Edmond La B. Cherbonnier

From The Christian Scholar Volume XXXIX (1956), pp. 32-44 Copyright by the Commission on Christian Higher Education, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., New York City Reprinted by permission.

     A symbol is anything which represents something else. Discussion of symbolism falls into confusion, however, unless one clearly distinguishes between the efficacy of a symbol and its truth. While its efficacy is relative to the individual who apprehends the symbol, its truth is quite independent of him. For example, King William the First may be truly symbolized by the phrase, "the Conquerer," but unless one knows a minimum of English, the symbol is ineffective. Conversely, for some people "Wall Street" may effectively symbolize rapacious profiteering, quite apart from the actual truth of the matter.

     Mathematicians and logicians are primarily concerned with the truth of a symbol, with its capacity adequately to represent that which it symbolizes. Poets and artists, on the contrary, are primarily concerned with the efficacy of a symbol, with its power to influence and captivate. An artistic symbol achieves its effect not primarily by the purely logical connection of ideas, but by the power of suggestion. Instead of appealing principally to the head, it strikes responsive chords at all levels of experience. It revives and intensifies the inner relations between the mental events of one's past, and may even create new associations for the future.

     A specifically religious symbol is any word or object in space and time which stands in a special relation to ultimate reality. It combines the principal function of both artistic and logical symbols. Like the former, it appeals to the whole man, and not just his reason. Like the latter, it stands or falls on its claim to communicate truth; that is, it must adequately represent ultimate reality. From this an important conclusion follows. A religious symbol does not establish anything about the nature of reality, but it merely points to what is believed on other grounds to be "really real" (even though these other grounds are not made explicit).

     The specific nature of any religious symbol will therefore depend in part upon the "reality" it purports to symbolize. Its function will vary with the particular metaphysical context which its serves. There are as many different kind of religious symbol, therefore, as there are kinds of religion. It would sow confusion to discuss "religious symbolism" per se, without first specifying the metaphysical context within which one speaks. For example, the following two quotations, taken from completely different metaphysico-religious contexts, illustrate kinds of religious symbolism which are altogether incommensurate with each other:

     Once during the life of Gautama the Buddha a disciple approached him with a gift of a golden flower and asked him to preach the secret of the doctrine. Gautama took the flower, held it aloft and looked at it in silence, indicating that the secret lay not in words but in the profound contemplation of the flower itself.1


     Dr. Cherbonnier, until recently on the faculty at Barnard College, is now Chairman of the Department of Religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. His most recent book is entitled, Hardness of Heart (New York: Doubleday, 1955).

     1Life magazine, article on Buddhism, March 7, 1955.



     Thus saith the Lord: Go and get a potter's earthen bottle . . . . Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee, and shalt say unto them Thus saith the Lord of hosts, Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter's vessel, that cannot be made whole again. (Jeremiah 19: 1, 10, 11).

     The present article will examine the very different roles played by religious symbols in these two distinct metaphysico-religious systems and will inquire which of the two is the more defensible.



     The first of these two alternative systems is, in the technical sense, mysticism. Though in unadulterated form it is more characteristic of the Orient, variations of it occur, if sometimes in disguise, in the Western world as well. An excellent and succinct statement of it by a contemporary protagonist is W. T. Stace's book, Time and Eternity.2 The metaphysical assumptions underlying this religion comprise what Aldous Huxley has called the "perennial philosophy": Reality is an undifferentiated unity. The everyday world, since it is a multiplicity, is therefore not really real, but at best a fragmented distortion of true Being. Though illusory, it nevertheless imprisons all who take it seriously. The goal of human living is to dissolve all connection with the realm of space and time, including even consciousness itself. For since consciousness implies a distinction between knowing subject and known object, it belongs to the defective world of plurality.


     The attainment of this goal is at least partially accomplished through the medium of religious symbols. Since the everyday world, no matter how deeply "infected with finitude," must have derived ultimately from the one underlying reality, any material object may upon occasion become a religious symbol; that is, it may become the bearer of its own "divine ground," a window through which the individual apprehends the infinite. Hence a modern exponent of this view can say, "Symbolic does not mean unreal. It means more real than anything in time and space."3 In the so-called "ecstatic moment," the symbol evokes a state in which the cleavage between knower and known is overcome, consciousness is suspended, and the self in any recognizable sense is left behind. As W. T. Stace describes it:

     Thus in the mystic moment subject and object, God and the world, the divine order and the natural order, have coalesced, become one in the divisionless, relationless, ultimate unity of things.4

     A consequence of the theory is that every symbolic expression is necessarily ambiguous. It must simultaneously negate what it affirms. In so far as it derives from ultimate reality, the symbol is able to reflect some truth. But in so far as it is


      2See W. T. Stace, Time and Eternity (Princeton University Press, 1952).

