NOTES on Paul Tillich (1886-1965): Religious Symbols

Paul Tillich is an important theologian who argued that if we are to talk about God, our language must be symbolic. He argues that symbols open up new levels of reality and of meaning.

Tillich argues that symbols are an indispensable part of our language. Also according to Tillich, “… there are levels of reality of great difference, and … these different levels demand different approaches and different languages.”

In his essay, he divides his discussion of symbols into five parts.

I. Distinction Between Signs and Symbols

Signs and symbols have similarities and differences. A similarity is that both signs and symbols point beyond themselves to something else. A difference is that only symbols participate in that which they symbolize.

Examples of signs include a red light on a traffic sign — the red light means “stop.” Most words (e.g., “desk”) are also signs. The word “desk,” of course, signifies the physical object we call a desk.

Examples of symbols include the flag. The American flag is more than pieces of colored cloth sewn together; the flag participates in that which it symbolizes (it symbolizes a country and the ideas that the country believes to be important) — otherwise, people would not get upset when someone burns the flag as a protest. In addition, a wedding ring is a symbol. It is a symbol of a special kind of relationship between two people.

However, you should be aware that mathematical “symbols” are not genuine symbols (in Tillich’s meaning); they are merely signs that point to mathematical functions.

II. The Functions of Symbols

The first function of symbols is the representative function — to represent something. However, according to Tillich, “… perhaps the main function of the symbol [is] the opening up of levels of reality which otherwise are hidden and cannot be grasped in any other way.”

All symbols, including artistic and religious symbols, open up new levels of meaning — “internal reality” or levels of self-understanding that correspond to new levels of external reality. Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” can lead you to an awareness of the choices — sometimes small choices — in your life that end up making a huge difference in your life. For example, perhaps you were about equally divided in deciding which of two different universities you should attend. But if you meet your future mate at the school you attend, the decision of which school to attend will have an enormous impact on your life.

Another difference between signs and symbols is that signs can be easily replaced; they are “consciously invented and removed.” For example, if we wanted to, we could change a red traffic light to a blue traffic light with little problem; all it would take would be a change in traffic laws. In addition, corporations sometimes change their corporate logos.

On the other hand, symbols cannot be easily replaced; however, they are born and they can die. An example that Tillich gives is the Virgin Mary, which is a symbol that has died for Protestants. Catholics sometimes pray to the Virgin Mary to intercede with Jesus Christ for them. Protestants, however, believe that every person is his or her own priest. Therefore, there is no need for an intermediary between the sinner and Jesus — the sinner can pray directly to Jesus.

One more point: According to Tillich, symbols arise out of the “group unconscious” or “collective unconscious.” That is why symbols cannot be easily changed.

III. The Nature of Religious Symbols

Like all symbols, religious symbols open up new levels of reality. In Tillich’s words, “Religious symbols do exactly the same thing as all symbols do — namely, they open up a level of reality, which otherwise is not opened at all, which is hidden.”

In the case of religious symbols, the reality that is opened up is ultimate reality (i.e., God). One point that Tillich makes is that many, many symbols have been used to attempt to explain the nature of God; some are more appropriate to one society than to another.

As an illustration, here are some symbols for God in the Old Testament:







fuller (laundress)






teacher and scribe





This multiplicity of symbols seems chaotic; can all these symbols possibly be meaningful? Tillich’s answer is this:

… in order to open up the seemingly closed door to this chaos of religious symbols, one simply has to ask, “What is the relationship to the ultimate which is symbolized in these symbols?” And then they cease to be meaningless; and they become, on the contrary, the most revealing creations of the human mind, the most genuine ones, the most powerful ones, those who control the human consciousness, and perhaps even more the unconsciousness, and have therefore this tremendous tenacity which is characteristic of all religious symbols in the history of religion.

Symbols are not identical with that which they symbolize; if they are so regarded, then they are idolatrous. As an example, Tillich points out that “holy persons can become a god.”

IV. The Levels of Religious Symbols

Symbolic language attempts to speak of two levels of God’s reality:

1) Thetranscendent level (the ultimate reality that transcends space and time). According to Tillich, the transcendent level is “the level which goes beyondthe empirical reality we encounter.”

On the transcendent level, we find:

First, the personhood of God. According to Tillich, we encounter God as a person. After all, we cannot encounter God as “ultimate being.”

Second, the qualities or attributes of God — that God is love, God is mercy, God is power, God is omniscient, God is omnipresent, God is almighty. According to Tillich, when we say these things about God, we are not speaking literally.

Third, the acts of God, including His sending His son to Earth to die for our sins and His creating the World. Once again, when we say these things about God, we are speaking symbolically.

2) The immanent level (the continued presence of God in the world). According to Tillich, the immanent level is “the level which we find withinthe encounter with reality.”

On the immanent level, we find these things:

First, “the incarnations of the divine.” Christians believe that God became Man in the person of Jesus Christ. Other religions have also believed in the divine becoming incarnate.

Second, “the sacramental” — that is, the Christian sacraments (e.g., the Lord’s Supper, baptism). According to Tillich, “The sacramental is nothing more than some reality becoming the bearer of the Holy in a special way and under special circumstances.”

V. The Truth of Symbols

Tillich also points out that symbols are immune to empirical criticism. Examples include the Virgin Mary and the immaculate conception of Jesus. The Virgin Mary could very well become a part of divinity in Catholic theology, according to Tillich. (This in fact did not happen, but Tillich regarded this as a possibility at the time he was writing.) Why? Because of her powerful symbolism. Jesus’ virginal birth is legendary and not historical fact, yet because of the symbolism involved people continue to believe in the virginal birth of Jesus.

So how should we evaluate the truth of religious symbols? Perhaps the words that we should use to evaluate symbols are “adequate” and “inadequate,” rather than “true” and “false.”

Note: The quotations by Paul Tillich that appear in this essay are from his “The Nature of Religious Language” in The Christian Scholar, XXXVIII, 3 September 1955.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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