Invented Symbols

'Homo Sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority," Joyce Carol Oates once remarked, ''then forgets that symbols are inventions." This lesson applies across the human condition, although it shows up regularly in the realm of religion, where symbolism is the native language.

Last week in Rome, theological advisers to Pope Benedict XVI expressed a consensus that limbo, the afterlife state reserved for the unbaptized innocent, does not exist. Never formally defined as doctrine, limbo had nevertheless found a firm place in the religious imagination of many Christians. Limbo's symbolism long seemed to mitigate the harshness of a theology that said only those formally initiated into Christianity through baptism can gain admittance to heaven, although by banishing the innocent to a lesser state (''natural" happiness as opposed to beatific bliss), limbo carried a harshness of its own. Now the church is acknowledging that the passion and authority once invested in limbo, however ''unofficially," can yield. Limbo is an invented symbol that can be left behind.

So is the nation-state. It is not religion that draws the most fervent investment of passion and authority in our time, but rather the politically autonomous entity for which humans have learned to kill and die. Wars of national aspiration have been a mark of the age, most dramatically in the former Yugoslavia where, only a decade ago, hundreds of thousands of people were sacrificed for mere symbols of statehood-- ''names, battle slogans, and costumes," in Karl Marx's phrase. Albanians, Bosnians, Croatians, Serbs -- all finding fierce reasons to think of themselves in radical opposition to one another, with Serbs doing so most ferociously.

In Europe today, a resurgent nationalism is evident in the large second thought on display in the reluctance to embrace a continent-wide constitution. In the Arab world, the arrangement of nation-states was blatantly imposed by colonial powers, but the fires of indigenous ambition, while fueled by varieties of Islamic fervor, have become more national than religious in character. Triple-torn Iraq, with Sunnis and Shi'ites joined in the fray by Kurds, is at the mercy of an imported nationalism. That the invented character of the nation-state is forgotten is revealed whenever God is invoked as its source and justification. ''For God and country" is an idolatrous slogan, and a dangerous one. It is scrawled on walls across the world.

From the saddle of its moral high-horse, the United States has long looked with condescension at the internecine conflicts of distant nations, warring against each other as nations. Early in the 20th century, a generation of European males committed mass suicide for the ''names, battle slogans, and costumes" of kaiser and king. In the middle of the century, Europe did it again, with Japan leaping in for the emperor. When America emerged from World War II in a position of dominance, its leaders determined to change the deadly dynamic of nationalism, especially once it was tied to nuclear weapons. Hiroshima meant Americans could no longer condescend, and it forced the recognition that 18th-century nationalism had run its bloody course. The nation-state was an invention to be superceded by something larger in which loyalties could be defined more humanely.

The new invention was the United Nations. Far more than an organization, it, too, was a symbol in which passion and authority could be invested. Not only weaponry, but new modes of transport and communication, and then a revolution in information technology all forced a redefinition of the human condition, and the symbolic power of a cooperative world entity came ever more into its own. Not ''God and country" anymore, but Earth itself as holy. But, in one of history's great ironies, the main inventors of the United Nations, the Americans, found it impossible to stop treating their own nationhood as an absolute value. There were, perhaps, reasons for this during the Cold War, but since then the United States, more than any other nation-state, has reiterated its narrow autonomy, repudiating treaties, promulgating unilateralism, making aggressive war, and treating the global environment as a private waste dump. The United States, in sum, has invested its national sovereignty with passion and authority proper to God, not to an invention of human beings.

The result is that the United Nations, where the United States is represented by a man who holds it in contempt, is now a symbol of the planet's new jeopardy. Just as the church is letting go of one limbo, America is condemning the world's best hope to another.

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