Sunday, January 26, 2014

Low symbolic hedge?

January 26, 2014

Dear Friends,

When I sent Chicken Little home to roost the sigh of collective relief was clearly audible (smile). I am reminded all over again how widely people differ in their choice of toys for the mind and the way in which they play.

However, I want to leave a serious postscript to the idea Chicken Little attempted to express. Carolyn Arends, songwriter and author, recently wrote an intriguing column titled “God in Costume: Why we need symbols in order to see him.” (Christianity Today, Jan/Feb 2014) Her work is well worth a trip online ( to read. 

Arends argues that our capacity to see God in the ordinary of everyday life is linked to the availability of “potent symbols” in our social context together with our ability (and willingness) to use symbol in the construction of meaning. 

Arends has the able support of folk like Philip Rieff, Allan Bloom, and Ronald Rolheiser (The Shattered Lantern) whom she cites in her argument. Arends (in company with Rieff, Bloom and Rolheiser) refers to a limited capacity to identify and use symbols as a “low symbolic hedge.” 

Chicken Little (on Hubbard’s behalf) argues further that chronic functioning characterized by a “low symbolic hedge” may be evidence of low level skills in the willing suspension of disbelief. 

Symbols are tricky things.

This week the Sunday edition of my local newspaper carries pictures of new (and very expensive) sports cars. They are “real” cars, sitting on “real” lots owned by “real” car dealers.  They are at the same time symbols, whether we consciously will them to serve this symbolic function or not.

According to the “just-the-facts” approach to cognitive behaviors, human use of symbols is best when limited to mental representations of objects and “natural” processes and relationships. This idea reflects a fallacy, however.

Cognitively it is incredibly difficult—if indeed possible at all—to see a “thing” without that “thing” registering mentally as both ‘thing’ and  the additional reality of what that ‘thing’ symbolizes. While the pictures of Porsche, BMW, and Ferrari are indeed representations of objects parked on a dealer’s lot, when I look at them these pictures simultaneously represent an object…a car…and… whatever that object may symbolize for me.

For example, the simultaneous linkage may be car and the sense: only for the rich (and I am not a rich person and cannot have one of these). Or the linkage may be car and the sense: only for the rich (and I am a rich person and I could have one of these if I choose). The linkage may be car and unwise use of money; or car and toy; or car and longing for what I cannot achieve; or car and wordless wanting, my unacknowledged addiction to things. 

You can see that the idea of symbol-free thinking is much easier to talk about than to act into reality.

I have a deep uneasiness about the tricky way in which a representation of something (a book, a car) can so sneakily become a symbol without my fully informed consent. I am convinced that faith is far more than the manipulation of symbol-based meaning. Nevertheless, I believe that discipleship of the mind calls us to face straight on the symbols with which we consciously and unconsciously choose to think.

I celebrate with you our daily invitation into the mysterious world of God’s reality. I am thinking today of one particular door and its symbols through which we are invited to enter into this reality. We come to a table on which simple objects from daily life are placed—the bread and wine of common existence. But there we meet in fact and in symbol another reality—the reality of the broken body, the fact that another’s death now gives us life. I find Arend’s conclusion worth quoting.  We have been invited, she writes, “…into the drama of a mysterious and wonderful gospel—a truth stranger (in the best possible way) than fiction.” 

With you, seeking to raise my symbolic hedge so that I live comfortably, conscious with great joy of God’s present kingdom.
See you next week.


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