by Ian Harris Otago Daily Times 8 Feb. 2013
Symbols are not to be sniffed at. They carry meaning with an allusive edge. They are charged with what psychologist Carl Jung called psychic energy. They have consequences for the way a person lives and, when widely shared, for the way a culture is expressed. They are much, much more than static tokens, signs, emblems, logos, computer icons or trademarks.
The word comes from the Greek symbolon, meaning “throwing things together” so as to create an imaginative association between them. In psychology and religion, symbols do this in such a way as to cast light on human experience. Humans are very good at making these links. Dreams are full of symbols. So is poetry.
For theologian Paul Tillich, a symbol points beyond itself to something sensed but not bounded or precisely defined. A symbol, he says, gives access to deeper layers of reality which are otherwise inaccessible. A country’s flag is more than a fluttering cloth – it’s a symbol of nationhood and identity. The kiwi conjures up New Zealand, the lion England, the unicorn Scotland.
Actions can be symbols. In Christianity, the breaking of bread and pouring of wine in communion are symbolic of Jesus’ life-giving death on the cross. In Judaism, observance of the Sabbath and lighting the candles on the seven-branched menorah affirm Jewish identity, belonging and faith. It should be obvious, then, that to call “God” a symbol is not to denigrate or dismiss God, but to give the concept a foremost place in human experience.
The way people think about God should evolve and grow as they mature. Looking back, I can identify three major stages in the way I thought about God. All of them seemed complete and worthy at the time, but now I see them as stages on a journey.
In the first phase, God was an actual being, a heavenly father, all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving, ready to guide me and to intervene in my life as he willed. This was the “God out there” of traditional theism.
In the second phase the focus broadened beyond me and my life to the God who was active in history. This was God in the midst of society and of nations, God in events, God the Other with whom we had to reckon. Though still a theistic God, the emphasis was now on discerning this God as the life force in the swirling changes of the times, beckoning towards a better future for the whole of humanity.
Over time, however, I became aware of a growing unease about that understanding of God, in both myself and others. After 400 years of exponentially expanding knowledge, God no longer seemed to relate so readily to the world as we experience it today. Could there be a way of thinking about God that might attract, energise, and provide a sense of meaning and purpose in a secular world – and, importantly, help bring our western Judaeo-Christian heritage through to the present? I think there is, as long as people are willing to see the word “God” as a symbol. And what it symbolises matters supremely.
God as symbol points to what is best and highest and deepest in human experience. Chief among those experiences are faith, hope and love, where faith is a trusting orientation to the future and its possibilities for good; hope keeps people attuned to whatever is life-affirming in any situation, even the grimmest; and love is the steady direction of the will toward the lasting good of another.
God as symbol gathers up what is central to one’s understanding of life, what people sense as ultimate and non-negotiable in the values they live by. Every religion teaches a set of values, with compassion at their core. Each undergirds them and expresses them out of its own distinctive heritage. For Christians, this is supremely demonstrated in Jesus’ life and ministry. In him, God becomes a verb.
God as symbol also provides a focus of coherence for everything people experience. It gives them a bearing relevant to every situation they encounter, a reference point for whatever they plan, think, or do. But that is all cerebral till that God is experienced inwardly, and becomes part of the fabric of a person’s everyday life. Experienced inwardly, but expressed outwardly in relationships with other people in every situation, and increasingly in relation to the planet that sustains us.
When that happens, God as symbol opens into a living reality in human experience – even and especially in our brave new secular world.