Spring 1983, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 26-37.

Richard Woods:
      Religious Symbol and Spirituality in an Electronic Age

The survival of traditional images, symbols, and myths as the content of electronic communications indicates that the new technology, used creatively, can be a bearer of Christian meaning and values.

Father Woods, O.P., is professor of spiritual theology at the Institute of Pastoral Studies, Loyola University of Chicago. He is author of Mysterion: An Approach to Mystical Spirituality and Symbion: Spirituality for a Possible Future, as well as editor of Understanding Mysticism.

LIVING in an increasingly electronic world poses both a challenge and an opportunity for Christians today. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of symbol and myth, the basic factors with which we imaginatively construct a cosmos out of the diverse and often fragmentary episodes of daily experience. And thus we find ourselves squarely in the realm of spirituality. For "spirituality' is another way of describing the inescapable human passion to find, or create, meaning and value in life as a whole.

Science and technology on one hand and philosophy and theology on the other attempt to provide a rational, consistent, and analytic view of life. All such "left-brained" products are doomed to incompleteness, however, without the nonrational, poetic, mystical, and intuitive "right-brained" aspects of experience. Symbol and myth embody these elusive aspects, not comprehensively, but indicatively, even sacramentally. Through them spirituality remains open to experience, which can never exhaust the power of imagination even when it eludes understanding. For the image dwells behind and within all symbol and myth and thus psychologically grounds spirituality itself as a truly holistic enterprise.

Spirituality is not fundamentally different from religion in its preinstitutionalized, or perhaps deinstitutionalized, mode. Current scholars tend to see religion as a route or life-way through the manifold events and vicissitudes of mortal existence. It is a map, as it were, showing how to get from the "here" of confusion, suffering, and hope to the "there" -- the safe haven (or heaven) of natural, social, and spiritual integrity. In this frame of reference, spirituality represents the actual itinerary or journey we take as persons and community among various possible life-routes. Spirituality is the personal, particular, internalized (that is, self-conscious) but shared aspect of religion which, in its simplest and most general sense, is the dynamic bond between human persons and what they consider to be sacred (Ricoeur). Spirituality refers to how we organize and integrate our life as the way of attaining our goal of union with God, that is, of arriving at a point of total receptivity where the gift of life can be fully operative.

Spirituality basically means the realization of the inmost human capacity for relationship -- spirit, that by virtue of which we are open to and transmit the life of God.(1) Spirituality is not always explicit and well articulated. Except for the great geniuses of the spiritual life, it is probably seldom so. For many of us, our spirituality is largely implicit, sometimes immature or stunted, even deranged. But it is always with us, the ineradicable foundation of all human experience. As the deepest heart of human development, this radical capacity is shaped (or misshaped) through actual human encounters, assuming character and determination as a function of how we meet the world. If religion and especially theology are timeless, universal, and "open," spirituality is historical, particular, and conditioned, determinate. It is the unique way we embody the gift of Life. In the long run, it is our life.


As our effort to comprehend and integrate the transcendent and often elusive parts of life into a whole, spirituality depends upon the imaginative power of symbol and myth to shape the contours and direction of the flow of experience. Symbol, as Paul Ricoeur tells us, is the power to discover and reveal the bond between human persons and what they consider to be sacred.(2) Thus symbols participate in the transcendence of spirit, opening onto a dimension of reality beyond themselves and us while retaining their connection to the world of everyday experience. The most powerful of such symbols are usually the most simple and yet profound elements of the natural and social world: the sun, water, blood, a flower, bread, a mother's love, sexual passion. In their most developed form, such symbols become sacramental, effecting what they signify.

The significance and effectiveness, even the development, of symbols depend in large measure on their incorporation in a narrative structure -- a story or drama. When expressive of the most deeply human quest for meaning and value, such narratives are appropriately called myths. A true sacrament contains both symbol and myth -- things, actions, and words that ritually connect us now with the time -- surpassing events which ground or reestablish the order of the world, linking heaven and earth in a graced -- again whole. Myth establishes and expounds symbol, and thereby the meaning and value of human existence, in the dynamic context of origins and ends, the primordial meaning -- giving events of human history, far beyond the mere surface facts of chronological accounts.