      3Paul Tillich. "Religion and Its Intellectual Critics," Christianity and Crisis, Volume XV,

     Number 3, March 7, 1955, page 21.

      4W. T. Stace, op. cit., page 40f.



also disrupted from its "divine ground," it inevitably distorts it:

The segment of finite reality which becomes the vehicle of a concrete assertion about God is affirmed and negated at the same time. It becomes a symbol, for a symbolic expression is one whose proper meaning is negated by that to which it points. And yet it is affirmed by it.5

     It follows that to translate symbolic expressions into literal propositions is inherently impossible. Since the words of everyday speech are the product of the "subject-object structure" of the temporal world, they are inadequate to the "divine ground," and even do violence to it. Every proposition about "ultimate reality" therefore negates itself. The only way to avoid these paradoxes is to be silent. The mystics therefore regularly insist that silence does far more justice to truth than does speech. In fact, the word "mystic" itself is derived from the Greek word muein, "to keep silent." Hence the Buddha replies to his disciple by silently contemplating the golden flower.


     The chief difficulty with the mystical theory of symbols is that in practice it negates itself. One cannot even state it without at the same time violating it. To put it into words is to imply that it is truer than alternative theories. But this is precisely what the theory itself forbids! It prohibits an unambiguous distinction between true and false where religion is concerned.

     The moment the philosopher or theologian tries to speak or think coherently, he cannot help implying that some statements and symbols are truer than others. But this would imply some definite, unambiguous standard by which their truth could be measured; that is, religious symbols would then be subordinated to some non-symbolic criterion. And this is precisely what the theory itself precludes. This dilemma has been forcefully pointed out by Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Speaking of the mystic's use of symbols, he says:

     Their (symbols') validity will, furthermore, depend upon our being in possession of criteria by means of which we could decide which symbols represent and which misrepresent the object we are interested in; which to accept and which to reject. Yet in order to prove the validity of symbols in general and in order to judge the adequacy of particular symbols, we must be in possession of a knowledge of the symbolized object that is independent of all symbols. To justify and to judge symbols we are in need of non-symbolic knowledge . . . Does not this prove that symbols are secondary to religious knowledge?6

     Rabbi Heschel's point can be corroborated by an examination of any mystical treatise. In every case, the author, while explicitly denying that symbols may be subordinated to a non-symbolic criterion, appeals in the end to just such a standard. When W. T. Stace, for example, declares that "all propositions about the divine ground are false,"' he serves notice on the reader that his book does not say any-


      5Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), Volume I, page 239.

      6Abraham J. Heschel, "Symbolism and Jewish Faith", in F. Ernest Johnson, ed., Religious Symbolism (New York: The Institute for Religious and Social Studies, 1955), page 65.

     7W. T. Stace, op. cit., page 92.



thing about God. In order to avoid this implication, he is obliged to maintain that some symbols are more false than others. In order to evaluate them, he appeals to a perfectly clear and unambiguous standard: consciousness. The higher an object is in the scale of consciousness, the more adequately it can symbolize "true reality." This subordination of symbolic knowledge to "a non-symbolic criterion is quite possibly a superior theological method, but it contradicts the author's mystical theory. Other examples could be multiplied by as many times as there are written statements of mystical theory. A non-symbolic criterion is regularly imported into the system, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not. This standard itself will vary. It may be natural theology of a Thomistic kind,8 or, in a more Platonic vain, it may be "that which is logically prior or most universal."9 Whether these or other possible criteria are defensible is beyond the present purpose to inquire. The point is that any such non-symbolic criterion is incompatible with the mystical theory of symbolism which their sponsors espouse.

