Signs, Symbols and Icons – their strengths and weaknesses.

Signs, Symbols and Icons – their strengths and their weaknesses              by Peter Corney

What is a symbol?

When we say something is a symbol or something is symbolic what do we mean? The dictionary defines it as a sign or thing that stands for or represents something else. It could be an idea, a quality, a process, an object. An Australian army slouch hat symbolises the courage and resilience of the ANZAC spirit and the men of Tobruk and Kakoda. A symbol can also be defined as a mark or character taken as a sign of some object, idea or process, like a mathematical sign, musical notation or a road sign. Words are symbols. Certain music can be symbolic. Symbolism is the use of symbols to express the essence of things by suggestion, to express abstract or mystical ideas. A story, a painting or a poem may use symbolism. Words associated with symbol are: sign, badge, emblem, image, logo, mark, token, representation, icon. Often allegory and metaphor are closely connected with the symbolic. Bunyan’s story “The Pilgrims progress” or Lewis’s “Narnia Chronicles” are allegories that use metaphor and symbol.

It is extraordinary how saturated our lives are with symbols, from road signs to advertising, the symbols on our car dashboard or our computer and I – pad screens. Symbols dominate and influence our lives every day.

Symbols are very important in Christianity.

The cross is a central and dominating symbol but there are many others; the flame or the dove for the Holy Spirit, the two edged sword for the word of God, the three intersecting circles for the Trinity, the water in baptism, etc. The regular meeting of Christians at the celebration of the Lords Supper is rich in symbols; the broken bread and the cup of wine representing Christ’s body broken and his blood shed for us.  The New Testament and in particular the book of Revelation is rich in symbolism and metaphor; like the seven lamp stands representing the seven churches in Asia minor.

The power and strength of symbols

(a) Symbols have great communicative power. It has been argued that we would find communication difficult and impoverished without metaphor and symbol. Just listen to a football commentator “he’s as quick as a flash”…… “he hit the pack like a Mack truck”……  “he’s like a terrier at the ball”. We all frequently resort to metaphor to explain our thoughts and feelings and experiences. We often say “it felt like…”, or  “it sounded like …”, or “its like……” Whenever we begin  a sentence in this way we are inevitably about to introduce a metaphor or symbol!-     They concentrate meaning, significance and emotion without having to use a lot of words, which of course is why advertisers use them. (b) They are easily recognizable. (c)  They are often visual and tangible; the flying kangaroo, a handshake. Words or phrases like “ quick as a flash” recalls a visual image like a lightning flash that we all instantly understand. (d) They can hold many interpretations and feelings within a general concept. The song Waltzing Matilda is deeply symbolic and iconic for Australians, it can hold any or all of the following: national identity, nostalgia for our bush past, the outback myth, egalitarianism, anti authority, a fair go for the underdog – the ‘Swaggie’. (e) Symbols appeal to the imagination, they can excite faith

The weakness and dangers of symbols, especially religious ones.

(a) Symbols oversimplify complex ideas. (b)  They can also lead to literalism where we think if we posses or employ the symbol  we automatically have what it symbolizes. The cross and the Lords Supper are examples of this. (c) They can encourage emotionalism and sentimentality that replaces active  thoughtful faith. (d) Superstition and ‘magic’ can easily attach to symbols where people feel they can receive, control or exercise power through them. The wearing of a cross may be accompanied by the belief that it has a protective power for the wearer rather than as a reminder for the wearer that the basis of their acceptance with God is through Christ by faith in his atoneing sacrifice. The mechanical transfer of power can also be associated with symbols like the belief in the power of relics or religious icons. (e) When faith is too closely attached to or dependent on images or symbols it can loose its depth and inner reality and its thoughtful understanding, faith can crystallize into images. (f) Symbolism without substance where we retain the signs but loose their real  meaning.  (See ‘The parable of the pie sign’ under the category “Parables for Preachers.”)

The erosion of meaning in Christian symbols.

The erosion of meaning, and therefore the erosion of the truth and spiritual reality the symbol points to, is often caused by the gradual reduction or erosion of their original (first order) meaning. This is then followed by a change in the original meaning but the symbol is retained. This is a very common tendency in liberal Protestant theology. The anxiety to over adapt to the spirit of the age or the plausibility structure of ones secular contemporaries – what they find easy to believe- leads to this tendency.

