interview with Imam Faisal Rauf, the leading figure behind the Park 51 mosque (or "Ground Zero Mosque") in New York City. The conversation, and being reminded of the "heat" that lay behind the controversy with placing a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center, fit into something that I've been musing on all week: the power, use, and misuse of "symbols".
A definition I like of "symbols" is that they are "words or things that open out onto a plurality of possible meanings, and still have a superplus [sic] of meaning left over."* Thinking just about Ground Zero -- how many different meanings can we apply? Or, using a different event, how many meanings can be applied to "Hiroshima" -- which will, no doubt, come up in the news this coming Monday, as we recall the nuclear bombing of that city in 1945? In either case are the meanings exhausted by the protagonists/antagonists/witnesses? There is a memorial that has sprung up near the site of the Aurora shootings of two weeks ago. It symbolizes something different for different people, e.g., a remembrance of those lost, a critique of gun laws, a pledge to make things different.
At the University of Denver, we've been engaging in a long process of discerning our "brand" -- what does the University mean to various constituencies, and how best can we depict that visually. The "logo" is meant to symbolize the University, but no one person--faculty, student, alum, donor, potential employer--will understand the logo the same. Nor should they! (Note: the new logo is at the bottom of this newsletter.)
A few weeks ago, I heard a radio call-in contest that asked the question "Which symbol most represents the USA?" I don't remember the "winning" answer, but you can imagine the answers: the American flag, Statue of Liberty, dollar bill, bald eagle, the White House, etc. And, how important are they! Wow, if politicians don't sport a Flag Lapel Pin, their patriotism is suspect. The flag, as symbol, means something. But to some, it means "America, love it or leave it", while, to others, it can mean "In this free land, I can protest injustice and be a proud American." To others, perhaps non-Americans, it represents a colonial power; to yet others, an aspirational dream.
What spawned all of this reflection on symbols was hearing a reporter comment on some political action or vote: "It was done for purely symbolic reasons." Cheapening a rich word, I thought. Clearly NOT done for symbolic reasons, but to make a pointed, political, one-dimensional statement. If we're going to cheapen the word "symbol" (as we have done with the word "myth"), we're not far from cheapening the power of symbols (as we have done with myths).
As a religious person, and a scholar of religions, I'm aware of the rich symbolic tradition we all hold. The symbols we claim, we use, we cherish are NOT one-dimensional. What, in our various traditions, are symbolized by different foods? Bread: leavened or un-leavened? Butter? Wine? Rice? What about water? Cleansing from impurity. Entry into a new community. Symbol of creation. What about fire? The symbols depicted above are all rich with meaning, layers upon layers.
So, in my reading of sacred texts over the last week, I've been hyper-aware of the symbols present in those writings. I've been hyper-aware, to of the symbols I've seen in the Olympic events, in the commercials, in the language used by commentators. It has enriched my week, and opened my eyes, my mind and heart. Purely symbolic!
*Bean, Wendell C., and William G. Doty. Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader. (Harper Colophon, 1976), 342.