Remember that when we talk and think in symbols we are placing something
between ourselves and reality – something protective, interpretive and
significant, but something nevertheless veiling and hiding.
The Master Djwahl Kuhl
Merriam Webster defines the word symbol as a noun: an action, object, event etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality. Another definition I found was “a letter, group of letters, character, or picture that is used instead of a word or group of words.”
When we think of symbols, most of us think of pictograms and hieroglyphs but that is just one way of using symbols. A glyph generally looks like the object it represents. Language is a complex symbolic system in which the symbols do not look like the objects (or ideas) they represent. Words are symbols made of symbols, because letters are symbols too. The letters represent sounds which when uttered together can represent not only an object but a concept.
The word automobile doesn’t look like a car, but that is what we all get from the word because of our common experience in the world. Automobile simply means “moves by itself” but we have come to associate it throughout our culture as a car. It is a concept because it represents more than just one car but the idea of all cars. This concept of “car” means something slightly different to each person who hears or uses the word. The average driver has one interpretation, and the engineer has another, based on the diversity of their experience, but there is enough common experience for them to communicate about a car.
How deep does this idea go? That same car can represent success or failure to an individual. Other “status symbols” can make you feel success or achievement. Your entire life can be seen as symbolic of a certain kind of struggle to those around you or, if you gain notoriety to the country, or the world. Story tellers can use this symbolic language to teach us a moral through the life experiences of a fictional character, or select specific events in the life of a real person to get a certain type of point across. Some people may readily see the back story as it unfolds and others may need the author to explain it through the denouement.
We all see the same movie but walk away with a different impression. The life experience we bring to the theatre colors the way we interpret the story. This is what the writers of scripture and fable capitalize on when transmitting certain types of truth. When we move into the arena of faith, what is being transmitted by the backstory is the real story. When the idea is abstract, or as in the case of spiritual truth, must be experienced personally, a symbolic transmission of the truth is necessary. For instance, we cannot prove, or even define God. By most definitions it is indefinable (oddly enough). Even labeling it with the word God is a limitation so the Hebrew faith refers to the ultimate creator as “he about whom naught can be said.” Lao Tsu tells us that “the Tao that can be discussed is not the real Tao.”
If we cannot discuss it, or speak about it without distorting the idea, the only thing we have left is to point at it in a vague way from a number of different perspectives and hope the point gets through. For some people it will become clear and for some it will not. Some will gain a faint understanding and never see the whole picture. Some will not realize the story has a point at all. That is the continuum of understanding of spiritual truth. To someone who is unaware of the use of symbolism, or does not have the keys to unlock their meaning the truth remains veiled.
These are the people who will only see the literal meaning of a scripture. They see The New Testament as the story of the life and times of a Rabbi in Palestine. This can offer inspiration to their lives because of the things he went through and the experiences they have had throughout their lives may relate to his in some meaningful way. For others, with “eyes that see and ears that hear,” a deeper meaning is revealed. In the case of The New Testament, we have a story about the enlightenment of not only that particular Rabbi, but the path it takes for every single human being as we evolve our understanding about ourselves and the universe we share. If you are curious about this idea it is treated at length in my father Anthony J. Fisichella‘s last book. It was the final book of his Trilogy, “One Solitary Life” and it is titled “The Christ Epoch.”
There is another aspect to this use of symbolism when it relates to spiritual truth. The awareness of these ideas will empower someone in very specific ways. These truths can be used for the general good or selfish gain (evil). Power in the wrong hands is dangerous, so in order to preserve and communicate the truth it must be veiled from the profane. In the words of Geoffrey Hodson the symbolic presentation is use to “both conceal and reveal” the truth.
It is with these ideas in mind that we will explore the presentation of these spiritual ideas within the pages of my upcoming book “Spiritual Practicality – The Seven Keys to the Mysteries of the Ageless Wisdom.”