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Friday, July 27, 2007

Notes on Religion: Against Symbolism

posted by on July 27 at 12:41 PM

We can separate Christians into two great camps: on one side, those who read the events in the New Testament as having literally happened; on the other side, those who read the events as symbolic. We can also determine those in the former category as tending to be politically conservative, and those in the latter as tending to be liberal. But, ultimately, Christian symbolists have a much weaker theological position than literalists. Why? Because symbolism reduces the bible to picture-thinking, a lower order of language that speaks to those in the lower orders—the poor, the uneducated, the great unwashed. To grasp the complexity of God, they need a simple and symbolic explanation. In short, symbolism is snobbish.

Also, if you don’t take Jesus’ death and resurrection literally, it means that God could have told the story of salvation in another way. Meaning, it empties the real life of Jesus of its peculiarity and makes it nothing more than an expression of a universal language. Meaning, the story is not fixed but is rewritable. Meaning, God could easily have used different characters and locations and not lost the substance of His message—salvation. But the victory and significance of Christianity is that it transforms God’s infinity into a particular, an individual. It humanizes the spirit.

Christian symbolists hold onto the New Testament by its tail; Christian literalists ride the feral book on its back.

RSS icon Comments

1

There are 6 billion different types of Christians. Get it?!

I have to stop slogging for the rest of the day :(

I love you, Charles! (Call me!)

Posted by Mr. Poe | July 27, 2007 12:43 PM
2

Whoa, whoa, whoa. There I go again. Thinking I have work to do. Psych!

Posted by Mr. Poe | July 27, 2007 12:45 PM
3

Charles, I think you meant that the former category, the literalists, are consevative, and the latter category, the symbolists, are liberal, no?

Posted by arduous | July 27, 2007 12:49 PM
4

arduous, you are correct.

Posted by charles | July 27, 2007 12:50 PM
5

Charles -

You have everything back asswards. Literally. Those who take the bible literally are much more conservative than those who take it symbolically. I thought this was a given.

Furthermore, literalism is much less difficult to grasp than symbolism. Your definition of symbolism in incorrect -- it's not "picture thinking", it's conceptual thinking that requires an understanding and acceptance of metaphor and paradox. There's nothing "lower order" about it.

To prove this, ask a kid who attends church regularly to explain his thoughts on religion/God/the bible/etc. There will be no mention of metaphor or symbolism. You'll get a very strict literal interpretation thrown back at you. That's because most children aren't able to grasp those concepts, yet.

Posted by Ryan | July 27, 2007 12:56 PM
6

Symbolists are not symbolists for the sake of condescending. They are symbolists because it is the only way they can avoid being athiest when they know that professing the Bible to be literally true is a lunatic proposition.

Furthermore, understanding Biblical content in a symbolic (rather than literal) sense is not regressing to more ape-like forms of communication, tailor designed for the stupid (perhaps rural?) masses. In fact, it is the uneducated and unsophisticated who tend to be the ones to embrace a literal understanding of the Bible. The practice of symbolism by elite liberal Christians is just a manifestation of cognitive dissonance.

Posted by ol'jb | July 27, 2007 12:58 PM
7

ryan. made a mistake and got it backwards. my meaning is your meaning.

Posted by charles | July 27, 2007 12:58 PM
8

Noted; snark retracted.

Posted by Ryan | July 27, 2007 1:04 PM
9

charles if you wrote that to prove you don't smoke pot it didn't work.

Posted by wf | July 27, 2007 1:04 PM
10

@6, that too is my argument. symbolists are spiritually weak christians. they are clinging onto tail of the bible, whereas literalists are riding on its back.

you can only be in or out of the bible.

Posted by charles | July 27, 2007 1:05 PM
11

Once you start getting into a religion in depth, on more than a superficial level, the only way it can be explained is through symbols. A truly mystical experience can't be accurately described. Without a common vocabulary, something that mysticism defies, there's no way to describe the event on a non-symbolic level.

