Perhaps because I’m not well versed in semiotics, I find the subject of symbols endlessly confusing. And, as this post will amply attest, the more I think about it, the more confused I become. Here’s how I (mis)read the situation:
For those who put their faith in the realm of the ineffable, inaccessible, and immaterial, symbols and other approximations or constructs present an understandable route to approaching the divine. But since we Mormons are notoriously materialistic philisophically, maintaining that humans are not ontologically distinct from deity, what purpose specifically do symbols serve in our tradition?
The relationship between a symbol and its assigned significance is somewhat arbitrary and often less than straightforward. In theory, then, God could teach us in a much less obfuscatory manner–more directly–with less potential for misunderstanding.
Symbols are also typically culture specific. I understand that a person wearing headgear made of precious metal and constructed in a shape imitating the crenelation that can be seen on battlements is understood to wield power over other individuals, and I think I understand some of the historical reasons that gave rise to the association between the shape of the object we call a “crown,” the materials of its construction, and sovereignty. But this association is neither universal nor direct.
And while this example may nevertheless be so widespread today as to be readily transparent, my impression is that symbols that are appealed to in a Church context typically smack of a certain esotericism. We sometimes speak as though the value of symbols is predicated at least partly on their relative opacity.
Of course, language itself is a system of symbols; I’m not suggesting we discard symbols entirely (as if such a thing were possible). But the opacity specifically interests me. Why would God speak in a manner which is, by definition, cryptic, ambiguous, and prone to misunderstanding?
The reason I personally find most attractive points to canonization as the culprit behind the obfuscation. Canonization attempts to set in stone, as eternally binding, text which is necessarily rooted in particular times, places, practices, and associations. As culture changes, the referents behind previously transparent associations are lost, and require continual explication and reinterpretion. In this view it is less a matter of God speaking cryptically as of God speaking relatively clearly in someone else’s idiom.
Another possibility is that God uses symbols to tap into a Jungian collective unconscious. Some might argue that the resemblance between baptism and burial and rebirth has repercussions on a subconscious level. (I’m not particularly persuaded, but I list it here because I find it intriguing.)
The cynic could point to the deliberate (?) ambiguity behind the composition of Delphic oracles. Regardless of what happens, one can find an interpretation that will prove the oracle true. As long as God mumbles (so to speak), his word can never be proven false.
Or perhaps God uses a code of sorts to speak to his elect, as a method of separating wheat from chaff for communication purposes. The people who have received the spiritual memorandum containing the decoder ring are able to make sense of divine truths, while others stumble in confusion.
(This only raises the question why God would keep truth a secret, given the Church’s injunction to do missionary work and “spread the gospel light.” I can certainly understand, if not endorse, the role secrecy plays in creating and maintaining social hierarchies, even within the Church, and more starkly delimiting the border separating Church from world. The point of codes, after all, is exclusion. But given God’s resources, why resort to a method of secrecy as crude as symbols?)
Finally, the very ambiguity built into symbols and the sundry possibilities for interpretation bequeath them a richness lacking in more direct speech. Another attractive rationale is that symbols point to the importance of experience itself perhaps above, or as a particular form of, knowledge. No story worth its salt can fairly be reduced to a bare moral; the experience of the story itself is important. Similarly, one might argue, the value of symbols lies not in teasing out one-to-one correspondences like code-crackers, but in the experience of the symbols themselves in all their richness and grandeur.
Here’s where things get even trickier:
In our tradition symbols are frequently associated specifically with ritual, or symbolic actions, certain of which are said to be necessary for salvation.
But what exactly does this mean? If an action is symbolic, how could it possibly also be salvific?
Evidently one’s salvation is not contingent on “deciphering the correct meanings” behind the symbolic actions of the ritual. First, if information is the goal, it could be obtained easily in other ways, and should be accessible to deceased spirits. Furthermore, ritual is shifty and its interpretation culture-specific rather than universal; once we say something is symbolic, can we claim a single universal “meaning” to be extracted? The experiential component of ritual, whose potential value I think is fairly apparent, must then be subordinate to the physical action itself, which forms the necessary core of the ritual. If I’m baptized, have faith in Jesus, and live a worthy life, I will be saved whether or not I understand baptism to represent rebirth.
However, quite frequently we claim that rituals convey invaluable information about God’s eternal purposes clothed in symbolic garb. Theologically, what exactly are we talking about? Are symbols nothing more than a skeletal framework, with no particular meaning, but which God can imbue with sacred information or experience as he sees fit?
For example, could God have equally asked us to clap our hands once to give every soul who has ever lived the opportunity for salvation? We could then assign symbolic significance to the act in various ways, but the point would be the opportunities and light God would reward us with for obeying to his command. In the same way that a space with no particular inherent significance can be dedicated and become holy, can a physical action also be dedicated, as a sort of vessel which God may fill or not?
Or does God have an “intended” meaning behind the symbolic actions in mind, a meaning he reveals at his pleasure? If so, what is the relationship between the symbolic association (which the patron may or may not correctly decipher) and the physical action itself, which is what is said to be necessary?
- 25 October 2006