What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Are there any mere symbols?

To begin with, I'm going to answer the question in the title. Yes, there are mere symbols. One can make up arbitrary symbols and use them to stand for trivial things. So in the grand scheme of things, there can be mere symbols.

But here's the more interesting question: When people think it is important to say, "Such-and-such is a mere symbol," are the symbols in those cases really "mere"? Herewith, a few examples.

A few weeks back, I got an e-mail from somebody about an old post I wrote at Right Reason that discussed, inter alia, cannibalism. My correspondent said that he doesn't think cannibalism is always wrong, because what we do or don't do with a person's dead body is only a symbolic matter. So, for example, cremation isn't intrinsically wrong but might be wrong if you meant to symbolize by it a disbelief in the resurrection of the dead. He gave as a further example a wedding ring. A wedding ring symbolizes your vow to your spouse, but that doesn't mean that there could never be odd or extreme circumstances in which it would be morally licit to take off your wedding ring and even to hide your marriage. That wouldn't have to mean that you didn't really love your spouse or weren't really committed to the marriage, because the ring is just a symbol.

And then there's the flag of our country. We sometimes hear, "The flag is just a symbol."

Finally, to get really controversial, there is the memorialist position on the Eucharist, according to which the bread and wine are, in the words of an Anglican author (who was denying the memorialist position) "bare symbols" of Christ's body and blood.

Now, an interesting thought has occurred to me. Suppose you believe in God. Or--to stretch the point as far as possible--suppose you don't believe in God, but you do believe that what people believe, say, or intend about matters of great importance is itself of great importance. It seems to me that a consequence of this is that in one sense there are no mere symbols for things of great importance.

What do I mean? Take the wedding ring. While I won't deny that there could be weird circumstances in which it was allowable for you to hide your marriage, under most circumstances, it isn't. And having once put on your wedding ring, it would usually be a sign that something is very wrong if you start deliberately going around without it, unless there is some physical reason why you can no longer wear it. Imagine a man who, contemplating leaving his wife, stops wearing his wedding ring and starts keeping it in a shot glass instead. Such an action would mean something. It would be a dishonoring of his wedding ring and, by extension, of his wife and his vows to her. It would be an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual declension. I think even a pagan could see this. Since marriage is important, what we say about marriage is important.

If you believe in God, this point becomes even more evident. Suppose you are a low Protestant and don't believe that marriage is, in the Catholic sense, a sacrament. Still, you believe that God heard your wedding vows. Those vows were saying something--making a promise. And the ring represents those vows before God. So if you act like the man in my example, what you are doing is in essence blowing a raspberry at the God who witnessed your wedding vows.

How about the way we treat dead bodies? Well, something similar applies: I happen to believe that cannibalism is always morally wrong. But I don't believe that cremation is always morally wrong. Still, I think it's to be avoided when possible. And I think that how we treat dead bodies is a very important matter. Some months back a friend visited me and told me about how she accidentally found herself and her children at an "art" exhibit of plasticized human cadavers posed in all sorts of ways--as a ballet dancer or a tennis player, etc. She was somewhat shocked, but not nearly as disturbed by the idea as I was, and I hadn't even seen it. She kept saying how interesting it all was. I said something like, "But look, you're a Christian. The burial of the dead is one of the corporal works of mercy. Dead bodies shouldn't be treated as art objects!" She hemmed and hawed a bit and told me that, after all, even most Christians don't believe in the corporal works of mercy. I'm still not sure why that was supposed to matter; perhaps it was supposed to absolve the maker of the exhibit from the charge of deliberate wrong-doing. (As if he didn't know it was "edgy" and sensational.)

The point is that saying, "How we treat a dead body is just a symbol" is actually not true and is rather dangerously untrue. Because man is made in the image of God, the way we treat a dead human body says something about something important. And what we say about things that are important is itself important. Does that statement give us rules for how we are to treat dead human bodies under all circumstances? No, it doesn't. It doesn't tell us whether dissection, vital organ donation, cannibalism, cremation, and any of a number of other actions are always wrong, sometimes wrong, or never wrong. But it does tell us that these questions are important ones, because a dead human body isn't just a bunch of atoms and how we treat it is a serious matter.

How does this point apply to the Eucharist? Well, it certainly isn't going to come even close to resolving the differences among various schools of thought--memorialism, receptionism, non-transubstantiation Real Presence, consubstantiation, transubstantiation. And I am not saying that those differences are trivial or to be brushed aside. But there is (at least to me) an interesting point to consider: The memorialist himself doesn't really believe that taking Holy Communion is a "mere symbol." He doesn't really believe that, because he thinks it's a very important thing to do. He believes (this was dinned into my head during my entire childhood) that in taking Communion he is saying and showing something--namely, the Lord's death. He also believes that he must do this in obedience to Christ's command. And what we say and do about things that are very important is itself very important. So, for example, the memorialist--at least the old-fashioned kind (maybe not the kind that meet at Kent's church)--believes that Communion should be taken reverently and with contemplation of Christ's crucifixion, that it should be done regularly, that he should confess his sins before it and thus prepare himself for it, and that he should be (in the words of the Prayer Book) "in love and charity with his neighbor." Some Baptists, if they are teetotallers, may think you can do it with Welch's grape juice, but you'd never catch them doing it with Coca-Cola. What we say about important things is important, so they are careful to say it with decorum and seriousness. Which is worth something, and which says that they are not, even by their own lights, engaging in an act that is "merely" symbolic.

Years ago I was a smart-alecky nineteen-year-old. Sitting at dinner with an elderly missionary who had been my pastor when I was six, but who had seen little of me in the interim, I listened to him talking about how when he was a pastor he would reprimand people he caught smoking on church grounds. "I would tell them, 'This is God's house, and it's not appropriate to be smoking in God's house,'" he said. I was suddenly seized with an attack of devil's-advocate-itis. After all, thought I, this man doesn't believe in Sacraments. He doesn't believe physical places can literally be holy. What business does he have making such an argument against smoking in a church? In only slightly more polite tones, I made this argument to him. I got my comeuppance in the end, though: He told the assembled company, "She just likes to argue about everything. She was always that way, even as a little girl." That was embarrassing.

And I was wrong. At least, I was wrong to give him a hard time. Whether he was guilty of any formal theological inconsistency, I'm not sure. But he was on to something about the building. Scripture--which Baptists believe in passionately--makes it clear that it is possible to dedicate places and objects to God. And then the principle kicks in: How we treat those places and objects says something about what we think of God. The Bible envisages a day when the very bells of the horses will be inscribed with the words "Holiness unto the LORD." It is clearly no accident in the Book of Daniel that the fatal hand writes "Mene, mene, tekel upharsin" over Belshazzar's reign just after he has dishonored the vessels of the Temple at a drunken feast. And Jesus drove the money-changers from the Herodian Temple, crying, "It is written, my house shall be called a house of prayer. But you have made it a den of thieves."

This argument resolves few practical difficulties. But it does mean that we should think twice, and more than twice, before we shrug and say, "But that's just a symbol."

Comments (66)

I see symbols as merely methods of communication. Aside from the universal human facial expressions (smiles and frowns), I don't think there are any "inherent symbols."

