January 24, 2008


The theme of this week's Goat Rope is the nature of faith, which is an interesting subject whether you have any at the moment or not. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Yesterday's post was about symbols, which are always a part of faith. A friend emailed me to point out that the most recognized symbol in the world today is McDonald's golden arches. Holy fetishism of commodities, Batman! That point goes to Marx...

According to the influential 20th century Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, faith is about whatever concerns us ultimately and is always symbolic. This is true of traditional religion as well as of things like nationalism or the goal of "success":

everything which is a matter of unconditional concern is made into a god. If the nation is some one's ultimate concern, the name of the nation becomes a sacred name and the nation receives divine qualities which far surpass the reality of the being and functioning of the nation. The nation then stands for and symbolizes the true ultimate, but in an idolatrous way.

Success as ultimate concern is not the natural desire of actualizing potentialities, but is readiness to sacrifice all other values of life for the sake of a position of power and social predominance. The anxiety about not being a success is an idolatrous form of the anxiety about divine condemnation. Success is grace; lack of success, ultimate judgment. In this way concepts designating ordinary realities become idolatrous symbols of ultimate concern.

Symbols are united with myths. Unfortunately, the term myth is sadly abused in current speech, where it means something that just isn't true. Myths are stories often of God or the gods that convey meaning to human life. We can't do without them:

Myths are always present in every act of faith, because the language of faith is the symbol.

Most great religious traditions eventually criticize their mythic elements, such as stories that depict God or the gods acting like humans. Most religions eventually recognize that many of their sacred stories have meanings that are true but metaphorical rather than factual and literal. Tillich calls a myth that is recognized as such a "broken myth." Still you can't get rid of them:

All the mythological elements in the Bible, and doctrine and liturgy should be recognized as mythological, but they should be maintained in their symbolic form and not be replaced by scientific substitutes. For there is no substitute for the use of symbols and myths: they are the language of faith...

Symbols of faith cannot be replaced by other symbols, such as artistic ones, and they cannot be removed by scientific criticism. They have a genuine standing in the human mind, just as science and art have. Their symbolic character is their truth and their power. Nothing less than symbols and myths can express our ultimate concerns.

LIES AND LIES. A study by two nonprofit investigative groups found that the road to the Iraq war was paved by hundreds of "false statements."

DEBT CRISIS. Here's Chalmers Johnson on how excessive war spending and national debt is damaging the country and economy.

REBUILD USA. Here's an op-ed from the Huntington WV Herald Dispatch by Tim Millne about the wealth squandered in Iraq and the need to reinvest in our own infrastructure.

RECESSION. Here's Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on how we should respond to a slowing economy.

OLD BEN. Here's a fun New Yorker article about Benjamin Franklin and his famous almanac.

JAH LIVE. Here's one about a new Smithsonian exhibit on Rastafarianism.

CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER. WV Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher is calling for an investigation of recent conduct there in the wake of the case involving Massey Energy and CEO Don Blankenship. Here's his memo and here are more links from WV Uberblog Lincoln Walks at Midnight..



Jay said...

I'm wondering why you left out the swastika. To me, that's one of the more interesting stories of religious symbolism.

Good stuff, as always.

El Cabrero said...

That would have been interesting!And you're right that it was used in Hindu, Buddhist and other art. I found that particular image on wikipedia and ran with it.