As living symbols open onto reality beyond the limited and therefore faulty realms of sense and intellect, authentic myths illuminate the truth of the human situation rather than obscure it in a welter of names and numbers. In this sense, myth has nothing to do with fable, legend, or even allegory. Myth is the imaginative reconstruction of the human adventure precisely in its transcendent setting.


Symbol and myth, the concrete elements of spirituality as the story of our life-journey, are themselves constructions of the human spirit, specifically of our imagination -- the power to represent the world cognitively and aesthetically, especially through visualization. Image is to spirituality what concept is to theology. As images, symbol and myth are functions of human creativity, a prime instance of our participation in the divine order itself.

Because of that, from the earliest times in the biblical tradition, both images and imagination were treated with grave respect and even suspicion. In particular, the ancient Hebrews were forbidden to make images, especially of God, and the terms for "imagination" in the Bible (yetser, chashab, hagah) are almost always pejorative (cf., for example, Gen. 5:6; Job 6:26; Ps. 10:2; Acts 4:25). This was not least because of the divine prerogative of creation as well as God's utter transcendence. For God makes man and woman in "his" image (tselem) and likeness (demuth) (Gen. 1:26f.; cf. Gen. 5:1, 3; 9:6; Isa. 40:18; Ezek. 1:5). Human persons, therefore, are the only satisfactory images of God.

In the Greek tradition of the Septuagint and the New Testament, the "image and likeness" theme is rendered by the terms eikon and homoiosis (cf., for example, Col. 1:5, 3:10; Rom. 6:5). At the hands of the early Christian theologians, especially Gregory of Nyssa, the author of the Macarian Homilies, and John of Damascus, the doctrine of the human person as the image and likeness of God received definitive articulation. The same doctrine was formulated by St. Augustine, who held that the image of God was found in the triple spiritual power of memory, intellect, and will, whereas for the Greeks, it lay in free will. All believed that by original sin the imago Dei, our spiritual nature, was obscured, but not lost, by human beings. The similitudo Dei, our resemblance to God, but in the spiritual order, could be restored by baptism.

Significantly, the doctrine of imago Dei developed as the iconoclastic controversy grew in intensity. Using the same logic, theologians in both East and West eventually asserted that icons -- images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints -- were to be allowed and indeed reverenced, the homage given them passing on to those they represented and thus, eventually, to God.

Hostility to icons arose from the same archaic sensibility that later spurred Zwingli, Calvin, the Puritans, and to some extent the early Lutherans, as well as Muslims even today, to outlaw sacred images. All graven images had been forbidden the Hebrews because the form or appearance (in Greek, eidos) tended to become, not an icon, but an idol (in Greek, eidolon), a false god, something having only the semblance of divinity (cf., for example, Exod. 20:24, 23:24, 24:17; Lev. 26:1). Nevertheless, the Hebrews themselves as well as early Christians and later Protestants capitulated to the apparently inescapable need to image, to visualize, the divine in its manifestations if not its essence (cf. Exod. 25:18-22; Num. 21:9; 1 Kings 6:18-35).

Without some form of concrete symbolization, the deep, mythic elements of religion tend to become lost in abstraction. Even the iconoclastic world of Islam has its Ka'aba, the exquisite arabesques of the Alhambra, and the illuminations of Persian manuscripts replete with symbolized birds, animals, and human persons. The Prophet Muhammad, however, like Allah, is never portrayed. Similarly, portraits of the Father and the Holy Spirit in Christian iconography remain mercifully few and obscure as well.

