Religion and the Life Cycle

Symbolism and the Sacred


Three Images:


1.    Image of a crucifix, image of a swastika, image of a stop sign.  What does each image tell you?  

2.    How does it tell you this?  Are they different in the way they tell you?

3.    Which is/are religious?



4.    Religion as concerning the sacred, holy, ultimate – but we either have no direct access or we can’t describe or communicate experience of the sacred directly.

a.    Symbolic communication – “brings together” human and divine, sacred and profane

b.    Cf. religio – to bind together, bridge


5.    Symbolic communication – follows basic pattern of responding to experience with sound or gesture, become a means of communication

a.    Symbols and Signs

                                                       i.     Signs and symbols both point beyond themselves to something else

                                                      ii.     A sign: “indicates the existence – past, present, or future – of a thing, an event, or condition” (Langer).  Animals tend to use signs.  They signal, point to, refer to, or remind us of something else.  E.g., swastika, crucifix.




6.    A symbol points beyond to something not fully known, it leads us to greater understanding, from lack of knowledge to knowledge.

a.    A symbol is not a sign – a sign points beyond itself to something known, it stands for something.  

b.    Symbolic language is the only language sufficient to express faith and God.

c.     Symbolism plays a part in what it represents

d.    Symbol: A special kind of sign.  Used to convey and reflect upon what the symbol refers to.  Characteristically human, they engage abstractions

                                                       i.     Representational symbols: Learned associations.  Tie together things that are distinct.  The symbol and what is symbolized are connected through convention, based on cultural context.   E.g., green light.  The color black can be associated with death in one context, whereas the color white is so associated in another.

                                                      ii.     Presentational symbols: Participate in, or are similar to, the thing that they symbolize

1.    In a secular context, map represents a terrain, has basic similarity

2.    In a religious context, the symbol participates in or manifest the holy or sacred.

a.    An icon in the Orthodox Church – makes present the Divine

b.    A map of Mother India, makes present the goddess.

c.    Mudras: disclose certain aspects of the Buddha