(note - I'm not making a religious challenge, but rather addressing cultural symbols. If you feel symbols are inherent out of your religion, fine, but that's not what I mean)

The symbols can mean two different things, one thing to the observer, and the other to the symbolizer. Where they coincide, there is no conflict. Where they differ, then a misunderstanding occurs. This might even be intentional as someone might where a necklace that was a gift from someone now deceased, but no one knows the story. Thus, to the wearer, one statement is made while the observor merely sees a necklace.

For instance, spitting on the ground can be insulting (in Western culture) or a blessing (in arid cultures of sharing one's water).

As for the wedding ring, if the symbolizer wears the ring as a symbol of a vow to God and to the symbolizer, God heard the vow, and by taking off the ring, the symbolizer is making a statement, then yes, you are correct.

However, symbols can change. Over time, perhaps the wedding ring loses its symbolism to the symbolizer and by removing it, he/she is not making a statement about the marriage, but could something very innocuous (washing hands, going through metal detector, etc...).

But are there "mere symbols"? Well, to deflate something of its symbolic value makes a statement itself. The question is - at what consequence is the symbol deflated of its value.

The answer, I think, points to cultural sensitivity and is why many wars are fought.

Great post, Lydia. There's an intriguing treatment of the holiness theme in the Zen Buddhist tradition by Seung Sahn in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. Someone smokes in the temple and drops ashes on the Buddha, not meaning to show disrespect, but trying to make the point that the Buddha statue is just a symbol; the Buddha nature is everywhere. Seung Sahn points out brilliantly what's wrong with that line of thought.

I'm not sure I agree about cremation, for I haven't thought of it as showing disrespect in the way that dumping a body in a mass grave or leaving it out for the buzzards does. But you've given me reason to rethink my own attitudes about it.

I don't wear my wedding ring, by the way, because of adverse skin reactions-- I can barely wear a watch, and then for only a few hours a day-- but I do feel bad about it!

"Over time, perhaps the wedding ring loses its symbolism to the symbolizer and by removing it, he/she is not making a statement about the marriage, but could something very innocuous (washing hands, going through metal detector, etc...)."

It doesn't matter how important a symbol your ring is to you, whether you were married yesterday, etc., of course you are going to be willing to take it off to go through a metal detector or to wash your hands. So that's a red herring.

The real question about that statement of Royale's is this: Does it make sense for a person just to stop--all the time, not just momentarily to wash his hands or something-wearing his wedding ring, not because of a physical reason (as in Dan's example of a skin reaction), but just because he says, "Ah, my wedding ring has lost its symbolism for me"? Is that a problem? Is that weird? Is it at least prima facie weird? Should someone's wife be bothered if he says that? I say, no, it doesn't make sense, yes, it is prima facie weird, and yes, his wife should be bothered. Because the ring is a publically accepted symbol, one that he knows perfectly well is socially understood to have a meaning, that had that meaning to himself, his wife, and the witnesses on his wedding day, that he took on with that meaning, this isn't just a private matter. He can't just go all subjective and say it doesn't mean anything anymore because he doesn't feel like it means anything anymore.

Dan, your example about the Buddha raises in my mind the question of iconoclasm. In the example, the person who drops ashes on the Buddha is, I gather, supposed to be a Buddhist who is making a point, and the idea is that that's the wrong way to make that point. But what about people who don't believe in the Buddha? I think what all of this means is that iconoclasm itself has a point. Iconoclasm may sometimes be actually morally required, as when God insisted that the kings of Israel cut down the groves or when the people in Acts (was it?) burn their magic books. It may be a very good idea, as when St. Patrick (supposedly) cut down the druidical oak. So if symbols have meaning, then destroying symbols has meaning, too, and a very powerful one. Not a thing to be undertaken lightly or out of sheer insouciance, but one that can say, "There is but one God, and this isn't it."

(Somebody ought to make hypoallergenic wedding rings. But until they do, there's nothing to feel bad about!)

"He can't just go all subjective and say it doesn't mean anything anymore because he doesn't feel like it means anything anymore."

And why not? It's subjective to him - so?

If the pair have the same subjective meaning to the wedding ring, then there is no harm between them. If the rest of the world cares they don't wear wedding rings, well that's none of their business.

But if she feels it is important or if she is bothered, yes, you are correct. But if not, I fail to see the harm.

I am terribly concerned whether our speech shows respect. How we respond to others says what we think of God's finest creation.

A most excellent dilation on an important topic. Thanks.

I'm a little disturbed by the wedding-ring example, because both my husband and I stopped wearing our wedding rings several years ago. There were physical reasons for doing so in both our cases(or, if you like, our single case), and I'm not really pleased about the thought that this means something sinister about our marriage. I understand that some people will probably interpret it that way, but it bothers me that they are thinking we are somehow repudiating our vows by removing the rings. That's the real problem with symbols: they can be so easily misunderstood.

I want to emphasize this again: If there are physical reasons that preclude wearing one's wedding ring, I am not saying anything negative about stopping.

I will be, a little later, responding to Royale's claim that this is all just subjective, and I want to be clear in advance of that that I am saying nothing negative about people who are physically unable to wear a particular symbol like a wedding ring. I would merely say that it isn't a thing to be done lightly and that I would assume people would explore various avenues (e.g., if it's a matter of size, seeing if one can get one's ring made larger or something of that sort) to try to get around it. And as Dan says, he feels bad about it, which makes sense. People who don't know you won't know you're married simply by looking at you, which is a somewhat sad thing. But it may not be avoidable. That's why I put that line in the original post.

And why not? It's subjective to him - so? If the pair have the same subjective meaning to the wedding ring, then there is no harm between them. If the rest of the world cares they don't wear wedding rings, well that's none of their business.

Okay, this is one aspect of the attitude against which the main post was directly addressed: The idea that since symbolic meaning has some connection to mental or intentional meaning, symbols can be taken up and shed at will, based simply on one's emotions or mental states at the moment, and this has no importance at all.

I want to put my cards on the table as far as the philosophy of language issue here: I call myself an intentionalist. This means that I think all meanings originate in a mind or a set of minds. But it might, of course, be the mind of God. So, for example, I think that sexual intercourse means something, because God designed our bodies and "wrote" that meaning into our bodies. I'm not at all sure it would have a meaning in a world without an Author.

So to begin with, being an intentionalist doesn't mean that all meanings exist only in human minds. Second, even in human society, we all know that there can be private meanings and public meanings. I could decide to use the word 'red' to mean what most people mean by 'blue', but I would cause myself and a lot of other people a lot of inconvenience, and I might well be misunderstood in some crisis situation. It would be a stupid and a jerky thing to do. So while a person _can_ give a private meaning to some word, signal, or symbol that everyone else understands in some other standard way, it is foolish and childish to pretend that everyone else has to defer to this and that it then "doesn't matter" what everyone else thinks you mean. If you go around yelling swear words at people, it is juvenile to say, "But I changed the meaning of those, and in my mind they meant 'Bless you.'"

So the intentions of a whole bunch of people speaking a language over a period of time come together to allow us to talk to one another and to understand each other, and you have to take that into account when you use words and symbols.

All of this is not something I expect to be controversial.

But somehow when it comes to symbols for the big things--religion, sexual relations, and the like--people think they _can_ just make it all up as they go along, and that it doesn't matter what messages they are sending, because "it isn't anyone else's business."

