On a recent thread on Feminist Mormon Housewives the perennially relevant topic of symbols has been raised yet again. In some traditional discussions of the ancient world and its use of symbols, Greece has been painted as a distinctive break with the Near East for its rational, linear attempts to understand reality, in contrast to the symbolic, circular thought of ancient Near Easterners. Often the claim is made in Church contexts that in order to make sense of our liturgy and sacred texts, we must set aside our heritage of Greek rationalism and recover this ancient symbolic lens.
I, however, am skeptical of both our portrayal of Greece and of the symbolic thoughtworld of ancient cultures further to the east. Although Greece undeniably differed from its eastern precedents, particularly in the crystallization of some forms of meta-analysis, deductive reasoning, and self-conscious investigation, Western identification with and exaltation of Greece has led us to overstate those differences. There was a time not so long ago when histories of the world waxed grandiloquent about the brilliant light Greece dawned on a dark “Oriental” horizon dominated by despotic potentates governing a decadent populace.
More recent scholarship has modified this view considerably. Although the precise relationship between Greek culture and its Near Eastern forebears, both in the Bronze Age and in the Classical period, is still under discussion, it’s become sufficiently clear that Greece was profoundly influenced by the older civilizations to its east that some scholars now provocatively refer to Greece as part of the Near East. (The Hellespont, it could be argued, is as much a mental as a physical barrier.) In spite of the very significant philosophical advancements that were made in Greece, these developments were neither a thoroughgoing eradication of other forms of discourse, nor wholly unprecedented. It was very clever of Pythagoras to formulate the theorem which bears his name, but then the Babylonians had already been using it for more than a millennium. And Aristotle was undeniably both brilliant and influential, yet a significant portion of what he said was just outright wrong. This is the man who claimed women have fewer teeth than men (did it occur to him to open a woman’s mouth and count?), and who advanced ridiculously illogical arguments justifying morally repugnant institutions such as slavery. And certainly the pantheon of quirky, multitudinous Olympian gods would not have been terribly foreign to the Near Easterners (Herodotus himself claimed their worship originated in Egypt, and there’s abundant evidence for cults being imported into Greece from various other locations, such as Apollo from Anatolia).
Of course, all this is academic as long as we believe that our own culture, whether modeled on Greece or not, is so saturated by rational expression that we fundamentally fail to understand the symbolic discourse conveyed by our sacred texts. In the view of some, the ancients grasped symbolic representation in a way that is now lost to us and must be recovered.
In my humble opinion, this is sheer nonsense. I see no reason to believe there were more symbols in the ancient world than we have in our own culture, predisposing the ancients to appreciate symbolic discourse where we founder. Certainly we state truth propositions and investigate them in a way that would be somewhat foreign to these cultures, but symbolic expression, it strikes me, is still alive and well today. Aside from the obvious point that language is itself a symbolic system, no one blinks at phrases such as “give the green light” or fails to grasp how a skull and crossbones could serve as a warning. What’s been lost are the specific referents (which should be a clear sign to us that a symbol’s meaning is not inherent to it).
The fundamental character of a symbol is its dual nature: one thing stands in for another without ceding its own characteristics. It is understood to be that which it is not. Some would say that the only way to perceive God’s intent is to view the world through his bifocals, so to speak, acknowledging two perspectives simultaneously and observing how they relate to each other.
But exactly how are God’s bifocals manufactured–or what are the criteria by which symbols are identified and explicated? Where do the interpretations of symbols come from, and who authorizes them? Are all symbolic interpretations equally valid? And does a symbolic reading neutralize the literal reading?
The questions are anything but new. To take just one example, early Christian communities approached the Old Testament in a number of ways. On the one extreme, Marcion and many Gnostics rejected it entirely, alleging that its God was a bad or lesser deity unworthy of worship (and frequently foisting the problem of evil off on him). On the other extreme, Ebionites maintained their allegiance to Judaism. Between these positions others attempted to steer a middle course, accepting the authority of the Old Testament but qualifying its relationship to Christianity, and one convenient way to fit the text into an explicitly Christian theological system was to read it allegorically.
Some commentators went hogwild with this approach. Pseudo-Barnabas, for example, claimed that the commandment not to eat pork was never meant to be taken literally the way the Jews adhered to it. What God actually meant when he said “don’t eat pig” was “don’t act like pigs.” In similar fashion, every single instance in which wood was mentioned could be pounced on as “clear” reference to the cross, and thus symbolic of Jesus. A set of texts (the Old Testament) which might otherwise pose problems for assimilation into the Christian worldview was thus rendered acceptable. On the one hand, Christians could claim ancient precedent for their beliefs; on the other, they neatly avoided many problems posed by the text they inherited.
(In a more modern context, Reform Jews have long asserted that the Messiah is best understood not as a literal individual figure, but merely as the hope for a utopian age.)
How do we know when and where to read symbolically? Do we have free rein with symbolic interpretations? Would it be acceptable to assert that the command to build temples is in fact meant to be understood symbolically, that God has no desire for physical buildings in which to worship him? Would it be possible to claim that the Second Coming and Millennium are empty promises, merely symbolic of our hopes for developing a utopian environment? If the Word of Wisdom were read as a symbolic commandment (representing our commitment to Christ, for example), would we then no longer be required to keep it literally?
As much as I admire the ingenuity of those allegorizing our sacred texts, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that symbolism isn’t sometimes invoked as a convenient way of weaseling out of addressing literal statements with which we’re no longer comfortable, and which pose problems to the ascendant theological position of the moment, in the ancient world as in the modern. The appealing characteristic of symbols– dual nature and the somewhat arbitrary relationship between the two aspects is their very manipulability. Canonized texts can be perceived to maintain their integrity and continuity through time even as novel readings are assigned to narratives and commandments.
How, methodologically, are appropriate symbolic readings constructed? And by what criteria are the acceptable symbolic readings sifted from the unacceptable?
- 5 December 2006