      It is as though God himself had so ordered human reasoning that no incorrect metaphysical theory could be consistently elaborated. Stace seems to sense this when he admits that "contradictions necessarily break out in all philosophies whose source and inspiration is mysticism, and . . . all attempts to resolve these contradictions necessarily fail."10

     This explicit defiance of the ordinary canons of truth puts the exponent of the theory squarely on the horns of a dilemma, between which he can generally be discovered shuttling back and forth. On the one hand, he may forfeit the question of truth altogether. Like the artist, he may become so preoccupied with the purely emotive power of his symbols that he forgets to ask whether they convey truth. Or, on the other hand, he may take the other horn of his dilemma, and claim for his symbols a "higher" kind of truth. This cognitive claim is made by a contemporary philosopher of art, Philip Wheelwright, in his recent book, The Burning Fountain:

A poem affects a mature reader as it does partly because it seems to him, not withstanding its fantasies and pseudo-statements, to be offering a kind of genuine insight and thereby to be revealing, however obscurely and elusively, a kind of truth.11

     The knowledge which symbolic language mediates is incommensurable with that of the everyday world, not directly expressible in ordinary language, and not accessible except through artistic and poetic symbols. According to a major con-


      8Austin Farrer, The Glass of Vision (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1948), page 54: "Natural theology, then, provides a canon of interpretation which stands outside the particular matter of revealed truth."

      9See, for example, Paul Tillich, "Reply to Interpretation and Criticism," in C W. Kegley and R. W. Bretall, eds., The Theology of Pail Tillich (New York: Macmillan 1952), page 339, where the word "Being" is defended as the non-symbolic word for God on the ground that it "precedes in logical dignity" all other designations. See also the same author, Love, Power, and Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), page 20.

      10W. T. Stace, op. cit., page 157.

      11 Philip Wheelwright, The Burning Fountain (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1954), page 45f.



tributor to the study of religious symbolism:

The symbol opens up a level of meaning which otherwise is closed. It opens up a stratum of reality, of meaning and being which otherwise we could not reach .... (A landscape painting) is a picture in which everything is symbolic in the sense that it points to a reality and a meaning . . . which the painter in his creative encounter reveals to us. Now we can see it; now we can be in it .... We never would see it if art did not reveal it to us.l2

     A theory which claims immunity to the ordinary canons of verification can easily slip into esotericism. Many mystics appeal in the last analysis to intuition, or to "meta-logic,"13 or to an aristocracy of the "more religiously sensitive and the more intellectually acute," as in the following statement:

Nor is "the occurrence itself' experientially the same for an observer with artistically heightened sensibilities as for a dolt . . . For he who is spiritually awake and he who is spiritually asleep, he who is whole and he who is defective, may apperceive reality in . . . divergent ways.l4

     These lines reveal the authoritarian tendency of all esotericism. Anyone who disagrees is automatically labelled a dolt, spiritually asleep, and defective.

     The mystical metaphysic thus appears to contain an inner logic which drives its advocates to concentrate upon the efficacy of a symbol at the expense of its truth, to fall into inconsistencies, and, consequently, as a measure of desperation, to become esoteric and even dogmatic. The onus is on the mystic to show the difference between his symbols and an insoluble cryptogram.



     The second kind of religious symbolism to be discussed occurs par excellence in the Bible. Symbols like Jeremiah's flask occur in a metaphysical context which differs radically from that of the mystic, and apart from which they cannot be understood. For the mystic, this earthly life is but a counterfeit of true reality. In "biblical philosophy," on the contrary, the events of personal and social history are themselves "metaphysical." They are of decisive ultimate significance. As H. Wheeler Robinson puts it:

… Hebrew philosophy (if the term may be allowed) ascribed metaphysical significance to events in the external world . . . . This implies that man's life is not a shadow-drama, an illusion in the minds of the actors, or a mode of the divine consciousness leaving no room for any effective agency of man. On the contrary, man's deeds have a real significance, and man's history is, under God's direction, the record of real achievements. On such a view of history the whole conception of the Biblical revelation rests . . . .15

     The "biblical philosophy" does not require a great deal of elaboration. Not only is it far less complicated than the elaborate constructs of theosophy, but it is a world-


      12Paul Tillich, "Theology and Symbolism," in F. Ernest Johnson, op cit., page 109.

      13See, for example, W. T. Stace, op. cit., pages 105, 109; also, Philip Wheelwright, op. cit., pages 15, 51, 59, 63.

      14Philip Wheelwright, op. cit., pages 301f.

      15H. Wheeler Robinson, "Prophetic Symbolism," in Old Testament Essays (London: Charles Griffin & Co., Ltd., 1927), pages 11, 17.



view which comes naturally to men. Children come into the world believing in the reality and importance of spatio-temporal events. When they learn that there is no Santa Claus, they are not reassured to be told that he is a myth. They know very well that a mythical Santa is no Santa Claus at all. It requires a concentrated program of indoctrination to knock this native common sense out of their heads.

