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2.4: Systems of Symbols That Allow for Varying Interpretations

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    The different ways of being religious are not to be confused with what makes one religion different from another. Broadly conceived, each of the major religious traditions encompasses several of them, and some encompass all. What differentiates one religion from another involves many things, including factors connected directly with historical, cultural, and geographic circumstance, specific personalities, and of course beliefs-not least a distinctive conception of ultimate realityo. But perhaps the most important set of factors, incorporating indirectly much of what has just been mentioned, is the distinctive system of symbols,18 especially certain primary or central symbols, that taken together characterize ultimate realityo, orchestrate the participants' imagination in a distinctive way, and give rise for participants to "an other world to live in"-in the manner suggested in the following statement by George Santayana:

    Any attempt to speak without speaking any particular language is not more hopeless than the attempt to have a religion that shall be no religion in particular... Thus every living and healthy religion has a marked idiosyncrasy. Its power consists in its special and surprising message and in the bias which that revelation gives to life. The vistas it opens and the mysteries it propounds are another world to live in; and another world to live in-whether we expect ever to pass wholly over into it or no-is what we mean by having a religion. 19

    The phrase system ofsymbols designates the complex of stories, scriptures (if the tradition is literate), rituals, symbolic forms, and particular vocabulary for referring to ultimate realit]f' that as an interconnected whole constitute the core of a given religion. This system may include as well such things as fundamental ritual gestures, elementary credal affirmations, distinctive clothing, sacred images (or absence of images), special objects, special times, certain proprieties to be observed, key elements of a distinctive moral code, and so forth, but such things may be more peripheral than central in some traditions and it is often difficult to tell which is core and which is periphery. Though not originally taken from him, this idea of a core system of symbols constituting the heart of a religion is nicely captured in the words of Charles Davis:

    . . . [T]he objective content of faith is embodied in the first place, not in propositions, to which degrees of certainty can be attached, but in a set of symbols. At the center of every religious tradition is a symbolic complex as the primary, indispensable, normative expression of the constitutive content of the tradition. . . . The reason why the objective core of a religious tradition is a set of symbols rather than a body of concepts and propositions, is the nature of religious faith. Faith is not a detached intellectual assent, but the adoption of a fundamental stance in life. It is the choice of a basic attitude to reality, with a corresponding way of life; in other words, it is a fundamental option embracing one's total being and personality. That kind of commitment is not mediated through conceptual analysis or detached argumentation, but through symbols as dynamic images evoking a personal response....

    I said ... that at the center of every religious tradition was a set of symbols. I could have said a series of stories, because the symbols in question are not static representations like statues, but dramatic images, grouping and deploying themselves in narratives. The complex of symbols at the heart of every religion takes the form of sacred stories or myths. 20

    As such, therefore, religion or religious practice involves a system of symbols and symbolic actions for drawing near to and coming into right relationship to ultimate realitY'. This implies that, at least as far as the approach here taken is concerned, all religions and religious experiences are in some essential sense symbolically mediated or symbolically conditioned. 21

    A given system of symbols (including narratives) constituting the core of a religion usually allows for a considerable variety of possible articulations of its meaning (even though a given representative of the tradition may not recognize more than one). Indeed, it is precisely of the nature of symbol, as distinct from a concept, that it allows for, and even invites, multiple readings. 22 Thus it is possible within any one religion-given large numbers of participants, endurance over time, and geographic spread-to find different (at times even incompatible) systems of conceptual elaboration of doctrine (theological or philosophical) and different systems of practice within a single religion, appealing to the same core system of symbols to establish their orthodoxy (rightness of belief) and orthopraxy (rightness of practice). However, the interpretation of the core system of symbols is not as such generally a preoccupation of the average member of a religion. Indeed, he is very often quite inarticulate about the meaning of given symbols when asked by outsiders to explain them. His attention for the most part is focused on interpreting not the symbols themselves but rather his own experience by means of those symbols, though usually in line with the shared interpretation and elaboration of them among members of the subtradition to which he belongs.

