[T]here seems to be a specific manner in which man responds to the profound and mysterious in life. This response is religion and the religious response expresses itself in symbols. Mircea Eliade has distinguished six characteristics of religious symbols. In his discussion, Eliade makes the following point: “Religious symbols are capable of revealing a modality of the real or a structure of the world that is not evident on the level of immediate experience.” Religious symbols are multivalent; that is, they have the capacity to express a number of meanings whose continuity is not obvious on the level of ordinary experience. In consequence of this fact, the religious symbol has the capacity to systematize or integrate a number of diverse meanings into a totality, thus expressing in a profound and intense matter the paradoxical structure of that which is ultimately real.


A great deal of our modern cultural life presupposes the equation of literalness = truth. To some degree this is dictated by the scientific-technological character of our culture, but we would find it difficult to believe that anyone in our culture lives entirely in a world of literal meanings. There are human experiences on the personal and cultural levels which can only be expressed in symbolic forms. These meanings are in many cases the most profound meanings in our personal and cultural lives. They are profound because they symbolize the specificity of our human situation—they make clear to us how the world exists for us and point up the resources and tensions which are present in our situation.

Charles H. Long, Alpha: The Myths of Creation