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Tuesday, May 19, 1998

The reality of the symbol of God.

In the past two centuries, Christian theologians have confronted radical challenges to the intelligibility of traditional ideas about the nature of God. The rise of "historical consciousness" in Western scholarship and culture has challenged the idea that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of the Nicene Creed as well as the God of contemporary faith. Each idea of God has come to be seen as historically and culturally situated. At the same time, modern science has largely displaced other methods of explanation, leading to radically changed — and more limited — ideas about God's providential activity, miraculous intervention, and necessity as a "first principle." Growing awareness of the sophistication and variety of the world's religions has challenged confidence in the finality of Christianity over other religious and secular beliefs. While the rise of the modern world has provoked criticism of traditional religious ideas, however, it has also provoked innovative theological attempts to understand God's significance for our time.

How "real" is God when one recognizes the historicity and cultural specificity of ideas about God? Does God make any difference in a world governed by scientific laws? Has the modern world eliminated the need for belief in God? Modern theologians have responded to these challenges in a variety of ways.1 One of the most important theological responses to the challenges of the modern world appears in the work of theologians like Paul Tillich and Gordon Kaufman, who acknowledge the historical and partial nature of every claim about God, but who nevertheless attempt to demonstrate the significance of God for the modern world. God is in fact a symbol, according to these theologians, and like all symbols, the symbol "God" changes over time. God is not merely a symbol, however. As a symbol, God is also real, with the power to transform human life.

Acknowledging the symbolic and historically contingent nature of God — while maintaining the reality of God — involves a radical limitation on what it means to speak of God's reality. Both Tillich and Kaufman find questions of the existence of God essentially beside the point.2 Tillich writes that theologians who base their systems on the existence of God set themselves up as authorities for a special knowledge unavailable to other people. Assertions that begin with the existence of God lead "inescapably" to atheism by provoking people's resistance to authoritarian claims (5), especially when the special authority of theology is contrasted with science's appeal to reproducible, demonstrable evidence. Tillich sympathizes with atheists in this regard, and finds an "absolute seriousness" characteristic of true religious feeling in some people's rejection of "religion" (8).3 Kaufman also treats arguments for or against God's existence as religiously beside the point. He characterizes the existence or non-existence of God as irrelevant to his own theology. He writes that "the phrase ultimate point of reference [his basic theological term for God's transcendence] indicates the conceptual function of God-talk, not the content of the idea of God" (148). It is God's place in human life, and not God's metaphysical status, that deserves primary theological scrutiny.

Christianity includes important precedents for theological work that downplays statements about the actual existence of God. Kaufman points to the Christian mystical tradition that emphasizes the via negativa (which has interpreted the Divine as "not-existing, as radical nonbeing") and to the emphasis in Thomas Aquinas's theology that all statements about God are analogical in character rather than literal or univocal in character (146-148). Kaufman also places Tillich in this tradition. While Tillich and Kaufman avoid a "reified God," they nevertheless affirm a real God with real effects. God's reality and saving power become evident through the human process of symbolization. Symbols constitute the means by which human beings orient their lives in meaningful activity, and the reality of this process of human orientation seems itself to be the reality and significance of God for the modern world.

In Tillich's Theology of Culture (1959), human beings are described as creatures who orient their lives meaningfully through their relationship with symbols. For Tillich, religion is the "dimension of depth" in all aspects of human life (7) — a dimension expressed and opened up for us through religious symbols. "Religion is not a special function of the human spirit," Tillich writes (6), but is rather the depth or ultimacy in each aspect of human life. The "unconditional seriousness of the moral demand" manifests depth in morality; the "passionate longing for ultimate reality" manifests depth in knowledge; the "infinite desire to express ultimate meaning" manifests depth in aesthetic creativity (8).

Tillich refers to the dimension of depth as our "ultimate concern." Our ultimate concern is distinguished from our many "concrete concerns" only by virtue of its depth. Our ultimate concern is not one among our many concerns, others of which are concrete concerns (such as our material needs, tangible interests, and historical and social loyalties, and so on). Instead, our ultimate concern is felt in the depth of each of these concerns. Symbols are crucial to Tillich's understanding of religion because it is through symbols that our tangible, concrete experience comes to express and convey our concern with ultimacy. Religious symbols drawn from concrete human concerns — such as the eucharistic meal, which is food, or the image of the crucified Christ, which is an image of a suffering person — nevertheless point us beyond their own concreteness toward what is truly worthy of our ultimate concern. For Tillich, "faith is the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, and God is the name for the content of the concern" (40). Symbols grab us by virtue of their concreteness, and orient us toward ultimacy by virtue of the experience of depth we find in the symbol.

