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The Truth of Broken Symbols.

NEVILLE, Robert Cummings. The Truth of Broken Symbols. New York: State University of New York Press, 1996. xxv + 320 pp. Paper, $19.95--In this most recent book in an evolving series of foundational works in philosophy, semiotics, and theology, Neville probes into the nature and function of that class of signs that have an astonishing power to transform selves and communities. In unfolding what, for him, are the essential ingredients in religious symbols, he uses some of the categories and phenomenological descriptions that have done service in his other works. Particularly, he brings to bear on symbols his analysis of the creator/creation relationship, his privileging of value over form, and the nature of determinateness and its boundary (worldhood). At the same time, he puts pressure on any semiotic theory that would engulf the uniqueness of religious symbols under a pseudogeneric understanding of codes.

As both a Platonist and a pragmatic naturalist, Neville insists that religious symbols are about something other than themselves; namely, they are about values as rooted in a ubiquitous nature that has its own ground in the eternal creative act of God. Religious symbols participate in that to which they refer and, unlike more prosaic signs, have a double reference (within their devotional context). On one side, they refer to their religious object, while on the other side they refer to the spiritual/ psychological condition of the symbol user. It follows from this model that symbols can also use persons, insofar as they (symbols) move in the space between the divine and the personal, transforming the flow of value and meaning between them. On Neville's model, religious symbols are never mere signs or tokens that can be exchanged like nonreligious signs. They have energy gradients and transform the power economy of the individual, and have their own provenance that must be honored.

Neville is very much aware that religious symbols can also be demonic and are far more dangerous than any other class of signs. The healthiest form of a religious symbol is what he calls a "broken symbol," in which the symbol participates in a finite/infinite contrast but in such a way as to put distance between itself and its infinite pole, while also holding finite and infinite together. From the human side, irony emerges as one of the appropriate religious emotions that can live in the partial, yet meaning-granting, truth of the religious symbol that has its own way of enhancing value for finite sign-users. Yet Neville also insists, against the liberal tradition inaugurated by Schleiermacher, that the religious life is not about internal emotions but about how we negotiate our away among the religious symbols that address us in their uncanniness.

Ontologically, religious symbols have the unique role of opening up some sense of worldhood for the individual. By this Neville means that the religious symbol shows us that the world is a determinate totality that has its origin in something that is not worldly; "Determinateness, epistemologically represented as the property of being distinguishable and measurable, is how modernity defines what makes the world worldly" (p. 55n). For an object to be determinate is for it to have essential (mostly unique) and conditional (mostly relational) features in some kind of harmony (which need not be "harmonic"). The world per se is determinate for Neville, but this primal fact is continually being overlooked. The religious symbol, as a gateway to worldhood and the finite/ infinite contrast, brings us back to the basic sense of cosmic determinateness.

Religious symbols are true insofar as they carry over value into the individual's interpretive world and transcend the ordinary semiosis of culture, biology, and the social. The value conveyed is embedded in the divine, even though there is a degree of indeterminacy in just how that infinity is presented. For the philosophical theologian the task becomes that of correcting those symbols that sustain the finite/infinite contrast so that genuine knowledge of the creative ground, rooted in and as the eternal, can occur. This book is a brilliant and highly judicious analysis of some of the knottiest problems in the foundation of religious semiotics and once again shows Neville's mastery of the complex terrain where the irruption of ultimate meaning takes place in and against the culture of signs and the signs of culture.
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Author:Corrington, Robert S.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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