Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Symbols, Pre-Conceptions, and the Construction of Reality

In the discussion of a recent article of mine on the growth of the myth of a post-racial America,I bet this symbol means something different to you than it does me... it became clear to me that the article depends upon a particular understanding of the nature of reality as we human beings have constructed it, and that I had never articulated the line of thought on which it is based. Since this conception of reality and of human nature is a fundamental building block upon which much of the rest of my theology, cosmology, and sociological understandings are built, it is probably necessary for me to lay this foundation before I can make significant arguments in defense of the article itself.

The basic premise of the article in question did not seem to be challenged… that the idea that America has moved beyond race as an issue is indeed a myth. Rather, the question that became contentious was whether or not all human beings carry with us pre-conceptions about race each and every moment of our lives, and that those pre-conceptions affect many of the interactions, decisions, and choices of our lives. For some, this appears to be a liberal version of a “Doctrine of Original Sin”, and while I admit I have seen it operate that way within our liberal faith movement (just as Global Climate Change can operate as an end-times revelation for some of us), my own understanding of human nature does not attach this kind of negative valuation to it.

The objection was surprising to me because I forget not everyone understands what it means to be human in the way that I do. You see, there is no part of human knowledge that is not in itself a mass of pre-conceptions, including my own theology. We human beings can only relate to the universe we inhabit through our own pre-conceptions… or rather through the symbols that we can conceive.

I begin from an un-provable assumption: The universe is vaster than the human mind will ever be able to conceive. I do not take this to be a weakness to my argument, because I also accept that all human arguments ultimately rest on un-provable assumptions. I cannot prove the existence of God, nor can I prove beyond all doubt that my wife loves me. I cannot prove the sun will rise tomorrow, or that what I think of as the color blue is the same as what you think of as the color blue. Human knowledge rests on a whole series of ultimately un-provable assumptions. I posit that the primary reasons for the un-provable foundations of all of human knowledge is that the universe is limitless and the human capacity for knowing is limited. I do not foresee a time or space in which the universe will be limited or the capacity of humanity will be limitless.

Therefore, human knowledge will always remain imperfect, incomplete, and a merest shadow of all that is, was, and will be.

Not only will human knowledge always be incomplete and imperfect, but that knowledge will be experienced and perceived differently by each human being, based upon how much of human knowledge they carry with them, what attitudes they have about that knowledge, and in what order that knowledge came to them. The atom has a very different meaning-set for someone who has dedicated their life to ending nuclear weapons than it does for someone who has dedicated their life to discovering cold-fusion. My wife and I share a life together, and yet her experience of our love is very different than mine.

The fourth point I will posit (the second being the limited nature of humankind and the third being the variability of human experience) is that, in my experience of myself, in my experience of others, and in my understandings of human psychology, humanity has developed a way of functioning in the midst of being limited creatures in a limitless universe in which human knowledge is limited and variable… and that is by creating symbols.

One of the greatest examples of the use of symbols to mitigate the limits and variability of human knowledge is language itself. Human beings learned to allow the symbol of a sound to represent a reality that cannot be perfectly grasped. Language is about much more than the communication of information. The symbols we call words are actually nothing more than a ball-park approximation of what they are meant to express.

Let’s take the word “Rose”. Now a rose is a flower, a particular kind of flower. More than this, it is a category of flowers. These flowers come in different colors, they come in different sizes. Two roses that look almost identical might be from different strains, and have different characteristics of hardiness, of texture, of lifespan. Even if someone knew every last variety of rose blooming today, how could they also conceive of every type of rose that ever existed, or every type of rose that might be developed someday.

Even this understanding would leave out all the different meanings that a rose might have in a culture. In our culture, the rose means love, but it can also mean grief. The blue rose was once the symbol of secrecy, and the white rose can mean anonymous love. Yellow roses have some meanings that only Texans understand… and yet the young Chinese woman who once stood before some tanks in Tiananmen Square was called “The Yellow Rose”.

Add to this that millions of women in western culture have been named “Rose”… including my Great Grandmother. It is also a color, a scent for perfumes, and the name for the taste of a particularly nasty chocolate candy I once ate…. And you barely begin to scratch the surface of all of the meanings, knowledge, patterns, and beliefs bound up with this one, four lettered symbol in a single language from a particular set of human cultures.

And then think of all of the different possible meanings, interpretations, and understandings of every single word I have written in this essay… or has ever been written in any single language and read by any single human being who ever attempted to read and write… and you begin to see the complexity that is behind the symbols we so blithely use and assume that everyone understands them the same way we do…

I made such a point of this involving the complex symbolism of language in order to try and be as clear as I can before I make my next point… as with language, human beings can only relate to the universe through such symbols.

It is here that the argument I made in the previous essay begins to merge with this essay. Often we express the symbols by which we limited beings relate to a limitless universe and a limited understanding of one another in the symbols of words, but not always. Our feelings are symbols (or feelings as messengers, in common CPE parlance). Our attitudes are symbols. Our values, stated or unstated are symbols. Each of them is a short-hand representation for realities that are too complex to express in their fullness, and also too complex for each of us to understand in their fullness ourselves.

