Symbols are all about Reality

Modern Age of Bicamerality
Piercing the Language of time
Symbols are all about reality

 Last week, I argued strongly for a mythical-allegorical understanding of the Christian Gospels and the stories they tell. I also said New Testament scholarship has been on the wrong scent trying to track down "historical" nuggets in the Jesus Story; that the way to go is to understand the complete account as a "divine drama where Jesus, as the persona representing the Christ of the universal myth" does and says the same things all ancient saviour figures in the various mystery rituals did and said. I concluded with this question for the faith: Does saying something or someone is "symbolic" mean that it or he/she is "unreal" or disconnected from reality? Is an allegorical and metaphorical story simply a fairy tale or worse? Is it really "debunking" Christianity to say its central tale is a sublime myth?


To try to clarify this issue, I want to share with you a letter from a bright atheist who says this is the first article he turns to each Sunday. He notes that I frequently try to combat the current tide of biblical literalism by expounding the symbolic nature of all "God talk," especially in the sacred literature of world religions. He gives this effort a nod of approval since he finds the statements made by religious literalists to be often "ludicrous and contradictory."


However, he makes this rather ludicrous statement himself. He writes: "I have no specific grief with symbols. They work as teaching aids and expression tools but we both know they are not statements of reality."


Because he holds such a view, he goes on to say he finds it "fascinating" that we seem to share many of the same premises but have come to widely divergent conclusions. I remain a firm believer; he, an atheist. Then he says: "Quite frankly, I don't see why you still believe. Faith cannot be the answer. You are too logical for that old excuse."


He closes with his "open-minded willingness" to be persuaded otherwise and his appreciation of my willingness "to go beyond a purely Christian perspective." He closes: "Every week I learn something."


I have already responded to this letter but it's important to repeat and flesh out what was in that reply. The matters at stake are weighty, not just for the agnostics and atheists who regularly read and react to the column but for the general public as well. Few areas of knowledge and of spirituality in particular are surrounded by more misunderstanding than the subject here in hand.


There are a hundred reasons, logically, rationally and also intuitively, that I am a believer. This is not the time to expatiate on them. Here the focus is on symbolism and its alleged unreality.


The truth is that symbols, metaphors, and allegories have everything to do with reality. To dismiss them as mere fiction or, as another reader recently wrote, "the equivalent of lies," is sheer ignorance or lack of thought.


Think about it. A wedding ring is of itself merely a circle of precious metal, but it's a symbol of a mighty reality. It is not of itself love, commitment, fidelity, marriage, or family, but it can powerfully represent all of these and more. Its potency is far beyond all proportion to its commercial value or beauty.


Life is surrounded by and only made possible by symbols and symbolism, from the world of advertising to quantum physics and the various grades of mathematics. More obvious even still is the fact of human language. All words are symbols. It's what they stand for and the power they represent and convey that's so important. Life is virtually impossible without them.


That's why poet Ralph Waldo Emerson could boldly say: "A good symbol is the best argument, and is a missionary to persuade thousands." You just have to think of Winston Churchill during World War II flashing his cocky V-for-victory symbol with upraised fingers to know the truth of Emerson's insight.


American educator John Dewey, in The Quest For Certainty, writes: `The invention or discovery of symbols is doubtless by far the greatest single event in the history of man. Without them no advance is possible; with them there is no limit set to intellectual development except inherent stupidity."


But, since people are more open to being convinced by science rather than theology or philosophy, here's the scientist Sir James Jeans. In The World Around Us, he says: "When we try to discuss the ultimate structure of the atom, we are driven to speak in terms of similes, metaphors, and parables."


It's exactly the same when humans try to speak of the things of God.


Theologian and author Tom Harpur's books focus on spiritual growth. He can be reached at


This article is published here without permission because it disappeared from the web and because its message offers important clarification desperately needed today, a time when religion seems to have gone off the deep end (fundamentalism) in so many circles. The publisher or author can contact Symbols.Net here.