Let's get down to practicalities: Suppose John and Jane gradually "feel" after 40 years of marriage that their wedding rings don't mean anything anymore. There's no physical reason nor any other unusual external reason not to wear them. It isn't that some crazy dictator is trying to murder all the married people or something. There has just been this odd and otherwise inexplicable sea-change in their wholly subjective feelings about those gold bands. So they have a nice, 21st-century sort of conversation about this matter, and they both assure each other that it's no biggie, and they both leave them at home from then on. (Query: If it is no biggie and there's no other reason, why change your practice anyway? There's something really odd about this.) John's firm hires a new and pretty secretary, and she notices he isn't wearing a ring and, before she gets the word at the water cooler that he's married, she starts hitting on him. She wouldn't have done this if he'd been wearing a ring. So already we have consequences. Something similar happens to Jane.

Because say what you will: These are public symbols, and their presence or absence has public meaning.

The language of "mere symbolism" dovetails with the attitude that "aesthetic" is always synonymous with superficial, and thus inconsequential. The phrase "real symbolism" is less oxymoronic than some of our habits of thought are comfortable with.

I think the wedding ring example is unnecessarily personal and distracting, so I'll introduce an alternate example.

Say a group of men worships at an altar, and uses burning incense to symbolize their prayers rising from the altar to God.

An innovator decides that throwing a turtle shell in the air from atop the altar can symbolize that just as well. But the symbolism breaks when the shell's upward motion peaks and it plummets back to earth.

The symbolism of the latter is a more obvious failure: the prayers don't reach God, and never will.

What makes symbolic discussions like this so difficult is that one can now assail this scenario for relying upon a symbolic frame of reference in which, for instance, God is "upward."

So although there is a logic within the frame of reference, the examination of symbols can further dive into "upwards," "altar," etc.

I am pressed for time, so I can't create a good segue into this passage from Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club I think is relevant:
"Things are themselves signs: their being signs is a condition of their being things at all. You can call this notion counterintuitive, because that is exactly what it is: it is part of Peirce's attack on the idea that we can know some things intuitively--that is, without the mediation of representations. For [C.S.] Peirce, knowing was inseparable from what he called semiosis, the making of signs, and of the making of signs there is no end. If you look up a word in the dictionary, you find it defined by a string of other words, the meanings of which can be discovered by looking them up in a dictionary, leading to more words to be looked up in turn. There is no exit from the dictionary. Peirce didn't simply think that language is like that. He thought that the universe is like that."

The symbolic nexus branches out. I think it's the seeming infinitude of a given instance of symbolism that make us flinch from treating it intellectually, even if there is a logic to it.

I think the wedding ring example is unnecessarily personal and distracting..

Unnecessarily? Tell it to my wife who, if she ever catches me without it, is likely to render this corpse suitable for cremation.

re: John and Jane

Yes, the wedding ring communicates to the outside world that so-and-so are married.

But if more likely to get hit on is the only consequence, I must repeat - so?

Last I heard or saw, guys with wedding rings do get hit on. Same with women with wedding rings.

An older married gentlemen with a nice car, full head of hair, and his body still together is more likely to get hit on than a balding, fat, pauper, but very single man. That's just life.

Moreover, let's take the example to the next logical step. If either John and Jane take it to the next level and act on it, then they've disrespected the marriage - wedding ring or no.

But agreeing to not wear the wedding ring has no - apparently I must point this out - no SIGNIFICANT consequence.

So, now they just don't feel like communicating to the outside world that they are married? And that's no problem?

Yes, that's significant. You don't just adopt a symbol like that to begin with for nothing. You adopt it to say something to the world, which the whole society understands. There is something troubling about deciding later, arbitrarily, "Hey, I don't want to say this to the world anymore." (And that's why Mrs. Luse takes the position she takes. :-))

If the marriage itself is healthy, no, it is not a problem.

If the marriage is not, then it would be. But the root problem is not the symbol, but the marriage itself.

But if couple needs wedding rings to remind themselves that they are married, or to feel that their marriage is important, or to ward off potential flings, then that is emblematic of either a very weak marriage or very weak people.

no SIGNIFICANT consequence

What is "significant" is the very topic at hand.

Corporations, for example, understand that their brands signify profits. They've passed psychology. Why else change St. Petersburg to Leningrad?

Language and symbols can be reduced to mere qualities of public perceptions, so that, as Richard Weaver wrote, "man may, by the pragmatic theory of success, live more successfully [significantly]. To one completely committed to this realm of becoming, as are the empiricists, the claim to apprehend verities is a sign of psychopathology."

Royale's wish is neighbor to those whose seek linguistic neutrality as the pathway to objectivity. A rose is a rose is a rose. It's a learned malady, and one that will be frustrated whenever language interrupts the static and sterile to give direction. When direction breaks out with consequence, resistance will often be force. Think Gulag (or banning and deletion). Intention is faulted for subjectivity. I say it is the flux of language toward or away from a center that is metaphysical.

What is a ring? It's actually A symbol under attack.

I agree with Royale. The problem with symbols arises when people come to see the symbol as nearly equivalent to the thing that it is the symbol of.
Take the U.S. flag as an example. I first came to this site in a discussion of the flag. There were those in the discussion who felt that a failure to properly honor the flag empowered a private citizen to take the law into his own hands, steal the flag in order to protect it, and brandish a knife at other people in the process: the flag was being overvalued by both the knife wielding thief and by those defending his actions. The irony being that the flag is, at least in part, a symbol of the rule of law, rather than the rule of men.
We shouldn't go out of our way to offend others by gratuitously dishonoring their cherished symbols. But neither should we allow any symbol to become an idol.
Flag burning has its desired effect only because the those perpetrating the act know that the targets of their action will overreact. A response of laughter, or a big ho-hum, would completely disarm the event, and the U.S. of A. would not have been harmed in the slightest.

Weaver's views are in a chapter called "The Power of the Word" in Ideas Have Consequences.

The world of symbol is dependent on speech.

In my opinion, this is a pretty straightforward matter: Symbols say things. We use socially-understood symbols to say things to other people. What we say about important things is itself important.

Hence, if I wear a wedding ring, this tells the world that I'm married. That's one of the reasons--a major reason--I got the ring in the first place. If you go around telling the world that you are married and then, for no compelling reason (such as health, for example), stop telling the world that you are married, leaving the matter ambiguous, this is odd and not a good thing.

Royale's latest argument is a predictable extension of his earlier one, and it is a well-known type of canard. In response to the above common-sensible position, he first says that this is all just private, subjective, and between the couple--which is flatly untrue, as far as the actual social facts of understood meaning involved--and then proceeds to try to turn the argument on its head and imply that a spouse who feels uncomfortable about the other suddenly ceasing to wear the wedding ring (for no compelling or physical reason) is the one who has a problem, is insecure, etc.

Conservatives should all recognize this mindset. This is the same mindset that says that those who object to exceedingly immodest clothing in public are the ones who have "dirty minds." Because to the liberal mind, even what we do and don't do in public, even when it has an obvious and well-defined public meaning, is a "private matter." In fact, though it isn't a logical consequence of Royale's position, it is very much in the same spirit to say that marriage itself is merely a matter of "getting a piece of paper" and that a couple that has a _really_ healthy and secure relationship won't need to bother with such an unimportant legalistic detail.

