Our Only Hope of True Religious Fluency: Submit to the Symbols

I recently came across this quote by Christian Wiman from the chapter "Notes on Poetry and Religion" in his book Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet:
To have faith in a religion, any religion, is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality. This doesn't mean that the words and symbols are reality (that's fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, is that you can 'no more be religious in general than [you] can speak language in general' (George Lindbeck), and that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge and experience of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion. Lindbeck would go so far as to say that your religion of origin has such a bone-deep hold on you that, as with a native language, it's your only hope for true religious fluency. I wouldn't go that far, but I would say that one has to submit to symbols and language that may be inadequate in order to have those inadequacies transcended. 
This quote struck me as I've basically reached the same conclusion.

To paraphrase and restate Wiman: I think religion is trying to say something true about reality, about human experience. And I also agree that the words and symbols aren't reality. Reality is sitting behind or beyond the words and the symbols. And I also agree that an important way--and perhaps the only way for many of us--to gain increasing mastery of these symbols, and thus approach and increasingly articulate the reality behind it all, is to settle into--really settle into--our religion of origin, our native religious language. This is our best hope for true religious fluency. And the path in attaining that fluency is to submit to the symbols, inadequate as they are, so that those inadequacies might be transcended.

People often ask me, "Why are you a Christian?" What I summarize above is a large part of that answer. I am submitting to the symbols--mastering them and letting them master me--so that something true, beautiful and real is increasingly experienced in my life.

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18 thoughts on “Our Only Hope of True Religious Fluency: Submit to the Symbols”

  1. Nice. Makes me think of Bourdieu on habitus and class: there is an effortless ease in following the norms of the class in which a person is raised, and the fact that people of lower classes have to try so hard to approximate the behavior of those who are "to the manor born" is precisely what marks them out. Basically, they have to try too hard, and it shows. But how do these relate? Maybe it helps recover some of Wiman's skepticism about Lindbeck's position as a descriptive matter, and it might facilitate some interesting critique of the essentializing tendencies (or jargony authenticity) that I associate with statements like, "to gain increasing mastery of these symbols ...is to settle into...our religion of origin." I can't help but hear a subtext that Jewish converts are only ever inauthentic Christians when I read statements like that. Obviously not where you were going, but I think that is a deeply troubling place this can lead. Or, to approach this all from another side: a focus on habitus might help us embody our reflections on these symbols; maybe this is not only a matter of the symbols as a language or (cognitive) symbolic system, but the habitual immersion in a tradition, the body language that is learned and associated with the symbols, and the virtues that are learned (or in some cases anti-learned) by immersion in a way of life. While this is obvious and overt for Catholics, we all have bodies and habitus associated with these symbols.

  2. I do think the focus on symbols sounds a bit gnostic and cognitive. As I read the quote--I think the word "submit" moved me in this direction--I heard the embodied liturgical sense you describe. The "body language" of worship is a "submitting to the symbols." It's why I picked the picture I did for this post. Submitting is an enactment of the symbols, a movement through the symbols, an embodied participation in the symbols. And if that full-bodied sense isn't what Wiman had in mind it is what Dan and  I have in mind. :-)

  3. This raises an issue I have been feeling my way toward: if you have no religion of origin, if you were not acculturated to a set of symbols, where does that leave you? In my own recent experience, at occasional visits to mass with friends, I am incredibly conscious of being a traveler in a foreign culture. Were I to be catechized and attend regularly I would of course learn appropriate behaviors, I might even eventually become fluent. But I would always speak with an accent, which marks me as an outsider.

    I suppose converts often compensate for this with enthusiasm, but my sense is that they will always be regarded as at the edges of the body, and at best have a provisional identity, like naturalized citizens. It is not fatal to the enterprise, of course, but it lends a certain melancholy to know that an intense desire for community can only be partially satisfied.

  4. If we stay with the metaphor of learning a language people can and do become fluent in a language they pick up in adulthood. To be sure there is a learning curve, but fluency is realistic and achievable. So, I think the issue goes to dabbling vs. commitment. If you or I want to become fluent in a language we have to make a commitment and can't expect fluency if we are just listening to language CDs in the car.

  5. The Scholastics thought about this problem in great depth, as this quote from St. Thomas shows (Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. 2, ch. 75): "...although it be necessary for the truth of a cognition that [it] answer to the thing known, ...it is not necessary that the mode of the thing known be the same as the mode of its cognition." 

    In other words, we can know what we're talking about on level, while being blind to its further connections. In fact, it occurs to me that that is always the case. 