    No religious tradition or subtradition is static or unchanging. Each is an evolving thing, open to all sorts of developments. Nevertheless, it maintains continuity with itself over time and unity amidst its diverse expressions by means of a relatively unchanging primary system of symbols. But more important than maintaining continuity with itself and unity amidst diversity, the primary function of the core system of symbols is to afford access to, and right relationship with, ultimate reality-which, being ultimate, must in some sense (in the judgment of insiders at least) transcend time and change. Among that primary system of symbols will be a central story or cycle of stories. If the tradition is a literate one, there will be an authoritative scripture or set ofauthoritative scriptures-a canonthat establishes the boundaries of acceptable belief and practice. Any canonical scripture calls for interpretation-especially as time goes by and the linguistic, social, and cultural context of its readers evolves. And every religious community is concerned to exercise some control over the interpretation of its scriptures, to get their meaning right so that rapport with ultimate reality will be assured. Nevertheless, any canonical scripture necessarily permits a range of varying interpretation (depending on the scripture, some more and some less), at least considered apart from whatever may be the official interpretation of the community at a given time and sometimes even with that interpretation. In this way a variety of different ways of being religious emerge in its terms, if they are not explicitly directed and encouraged to be taken up in its terms and by its leading interpreters. On the other hand, one or more ways may be more or less explicitly rejected or discouraged by what the scripture says and how it is interpreted.

    Sometimes there are not sufficient numbers of participants, sufficient endurance over time, or sufficient geographic spread, among other factors, to allow for significant diversity in interpretation and practice to emerge. This is the case with small and close-knit religious groups, new religions, and nontraditional religious phenomena. In these cases it is often not easy to distinguish the core system of symbols from the interpretation of them or to imagine what other interpretations or different forms of practice would look like or how they might emerge.

    Hans Kling confirms this distinction between a core system of symbols and specific interpretations of them in terms of a distinction he draws between "the abiding substance of the faith of a religion: the message, the decisive event of revelation, the distinguishing feature," on the one hand--called here its core system of symbols-and "the changing paradigm (macromodel of society, religion and theology): ... an entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on" that constitutes a comprehensive interpretation of the former that happens to be shared by members of a religious tradition or subtradition for a given epoch of its history, on the other. 23 The principal defining characteristic of the religion as a whole, therefore, is less its doctrines or beliefs, particularly as they are elaborated by a given thinker or subtradition, than its primary language: the core system of concrete symbols-above all, the central or foundational stories-that the varieties of the religion share in common.

    The core system of symbols is what determines the overall perspective shared in common by the variety of followers of a religion; depending on how they relate to the core system, it is what makes an insider an insider. That is to say, what makes an insider an insider and different from all outsiders is his having come to interpret the world and his experience in terms of a specific system of symbols-words, images, stories, institutions, behaviors--constituting a quite specific and elaborate language. The system of symbols becomes in certain fundamental respects the insider's mental home--certainly her spiritual home. It lies not at the forefront of her mind, as it does for outsiders looking on, but at the back or foundation of her mind. She dwells within that system of symbols. From within it, she attends to the realities it symbolizes while she is involved in specifically religious activities such as worship. Also, from within it, she relates to the things, events, and persons of her everyday life. She attends from the system of symbols subsidiarity while she focally attends to their meaning, on the one hand, and her mundane activities, on the other. 24 Thereby it colors her world, gives life a sense of purpose and place, and shapes her sense of what is possible and appropriate. As Clifford Geertz puts it,

    The major characteristic of religious beliefs as opposed to other sorts of beliefs, ideological, philosophical, scientific, or commonsensical, is that they are regarded as being not conclusions from experience-from deepened social awareness, from reflective speculation and logical analysis, from empirical observation and hypothesis testing, or from matriculation in the school of hard knocks-but as being prior to it. For those who hold them, religious beliefs are not inductive, they are paradigmatic; the world, to paraphrase a formulation of Alisdair Macintyre's, provides not evidences for their truth but illustrations of it.They are a light cast upon human life from somewhere outside it. 25

    Keeping this in mind, one could equally well say that what makes the insider an insider is her having come to interpret the world and her experience in light of certain mysteries into which she has been initiated by means of the symbolic forms making up the core of her religious tradition. These mysteries constitute the other worldo into which she enters while engaging in religious practice, a symbolically mediated world.

    In the context of religious practice, the focus is shifted away from mundane matters, and participants thereby cross a certain threshold constituted by the system of symbols (perhaps by way of crossing the physical threshold of a house of worship or the temporal threshold of a holy day or of an auspicious time of prayer). In doing so, they leave mundane life behind and enter into the mysteries to which the symbols of their tradition refer-enter in a manner substantially akin to one's imaginative entry into a work of narrative or dramatic art. Here, too, participants do not directly attend to the symbols in the way that outsiders attend to the symbols, seeing only their surface, seeing only the mere sounds and shapes of some unknown language to which an interpreter may have provided them with some associated meanings. No, insiders instead rely on those symbols to usher them into what to them is the very presence of the realitieso to which they point.

