Dulles defines in Chapter 9 what he means by “symbolic communication” or “symbolic mediation.” First, he notes, revelation never occurs in an unmediated encounter with God. That encounter is always mediated – specifically, by symbols as “an externally perceived sign that works mysteriously on the human consciousness so as to suggest more than it can clearly describe or define. Revelatory symbols are those which express and mediate God’s self-communication” (p. 131).
“Symbol” here is a special kind of sign. Some signs only indicate something (as a shadow on a sundial); others represent something, usually by convention or tradition (as a written word stands for a set of sounds, which in turn stand for an agreed-upon meaning in a particular language). Symbols might indicate or represent, but what makes them symbols is that they evoke something beyond what can be indicated or represented. Their meaningfulness exceeds the indicated or represented meaning.
Because symbols evoke, their communication includes the response of the viewer. A national flag might only be a sign if we’re reading it in a catalogue, and have no emotional response to it. But it might be a powerful symbol, evoking a broad response of feelings and memories and expectations, when we see our own flag flying on some special occasion or place. “To enter the world of meaning opened up by the symbol we must give ourselves; we must be not detached observers but engaged participants” (133). Many kinds of things can be symbols: words, objects, persons, artifacts, dreams, rituals, myths, allegories, etc.
This definition faces two fundamental problems, of subjectivity, and of finitude. (1) If the symbol requires the participant to add his own experiences etc. in order to be meaningful, then how can symbols be (a) objective, and (b) universal? And (2), how can symbolic communication reveal to humans something beyond natural human experience? Where does that “supernatural” content come from, if the meaningfulness of the symbol depends so strongly on the human audience? Dulles sidesteps these problems to some extent: “To establish this, one would have to construct a theoretical argument based on the nature of revelation itself…. [Here,] I shall seek to propose an argument based on the parallelism between the properties of symbolic communication and of revelation. Four such properties may be singled out” (136).
First, symbolism gives participatory knowledge. A symbol is never a sheer object, but rather lures us into a newly-opening universe of meaning. Second, symbols transform the knower; the new meanings it opens change the one who participates in the symbolic communication. Third, that transformation is expressed as “consistent and committed action” (137). Fourth, symbols allow a kind of knowledge or awareness not available to discursive thought. They are a kind of mystery, both concealing and revealing in their evoking.
“These four qualities of symbolic knowledge make it apparent how symbol can be uniquely apt as a medium of revelation; for the qualities of revelation correspond, on a transcendent level, to those just noted…” (138). Just like symbols, revelation gives participatory awareness, transformation, commitment, and insight into unfathomable mysteries.
I do wish Dulles had given a more comprehensive answer here. Everything else he will say in the book depends on this point, that revelation takes place through symbolic mediations, using a variety of symbols according to the five models (propositions, history, inner experience, mystery, and new awareness). It seems plausible, but in making this point, he does not face squarely the problems of subjectivity and finitude. Instead, he goes around them by noting that symbols are like revelation. This is not sufficiently convincing, by itself. This becomes an enormous “IF…” statement, to which the remainder of the books is the “THEN…” which follows. But “IF NOT,” then his whole argument for symbolic mediation fails.
Dulles tries to buttress his assertion with three examples: light, the Cross, and the Eucharist (140-1). He “tests” these examples as mediating symbols in each of the five models. We’ll look at these carefully next week.