Paul Tillich argued that while signs are invented and forgotten, symbols are born and die. There are therefore dead and living symbols. A living symbol can reveal hidden levels of meaning, and transcendent or religious realities to an individual. For Tillich, a symbol always "points beyond itself" to something that is unquantifiable and mysterious. This is the symbol's "depth dimension". Symbols are complex and their meanings can evolve as the individual or culture evolves. When a symbol loses its meaning and power for an individual or culture, it becomes a dead symbol. The Greek Gods might be an example of dead symbols that were once living for the ancient Greeks but whose meaning and power is now gone.
When a symbol becomes identified with the deeper reality to which it refers, it becomes idolatrous as the "symbol is taken for reality." Here, the symbol itself is substituted for the deeper meaning it intends to convey. The unique nature of the symbol is that it gives access to deeper layers of reality which are otherwise inaccessible.
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“Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of mans being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone. Although, in daily life, we do not always distinguish these words, we should do so consistently and thus deepen our understanding of our human predicament.”
—Paul Tillich (18861965)