Rodak, too, is just trying to deny the plain and unmystical fact that our actions mean things, especially when we are dealing with well-understood symbols, and that it is possible to do something wrong by what we say.

I refuse categorically to re-introduce the issue of civil disobedience. But I think that even my fellow-conservatives who disagreed with me on _that_ point in the previous thread would be able to agree with me that burning a flag is _saying_ something dishonoring about it, and that putting another country's flag over the U.S. flag is _saying_ something, and that that something is something an American patriot would understandably object to.

It is just a fantasy that stuff like this doesn't matter, that symbols really are unimportant. All the time, all day long, we use symbols to say things to each other. And if there is anything important in the world to talk about, and if we say anything about it, then symbols are important. Because what we say and mean is important.

I think a certain amount of respect should be given to the traditional meaning of symbols. Even if a husband and wife believe a ring does not mean anything, they should at least wear one out of respect for the majority of people who do. I think the lack of such respect is narcissistic.

I think the lack of such respect is narcissistic.

Yes, but it sounds too nice. In the case of some important philosophers, the iconoclasm is Mars incarnate. Remember Descartes?

C'est pourquoi, sitot que l'age me permit de sortir de la sujetion de mes precepteurs, je quittai entierement l'etude des letters; et me resolvant de ne chercher plus d'autre science que celle qui se pourroit trouver en moi-meme . . .

That is why, as soon as age permitted me to escape the tutelage of my teachers, I left the study of letters completely. And resolving to search for no other knowledge than what I could find within myself . . .

Iconoclasm itself wouldn't matter if symbols don't matter. Who cares whether or not we chop down the groves if "being dedicated to Ashtaroth" is a trivial or childish concept?

This is one reason I've often been puzzled to decide what I think about putting religious objects in museums. On my one visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I saw a reconstructed chapel. They had actually built the room just as it had been in some castle or other in Europe, and then they had put up all the fixins--the altar rails, the carvings around the walls, and so forth, just as they had been. One of St. Thomas's hymns to the Blessed Sacrament was carved on the wall paneling. But it was just a museum piece for people to come and see. Of course, no one celebrated Mass there anymore or anything. It gave me a very odd feeling. It still seems to me preferable to have beautiful Christian artifacts preserved rather than not, but there is just something a little spooky to me about having them treated so unspookily.

Lydia assumes I have made arguments which I have not.

Re-reading this earlier response:

"So, now they just don't feel like communicating to the outside world that they are married? And that's no problem?"

I never said that it is not important to communicate that they are married. I did say it is not important to communicate by wearing wedding rings.

There are other ways of communicating marriage, such as John saying, "sorry Secretary, but I am happily married. My wife and I have voluntarily chosen to not be cultural lemmings and as such, we demonstrate our love to the world by wearing these He-Man decoder rings on our right pinkies."

If John and Jane do that, I say God bless them. Are they cultural deviants - absolutely. Are they happily married - that is between them.

But getting to the gist of the follow-up response, she is comparing apples to oranges, a very common canard. In an earlier example, there is the analogy of shouting vulgarities at the world. This is hardly the "significant" social effect that is analogous to wearing/abstaining from wedding rings. For with shouting vulgarities, it is highly disruptive and indiscriminately so, albeit yes, a misunderstanding if the person honestly subjectively believes vulgarities are a blessing.

However, with wedding rings, a couple things:

(1) weddings and marriages ARE PRIVATE matters, and no matter how much the lives of other people are affected, they will remain so. Just how exactly the two people celebrate their union - just as which invitees can attend their wedding - is their prerogative and theirs alone.

(2) as mentioned above, there are other ways of communicating, "hey, we are married, hands off my wife/husband."

(3) I never said that marriage was akin to getting a piece of paper or merely a legalistic formality. But to equate the wedding ring - a symbol - with the actual thing that it represents is quite literally to confuse the marriage for the wedding ring and in turn makes a mountain out of a molehill.

I repeat, if the marriage is healthy, then abstaining from the ring is symptomatic of nothing. Here, John will politely tell the secretary that he is married.

But if John encourages the secretary's attention, then it is not the removal of the wedding ring that did the damage - but John's desire to hide the marriage. And that is a very, very different issue than I am discussing.

(my more cynical side would say that De Beers would love your perspective, as it is precisely buying into their diamond ring marketing campaign of the past century that has built up the cultural importance of wedding rings and in turn, their profits. This has nothing to do with liberal-conservative, morals, or God, but good old fashioned American consumerism.)

How do you think a court case would go where the argument was that the symbol of a cross on public property has nothing to do with Christianity? Since the meaning of symbols is relative to the individual, the atheist could just view the cross as the letter ‘t’. Since the symbol cannot be objectively identified with Christianity it cannot be a public endorsement of Christianity. Christians are free to identity the cross with their religion if they choose and non-Christians are free to identity the cross with something else.

"'My wife and I have voluntarily chosen to not be cultural lemmings and as such, we demonstrate our love to the world by wearing these He-Man decoder rings on our right pinkies.'"

I realize this is just an example. But the fact is that a deliberate, pointless refusal to use an ordinary, well-understood social symbol for an important truth, and the substitution of some other arbitrary (not to mention trivial) symbol for that truth, is juvenile. That sort of self-conscious attempt to be different, the sneering at normal social symbols and those who use them as "lemmings," and so forth, the whole childish attitude, is _itself_ a threat to the stability of a marriage, and perhaps more so if the two people involved both have that attitude. I suppose one can only hope they would grow out of it.

"...weddings and marriages ARE PRIVATE matters..."

No. That is a major source of the disagreement here. There could be weird circumstances--two people stranded on a desert island--where there was no way of making a marriage anything other than a private matter. But it is not essentially so. To the contrary. That is why weddings have witnesses. Marriage is the foundation of society and even history. By being married, you aren't just "celebrating a union," you are making that union part of the wider culture, inviting others to witness your vows to one another, and binding yourself publically to the other person. A ring isn't just a private little sweet celebratory thingy. It is a deliberate, well-understood, mature advertisement to the world of your status.

"the whole childish attitude, is _itself_ a threat to the stability of a marriage, and perhaps more so if the two people involved both have that attitude. I suppose one can only hope they would grow out of it."

Fine. If it is "mature" to conflate De Beers corporate propoganda with the "foundation of society," then I proudly proclaim myself juvenile.

And while you're at it, be prepared to the tell the entire Indian subcontinent that their society is juvenile and unstable with all those red dots when clearly the mature and stable society wears wedding rings.

My goodness. After reading this I half expect to go outside and see carts pulling horses.

No, because the whole point is that an "entire society" makes up its own symbols that are understood there. What is juvenile is flouting these and making up some arbitrary private symbol just because you think otherwise you'll be a "cultural lemming." That's pretty much on a par with dyeing your hair purple to be different from Mom and Dad.

Actually, btw, I remember vividly buying wedding bands and an engagement ring as an impoverished engaged undergraduate. The wedding bands cost very little, comparatively speaking, and were not part of what worried us financially. A plain gold band needn't be very expensive at all, so this has nothing to do with consumerism.

And while you're at it, be prepared to the tell the entire Indian subcontinent that their society is juvenile and unstable with all those red dots when clearly the mature and stable society wears wedding rings.

