Window into Heaven: Religion's Unknown Symbolism

Capilla Real Granada

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Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian

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Pools of Spiritual Thought

One of the most powerful characteristics of symbols in religion is the fact that a single symbol can be interpreted in multiple ways. This inherent quality of multiple and layered meaning in symbols makes them especially useful in religious expression and thought. It allows them to communicate in a number of distinct and powerful ways.

At their most basic symbols are common to everyday life and essential to human thought and communication. Roger Schmidt in the book Exploring Religion supports this idea when he writes, “conceptualization is a form of implicit or explicit speech; put another way, thinking- that is imagining, doubting, and knowing- is inseparable from language and the symbolic process. Symbols are indispensable to thought. Certainly without them, there would be no poetry, religion, or science, no stories, rites, or complex social organizations or material structures…” Human language and conventionalized forms of expression, in one sense, can be seen as made up of these most basic of symbols. Words, certain gestures, and many objects and ideas have certain pre-designated meanings and interpretations. For example, the word “book” represents words written on pages, which are usually bound together, for the purpose of communicating thoughts and ideas. The word has meaning due to its convention. Schmidt gives a similar example for gestures citing that the raised index finger in American sport represents the notion of being number one due to its common usage, which makes its meaning common and well known among Americans. He also cites the object of the circle and offers a number of its different symbolic meanings.

Antirabe Cathedral

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Many Images, Many Meanings

As demonstrated by the circle example, many symbols have multiple meanings and many times their meanings are broad enough that they give the interpreter or interpreters the ability to form a unique or personal meaning for the symbol within its context or at times by contrast to its normal meaning. This, I would suggest, is one of the elements of symbolism that makes it so useful and common to human religion. Religion in almost all cases is an attempt to communicate or worship, in one form another, something that is unknown and thus mysterious. In many cases it is partly or fully aimed at describing something that is supernatural, beyond or distinct from ordinary or conventional human existence. Since the focal point of religion is the unknown it is often difficult to express its meaning. This is because human language, even at its most basic, is dependent on symbols. As earlier stated, the symbols are given meaning from their context and convention in most cases. Thus since collective religion is inherently mysterious no convention or ordinary context can be easily or widely ascribed to it. However, there has to be some means of communicating religious ideals and thought and symbols allow for this because of their multiple and layered meaning and the fact they can communicate beyond the confines of conventionalized language, or as Schmidt puts it, symbols, “point beyond themselves to a mysterious reality that lies beyond the limits of language.” It is also of interest to note that to demonstrate the power of religious symbols in expressing things beyond themselves Schmidt employs a symbol. He writes, “The test of all religious symbols and language is their power to illumine the sacred. Symbols are like windows; they not only connect experience to the meaning of the experience but also provide fields of vision through which humans can explore different worlds of meaning, including religious ones.” In this case, he uses the symbol of the window to denote fields of vision.

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The Sacred Ordinary and Nature

The contrast that religious symbols demonstrate between the ordinary and the non-ordinary or religious give them more power of communication due to distinctiveness when compared with non-religious symbols. In many instances they take an ordinary word, gesture, or object and give it a deeper or more sacred meaning. Schmidt once again provides a useful example when he writes of the Sioux holy man John Fire/Lame Deer. Schmidt quotes him as once saying that, “We see in the world around us many symbols that teach us the meaning of life….To you symbols are just words, spoken or written in a book. To us they are part of nature, part or ourselves- the earth, the sun, the wind, and the rain, stones, trees, animals, even little insects like ants and grasshoppers.” The “you” he was referring to was the “white” man. According to Schmidt this statement was a lamentation that natural symbols, which held great religious insight and meaning to him had grown commonplace to many of his contemporaries. This is important because it is demonstrative of the increased importance and depth religious symbols take when compared with ordinary symbols even if the symbols themselves are very common or natural, as in this example. It also demonstrates the uniqueness a symbol can have to the individual or group.

In conclusion, the broadness and depth with which symbols can communicate to the human mind make them important in religious expression. However as noted by Schmidt when he writes that, “religious symbols are multivalent, and their meaning is a function of how they are used in a cultural context or symbolic matrix”, it should be remembered that even though religious symbols gain meaning by contrast they still have their own context and system which they work within. They are not completely abstract in and of themselves but rather point to abstract and difficult to communicate religious ideals.

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