     At one significant point this "naive realism" differs from realistic or empirical philosophies of the technical sort. It takes for granted what the world's wise men have so often denied, the fact of human freedom. If the events of human history are at all meaningful, they must be performed by free agents. Conversely, if there is no such thing as the freedom to act voluntarily and responsibly in accordance with chosen purposes, then life is indeed a shadow play, and the entire biblical metaphysic a delusion. In addition to the reality and metaphysical importance of this world, then, the biblical metaphysic also assumes the freedom of God and man. This explains why the Bible always speaks of God in such very human terms. This is the only way to acknowledge his freedom, since the only other free agent we know is man himself. Judged by the mystic's criterion of "Being-itself," this "anthropomorphic" God is but a low order of symbol, "a symbol for the God beyond the God of theism."16 For the biblical metaphysic, on the contrary, "Being-Itself" is not even a low order of symbol, but a misnomer. The truest thing that can be said about God is that he is Someone.


     At one point, the biblical use of symbols does correspond to the mystical. For both, the symbol functions as a special bearer of metaphysical reality. But this resemblance is purely formal. When it comes to content, to the nature of reality, the two systems are irreconcilably different. The one negates the spatio-temporal world, the other accords it decisive metaphysical status. The biblical metaphysic makes no appeal to a transcendent realm of being disjunctive with the everyday world, but rather regards the world as correlative with (though wholly dependent upon) its Creator. It consequently has no room for symbols in the mystical sense. On the contrary, biblical symbols are historical acts which stand for other historical acts of the past or future. Their truth as well as their efficacy depends upon the metaphysical importance which the Bible attaches to history.

     History can only be real and significant if it has an over-all unity. Certainly it carries no such unity immanently within itself. Hence for the mystic it continually dissolves into an unconnected series of timeless moments in which the individual may be released from the trammels of time and brought into a "vertical" relation with the "divine." The task of biblical metaphysics is to prevent this disintegration of history by explaining how its temporal components are coherent.


      16Paul Tillich, "Theology and Symbolism," op. cit., page 114. See also the same author's The Courage to Be (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952), pages 186-190.



     The only way in which a temporal sequence involving free agents may be integrated into a unity is through constancy of purpose. The time span of a tennis match, for example, is held in unity by the common purpose of the players. When a longer interval is involved, however, the continuity of purpose may not be immediately evident. A way must be found to realize it, to make it present. And this is precisely the role which symbols and solemn ritual play in the context of the biblical metaphysic. Since this world view is shared by the man in the street, an illustration can be used which is not always specifically religious: the symbol of the wedding ring. If bride and groom are to forge a unity of their lives for as long as they both shall live, they must have a common purpose. The ring ceremony affirms and makes concrete their joint intention to keep faith with each other in the creation of a new spiritual reality. Moreover, the symbol has an efficacy beyond the simple provision of palpable evidence of a unifying purpose. It can even help to establish that purpose by requiring of the participants an: act of mutual allegiance. The symbol thus both represents and evokes the continuity of purpose which alone can give unity to a human time span.

     When the period of time is measured in centuries, rather than the individual's threescore years and ten, it gets its unity from nations and cultures. By providing a relatively permanent center of allegiance, they can impart a unity to whole epochs. This overarching continuity of allegiance is likewise attested by symbolic acts and objects, such as the flag, national anthem, and oath of allegiance. The wealth of ritual which surrounds the British Parliament is an outstanding example.

     When one considers neither the lifetime of the individual nor that of the nation, but all of human history, then no such-over-all unity of purpose is immediately apparent. Nations and cultures rise and fall, and take their ephemeral meanings with them. In fact, according to the biblical philosophy of history, the reason for the fall of a nation is precisely its failure to align its own provisional purpose with the one and only purpose which can and does give unity to all of history, the will of its Creator. The function of the specifically religious symbol in the Bible is therefore analogous to that of the wedding ring and of Parliamentary ritual. It attests the continuity of history, not by transcending time, but by making vivid, concrete, and actual God's unifying purpose within time. It impresses upon men with dramatic impact the reality of God's action in the past, and in some measure is instrumental in actualizing his purpose for the future.