Even such a short purview of the place and function of images, the symbolic and mythic dimension of spirituality, points to the essential problematic of the electronic world. For that world is preeminently one dominated by images, many of them purloined from religion, some of them at least seemingly idolatrous. We live today in a visual world, one characterized in many respects by the screen -- whether the movie screen, the television screen, or those of the computer terminal and video arcade. The advent of electronic media has in fact precipitated a crisis in spirituality which may well exceed any since the iconoclasts, the "image breakers," of the eighth and sixteenth centuries.


We may describe as "fundamental" any technology which significantly supports the economic, transportation, communication, health care, or defense systems of a society. Such fundamental technologies largely determine the character of an epoch, affecting almost every dimension of ordinary life, from the size and shape of houses, buildings, and cities to figures of speech and the freshness of food on the table. Political decisions and the electoral process depend on them, as does the distribution of goods and services. As a result, access to fundamental technologies differentiates in-groups and out-groups, the haves from the have-nots. Not only power but awareness is involved. For, as Marx realized, consciousness of the technological forces which determine social experience is the key to both understanding and making history.

A shift in the mosaic of fundamental technologies that ground a society, especially the introduction of a powerful new technology, stimulates a host of changes in a people's sensibilities and their way of interpreting experience. These changes include new concepts, new forms of language, and new patterns of behavior. There follow changes in spirituality mediated by the shift in the images, symbols, and myths by which people construct and reconstruct their understanding and evaluation of life. For every spirituality is reciprocally both social and private, representing in broad terms the particular way in which groups, as well as particular persons, apprehend, direct, and organize their life as a whole, especially in terms of its ultimate meaning and value.

Such a shift and the subsequent transformation of social and individual experience has undeniably occurred in the area of electronic communications media and computers within the last twenty years, following the invention of transistors, microcircuitry, and especially the "mighty microchip." This generation alone has witnessed the most radical change in modes of human communication since the development of movable type, if not, indeed, the invention of writing itself. Briefly, we have radically and probably permanently altered our forms of gathering, processing, storing, and retrieving information by increasingly more sophisticated generations of computers. At the same time we have virtually abolished the limitations of space and time that hitherto hindered communication, that is, the transfer of information from person to person. The advent of the microprocessor and the "home computer' is but the most recent phase in a still rapidly changing situation.

Video games, both the arcade and "home" versions, are an entertaining by-product of this development. They are significant less for their power of fascination, their effects on personality and behavior, and their immense monetary value than for the simple fact that they have become a form of recreation and even a new art-form. The appearance and popularity of these gadgets testify to the closure of a circle, however provisional, involving a major technological breakthrough. For the transformation of a basic technology into a medium of entertainment occurs only when that technology has become outmoded in the market place, or at least has begun to attain its maximum implementation, as collectors of flintlock rifles, blown-glass bottles, 78 rpm phonograph records, and model-T Fords all illustrate. More importantly, the widespread acceptance of the computer in its recreational form signifies the end of the previously widespread distrust of the computer as some sort of monster, symbolized for a generation by "HAL,"the scheming, deadly antagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (A similar transformation of a symbol has occurred with respect to robots, which in the friendly, helpful, and sometimes inept guise of R2-D2 and C-3P0 of Star Wars fame, have become culture heroes.)

Marshall McLuhan and Stanley Kubrick, who in their respective ways educated us to the meaning and value of electronic media, both described modern electronic networks as a giant, external, and social nervous system, functioning in many ways like the human central nervous system. The primary effect of the particular CNS in individuals is to produce consciousness, especially the sense of unity in experience. Similarly, the global nervous system of electronics is producing a kind of global consciousness, something like Teilhard de Chardin's prediction of a "noosphere." In terms of content, both the individual CNS and the "collective" electronic CNS construct what is taken to be "reality," the world-out-there. Increasingly, how we interpret our experience is a function of media consciousness. It is for this reason, though not alone, why the first objective of political revolutionaries is to seize the public media. Indeed, some form of electronic communication is coming to be the primary way in which people throughout the world acquire information about the world as a whole, that is, beyond the range of their immediate experience. Controlling that access means obtaining almost unlimited power over the consciousness and therefore the decisions and actions of millions of people.