The mature person does not wear wedding rings. I do not believe that is the point. The point is that the mature person respects the traditional meaning of symbols in any given society. The ring is the traditional symbol for marriage in our society and thus should be respected by those who choose to get married. I do not think we were ever talking about India.

Maybe Zippy can step in here, but I think this is related to what Zippy calls the Superman, with the idea being that symbols have no meaning outside of an individuals own reason and will or that they create meaning from symbols ex nihilo. If the Superman does not consent to the standard meaning of symbols then the meaning of those symbols are illegitimate. If I told my English teacher “to you that is the incorrect spelling, but to me it is the correct spelling”, I think I would be called crazy more so than immature.

Or, perhaps the "mature" person says "I am married," when he is asked.

The absurdity of expecting everyone who is married to wear wedding rings or be cultural lemmings is manifested by the comments above - simply, not everyone is physically able to do.

Furthermore, I have seen single people wear wedding bands, and not because they were engaged, but for their own personal reasons.

We don't need hypoallergenic wedding rings as cultural mandate, absolutely not. But if someone wanted one, fine.

If the point behind it all is to communicate publically that you're married, what on earth is wrong with just doing that?

"I am married." 'nuf said.

To conflate the ring for the marriage quite literally confuses the symbol with what it represents.

...not everyone is physically able to do.

I think this been addressed a few times now.

"Furthermore, I have seen single people wear wedding bands, and not because they were engaged, but for their own personal reasons."

Hmmm. And those personal reasons had nothing to do with, maybe, getting other people to think that they were married when they weren't? And if that wasn't their intent, then why do something that was likely to have that effect?

This whole business about insisting that it is just the same to substitute verbal for non-verbal communication is passing strange. The two are not the same. Is there no special value in having a non-verbal sign about oneself that communicates an important signal about oneself to all those who see you, without your having to talk to them? Isn't that really part of the point of many such symbols--that the whole world can see this about you, without having to enter into conversation? And why is there not something a little odd about deliberately refraining from this type of broadly-understood social communication, especially if you used to do it? So, before, you wanted everyone to know you were married without even having to talk to you or ask--just seeing you walk past--but now, you want people to know only if you happen to tell them, if it happens to come up in conversation. Isn't that an interesting and significant change in itself?

Kurt, I think your reference to the self-defining Superman is an excellent one.

I think that even my fellow-conservatives who disagreed with me on _that_ point in the previous thread would be able to agree with me that burning a flag is _saying_ something dishonoring about it

Yes, the flag's importance as a symbol remains what it is, whether that man had taken any action or not.

marriage is a private matter? No more than its dissolution, which is usually resolved in a very public court of law.

I would assume that the importance of a publicly accepted symbol derives from the degree to which it reminds us of something very valuable and true; and that if I choose to distort that symbol into something unrecognizable, or dispense with it altogether, it says something not about that symbol's actual importance, but only about what I think of it. That is the truly private matter.

I also notice that Kurt's example of a cross in a public place is suffering neglect.

Also, also...I know that rings are important symbols because I saw a movie about it. I can't remember the title, but there were lots of ugly creatures flying about and stomping around, walking talking trees, fire-spouting mountains, a deranged and shriveled homunculus, elves, dwarves, and little people with big feet. It was all about a ring that was so important that it took them three installments of this movie to bring the issue to a close.

So, the social cost of not wearing wedding rings is that I won't know if the passing stranger on the street is married or not?

Ouch. That's a checkmate.

Yup. Without wedding rings, and hence not knowing if passing strangers are married or not, the social fabric of civilization will all be unraveled.

Looking outside, I do see some carts pulling horses.

"Yes, the flag's importance as a symbol remains what it is, whether that man had taken any action or not."

Excuse me, but that was not the point of contention in bringing up that incident. The point was that the over-valuing of what everybody agrees is a symbol resulted in lawlessness and subsequent validation of that lawlessness by others. That is very dangerous.

"It was all about a ring that was so important that it took them three installments of this movie to bring the issue to a close."

Ha! Where were all the 21st century Tolkien acolytes slash good vs. evil allegory junkies in the 'sixties, when the only Americans who knew who Tolkien was were all the pot-smoking hippies who were reading the Ballantine paperback edition of the triology, because they thought it was del-ic, m-a-a-n!

Oops. Messed up the tags there: "Psyche-del-ic, m-a-a-n!"

You say you make an exception of people who can't physically wear wedding rings, but in fact you don't. You can't, when you make this a public symbol. How is a person looking at me to know I don't wear my ring because I physically can't? What am I supposed to do, wear a sign that says, "I am married but I can't wear a ring"? (Kurt, no, this aspect hasn't been addressed, has it? I can't physically wear my ring, but when you see me, not knowing me, you assume that I am being narcissistic in not wearing it. You don't know what my reasons are.)

As far as getting hit on is concerned, I actually got hit on much more often when I WAS wearing my ring. That's not relevant.

You see, the whole point is that you can't know why a person is not wearing a ring. It's false to claim you make an exception for physical reasons, because you can't know them. You see a married person without a wedding ring, and assume that person is narcissistic or immature or making some kind of silly statement. That's immaturity on your part. Why should nice, decent married people be forced to defend a minor but real physical disability? That isn't right. And to make a parallel between wearing or not wearing a wedding ring and burning the flag is just plain ridiculous. I never heard of anyone's having a physical reason for burning a flag.

Trish, I never said that I would assume that a person was juvenile or narcissistic if he was married and didn't wear a wedding ring. I said that the sort of person Royale has portrayed for us is juvenile (and I'll add "narcissistic" too, though that was originally Kurt's word). Royale has portrayed for us a person who doesn't do it just because he doesn't feel that it has psychological meaning for him. No physical situation at all.

As for its being a public sign, I'm sorry, Trish, but you can't change that. The fact that it is a public sign of being married is the reason people wear rings. If they can't or don't, that's one less public sign that they are married. If I saw you without your ring and didn't know you--in the airport, for example--I'd assume you weren't married. Nothing bad about your character, but just that you weren't married. That would be a perfectly reasonable thing to assume, because most people who don't wear wedding rings in America aren't married. It would be no sort of insult to you, just a reasonable conclusion.

I believe that a person who is physically unable to wear his wedding ring is suffering a misfortune. I really feel sorry for such a person. I think that's a sad thing. I'd feel terribly sad in that situation. To tell me it's bad or hurtful of me to say that that is a misfortunate is ridiculous. It's no blame to you to say that you are in an unfortunate situation.

People need to learn not to make a virtue of necessity. We have way too many situations in this country where someone is forced into them by circumstances and then insists that his (or, more often, her) feelings are hurt if someone has the audacity to say that it's an unfortunate or less-than-ideal situation. We're all supposed to make people feel good by telling them they aren't in an unfortunate situation. Well, I won't do that.

But that doesn't mean it's your _fault_. Not at all.

"Looking outside, I do see some carts pulling horses."

It's funny that Royale keeps thinking this is such a zinger.

Bill, I agree that Kurt's example has been unjustly ignored. He has an excellent point: The very fact that liberals get so het up about religious symbols on public property shows that they, too, believe that symbols have publically-understood and important meaning. Otherwise, why not laugh at it? Why bother about it?