    To an outsider it may appear that, in the context of religious practice, the insiders are attending to the symbols. This is not quite so, for experientially the symbols have in a certain respect changed: they have become transparent (or at least translucent) to their meaning. The insiders are thus attending not to the symbols as such but through them or beyond them to what they mediate. In this respect, the meaning of the symbols becomes for participants not just a conventional linguistic association passed on to them by the elders of their tradition (unless the tradition has for some reason become dead); rather, it comes to be experienced by them as an awesome reality to be encountered and participated in-akin to the way we encounter and become directly acquainted with the characters in a theatrical drama in which we allow ourselves to be caught up. This change in the very appearance and experienced texture of the symbols as one crosses the threshold may be called the threshold effect.

    Among a tradition's symbols are what an outsider finds strange, even alien about the tradition. They are the things on which the outsider's attention usually remains fixed and which he finds fascinating and/or repulsive, like the hieroglyphs of an unknown language. His awareness of the symbols is of a focal nature. But the insider's attention, to the contrary, is not directed focally at these symbols at all; often she is oblivious of them and their apparent strangeness to the outsider because they are for her so familiar, so much a part of her being. Her awareness of them is primarily of a subsidiary nature, for she is attending from them to the horizons of meaning and living they open up as she comes to dwell in them.

    The threshold effect is in large measure this very difference between attending to religious symbols and attending from them. The threshold effect is the change that comes to be experienced as one crosses the threshold, as one comes to attendfrom the symbols and dwell within them. To cross this threshold is to be granted entry into the other world made accessible by the system of symbols in question. Although the threshold effect is experienced quite consciously by an adult convert to a tradition, the effect is often taken completely for granted by persons who grow up in the tradition, causing them to find it strange that outsiders do not recognize the meanings that seem so obvious to them. For the outsider the meaning of the symbols is puzzling and alien; they appear opaque; one cannot get past their surface appearance, as it were. But for the insider they become (at least from time to time) more or less transparent; they become presentative, ushering insiders into an experience of what is believed and felt to be the very presence of what they signify. Instead of being mere representations of something absent and elsewhere, they become presentations of it, or at least intimations of its presence. 26

    Thus far we have spoken as if all the varieties of a single tradition shared a single perspective. Strictly speaking, that is far from true, although there is a sense in which it is true. That it is true is more something evident to outsiders who are free from preoccupation with the nuances that distinguish one variety from another that often seem so important to insiders. But insofar as there are significant varieties of the tradition, there will of course be further differentiation of perspectives. How shall we understand and be prepared to empathize with these differences? Some of the differentiation may be due to variations in the primary language between varieties-that is, when a sectarian branch recognizes as scripture (or as something almost as important as scripture) writings that other subtraditions do not, or when scriptures are translated into an entirely new language, opening up novel interpretations that would have previously seemed implausible. A good deal of the variation, however, will be due to different readings ofthe same scriptures, different interpretations or different employments of the same system of symbols. The range and sorts of interpretation that emerge will be due to a host of factors: in part to the specific ambiguities of the symbols and the possibility of emphasizing certain passages of a common scripture more than others-which emphasis lends a certain orientation to the resulting interpretation, but not simply that. They will in part also be due to the different specific ways of being religious being pursued by those doing the interpreting and emphasis, for each way leads its participants to take up and interpret the system of symbols in a manner characteristic of that generic way. In that sense, each generic way tends to have (or be) a distinctive hermeneutic, a distinctive approach to interpretation. In principle, each begins with the same text-that is, same stories, same scripture, same core set of symbols-shared by the other ways but approaches it in terms of its ability to "speak" to the specific existential needs that motivate that way. As a result, each finds the text "saying" somewhat different things; each finds different portions of the text more powerfully addressing its peculiar needs; and each finds highlighted different aspects of the ultimate realityo disclosed through the text. The specific hermeneutical orientation of each of the six ways will be taken up in Chapter 3.

    Depending on the particular nature of a given system of symbols (and its development at any given stage), the hermeneutical approach of one way of being religious may find that system of symbols much more open to and directly addressing the kinds of concerns that that way has, whereas the hermeneutical approach of other ways may find the system less open and less directly addressed to their concerns. The precedent of previous interpretations will play an important role in how open or closed these approaches may find the system of symbols-for example, how definitive the previous interpretations are recognized to be as well as how open they are to other possible readings of the same texts. Nevertheless, what any one interpreter finds will be influenced by the specific existential needs she brings to the text, which will have oriented her more toward one way of being religious than another.

