• Created by: Chantal
  • Created on: 17-04-14 12:18

Biblical Examples

  • Virgin Mary: purity and lack of Sin
  • Jesus: Symbolise God
  • Crucifix: God’s love for the world


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  • ‘Symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate because it transcends the capacity of any finite reality to express it directly’
  • God is unobservable so the symbol is required to link a rational concept to an inconceivable reality
  • To truly represent the reality to which it points religious language must have the power and significance to point beyond the literal meaning of words
  • Difference between symbol and sign:
    • Sign= something which represents something else
    • Symbol= A pattern or object, which points to an invisible metaphysical reality and participates in it
    • Eg national flag= flag represents patriotism and everything associated with that country so the burning of flag demonstrates defiance and loss of what stands for


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Tilllich Continued

  • Religious language is symbolic:
    • Communicates the most significant beliefs and value of human beings
    • Open up levels of reality which were otherwise closed to us
    • God is not part of our empirical world and it is only by using symbolic language that we can begin to represent the transcendent
    • Unlock ‘hidden depths of our own being’ eg appreciation of art
  • God as the ground of being:
    • God is the basis of all that exists-God is the meaning behind all that exist
    • Must be of concern to all people (material possessions cannot replace God)
    • Cannot be comprehended in a personal way but is known through symbols
  • Meaning of symbols:
    • The meaning of symbols originates in and can lose their meaning in society
    • Symbols cannot be destroyed
    • Open to reinterpretation eg swastika/ subjective eg Mary's virgin birth
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Erika Dinker-Von Schubert

  • Describes symbol as ‘a patter or object which points to an invisible metaphysical reality and participates in it’
  • ‘Symbol expresses what is beyond rational recognition, it serves to distinguish the human from the animal world’
  • Because symbol is so strongly established in human culture we should not be surprised to find it emerging in our religious language
  • Eg Cross:
    • Identifies the crucifixion of Jesus
    • Significance of Jesus’ death
    • God’s love for the world
    • Hope for eternal life
    • Etc
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  • J H Randall:
    • Symbolic approach= non cognitive thus giving  no information about God
  • Edwards:
    • Symbolic approach=non cognitive thus giving  no information about God
    • Tillich response: Symbols were intended to convey facts and therefore cannot be verified or falsified using empirical evidence
  • Stephens:
    • Claims ‘we do not live in the world but in a picture of it
    • Our entire perception of the world is symbolic:
      • See a table we see an impression of a table created by reflected light
    • We gain some knowledge but not all:
      • We cannot tell whether the table is hot or cold
    • Religious language gives us some information about the concept being symbolised (eg the cross symbolising God’s love) but not all (proportion)
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  • Symbols cannot be made up or randomly invented
  • Open up levels of reality closed to us eg art
  • Identify things we may otherwise not be able to conceive: Erika Dinker-von Schubert
  • Links a rational concept to inconceivable reality: Tillich
  • Expresses the ineffable
  • Evokes emotion demonstrating strong attachment
  • Relatable for atheists and theists
  • Subtle modes of communication
  • Useful ways to communicate religious/spiritual truths which go beyond factual world
  • Flexible in themselves


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  • Randall/ Edwards/Stephens
  • Symbols are subjective (degree participate differs)/ can be altered/ trivialised 
  • Neither adequate nor appropriate: not possible for religious symbols to successfully represent that which is beyond human experience- no way of knowing/ wrong insight
  • Outdated:
    • Tillich ‘it is necessary to rediscover the question to which the Christian symbols are the answers in a way which is understandable in our time'
  • Can become the focus of worship in themselves (worshipping Mary not what she symbolises)
  • Draws heavily on everyday experience: can it adequately represent God?:
    • Williams:‘these images are provided by God in his creative goodness yet all must be ‘denied’ in their human sense lead us back to silence and unknowing'
  • Plotinus: No language that uses material images can describe God
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