Symbols, Signs, and Religion

Catch a Glimpse from the Other Side

By David Galston | 6.20.2018

Human beings are symbol makers, and as we grow up the first challenge in life is to learn how to use our most basic symbol system, which is language. Other animals and even plants use symbols in certain ways. Some plants, for example, can mimic insect eggs on their leaves to prevent insects from laying real eggs on their leaves. In this case, the plant uses an "egg symbol" for self-defense. However, the complex use of symbols, the stringing together of signs, and the complex recombination of strings in a sustained and highly functional language is something that defines the experience of being human.

Why should we focus on a language system as a symbol system, and what does this focus have to do with thinking about religion?

Philosophers would correct me and say that I really should be talking about language as a sign rather than a symbol system, but I use the word symbol in this case with some deliberation. Both signs and symbols stand in place of and represent things absent. I can be standing in a room talking to a friend about an interesting plant that is also in the room. My words are signs because they create a relationship to the object about which I speak. Neither my friend nor I can experience the object in an absolute or unfiltered way; we can only create a relationship to the object employing thoughts, feeling, and impressions through shared signs.

Language, in this sense, is a sign-system that operates to create relationships between people and to reality, but the words, of course, are neither people nor reality. They are signs used creatively in relation to actual things.

Language, though, is also a symbol-system because a language does more than create a relationship to reality. A symbol, it is often said, participates in the reality that it represents. A symbol does not simply stand in place of reality; it is to some degree part of the reality it stands in place of. Accordingly, a symbol is slow to evolve and hard to change.

While I can talk about a plant in the room, it is easy to take that plant out of the room and put in another one in its place. But if I’m talking about the American flag in the room, I cannot just put another, arbitrary flag there and call it an American flag. The flag is a symbol, so it participates in the character or meaning of the country it represents. It’s still possible that another kind of flag could evolve for the country, but such a change would not be easy. It would require significant historical events. Language as a system is like this. It constantly evolves, but it cannot be arbitrarily changed.

Language as a symbol system relates to culture and history: language is the character of culture and the record of its history. Signs are like symbols, but we can say that symbols carry a sense of character that signs do not hold. This is why philosophers say that symbols participate in the reality they symbolize.

Religion, history, culture, language, and politics are all very significant to the human experience because they are all symbol systems.  They all relate to character. They all hold emotional dimensions. They are all things about which we can get angry. But, as symbols, they all also do not really exist. Symbols are about meaning. They cut out from the background of emptiness and nothingness to form a particular meaning-experience, and they hide nothingness behind the meaning-experience. It is a true breakthrough and revolutionary act to shatter a symbol, which means to shatter a meaning-experience that the symbol created against the background of nothingness. The background of nothingness gives liberty to the revolutionary act.

Few people in history seem to have the knack for shattering entrenched symbols, but those who do look at present symbol-systems from the other side of their cultural sense. Such folk, as Bob Funk used to say, catch a glimpse of a different arrangement of things and, equally, see the false nature of what is commonly thought important. The liberty of the glimpse comes out of the awakening to nothingness.

How can it be said that things symbolized do not really exist? The reasoning of such a saying is not set on this side of cultural sense but on the other side. On this side, the symbol is about meaning and about character. It is difficult to change the symbol because it is both emotional and culturally important. From the other side, though, the symbol counts for nothing. The liberty of the glimpse allows for playing with symbols and for emptying symbols of their meaning. Those acts, judged from this side of the glimpse, are highly problematic and sometimes insulting, but from the other side, they are both the challenge and the call of liberation.

The historical Jesus appears to be one such person who caught a glimpse of things from the other side. This does not mean he was otherworldly. It means, like Socrates, he seemed to operate with a different sense of things. Speaking from the other side, Jesus mocked symbols of God, like the Cedar Tree, and placed God in uncompromising positions, like in relation to leavened bread. In context, this was somewhat like insulting the flag. And like today, the President Trumps of antiquity sought to silence the glimpse of things that come from the other side.

This post (June 20, edited July 1) is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

Photo of David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.