     This two-fold-function of religious symbols is noted by H. Wheeler Robinson in his analysis of Isaiah's going barefoot and naked as a sign of the coming captivity of Egypt; Jeremiah's wearing the yoke to symbolize Judah's impending subjection to Babylon; his breaking the earthen flask to represent the destruction of Jerusalem; and Ezekiel's lying on his side for forty days to represent the duration of Judah's captivity. He says:



The prophet's act did not simply reveal something already achieved, but hidden; it helped to achieve something, it made a difference .... It was not magic, for it was not coercive of Yahweh; it was religion, the religious act of one whose consciousness was made the vehicle of the divine will. . . The prophets are protagonists; their human consciousness becomes the effective symbol of the divine consciousness, as their human acts become the -effective symbols of the divine acts. . . (Biblical religion) is more than a revelation: its revelation is a realization, both of God and man.17


     One of the points at which prophetic symbols differ most strikingly from the mystic's is their strict correlation with the spoken word.18 Whereas the mystic abandons words as incommensurate with the "divine," prophetic symbols are meaningless without their verbal concomitant. For purpose can never adequately be made known apart from speech. An act by itself is capable of many different interpretations until the intention of the agent is spoken. As Frederick Schumacher has expressed it, "To say that word and event go together and that the word of Yahweh is event is to say that events are not accidental or the result of fate, but that they are purposive and meaningful."19

     This is the reason why neither historian nor philosopher can discover the unity of history by an examination of "the facts" alone. Their various and ingenious speculations on the meaning of history, though not without some plausibility, all succumb in the end to recalcitrant facts which do not fit the theory. The events of history can only be unified when related to the purpose of God.

The unifying purpose of God can never be derived from the events alone, but can only be known when declared by God himself. Once this is established, one is in a position to appreciate the overwhelming import of the following passage from Isaiah:

I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying: My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my purpose... I have spoken, I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed, I will also do it (Isaiah 46:9-I1).

     This indissoluble connection with the spoken word preserves for biblical symbolism what is destroyed by the mystical: the validity of human reason. Whereas the mystic ultimately spurns reason as part of the subject-object structure of the everyday world, the prophetic symbol requires an intelligible interpretation. The following words of St. Paul, originally directed to a somewhat similar question, beautifully express the indispensability of human reason to the biblical metaphysic:

So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? . . . I had rather speak five words with my understanding that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. (I Corinthians 14:9, 19).


      17H. Wheeler Robinson, op. cit., pages 15, 17, 6.

      18Ibid., page 6.

      19Frederick T. Schumacher, "The Word of God as Event,". Journal of Bible and Religion, Volume XX, Number 4, October, 1952, page 253.



     If the symbolic deed cannot be separated from the interpretative word, the converse is equally true. The content of the symbol cannot be translated without remainder into a verbal or rational formula. There will always be a non-verbal residue. Prophetic symbolism thus fits perfectly with biblical "anthropology." It requires intelligibility without ever supposing that reason or words can take the place of purposive action.20

     A word may be added about the distinction between "literal" and "symbolic" within the biblical framework. Whereas for the mystic this distinction represents a cleavage between two incompatible realms of being, for the Bible literal and symbolic acts both belong to the realm of history. Though the symbolic act refers to another event of the past or future, at the time of its actual accomplishment the symbolized event was (or will be) quite literal. The distinguishing characteristic of a biblical symbol is simply that it "makes present" a literal act of the past or future. Whereas for the mystic a story or statement may be literally false but symbolically true, for the Bible this is impossible. The truth of its symbols is wholly dependent upon the factuality of the events which they symbolize.


     If symbols are the bearer of reality, and if, as the Bible maintains, nothing is more real than free agents (God primarily, and man as his creation), then biblical symbols refer inevitably to purposive action. This does not mean, however, that there is no room in Christianity for symbolic objects, like the cross. Such objects differ from symbolic actions in that they refer primarily to the historic past. The cross gets its meaning from what has been done, once and for all, by man and God.

     This function of symbolic objects within the biblical context has been developed by several recent authors, including Gregory Dix, Claude Tresmontant, and G. Ernest Wright. John W. Bowman uses the example of a flower on a bush, which (unlike Buddha's flower) has no special significance in itself, but remains a stage prop in the drama of history. When plucked and presented to a lady, however, it enters into history, and acquires significance through its relation to the purposive activity of the persons involved.21

     This historical reference of the symbolic object suffices to distinguish it from the mystic's. In both cases the symbolic object points beyond itself. For the mystic, however, it points beyond the spatio-temporal world altogether to a reality which cannot be uttered. Within the biblical context, on the contrary, its meaning is not self-evident, but always depends upon its reference, whether spoken or understood, to res gestae, deed done.


