Religious Symbolism Research Paper

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1. Religious Symbols: Their Nature And Functions

1.1 Symbols, Transcendence, And Salvation

Religious symbols arise out of the tension which exists between consciousness and the world. Indeed, the raison d’etre of religious symbolism is to transcend that tension and move beyond, into ‘the other,’ into the world of transcendence. Religious symbols in other words are bridges between consciousness, the world, and the sacred. They are not just boundaries between the sacred and the profane, they are also means and processes of their inversion and transformation. Through symbols the material becomes spiritual and the spiritual becomes empirical and is communicated in visible form. As Eliade (1959, p. 12) put it: ‘By manifesting the sacred any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in the surrounding cosmic milieu.’ To transcend the world is to give it meaning at another level and attempt to transform it through symbols. A symbol, as Geertz (1975, p. 91) defines it, may be ‘any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception.’ For Geertz, as for Sperber (1975), to symbolize is to conceptualize. Religious symbols, thus, serve as vehicles of conceptualization of this world in terms of another world. Along with conceptualizing the sacred they also serve as means to separate it and conceal it from the profane. In mediating transcendence, symbols function at the same time as vehicles of transformation and stabilization of the world, but the conservative or revolutionary political function of symbols is a matter of degree and depends on political and socioeconomic conditions.

There is an intentional and existential element in religious symbolism which links ultimate reality, social reality, and the quest for salvation which is innate in the human condition and, in one sense or another, underpins all religions. The limitations posed by the human biological, psychological, and social life and above all death, become embodied in religious images which transcend these limitations and give meaning to an otherwise chaotic reality. From this premise Marx, following Feuerbach, and without any theoretical elaboration of the symbolic, produced a reductionist, compensatory theory of religion and understood all religious symbols to be projections and epiphenomena of unfulfilled material needs and limitations imposed by socioeconomic conditions. Freud also produced a reductionist theory of religious symbols in the framework of his psychoanalytic theory. Religious symbolism underwent sophisticated analysis, especially in anthropology during the twentieth century, but its religious meaning per se and the problem of salvation were rarely taken on board. Reductionist interpretations of religious symbols have declined in the last decades of the twentieth century but the postmodernists have been criticized for their extreme relativism (Gellner 1992). Weber (1948, p. 280) did not get involved in the analysis of symbols and rituals but he argued that ‘the world images that have been created by ideas have, like switchmen, determined the track along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of human interest.’ He made these images central to his sociology of religion and explored them as an integral part of human action in the pursuit of salvation. The symbolic representation of salvation then, as pursued within the various religious images of the world in various social and historical contexts, form the general framework of the functions and meanings of religious symbols.

Durkheim (1915 p. 47) described ‘sacred things’ as ‘set apart and forbidden.’ Yet in the context of salvation the world of the sacred and that of the secular must be, and are, brought into interaction. Salvation means that chaos, limitation, and disunity are surmountable and God meets humankind. Within the Abrahamic faiths especially, salvation means to bring everything under the unity of God. The forces of evil and death must, and can, be overcome. A bridge between God and humans must be built with the initiative of God and the synergy of humankind. Because of this symbols, as tools of transcendence and salvation, are essentially ambiguous. Their ultimate function is to mediate, reveal, express, and communicate that which in essence cannot be fully grasped, spoken of, or communicated. God is both: known and unknown, present and absent, hidden and revealed, God and humans. As Martin (1980, p. 7) points out, ‘To transcend is to go beyond. So we must name it and refuse to name it.’ What Rudolf Otto (1953) has called mysterium tremendum et fascionum cannot be contained in ordinary human knowledge and logic. So the believer’s attitude to the sacred is basically one of faith, awe, fascination, and submission.

For the same reason the sacred is not subject to the ordinary rules of formal logic. The nonlogical, the miraculous, and the extraordinary are basic properties of the sacred. Leach (1976, pp. 69–71) calls the logic involved in religious discourse ‘mytho-logic’ and argues that ‘One characteristic feature of such nonlogic (mytho-logic) is that metaphor is treated as metonymy.’ Sacred agents can be here, there, and everywhere simultaneously and according to the believer this is not just metaphorical language. It expresses (describes) true properties of divine agents which human agents cannot possess because they are limited, because they are human. Unlike humans, gods can do anything they please, whenever they please. If their doings are to make sense at all they must be in terms of some general scheme of salvation. They are not subject to biological and physical constraints (Christ walking on the water or moving through closed doors). The anthropomorphic, physical features of divine agents are usually represented in exaggerated and distorted form. The Hindu pantheon is characteristic for its multisemic, multiform, and weird symbolic representation. God Siva’s commonest representation, for instance, is the ‘linga’ (the phallus curved on stones) and the sacred bull. Victor Turner (1968, p. 580) describes trickster gods as agents of liminality and antinomian character with ambiguous sexual characteristics. Thus the Greek god Hermes was represented as hermaphrodite and was symbolized by ithyphallic statues and the Yoruba god Eshu is represented with a long headdress curved as a phallus.

