Interpreting symbolism

Interpreting symbolism

Myths are full of symbols to help convey the story’s message. They shouldn’t be interpreted literally as that often only clouds our understanding.

Interpreting symbolism
photo credit: liebeslakritze via photopin cc

Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding. Hence the personality or personalities of God—whether represented in trinitarian, dualistic, or Unitarian terms, in polytheistic, monotheistic, or henotheistic terms, pictorially or verbally, as documented fact or as apocalyptic vision—no one should attempt to read or interpret as the final thing. The problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent, so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey. “For then alone do we know God truly,” writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, “when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God.” And in the Kena Upanishad, in the same spirit: “To know is not to know; not to know is to know.” Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood.’

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a Thousand Faces

‘Some spiritual and religious traditions are among the best-documented sources of physical and psychological health, particularly the more experiential, accepting, and mystical practices such as meditation and prayer. This is not surprising, because these cultural traditions were among the first to emerge after human language really began to evolve into the elaborate symbolic system we have today. Yet psychotherapists often attack spiritual and religious traditions as if they were inherently toxic to an individual’s autonomy and psychological health.

The reasons for this skepticism are understandable. It is known that rigid and punitive religious systems are toxic to human health. There are dramatic examples of harmful social control and dogma in religion (e.g., cult suicide, ethnic cleansing). Often, clients who seek out psychotherapy are likely to be among those who have been harmed. But we need to be less arrogant and more open to aspects of human culture that are helpful.

In this larger context, ACT is one small effort to solve the psychological problems language has created. That is “the work” we have before us, and it is perhaps the most important psychological task we face as a species. If we as psychotherapists take on this burden, we need to look again at the many honorable traditions (religious, spiritual, mystical, therapeutic) that have attempted to address human suffering and try to filter out what works from what does not.’

Steven C. Hayes, Kirk D. Strosahl and Kelly G. Wilson. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change.

* In a series of posts I call mythology Monday, I look at quotes from the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and consider them alongside extracts from books and papers on acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and related publications.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.