Autumn 1986, Vol. 38, pp. 256-263.

David K. O'Rourke:
      Current Trends: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Power of Symbols

Fr. David O'Rourke, O.P., is professor of theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley California. Well known as a counselor, writer and lecturer, his recent book, A Process Called Conversion, was published by Doubleday in 1985.

TWO recent events -- the publication of a study of American society and a rather painful newspaper story -- have highlighted the power of religious symbols. They have also pointed out how religious symbols serve as basic forms in our language. In this essay I want to look first at the newspaper story as a means of illustrating the function of current religious symbols. Then I want to look at the published study because it presents a tally of America's current functioning symbols.

No writer, at least one who spends his evenings reading John LeCarre or Agatha Christie, will ever move to his main point on the first page. I recognize that I am violating this principle by announcing that this article is about the language of religion. It is about symbols -- visual images as well as institutions and words. And it is about our need to take charge of the symbols we use, to recognize that they are agreed on, socially constructed, and subject to human control. We flounder and trip in ill-fitting linguistic garments, wearing them because we think that they are all there is, if indeed we think of them at all. Yet alternatives are possible. As the study I mentioned will show, religious symbols are being cast and recast, edited and re-edited all the time.

My purpose is to look at our control, and our lack of it, over the language in which we express our beliefs because I believe that we are paying too little mind to our religious language. To say that American Catholics approach God and the expression of what we believe with a language of symbols that fits us ill and serves us badly is a strong statement. Yet, as we shall see, there are those who believe that this statement is true. And America's leading religious sociologists are among that number. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me begin with the newspaper story.


A few months ago the newspapers carried a story of pain and misunderstanding. In an old building outside the Nazi's notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, a community of Carmelite nuns has been living for a number of years. They have been there as a community of atonement, praying for the victims of the mass murders that took place in Auschwitz during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Their presence became a matter of note and controversy when a fund-raising program on their behalf, in Belgium if I remember correctly, raised issues that made their presence a political matter both religiously and civilly.

A number of Jewish groups protested the campaign and protested the nuns very presence at Auschwitz. Some Catholic leaders said that the campaign on the nuns' behalf was, at the least, insensitive and maladroit. There are even those who maintain that the f6cus of the campaign was more Belgian than religious. But that is trot my point. My interest here is not in questions of Belgian politics, civil or religious, or even in the substance of the story. It is in the perception of the event, in the language and the symbols used by the different commentators to describe what was going on. Since the nuns themselves keep silence, and since Auschwitz is a place of terrible silence, the heart of the recent event really was a series of perceptions.

Each commentator spoke from within a religious context with a well developed symbolic language. Each assumed that the language was not only intelligible but common. And each one was simply not understood by the other.

To begin with, there is the Carmelite monastery at the very gates of the death camp. The nuns are there as a community of atonement, in keeping with the Carmelite tradition of doing penance in the very places where penance seems needed. They are there to pray for the dead who died within the walls of the camp, and to pray for peace. They are in a place of terror and despair as a sign of hope. Who could object to such hope? Who could protest the belief that even the worst in the human condition is not beyond redemption. People who do not share these views, that's who. And, as the protests indicated, there are many of them.

The Jewish groups who protested the Belgian campaign, and who have protested the presence of the monastery, have spoken out of their own traditions as surely as the Carmelites are speaking out of theirs. "Who would want to redeem such a place?" one person is quoted as asking. And another put it even more simply. "Who would want to pray in a cemetery?" These straightforward, rhetorical questions come from the heart of the questioners religious sense. They are the language of religious symbol.

Once again we hear answers that would probably surprise the questioner. Catholics would pray in a cemetery. In fact they do it all the time. They even build chapels in cemeteries. And Catholics believe that no person and no place, not even Auschwitz, should be seen as beyond redemption.

