Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Symbolic God

Right now I’m in the process of writing a short essay on In Face of Mystery by Gordon Kaufman. From what I can tell from the portion of the book we read for class, I very much identify with his approach. One of the things that is central to his theology (and very interesting to me) is his understanding of religious traditions as symbolic frames. Here’s a quick run-down on “symbolic frames”:

Humans, as creatures whose lives are embedded in culture (we are “sociocultural animals”), try to make sense of their lives through symbolic frames. Early in human history, these symbolic frames took the form of stories—myths about humans and their place in our world. Over time these stories were modified and fleshed out, creating broadly encompassing worldviews that provided a framework for meaning in human life. Religious traditions are perfect examples of these symbolic frames—they had origins in early myths but were developed into what we now recognize as Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, etc.

What’s important to note, however, is that religious traditions aren’t static. They are culturally located and dynamic. Christianity in first century Palestine was drastically different from Christianity in fifth century Egypt, and that is drastically different from Christianity in twenty-first century America. The symbolic frame we call Christianity has grown and morphed over time along with the changing culture. As new ideas and new kinds of experiences became a part of people’s lives, the symbolic frame had to change in order to accommodate and make sense of the new aspects of life.

What’s important about this is that the symbols within the framework—the symbols that hold meaning and importance in our lives—are understood to be human creations. Because symbolic frames are socially constructed over time in particular cultures, the symbols within that frame are ever-changing in their valences and meanings.

This includes the symbol “God.” Anytime we talk about God, we are talking about something that is a human creation.

Whoa … hold up! Let me offer a quick explanation that may alleviate some distress. A symbol is made up two parts—the signifier and the signified. Take for instance an apple. We use the word “apple” (either the two syllables that you say with your mouth or the five written marks you make with your pen) to point to an object. The word “apple” is the signifier. The actual apple itself (either the slightly mushy one in your kitchen or a shiny, imaginary one in your head) is the signified. The signifier points to the signified. Put these two together, and you get a symbol. And it is only through symbols that we can have meaning. Symbols are the connection between our meaningful thoughts and the things we are thinking about.

Meaning is expressed in symbols. And symbols are human creations.

There may be an actual God (“God” the signified) whom we try to talk about with words (“God” the signifier)—but we have to recognize that there is no such thing as access to that God except through symbols. The only way we can talk about or think about God is by using humanly created symbols, or as Kaufman puts it: “all talk of God belongs to and has its meaning within a particular symbolical frame for orientation for human life.”

What this means is that anytime we talk about God, we are confronted by the symbols and meanings that we have created. But this human limitation also makes us more aware of the vastness of the mystery of God. Since we are limited in the face of a mysterious, ungraspable God, what option do we have except humble agnosticism?


  1. Could you clarify exactly what you mean by "humble agnosticism" Matt? I thought of three ways this could be understood, such as:

    Being content with not knowing, and that's that.

    Thinking about or "approaching" God through whichever religious tradition, while acknowledging the symbolism you were refering to while at the same time we are mindful of the idea that there is, perhaps, a God (who or what) beyond our conceptualizing.

    Fixing ourselves to a particular faith tradition in an inclusive, yet serious, way while not desiring to alienate others that we are in conversation with from other traditions.

    I am sure that there are other possibilites. Where are you coming from, at the moment, more specifically, if you don't mind my asking. I'm just being curious is all. If I'm not being too clear here, please forgive me. My brain is a bit on the fritz today.

  2. Here's a Kaufman quote that might clarify things a bit:

    "To the extent that Christians have insisted that certain formulas and practices known in the churches are alone saving for humans, they have expressed, unfortunately, a piety of law not gospel: the dialectic inherent in the concept of God seems to require an agnosticism, not dogmatism, with regard to all such matters."

    So, I think my point here is similar to my notion of what it means to approach a latent God. We are inherently limited (in this case because of our inability to access the God that lies behind our symbols), and as a result we should humbly acknowledge that limitation. Because we are human, there is a great deal we are incapable of knowing—and I think the best theology is up-front about that fact.

  3. I would agree with you, Matt. That is the approach I find myself using, or, better yet, I think that that approach is "using" me. In other words, as much as others around me often times have simply wished that I would just "change my mind about about my take on God, I know within my heart of hearts it's not that easy, at least for me.

    A friend of mine once asked me "How do you know that others around you aren't correct in their certainties about religion?" Of course, I couldn't offer a definitive answer to that, but I did state my belief that understanding the buman being and all that that my entail can be as confounding as our attempting to figure God out. Maybe they are right about their beliefs concerning God, but in my experience, many of those more certain types have been the least loving toward others who view reality differently from them.

  4. Where does revelation fit into your idea here? Clearly even if one accepts revelation they do so on faith, not through certainty. But it seems that either God has revealed Himself or He has not, and if He has the question is how much has He revealed? Assuming for the sake of argument God exists, if He has not revealed anything about Himself then our symbols are manmade representations of what we think He is like. However, what happens if you accept revelation, supposing again for the sake of argument that one does? Are the symbols then God-given or manmade or both? Also, where do you see the incarnation fitting into this discussion, again under the assumption that one accepts it as a reality?

    I agree that humility is a must in any scenario regarding faith, and I also lament that "many of those more certain types have been the least loving toward others who view reality differently from them."

  5. Both of those questions are complicated—I doubt that I have good answers to either.

    As for revelation, the scenario looks very different depending on whether God is still revealing. It seems to me that revelation would not necessarily change the notion of humanly created symbolic systems.

    When people have religious experiences (I'm generalizing and guessing here), there seem to be two main options. First, God interacts with people in their own language ("I heard God speak to me"), in which case God is utilizing human symbols. Second, God plants a sort of pre-linguistic feeling in someone or interacts with them in some non-verbal way. If this is the case, the only way for the event to be discussed is for it to be translated into symbols and endowed with meaning.

    Either way, though, these interactions would not meaning anything to anyone unless they are given meaning through some symbolic scheme. Raw data, as it were, is meaningless until it is interpreted.

    As for the incarnation, it seems that it wouldn't be that different from revelation necessarily. I'm not sure I could theorize about what was happening in A.D. 30, but for contemporary believers the incarnation is an event that is understood within and also part of a Christian symbolic scheme. It only makes sense when understood in light of other meaningful symbols like grace, sin, divinity, humanity, etc.

    For me, Kaufman's understanding of symbolic schemes doesn't really change my understanding of religion; instead, it provides me with resources for thinking critically about it.


Let me know what you think....