    And that, it occurs to me, is a great argument for pragmatism.  If the role of religion is to make the "further connections" that anchor values, we've got a nice little schema here. I've not been a fan of Lindbeck, because I've read him--incorrectly, perhaps--as being a semantic reductionist in religion: I can't vouch for MY religious insights, but want to believe that in trying to follow Jesus that I'm not one of the blind following the blind...

  6. Countless mystics of many religious traditions through the ages have affirmed this wisdom when they've told eager converts to return to their own religion and practice it deeply. This is the usual advice of Buddhist masters to Christian seekers, "Go be the best Christian you can be."

    The analogy I usually hear is "You can't cross a lake by putting your feet in two different boats." You have to pick a boat to cross the lake in. There are a variety of worthy boats to do the job, but you can't ride more than one.

    I prefer this lake analogy to the more common mountain analogy, because in the mountain analogy there are a variety of paths all headed to the same peak. With the lake analogy there could be any number of different destinations on the other side of the lake. Your boat, your journey may not be leading to exactly the same place as mine. It doesn't presume all religions are the same, in other words. It presumes they function similarly, as a vehicle to move you somewhere, but the how and where might be entirely different.

  7. Thanks for this thought-provoking reflection (and use of Wiman). Two follow-up comments/questions

    (1) This seems to imply a low sacramentology. As I understand it, a high/traditional view of the sacraments is that they effect what they signify, i.e., there's not something *behind* them of which they are merely the symbols—that of which they are the sign, they make effectively present, real. Perhaps some interesting things to talk about there.

    (2) Why the emphasis on one's religion of origin? Why the assumption that that would necessarily be true, beautiful, or real? Couldn't one's religion of origin be despotic, demonic, oppressive, untrue—or, less on the extreme side, superfluous, self-absorbed, wishful thinking, shallow, parochial? For either you or Wiman, why the strong emphasis here (apart perhaps from the existential/confessional aspect in his/your own life)?

  8. (2) Regarding "Why the assumption that that would necessarily be true, beautiful, or real?"

    I don't think the connection is necessary/logical. It's an experiential claim, a report about my own experience. It's news, a witness, a report that I find these symbols true, beautiful and real. But that doesn't confer immunity to criticisms that it all might be demonic or self-absorbed. But, then again, no human being--religious or otherwise--is immune that that sort of criticism. For example, creedal Trinitarian orthodoxy confers no immunity against faith being despotic, demonic, oppressive, untrue, superfluous, self-absorbed, wishful, shallow, or parochial.

    (1) Regarding low sacramentology, I think I have a low view of everything. But I see what you are saying and, in many ways, prefer it to the language of the post. There is an Incarnational aspect to all this, where the "symbolic meaning" is intrinsic to the enactment. If I'm reading you right.

  9. I agree, Richard. But I'd go one step forward.

    I'd also say that for Christianity--more, I think, than any other "religion"--conversion is actually part of the language, part of the symbol-system. I think that the central identity of Christians is "called" or "converting" or "hearing good news that changes us from our old belief-system to a new, cross-shaped reality."I therefore think that those Christians who have not converted in adulthood, who have not come to Christianity as a strange and alien new idea that grabbed hold of us and drew us in, are somehow "on the edges of the body"--a provisional and uncomfortable identity.On the other hand, those with a good conversion story--who actually remember hearing the Gospel as fresh, good news--are at the very center of Christian identity. They experience more clearly a central claim of our symbol/ language: that we are a people called out of darkness into Jesus' glorious light.

  10. I agree with a lot of what Jlh11a has said below, but I disagree with the premise of this claim: " if you have no religion of origin, if you were not acculturated to a set of symbols, where does that leave you?" A friend of mine says that one of his major complaints with a lot of atheists (he is atheist himself, incidentally, of the lapsed Catholic variety) is that they fail to recognize that everyone has a mythology. To use the language metaphor, we may only speak a private language, but we do have one. (Though I think there's a lot to be said for the existence of an atheist tradition as well, one relying heavily on the tropes of progress, discovery, intellectual freedom, and syllogism.)

  11. I agree with you that a lot of Christian communities operate in this way. The ones I moved in during my undergraduate degree felt this way; I felt like my narrative, as a lifelong Christian, was impoverished in some way. But I do not think all Christian communities work like this. I'm in an Anglican church now, and the heavy reliance on tradition tends to mean that inherited beliefs--the definition of the lifelong Christian, normally--are considered more normative. What little proselytizing there is tends to be articulated as coming back to church rather than coming to church for the first time. I noticed that Lgaspar was talking about Catholicism, and I wonder if Catholicism operates more like Anglicanism than like other Protestantisms in this regard.