Tillich makes a basic distinction between signs and symbols. Signs are arbitrary signifiers, pointing beyond themselves toward something else, but having no essential or necessary relationship to their referents. A written word is an outstanding example of the purely arbitrary connection between a sign (the word on the page) and its referent (the sound-image and concept to which the written word points). We know to think of edible things when we see the word "food," but the four letters in that word have no necessary relationship with the sound-image of that word in spoken language, nor do they have a necessary relationship with the concept of edible things. Even less does the written word "food" hold a necessary relationship to actual edible things. Only through a process of association and social convention has this written sign come to signify the sound-image, concept, and objects to which the word points.

Some words, however, also develop connotations beyond mere signification, turning them from signs into symbols. Symbols also point beyond themselves, but there is a fundamental difference between signs and symbols. Symbols "participate in that to which they point" (60). A symbol, like a sign, points to something beyond the symbol itself. Unlike a sign, however, which is only arbitrarily linked to its referent, a symbol "participates in the reality" to which it points. Through their liturgical use, the written words of 1 Corinthians 23-25 — "Take, eat: this is my body which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me" — have ceased to be merely signs. The eucharistic meal is an example of a religious symbol. The bread and wine are not incidental to the symbol's power, but integral to it. Liturgical and sacramental activity and language do not simply signify their meanings; they participate in their meanings. The meaning of the eucharist could not be conveyed with the replacement of the bread and wine by other "signs," because the meaning of the action actually depends on their specific qualities as symbols.4 In fact, it seems that one of the crucial distinctions between a sign and a symbol is that the referent (or object) of a symbol cannot be perceived apart from the symbol, whereas the referent of a sign is independent of the sign assigned to it.5

Tillich views God as the greatest of religious symbols, but also says that it is inappropriate to "simply say that God is a symbol." There are two crucial aspects of the nature of the symbol of God: a transcendent aspect and an immanent aspect. First, the symbol "God" conveys above all else transcendence. The First Commandment introduces God's transcendence in mythic language: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me"; Anselm uses the language of Greek philosophy: "God is that than which nothing greater can be imagined." In each case, the definitions point to something real that transcends everything — including statements made about that reality. The referent of "God" is transcendence. In terms of its referent, however, the symbol "God" must be seen to include a "non-symbolic element," for God's transcendence is not symbolic but real (61). It is, however, the immanent aspect of the symbol "God" that allows the symbol to convey the transcendence to which the symbol points and in which it participates. This complex claim requires careful elucidation.

Holding an image of God "means we have a symbol for that which is not symbolic in the idea of God," which Tillich calls "Being Itself" (61). However, symbols by their nature emerge from our experience, and our experience is not transcendent but specific. We cannot, in other words, simply have an experience of Being Itself. If the idea of God includes "only the element of the unconditional, then no relationship to God is possible" because an unconditional transcendent has no characteristics other than transcendence. The symbol "God" combines a transcendent and an immanent aspect, for the qualities that make God thinkable are "taken from experienced qualities we have ourselves" (62). These qualities are immediately recognizable as symbolic when we realize that they convey the ultimacy or transcendence of God even though no one of them can be literally applied to God. Without the qualities, however, the transcendence of God would be incomprehensible. God is therefore the symbol of transcendence to which we relate ourselves conceptually, devotionally, and collectively in worship. The symbolization of God is a human activity apparent in religious devotion and theological reflection. The immanent nature of the symbol provides us with characteristics of God, but those characteristics point us toward the transcendence that is God. Without the immanence of the symbol, however, we could never be pointed toward transcendence. This is why religious symbols not only point to but also participate in the reality to which they point.