I suspect that each of these points of view -- the Catholic attitude toward a house of atonement at Auschwitz, and the Jewish attitude of permanent revulsion toward Auschwitz and the other death camps -- makes perfectly good sense to the people within each of these communities. It makes such sense, it is so self-evident, that the realization that it could be a puzzle to others is not only surprising, it is unsettling.

During the controversy one of my colleagues expressed his surprise at the depth of Jewish feeling concerning the site. "After all," he said, "it's only a place." Only a place. And what can be so special about land, about acreage? To gather for Sunday Mass in the parish hall that will serve tomorrow for a basketball game may be tacky, but it is not blasphemous.

That place, land, can be so holy that people will kill to prevent its profanation strikes us as bizarre. Yet the sacredness of place is built into the religion of half the world. The non-Muslim who enters the holy places of Mecca does so at the peril of his life. The gates of Herod's Temple warned that non-Jews found inside were in mortal danger. The Crusades were fought to rescue a few acres of land. The arguments of some ultra-orthodox Jewish groups in support of their claim to the West Bank speak of the sacredness of the land. In all these arguments we find the language of religious symbol.

The point I wish to make here is that these symbols are manmade and culturally conditioned. I find myself sharing the view of anthropologist Mary Douglas that there are no natural symbols. Language is a human creation. Our symbols are our own doing. There is no land of universals. There is no minor Valhalla of transcendent Jungian archetypes.

Because our symbols and our religious language are our own making we do well to evaluate what it is we are creating. Our creatures bear moral scrutiny, especially those creatures that set the context for moral argument itself.


This brings me to the second of the two events I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. I refer to the publication of Robert Bellah's Habits of the Heart (New York: Harper and Row, 1985). Professor Bellah and his colleagues have described the spiritual language of the United States in some detail. There is no better description of American spirituality today, a topic that ought to be of interest to the readers of this review, than this study.

The authors maintain that because of the influence of American individualism and the predominance of religious sects, American Catholicism has lost touch with its social roots. American Catholics no longer have an experience of the kind of organic church community St. Paul had in mind when he described the church as the body of Christ.

I want to suggest that this situation is not only in need of reform, it admits of reform. Our symbols, such as the shape of our church community and the religious presuppositions we live by, are creatures of our own making. Our American Catholic liturgy, our sacramental policies, and our religious piety did not come down from on high. They are preeminently the products of experience. They were designed in the sessions of councils and commissions, debated locally in living rooms and nationally in the halls of convention hotels, and after much discussion sent on to the printers.

American Catholic religious life contains much in it that is the result of our own conscious effort. Nonetheless, I suspect that we do not think of ourselves as changing our religious language and our religious symbols despite the fact that we do it all the time. Our efforts go far beyond practical applications. The language and the symbols we change are basic. Let me give an example of major symbols in the making, and even how less conscious symbols are the product of our efforts. Again I refer to the situation of the Carmelite monastery.

At the end of the war the atrocities committed by the Nazis in places like Auschwitz and Treblinka were referred to as that -- atrocities. Little by little, as Jewish writers tried to make some sense of these horrors, especially the fact that over half of the victims were Jews, the religious word holocaust was used. Recently the program of Jewish extermination has been called the Holocaust. An important and powerful religious symbol has been created.

Behind it, however, is another, seemingly less conscious symbol. I refer to the role of remembering. The importance of the Holocaust in Jewish life draws on the value given in Jewish history to remembering. That this value is itself a human choice was brought home to me in thinking about the calculated extermination of so many people. Does modern history, I wondered, record the halving of any other population in this calculated way? Yes, it does. The fact that I, with my Irish roots, had to ask this question points up another equally potent religious symbol, the value of forgetting.

The question recalled Cecil Woodham-Smith's study documenting the reduction in population of nineteenth century Ireland from eight million to four million through the government's conscious manipulation of famine. The population, it was concluded, would have to shrink to fit the resources available. The government would determine just how much that was. It was a clear, conscious and successful Malthusian effort to control population.