Christian symbolism is full of ambiguity and paradox which makes sense primarily in terms of salvation and the Kingdom. God the Son ‘begotten’ of God the Father, becoming man in Christ, being born of a virgin, dying on the cross, rising from the dead and ascending into heaven, and coming again in glory to judge the quick and the dead: all this is part of the Nicene Creed which is the symbol of the Church. The body and blood of Christ, ‘eaten’ and ‘drunk’ by Christians, are symbols of reconciliation (redemption) between humans and God. Adam is restored through Christ, the new Adam, who is God-Man (indivisible and without confusion according to the christological doctrine). A dominant, condensed symbol (Turner 1967, pp. 28–30, Douglas 1970, p. 10, Firth 1973, pp. 87–93), which reenacts and represents all that and more, is the Christian liturgy or Eucharist. The point to be stressed here is that religious symbols as units do not make sense in isolation and are systematically related in terms of corresponding schemes of salvation which at the same time correspond to world images and social experience. That may, of course, be above all a theological interpretation of religious symbolism which may be rejected by many sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. David Martin (1980), however, has demonstrated that a deep and very sophisticated sociological analysis and interpretation of Christian symbolism can take place by encompassing transcendence in the context of the general soteriological scheme of Christianity. The point to be stressed, in any case, is that without taking seriously the implications for salvation no sociological, anthropological, or psychological interpretation of religious symbolism will be adequate. Indeed, reductionist interpretations may distort the essential anthropological meaning of religious symbols.

1.2 Symbols, Boundaries, Inversion, And Power

Religious symbolism acquired specific cultural significance and potency within what have been called axial civilizations (Eisenstadt 1986). In the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam transcendence and unity, and the eschatology implicit in them, became central cultural forces with a cosmic historical dialectic. Transcendence and the pursuit of salvation necessitate boundaries. To go beyond is to move from one boundary to the next, from one set of conditions to another or from one status to another. To be redeemed means to be reborn. The Kingdom of God makes good sense in the context of imperfect, unjust, and corrupt human kingdoms. The heavenly city, where ‘there shall be tears no more, no sorrow, no death’ (Rev. 21:4), is the opposite of earthly cities where sin, death, suffering, injustice, misery, and tears abide. So the polar oppose of the city of God is the city of Babylon. Within the Kingdom there is unity and divine bliss. Divisions of any kind, injustice, and biological and social boundaries do not apply. Blood bonds and other social bonds as well as divisions of all kinds are characteristic of this fallen world. There are no churches or temples in heaven but the sacred and the profane realms, though separate, are interdependent because the Kingdom, where God shall be all in all, has not come yet. The two kingdoms are separated by ambiguous symbolic boundaries of which paradox and inversion are basic characteristics. Sacred symbols function as sacred markers which challenge or reinforce the powers of this world with a power of their own.

Entering a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or any sacred place one crosses a boundary: the boundary between the world of everyday life and that of another world of sacred, cosmic power and significance. Within the sacred places there are other boundaries designating a hierarchy of meaning reaching up to the highest, the most sacred and the ineffable. In those specifically sacred parts, the holy of holies, only persons of special sacred status may enter in order to perform specific ritual acts. These acts guarantee that the holiness, the perfection, and the autonomy of the sacred are protected and maintained, while symbolically mediated to the secular world. In the Christian Eucharist the priest carries out the sacrifice of Christ on behalf of Christ, the congregation, and humankind. So hierarchy and status become intertwined from the highest to the lowest levels and transition from one status to another require rites de passage (Van Gennep 1960). Such rites symbolize losing the old status and entering a new one and involve what Turner (1969, p. 80) has called a state of liminality, a state ‘betwixt and between,’ rich in ambiguous symbolism linked ‘to death, to being in the womb, to invisibility, to darkness, to bisexuality, to the wilderness … .’ In the early church, to be baptized meant to enter the community of the saints, to pass from death to life. Immersion in, and rising out, of the water stood for purification, death, and resurrection. This is symbolized by stripping off the old clothes and putting on new white robes. The color white has transcultural symbolic significance linked to life and to light, as black signifies darkness and death.

Martin (1980), Leach (1976), Douglas (1970), Turner (1969), and others have shown that inversion and status reversal are central mechanisms in religious symbolism. Christ, the Lord and Master of all, washes the feet of the disciples. Humility and hierarchy go together, as the irreconcilable tension between hierarchy and its total abolition are endemic in Christianity. Biological and social reproduction and family and social bonds are counteracted by the concept of virginity and the forming of celibate brotherhoods and sisterhoods. Being born again means entering spiritually and physically the community of the elect. ‘Those who will lose their life will gain it.’ God defeats death through death. Such inversions and logical contradictions form the substance of religious symbolism.