Kaufman's basic understanding of religious symbolism closely follows Tillich. In God, Mystery, Diversity: Christian Theology in a Pluralistic World (1996), Kaufman identifies absoluteness, transcendence, and ultimacy with God (46; "Subthesis A"). Kaufman also believes with Tillich that all images and concepts about God — all the symbols we use to orient ourselves beyond ourselves — are drawn from human experiences ("Subthesis B"). "Constructive theology," as Kaufman practices it, depends on the assumption that the concepts we use to shape our understanding of the symbol "God" have momentous consequences.

Human life requires orientation in the midst of competing claims for our attention and loyalty. Religious symbols orient human life by promising human fulfillment ("salvation") as we recognize the relation of all our concerns to an "ultimate point of reference." Kaufman writes that "a major function of religions (and of theologies) is to present human beings with visions of the whole of reality." Religions and theologies construe human life in particular ways (for they can only present a vision of the whole of reality, not the whole of reality itself) that make sense of our experience and that motivate us to live "fruitfully and meaningfully" within the essentially enigmatic circumstances of our lives (98). Monotheistic traditions orient human life around God. The symbol "God" points to that which "transcends all experience and the world" as the "ultimate point of reference" for everything in the world. When we think about God, we orient ourselves toward that which transcends all other things. The "referent" of the symbol "God" is therefore transcendence.

We do not easily come to think about God in such abstract terms, however. We come to think about God by virtue of the fact that we are historical beings living in a culture that has developed particular models and metaphors and analogies about God. In other words, we do not think about God in the abstract: we think about God (and the orientation of our lives) in terms of the "concepts and images" that have been used in our culture to talk about God, and all of these concepts and images are "drawn from particular human experiences" (46). God transcends every experience and every thing, but all of our concepts and images about God are drawn from human experience. Kaufman believes that this paradox reveals two important truths about God's significance for human life: God's transcendence helps us find orientation in life by relating all human concerns to an ultimate point of reference, and the expression of transcendence in terms and images drawn from human experience asserts the essential humaneness of God. God's absoluteness and God's humaneness become the primary concerns of theology (49). In other words, we find an affirmation of the transcendent and the immanent — the human — in our relation to God.

Kaufman makes explicit his assumption that "religious believing and theological analysis and reflection are human activities, engaged in for human purposes" (24). "I am suggesting that what is necessary or required to build a humane order in this world should be made the central criterion both for assessing our theological beliefs and for determining the character of the theological task" (24). Identifying what is truly necessary to build a humane order is difficult, of course, but in an important sense Kaufman is simply asserting theology's ancient interest in promoting a saving faith. For him, the only God worthy of worship and human loyalty is the God that focuses our lives on the saving task of building a humane world. (His doctrine of salvation, it should be clear, emphasizes over all else processes of humanization in this life; see 36-37.)

On the one hand, it appears that Kaufman retains the symbol simply because it seems highly effective at pointing us toward greater humanization; but, on the other hand, Kaufman is claiming that this is exactly what God has always been about. (In this respect, he repeats the central observations of Ludwig Feuerbach.) Kaufman describes how the symbol of God — as absolute and humanizing — demands our attention today:

Our awareness of God's absoluteness will show every point of view, every custom, every institution, every style of life of which we know, to be finite and limited and relative; and we will begin to see how frequently we and others falsely absolutize one or another of these into idols before whom we bow in worship . . . [A]s we bring the customs and institutions and practices of human life today into connection with the image/concept of God, we are enabled better to see the respects in which they are inhuman, depersonalizing, or destructive of our own humanity as well as the humanity of others. (51)

Tillich and Kaufman acknowledge that God is a symbol, and that all symbols develop in reference to human experience. Human experience is historical, culturally specific, and diverse, and so both theologians acknowledge that the symbolization of God will continue to adapt. Tillich suggests that religious symbols emerge out of the depth dimension in human experience, and that they have taken hold of every aspect of human life at some point in human history; the symbol God, however, by pointing toward ultimacy, serves as the ultimate check on other symbols. Kaufman also describes God as an ultimate check for all other symbols and concerns, but suggests that human beings should consciously reshape the metaphors for God in order to bring God's power of ultimacy to bear on behalf of processes of humanization. (Both Tillich and Kaufman acknowledge that religious symbols, including God, have been employed for evil ends.) Tillich does not draw such explicit attention to deliberate reconceptualization of God; by pointing to ultimate concern expressed in unconventional ways in secular culture, however,Tillich expects to see new models emerge for our understanding of God. The profound value of the approach Tillich and Kaufman bring to theology is that their symbolic analysis of God treats God not as an existing thing but as the ultimate focus of the innately human process of symbolizing meaning. God is symbolic, taking form in terms of those aspects of human life which have through time involved the greatest depth of human feeling.