      20For the development of some of these conceptions the writer is indebted to unpublished manuscripts of Messrs. Frank Dilley, Robert Horn, and Robert Newton.

      21See John W. Bowman, Prophetic Realism and the Gospel (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955), pages 102f.



     Furthermore, for the mystic any object, without distinction, can become the vehicle of the divine. Hence he grants no finality to religious symbols, but regards them all as subject to a "natural history" in which they come into existence and pass away.22 For the Bible, however, this is emphatically not the case. The cross stands for concrete acts of man and God which stand indelibly on the record. If the Church were to forsake the cross for some other symbol, it would thereby have transferred its allegiance to another "god."


     The subject of myth, and particularly the current discussion about "demythologizing" the New Testament, cannot be dissociated from an implicit metaphysical context. The meaning of the term "myth," like that of "symbol," will vary as one passes from the mystical to the biblical frame of reference. In fact, for both systems, a myth is a special instance of symbolism.

     For the mystic, since all concern with mundane, spatio-temporal events is beneath the dignity of his religion, no ultimate truth can be conveyed in temporal terms. Most people, however, lacking the mystic's insight into a trans-temporal realm, are obliged to think in terms of pictures and stories. As an accommodation to their limitations, he grants that myths are better than nothing. But since they are cast in narrative form, myths are the lowest kind of symbol. Under no condition may their temporal structure be taken literally; that is, under no condition may their religious significance be tied to historical fact. For the more localized a given event in space and time, the more deeply rooted in history, the less divine truth it can disclose.

     An example of this tendency to detemporalize all narrative whatsoever, without even raising the question of its historical significance, is the following interpretation of Christian narrative by D. T. Suzuki:

In this respect Christianity is more symbolic than Buddhism. The story of Creation, the Fall from the Garden of Eden, God's sending Christ to compensate for the ancestral sins, his crucifixion, and resurrection-they are all symbols. To be more explicit, creation is the awakening of consciousness, or the "awakening of a thought"; the Fall is consciousness going astray from the original path; God's idea of sending his own son among men is the desire of the will to see itself through its own offspring, consciousness; crucifixion is transcending the dualism of acting and knowing, which comes from the awakening of the intellect; and finally Resurrection means the will's triumph over the intellect; in other words, the will seeing itself in and through consciousness . . . . Buddhism is thus free from the historical symbolism of Christianity; transcending the category of time, Buddhism attempts to achieve salvation in one act of the will; for returning effaces all the traces of time.28

     The Bible takes exactly the opposite view. As an English philosopher has said, "For myths . . . the Christian religion can find no place at all . . . The very quin-


      22See, for example, Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, op. cit., Volume I, page 240, and "Theology and Symbolism", op. cit., page 111.

      23D. T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series (London: Luzac and Co., 1927), pages 141f.



tessence of Christianity is the substitution of history for myth."24 Within the biblical metaphysic, God himself is a protagonist in the drama of history, a real-life drama in which men's salvation is won and lost, here and now. To label "mythical" or "symbolic" Christianity's central affirmations about the acts of God in space and time is to mistake it for another religion.

     The proposal to "demythologize" the New Testament frequently betrays. the mystical, rather than the biblical metaphysic. W. G. Kummel points out that Rudolf Bultmann, for example, uses the word "mythological" to refer to anything temporal.25 His intention is to remove an imagined "essence" of Christianity from beyond the reach of historical criticism, so that a man's faith need not depend upon an "historical contingency." Far from doing Christianity, a service, however, such "demythologizing" capitulates to mysticism without firing a shot. For biblical religion stands or falls upon the most radically contingent events, the voluntary acts of God in all their underivable givenness. .

     There are, however, two events which differ from those of the rest of history, namely, its beginning and its final consummation. Like other biblical symbols, the accounts of creation and of the last things refer to past and future acts of God, and are therefore quite properly (and literally) cast in narrative form. In order to distinguish these two terminal events from those which intervene between them, one might, for lack of a less misleading term, call them "myths," provided always that the term is understood in its biblical, rather than its mystical, sense. A biblical myth is an extrapolation into past or future based upon what God has already done within recorded history. It describes how the world must have begun, and what the outcome of history will have to be, consistently with God’s experienced character and purpose.