Reminds me of a Chesterton story (somebody else will have to supply the name) about a guy who doesn't believe in the various bad-luck things--broken mirrors and such--so he deliberately sets up a room with all of those violated. He spills salt and doesn't throw a pinch over his shoulder, breaks a mirror, sets the table for thirteen at dinner, stuff like that. I forget how the story ends, but the moral is supposed to be that there is something very wrong with this guy.

Or an even better one: In _That Hideous Strength_, Mark Studdock is being trained in "objectivity"--which is really demon worship, in the book. His trainer puts a crucifix on the floor and tells Mark to spit on it and trample it and stuff. Mark says, "But look here. Christianity is all rot. So what's more objective about trampling that than about venerating it?" Words to that effect. Frost hems and haws and says that they have found it "indispensible" in the training, because Mark has been raised in a Christian society. So they have to make him break these taboos in order to become truly "objective." It's a wonderful scene. In the end, Mark turns to him and says, "It's all rubbish, and I'm damned if I'll do anything of the sort."

Of course, this is perfect Lewis, because Mark _will_ be damned if he does anything of the sort. As so often in good novels, his words mean more than he realizes they mean.

"Royale has portrayed for us a person who doesn't do it just because he doesn't feel that it has psychological meaning for him. No physical situation at all."

In Lydia's effort to control the world, she apparently thinks she knows me, who I am, and what has psychological meaning to me. None are true.

When rather, I've only stood up for the people who might, just might think for themselves, consciously break out of the lemming conformity that De Beers has sold America hook, line, and sinker, and say - no, God knows the marriage between us, not Lydia.

Strangely, she complains about "supermen."

Royale, I'm just trying to repeat what you said. I didn't mean that you "portray" this person in the sense of _being_ this person. You said something like, "What if the ring ceases to have meaning for some married couple, etc." I mean merely that you are presenting this type of person to us as an example, and that you think this is just fine.

I think you have just misunderstood.

When rather, I've only stood up for the people who might, just might think for themselves, consciously break out of the lemming conformity...

We lemmings who follow conventional rules of grammar and spelling. If we were self-defined Supermen, we would individually create our own rules of grammar.

In Lydia's effort to control the world, she apparently thinks she knows me, who I am, and what has psychological meaning to me.

This is so laughably false, it can only have been written by a person who can't read, or someone who has DeBeers on the brain.

Hmm. Maybe it's the removable nature of rings that is so problematic. Perhaps we should agigtate for legislation mandating that all married persons be branded at the completion of the ceremony? By that expedience, not only would the fact that a man or woman was "taken" be publicly announced, but it could also be made public knowledge, in the uniqueness of the brand, by whom he or she had been taken.
Tattooing or ear-notching could be made options for those with an unusually low pain threshold.
The implementation of any of these options might also significantly reduce the number of frivolous divorce actions.

Is anybody else familiar with the Chesterton story?

Here's an interesting hypothetical question: Should a Christian ever be willing to spit on a cross? Perhaps to avoid death? After all, it's just a piece of wood and/or plaster.

People sometimes talk about a "sacramental view of life." Most recently, this sort of talk has been, in my view, rather trivialized by applying it (a la Crunchy Conservatism) to buying organic vegetables at the farmer's market. To my mind, some of the questions I'm raising here--about cremation, wedding rings, or flag display--even if they make people uncomfortable, introduce a more interesting possibility for a "sacramental view of life."

I think sometimes people have a strict dichotomy: Either something _really_, _literally_ is a holy object (as in the case of the Real Presence or the Ark of the Covenant, etc.), or else you can treat it however you darned well please, make up a meaning or lack of meaning for it, do what you like, because it's just a physical object. This sort of dichotomy affects both some Catholics and most Protestants. I think that just taking a rather common-sensical view that I've presented here about saying things by our use of physical symbols challenges that strict division.

Brilliant summation in that last comment, Lydia. In an attempt to be little Gods, at least in the small things if we are denied it in the large things, we insist upon truncating the meaning of (some) things to be just what we will it to be, nothing more, nothing less.

Mr. Luse and Mr. Kurt are so clever that they don't feel the need to address any of the substantive issues I have raised here. Being less clever than them, I must raise them myself as not everything is self-evident to me.

I am not a Catholic, so I have refrained from the religious implications of the discussion here.

But I am human, so I can address the use of human symbols.

As for wedding rings, it appears to me we have uncovered three rationales for their use:

1. people are nosy and hence, need to know the marital status of everyone around them

2. people have bought into the De Beers marketing campaign that wedding bands are a necessary component of marriage itself (someone might not like this pesky little fact, but that does not change the fact that it is true)

3. if people do not publically display their marital status, then the foundations of Western society will collapse

Given that not everyone cannot at all times publically display their wedding bands, for out of allergy, washing their hands, metal detectors, or simply because they are wearing gloves, it is impossible. Since society has not collapsed, then #3 above is shown to be faulty. That leaves #1 and #2.

(on a side note, I actually have enjoyed this discussion a lot. for like Lydia, I tend to argue just for the sake of it. I found the original post well-articulated and thought provoking, hence my responses)

If I can be serious for a moment, I think that you are to some extent, in your discussion of weddings rings, confusing "sign" for "symbol". What wedding rings are symbolic of is the covenant between the man and the woman; it is between them and God. Where it's understood to be a sacrament, then, perhaps, it's also between them, God, and the congregation that witnesses their vows.
That said, when they take the ring out on the street, wearing it in the midst of strangers, with regard to those strangers it becomes a "mere" sign that reads "Married"; it's not a symbol under those circumstances.
I think that Royale is looking at it that way--as a sign, rather than as a symbol, to the extent that we are talking about what it signifies in public.

"1. people are nosy and hence, need to know the marital status of everyone around them

2. people have bought into the De Beers marketing campaign that wedding bands are a necessary component of marriage itself (someone might not like this pesky little fact, but that does not change the fact that it is true)

3. if people do not publically display their marital status, then the foundations of Western society will collapse."

Well, Royale, since I haven't endorsed any of these...

The first is a sheerly invidious attempt to imply that there's something wrong with my argument because the whole thing has to do with "nosiness." That's childishly silly. The issue has rather to do with something like pride and openness in displaying one's status, which is one of the things rings were supposed to be about in the first place, like it or not.

However often you stamp your feet and say that I'm committed to the second of your propositions, I'm not, and nothing I've said implies it.

As for the third, again, I've never said nor implied it. I brought up the phrase "foundation of civilization" in response to your claim that marriage is a private matter. It certainly is true that the proposition that marriage is a private matter between the two people involved has done great damage. Ask untold children of divorce. But the connection between that and wedding rings is only indirect and may apply in one case but not in another--i.e. our hypothetical Jane and John may be expressing and acting on that pernicious idea that marriage is a purely private matter in their refusal to use a widely-understood symbol. That would itself be a problem.

Rodak, I'm not sure that the distinction you are drawing really makes that much of a difference. Even if one calls the thing a sign, that's still, well, significant. Why arbitrarily stop using such a sign to the whole world that one used before, the absence of which is likely to be taken, understandably and reasonably, to mean that one is not married?

Lydia, honestly why do you care if the stranger beside you is married or not. If they communicate to you their marital status or not, what difference does it make?

