Broken Symbols and Excess of Awareness

After my re-reading of Fowler’s Stages of Faith, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of broken symbols. I first encountered this when I read Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith over 20 years ago. I did go looking through my storage boxes of books for a couple of hours to locate my copy of the Tillich, but was unsuccessful (I will try again once there’s a break in the weather and I’m not in a super-heated attic). For today, my recollection, aided by the mention that Fowler gives, will have to suffice.

A symbol is broken once someone realizes that it is indeed, a symbol. A ring given in marriage starts off as a “broken symbol”–we all know that it represents the love between two people publicly making a lifetime pledge of fidelity and mutual support. But we know (I hope, at least) that the ring and the marriage are not one and the same. Even if the ring is lost or irrevocably damaged, the relationship persists. If the relationship is terminated, the ring may continue unchanged (physically). The ring, we are all aware, represents the marriage, but is not identical to it.

Fowler notes that the fourth stage of faith is the point at which symbols are most likely to break. As most American religious congregations (and I’m guessing from observation, European ones as well) work quite hard to keep people from developing past stage 3, and choose their leaders from those who are very deep stage 3 but not likely to move beyond that, people who begin to question the legitimacy of conventional interpretations of common Christian symbols may begin to feel ill at ease in social groupings which once provided a “spiritual home”. Fowler gives this description:

Symbols and rituals, previously taken as mediating the sacred in direct ways and therefore as sacred themselves, are interrogated by Sage 4’s critical questioning. In its critical reflection Stage 4 regards meanings as separable from the symbolic media that express them. In face of a liturgical ritual or a religious symbol the Individuative-Reflective person asks, “But what does it mean? . . . A certain naïve reliance upon and trust in the sacred power, efficacy, and inherent truth of the symbol as representation is interrupted. Instead of the symbol or symbolic act having the initiative and exerting its power on the participant, now the participant-questioner has the initiative over against the symbol. For those who have previously enjoyed an unquestioning relation to the transcendent and to their fellow worshipers through a set of religious symbols, Stage 4’s translations of their meanings into conceptual prose can bring a sens of loss, dislocation, grief and even guilt. (Fowler, Stages of Faith, p. 180)

This is not only distressing to the person moving into (and perhaps through) Stage 4, but it is unsettling to those who are, for various reasons, invested in remaining at Stage 3. Typically Stage 3 spiritual leaders will often recommend spiritual direction, a rule of life, deeper commitment to the church, or a host (so to speak) of other conventionally religious practices–which is a knee-jerk reaction, and not really what the person coping with the breaking of cherished symbols will find helpful. Questioning central Christian symbols and rituals, challenging their meaning or examining their efficacy is not something most ministry training programs encourage–they may mildly inoculate the ordinand to the possibility (even within his or her own spiritual journey), but it is not something most new ministers are equipped to handle when a congregant starts down that road.

It isn’t supposed to happen. It looks (to the untrained eye) as if the congregant is “losing faith”; when a congregant loses faith, it somehow reflects badly on the ordained leadership of the local church. However, if you read Fowler, the exact opposite is happening. It’s exactly what is meant to happen, yet I know of no ministry training institution that teaches people to enable this development. We train ministers to keep people just below the level of questioning symbol and ritual.

And yet, if we really want fuller participation in the church, we would change this immediately. Again, I find Neil Postman’s Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk instructive here. We would realize that not encouraging reflection on the words, actions, and visual objects involved in Christian faith is a form of “crazy talk” (which has no humane end):

We want people to do what they are supposed to do, say what they are supposed to say, and think, if at all, strictly in the channels assigned to the matter. The rush to do and say, as well as fixed-channel thinking, are the essentials, the catalysts of almost all stupid and crazy talk. Yet the pressures toward them are very good indeed.
I suspect that behind it all is the fear that an excess of awareness will jeopardize the stability and continuity of a situation and will thereby destroy it. But this fear, in my opinion, is not well-founded. Consider the case of two people attending a church service. The first knows what she is supposed to do and say but has little awareness of how her behavior is being managed. The second also knows what she is supposed to do and say but, at the same time, knows about how the environment has been designed and is fully aware of its multileveled purposes. She knows about identification reactions and reification and role-structures and fanaticism and all the rest. Will the meaning of the event be the same for both of them? I doubt it. But this does not mean that the second woman will refuse to participate in the event. Knowing that the semantic environment of religion may provide her with a sense of transcendence and her community with a sense of social cohesion, she may be quiet willing to do and say exactly what is required of her. But her actions would rest on a foundation of awareness which permits her to be in control of her responses in a way that is not available to the other.
. . .In fact, the greater one’s awareness of the purposes and structures of different semantic environments, the greater is one’s sensitivity to the precariousness of all social order, that is, of all communication. To discover that what keeps us together is nothing more substantial than a curious set of symbols and a delicate system of rules is more likely to lead one to humility and conservatism than to iconoclasm and rebelliousness.

Why are we so very afraid, in our religious institutions, to have highly reflective congregants? Moreover, why do we not seek people with this level of “excess awareness” (I love that term) for ministry–or require them to develop it as part of their preparation? Would encouraging people to think beyond the current packages in which Christianity is available have a positive impact on faith communities?

I think so. I’ve already made the claim that I think the church is stuck at stage 3, when the surrounding culture has passed into stage 4. I think it might be possible that many who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious” have not rejected the core of Christianity, and might be quite sympathetic–but they are skeptical about the institutional church as a place where the teachings of Jesus are best thought through and lived out. They may not be terribly convinced that intense and frequent participation in congregational life is equal to doing the work of God. They may be seeking something bigger than attending worship, serving on committees, and doing “charitable works” under the vigilant eyes of Mother Church. They may see the Gospel as a way of motivating and sustaining their daily life and work, but heavy commitments in the congregation as undermining those endeavors.

It is, I think, worth a try. It may mean that “congregation” gets radically re-envisioned. It may mean less is done under the auspices of the church (which may be a blessed relief), and the Gospel is lived out in working for secular organizations such as schools, hospitals, or even government. But it may raise the value of that more concentrated form of church participation, which could be open up important paths forward.


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