Signs and Symbols


  • An alternative way to speak of religious language is through symbols
  • There are many important symbols in Christianity, for example the crucifix
  • As well as objects, actions or clothing can also be symbolic – for example kneeling to pray symbolises submitting oneself to God

Paul Tillich and Symbols

  • Paul Tillich famously made an important distinction between signs and symbols;
    – A sign is often something which points you in the right direction or indicates something, such as a road sign
    – A symbol communicates much greater understanding, it “participates in which it points“, suggesting that a symbol has far more meaning behind it than a sign
  • Symbols communicate something which is often difficult to put into words
  • God, in Tillich’s thinking, is the ground of being
    – God is the basis of everything which exists & also the meaning behind it
  • God cannot be known in a personal way, and cannot be understood through usual language, he is known through symbols
  • Tillich argued that due to the meaning behind them, symbols cannot be destroyed
  • However symbols can lose their meaning
    • The Hindu symbol of the Swastika was adopted by the Nazi Party & now is not associated with Hindu beliefs
  • Tillich gave the example of the virgin birth – it symbolised the purity of Mary from sin, but Protestants lost this meaning over time & abandoned many prayers regarding Mary

Criticisms of Symbols 

  1. Different interpretations 
    – Taking the story of Adam & Eve as an example, for some Christians this is to be taken literally & Adam & Eve’s existence is a matter of historical fact – it is not merely symbolic.
    For others the story of Adam & Eve is only interpreted symbolically
  2. How can something participate in something else? 
    – Some philosophers criticised Tillich for not being clear about what “participating in” means

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