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Heston Allred

REL 207
October 13, 2011
The Significance of Religious Symbolism

One of the most powerful characteristics of symbols in religion is the fact that a
single symbol can be interpreted in multiple ways. This inherent quality of multiple and
layered meaning in symbols makes them especially useful in religious expression and
thought. It allows them to communicate in a number of distinct and powerful ways.
At their most basic symbols are common to everyday life and essential to human
thought and communication. Roger Schmidt in the book Exploring Religion supports this
idea when he writes, conceptualization is a form of implicit or explicit speech; put
another way, thinking- that is imagining, doubting, and knowing- is inseparable from
language and the symbolic process. Symbols are indispensable to thought. Certainly
without them, there would be no poetry, religion, or science, no stories, rites, or complex
social organizations or material structures Human language and conventionalized
forms of expression, in one sense, can be seen as made up of these most basic of symbols.
Words, certain gestures, and many objects and ideas have certain pre-designated
meanings and interpretations. For example, the word book represents words written on
pages, which are usually bound together, for the purpose of communicating thoughts and
ideas. The word has meaning due to its convention. Schmidt gives a similar example for
gestures citing that the raised index finger in American sport represents the notion of
being number one due to its common usage, which makes its meaning common and well

known among Americans. He also cites the object of the circle and offers a number of its
different symbolic meanings.
As demonstrated by the circle example, many symbols have multiple meanings
and many times their meanings are broad enough that they give the interpreter or
interpreters the ability to form a unique or personal meaning for the symbol within its
context or at times by contrast to its normal meaning. This, I would suggest, is one of the
elements of symbolism that makes it so useful and common to human religion. Religion
in almost all cases is an attempt to communicate or worship, in one form another,
something that is unknown and thus mysterious. In many cases it is partly or fully aimed
at describing something that is supernatural, beyond or distinct from ordinary or
conventional human existence. Since the focal point of religion is the unknown it is often
difficult to express its meaning. This is because human communication, even at its most
basic, is dependent on symbols. As earlier stated, the symbols are given meaning from
their context and convention in most cases. Thus since collective religion is inherently
mysterious no convention or ordinary context can be easily or widely ascribed to it.
However, there has to be some means of communicating religious ideals and thought and
symbols allow for this because of their multiple and layered meaning and the fact they
can communicate beyond the confines of conventionalized language, or as Schmidt puts
it, symbols, point beyond themselves to a mysterious reality that lies beyond the limits
of language. It is also of interest to note that to demonstrate the power of religious
symbols in expressing things beyond themselves Schmidt employs a symbol. He writes,
The test of all religious symbols and language is their power to illumine the sacred.
Symbols are like windows; they not only connect experience to the meaning of the

experience but also provide fields of vision through which humans can explore different
worlds of meaning, including religious ones. In this case, he uses the symbol of the
window to denote fields of vision.
The contrast that religious symbols demonstrate between the ordinary and the
non-ordinary or religious give them more power of communication due to distinctiveness
when compared with non-religious symbols. In many instances they take an ordinary
word, gesture, or object and give it a deeper or more sacred meaning. Schmidt once again
provides a useful example when he writes of the Sioux holy man John Fire/Lame Deer.
Schmidt quotes him as once saying that, We see in the world around us many symbols
that teach us the meaning of life.To you symbols are just words, spoken or written in a
book. To us they are part of nature, part or ourselves- the earth, the sun, the wind, and the
rain, stones, trees, animals, even little insects like ants and grasshoppers. The you he
was referring to was the white man. According to Schmidt this statement was a
lamentation that natural symbols, which held great religious insight and meaning to him
had grown commonplace to many of his contemporaries. This is important because it is
demonstrative of the increased importance and depth religious symbols take when
compared with ordinary symbols even if the symbols themselves are very common or
natural, as in this example. It also demonstrates the uniqueness a symbol can have to the
individual or group.
In conclusion, the broadness and depth with which symbols can communicate to
the human mind make them vital to religious expression. However as noted by Schmidt
when he writes that, religious symbols are multivalent, and their meaning is a function
of how they are used in a cultural context or symbolic matrix, it should be remembered

that even though religious symbols gain meaning by contrast they still have their own
context and system which they work within. They are not completely abstract in and of
themselves but rather point to abstract and difficult to communicate religious ideals.