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 Religious Language and Sacred Symbol

Introduction: The Language of the Sacred

 Because the sacred is “ineffable” (indescribable) we are forced to try to describe it using ordinary objects and language. Consequently, we can only talk about the sacred indirectly. That is, we can only talk about what the sacred is like. Not surprisingly, religions tend to use a specialized language to express what the sacred is like.

Types of Religious Language

When we talk about the language of the sacred, it is important to make a distinction between first order discourse and second order discourse.

  • First order discourse is the Scripture and sacred stories of a religion. Often first order discourse is metaphoric and poetic. First order discourse also includes symbols, parable and myth.
  •  On the other hand, second order discourse usually takes the form of commentaries, interpretations and sermons that seek to explain first order discourse. Put another way, second order discourse translates symbolic language into concepts and doctrines (teachings)

In this unit we are primarily concerned with first order discourse. We can divide our consideration into symbol, metaphor, parable and myth.

Religious Symbol

A religious symbol can be defined as an object or sound that points beyond itself to the sacred realm or to some aspect of ultimate reality. Typically, religious symbols actually embody some aspect of sacred reality; that is they are ordinary objects, but they participate in the sacred. Symbols also have multi-layers of meaning and are experienced at the non-rational level. Consequently, symbols may evoke a strong emotional response (not unlike Otto’s mysterium tremendum).

Symbols can be representational or presentational.

  • Representational Symbols establish a relationship between two things even when there may not be a natural or obvious point of contact. For example, a traffic light establishes a relationship between the color red and the act of stopping. There is nothing inherent in red that means “stop;” it is simply something that must be learned.
  • Presentational Symbols participate in or are similar to or present the thing they symbolize. In other words presentational symbols manifest or make present the sacred.
Examples of presentational symbols include religious images in both Hinduism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
  • In Hinduism the term darshan means to see the deity through an image/statue. In other words, the image or statue is a visual symbol through which one makes visual contact with the deity. Worship (puja) is performed in the presence of the image and the image is treated as an honored guest. The image functions as a presentational symbol since it “presents” the sacred to the one viewing the image. It also participates in the sacred since the presence of the deity is thought to be infused into the image.
  • Icons: A similar concept is found in the use of Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Icons are stylized representations of Jesus and the saints. The use and veneration of icons is an essential part of worship in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. In fact, an entire “wall” of icons, known as an iconostasis, is placed at the front of the sanctuary. Through icons, the Orthodox Christian receives a glimpse of the spiritual world.