is inadequate”, or was otherwise closed to us. Taking the Bible as an example, when the Kingdom of God is mentioned, the symbol of a kingdom is concerned with the reality of God’s divine power and rule. We know what an earthly kingdom would look like, and by extension would understand God’s absolute power and divinity in His own Kingdom.
- Tillich goes on to state that a symbol “unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul”. What he means by this is that symbols allow us to understand that which is symbolised if we so choose to study them deeper, as opposed to words from which we can only glean literal meaning. Furthermore, symbols arise out of the individual or collective unconscious; they grow when the situation is ripe for them and die when the situation changes. A prominent example of this would be the swastika - once a symbol for peace, we have now come to know it as a symbol of fascism due to the Nazis during World War 2. Symbols for divinity, such as the cross, have also evolved; from looking like the plus symbol to the more t-shaped figure we have today.
- However, I think that one way religious images and symbols can distract us from understanding the divine when they are interpreted differently by different people. Taking the Biblical story of Adam and Eve as an example, theists could choose to interpret it literally, believing that the events described actually occurred; symbolically, where they are representative of human life from innocence as a baby to sinning as we grow older; or taken to be meaningless by atheists. Given all these different interpretations, the ensuing conversation regarding the symbol would doubtlessly distract from arriving at a correct interpretation of the symbol and hence understanding the divine.
- John Edwards would oppose the idea that symbols contribute to helping us understand the divine; he attacked Tillich by arguing that he attempted to 'dress up nonsense in respectable clothing' - for Edwards, symbols do not convey factual information and are therefore meaningless. He criticises Tillich’s ideas on symbols as ‘philosophical confusion’, as Tillich cannot assign any understandable or generalisable meaning to a symbol. Instead, Edwards claims that he would “just point you towards another symbol” in a roundabout fashion, creating a sort of circular argument.
- A strong challenge to the idea that symbols can help us understand divinity is the Verification Principle, proposed by A.J. Ayer. Ayer was a member of the Vienna Circle, a group of logical positivists that attempted to prove things through empiricist methods. The Verification Principle postulates that something is meaningful if and only if you are able to prove it through empirical methods. If we examine symbols through the verification principle, we easily come to the conclusion that symbols and all other types of religious language are meaningless, as we cannot experience God through empirical means.
- Theists might argue that God’s divinity can be found through religious experiences, which would then fulfil the criteria for religious language to be meaningful; Ayer would then make the distinction between strong and weak verification, where something is strongly verified when it can be proved beyond a doubt with empirical methods - for example, there are human beings on earth. Weak verification where there are some observations that might be helpful to trying to prove a statement true or false; religious experiences would likely fall under weakly verified statements, as the experiences would not be generalisable for everyone.
- An alternative way of looking at images and symbols as representations of divinity would be through John Randall’s ideas. He would argue that symbols are meant to evoke emotional responses from people; they are non-cognitive, and do not point to any transcendent reality, such as God. In this sense, we would be able to understand the divine emotionally, but we would be no closer to comprehending or elucidating divinity conceptually through words and literal meaning. One of the functions of symbols according to Randall is to disclose - “revealing hidden depths about spiritual matters”. Hence, Randall would argue that divinity can be understood, but not explained, through symbols. He would characterise God “a fleeting ripple of imagination in a tiny corner of space-time”.
- Randall could be criticised for again utilising a circular argument, similarly to Tillich. Divinity is not grounded in what we know to be real in this reality, so we have no way of truly understanding how to perceive it. Paul Edwards would criticise both Tillich and Randall as symbols cannot be either verified nor falsified - “they don’t provide any facts”. For atheistic Edwards, literal words and diction would be the only way to truly understand divinity - or prove it, for that matter.
- Throughout this essay, I have examined various philosophers’ viewpoints symbols to represent divinity, such as the idea that symbols allow us to understand concepts and figures that transcend this reality. I have also explored criticisms of those philosophers, using Ayer’s Verification Principle to critique arguments. Despite the challenges posited by criticisms of symbols, I believe that divinity ultimately transcends our reality. As such, I would support Tillich’s idea that literal words cannot describe a being that is not of our reality; a being that is the basis and meaning of everything. Symbols ultimately do help us understand the divine as opposed to distracting us from comprehending it.
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