The Church: A Kingdom of Symbols
Over the last few weeks, our one-year-old son Jack has started pointing at things. Usually it’s pretty simple to figure out what’s caught his attention—“tree” and “squirrel” are perennial favorites, unsurprisingly. But the picture gets more complicated when it comes to his fascination with, and apparent love of, everything that happens at church.
For Jack, church is so full of sights and sounds that he spends much of the service twisting around from side to side in our arms, trying to take it all in. And through his eyes, I can glimpse anew the depths of things that might’ve once felt familiar or everyday to me. To name just one example: the gold-edged cross stamped into the covers of our hymnals, which Jack loves to trace with his tiny fingers, is surrounded by emblems of the means of grace—an open Bible, a shell symbolizing Baptism, and the bread and wine of Communion. And most recently, Jack spent almost a solid ten minutes pointing up at the hanging coat of arms designed to commemorate our local church’s 150th anniversary—a coat of arms that happens to be adorned with the Lutheran rose, which is full of symbolic depth of its own.
Whenever the subjects of church architecture and interior design come up, it can be very easy—particularly for those of us with an academic or historical bent, to slip into grand abstract arguments about the symbolic meaning of vaulted space, the dome of heaven, and so forth. And I agree with all of those points, to be clear: a medieval cathedral testifies to truths about God and creation in a much more profound way than a church built like a basketball stadium.
But arguments like these are so expansive that they can risk overlooking the more straightforward, everyday richness of all the symbols we so often take for granted. And it’s here that, for most of us, the real teaching function of the church’s artistic tradition lies. On an Eastertide church banner, a golden butterfly shape set off against a field of white doesn’t represent the insect qua insect, even though a similar image appears (for instance) at the conclusion of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar; it symbolizes the resurrection of Christ into a glorified body, bursting forth from the silence and stillness of the tomb.
For me as an adult, this set of symbolic associations is natural and immediate, but for Jack it isn’t at all. These connections and analogies and references have to be taught from the ground up. And the core intuition here—that ordinary things can stand for or represent aspects of the eternal—isn’t one that contemporary culture is likely to help instill or reinforce. As Charles Taylor puts it in A Secular Age, “The older cosmos idea made heavy use of signs, and correspondences. The new science wanted to sweep this away as so many Idols, in Baconian terms, and propound a literal account of physical reality, seen as a domain of asemeiotic things.” It is the slow erosion of this older idea, Taylor argues, that has given rise to the secularity of the West. And that older idea is what those of us who grew up in traditions for which the world is “thick with meaning” are keen to preserve and pass on.
Some Christian traditions, of course, have disagreed. The early New England Puritans, for instance, took a far more austere view of their worship environment: as historian David Hackett Fischer observes, “Most meetings had no ornaments except [a] terrible staring eye [painted on the pulpit]—no paint, no curtains, no plaster, no pictures, no lights—nothing to distract the congregation from the spoken word.” To a certain extent, that impulse to strip things down to the barest essentials—what Fischer describes as “the Bible, the lecture and the relentless hearing of the word”—is understandable in historical perspective. The rococo excesses of the late Baroque period, to name but one example, often seem in retrospect to have had far more to do with artists’ interest in their own technical virtuosity than with Christian piety.
But speaking as a parent in a world decidedly hostile to any conception of a universal reality within which we live and move and have our being, I’m grateful for the simple fact of a church building that’s so richly pedagogical—for a physical “field of meaning” in which my son can grow up, and within which he can come to learn the deepest truths about God and the world. I want Jack to apprehend, as the years go by, that the chalice on the altar is more than an ordinary drinking vessel, that the baptismal font is more than a washbasin in the rear of the nave, and that the flames on the banners of Pentecost represent something like and yet unlike the candles that limn the chancel. It is within such a setting that the Word can be heard and understood.
Speaking for myself, at least, all these symbolic associations are woven so deep into the fabric of my thinking that I couldn’t dislodge them even if I wanted to. They’re the building blocks, I think, of what is meant when we speak of a “Christian imagination”—a faculty of experiencing the world that sees all things as shot through with purpose and significance, and that grasps the finite as an echo of the infinite, in a story beyond our own.
I hope and pray that Jack learns them too, and that he never forgets them.
John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.