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Symbolism and Belief

1932 to 1934
University of Edinburgh

In Symbolism and Belief, Bevan examines how religious symbols have represented Divine Reality and how philosophers and theologians have interpreted them as references to God. In his introductory lecture, he defines a symbol as ‘something presented to the senses or the imagination which stands for something else’. The Greek philosophers were convinced that ultimate Reality was indescribable in human language. In contrast, Christian theology asserts that God can be known, though it agrees with the idea that God is unknowable.

In his first ten lectures, Bevan addresses the particular symbols indicating religious reality. Lectures II and III discuss the symbol of spatial height, with the tendency to regard the chief Divine Power as living in the sky, and to place him as high as is imaginable. With Andrew Lang, Wilhelm Schmidt claims that some primitive tribes have ‘a purer form of religious belief’ than the more advanced races—a Supreme God of ethical characteristics. The unknown world at the top of the mountains and the inaccessible sky-world were all ‘one world up there’ where gods dwelt, or the Supreme Being resided. Lectures IV and V consider the application of the idea of endless duration in time to God, claiming that the application to God of temporal duration, as it is experienced by man, is only a symbol or analogy for a life incomprehensible to us. Lecture VI addresses the symbol of light in its references to Logos and glory. Darkness is associated with evil in human minds, so the chief gods are characterized by their connection with light. Lectures VII and VIII mention the symbol of spirit, breath, pneuma (air in motion) and ruakh (wind). Lectures IX and X examine the wrath of God, a symbol from the inner life of man, not from material nature.

In the remaining six lectures, Bevan moves to general theories dealing with the issues on the relationship of symbolism to truth and belief. Lecture XI addresses two types of religious symbols—the symbols behind which we can see and the symbols behind which we cannot see—and explains how these symbols can be interpreted literally or symbolically. Lecture XII discusses the ‘symbols without conceptual meaning’, such as art and poetry, through which the beautiful, the sexual and the numinous are felt in human emotions. Lecture XIII investigates the pragmatic theory and the theory of analogy applied to religious symbols, with a focus on Roman Catholic theologians. In a pragmatic sense, religious symbols are useful ‘because when men act and fell as if they were true, they act and fell with the best practical result, even if the symbols are not true.’ Lecture XIV is devoted to Dean Mansel’s agnostic view upon the utter inability of man to raise himself by thought to an apprehension of God above the figurative mode. Rational argument, locating God within metaphysical categories, is fallacious. Lecture XV deals with rationalism and mysticism. Rationalism challenges believers to modify their beliefs so that the logical contradiction will no longer trouble them. In mystical experience, man apprehends Reality by direct contact or by identification. Lecture XVI concludes that what actually causes anyone to believe in God is direct perception of God.

  • Shin Ahn, University of Edinburgh