Correcting a Symbol Deficiency

One of my favorite authors I studied in graduate school was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Anglican romantic author and poet.  Coleridge loved symbols, and believed that symbols were the medium through which we encountered invisible realities. This is something the iconoclasts haven’t understood: in order to partake of invisible realities (such as love, etc), we must use some sort of symbol from the created order. Catholics and Orthodox have understood this, and made it a part of our theology.

A few days ago, to begin our semester on sacraments, I discussed symbols with the seventh graders. I think it is important to discuss symbol because it sets the stage for why Catholics believe that God uses earthly “stuff” to convey grace (for example the water of baptism). God doesn’t just magically and “spiritually” effect our regeneration, he uses a meaning-rich symbol from the created order in the process: water. One of the exercises I had for the class was to look at a relatively boring photo of my wife, sister-in-law, mom, nieces, and grandmother, standing on a road in a cemetery. I asked them to tell me all the symbols they see, and to tell me what invisible reality they symbolize. At first, the students didn’t come up with much. However, as they got started, they came up with ones that I didn’t even notice (for example, there were American flags on a few graves). After awhile, they began to realize that the world is full of symbols that we use to convey deep and invisible realities. I also helped them see that any great artist is going to appreciate and utilize the power of symbol.

And yet, as I was worshiping yesterday at a Catholic parish in the Cleveland area, I was noticing how purposefully empty the worship space was of symbols. The walls were white, and the crucifix was tiny and barely there. There was one banner that looked like it was out of the 1970s, that had a symbol that was intentionally made to look obscure (was it a candle flame? a sun? a child’s first finger painting creation?). In other words, if there was a symbol, it was designed to be unconnected to our experience. I remember thinking that in our natural world we are surrounded by symbols that point us to God, yet many of our modern churches purposely take these symbols away from us, perhaps seeing them either as distracting or out-of-date.

But are symbols out of date? The natural human craving for symbols hasn’t gone away, which is why even those traditionally cool to symbols, evangelicals, are discovering their value. My reading on brain waves suggests that non-verbal symbols stimulate alpha waves in the brain, which serve as a bridge to theta waves. When measuring the waves of individuals in deep meditation and spiritual experiences, theta waves are dominant. Whether you accept the science of brain waves and spirituality, nonetheless, the evidence suggests that words appeal to only one aspect of our brain’s capabilities, while visual, kinesthetic, olfactory, and auditory symbols touch us at a different level. In other words, I would argue that this is where the Gnostics erred: trying to escape the physical world misses the point. The incarnation demonstrates to us that God uses the physical world to give us grace (although obviously we must always remember the physical world is the vehicle, full of symbols, not God himself).

I truly believe that whitewashed churches devoid of sights, sounds, and smells leave us wanting more. Great movies, classic books, and even nature itself, are full of symbols, yet we have seen a period when Catholic churches have tried to strip away all their symbols. I believe that more symbols, saint statues, incense, stain glass, mosaics, etc, all help us connect to God, and correct the “symbol deficiency” many of us have sadly had to endure attending modern parishes.