Significantly, Woodham-Smith's research, published a few years back as The Great Hunger, came about almost by accident. In writing The Reason Why, the famous account of the charge of the light brigade, the author came upon the role played in the Irish famine by one of the commanders of the light brigade.

Now, a population was cut cruelly in half by government policy and the details were seemingly forgotten. Why? Some conspiracy of silence, or lack of interest? No, not at all. They were put out of mind because of the religious and social value given to forgetting. The principle could be stated in different ways. Forgive and forget. You can't worry about the past. Some things are better off forgotten. State it as you will, the effect is the same. A terrible event is committed not to memory but to history. Irishmen who see the living hatred in Ulster need not be reminded of the price paid by keeping memories alive.

Two different religious principles -- remembering and forgetting. Each a valid yet a partial view, each constructed in response to some current need, and so constructed with only middling consciousness in all probability.

It is in this context of seeing religious symbol and language as human constructs that I want to consider the ideas of Professor Bellah and his colleagues. They have studied the role of individualism and commitment in American life with a strong focus on our religious beliefs. The points they make are clear, and they are relevant to our focus here for they record not only the emptiness of current moral language, but trace the development of that emptiness.

The language of "values" as commonly used is self-contradictory precisely because it is not a language of value, or moral choice. It presumes the existence of an absolutely empty, unencumbered and improvisational self. It obscures personal reality, social reality, and particularly the moral reality that links person and society (p. 80).

This is a strong statement. It is also a damning one within a religious context, since so much of contemporary Catholic talk is about values. What is our talk of values all about? Nothing, or anything, whatever you want.

It is within this language that we approach God. Language is one of our primary religious symbols. Its structures give shape to our ideas. Its flow can model a path for our mind's progress. Yet here we are told by a group of America's most perceptive students that our moral language is vapid. What does this imply about our grasp of God by means of this context?

The authors, as I noted, trace the development of this current state of affairs. Their substantial argument, needless to say, does not admit of being summarized into a few lines. Suffice it to say that the subjectivization and privatization of religion which they describe have come about in accord with human goals. It serves our contemporary American purposes that it should be this way.

Getting a grasp on America's religious symbols proves no easy task. That, itself, is no accident. A society that has an "absolutely empty, unencumbered and improvisational self" in the chair of moral authority stands a good chance of producing rather wispy symbols. My point is that that very wispiness is, itself, the more important religious symbol and the more important element in our moral language. Is it a sign of moral weakness, or a sign of intellectual fuzziness, or a clever dodge to help the powerful escape moral restraint in their pursuit of influence and money? I am sure that each of these answers has its partisans, and Professor Bellah and his colleagues have their own perceptive answers. Rather than present another answer I want to put a label on the context. For I believe that the most pressing need in the American church is the reform of the symbolic language in which we express our life.


Professor Bellah and his colleagues have indicated what our symbols are. Our task is now to decide whether or not they meet our needs. For this task the categories of Mary Douglas could prove useful, for they correspond to the categories used by Bellah and colleagues. In Natural Symbols, Purity and Danger, and Implicit Meanings, she has described the interaction of social group and individual, especially under differing degrees of group control and ego dominance. Her methods are clear and her content defined.

She has challenged the notion that societies naturally evolve from primitive situations of group control to situations of individual freedom. As Bellah and colleagues indicate, the relationship between the individual and society is the prime area of our moral confusion. Therefore an intellectual system that would allow us to parse our own context, difficult as that is, and weigh the appropriateness of what we find, is not only useful but needed.

We made this kind of effort frequently following Vatican Council II. Our efforts were a sign of the vitality of the church. They were also frequently successful. This kind of reform in the symbols and language of the church has been a part of the church's history. According to our best social scientists it is needed in the American church now. It seems that either we make this effort, and make it successfully, or we will continue trying to talk of a faith in a language that cannot contain it.