Please give me one, just one example how hiding one's marital status to strangers has harmed anyone but themselves.

If you cannot, then that personifies nosiness. Like it or not.

"Even if one calls the thing a sign, that's still, well, significant."

Yes, it's still "significant" in that it imparts some information to an interested second party. But that's a different level of significance. It's not, in that context, symbolic of the sacramental convenant. It becomes, to all of the second parties who see it, more like the sign outside of the church, announcing the topic of this week's sermon, than it is like the liturgy of the service itself.

"Please give me one, just one example how hiding one's marital status to strangers has harmed anyone but themselves."

I really don't think that's necessary in order for my position on this matter to be true--namely, that it's not a good idea casually and for no overwhelming reason to stop using a widely-understood and widely-used sign/symbol/indicator of your marital status. "Harming other people" isn't really what this is all about. For some reason you just don't seem to understand that. Perhaps I'm just up against some sort of indefeasible libertarian assumptions here?

Rodak, I think a better example might be of taking off the cross on the church roof. Suppose the church is extremely generic in style and doesn't otherwise look like one type of building rather than another, except that it's clearly someplace where a lot of people gather (say, there's a good-sized parking lot). Then taking off the cross suddenly makes it ambiguous to the passers-by as to whether this is a Christian church or a Bahai temple or a synagogue or a clubhouse for the local chapter of MADD or what. Why would one do that?

Uh...most churches are identified by a steeple and other things such as Gothic and/or stained glass windows, etc. But that is to split hairs. The sign on the lawn that is there to announce the sermon is only a sign. There's nothing holy about it. The cross on the roof (or, more usually, on the steeple) is still a symbol, not a mere sign. The sign announcing the sermon, by itself, tells you that the building in question is a church; but spitting on, or trampling on that sign, would be only an act of vandalism, not a desecration.

First--Lydia, this is a marvelous thread. Thank you.

The fact that people get hit on whether or not they wear their wedding rings doesn't make it less important. In fact, I would hazard the assertion that it makes it much more important.

There is a big difference between marriage-wrecking predators and relatively innocent flirts. Wearing the ring makes it clear that those who hit on you are marriage-wrecking predators--and fiends to be avoided. Not wearing the ring invites embarrassing misunderstandings with innocents suffering the consequences.

Whether or not you agree with the importance of these scenarios, it is abundantly clear that they are not the same scenarios--and shouldn't be treated as such.

The most annoying thing I have seen in this discussion is Royale's attempt to pigeon-hole Lydia into some mindless vassal of "DeBeer's marketing campaign." It is the kind of thing that makes me wonder if the interlocutor wants to be taken seriously at all. Any essential thing can be marketed to the extreme in any number of stupid ways. Not buying into the "Gerber marketing campaign" is not a reason to stop feeding your babies.

I do find it ironic, though I suppose it was inevitable, that the symbol itself should suffer from the attacks of nominalism. The nature of symbols--whether neatly codified for you supermen, or not--goes deeper than mere correspondence and representation. I think it is obviously so, and I think Lydia has done well to make it clear to common sense. (I might even say that the difference between correspondence and representation proves the continuum, and your arbitrary will to stop that continuum requires evidence rather than insisting on evidence that the continuum...continues.)

I would like to develop that parenthetical thought more, but I think it needs to simmer some more. Again, I thank Lydia for putting the pot on the burner.


Thanks, "Silly". I'll be interested in the dish when it's done simmering.

Your point about innocent flirts is an excellent one, one I hadn't thought of. It only goes to show that things that begin as problems in the person making the choice about symbol use often do, though they need not necessarily, have consequences for other people in the world. There are plenty of men and women in the world looking in all good conscience for a mate. There's no reason to make the signals that much more confusing for them.

Rodak, I'd like to explore a little this distinction you are trying to draw between the church sign and the church cross. _Why_ would it be (as I agree it would be)morally, even metaphysically, worse to vandalize the cross than the message-board (or whatever one calls it)? I don't know all the reasons and don't claim that this is an exhaustive explanation. But here's for starters: The cross is a nearly universally-understood symbol for Christianity en toto. The sign that says, "Vacation Bible School Monday through Friday" or whatever it says this week, isn't similarly understood to stand for Christianity en toto. So vandalizing the cross pretty clearly is an insult to Christianity across the board. Vandalizing the sign might say a lot of things, including a general insult to Christianity, but also including an objection to the particular message on there this week, a dislike of the particular denomination, or an otherwise meaningless and random desire to do damage.

I would say that the connection between the cross and very important matters is both deeper and broader than the connection between the church sign and similarly important matters.

As for a wedding ring, I really cannot see how that very same object can have a deep connection with very important matters when you are standing in the church on your wedding day but have only a shallow or far less important connection to those same matters when you are walking down the street. Especially when the "matter" in question no matter where you are standing at the moment is your married status and the vows that you made to get you into that status. So if that's what you are indicating by "symbol" as opposed to "sign" then I do disagree.

I think probably there are all sorts of things that are like that: Some people understand the ramifications of their importance very deeply, while other people understand only the surface. But the surface is the surface _of_ something that goes a lot deeper, making the symbol important across the board.

That last sentence is far more mystical than I usually like to get, so I'd better scramble and think of an example, hadn't I? Well, take what G.K. Chesterton said about a little girl's hair.


There's the link to the Right Reason post of mine where I quote it.

The people in the grocery store might see the little girl walking past down the street and think merely and briefly, "What pretty hair she has." Old G.K. sees it as a representation of the fact that "she is the human and sacred image." Her mother feels proud at keeping it so nice and thinks about the fact that they should wash it again that night. But all of them are cueing to different aspects of the same thing--the child's value, as represented by the beauty of her hair.

In a somewhat similar way, the person who passes you on the street may merely register in an automatic fashion, "Oh, that guy's married" without going into metaphysical raptures about marriage as a symbol of the union of Christ and the Church or whatever. But the marriage means what it means, and the ring stands for it, both to the careless passer-by, to the spouse, and to the metaphysician.

"In a somewhat similar way, the person who passes you on the street may merely register in an automatic fashion, "Oh, that guy's married" without going into metaphysical raptures about marriage as a symbol..."

Exactly. And for that person, the ring is only a sign, in that context. That same person might come to see that same ring as a symbol of my marriage, in all of its significance, if, at some time in the future, the fact of my marriage for some reason becomes a factor in that person's relationship to me. But for that to happen some level of intimacy must have developed between the two of us.
The ring is always a symbol to the person wearing it; sometimes a symbol to persons outside of the marriage; but nearly always only a bit of information to a stranger or slight acquaintance.
To a person from a culture that doesn't symbolize marriage by the wearing of a ring, it would not even be sign. To a person from a culture that wears the wedding ring on the other hand, it might convey incorrect information, etc. The point is that this particular symbol is not the universal that Chesterton tried to make of the little girl's red hair.

Rodak, the fact that these sorts of things, including words, mean different things in different cultures might have some punch if I were making a much, much stronger claim than I am. Suppose I were saying that no mental intent has anything to do with meanings, that meanings are, for all objects and texts at all times and places, fixed and "out there" in the world independent of any mind, or even that all meanings of all objects are dependent solely on the Mind of God. Then variations across culture would be negatively relevant. But I would never say that, and so I think the facts you bring up here are pretty much irrelevant to my point. We're imagining people who do live in a culture where they know exactly how the thing will be understood by most of those who see or hear it, and where they themselves understand it in a particular way, and we're asking how seriously they should therefore take it. In this regard, the whole thing is very similar to words. The sound of the words "Jesus is Lord" might mean something quite different in a language other than English, but it would remain an interesting question whether I should ever deny that statement _while speaking English_.

