Symbolism & The Literalists

Symbolism & The Literalists

Fundamentalism is everywhere.

Let’s be clear: fundamentalism is strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline. In most cases, people use it to discuss religious adherence to the “word” of any particular religion as being absolutely true and literal, in all sense. You can be, however, a fundamental ballet dancers, barista, or car mechanic. And, also to be fair, being a “fundamentalist” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It comes down to one additional feature: an open mind. Tolerance does not mean you walk away with someone else’s views being your new truth or a completely changed mind. It only means being able to accept that which fills the universe might be slightly bigger than your own fundamentalism.

What has this got to do with Symbolism? I just read a recent article on the symbol of the skull in Freemasonry. The article, is well written and somewhat shocking to me. How could anyone who has been a Freemason for any length of time, at all, think that the skull represents something horrible and to be feared?

Then, I realize, there are literalists in Freemasonry, like there are everywhere. They might not understand the idea of teaching via symbolism or that symbols are human communication mechanisms meant to stir the deep unconscious and subconscious, ala Joseph Campbell. So, let’s take a look at the purpose of symbolism.

Books, tomes, volumes, caves, papyrus, walls, and stele have been written about symbols, their meanings, their other meanings, and still stranger meanings. You cannot spit in a metaphysical bookstore without hitting a volume about that author or society’s view of what a particular pictograph meant. A cat means the afterlife and it means cleanliness, or attentiveness, or patience.

That’s well and good, but what is symbolism? What is a symbol? Symbolism is using symbols to represent ideas or qualities. A symbol is something that simply is a picture that stands in for something else. It isn’t what it is, but what it might act like, or a quality it exudes. So a picture of a cat can be a cat. It can also stand in for the idea of patience, observance, or hospitality. What matters here, is context. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar. Sometimes, as Freud so eloquently poked at, it is not.

By their very definition, a literalist cannot understand symbolism. A literalist does not, can not, see that cat as anything but a cat. A fundamentalist takes words for their exact meaning; there is no such thing as allegory, metaphor, or symbolism. There cannot be, else it breaks the very idea of their fundamentalism. Fundamentalists must have a very difficult time at comedy clubs. The point is that many conflicts come from a literalist and non-literalist arguing over meaning. Religions splinter and fragment based on a symbolic or literal meaning of a single text. The two ways of approaching thought, mind, discovery are challenged every day to come together.

Symbols are there for the explorative mind. Symbols expand our ways of thinking about something and break us out of following a single track. It cracks fundamentalism and provides new neural pathways of consciousness. What does it take? Yes, an open mind. It takes a curious mind. It takes a mind that is us afraid of being different than it once was. It might even take a little comfort in the chaos and disharmony of discovery.

The Freemason is an adventurer, an explorer. She is looking for a world bigger than herself, bigger than her current roadmap. She’s looking to build a map of imagination and wonder. Freemasons discuss and debate symbols because to the Freemason, a symbol is only a beginning point. The symbols take on myriad meanings, all being correct at some level, right at some level. When we share our discoveries with others, we’re offering a guidepost in a new land. We’re opening portals to a wider existence, not just for one but for all. The goal is the search for Truth. Not one truth, or a person’s opinion, but Truth – the fundamental idea of why we are here.

Thus, I think it would be very difficult for someone who is a literalist or fundamentalist to be a Freemason. Even “Fundamental” Freemasons are struggling in decay. Discovery breeds creativity and creativity is growth. Can a literalist be a discoverer? My open, inquiring mind wants to know.