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Symbols and Christian Ministry

When I think about the creative use of symbol in the pulpit, I think particularly of a sermon delivered by the minister (whom I will call Richard) of a church we attended some time ago—a sermon that received a polarized reaction from the listeners. I’ll describe it here, and then consider further down what may have made it so appealing to some, and so offensive to others.

Richard’s sermon was on relationship, and the need for commitment in the important partnerships that we are called to undertake. The message was probably almost drowned out by his primary sermon example: he introduced a couple to the congregation that was new to the church, recently engaged and looking for a church home. Then he asked them to come forward, and—explaining that he had received their agreement beforehand—he married them, then and there. Then they sat down again, and he finished the sermon. The congregation was invited to a wedding-cake reception immediately following the service. By all accounts, the wedding was a powerful symbol of the morning’s meditation. Why did it work, for those for whom it worked? And what made it repellant to so many of the rest?

Communication of God’s word through the use of symbols is a ancient part of the Judeao-Christian tradition. Symbols are an integral part of the Scriptures. As Moses led Israel out of Egypt, God told him to “lift up your staff, and stretch your hand over the sea, and divide it…. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 14:16-18). The staff is a symbol of God’s power, so what “it,” or Moses, accomplished is credited to the Lord. Moses’ staff does not create the miracle, but it does make the point that the God who accomplishes the miracle is in fact Israel’s God. We see symbols in the “acted parables” of the prophets (e.g., Samuel tearing the hem of Saul’s robe, 1 Sam. 15:27; Jeremiah’s yoke of iron, Jer. 28) and in the details of the Tabernacle and the Temple (Exod. 35-40; 1 Kings 6). Jesus was a master of symbol; we remember for instance his parables, his choice to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, and his deliberate reinterpretation of the Passover supper as a remembrance of his sacrifice on the Cross (Mark 4:1-20; 11:3; 14:22-25). Christian symbol, then, might be defined as a rich and evocative representation of an aspect of some truth about God in which created reality functions to point beyond itself to the Creator. But it the need for symbolism also testifies to a set of problems in God’s self-disclosure to humans; we sometimes ignore or spurn the straight-forward message, needing a more encompassing communication.

John Calvin had a good grasp of this relation of symbol to human limitation. Arguing for the validity of the sacraments at a time when everything was up for grabs, he saw that the sacraments were valuable precisely because the conscious mind so often resisted the spoken word; they are given “for our ignorance and dullness, then for our weakness.”1 The symbols of water, of bread and wine, do an end run, so to speak, around the defenses of the heart and mind, carrying the promises they represent into a deeper work of grace, “the Spirit of God himself also…revealing and fulfilling what was promised.”2 

The Christian Church has always understood the value of the symbolic in faith and practice. High on the agenda of the Reformers, for instance, was the appropriate celebration of the Eucharist and the question of its meaning: what was symbolized (and what did “symbolize” mean), and how best was it symbolized? That era also saw fierce fights about such symbolic matters as church décor and ministerial garb. The symbolic representation of the gospel was perceived to be as important as the theological nature of the gospel.

It was not until the 20th century, however, that theologians began a more technical discussion as to how symbolism functioned. Paul Tillich based his ideas on the findings of the relatively new field of psychology. Sigmund Freud had discovered a split between the conscious mind and the subconscious, and had posited that the subconscious mind expressed itself in dreams—in largely symbolic form. By understanding dreams as symbolic of suppressed elements of human personality, then, one could begin to understand the “shadow” side of the soul, and aid the process of integration and healing. Tillich turned this insight toward the Church, suggesting that Christian symbols allow a participation in the message on more than one level of awareness; deeper levels of the soul would benefit than just those touched by conscious feeling and resaoning. He also saw a corporate dimension; congregations that engaged such symbols together in Christian worship, would experience enhanced integration and participation as the Body of Christ.3 

Paul Ricoeur is the second 20th century thinker most characteristically associated with a theology of symbol.4 He also took his impetus from dream interpretation, but was more critical than Tillich in his use of the findings of the psychologists. Carl Jung, Freud’s follower, averred that dream symbolism made use of “primordial images” or “archetypal images” that arise from a shared universal human consciousness. Tillich liked this, and tended to understand the symbols of Christian worship as expressions of that “shared universal human consciousness.” Ricoeur, with his characteristic sensitivity to the problem of human sin, doubted that it was that simple. He posited instead that the images that were crucial to the Church derived not from a common human pool, but from the biblical account and its inculcation in the Chuch over the centuries. Such images—the Cross, the Empty Tomb, baptism, the Eucharist—imply content that both criticizes the human condition (through judgment) and enhances it (through the promise of redemption). Further, such symbols receive their fullest unfolding, and their fullest impact, in their own historical tradition of interpretation—that is, the Church is capable of interpreting the symbols of the Church.

Tillich’s position on this topic comports with his tremendous openness to culture as an impetus for theology. Ricoeur is also open to culture—he learned much from serious engagement with Freud and Jung, for instance—but he represents a position that sees God’s truth normatively flowing from the Church to the culture. We might employ Richard Niebuhr’s language and say that Ricoeur saw the Church transforming culture, not (as Tillich seemed often to hope) that culture should transform the Church.

Today it is obvious that it is not only the Church that has grasped the power of symbol. It is abundantly clear to us, in entertainment and in advertising to name just two areas, that the power of symbolic display can be harnessed for any message—together with its ability to summon both conscious and unconscious response. If Ricoeur is right about the singularity and integrity of the Christian message, then there is good reason to foster the effective use of symbolism in Christian worship. This includes taking care with creative changes or the introduction of new symbols.

To return to Richard’s sermon, those who found it effective saw it as a creative and joyful way to celebrate our commitments not just in the telling but in real demonstration. That is, they saw it as an appropriate remixing of traditional elements that struck them more deeply with the message of human belonging than would have been possible otherwise. Those who did not like it voiced one of two complaints. My wife, for instance, said, “Poor things!” I read that to mean that she, and others, felt that the couple’s special day had been short-circuited for the relatively limited purposes of a Sunday sermon. That is, they felt that the traditional teaching of the importance of marriage had not been honored in this instance, and the couple were the losers. Another group saw this in light of other things Richard had done, one of a series of surprises he had sprung that seemed to draw attention to himself and his leadership style. To them this seemed less like “church” and more like a “realty” show; that is, less like Christianity and more like culture.

All of this points to several things we might say about the use and misuse of symbols in Christian leadership. If Christian ministry is about ministry to the whole person, and to whole persons in community, then the creative use of symbols can be powerful tools for evoking Christian truth on many levels. Together with clear interpretation, the use of symbols has the potential of fostering redemption and healing, both in persons (in psychological and spiritual ministry) and in communities (in unifying, uplifting, and providing direction). By the same token, since symbol can be so powerful precisely in effecting the grace and love of God, we need to take utmost care in its usage. This means at least that we provide a context of interpretation that includes Bible and tradition (our traditions as well as the broader stream of Christian faith and practice) and takes account of the human mind and heart as well as positive and negative cultural echoes. This is not to say that exciting and meaningful departures are not possible in Christian worship, but rather that symbolism always finds it meaning in a context of interpretation. In Richard’s case it was probably this interpretive preparation that was most clearly lacking, leading to a fragmented experience and congregation where he had hoped to unify and to bless.

—Theopulos




1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ET Library of Christian Classics XXI. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) pp.1276-1278 (IV.14.1,3).

2 Calvin, p. 1282 (IV.14.7).

3 A. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1992), pp. 577-78.

4 Anthony Thiselton proves an excellent introduction to Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, in New Horizons, pp. 344-350; 578-582; and passim.