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This week’s DYK is about the need for symbolic language and metaphor. We cannot talk literally about the infinite without falsifying its infinite qualities, so there are few (if any) fully literal statements that we can make about the divine ground. St. Thomas Aquinas said that the only literal statement that we can make about God is to state that the divine ground is Being Itself, the pure act by which all other beings come to be. In this Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich at first said that the only literal statement that we can make about God is that it is impossible to make any literal statements about God, but he eventually came to the position that even this statement could not philosophically qualify as a literal statement about God.

This creates great theological difficulty. How can we write or think intelligibly about spiritual issues, if all that we are allowed to say is that the ground of being is Being Itself, or one or two other abstract and theoretical propositions of that sort? How could we write meditations or give talks that would help people who are dealing with real spiritual problems, and may have fallen into blind panic or total despair? People who may perhaps have given up on life and are in a state of final psychological and spiritual collapse? We must speak to these people, and try to help them.

But what kind of language is left to use? On the one hand, the ground of being itself cannot, by its very nature, be turned into an object for the objectifying language of normal scientific inquiry. On the other hand, speak we must, because compassion requires us to help these people if we can. “But since it is ‘inaccessible’ to any objectivating concept,” Tillich says, the idea of who and what God is “must be expressed in symbols.”

That is what all the great spiritual traditions of the earth have done at all periods of human history, that is, to build up vast repertoires of symbols and metaphors for helping people who are in great psychological and spiritual need. The psychiatrist Carl Jung has shown that these symbols are not only verbal but also visual, and include many things with profound but deeply hidden meanings. Jung showed for example, that the Christian cross is a universally found symbol called a mandala, with the same underlying kind of symbolism as that is found in the sand paintings of Tibetan Buddhism, the Chinese yin-yang symbol, the six-pointed Jewish Star of David, the five-pointed star of the American flag, and the designs used on some of the old Native American shields (as for example on some of the painted, round leather shields created by the Lakota, the Crow, and the Blackfoot tribes). If we walk into a place of worship in any religion of the world, we will hear and see hundreds of symbols and metaphors in the chants and religious phrases and sacred texts and art objects. All these different human religions introduce us to the great truths of spirituality and the sacred by using symbols and metaphors, because that is the only way that we can speak about the real spiritual issues. There are an incredible number of symbols used in Judeo-Christian tradition, but Einstein’s criticism (Tillich says) focused on one of these in particular, and singled it out for attack. One of these symbols is “personal God.” It is the common opinion of classical theology, practically in all periods of church history, that the predicate “personal” can be said of the Divine only symbolically or by analogy or if affirmed and negated at the same time.

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Glenn Chesnut

He was Professor of History and Religious Studies at IU South Bend for 33 years, winning IU's Herman Frederic Lieber Award for excellence in teaching in 1988. He has written a number of works that primarily focus on Christianity & Alcoholics Anonymous. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer