An article mainly about where the power of symbols comes from and also the sort of truth that can be found in the bible. Afterwords a quick look at evolutionary bilogy and where it wanders into the realms of biblical Christianity.

Of Truth and Symbols

Christianity is a religion rich with symbols. The bread and wine, the cross and even baptism are symbols that bring believers deeper into their faith. At the heart of Christianity is the bible which is the written record upon which its beliefs and practises are drawn from. Some of the language of the bible is clearly symbolic, like the parables of Jesus for example, whilst other passages are presented as historical record. The important thing when reading and interpreting the bible is to understand what type of truth we expect to receive from it. In part this means understanding what we mean by 'a symbol'.

The best definition of a symbol I have ever come across is 'a symbol is a visible sign of an invisible reality'. Much of the world we interact with is invisible. This doesn't mean it is spookily hidden somewhere just beyond our sight, but it means that much of the nature of the world we live in is not physical. Take for example a friendship. Is it real ? Friendship can be very real, it is something that can be relied on, it can affect the way you feel and what you do. On a hot summers day you may be planning to spend the day sunbathing when a close friend rings you up in a crisis, and for the sake of the friendship you change your plans and go and visit them instead - even though it is the last thing you wanted to do. Every friendship is different, they have their own characteristics and qualities and yet where do they exist ? You certainly can't point to them and say here it is or there it is. Your relationships form part of this 'invisible reality' that shapes our world.

As a more down to earth example lets look at a 'danger' sign. This is a good illustration of that definition 'a visible sign..' ! Suppose we have a road sign saying 'danger - falling rocks' and a neat picture of some tumbling boulders. Now the sign is by a cliff and so the fact that the danger is 'real' is obvious but the quality of the cliff that is 'danger' is in itself non-physical. We might look and just see 'rocks' and not see 'danger'. The 'danger' is part of the invisible reality, but because we humans are not always good at being aware of invisible reality we need something visible. In this way the 'danger-sign' is a visible symbol that bridges the gap between us and the invisible reality. If you look at the cliff you might see loose rocks, but the danger is not in 'what is'. The mere presence of the rocks is not danger, they might be perfectly secure - the danger is in 'what might be' - the rocks might fall. It is this 'possible future' that is the invisible reality that the warning sign points us to.

Invisible reality in the context of religion however really means spiritual reality, because God is invisible but very real and very powerful. What this means is that when you bridge the gap between us and God there is a flow of life and power. The symbol is not itself a passive and irrelevant thing but it is a vessel that carries the power. At its best the symbol takes on some of the nature of what it points to, this is a power that is far beyond the physical nature of the symbol itself.

Lets look at the symbolic act of the leaders of two warring nations signing a peace treaty. What does it mean to say that it is symbolic ? It means that the significance of the act extends beyond the physical appearance of what takes place. The physical act is really quite minor, no matter how much pomp and ceremony it might be dressed up in. The two men take pens and squiggle their names on a piece of paper - hardly something special ! And yet somehow, on the basis of it, men put down their guns, planes stop bombing, people stop dying and so on. All this because of a signature or two ! The secret is obviously not in the physical action but in what it represents. Firstly the two leaders themselves are symbolic, they represent the nations. Secondly the signature is the assent of that nation to the treaty that has been agreed. Months of negotiation may have gone into the terms of that treaty, in fact that is what that bit of paper and the words on it represent, but it needs that signature to come into force. The act itself brings about great consequences although it is minor. So the act is minor but not irrelevant, through it great change takes place because of the greater truth it points to - and this is the power of the symbol. In actual fact the pomp and ceremony is there in order that the weight of the action might be more easily appreciated. If you focussed purely on the physical it would be easy to miss the real nature of what was taking place. By dressing it up with ceremony and gravity it perhaps better points to the reality of the situation. The ritual and ceremony of 'high church' fulfils a similar role. This is how it some people are more able to feel the presence and awesome nature of God in these surroundings - the seriousness of high church ceremony points them to the magnificence and seriousness of God.

A great and living example of symbol in Christianity is the sacrament of the bread and wine. On a physical level the process is mundane, if not a little absurd. A tiny quantity of bread (or wafer if you are a catholic) is consumed, followed by a tiny bit of wine (or blackcurrant juice if you are a baptist). This symbolises the body and blood of Christ and how we partake of them. Although it is possible to do it in mundane manner and thus not experience the power - if we do it with due reverence, then as we eat the bread and drink the wine we are joined to the life of Christ and the sacrament holds great life for us. In one sense that life is always available to us, but the sacrament as a 'visible sign' is a gateway of the supernatural. In this way the bread and wine take on the nature of what they represent - as we eat the bread we partake of Christs body and it is this that the Catholics call the transubstantiation. The power of the sacrament is in the reality of the power it points to - but it is in the act of the sacrament that we more fully enter into that invisible power.

