Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Language of Symbolsm

I am always amused when people take the position: "you are actually worshipping the Devil, you don't know it, but you are doing it on accident, if you only knew what your own symbols meant, then you would understand that you are worshipping the Devil. I know YOU don't think that the symbols are about the Devil, but they are, and by using them you are actually accidentally worshipping the Devil." For one example of this ridiculous approach applied to the Mormons see:
The same page takes a similar approach with a lot of images/symbols for the monuments of many groups. Mormons typically respond to this sort of garbabe by pointing out instances where symbols like the pentagram have anciently been used to represent good things, not to represent evil, and that its modern use as a symbol of evil is relatively new (see here and here). For example the following is a great example of the pentagram (even with the point downward) used as a symbol of Christ. It is an icon of the transfiguration by Andrei Rublev in 1405, and now located in the Moscow Annunciation Cathedral (in Moscow Kremlin):
However, such evidence makes no difference to people who see the Devil everywhere, because they just see any early Christian use of the pentagram as due to those early Christians having been deceived (much in the same way that they see Mormons as having been deceived). Thus any early Christians who might have used the pentagram were worshipping the Devil too. Thus Mormons and their critics tend to talk past each other on this issue.

The problem is that people don't understand that symbolism is a language, and the real question should not be "what does a symbol mean" but should be, "what does a symbol mean to those who used it when they used it." For example, a black cat symbolized witchcraft if you happen to have lived in Salem Mass..., on the other hand, if you lived in ancient Egypt, the black cat symbolized divinity.... This sort of confusion happens because symbolism is a language, with different vocabularies and different interpretations for different people at different times. You wouldn't expect all words to have the same meaning in Spanish that they do in English, so why should they in symbolism? So to accuse an English speaker of worshipping the Devil because of a confusion between the meaning of a word between English and Spanish would be silly. But when you begin to believe that Satan is behind it all, and that it is all some big conspiracy, then you believe that black cats mean witchcraft in Ancient Egypt too, and the Egyptians who saw black cats as symbols of divinity were just worshipping the devil, and didn't know it. After all, such people often think that all Pagans were worshipping the Devil (even when they didn't believe in him), so why not the Egyptians?

But my understanding (and C.S.Lewis's understanding too) is that you can't worship the Devil on accident. Any good intentioned worship of the Devil IS worship of Christ, and any bad intentioned worship of Christ IS worship of the Devil (see CS Lewis' conclusion to the Narnia series, "The Last Battle" for his take on this idea). On this point I must agree with Lewis. Thus, Mormons are only worshipping the Devil with their pentagrams IF that is what THEY think the pentagram means... because they can't be "accidentally" worshipping the devil, it doesn't work that way. All that is good comes from Christ, and all that is evil comes from the Devil (see Moroni 7:5-19).

Thus:

1. symbolism is flexible,

2. symbolism's meaning is only defined in the context of what someone, sometime thought it meant,

and

3. worship of God or the Devil must be intentional, some hidden meaning behind symbols can't cause you to somehow accidentally worship the Devil.

To be continued.....

7 comments:

amcnabb said...

It reminds me of the argument against foreign language education: "If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for my kids." It's probably an urban legend, but it makes me laugh.

Anyway, it really is stupid to assume that everyone speaks the same language and uses the same vocabulary.

Steve Reed said...

Little did Noah know, that when he was looking at the rainbow that he was actually seeing the symbol of the gay pride movement. Shame on deceived Noah for reverencing the rainbow!

David Carroll said...

This is a good explanation of symbols. I feel the need to point out two deficiencies in your logic. 1. People look for evidence to support their beliefs, not to form them. 2. Life Eternal is to Know God the Eternal Father.

First, people who are trying to support their position with 'evidence' rarely look at that evidence without prejudice. This is how conspiracy theories become so convoluted. Once you are convinced there is a conspiracy (and they DO exist), everything can be interpreted to fit into that point of view. Someone wants to believe other religions are worshiping the devil, so they look for evidence to 'prove' it. Their logic is flawed because they are forcing the evidence to conform to their beliefs instead of objectively analyzing evidence to guide their beliefs.

Secondly, Understanding the true nature of God is vital to obtaining eternal life. In order to Know God, we must know about Him, His attributes, and His works. Consider this then. There are religions who claim God is a Spirit, has always been a Spirit, and always will be a Spirit. Can you think of who this truly describes? Are they worshiping the devil and calling him God?

David

James Carroll said...

David, some good thoughts. I especially liked your point #1. I do believe that is how conspiracy theories start.

Your point #2 is also interesting, and there is some truth to it. I am sure that the Devil gets a kick out of convincing people that God's nature is more like Satan's nature. But I believe that God is merciful (luckily for us). Although we eventually will have to come to understand God's true nature, because that to know Him is life eternal, somehow I doubt that a scholastic error in this life will disqualify someone from eternal life in the hereafter. God doesn't save the best Bible scholars, but the people who humble themselves and repent, thereby making use of Christ's atonement. Even when such people make honest mistakes.

King's said...

yes, but an Egyptian living in Salem would not own a black cat im sure, for fear of being accused as a witch.

James Carroll said...

King, you are right, mostly.

As a counter example, Mystic Jews often continued using their symbols with their older meanings even after the cultures in which they lived had changed their meanings into something supposedly Satanic because they considered them sacred, and not to be changed, regardless of what the culture around them did to their meanings.

Thus, our Egyptian in Salem might still own a black cat if they felt that the black cat was sacred to them, or necessary for their ritual practice, and thus worth the potential accusations from their neighbours.

This simply means that we must go to the culture of the user of a symbol at the time it was used to get its interpretation, rather than assuming that it had some deeper hidden meaning based on some other unrelated culture. Symbols only have meaning within the cultural context in which they are found and used.

This implies that we should interpret the LDS symbols by their common meanings at the time they were used and among the LDS people who used them. For example, the pentagram used on the Nauvoo temple did not develop its interpretation as a symbol of the devil until years after its LDS usage. At the time it did not have that connotation, and it would be foolish to assume that the fact that the LDS used it means that they must have worshipped the Devil.

Andrew said...

David Carroll,
eternal life is to know God because you become like Him, the only real way to know someone is to walk in their shoes. The first step to eternal life is having access to God through the gift of the Holy Ghost and then as we seek, recognize and follow the Holy Ghost and become more Christlike we come to know God at a more personal level, we develop a relationship with him and the more Christlike we become, the more godlike we become obviously, until the perfect day when our attributes are perfected after the resurrection all through the atonement. I do like how you pointed out the idea about God being a spirit and how Satan must love using that. But I agree with James.