There is something fundamentally democratic about all this, but something also a bit chaotic and not a little disconcerting. Fifteen years ago Marshall McLuhan declared that "TV and all the electronic media are unravelling the entire fabric of our society ... ."(3) Their power to affect society, whether adversely or constructively, comes largely from their speed, efficiency, and their curious, iconlike quality -- a form of superficial but profoundly suggestive information. Within six hours, 99 percent of the American public knew of President Kennedy's assassination. Reports of election results from the East coast can influence voting patterns in California. Of course, misinformation spreads as quickly as information, all with split-second timing. The illusion of facticity is reinforced by the cool, detached, and certain tone of the announcer. However, the iconic quality of the TV image, one it shares with the computer and the video game, is perhaps the most engaging and powerful of its characteristics.


Because of their highly symbolic, even mythological, character, the electronic media have a particularly powerful capacity to influence the ways in which people interpret their experience, acquire a value system, and even behave. Commercial interests were quick to recognize the persuasive potential of the electronic media. Today, television advertising alone is more than a twenty billion dollar-a-year industry in its own right, and so powerful that in America it effectively controls a great percentage of what the public sees and hears.

Marshall McLuhan perhaps first drew attention to the symbolic, iconlike quality of the television image, which, he realized, invites us to participate in it because of its low definition and simplified content. The viewer, like the beholder of the religious icon (or idol), is drawn into the image by providing "closure" -- subconsciously supplying the details necessary for intelligibility and interest. The television set itself, like the computer, has come to share in this power of fascination and has acquired a truly symbolic character in the electronic world.

The mythical dimension of electronic communications media consists in the relatively simple but dynamic structures into which the symbols are inserted. Most often these are stories; but even (perhaps especially) a thirty-second commercial message can embody symbols in a powerfully mythic framework. The more deeply such images reach into the psyche of the viewer, the more engaging -- and coercive -- they become.

As we live with increasing exposure to, and reliance on, computers and the mass media, is there cause for alarm concerning their co-optation of the imaginative realm of myth and symbol? Probably no more (or less) than that which greeted the advent of movable type, the subsequent ubiquity of the book and other print media, and the resultant widespread literacy. Sensibilities were radically changed in the fifteenth century. New images appeared -- both symbol and myth. The Reformation and Counterreformation were fought out, not only with the new technology spawned by the shift in media, but in large measure because of it. The advent of electronic communications in the nineteenth century evoked a similar response; the devastating wars of that -- and this -- century were facilitated and in some sense precipitated by the speed and efficiency of the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Each in turn itself became a symbol of modernity and was embedded in an often romantic mythology borrowed from a preceding era.

As already indicated, the development of television and the computer, with their consequent inventions, the microprocessor and video game, has had a similar impact on our own generation. The destructiveness and futility of the Vietnamese War, the incessant, internecine conflicts of the Middle East, and the upsurge in terrorism are all instances. The symbol- and myth-making process is already in full swing, as seen in films such as 2001, The Demon Seed, Apocalypse Now, Tron and now, on television, the "love bug" goes electronic: "Knight Rider."

One wonders why a computer would want to take over the world, but plugging a computer into an automobile is not fiction but fact . . . and the marriage of two potent American symbols. That this electromechanical wedding is situated in the trite mythological world of an adventure thriller testifies to the lack of creative vision that plagues the television industry. It also illustrates another significant item. In her book, The TV Ritual: Worship at the Video Altar, Gregor Goethals observes that the three recurring images (read: icons or symbols) in contemporary programming are the family, nature, and the machine.(4) just as the images of the pre-Gutenberg world passed over with minor adjustments into print, preelectronic images are the content of the video world. It doesn't require a degree in literature to recognize the Arthurian elements in Star Wars!

