Thursday, January 28, 2010

Are our faith symbols translucent, or opaque?

This weekend, my Sunday morning study-group spent some time talking about how we tend to create "distance" between ourselves and God.

One way is the tendency of many religious traditions - including much of the way we tend to talk about Christianity - to define God as a "transcendent other", a being who exists exclusively in some alternate dimension ("heaven"), who is essentially unapproachable outside a rigid code of rules (legalism... "my" rules... "I'm in and you're out"...) , and who has no "need" for people because God is - by definition - "perfect", in the sense that perfection owns no need to change or grow or pursue relationships because God "has" everything a deity would ever need (if the word "need" is even applicable)....

This of course begs a discussion of what "perfect" really means, and a conversation regarding how we tend to distort and diminish truth by our tendency to mangle previously elegant constructs, chipping away at ideas until they fit the limitations of our small minds and stunted imaginations.

But we don't have time to go far with that line of thinking this morning (or at least I don't) - but I do want to turn our attention to the difficulty of working with symbols, and how symbols can serve to create distance between people and God.

Words are symbols too; but they are pretty much most of what we have to work with in terms of communication (for further reading on the idea of a functional vocabulary, I recommend the chapter "God-smacked in the cranium" from "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian").

I'm talking about symbols such as communion elements (cup, table, wine, bread), the cross or crucifix, a church building, a favored translation of the Bible, the organ, vestments, icons, stained glass, an entire church service, a rosary; all these representative elements that we employ to help us understand and experience God.

But the problem with symbols is they can easily shift from representing the idea to actually being the idea. For example, paper money was originally designed to represent literal pieces of gold stashed in a safe place - typically a bank.

Here's an interesting historical note from the Bank of England website: In 1759, gold shortages caused by the Seven Years War forced the Bank to issue a £10 note for the first time. The first £5 notes followed in 1793 at the start of the war against Revolutionary France. This remained the lowest denomination until 1797, when a series of runs on the Bank, caused by the uncertainty of the war, drained its bullion reserve to the point where it was forced to stop paying out gold for its notes...

Money is just a symbol, pointing to a reality beyond the symbol. Not just gold, but buying power, land, business, opportunity. Yet so many people (all of us!) value the paper itself - often beyond reason - and the symbol becomes the end rather than a means or a vehicle.

I have a lot of symbols in my study. The picture of Rebekah on my desk would simply be a stunningly beautiful woman absent the relationship; the apple on my shelf with my name etched in metal would be little more than an elaborate paperweight if I had never been a "teacher of the year"; behind the photo book of Tuscany there is a magical trip to Italy that the images merely point to as best they can...

Our faith-related symbols are most useful when they are transparent; a lens of sorts, through which we can "see" God more clearly. But if we're not careful they become clouded over time, from translucent to opaque, and eventually not even a trickle of light makes it through and all we see is the symbol - and God is hidden once again. And we will have substituted faith and trust in an object for a life-animating relationship with the Living God.

This is always a work in progress! But it's meaningful work, with purpose in the journey and joy in the discovery, and I am convinced that the more I think about faith and what it means to live my life as a pilgrim, the more my commitment to follow Jesus will animate every element of my experience.

Peace - DEREK

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