Imagine a religion where the congregation convenes and worships by expounding theology in explicit language — instead of worshiping in the beautiful but ambiguous symbolic language of ritual and prayer — with the intention of developing the clarity, depth and inspirational intensity of the theology to the furthest possible extent.
Imagine that, through this practice, the congregation does succeed in its collective goal. Imagine also, that this theological worship enables every member of the congregation to make personal progress, each at their own maximum pace, in their own theological understanding.
I will tell you exactly what happens: With each personal epiphany, the congregation shatters and reshatters in protest and counter-protest.
A clear theology is univocal. It conveys one specific belief.
But, ultimately, every one of us, being unique, has a unique relationship to the infinite. There are as many theologies as there are persons. The better the theology, the less it accommodates more than one theologian — and the less comprehensible it is to all others — and the more intensely it induces apprehension in the uncomprehending.
A religious symbology is polyvocal. The more radically polyvocal it is, the more universal its community. A symbology can be an expression of any number of beliefs of varying depth and clarity.
Even beliefs that clash and conflict when stated explicitly, when expressed in symbol, affirm a harmonious commonality of faith beneath the beliefs.
Each religious symbol is a miracle of polysemy, a part of an even more miraculous polysemous symbol-system, the symbology of the religion. A change in any one symbol can crystallize a change throughout the system.
But these symbols are not external tokens that can be known through external manipulation.
One cannot understand a symbol as an object, grasped in the hand of the comprehending mind. Assembling and disassembling symbols like Lego blocks and combining them with pieces from other sets might give you some kind of knowledge about the pieces, and you might enjoy the experience of playing with them, but this comes at the cost of understanding their meaning of the symbol within the symbology that engendered it.
A symbology is not an object. A symbology is a subject.
To know a subject, we immerse in that subject, participating in its praxis until we have an epiphany — an epiphany that renders the subject clear — clear, invisible, imperceptible, transparent (trans- “through” + -parere “show oneself”) — so transparent that we experience the world itself through the subject, as made apparent by the subject, as given by the subject.
A subject is an enworldment.
If we conceive religions in terms of belief content, this produces a different understanding than if we see religions more like languages that put communities in relation with each other, and with ultimate reality.
Is a dictionary an inventory of every entity English-speakers believe exist? Isn’t that a notion we kicked to the curb when we rejected correspondence theories of truth? I’m curious: When we naively believed in correspondence theories of truth, and adhered to them, does that mean that this restricted our actual thinking and speech? Or did it mean we actually thought and spoke one way, but spoke about and thought about our speech and thought another?
Isn’t it possible that religious people participate in religion one way, but think about and speak about religion another? Likely, even?
In usability testing, we watch people use an artifact. We don’t thrust the artifact before them, invite them to look at it and ask them for their opinion of it. We give them a task, and they try to use the artifact to accomplish it.
When we ask them about what they did, or why they did it, it doesn’t add up. They say it was easy, when the struggled. Or they make up reasons to explain things they were clearly doing instinctively, unconsciously. They are clearly confabulating.
Looking at a thing and looking through a thing is radically different.
But we keep on thinking: “No, I get the gist of it.”
No, you do not get the gist of it.
The craft of research-informed design teaches us this over and over and over and over again not to trust our ability to see other perspectives from our own perspective.
The strangest thing about being human is that we are free. We can spiral our finitude out into infinitude, or we can withdraw our finitude and close it into an impenetrable circle. Anything we prefer to regard as nonsense we can leave nonsensical. Nobody can compel us to pursue its sense, unless we want to. We are free to understand or refrain from understanding. We can, if we wish, even obliterate understanding through willful misunderstanding. Nobody can stop us, or even know for certain what we are doing.
To say “the author is dead” is not a statement of fact, but a speech act that kills authors. And every day that we celebrate the author’s wake is a day that we, alone, are free to author our own life as we wish. Postmodernism was a disobligating liberation movement, and it succeeded. Nobody is the boss of me.
To say “God is dead” is also a speech act that kills God.
But, to that I say: Happy Easter.
There is wisdom in keeping our beliefs private and expressing what matters most symbolically.