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RLST 101 ARUCC Cornell Notes on Sacred Symbols Myth & Doctrine E Lecture Worksheet

RLST 101 ARUCC Cornell Notes on Sacred Symbols Myth & Doctrine E Lecture Worksheet

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E-Lecture: Sacred Symbols, Myth, and Doctrine

E-Lecture: Sacred Symbols, Myth, and Doctrine

Symbolic Communication

Human beings are capable of abstracting from their immediate situations, forming judgements, imagining and fantasizing. The main difference between animal and human communication is that humans have a symbolic capacity. This is different than signaling (as animals do through gestures or sounds).

Signs and symbols are forms of expressing meaning. They are used interchangeably but they are NOT the same. Signs are natural reminders. Symbols are special kinds of signs- they are used to talk about things, not to direct our ears or nose toward something (as signs do). Symbols can refer to things that are not immediately in the present, while signs tend to point to something visible.

There are representational symbols and presentational symbols. Representational symbols tie together things that are different even when there doesn’t appear to be a natural connection between the symbol and the thing that is being symbolized. Representational symbols are determined by their cultural context and use. Ex: green traffic lights mean “go” but blue could just as well have been used. Green and go have no natural connection but have become connected in our society. Many of the most common religious symbols are representational.

Presentational symbols often take the form of an icon or image. They are similar or they are part of what is being symbolized. Ex: a map is used to point to a geographical reality. Religiously, presentational symbols are very powerful because they participate in the holy or sacred. Ex: certain gestures in Buddhism, called mudras, demonstrate aspects of the Buddha spirit.

Religious Symbols

Symbols function as a shorthand reminder of information or a mode of action that is already known. Some symbols, presentational ones, convey knowledge of the thing that is symbolized. In order to do this, it must resemble the thing that is being symbolized or in other words, there must be an analogy between the symbol and the thing that it point.

Religious expression is mostly symbolic because it points to a reality that is essentially transcendent (God or gods). Religious language uses metaphor, poetry, myth and ritual in order to communicate many things.

Most religious language (what is called “first-order” religious language) is poetic and full of metaphor. However, it usually doesn’t stay that way. The “second-order” language within religion is when people attempt to get more clarity or meaning from the symbols, myths and metaphors by analyzing them and translating their meaning into concepts and doctrines.

A religious symbol is a bridge that links the image, gesture, sound taken from both the Holy and ordinary experience. Some symbols are so powerful that become root metaphors or master symbols within a religious community because they are so central to the sustaining of the community. Ex: the crucifix in Christianity.

Religion constitutes an entire life form, it is not just a collection of ideas. By understanding the master symbols and root metaphors of a religion, one can gain a great understanding into the life form of those that follow the religion.

Religious symbols can bring together a wide variety of events and meanings. One example is the symbol of the sacred fish, which is used in Christianity and has multiple meanings (see pg. 62-64 for more specifics).

Metaphor, Parable, and Story

Metaphor is a type of symbolic communication. It is not a literal statement but is a comparison or an analogy. However, it is different than an analogy because a metaphor creates something new (it is not just a comparison). It brings together similarity and difference and holds them in tension with one another, causing one to ponder the symbolic meaning within the metaphor, rather than taking it literally.

Parable is an extended metaphor, and gives new insight to the religious. Parables cause the mind to doubt the exact definition of the story and ponder the meaning for truth. It is not an abstract thought, but a story drawn from ordinary life that leaves open many possible explanations. Parables use the ordinary to show the religious the extraordinary.

Certain parables can be considered root metaphors. Root metaphors are symbols of the central truths of the religion. See pg. 66-67 for two root metaphors or parables of Buddhism and Christianity.

Why are parables so important? What unites humans is their shared experience of past, present and future. In other words, humans are temporal and parables take temporal stories and give them meaning.

Most people are not conscious of the profound impression that great parables or archetypal stores and myths have in shaping our sense of self, and our world.

Religious Myth

Myths are not considered to be untrue religious stories by scholars. Instead, scholars of religion view myths as complex forms of symbolic communication.

Myths tell a story, like parables. Myths serve as a community’s character for its entire life-world. Myths shape how a religious community sees itself, it’s origins and it’s future. It demonstrates the inner meaning of the universe and what is “really real.” Myths are not considered true or false by scholars.

Myths provide an order or a model for the entire world for believers. Myths shape believers sense of self and sanction how one is to behave. Myths portray the dangers of evil and chaos and show how to be liberated or redeemed from these dangers.

Myths help believers comprehend reality and also contribute to social thought, literature and popular culture.

Functionalist Theory of Myth

According to Bronislaw Malinowski, myth’s meaning is to be understood in terms of its social function within a particular culture. He believes that myth is a dramatization of human loss and the reality of death, but myth’s social function is to transform the inevitable reality.

Psychotherapeutic Theory of Myth

Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes of the collective unconscious has contributed to the field of religion and a definition of myth. According to Jung, the human psyche has three layers- conscious mind, personal unconscious, and the “collective unconscious.” The personal unconscious is the repressed of forgotten of the individual’s own history.

Collective unconscious refers to things that are psychically real prior to their personal appropriation. In other words, everyone has the potential within their psyche to tap into unconscious psychic archetypal images that recur throughout human history. The archetype is an “inherited tendency of the human mind to form representations of mythological motifs.” It is instinctive and has therapeutic value, as it can heal or help people become “self-realized.”

Whole religious communities can organize themselves around these archetypes, such as the hero.

Jung believes myth is vital because it represents the deepest level of the psychic life of humankind. The myth of a people is its living religion.

Phenomenological Interpretation of Myth

Mircea Eliade’s theory of myth states that myth is an account of a sacred history, a primordial time in which reality as we now know it came into being.

Myth narrates a sacred history, it tells how a reality came into existence by the deeds of Superhuman Beings. Myth is an account of a “creation” because it always tells how something was produced.

Religious myths has to do with the acts of gods or supernatural beings. Religious myth is always an account of origins (or a creation). Religious myths are examples of how nature and human life should be. Myth teaches humans the stories of their legitimate mode of existence. Since myth functions the same in all cultures, according to Eliade, it is possible to study cross-culturally myths of different cultures.

Myth is “true” because it is concerned with reality. By knowing the myth of a community, we know the origin and nature of things, that becomes reexperienced and reenacted through rituals.

All three theories of myths- functionalist, psychic, and phenomenological- perceive myth as indispensable and “true” in a certain way.

Models and Doctrines

According to Paul Ricoeur, in literate societies, religious myths become interpreted and these interpretations lead to doctrines, which is a second order process. Myths become reinterpreted to bring out their universal meanings that lie within the mythopoetic story (such as the Creation story of Adam and Eve). One must be careful not to become to literal when interpreting myth, according to Ricoeur.

Ricoeur believes that by explaining the myth it actually restores the myth as a symbol. Second-order interpretations allow us to hear again the meaning of the primary symbol.

Myths, root metaphors and master symbols can be understood as models that show patterns to help us interpret the world. Religious models lead to conceptual beliefs or doctrines that interpret experience in certain ways, which are according to patterns.

Models represent the enduring structure of the cosmic order which myths dramatize in narrative form (by stories). Models are ways of experiencing what is not observable right away and so they are symbolic representations. In other words, our experiences are organized in the light of certain models.

Models provide norms and motivations for ethical and moral behavior.

Religious symbols, parable, and myth all assert that human values are grounded in what is ultimately real.

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