These value symbols, attitude symbols, feeling symbols, are also understood and encountered differently by each and every one of us. How I encounter the symbol of my value of the inherent worth and dignity of every person will be different from how you encounter my value of inherent worth and dignity of every person.

I hope I have made the universe and all of our human reactions within it seem a jumbled up, impossible mess. I hope I have made it seem as if there is no hope that any of us will ever be able to communicate anything to anyone, how all hope of any kind of knowledge is lost, and how we are all lost in a morass of our own misunderstandings and drowning in not-knowing. I hope I have created that impression so that my next point can seem a little more profound than it really is…

We human beings are experts at “making-do”.

The development of a symbolic understanding of the universe is in essence that “making-do”, and it is a large part of what I think makes humanity beautiful. I will never fully understand what you might mean by the word “Rose”… but I can get close enough to make it work. I will never fully understand what my wife means when she tells me she loves me… but I can get close enough to know it is similar to the feeling-symbol I have for her. I will never understand the complexity of what my physicist friend calls “string-theory”… but I can get close enough to nod intelligently at parties.

There is another human symbol-set that I have not yet discussed (along with many other symbol-sets, like mathematics), and it is the one that I was pointing to in the article that was the impetus for this article… and that is the symbol-sets of pre-conceptions… particularly pre-conceptions about our fellow human beings.

All of the complexity that I highlighted with the word “Rose” can be multiplied by six billion when it comes to the words person and human. It would probably be easier to hold the entire complexity of all the stars in the milky-way galaxy in your mind than the entire complexity of every human alive today. Add to that the entire complexity of every human who has ever lived or ever will live… and you reach nearly the same limitlessness that the universe itself exhibits.

Yet among humans there are patterns, and we can begin to grasp those. We can see that humans come in different colors, different shapes, different genders, different ages, different sexual orientations, and different abilities. Humans also hail from different cultures, different countries, different continents. Among each of these different categories there are some broad similarities that we can begin to grasp… even when it is impossible to grasp the differences of each individual in their wholeness.

Perhaps at one time human communities were so small that each individual human could limit the number of other humans they might encounter in their lifetime to a number that they could encounter in something close to their wholeness, though I doubt it. That certainly is not true for the overwhelming majority of humanity today. We simply do not have the capacity to encounter each human being we come into contact with as a unique and separate individual, even if it were possible to take the time to encounter each person in their fullness. And so, we fall back upon the method of “making-do” that has served us for all of our history… we create symbols. In this case, we create pre-conceptions about the humans around us.

Notice that I am not particularly condemning the human use of the symbols of pre-conceptions as wrong or negative… the use of this kind of symbol for a complexity we cannot conceive is simply a part of being human. I called it beautiful and often it is. It is what allows us to function in a world that is too complex for us to fathom. I said in the previous article that all human beings carry pre-conceptions about race, and I meant it. What I mean in its fullness is that all human beings carry pre-conceptions about everything and everyone we encounter in this world. We learn symbolic pre-conceptions at the same time we learn symbolic language. It is simply a part of who we are.

Its been a long essay… and I promise I will come to a close soon… but there is one last point I need to make… and that is what we do with these pre-conceptions. What value we place on them, whether they serve us in positive ways or whether they become negative and destructive depends not on whether or not we have pre-conceptions, but rather upon how we relate to them. I believe there are three primary ways that we human beings relate to the pre-conception symbols we carry with us.

The first is when we place so much importance on the validity of our pre-conception symbols that we cannot encounter any variance from them. This type of engagement with a pre-conception symbol is what is often symbolized by the word prejudice. When it is connected to the power to enforce the pre-conception, it becomes racism, sexism, ageism, etc… Theologically, allowing the symbol to replace the complex reality that the symbol is only supposed to imperfectly represent has a word-symbol of its own. The bible calls it Idolatry. This is the heart of all forms of fundamentalism, for fundamentalism is the denial of complexity.

The second is a bit more subtle… and that is when we either pretend that such pre-conceptions do not exist, or that whatever pre-conceptions we might have do not affect how we relate to the world. This denies how almost all (if not all) of what it means to be human is bound up in our symbolic nature. Everything we do as human beings we do through symbol, for the symbols are all we can grasp. To pretend not to have any pre-conceptions is simply to be willfully blind to our nature. Whether this manifests as denial or apathy, it also has a biblical word-symbol… hypocrisy.

The third form of engagement is the one that I believe that liberal faith is called to, and that is a continual practice of awareness. This form is one in which each individual is called to continually deepen their own awareness of the pre-conception symbols they carry, and how those pre-conception symbols affect their interactions with others and the world. They use such symbols with caution, aware that they can only be symbols… never the reality. This form of engagement calls upon the practitioner not to remove pre-conceptions… but to be aware of them, and to be willing to alter them as their experience changes.

