Symbolism, draft notes

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about having a “Christian world view.” There are, in some Christian colleges, world view studies professors. I was once subjected to watching the pared down, jazzed up version of one such course.

It wasn’t terrible, but I didn’t find it especially helpful, either. He went through all the disciplines of the liberal arts, and gave a (not necessarily the) Christian understanding of what was true and false in them. Most of them were matters of traditional Christian doctrine: the world was created by God, not randomly; history is guided by divine providence; the Bible is true; humans are made in the image of God; God became man and dwelt among us; truth really can be known, primarily in the person of Jesus Christ, and so on. My primary objection to this (aside from the format, which was trying to sit through) was that it is really just apologetics for Christian doctrine thinly disguised to look like a trendy postmodern course. This was not especially surprising: many popular Christian speakers use any and all public venues, regardless of the actual status of their audience, for that purpose. It’s a bad but common habit.

Common as it is, I am convinced that the habit is a bad one, because there really is, or at least should be, such a thing as studying what it means to have a Christian world view. Actually studying and inquiring into it, that is, not simply hearing that “what we believe is true because the Bible says it’s true, and the Bible is always true, which is supported by the Bible saying that it’s inspired by God, who is Truth… which we know because the Bible says it.” That’s actually the least reputable form of apologetics, and not world view at all. Doctrine declares what Christianity holds to be true. Apologetics asks: how do we know that the claims of Christianity are true? World view comes in somewhere later in the line of reasoning: given the truth of these claims, what does that mean? More than that: what does it mean metaphysically? How does this inform how we see the universe — what it is; the kind of being it and we have?

The peculiar thing about that question, is that there is not one Christian answer, but several; one that is sacramental, and one that is not. Because belief in the sacramentality of Creation involves a whole world view of what matter is, what it can be, and what constitutes the telos of the created order in which we live. No where do we see this more strikingly than in the various Christian usages of symbol.

A symbol is something that points to something else in a direct fashion: the word cat points to the idea of cat, which points to the reality of a great many living cats. These are not the only symbols of cats, of course — there are other words, feline, or pussy, or whatever other languages may use; there are images, very simple images (=^-^=), and so on. The reality to which all these symbols point is an actual cat, or rather the “cat nature” held in common by all actual living cats, and it’s already a statement of world view to say, even to imply, that there is such a thing as a cat nature, and that all these symbols are not merely convention for a thing that isn’t in itself a clearly defined object.

Those are all direct symbols, and are only confusing to the extent that we are ignorant of the connection between the symbol and that which it symbolizes. Things get a bit more tricky, however, when we use symbolic language to speak of things which are in most ways different from the direct meaning of the symbol: when we speak of water and mean cleansing — but we may even mean the kind of cleansing that water cannot accomplish, of the soul and conscience of man: “purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” When we start using them metaphorically.

When the Church Fathers interpreted Scripture, for instance, they were very free in their application of symbolic meaning to the content: the darkness on Mount Sinai is the darkness of unknowing before absolute Being; the burning bush is the Theotokos, as is the unhewn mountain and the ladder from earth to heaven; the Israelites were baptized in the Red Sea, and the Passover lamb is the Lamb of God. But they interpret them both symbolically and literally — the events really did happen, and they happened as symbols of things to come. That is possible because God orchestrated these events, and did so with intent, not only immediately but also prophetically. Which is to say: actual lived life can have a symbolic character. In other words, it is not only language that is symbolic, but also events, by the providence of God.

Getting back to world view studies: this is a peculiarity of a Christian world view (which is not to say that it is not shared by other religions as well). That the symbolic character of an event is not only in the language used about it: that it is not only in the minds of the hearers, but that it may reside in the event itself. That we do not consider Passover to be a foreshadowing of the Passion only literarily; only in the way that it is told; only by human construction and reference: but rather that the event itself, even as it happened, was both real as an event, and prophetically symbolic.

