(Reprinted with permission from the journal Theological Studies, written by John C. Haughey.)
Edward Farley’s new book Deep Symbols: Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation directly addresses our social condition and cultural flux and it comes to grips with what must be done to remedy them.
We have experienced an effacement of the “power words,” i.e. deep symbols that were a major source of social coherence in former generations. We still use such power words as “obligation, law, tradition, hope, the real,” but they have lost their heft or, as Farley would say, their enchantment.
Deep symbols have several characteristics: location in a master narrative, normativity, enchantment, and fallibility. The price we must pay for reenchanting these symbols is reengagement with the master narratives and the transcendent reality they have mediated. These symbols will not be reenchanted by analysis, by greater conceptual precision, nor by being isolated one from another. Since the master narratives of religious traditions are the sources of deep symbols, citizens will have to reinvest themselves in these traditions if they wish to be formed and empowered by them. Symbols shape persons and cultures if they are appropriated as symbols. If they are taken as concepts, they will, at best, inform, as they do at present. Evidence of their effacement is the endless wrangling that attends their appropriation as concepts. Farley does not spend much time lamenting, so diligent is he in convincingly constructing a way of understanding and remedying our condition.
Postmodernity, which is given only brief treatment, is seen as the bane of deep symbols because it is always effacing “fixed meanings such as truth, reality, self, God, knowledge, history.” The result is a citizenry which is “multiphrenic,” i.e. constantly exposed to multiple symbolic worlds whose values are endlessly in conflict because they float free of the metanarratival homes from which they derived.