We’re still in Ch 9, on Dulles’s idea of “symbolic mediation.” Dulles argues that revelation occurs primarily in symbols – special kinds of signs that become deeply embedded in Tradition, that carry multiple, powerful layers of meaning, and that ultimately become definitive for that Tradition. I have agreed with much of what Dulles is arguing here about how symbols work in Tradition and in carrying the content of revelation symbolically. But I have argued in rebuttal that the primary (as in original and bedrock) form of revelation needs to be something more than a symbol. The Tradition cannot take a single, coherent direction only from a multi-valent symbol. I have suggested that historical fact, direct propositional revelation, direct ritual or liturgical revelation, and symbolic revelation all coincide to establish the baseline of meaning, from which further symbols take their meanings. The two most critical of these nexus are Exodus, and the Incarnation and Passion of Christ.
Having seen how his symbols work in reference to the propositional model, he works through the other four in the same way. I believe my rejoinder holds up in each case: symbols cannot define themselves, ultimately; something more must be given to be definitive, to establish the Tradition.
In reference to the historical model, Dulles takes the historical events themselves as symbols. “Just as a literary text discloses to the literate reader a meaning which is really there, so a revelatory sign-event, to the religiously disposed observer, can convey a divine meaning that truly belongs to the event” (p. 146). Dulles briefly addresses the two problems of subjectivity – that is, maintaining a fixed meaning in the sign-event if it can’t be accurately expressed propositionally, but only narratively – and of distinguishing in history special divine causation (an “act of God”), and therefore dealing with miracles.
In reference to the experiential model, the symbols must mediate the experience of divine presence, and shape the revealed meaning of that presence. “[T]he experience of grace cannot be rightly interpreted, or recognized for what it is, without the help of symbols derived from the known world through sensory experience” (149). The mystical experience also emphasizes the “gap” between symbol and divine reality.
In reference to the dialectical model, the Word itself is taken as the predominant symbol. There is a risk here of taking Christ only as “a” symbol, rather than as unique Savior. Here, Dulles must in fact take my position on his argument, to avoid this: “The word, as the sign [broad sense, not narrow “symbol”] which articulates meaning, is a necessary complement to revelation through any other kind of symbol. The grosser symbolism of nature, deed, or artifact [including ritual], potent though it may be, is too ambiguous to be the sole mediator of revealed religion. The symbol becomes revelation only when interpreted…. For public revelation, moreover, there must be external words, capable of being heard or seen. Such attesting words are necessarily symbolic, for otherwise they could not be conducive to a salvific union with the divine.” (p. 152).
Dulles and I would seem to disagree on the priority of this last sentence. For him, as I understand his argument, the symbols are primary, and the words are human words being used as further, derived symbols to reveal divine truth. I would argue in contrast that the Word, the Logos, is primary to the use of words as symbols.
Finally, in reference to the new consciousness model, symbols do shape and affect our experience, but Dulles insists on the objectiveness of the symbols’ meaning. He also distinguishes (for the first time, here) between primary symbols that carry objective revealed meaning, and “mutable secondary symbols” (153-4; he those symbols such as those in art or liturgy – though he doesn’t here, as I wish he had, note that some of those liturgical symbols are in fact primary) which are more flexible over time.
At this point in my analysis of his argument, I add a second objection. In his desire to retrieve what he sees as the benefits of the different models, he does not distinguish adequately between the giving of the symbol, and our reception and response to it.
The giving of the symbol (if revelation is indeed in the form of symbols) must be accompanied with defining, irreducible propositional, historical, and probably liturgical elements, just like I have argued in reference to Exodus and the Incarnation and Passion. But, the giving of the symbols does not first and foremost involve our inner experience, dialectical submission, or conversion (“new awareness”). These are not the form of revelation, but our response to revelation. What is true in these models is true about our reception of revelation, not about revelation per se. Dulles does yeoman work to show the continuity between 1 and 2 as giving revelation, and 3, 4, and 5 as receiving it. My insistence on the primacy of a Logical nexus of word, sign, and act helps us to separate out these two modes from each other.