    Persons long occupied with a single way of being religious within a given tradition will often not be cognizant of, or open to, other ways of interpreting its system of symbols than the way to which they are accustomed. The simple suggestion that there might be other legitimate ways of interpreting them may be met with suspicion, if not hostility. In other words, the respect in which a system of symbols allows for this diversity in interpretation is not necessarily obvious to insiders, for they may regard alternative interpretations with little tolerance and simply dismiss them as wrong. Here is where the politics of empathetic comparative study become difficult, for it is important to retain the confidence and trust of one's informants. One useful guide is to take (and subsequently represent) the informant's views as being no less closed and no more open to other interpretations than in fact it is. This will in the end, of course, require learning the extent and prevalence of other interpretations and, along the way, how closed or open the informant is toward them. A further, important factor to notice is the way one's own perhaps unconscious tendency to identify with one way of being religious more readily than another may bias one's empathetic investigation of a tradition so as to favor one interpretation of that tradition's scripture over another. In other words, one should beware of the influence of one's own unconscious bias toward one or another way at the expense of others.

    In addition to the "host of other factors" alluded to above that influence the interpretation of a system of religious symbols, one other factor or sort of factors that bears mentioning at this point is what might be called the quality ofmotivation andpractice characterizing thepursuit ofany given way ofbeing religious. There are thoughtless religious people as well as thoughtful religious people, mean-spirited as well as generous-spirited, arrogant religious people as well as those with a certain caring humility, etcetera.

    On reflection, it seems obvious that any religious tradition and any religious practice (whether traditional or nontraditional) can be taken up in thoughtful ways and in thoughtless ways, in wisdom and in superstition, in compassionate ways and in spiteful ways, with humanity and with inhumanity, in psychological health and in psychological pathology, in generosity of spirit and in insistent legalism, in a sincere quest for personal growth and in outward compliance for ulterior motives, with authenticity or inauthenticity. As Hans Kling has written,

    Certainly religions can be authoritarian, tyrannical and reactionary and all too often were so in the past: they can produce anxiety, narrow-mindedness, intolerance, injustice, frustration and social isolation; they can legitimate and inspire immorality, social abuses and wars in a people or between peoples. But religions can also have liberating effects, oriented on the future and beneficial to human beings, and indeed often have had. They can disseminate trust in life, generosity, tolerance, solidarity, creativity and social commitment, and can encourage spiritual renewal, social reforms and worl peace. 27

    Consequently, a good working assumption to make in this respect is that, as far as common sense is concerned,28 no speci(ic religious practice as such (e.g., a Roman Catholic Mass, Buddhist vipassana meditation, Tlingit shaman soul journeying, or an Orthodox Jewish session of Talmud study) is altogether worthy either of respect or of disrespect. The quality of a particular given instance of that practice may be either virtuous or not or some of both. Whether it is virtuous or not depends not upon the practice as such-or at least not ordinarily upon the practice or upon its origin-but upon the way it is taken up by people and lived. Criteria of the merit of a practice can usually be found within the tradition itself-which interestingly often parallel criteria that may be found for similar phenomena within other traditions. Accordingly, in seeking to comprehend the meaning of specific religious practices, one should try to find a way of understanding them that gives the tradition and the practice in question the benefit of doubt, a way that might subsequently be confirmed by thoughtful insiders' recognition. Thus one should always try to make sense of them in a way that allows for them being taken up in thoughtful, authentic ways-without ignoring or failing to note inauthentic, unhealthy, and morally disreputable expressions.

    Ideally a religious tradition will cultivate in its followers specific virtues and excellences in its practices, but this is by no means a necessity. Some virtues may be specific, if not unique, to the tradition. As well, some vices may be specifically, if not uniquely, identified by a tradition. However, as Chapter 5 will show, certain virtues and vices correlate with the generic ways of being religious, and they do so in a way that remains remarkably constant from one tradition to another. The extent to which any given representative of a tradition exhibits virtues and/or vices therefore hinges less on the specific tradition he follows than on how the tradition is taken up and interpreted by that representative. More specifically, it hinges on the attitude, or quality of motivation, with which he has taken it up and interpreted it. This attitude may very well be influenced by the precedent of previous interpretations, but again there is no necessity. Moral paragons can show up in almost any tradition, as can moral monsters, and everything in between. The point is that the attitude depends crucially upon the person. There is potential virtue to be realized in each tradition and in each way of being religious, as well as potential vice. Any one of the six ways of being religious in any tradition may be taken up thoughtfully or thoughtlessly, mean-spiritedly or generously, arrogantly or with a spirit of caring humility.

    This page titled 2.4: Systems of Symbols That Allow for Varying Interpretations is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.