Symbolic Exchange in Religion Studies and Religious Apologetics


Scholar David Chidester’s theory of symbolic exchange provides a useful framework for conceptualizing religious apologetics as the contestation of sacred symbols, their ownership, and alienation. It is also a successful methodology used by scholars and phenomenologists of religion for analyzing a range of religious phenomena. This entry looks at how symbolic exchange is used in both religion studies and religious apologetics, and it will conclude with a definition of apologetics based upon the theory of symbolic exchange.

A New Perspective on Religious Apologetics

To this author’s knowledge, no scholar considered here or elsewhere has viewed the function of religious apologetics in terms of symbols and their dynamics, nor has used symbol contestation to inform a discursive approach to apologetic materials. This is striking since if, as many scholars believe, symbols provide a helpful means of approaching religious worldviews, of which apologetics must be deemed a part thereof. Surely it can be employed as an analytical tool for religious apologetics too.

Symbology’s Importance for Studying Religion

The basis for symbol analysis within the study of religion is severalfold. Walter Capps (1934-1997) identifies symbolic forms, cultural symbols, and the process of symbolization as belonging to the world of religion, a fact acknowledged by its earliest theorists (Capps 1995, 210). Suzanne Langer (1895-1985) purported symbol making to constitute “one of man’s primary activities, like eating, cooking, or moving about” (Capps 1995, 216). Symbol making expresses the basic human needs and distinguishes humans from other animals. Capps reveals that for some theorists, the data of myths and symbols constituted the primary materials upon which reflective analysis and interpretation is exercised (Capps 1995, 222). It is helpful in that it enables one to organize, synthesize, and cross-reference content. Laurenti Magesa says that understanding religion calls for an appreciation of symbols because, through their expression within rituals and myths, they are used to explain the origin, purpose, and meaning of the world and humanity’s place within it (Magesa 1997, 3). It is this relationship between symbols and meaning that makes them such a fundamental feature of religion.

Symbology as Impartial Analysis

As a tool, symbology assists in impartial analysis, which is particularly helpful given this topic is accompanied by strong convictions and commitments. Rita Gross (d. 2015) captured this interplay between a religious worldview and the academic study of religion, which she stated consisted of

“emotion-laden systems that directly affect people’s lives… the academic study of religion can often feel threatening, in part because the distinction between the study of religion as an academic discipline and the personal practice of religion is not often made in our culture. Therefore, the academic study of religion challenges one’s personal beliefs more than the study of other academic disciplines” (Gross 1996, 5).

It is maintained here that symbology allows the researcher to focus on sacred symbols, their contestation, claims to ownership, and attempts at alienation while also allowing the researcher to both strategically and temporarily distance herself from value judgments. This approach requires the suspension of personal bias, prejudice, and investment in religion and its sacred symbols, which suggests that it is not within the researcher’s right to claim ownership of symbols for herself and alienate others from them within her scholarly work (Chidester 1989, 27).

Religion and Symbolic Forms

Chidester contends that if one wishes to understand religious worldviews and thought an analysis of symbolic forms is imperative (Chidester 1985, 45-48; 1989, 21). The scholar should identify how these forms are formulated, appropriated, manipulated, and mobilized to fashion a human identity as well as a place for the human being to stand and act. Chidester views the appropriation of symbols as a means to satisfy “interests,” in place of needs (Chidester 1989, 24). Interests constitute concerns religious believers and communities have with specific political and social realities within their contexts. One can focus on these interests as a means to understand the motivations of the religious believers.

What is a Sacred Symbol?

Chidester refers to religious phenomena as “sacred symbols,” “religious symbols,” and “symbolic forms.” These appear to denote the same phenomenon, which is a symbol that is deemed ‘sacred’ in two ways (Chidester 1989, 22). First, its sacredness lies in the fact that a religious community views the symbol in this way. It is afforded respect and reverence by those within the religious tradition. Second, it is rendered sacred through claims of ownership which produce an intense type of energy. Numerous such examples can be pulled from Chidester’s work: for Christians, a sacred symbol is Christ’s presence which stands in as a link between human beings and the divine, as well as a historical figure (such as Christ himself), and theological names (such as ‘Son of Man’ or ‘Saviour’) given to the figure (Chidester 1985, 62).

The Battlefield of Sacred Symbols

Within the process of sacred symbol ownership and their appropriation contestation occurs. Chidester’s symbology identifies ownership, appropriation, and alienation as dominant features with this dynamic process.

Ownership. The ownership of sacred symbols is a central constituent of religion because religious worldviews perpetuate the stealing back and forth of sacred symbols (Chidester 1989, 21). The power of these symbols is evident within the personal and collective claims to ‘ownership,’ through which religious believers and communities invest them with revered sacredness. Ownership is witnessed in efforts to appropriate symbols, own them, and alienate others from them. Religious worldview, persons, and communities appropriate symbols and then make exclusive claims to their ownership.