In a similar way a baptism is a symbol not just of the washing away of sins but also of joining Christ in his death and being raised again with him. This is what is signified by entering the water and coming out again. As you enter the water you enter the power of the death of Christ, that defeated sin, and as you come out again you are joined with him in his new life - through the gateway of the physical we are joined to, and changed by, the spiritual. Therefore it is important that we realise that when we say something is symbolic we don't mean it is irrelevant, as in the worldly use of a 'merely symbolic act'. What we mean instead is that the symbol joins us to the spiritual realms. In this way the sacraments are a powerful way of connecting to the life of God. This can be especially true for new believers as they provide a tangible gateway into the spiritual. The Cross, the Eucharist (which is a posh word for holy communion) and oil for prayer often carry the anointing of God and are an effective way of communicating his presence.

Something similar can apply when we are reading the bible, the written word of God. Some passages are obviously allegories that point us to a spiritual truth or principle. A good example of this would be the parables of Jesus - little stories he used to communicate a message. Now these passages are not themselves 'true' in the conventional meaning of the word and yet they can carry very important truth. In the parable of the 'good Samaritan' there was never any Samaritan and in that sense the story could be said to be not true, like any fiction. Yet the story tells of how any man can be a neighbour to another and fulfil the law to love our neighbour as ourself - a very important truth. Like the symbols we discussed earlier this passage points us to an 'invisible truth' by giving us a means to visualise it. The important part of that story, the bit that is the truth it contains, has nothing to do with Samaritans, or robbers, or innkeepers at all.

Other passages of the bible it is not so clear whether they are allegories, in the same way as the parables, or clear historical records as other parts of the gospels might be seen. In fact that question when applied to certain parts of the bible, like the early passages in Genesis say, can be a matter of great controversy. The real question that must be asked then is what is the purpose of scripture and what sort of truth do we hope to gain from it.

In 2 Tim 3 : 16-17 Paul says 'All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work'. So the point of scripture is that we be better equipped to do the work that God sets before us, that we come away from reading the scriptures able to live better lives.

Lets look at the scriptures relating to the fall of Adam. In these Adam eats the forbidden fruit and through it he is cut off from his creator. Like the symbols we spoke of earlier the consequence of the act went beyond the immediate and the physical. Eating the 'forbidden fruit' was more than Adam quenching a minor hunger but is symbolic of him (and all mankind through him) reaching out deliberately for knowledge away from his creator.

The important truth in those scriptures is not that Adam had a snack but the truth described above - that the root of sin is man reaching for knowledge outside of God. (Compare with the scripture 'knowledge puffs up, but love builds up'). The physical facts of the event are irrelevant and remote from our lives - but the spiritual truth it points to is highly applicable to us. For this reason it matters not one jot whether the tale is allegorical or a factual historical record - in either case the truth it contains is the spiritual principle it points to.

One has to be a little careful with this. It is possible to ascribe to the allegorical anything that ones faith has difficulty stretching to. We must not detract from the omnipotence of God, who after all is more than capable of bringing all of these things about. The important thing though is to not get hung up on dogma and allow our insistence that the bible be viewed in a certain light be a barrier to someone else coming to God. Some facts however we cannot possibly ascribe to the allegorical if Christianity is to have any truth at all. The historical reality of the death and ressurection of Christ is a case in point. In 1 Corinthians 15 St Paul explains that our hope and belief rests not in the theory of Christianity but in the physical resurrection of Christ. Sure, Gods power works through the symbolic power of this act - Christ died once, for all - but there must be an act for it to carry this symbolic power - 'else our hope is in vain and we of all people are to be pitied most'.

In the Old Testament the ministry of the priest was to bring God to the people. Under the new covenant of Jesus we take on this ministry. Through us people are to come to God. In this sense then we are symbols of God for others - our lives and what God has done in our lives are visible signs through which others can see the work of God and are pointed towards him. As we carry his life we are a means for others to come to God and we become a gateway for them into the spiritual. In the same way that a sacrament like the bread and wine becomes for us a means to connect with God, we are called to represent God to people who don't yet know him. What was previously invisible to them becomes visible because God is present in us and the connection is made. We become a living sacrament !

Rev 1:5-6
To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father

In grand conclusion then we can see that the great truths of this life lie not in the physical world around us but in the invisible world that is nonetheless ever present and very real. The bible and the sacraments are means that God has provided us with to more easily enter into the power and the truth of the spiritual that he has for us. Not only that, but through what God has done in us we too can become a means, a visible sign, for others to enter into that spiritual life.

Michael Foord

Last amended 27-04-03