Posted by Gitai | July 27, 2007 1:07 PM
12

We can separate Slog entries into two great camps: on one side, those which are sensical, or literally happened; on the other side, those which are pretentious and nonsensical. We can also determine those in the former category as tending to be worth reading, and those in the latter as tending to be skippable. But, ultimately, Charles Mudede makes much weaker arguments than other posters. Why? Because he reduces the subject to inanity, a lower order of language that speaks to those in the lower-level philosophy programsóthe poor, uneducated, unwashed students. They need the complex and symbolic explanation of simple subjects. In short, Charles is snobbish.

Also, if you donít take Charles' drivel and blather seriously...

OK, even I can't keep this up. It's too easy.

Posted by supergp | July 27, 2007 1:08 PM
13

Most of what we call "intelligence", at the heart of it, is the ability to transfer concepts and abstract models in the fashion employed by those using symbols. If anything, intelligence can be measured (at least along one axis) by how adept one is at understanding and manipulating symbolic models, and transferring them to new contexts. This capacity may exist at some more primitive level in the human brain, but it is most certainly not a "lower order of thinking".

Posted by tsm | July 27, 2007 1:10 PM
14

Funny, I separate Christians into two camps too... annoying and slightly less annoying.

Actually, I should say THREE camps. Annoying. Slightly less annoying. And immediate family.

Posted by monkey | July 27, 2007 1:14 PM
15

charles- not to be off topic, but where do you see liberation theology falling in this argument? as you know liberation theology has a marxist approach to salvation.

Posted by SeMe | July 27, 2007 1:21 PM
16

Charles, I think there are more than just these two camps of Xians. Another way to engage with the Bible is to believe that however divine Jesus may have been, memories, understandings, and writings about him (and the OT figures and events) were inevitably filtered through human subjects. My thoughtful Xian friends see the Bible neither as literally true (yikes) nor as a neat symbolic system God manufactured in order to convey truth. Rather, they see it as the imperfect, highly filtered, culturally specific reflection of encounters between humanity and the divine, those encounters being, at a deep level, resistant to human understanding and impossible fully to convey in human language. This understanding of the Bible includes elements of the literal (believing, for instance, that Jesus was a real person) and the symbolic (in texts like Revelation that are obviously so), but also allows for other ways of explaining biblical content, such as the text's historical situatedness (for instance, recognizing that much of the antisemitism in John is a reflection of a new Christian community trying to separate itself from its Jewish roots).

Posted by A in NC | July 27, 2007 1:24 PM
17

I think by "symbolists" you may mean people who understand that the Bible was written by ancient peoples who had a very limited understanding of the world around them, so they interpreted knowledge and events with pre-scientific minds - ergo things like epilespy was interpreted as demonic possession; a localized flood was interpreted as global-wide; lightning, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, etc. was evidence of the wrath of God - so on and so forth. So, INTELLIGENT people try to filter out what truth may be in the Bible stories from piles of silt that is supersitious embellishment. There are such things as universal truths and wisdom, and some examples can be found in the Bible, but they're packed in a crate with a whole lot of ignorant, man-made, hysterical crap.

Posted by Cat in Chicago | July 27, 2007 1:25 PM
18

I thought the entire post was rather snobbish, condecending ...

and I'm sorry

TALKING OUT OF HIS ASS

It sounds like the same holier than though pompous ass shit I listened to growing Catholic school. (for the record nobody talks about the GOOD stuff in the bible anymore. Nobody talks about the prodigal son, or the good samaritan which I think should be retranslated to the good homosexual!).

And I can do it too! See ... roll your into the back of your head, stand up straight and say ...

And then the flying spaghetti monster sat upon his tuffet and looked upon mere mortals and decided to fool them into believing they too can understand the true mysteries of the universe. He let forth his deceipt and cast his greatests miracle, the deception, upon the greatest scientific inventions of the day ...

Posted by Matt | July 27, 2007 1:37 PM
19

sorry, had to reread it ... I thought you were defending the symbolismsss ... still sounds a little preachy though

Posted by Matt | July 27, 2007 1:39 PM
20

Seme, liberation theology is chritianity in its essence, as revolutionary, as a reformation. liberation theology has less to do with the New Testament (the book that splits readers) and more to do with historical Jesus.