And if I were to give it a biblical word-symbol, I would give it one so full of meaning that it can almost never be translated… I would call this one “the Realm of God”.

Yours in Faith,


5 Thoughts on “Symbols, Pre-Conceptions, and the Construction of Reality

  1. Hi David, i’m a non-theist, as are a number of close friends. They have a hard time understanding me when i persist in a belief in original sin. You wrote:The symbols we call words are actually nothing more than a ball-park approximation of what they are meant to express.” and that is basically my argument for the enescapable presence of Error or Sin in society. To complicate things even further in moments of passion our individual lexicon may become even more unique and distant from those who hear our voice. i’ve had a bit of luck in finding an upbeat message in the direction of human communication. In trying to identify the sources of Morality i’ve manage to run across several scientific understandings of the possibility of the improvement of theprocess of communication. One of the best starting points for me were the talks at TED Talks website, especially those of Ramachandran on Phantom Limbs and mirror neurons, Jonathan Haidt on the five foundational points of morality, andRobert Sapolsky on human uniqueness. ben

  2. Thanks for taking the time (and I know it took time) to write all that up, David. We share a general worldview about such things, though naturally I differ on some particular details. I don’t know how big you are on American theological history, but what you are essentially espousing is a 21st century evolution of Horace Bushnell’s theory of language and biblical exegesis. (Bushnell was one of the major and widely influential liberal Congregationist theologians of the 19th centuries). You might find his writings on the subject interesting.

    I personally would have expressed your final point differently. To me, as a Unitarian-Universalist and as a Buddhist, our practice is NOT awareness of preconceptions, but the transformation of prejudices, ignorance, and limitations toward the better (ultimate perfection being unreachable in this life, but continual improvement being possible and indeed the central practice of historic Universalists). This transformation requires constant awareness, of course, but that is a mere means, as it moves forward beyond awareness to personal and social change in the direction of increasing love, increasing wisdom, increasing thankfulness, and increasing compassionate action. You perhaps hint at something similar by saying that we may alter our preconceptions, but saying more bluntly that we are not called to remove them deflects this point and I thought I would highlight it more explicitly.

  3. Thank you Jeff…

    I’ve read some of Horace Bushnell’s work, and have seen the similarity. I think, however, that he was less akin to universalize the symbolic understanding of human knowledge than I am.

    I want to push you on one thing… and that is that I do not believe that you can be effective in a practice of tranformation of “prejudice, ignorance, and limitations toward the better” until you have developed a deep practice of self-awareness… including awareness of the pre-conceptions that we carry.

    I believe that the desire to move right into transforming prejudice without first doing the work of self-awareness is the reason that so many efforts at transformation that I have encountered have been less than effective. In my experience, many who are not imbued in a practice of self-awareness enter into efforts at transformation for motives and reasons that they do not understand. The lack the foundational grounding as to the purpose of their work, and become too easily discouraged when it becomes apparent that most transformative change requires time and persistance.

    I just came off of a 36 hour chaplain shift, and I’m a little tired at the moment… but I think you highlight what is my primary critique of most Unitarian Universalist social justice efforts. We seek to move into creating transformative change before we understand what calls us to that work, what our resources are, what our liabilities are, and what needs of our own we are serving in seeking such transformation.

    This is why I focus first on the need for awareness, before seeking to create transformation.

    Yours in faith,


  4. Dear David:
    I always enjoy reading your articles. They are so thoughtful and well written. I particularly enjoyed this one, because I am deeply interested in the nature of language and symbols and how we make use of them.
    It seems to me we limited human beings have the capacity to be aware of our direct experience before we put words to it. There is that in us, which is always unformed, not yet spoken. And mindfulness awareness is to continually touch this direct experience which we do not yet have words for. All of the meanings we make – all of the symbols we use – if they are true – it seems to me come forth from this nameless, shapeless, direct experience we all have moment by moment.

    So the relationship of symbols to our direct experience is an intimate one, but I believe it is not equivalent either. For we can use symbols that are disconnected from our own direct experience. And I believe when we do that, we begin trusting ourselves less. When we don’t listen or trust our own direct experience, we settle for second-hand knowledge, opinions, interpretations, etc.

    But language is an amazing thing. We are the stuff of language. It is not something separate from our experience. The words we use that come forth from our direct experience are always more precise, more poetic, and more accurate than the public language we can look up in the dictionary.

    There is so much more that can be said about this.

    Neuroscience is beginning to make some remarkable discoveries about the brain, and it turns out that we human beings, because of our brains, have a capacity for attunement, both to ourselves and to others. So what we call empathy is our capacity to resonate with someone elses direct experience within ourselves. The relationship of the brain and mindfulness may actually be to increase the social circuitry in ourselves that gives us this capacity to be intimate with another human being – sensing their direct experience as our own and there I believe we will come to what you call the “realm of god” or as Martin Buber put it so well, “I Thou”.

    in gassho, with much love and respect –
    Joshin Roshi

  5. Pingback: Celestial Lands » Blog Archive » The Space Between Experiencing and Knowing

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