I may be insisting upon this point too strongly and too often; that is because I do not know how otherwise to give it proper force, and it is essential to insist upon it, because otherwise I will slide back into a customarily modern metaphysics wherein we cannot possibly know anything about a thing in itself, but only our experience of that thing, with the implication that, if even the world of the senses is not directly known, and has only the attributes we bring to it a priori, then it must be all the more so that symbolic meanings are present only in our knowledge of things, and not in the things; not in the events, but in our narration of the events. I speak this way as I have heard preachers speak on truth: that it is really, actually, objectively, truly true; true for the object as well as the subject: as though repeating themselves will better communicate their intent. Their intent is a reaction against the brain-mold of doubt in our ability to know things out there in the world, and not only in our ow heads, which has been around in Western philosophy at least since Descartes, and especially since Hume, and in our particular form since Kant. They want to say something about the world of things in themselves — to say something metaphysical — and not only about appearances. They want to say that God is good not only as we perceive Him, but that He is Good. They want to say it to a people who habitually doubt the existence of The Good as a concrete thing, as something like a Form, or like an attribute of God: to a people who suppose that good is all about them; entirely relative to people, especially to themselves. Plato may have put the Earth as the center of the material cosmos, but he also placed the Good as a kind of an object: something that can be sought and found, and unto which people might approach more or less fully. What good does it do us to know that the Earth orbits the Sun if we do not also know that human morals ought orbit and approach the Son of Righteousness. And so these preachers hammer upon this week upon week, into tedium and very bad style, because until it has been said and known that there really is a Good out there, who wills to dwell in us, it’s little use to expound upon the various ways in which we human oppose ourselves to this Good.

*  *  *

It is possible — it is a matter of Christian world-view — that not only language and events are symbolic, but also things. And not only particular things, but even very important and common things. I heard, when visiting a monastery a few weeks ago, a story of a boy who, getting up on the morning of Theophany;

he looked outside to see that everything had been turned upside-down. All of Creation: the trees and fields, the earth, and so on, had all been turned upside-down. He was afraid, stopped looking for a few moments, but when he looked back it was the same, and continued so for some time. Sometimes I have that experience reading Orthodox theology. It’s metaphysically like secular philosophy, but somehow flipped. So I have to keep saying it different ways: because it’s not so much foreign, as a photo-opposite. The same things are there; nature is there, and we are, and the world coming into being; symbols and images are there, only they’re turned upside-down. When I was a teen I heard it said that bread and [grape juice] in the Eucharist are symbolic of Christ’s body and blood. This I found to be unsatisfactory, because with it came an impoverished understanding of symbol, wherein something is symbolic because it is not real. Later I head that bread and wine (all bread and wine; the very existence of bread and wine; not only at particular times and places, but as substances) are symbolic of the Eucharist, which is Christ’s body and blood. Did you see what happened there? The use of symbol was flipped, as it is philosophically flipped in platonism when speaking of Forms. The Eucharist is the thing with the most reality, as being directly of God; bread and wine also have reality, and (not but) it is a symbolic reality, referring to the Eucharist. That is not to say that bread and wine are not real, but that they find their fulfillment, their telos, in the Eucharist.

So also with everything: light is real, and it is a symbol of the Uncreated Light of God; God as light is prior to created energy as light. The light of God is also like fire, and, like fire, both burns and purifies; like the fire into which the three youths were thrown, the fire of God may become “as dew” to those who enter into it with faith and love. The Temple of Israel is built after the model, in the image of, the heavenly temple, whatever that may be. Humans are in the image of God, and humanity is in the image of the Trinity; the fulfillment of human union is like unto and, in Christ, participates in, the union of God. Creation is symbolic in this way, but is also fallen; in need of being raised up to a true likeness. Especially humanity, but all of Creation with us. That is what we celebrate in the Incarnation: God became Man to raise up fallen Adam; to bring mankind and all of Creation into union with Him. So 12 days after Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation of the Son of God, we celebrate Theophany, His baptism, whereby He sanctified the waters; upon which we are dependent for continued life, and symbolic of cleansing and renewal — that these waters might be able to hold the grace of the Holy Spirit, which descends into them in Baptism. In the church at the conclusion of the Theophany Liturgy, are brought into the midst of the church water, basil, and a cross; prayers are read over the water, the cross is dipped into it three times, and the basil is dipped and used to sprinkle the people with freshly sanctified, basil scented, holy water. In the prayers we read of the water which burst forth from the rock in the desert, which St Paul identifies as Christ; of the Israelites being baptized in the Red Sea; of Christ’s death, of which baptism is symbolic (in a real way).

To be continued later.


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