Symbolic boundaries link the spiritual power that ‘moves mountains’ and the powers of this world which permeate the human condition. Again, in most religions, this is through paradox and inversion. For Christianity, ‘the infinite power of the Almighty’ is demonstrated by Christ’s suffering on the cross and by

 icons like that of the Pantocrator in Daphni outside Athens. A thin and weak man like Ghandi could challenge the British Empire by advocating non-violence. Mary Douglas (1970, pp. 37–53) mentions the ‘bog Irish’ in London and the Apocryphal characters of old Eleazar in ancient Israel (2 Macc. 6:18) as exercising symbolic religious power against secular power, one by abstaining from meat on Friday and the other by refusing to eat pork on pain of death. The ultimate clash between the powers of this world and the power of heaven and glorious and total victory of the latter over the former is depicted most colourfully in the book of Revelation. Yet for Christianity, as for all religions, the tension between the two kingdoms is always present because the Kingdom of God is yet to come. There is a specific kind of formidable power which is generated through martyrdom which the powers and the rulers of this world seem to fear most. Millenarists down the centuries have celebrated the imminence of the Apocalypse by burning their homes and possessions, by weird behavior, by noise and ecstasy or by total silence, or, paradoxically, by adopting rigid absolute rules in their effort to reject all rules. But the Apocalypse remains in the future and nonviolent religious movements like early Christianity became in time powerful Churches embodying both sacred and secular power. However, as long as the Kingdom is not fully and finally here, religious symbols will continue to reveal and conceal the sacred, and their eschatological pull will continue to move the world.

2. Icon

Icons represent the sacred in condensed pictorial form. In iconography the holy is grasped not by reasoning but by feeling. As Langer (1980, p. 15) argues ‘the thing we do with images is to envisage a story.’ Icons speak to the heart and according to St John of Damascus ‘they are to the eye what speech is to the ear’ (Uspenski 1976, p. 9). Religious images engage the emotions and express and communicate the sacred directly. Iconography, in most religions, is anthropomorphic and this is true of ‘primitive,’ Indian, Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist, Greco-Roman as it is of Christian religion. Central feature of icons is the human body although in certain religions it is presented in a distorted form. In Hinduism, for instance, God Visnu is invariably represented with four hands which symbolize his various attributes. In Judaism, the making of images of God or idols are strictly prohibited (Ex. 20:4, Dt. 4:15–18, Dt. 27:15) so iconography did not develop. In Islam, although the Qur’an does not prohibit divine images, pictorial representations were forbidden from the beginning so abstract, geometric, decorative designs and calligraphy developed instead (Schimmel 1987, p. 64).

In a restricted sense, icons refer to the specific form of iconography which developed within Eastern Christianity during the Byzantine period. They constitute the almost exclusive type of religious art in the Orthodox Church to the present day as frescoes, mosaics but mostly painted on wood (Sendler 1988, Kokosalakis 1995). Icons developed out of the early Christian iconography of the catacombs which, in large part, conveyed coded messages of basic Christian themes. Christ, for instance, was represented as fish, which in Greek is ΙΧΘΥΣ, which is an acronym for: Ιησου , Χριστο , Θεου, Υιο , Σωτηρ (Jesus Christ Son of God Savior). By the fourth century icons could be found in most Christian communities and constituted a central part of Christian teaching parallel to biblical texts. The formalization of the Christian doctrine during the fourth and fifth centuries consolidated with it the basic themes of Christian iconography: Christ, the Virgin, the saints, and various biblical themes. The representation of Christ in particular went through a long evolution and for certain icons, especially of the Virgin, it was believed that they were not made by human hand (αχειροποιητοι).

By the end of the sixth century icons occupied a central place in collective and private worship in Byzantium but their theological meaning became explicit during the iconoclastic period (AD 726–843) when Byzantine society was shaken to its foundations. Devotion to icons had led to excesses and Emperor Leo III, supported by some bishops and certain heretical groups who rejected external worship, issued the first decree against icons in AD 726. There followed a long period of theological controversy and social unrest which, apart from religious, had also serious political and economic etiology. Icons were finally and decisively reinstated in AD 843 by Empress Theodora and since then have occupied a central place in Orthodox theology and worship.

Icons in the Orthodox Church are religious symbols par excellence with central cultural significance. They are related to neoplatonic ideas about the expression of spiritual reality in matter with a substantive religious meaning around the concept of the person/image which refers directly to both the creation of humans in the image of God (κατ’ εικονα) and their salvation through the incarnation of the word of God. Icons embody the universal and the particular simultaneously. Some icons are attributed thaumaturgical powers by the faithful. In Eliade’s (1959, pp. 24–29) terms such icons constitute ‘theophanies.’ Orthodox pictorial art adopted the inverted, two-dimensional perspective so that the image enters the viewer instead of the viewer entering the image. For the Orthodox Church, icons are windows of revelation and vehicles of direct communication with divine agents.


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