The NT belief about the resurrection is a clear example. Finding the NT belief about the bodily resurrection of Jesus unbelievable to contemporary minds the resurrection is redefined as an idea or a moment of insight as a person comes to realise the importance of Jesus and his teaching. Jesus lives again as an inspiring idea in the mind of those who have embraced the Jesus ideal. ‘He has come alive in our mind and heart.’ This is similar to saying the spirit of Gandhi is alive today through those who believe in his principle of non violent protest. This of course is a far cry from the NT teaching on the bodily resurrection. (1Cor.15) A similar process has taken place within liberal Protestant theology in relation to the cross and the NT doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

This process leads to Christian symbols having only aesthetic, sentimental or cultural influence rather than the spiritual power that comes from the divine truth they originally represented.  If we change this we change their effect.We should also be aware that when we change their original meaning we have created an object of faith that is false or in error. Only the truth sets us free.

The power and weakness of symbols is seen in the churches experience with Icons.

Icon is from a Greek word meaning image, or a portrait of a person. (In NT see Colos. 1:15) Later the word was used to describe a particular form of religious painting. Icons had a checkered career in the early church because of the fear of idolatry and the first commandment. The word iconoclast comes form the negative reaction of Christians in the early Church. But their use remained and grew in the Eastern and Orthodox churches where they form an important part of their spirituality. The churches of the reformation have always been critical and cautious of their use. Interestingly there is a renewed interest in Icons in parts of the Protestant church today which we will comment on bellow.

Icons can be objects of :

  1. Instruction – to teach and inform, like a visual aid.
  2. Inspiration –  to inspire us to honor the one the icon images eg: Jesus
  3. Veneration –  where the icon becomes a sacred object with power in itself.

The first two are legitimate but the third collapses quickly into superstition where faith becomes mechanistic. “If I kiss this Icon I will receive a spiritual blessing,” or “the icon hanging on our wall at home will protect us.”

In recent years interest in Icons from the Eastern tradition has grown in some parts of the  Anglican and UCA churches in Australia. This tends to be among aesthetically aware Christians who appreciate the artistic value and beauty of Icon  painting or have a fascination with the way they are created and painted  and the underlying spirituality expressed in the Orthodox tradition. For some theologically liberal Christians who have rejected or reduced the original meaning of the symbols there is a danger that the aesthetic and intellectual appreciation can become a substitute for lively faith. This may be more sophisticated than superstitious veneration but it can be equally delusional. We all need to be constantly aware of Paul’s critique of those who “hold the form of religion but deny its power.”

If we ask why people wish to retain symbols whose original meaning they have rejected or radically changed, the answer is probably emotional security, sentimentality or nostalgia. The classical Christian symbols are associated with their childhood and their religious formation and so they are part of their identity, culture and security. Also the process of reduction for most people is a gradual one. Of course to create new symbols for their new beliefs that have departed from creedal Christianity would be the honest way to go but that is a bridge too far for most. They know instinctively that it would put them too far outside the Christian community and its tradition.

The nature of Biblical Faith

A key to understanding the proper use of Christian symbols is to understand the nature of Biblical faith and its relationship with symbols. This is sometimes described as sacramental theology. Biblical faith involves at least six elements:

1.   It is centered on Christ– the object of Christian faith is crucial to  its validity.*

2.   Intellectual assent – belief involves understanding and reason.

3    A decision of the will – it is volitional.

4    Trust- it is relational and involves vulnerability and commitment.

5    Submission – it involves obedience and submission.

6    Emotion – one to five above will involve and effect our emotions.

(* The value of faith or an act of faith is significantly affected by its object. Faith can be misplaced eg; the ‘snake oil syndrome’ or faith in the evil leader.)

A Christian sacrament.

In the reformed tradition it has been defined as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’

For a sacrament or a sacramental act to be valid and spiritually effective rather than just a an emotional, aesthetic or cultural experience or even a superstitious act, it must have the following elements:

  1. The sign and the action commanded by Jesus, eg; the breaking and eating of the bread in the Lords Supper, the water in baptism.
  2. The word of God read and expounded that explains and applies its meaning.
  3. The faith of the participant as defined above. We are to ‘feed on Christ in our hearts by faith’ as it is expressed in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.We are to engage with God relationally in spirit.
  4. The Christian community. The action/the sign is done both by and within the faith community. It is both an individual and a corporate act. The body of Christ is not only represented by the bread we break and eat but also by each other, together we are ‘the body of Christ.’ (See I Cor. 11: 17-34)

Baptism and the Lords Supper are the two signs commanded by Jesus. They are the preeminent signs of Gods love for us because both are centered on the saving actions of God for us. They point to God as savior, redeemer, forgiver, the one who rescues and renews.

Peter Corney.

( See also the article “Would Jesus have worn a mitre?” on the website under the catergory: The Anglican Church in Australia)