I have been meditating on sacred symbols a lot lately.
Symbols serve important functions in many cultures. In Understanding Folk Religion the authors write:
“Nondiscursive signs do not refer to things directly – they point towards things that cannot be expressed in ordinary words. They go beyond the limits of discursive language to speak indirectly about the ‘unspeakable.’ They often refer to ideas, emotions and motivations that transcend ordinary immediate human experiences.”
“Nondiscursive symbols deal with the ambiguities, uncertainties and mysteries of life compared with sense experiences, which are immediate and rationally analysed. They are concerned less with naturalistic realities known through the senses than hidden ones known by looking below the surface of things. For example, in medieval art, Jesus often had a halo around his head to show his inner holiness and deity.”
“At the heart of nondiscursive symbols is analogy and metaphor.”
Yet a strange symbolic illiteracy pervades contemporary evangelicalism. I can only put it down to a residual iconoclasm, a fear of idolatry, but if we are serious about incarnating into our visual media saturated culture we need to get over it. We can use words in an idolatrous fashion too but that doesn’t stop evangelicals from writing. Advertisers get it. Pagans get it. If we want to communicate the gospel we need to get it as well.
In line with this I have been pondering how we can engage with and express Christian spirituality more symbolically. Obviously a significant focus area for me is visual meditations and poetic expression but I have also been thinking about ritual application. Our ancient heritage is rich with symbol, yet does a critically contextual approach require us to be limited by the imaginations of the ancients? I tend to think not.
One area I question is the solar symbolism of Roman Christianity. How much of this do we owe to the influence of Mithraism and Sol Invictus in the ancient world? In an age where the moon goddess and feminine spirituality is in ascendancy could we not do with a little more symbolic balance? After all, the Bible states God is creator of the sky, sea and earth, not the sky alone. Jesus was birthed by a woman who stood with the moon at her feet according to the Book of Revelation. Is it possible we can use solar-lunar symbolism to express the good news? I think we can in two ways:
Firstly, in alchemy, the chemical wedding of sol-luna gives birth to the quintessence; the philosopher’s stone that turns lead into gold and brings eternal life. Is this not a perfect metaphor for the incarnation, the wedding of humanity and divinity in the golden one who brings us eternal life?
Secondly, I turn to the metaphor of the eclipse, of the moon swallowing the sun in the sky, with the sun’s corona shining beyond the darkness. In this I also see a potent metaphor for the crucifixion-resurrection event, of Jesus’ divinity being swallowed by his humanity yet shining forth. Consider also that the gospels recount darkness falling upon the land in the hour of Jesus’ death.
If we recognize the moon as a symbol for immanence and the sun as a symbol for transcendence, both of which are aspects of the Christian God, I think we have a much better chance of communicating what the good news actually means to subcultures in the west that perceive solar imagery as fundamentally unbalanced. We need to be clear that we have no need for a Goddess in our Spirituality – not because we deny the immanent-feminine principle – but because our deity incorporates both transcendant-masculine and immanent-feminine principles in harmony. Both male and female, sun and moon, are representative of our Creator.
This is just one of the approaches I am exploring in visual meditations at the moment but I’d be interested in your responses.