Myths & Symbols

Ninian Smart (20th cent.)

persuasive phenomenological view of religion which is what is in evidence when the seven following ‘dimensions’ are present:

1. Myth – narratives expressing and exploring fundamental questions of meaning, being, value and truth.

2. Ritual – patterns of ceremony and worship, devotions expressive of the faith and belief characteristic of the religion – mythic narratives may be re-enacted in devotional rituals, cf. Eucharist

3. Dogma – doctrines, teachings, principles and theories constituting the theology and philosophy of the tradition in question. The ideas here may be expressed in myth and ritual.

1 of 8

Ninian Smart cont.

4. Ethics – principles for the practice of life, moral values and principles for how life is to be fulfilled. Mythic and allegorical writing may explore and present the ethical principles.

5. Experience – the experiential dimension of religion might entail the special or distinctive experiences the religion involves or it may denote the particularity of engagement with the religion through all of the dimensions.

6. Social – the communal aspect of the religion – this may be closely linked to the experiential and ritualistic dimensions.

7. Material – the physical aspects of religion within an historical and cultural tradition; buildings and shrines and the like.

2 of 8


Thought we needed to ‘demythologise’ the New Testament:

meaning not judge it directly need to re-interpret the mythic world-view and the texts composed under its assumptions, by working our way into the human situations that the myths address, so that we can gain an understanding of the message about the human condition that the texts deal with.

Bultmann’s idea is that we are able to examine a mythic text – the birth stories in Luke and Matthew, for example – and by unpeeling the mythical layers we disclose the reality of God’s purpose being fulfilled through the lowly and the excluded.

3 of 8

Bultmann Issue

  • Hard to make sure translations to modern terms are accurate as not fully sure of original meaning, however if update all at once know at least all held to same standard.

4 of 8

John Macquarrie (20th cent.)

‘In myth itself, the symbol and that which is symbolised have not yet been clearly distinguished. As soon as we recognise a symbol as a symbol, we have taken a step back from the myth and emerged from a purely mythological way of thinking and talking.’

= a) endorses idea of the mythic mode of expression that we find in religious traditions, and b) to suggest that the key images – the symbols – that are embedded in myth are in fact the key theological motifs that we need to review and which can be ‘discussed and illuminated’ in linguistic mind sets other than that of the original.

The idea that the language of religion should be considered significant as a form of symbolic expression - agree = J.H. Randall and Paul Tillich (19th cent.)

5 of 8

J. H. Randall

'The Role of Knowledge in the Western World' - religion =
• A natural phenomenon
• A human activity
• A culturally vital activity
• Religion functions to nurture and sustain moral and communal values
• Religious ideals and values inspire and motivate us to heroic action
• Religion opens up our awareness of the depths and wonders of experience and thereby gives is a means to communicate these insights
• just as Art opens up our appreciation of beauty, so Religion via its symbols opens up the possibilities for moral and communal life, indicating the ways in which humans can transcend how they are and move towards what they can be.

• Religion employs symbols to express the patterns of indication and the key symbol any sense.  Rather ‘God’ is ‘an intellectual symbol for the religious dimension of the world, for the divine.’

He is anti-reductionsist in the sense that he opposes reduces all meaning to the criteria of empirical science, but he is not defending a realist view of religious truth.

6 of 8


'The Essence of Christianity’

Feuerbach was a critic of Hegel's philosophy. Like Hegel,  Feuerbach sees no ultimate ontological distinction between the finite and the infinite, but this is not because the finite is the expression of the infinite - it is because the infinite is a projection of the finite.

Whereas for Hegel thought and reason are determinative of and essentially identical with social and practical reality, for Feuerbach social and practical reality is determinative and thought or ideas are expressive. Hegel thought that reality was the expression of an idea – Geist (‘Spirit’) - Feuerbach believes that reality gives rise to thought and to regulative ideas expressive of all that seems best in experience.

7 of 8

Feuerbach cont.

The problem seen by Feuerbach is that instead of remaining as a goal or ideal, ‘God’ has, via traditional doctrine, become enshrined in a false heaven, removed from the human sphere from which it came, which it should inform and to which it is subject.  This Feuerbach terms the danger of ‘religious objectivism’  and it has the consequence of ‘disuniting man from himself’, of setting God before man ‘as the antithesis of himself’ instead of as the authentic expression of human potential.

Thus religion functions as a repressive force in society.

8 of 8


No comments have yet been made

Similar Philosophy resources:

See all Philosophy resources »See all Religious Experience / lang?.. resources »