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Symbolism - They become associated with the thing they represent. Eg. The US flag is associated with passionate feelings leading some to salute it and others to burn it. Whereas signs are arbitrary representations of something. Eg. Stop sign means stop.
The best known supporter of religious language being symbolic is Tillich a protestant theologian (in his book Systematic Theology). His basic argument was that all religious language is symbolic and can not be taken as literal assertions about the world. Religious words, actions, objects and events may all be interpreted symbolically.
Tillich argues that symbols themselves are independent of empirical (sensual) criticism: “You cannot kill a symbol by criticism in terms of scientific and historical research”. In this sense belief in God can only be expressed through use of symbolic language. Therefore symbolism opens up otherwise hidden levels of reality which would remain closed otherwise.
Examples of symbols Tillich believed that symbols such as National flags insight patriotism to people who are of that nationality. Religious Symbols are meant to convey the same feeling within people, the Star of David for example is a distinguishing and important symbol for the Jews around the world. It invokes religious meaning and patriotism for Israelis.
A motivational one, he says that it fires up our passionate emotions
A social one, he states that people have a common social understanding of symbols, strengthens the social bonds
A communicative one, symbols express religious faith better than religious language can ever hope to achieve in a million years.
Religious symbols can clarify and disclose our experience of the divine in the same way as a poet or artist can reveal hidden depths, it would be like someone trying to explain the Mona Lisa, an impossible task even to modern day humans.
Metaphors; challenges the individual to construct their own individual definition of a symbol.
Myths; seen as an insight into human experience to many people myths are seen as untrue, just as many people do not believe the ancient Greek myths of Hercules, the Minotaur or Achilles, but myths normally come from a true background and we need to decipher the meaning for ourselves.
Models; Normally in the form of analogies; in terms of religious language a model is a situation in which we are all familiar which can be used to reach and explain another situation which may not be true to modern times.