     Since the great events of the beginning and the end are too vast and imagination-defying for a prophet to enact symbolically, he resorts instead to awesome and even fantastic imagery. This is the only respect in which these two "myths" differ from other biblical symbols. To "demythologize" them - that is, to transpose them into timeless categories – before the underlying metaphysical issue has been settled is not merely to prejudge the case, but radically to depart from the religious and metaphysical intent of their authors. As Oscar Cullmann has said:

The difference between primal and eschatological history from actual historical occurrence may and indeed should be taken into account. But its character as a development in time . . . must not be destroyed. Where the primal and eschatological history is raised to another, timeless plane, we then have to do with a transformation of the Primitive Christian faith.26


      24W. H. V. Reade, The Christian Challenge to Philosophy (London: S. P. C. K., 1951), page 57f. I owe the reference to Mr. Frank Wekerle.

      25W. G. Kummel, "Mythische Rede and Heilsgeschehen", Coniectea Neotestamentica, VoIume XI, especially pages 118-120. The writer owes the reference to Professor Howard Kee.

      26Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time, Floyd V. Filson, trans. (London: S. C. M. Press, Ltd., 1951), page 106.




     The present discussion has indicated certain points at which the biblical metaphysic holds an advantage over the mystical. While both are concerned with the symbol's efficacy, the latter finally abandons the question of truth, claiming for itself a privileged sanctuary immune to criticism and beyond the canons of true-or-false. Disparaging human reason as incompatible with the "divine" realm, where "all is one," it resorts instead to insistence, ambiguity, and cryptic utterance. Biblical symbols, on the contrary, by their inseparable connection with literal words spoken and deeds done, preserve both the rational element, without which all discourse degenerates into billingsgate, and the factual element, without which theology becomes a fairy tale.

      Before 'the issue can be finally settled, of course, this preliminary analysis would have to be followed up by a full-scale metaphysical inquiry. Jew and Christian can, however, await with confidence the outcome of such an inquiry. For if their God is indeed the Lord of all creation, he is the Lord of metaphysics too. The prophet therefore serves notice to the philosopher that any metaphysic whose definition of the real is incompatible with the biblical God may be expected to fall into contradictions. Meanwhile, to distinguish clearly between the two kinds of symbolism may help both to clarify the crucial issue and to cast doubt upon the wisdom of importing mystical symbols into Christian theology.

     If and when the superiority of the biblical metaphysic is established, a legitimate question might arise concerning the role of the arts. In view of the close affinity between the mystical world-view and a good deal of aesthetic theory, what would be the role of art in a world informed by the biblical metaphysic? For one thing, poet and artist could no longer be regarded as seers, mediators of a transcendent truth whose word must be accepted on authority. It is hard to see how such a consequence could be anything but healthy.

     Beyond that, the arts would continue to function as they do already; that is, as especially powerful means of expression, in view of their appeal to the whole man, rather than just his intellect. Men informed by the biblical outlook would probably be less prone to mistake this means for an end; that is, to become so enamored of the powerful way in which the artist expresses himself as to neglect what it is that he is saying, and thereby to fall the unwitting victims of a dubious metaphysic. Such undiscriminating devotion to "art for art's sake" only provokes an equally uncritical reaction in the form of censorship and suppression.

     Finally, there would be less temptation within a biblical framework to accept on faith the claim that artistic symbols are able of themselves to accomplish men's salvation, a claim made explicitly by the following lines:

So far as we yield . . assent joyfully and gain insight in so doing, there is a real and valid sense in which we can speak of `poetic truth.' . . . The ground-base of poetic truth is the truth . . . of man's possible redemption through the fullest imaginative response.27


     27Philip Wheelwright, op. cit., page 302.



     The biblical reply to such extravagant claims on behalf of mystical and aesthetic symbols has been eloquently made by Rabbi Heschel:

"You do not believe," said Coleridge, "you only believe that you believe. It is the final scene in all kinds of worship and symbolism."

     Let us never forget: If God is a symbol, He is a fiction. But if God is real, then He is able to express his will unambiguously.

     Harsh and bitter are the problems which religion comes to solve: ignorance, evil, malice, power, agony, and despair. Our problem is: Do we believe what we confess? Do we mean what we say?

     We do not suffer symbolically; we suffer literally, truly, deeply; symbolic remedies are quackery. The will of God is either real or a delusion.28


     28Abraham J. Heschel, op. cit., pages 78f.