What is the difference between a symbol and an idea?

Last week I received two excellent questions about symbols. “Aren’t all ideas symbols?” And “who gets to say what reality is?” I knew it would take more than a Facebook response to give the questions their due.

Let me start by saying that others may wish to use the same words differently.  My hope is not that you will use the same words I use, or even agree with my attempt to say how they are different, but simply that you will see the complexity of the subject.

First let’s look at the difference between ideas and words:

If I see a rabbit and take a mental snap shot of it, and you do the same thing, we each have an idea we are both calling “rabbit” even though our actual ideas may be different. In addition, there is something out there hopping around outside either of our ideas.

Next let’s look at the difference between words and signs

A stop sign has a word on it, but the message it conveys is equally clear with a red light. A sign can point at something, or imply a message.

Finally difference between signs or ideas and symbols

A watch looks like a sign but there is an important difference. A watch with hands isn’t a snapshot of something else, it is an analog of something we can’t see, namely the movement of the earth relative to the sun. It is a coded image that puts us in relationship to something else which is very real but hard to talk about. If the watch is broken, or simply not set to the right time, it is still called a watch but its purpose is missing. In the same way, religious ideas that do not reveal anything outside themselves may be said to be broken.

Religious symbols are more like watches than a signs. Their purpose is not historical or scientific. They don’t just point, they decode. Their purpose is to give us mental or sensual images of our fundamental connections to the things we cannot really make into pictures- things like being and time.  This can be done through stories that bring to awareness our intuitive sense of connectedness. There is a distinction we need to make between analogs to a particular time and analogues to time itself and between analogues to any particular beings, and to being itself.

Religious symbols, if they are healthy, aren’t just ideas we make up. They are a kind of code that mediates between our consciousness and the mysterious reality which lies all around us. Sane religion isn’t trying to say WHAT the mystery is. Sane religion just remembers THAT the mystery is.