But is such a God real? Tillich and Kaufman answer with two affirmations: First, God is real because, as a symbol, God orients us to the limitations of our own symbols, with the very real consequence of humbling us. And second, God is real because, as a symbol, God expresses the depth in our own experience and focuses our lives on processes of humanization. Some may argue that the crucial matter of God's existence cannot be so lightly left out of the equation, but Tillich and Kaufman view the insistence on a literal, existent God as not only theologically unnecessary but also as dangerous in the modern world. Human beings still require orientation in the midst of the mystery of life, and the symbol of God invites all people into an active relationship with the depth of human experience. Symbolization itself, by transforming concrete human experiences into symbols conveying not only the value of life but also the ultimacy that transcends every experience, invites human beings into participation with the deepest dimension of life. Symbols, in the work of Tillich and Kaufman, are never merely symbolic; in the deepest sense, symbols are real and bring our lives into greater reality and ultimate focus.


Written for "Modern Theology and Its Critics," Professor David Lamberth, Harvard Divinity School, May 19, 1998. This essay is the intellectual property of Christopher L. Walton and must be fully and properly cited when used as a source in your own writing or you are committing plagiarism. The proper citation is:

Walton, Christopher L. "The Reality of the Symbol of God." Philocrites. 19 May 1998. <>.

1. One might properly regard all theologians working in the "modern period" as modern theologians, including those radically opposed to "modernism" as such — including fundamentalists, many orthodox and evangelical thinkers and, I suppose, some neo-orthodox theologians. I am using the term more selectively: to refer to those religious thinkers who assume and explicitly declare the value of extra-Christian and secular ideas and developments for their understanding of Christianity. A positive although critical regard for modern intellectual movements characterizes modern theology. (Return to text.)

2. In order to be consistent, I am using "real" and "existing" in distinct ways. "Real" connotes a status of consequentiality, meaningfulness, and specificity, but does not necessarily imply substantial existence (material or otherwise). "Existing" also connotes consequential, meaningful, and specific qualities, but adds substantiality. While all existing things are real, it may be the case that we can talk about "real" things that do not necessarily "exist."

Kaufman describes the Western philosophical tendency, emerging out of the Greek philosophical tradition, to "think of reality in terms of being, of what is" (145). After Aristotle, the distinguishing mark of real things has been their substantiality. Things that exist (or have substantiality) have been considered more real, but there may also be "things" (like language, perhaps) that are real without being substantial. Tillich explicitly speaks of "levels of reality." Although Kaufman seems more pragmatic in his orientation, and Tillich more metaphysical, neither of them seems to limit reality to existing things. When I refer to "existence," I mean to imply reality with substantiality, or what Kant calls the "phenomenal world." Reality is a broader term, although it seems that the reality to which Tillich or Kaufman points is not necessarily "noumenal" in a Kantian sense. (Return to text.)

3. The only atheism that is truly atheistic, according to Tillich, is that which attempts "to remove any ultimate concern — to remain unconcerned about the meaning of one's existence" (Dynamics of Faith, Harper & Row, 1957, 45). (Return to text.)

4. Those branches of Protestantism following Zwingli, of course, view the Lord's Supper as a sign rather than a symbol. See Tillich's discussion of the Lord's Supper, 64-65. (Return to text.)

5. Although Tillich does not emphasize the point strongly, it seems that symbolic words may be dependent on religious activities in which the symbolic character of the words is established. The participatory aspect of a symbol suggests that religious symbols may be inevitably linked to or even dependent on religious activity, whether the activity is privately devotional or communally ritual in character. Tillich says that "if new symbols are born, they are born out of a changed relationship to the ultimate ground of being" (59, my emphasis). Such relationships are human activities, although Tillich downplays human deliberation in the emergence of new relationships to the holy. (Return to text.)

Copyright © 1998 by Philocrites | Posted 19 May 1998 at 5:00 PM

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