  12. Are you disagreeing... that it is possible to not have a religion of origin? Personal mythology / private language do not necessarily (or even often) meet the criteria of religion.  I'm not now and have never been an atheist (though I have certainly felt the absence of God). The challenge (to which I am, nodding to Richard, committed) is to engage a common language in which I lack training and traditions, whose symbols have always seemed strange and foreign. Per Jlh11a, there is no religion to which I can return, and I hope with all my heart that (per Jlh11a) no one I consult for spiritual counsel will send me back to that empty space.  

  13. I think your experience points to the core tensions in this post, and that Jlh11a's note highlights that at least some communities take an exact opposite approach. To take an extreme example: there is a large evangelical, homegroup-based church in my community that essentially scoffs at the idea of converting people raised in the faith, and is heavily concerned with privileging adult conversion experiences. How do I think things should be? I think all of these perspectives and experiences should be deeply appreciated and valued for the unique perspectives they bring. And I think everyone should cultivate as much fluency as they can, with an awareness that our language is only ever an imperfect translation of God's language...although we speak God's language most clearly when we love those in need, in practical ways. In this sense, I think it is worthwhile to reflect on speaking in tongues as an important Christian practice and symbol as well: it reminds us that God's words and our translation of them are distinct.

  14. I really love your "low/high" sacramentology (that's what I'd call it).   It walks right between the low church "memorial" groove and the high church "veneration of objects" groove. Leaves room for beauty and mystery, doesn't fall prey to "idolatry" on either side (that's a strong word and I don't mean it in the strongest way) Not my most lofty theological language but it is a path that as an Episcopal priest with a foundational religious experience in the C of C/instrumental CC feels like it has a lot of integrity.  

  15. Oh, I do not mean to conflate religion and personal mythology (for one thing, religion is notoriously undefinable), but I would argue that personal mythology will do the same work of providing a framework of symbols with which you understand the universe and understand meaning, and those symbols will themselves be worthy of...contemplation? Investigation? But I suppose I am guilty of abstracting that mythology from community, so the set of symbols you grew up with will not be shared. The lack of /shared/ symbols might be alienating, yes. I guess that I'm used enough to being a bit of a heretic that the thought doesn't bother me, but I can pass. Others may not be able to pass. I keep forgetting that difference.

  16. I went out and got the book from my library after reading this. I've only read the first few essays, but they all seem to be vulnerable and insightful, as well as being beautifully written

    I've been lurking around your blog for a good while, but this is my first comment. To say something about myself: I'm a fairly recent atheist (de)convent from Christianity, of conservative and evangelical variety. We took the language literally but didn't make much personal use of it. To me, even though he was presented as a loving father, God was a problem I had to deal with, and God was the religion, whether as encounter, the Bible, or punisher of sins. Now, partially thanks to your blog (I love your thoughts on hospitality and collapse of the transcendental, which I certainly identify with) I'm finding much of the language really attractive, such as grace, mercy, even incarnation, as metaphors for potential human action. I can't say it's all helpful, but some of it is absolutely beautiful. I suppose this affirms the dominance of native religion, but I've found some of the language from Buddhism and other religions to be useful as well.

    I like the comment below about the atheist myth of progress, reason, and intellect. Though all these things are important, I find that most of people who go on about them aren't using them very well. Also, the correlation of good with power (science and knowledge are effective powers) is a little disturbing. It's the same problem with much of practiced religion; the ideas are made into absolutes instead of being made useful.

  17. I could relate a very, very long story. But I won't!  It's just too long.  In brief, I fell away from Catholicism in my late teens and found Buddhism in my mid-20s. 

    My stance is that
    "the finger is not the moon" and "the raft is not the shore." But I also I
    don't necessarily think it's bad to go back and forth between two
    rafts, even if that's just means yelling questions across the lake. 

    A few years back, my wife was "born again" (her words) and joined a Pentecostal church. This through my wayward Buddhist self into a bit of uncertainty.   Sometime after that I read Paul Knitter's "Without Buddha, I could not be a Christian." And I took as a call to challenge myself and my "clinging" to my take on Christianity. And so, that fall while trying to find a local mediation group (we'd just moved the year before), I instead signed on to be a 3rd grade Sunday School teacher at a local United Church of Christ.

    Buddhism taught me to challenge my preconceived notions of everything. Eventually I came to challenge my preconceived notions of Christianity.

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