Goethals also identifies a disturbing potential of electronic media. Television in particular and now, I would add, the video arcade have begun to supply the demand of a generation of young people for a recognizable system of symbols and myths -- the traditional function of religious belief and ritual. The decline of spirituality may have caused this substitution, or it may be the result. Conceivably it is both. The undeniable fact is that there has appeared a felt vacuum in the realm of symbol and myth that the electronic media seem to be at least partially filling. That the imaginative content of the programs is familiar is of no greater solace than the recognizably "divine" pretensions of idols was to the ancient Hebrew prophet.

It is not by chance, then, that as the media proliferate, a form of addiction to them has appeared. In Breaking the TV Habit, psychologist Joan Wilkens shows that watching TV is second only to sleeping as a consumer of time, averaging more than six hours per day for the American public.(5) Wilkens provides a brief symptomology useful to parents for recognizing "TV addiction." Most interesting among them are the feeling that the TV world of Dallas and pro-football is more real than the world of everyday experience, and the zombielike effect that prolonged television viewing produces in children. While watching TV, they sit in trance-like repose, followed by bursts of hyperactivity when the TV set is out of range. Four-year-olds have even been observed quietly watching for hours a disconnected television screen. Many of this same age group, when asked to choose between giving up television or their father decidedly, if reluctantly, said goodbye to Daddy.

Such a weird state of affairs recalls McLuhan's propensity to compare the effects of overexposure to electronic media to those attendant on the idolatry excoriated by the prophets. In citing Psalm 115, McLuhan made an interesting case for what Dr. Paul Lazarfield named "the narcotizing dysfunction" of the media. Idols, the Psalmist sang,

  have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
  noses, but do not smell.
They have hands but do not feel;
  feet, but do not walk;
  and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them are like them;
  so are all who trust in them.

McLuhan also reminded us that, in Greek mythology, looking on the Gorgons turned the viewer equally to stone. Uncritical viewing becomes a hypnotic experience.


The power of the sacred icon, when distorted into the form of an idol, is psychologically and spiritually dangerous. An "idol" here means any medium of communication which ceases to transmit spiritual vitality and redirects attention and, therefore, value to itself. However, the future need not seem hopelessly bleak for spirituality as we imagine living in an increasingly electronic world. The introduction of the television cassette recorder, the personal computer, and the video game itself is a sign that people are actually taking the media into their own hands and thus ceasing to be merely passive spectators on whose psyches commercial interests project their batteries of unneeded "goods" to fill artificial needs. The survival of traditional images, symbols, and myths as the content of electronic communication, not least in the video game itself, at least testifies to the resilience of the icon as a mediator of fundamental human values, hopes, and meaning.

More, of course, will be required of us if we are to avoid further petrification of our sensibilities by electronic icons-turned-idols. "Breaking the TV habit" is essential, and, it should be noted, as difficult for many as conquering alcoholism or any other form of addiction. McLuhan's remedy is as germane as ever today -- use media against media. Read a book, attend a play or a concert. Go to an exhibition or art museum. Even a film. I would add here several sovereign prescriptions from the spiritual pharmacopia: cultivate a craft, hobby, or art-form -- be creative. Explore your own world of images. Experience nature firsthand. Our distance from the Source of creative energy in this world can be shortened considerably by a walk in the forest.

Creativity is always risky. Envisioning alternatives is, however, an essential element in realizing our freedom as persons created in the image and likeness of God. And such imaginative exercise is a paramount work of the Spirit in our time. It may be "dangerous," since creative people usually stand out tenderly from their fellows and sisters like a recently banged thumb. But we were not made Godlike for nothing!


  1. J.A.T. Robinson, The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), p. 19.
  2. Paul Ricoeur The Symbolism of Evil (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1969), p. 6.
  3. "The Reversal of the Overheated Image," Playboy, February 1969, p. 158.
  4. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981).
  5. (New York: Scribners, 1982).