Tillich On Symbols, Religion, And Myths

This week, I’ve been teaching and discussing excerpts from Paul Tillich‘s Dynamics of Faith in my philosophy of religion class. (In particular, we’ve tackled _The Meaning of Symbol_, _Religious Symbols_, and _Symbols and Myths_, all excerpted in From Religion To Tolstoy and Camus, Walter Kaufmann, ed.)  I suggested to my students before we started our conversation that hopefully, on its completion, they would find the rhetorical use of “just/only a symbol” or “merely symbolic” , or “just a myth” to be quite interestingly problematized. I’d like to think it was.

Tillich’s contributions to our understanding of religious language, knowledge, and practice–which show the influence of existential and psychoanalytic thought in channeling both Nietzsche and Freud–are manifold and important, and I cannot do justice to them here. But it is worth reminding ourselves of what they might be by pointing in their direction.

First, Tillich attempts to distinguish ‘symbol’ from ‘sign’ to indicate the abstraction, origins, and applications of the former. This characterization lends itself to a broader philosophical discussion about abstraction and meaning-making in general, and which allows an invocation of the use of symbols and signs in natural and formal languages. Most importantly, it invokes questions central to our reckoning of art and poetry: how do these create meaning, what kind of ‘access to reality’ do they afford us, how do the poet and the artist enable a species of experience unlike any other? Second, he tackles squarely the existential nature of the questions–the meaning and the purpose of life, the relations of our finite life to a potentially infinite existence–that lie at the heart of a certain species of religious engagement. This permits a reckoning of the nature of the human condition such that the kinds of questions that Tillich alludes to, matters of ‘ultimate concern’, that transcend the finite particulars of human life, can be understood as being forced upon us so that non-engagement with them is not an option; this also allows analogies to be drawn about how certain kinds of philosophical questions are, as it were, ‘posed for us’. Third, he redefines ‘God’ in a way that removes a certain species of sterile debate–that of disputing the general theistic conception of God–from the domain of religious thought and draws the atheist into the existential fold; fourth, his treatment of ‘myths’ and ‘mythologies’ offers us a new understanding of religious sentiment and attitudes and allows for a criticism of reductionist attitudes to knowledge; (The discussion here of ‘demythologizing’, the attempt to render myths meaningful in alternative orders of meaning, and the ‘broken myth’ is masterful.); finally, he argues that the defenses of religion’s mythologies by ‘literalism’ contribute to a devaluation of religious thought and sentiment.

Tillich’s treatment of religious symbols and language is historical and anthropological and cultural, one that affords a distinctive answer to one of philosophy of religion’s most central questions; religion is an outward, concrete manifestation of an existential, perennial, unconscious impulse, relying on symbols and stories to engage with questions fundamental to the human condition.

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