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09/18/2012

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The Religious SymbolAuthor(s): Paul TillichSource:
Daedalus,
Vol. 87, No. 3, Symbolism in Religion and Literature (Summer, 1958), pp. 3-21Published by:
on behalf of
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Accessed: 22/08/2011 18:54
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The ReligiousSymbol*
PAULTILLICH1. THESYMBOLTHE RELIGIOUSYMBOLombinesthegeneralcharacteristicsofthesymbolwiththepeculiarcharacteristics itpossessesas areligioussymbol.The first and basic characteristic ofthesymbolis itsfigurativequality.Thisimpliesthat theinnerattitudewhichisorientedtothesymboldoes not have thesymbolitself inviewbut ratherthatwhich issymbolizedinit.Moreover,thatwhichissymbolizedcanitselfinturn be asymbolforsomethingofahigherrank.Hence,the written charactercanbe calledasymbolforthewordand thewordasymbolforitsmeaning.Devotion tothecrucifixisreallydirected to thecrucifixiononGolgothaanddevotiontothelatterisinrealityintendedfor theredemptiveactionofGod, whichisitselfasymbolicexpressionforanexperienceofwhatconcernsusultimately.The second characteristic ofthesymbolisitsperceptibility.Thisimpliesthatsomethingwhichisintrinsically invisible, ideal, ortranscendentismadeperceptibleinthesymbolandis inthiswaygivenobjectivity.Theperceptibilityof thesymbol neednot besensuous.It canjustaswellbesomethingimaginativelyconceived,asintheexamplealreadygivenof thecrucifixion orasinpoeticfigures.Evenabstractconceptscanbecomesymbolsiftheiruseinvolves aperceptibleelement.Thusperhapstheconceptof"surplusvalue" asasymbolofeconomicexploitationintheconsciousnessof theproletariatorthe ideaof the"SupremeBeing"as asymbolof theultimate concernintheconsciousnessofthereligiouscommunity mayserveasexamples.The thirdcharacteristic ofthesymbolis itsinnatepower.Thisimpliesthatthesymbolhasapowerinherent within itthatdistinguishesitfromthemeresignwhichisimpotent initself. Thischaracteristicisthemostimportantone.Itgivesto thesymbol the
*Based onanarticle withthesametitleinTheJournalofLiberalReligion,Vol.II(1940), pp.13-33, translatedby JamesLutherAdams, withtheassistanceofErnstFraenkel.
 
4Dxadalus
realitywhichit hasalmostlost inordinary usage, as the phrase"onlyasymbol"shows. This characteristicisdecisive for the distinctionbetweenasignand asymbol.Thesignisinterchangeable at will.It does notarisefromnecessity, forithas no inner power. Thesymbol, however,doespossessanecessarycharacter.It cannotbeexchanged.It canonly disappear when, through dissolution, it losesitsinnerpower. Norcan itbemerely constructed; it can only becreated. Wordsandsignsoriginallyhadasymboliccharacter.Theyconveyedthemeaningwhichthey expressed,withaninherentpoweroftheir own.Inthecourseofevolutionandas aresult of thetransitionfrom themysticaltothe technical view of theworld, they havelosttheirsymboliccharacter, thoughnotentirely.Oncehavinglost theirinnatepowertheybecamesigns.Thepictorial symbolsofreligiousartwere originally chargedwithamagicalpower,with thelossofwhichtheybecameaconventionalsign-languageandalmostforfeitedtheirgenuinesymboliccharacter.Thefourthcharacteristicof thesymbolis itsacceptabilityassuch.Thisimpliesthat thesymbolissociallyrooted andsociallysupported.
Henceit isnot correct tosaythatathingisfirstasymbolandthen
gains acceptance;theprocessofbecomingasymbolandtheaccept
ance ofit asasymbol belong together.The actbywhichasymbol
is createdisasocialact,eventhoughitfirstspringsforthinanindividual.The individualcandevisesignsfor hisownprivate needs;hecannotmakesymbols.Ifsomethingbecomesasymbolforhim,itisalwayssoinrelation tothecommunitywhichinturncanrecognizeitselfin it.Thisfactisclearlyevidentincreedalsymbols whichatfirstaremerelythesignsbymeansofwhich themembersofthegroup recognizeeach other."Symbolics"isthe scienceof thedistinctivemarks of the differentchurches,thatis,thescienceofcreedaldistinctions.But allothersymbolscould alsobeconsidered
inthislight.Thus universal"symbolics"isconceivable as ageneral
science ofthe selfexpressionsof allgroups,tendencies,andcommunities.Thesegeneralcharacteristicsof thesymbolhold forthereligioussymbol also,asthevariousexamplesshow.Religioussymbolsaredistinguishedfrom othersbythe fact thattheyarearepresentationofthatwhichisunconditionally beyondtheconceptualsphere, theypointtotheultimaterealityimpliedinthereligiousact,towhatconcernsusultimately.Allothersymbolseitherstand for somethingthat hasalsoanunsymbolic objectiveexistenceaside from

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