Appropriation. The legitimized ownership and exclusive access to sacred symbols take place through an appropriation of a symbol already in one’s possession which takes on a new meaning that represents the interests of a religious community (Chidester 1989, 24). Chidester refers to the work of Janet Hodgson which looks at the historical appropriation of Ntsikana and Nxele as symbols of power within emergent African movements (Hodgson 1986). Figures like Ntsikana and Nxele were not simply individuals located historically and spatially but also meaningful and powerful sacred symbols appropriated within Xhosa religious history. These figures were appropriated to meet the religious, political, and social interests of the Xhosa people: Ntsikana as a symbol of non-violent Xhosa nationalism, and Nxele as a symbol of militant resistance. Through an analysis and understanding of symbol appropriation, a researcher is able to comprehend African consciousness and discern its development. The appropriation of symbols in the Ntsikana and Nxele context can be extrapolated to other religious worldviews. One case concerns the battlefield over the ownership of the sacred symbol of the Bible within South Africa prior to 1992. During this era the Bible functioned as a symbol fiercely contested by apartheid ideologues, liberationist theologians, and several other groups, all of whom appropriated the biblical texts to use them as a vehicle of power to be deployed to satisfy interests. For the liberationists its power lay in its use against religious and political justifications for the apartheid regime’s ideology. The interest here was of one day transitioning South African society into one founded upon equality, justice, and egalitarian principles, which would be applied across the racial and cultural spectrums. For the apartheid ideologues, the Bible was used as a tool for the separation of races. The interests here lay primarily with the prosperity of a white minority while all non-whites were ‘othered’ as inferior and therefore treated with prejudice and discrimination.

Alienation from Sacred Symbols. The strategy of alienation is by definition exclusionary in how it pronounces that “you don’t own them, we do” (Chidester 1989, 23). The goal of symbolic exchange is to alienate and exclude others from claiming ownership, access, and use of sacred symbols. This is achieved through one group reserving privileged rights and access to the symbols at the expense of the other group.

Chidester’s Theory of Symbolic Exchange and Religious Apologetics

Now that the important processes (i.e. sacred symbols, contestation, ownership, and alienation) within symbolic exchange are clear, how might this relate to the field of religious apologetics? The following is suggested.

Religious Apologetics as Ownership of Sacred Symbols. The apologist for a religious worldview wishes to demonstrate ownership of sacred symbols. These sacred symbols are derived from narratives and doctrines within the religion’s scriptures which are typically taken to be the most accurate and indisputable version of the symbol in view. Relating this to Christianity, if a biblical text or revelation claims X about sacred symbol Y then it is typically taken on X’s authority that what it says about Y is true over and above claims made about Y within other religious and/or non-religious worldviews and traditions. The challenge for the apologist is that she is not the only one seeking to demonstrate symbol ownership. A range of symbols are contested across a diverse number of religious worldviews and traditions and on behalf of their respective proponents, practitioners, theologians, and apologists.

Religious Apologetics as Appropriation of Sacred Symbols. The appropriation of a sacred symbol typically requires that the apologist employs defensive strategies. Religious worldviews borrow and steal symbols from one another and purpose them to meet their religious, social, and political interests. Proponents of religious worldviews and traditions believe theirs to hold to dichotomous and mutually exclusive conceptions of these symbols, and efforts are made to appropriate and own a symbol from another worldview or tradition. The religious apologist will contend in favour of her own interpretation of the symbol in question and will do so at the expense and exclusion (alienation) of the other worldview. For this to have epistemic warrant, the apologist has the responsibility of defending her ownership of the symbol against appropriation from others, while others also feel a desire to prevent the appropriation of their symbols. The results are strategic defenses and offensive measures that produce a back and forth exchange and contestation of sacred symbols.

Religious Apologetics as Alienation from Sacred Symbols. Just as the ownership and alienation of symbols are by definition exclusionary so is the overall task of religious apologetics. Apologetics seeks not only to legitimize ownership of symbols but also to alienate other religious traditions, worldviews, and believers from them.

Symbolic Exchange as Religious Apologetics: A Definition

This conceptualization of religious apologetics integrated with insights from the theorists within the literature review and Chidester’s theory of symbolic exchange allows for a unique definition of religious apologetics: Religious apologetics is a branch of theology which attempts to demonstrate the legitimate ownership of sacred symbols as well as the right to appropriate sacred symbols to satisfy the interests of a religious worldview and those who hold the worldview. It further treats with primacy the need to defend ownership of sacred symbols and demonstrate the illegitimate claims to ownership of opposing and alternative religious and irreligious traditions and worldviews.


Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Chidester, David. 1985. “Word against Light: Perception and the Conflict of Symbols.” The Journal of Religion 65:46-62. Accessed July 8, 2019.

Chidester, David. 1989. “Worldview Analysis of African Indigenous Churches.” Journal for the Study of Religion 2:15-29. Accessed July 9, 2019.

Gross, Neil and Simmons, Solon. 2007. “How Religious are America’s College and University Professors?” Social Science Research Council. Accessed July 9, 2019.

Hodgson, Janet. 1986. “The Symbolic Entry Point: Removing the Veil of Structure from the Study of Religious Movements.” In Afro-Christianity at the Grassroots: Its Dynamics and Strategies, edited by Gerhardus Cornelis Oosthuizen, 48-67. Leiden: Brill.

Magesa, Laurenti. 1997. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. New York: Orbis Books.



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