Posted by charles | July 27, 2007 1:48 PM
21

"But the victory and significance of Christianity is that it transforms Godís infinity into a particular, an individual. It humanizes the spirit."

transforms God's infinity into a particular... an individual...

aka

A SYMBOL

its used in high concept films ALL the time.

have you ever seen jesus? have you ever experienced him in the flesh? touched him? smelled him? think people who take the bible literally have either?

jesus' degree of reality is no different than any other literary symbol. if god had wanted us to experience him in the flesh, then why do we only have butchered versions of his story in books and paintings?

symbolism doesn't cheapen religion.the only thing that cheapens religion is when it gives individuals undue powers by infusing politics into spirituality, which is exactly what people who want to you take religion literally want, whether it be with good or evil intentions.

Posted by Cale | July 27, 2007 1:57 PM
22

"But the victory and significance of Christianity is that it transforms Godís infinity into a particular, an individual. It humanizes the spirit."

transforms God's infinity into a particular... an individual...

aka

A SYMBOL

its used in high concept films ALL the time.

have you ever seen jesus? have you ever experienced him in the flesh? touched him? smelled him? think people who take the bible literally have either?

jesus' degree of reality is no different than any other literary symbol. if god had wanted us to experience him in the flesh, then why do we only have butchered versions of his story in books and paintings?

symbolism doesn't cheapen religion.the only thing that cheapens religion is when it gives individuals undue powers by infusing politics into spirituality, which is exactly what people who want to you take religion literally want, whether it be with good or evil intentions.

Posted by Cale | July 27, 2007 1:59 PM
23

"Christian symbolists hold onto the New Testament by its tail; Christian literalists ride the feral book on its back."

Charles, your post doesn't resonate for me. I get the part about Bible literalists, but to me the other side is those who try to interpret the spirit in which Bible was written and the spiritual message which may be conveyed - sometimes through symbols, sometimes through parables, etc.

Rather than "hold onto the tail" of the New Testament, the latter group is trying to understand the heart of the Bible's spiritual message, rather than focus on right-or-wrong judgements for every conceivable action. Anyway that's how I see it.

Posted by John | July 27, 2007 2:12 PM
24

how do you take this literally:
"In the beginning, there was the word [logos]"....?

Posted by Plato | July 27, 2007 2:18 PM
25

24: In Xian theology, the logos is the creative power of God, also identified with Christ. Not so hard to take literally, if you're a literalist.

Posted by A in NC | July 27, 2007 2:55 PM
26

So where do the Gnostics fit into this, since they were especially keen on symbolism and not so hot on literalism... yet claimed a deeper knowledge of Christianity - a then-growing religion of the lower classes?

Or, to put it another way, was Joseph Campbell a dumbfuck?

Posted by Joshua H | July 27, 2007 6:56 PM
27

In situations, Symbolism is valid I think. For example, Freudian symbolism works. Symbols as associations lead to self-understanding. Symbol as absence. Jesus is not the symbol. He is what the symbol refers to. In a text, some things are more sacred than others. In this way can laws be broken. Yet perhaps Jesus is a symbol after all, the ultimate absence. Sym-bol. Bol as body. Sym as in simulation.

Posted by Dobbs | July 27, 2007 11:17 PM
28

So many posts... So little culture. Symbolistic Bibles are meant both to inspire the humble and teach the learned ones. But the latter message needs to be revealed by specialists: that's how theology became the most important science in the 12th and 13th century.
Then, Charles has a point. The Bible then is no longer important. In the 15th century, scientists were trying to read the world as they were reading the Bible, which was corrected in the 16th century by people such as Descartes, and this corrected way of reading the world was pretty much the basis for all our science.
However, there lies the deal: scholastic theologicians emptied the Book so they could get the World. Fair trade, as far as I'm concerned.

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29

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30

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