Note, too, that you yourself consider a cross a "symbol," in your terms, rather than a mere "sign," yet a person who knew nothing about Christianity might think it was just a giant lower-case t on top of a building. So variation in comprehension across culture can't really make the difference, even in your own terms, between a more important "symbol" and a mere "sign." It could, for example, still be wrong for the people of the church to decide to stop displaying the cross, and pointing out that some people might not even know what it meant would not change that.

That last sentence is far more mystical than I usually like to get

Keep going. I like it.

This whole discussion has kept me in mind of that well-known dinner table conversation during which Flannery O'Connor found herself in the company of such a luminary as Mary McCarthy (a lapsed Catholic), who was dilating upon the beauty of the Eucharistic "symbol", to which O'Connor famously muttered, "If it's a symbol, I say to hell with it." This does not, as it might seem on the surface, offer any comfort to the two R's (Royale and Rodak), as the symbolic beauty of the bread and wine, absent the doctrine which gave it life, would (for O'Connor) be emptied of all significance, for the reason that (as Lydia says) "the surface is the surface _of_ something that goes a lot deeper."

With the meaning of Christian marriage likely being more universally shared than that concerning the nature of the bread and wine, the exchange of rings at a Christian wedding hardly seems trivial to the ceremony: "With this ring, I thee wed." It is the visible, outward sign of a profoundly spiritual reality. It is more than just a symbol. Attempts to minimize (and privatize) this fact (as with Rodak's "nearly always only a bit of information to a stranger or slight acquaintance") are evidence only of a stubborn determination to deny the obvious. All that Lydia's been saying is that this is a very important bit of information, the deepest signficance of which is most evident to the wearer of the ring, but one that allows an observer to infer that significance and even to participate in it by means of a sympathetic heart, and an appreciation of its beauty.

This discussion has caused a problem outside the combox as well. I tried, a few minutes ago, to remove my wedding ring (in private, of course, as I didn't want any stray women to see me without it) and it wouldn't come off. It won't fit over the knuckle. I wondered if I ought to feel desperate about it, in case some situation might arise in which it must come off, but soon settled into my former contentment, on the assumption that God's trying to tell me something.

And you hadn't even known it wouldn't come off? That's pretty cool, actually. Makes ya' think.

Mine just gets loose at random intervals for no apparent reason, so I know it would come off, but it doesn't really matter.

I had actually been thinking about the O'Connor bon mot quite a bit when writing the main post. Perhaps I'm trying too hard to be ecumenical, but I find it interesting to reflect that Christians who agree about the importance of the truth of Christianity can *at least* agree that objects which bespeak those truths are important for that reason alone. I tend to think that no Christian of any denomination would deface a cross, for example. I certainly hope that even the most iconoclastically-inclined wouldn't do so just to prove a point or something bizarre like that. If so, that's a major problem.

"..it wouldn't come off. It won't fit over the knuckle..."

1) Lick finger, remove ring.

2) Lose a few pounds.

"...this is a very important bit of information, the deepest signficance of which is most evident to the wearer of the ring, but one that allows an observer to infer that significance and even to participate in it..."

Yeah, right. If this actually happened in the real world, where nearly everybody is wearing a wedding ring, everybody would be so busy emoting and suffering paroxisms of fathomless significance that no work would ever get done.
Can't we, please, just talk about reality here?

Silly Interloper,

Lydia has made the cultural history of wedding rings relevant by discussing it as "traditional" and "mature." De Beers' marketing campaign has affected the cultural relevance of wedding rings over the past 100 years. That's a fact and in turn, makes the statements of the "maturity" and the "traditional" value of wedding bands to be quite ridiculous.

If anyone wants to wear one, fine. But don't sell it as the "mature" and "traditional" option.


Just because wedding rings are an "acceptable" form of communicating one's marital status in now way means the message SHOULD be communicated to strangers.

It's true, people people invite their family and friends to a private ceremony to celebrate their union. This is very different than inviting strangers to peer into their married lives. Rather, we have a term for that - "wedding crashers."

If there is no other reason to require other people to wear wedding bands and rings simply because it is "traditional" without a scintilla of a positive benefit over the oral alternative (i.e., stating "sorry, I'm married" when the message must be communicated to strangers), then like it or not, you desire people to be cultural lemmings.

My objection is when you crossed the line from your own individual practice to pushing this belief on to other people. If other people must do this - go ahead, but the burden of proof is on you to show why.

Royale, I have to say that every single comment and question you have brought up in this most recent has been answered. I don't see any reason to repeat myself over and over.

As a Catholic, I find the wedding-ring question paralleled in the problem with modern religious sisters who don't want to wear habits (and priests who don't wear clerics or cassocks). Yes, one can be consecrated to God without a habit. But it is both traditional and useful for people on the street to realize that a passerby is such, and it should also serve as a reminder to the individual. Some religious whom I know wear their habits often but not always. It seems to parallel the question "why take off one's wedding ring?" (By the way, it is not a question of practicality of movement: religious did whatever they needed to for hundreds of years in habits.)

Good stuff, Mary.

Exactly right, Mary.

I can't help but quote Weaver again:

"The logic is unexceptionable; since the symbol is a bridge to the other, the "ideational" world, those who wish to confine themselves to experience must oppose symbolism. In fact, the whole tendency of empiricism and democracy in speech, dress, and manners has been toward a plainness which is without symbolic significance. The power of symbolism is greatly feared by those who wish to expel from life all that is nonrational in the sense of being nonutilitarian, as witness the attack of Jacobins upon crowns, cassocks, and flags. As semanticists wish to plane the tropes off language, so do reformers of this persuasion wish to remove the superfluous from dress. It is worth recalling how the French Revolution simplified the dress of the Western world. At the time of this writing there appeared a report that during a leftist revolution in Bolivia the necktie was discarded as "a symbol of servility and conformity." The most tenacious in clinging to the symbolic apparel have been the clerical and military callings, which we have already characterized as metaphysical; and now even the military service is under pressure to abandon its symbolic distinction in dress."

That's a very intersting and useful parallel that I hadn't even thought of--to clerical dress, that is. After all, the push to do away with nuns' habits was itself a meaningful movement. That is to say, those thus pushing were making a point by so doing.

Lydia has made the cultural history of wedding rings relevant by discussing it as "traditional" and "mature." De Beers' marketing campaign has affected the cultural relevance of wedding rings over the past 100 years. That's a fact and in turn, makes the statements of the "maturity" and the "traditional" value of wedding bands to be quite ridiculous.

Again, Royale, I find this difficult to take seriously. It is profoundly irrational to say:
1. Lydia brought up cultural history
2. DeBeers had some effect on cultural history
3. Therefore, whatever Lydia says about the cultural history of something has no merit.

It--quite obviously--is a defunct syllogism. It also seems like an excessively puerile attempt at back-handed ad hominem, and it makes me think you don't even want to be taken seriously.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.