What is a Sacred Symbol?

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Symbols are central to human ways of engaging the world. Suzanne Langer (1895-1985) purported symbol making to constitute “one of man’s primary activities, like eating, cooking, or moving about” essential to acts of the mind (1). Religion scholar Laurenti Magesa claims 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 (2).

A symbol is some item, such as an object, statement, or performance, that represents something else: the lion is a symbol of strength, a tree can be symbolic of life, and a certain gesture, like bending a knee to the ground, represents respect or submission, and so on. In religion, there are symbols of a verbal, material, and ritual kind, but without going into detail regarding kinds of symbols, what does it mean, generally speaking, to say that symbols are “sacred.”

David Chidester refers to sacred symbols that are deemed sacred in two ways (3). 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 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 (4). According to Chidester’s theory, ownership concerns efforts of religious persons and communities to appropriate symbols and legitimize access to them. For example, Christians, Mormons, and Muslims all contend over who legitimately owns Jesus Christ. Christ is important in all three traditions and proponents of all three wish to perceive themselves as having the correct view and interpretation of the historical and theological Christ. This battlefield between traditions over symbol ownership is the “intense type of energy” that is produced and gives them their sacredness.

According to E. Wilbur Bock, symbols that are sacred are resistant to change, which means that their present-day appearance continues to reflect an antique heritage (5). In the Christian tradition, the Easter period’s symbols include the concept of resurrection expressed in the cross and the empty tomb. The Lent period is symbolized by ashes, fasting and the eating of fish, and midweek church services.

The seminal sociologist Emile Durkheim also presented a perspective on symbols I believe is informative. Religion, he claimed, is a system of mutually reinforcing beliefs, rites (behaviours), and symbols. Symbols have an important function because they serve as constant reminders of the religious beliefs and obligations of a community’s people. Durkheim postulated that over time people forget their religious duties and they need to be reminded of them. Referring to the totem, usually an item or animal viewed as sacred by a community, of the Arunta aborigines, Durkheim refers to the extrinsic sacredness of symbols. Extrinsic sacredness denotes an object’s sacred status as not from within the item itself but is that which has been superimposed on it by human beings. In the case of the Arunta, unable the origin of the power and emotion generated by religious ceremonies, they attribute it to some object in their presence which thereby becomes sacred. Symbols and ceremonies thus produce a particularly intense form of interaction and create an especially powerful form of integration.

Sacred symbols can be succinctly packaged as follows: an object, statement, or performance representing something else that is revered by a religious community, is resistant to change, and that produces an intense type of energy between members of different religions and of the same religion.

Although this definition is sufficient, a criticism is that it fails to be sufficiently discriminatory. A secular symbol, such as symbols within sports or food symbols, can qualify as “sacred” on this definition. To a contemporary diehard fan, a football team and brand can represent commitment and the will to overcome challenges, as it is was for fans a century ago. Certainly this too produces an intense type of energy for sports fans who themselves wish to claim legitimacy for their preferred players and so on. Equally, the intrinsic “sacredness” of a team symbols is not intrinsic but has been superimposed upon it by fans. Unless one is willing to consider sports as akin to religion and sacred symbols, these aforementioned definitions raise the same difficulties that have confronted definitions of religion.

References

1. Quoted by Walter Capps (1995) in Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 210.

2. Magesa, Laurenti. 1997. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. New York: Orbis Books. p. 3.

3. Chidester, David. 1989. “Worldview analysis of African Indigenous Churches.” Journal for the Study of Religion 2(1):15-29. p. 22.

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

5. Wilbur Bock, E. 1966. “Symbols in Conflict: Official versus Folk Religion.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 5(2):204-212. p. 206-207.

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