Symbols are words, images, sounds, objects, concepts, or actions which represent some other entities or realities. They have the power to unite different human feelings, thoughts, and experiences into coherent meanings. Symbols are polyvalent, carrying multiple meanings, and must be distinguished from signs. Signs give information and are limited to specific contexts, e.g., stop signs have no meaning outside of situations of potential danger and function only as warnings. Symbols, however, reveal realities beyond the context in which they are found and beyond the limits of their physical or conceptual boundaries, e.g., a gun is a symbol of violence, danger, coercion, or sport no matter where it is found. The realities discerned through symbols can only be apprehended by means of the symbols. Thus, they function as windows onto the unseen. Symbols share in realities they represent. Therefore, the basic characteristics or qualities of a symbol can be extended so as to "re-present" other realities. (To use an earlier example, a gun's structure and purpose is to stop movement or to intimidate a victim, thus the realities of death, fear, and power which it represents can be understood.)
Symbols cannot be created by manipulation. Words, objects, and actions may first emerge as signs in certain settings. Later, they may become symbols as they are repeated and more meanings and experiences cluster around them. Symbols emerge within communities which share a common worldview, common experiences, and common goals.
Religious symbols most often represent some aspect of the sacred presence which infuses life. (God is this presence in Judaeo-Christian traditions.) While this sacred presence cannot be directly perceived with human senses, it can be discerned and experienced symbolically. Many religious symbols are highly stylized and recur in the history of the tradition. They evoke certain feelings and memories in those who understand the objects or words to be symbols. A cross, an apple, a serpent, a lamb, the Bible, baptism, feetwashing, bread, and wine are examples of such symbols prominent in Christian faith. To understand these symbols is to know something of the nature of God and the experience of faith. Other religious symbols are more diffuse and less structured. They are generally not considered to be at the center of Christian faith and experience; their meanings are contextually or culturally bounded. The prayer veil, wedding bands, the dove, and various ceremonial artifacts are examples of diffuse symbols. Yet, in specific settings, these symbols have the power to represent to and for the community something of God's essence.
Since symbols arise from human experience, their meanings can only be discerned through the activities of human life. Religious symbols can communicate their meanings only as the realities they represent have been experienced by believers. The identity of a believer in any religious tradition results from being taught its primary symbols and from competently using or understanding them. Worship is the primary setting where the religious symbols of a faith tradition are presented, experienced and appropriated. They reveal the worshiping community's basic beliefs. While these symbols may be taught and explained in other settings, it is in worship that they are lived. Through them the community of faith represents itself to God and to the world, and the Godhead is represented to the community. Thus, religious symbols have a reflexive character; through them two-way communication is possible.
Each religious community or tradition reinforces certain symbols, consciously or unconsciously, according to the frequency of their presentation in worship. Among Roman Catholics, for example, the symbol of the Eucharist is essential to worship. For contemporary Mennonites the Eucharist (communion) is not an essential symbol for worship, even though it is an important observance. Congregational singing, hearing God's word, and preaching are essential symbols. The symbols which are repeatedly presented in the worship context will shape the spiritual life of that community. Attention will be focused on certain aspects of the sacred realities represented in these symbols while other aspects may be forgotten or ignored. This process, in part, accounts for the distinctions found among various Christian traditions.
While it may be assumed that the community of faith selects and regulates the symbols presented in worship, it may also be presumed that each individual believer has certain symbols which are particularly meaningful for private devotion. These symbols may correspond to the believer's tradition or community. The symbols may be borrowed from other traditions or emerge from a significant experience in the believer's life. These private symbols will shape the spirituality of the individual, providing a point of orientation for his or her decisions, ethics, and life-style.
Anabaptists and Mennonites have been particularly suspicious of religious symbols ever since their beginnings in the 16th century. Ulrich Zwingli's restricted view of symbolism in worship was shared by most Anabaptists. A symbol, in their view, functioned essentially as a sign with obvious and unambiguous meanings. Zwingli's ideas about symbols were a reaction to the stylization and excessive manipulation of symbols found in the Catholic Mass. He and the Anabaptists failed to grasp the fact that human beings are symbol-making and symbol-utilizing creatures. Human activity or interaction is impossible without the use of symbols. Only through the medium of symbols can the gathered community encounter the presence of the persons of God in worship.
There is a tendency in modern culture and among Mennonites in general to limit the meanings of commonly used religious symbols and symbolic activities. The temptation to concretize the symbol's meaning or to create a one-to-one correspondence between symbol and meaning is strong. However, the meaning of symbols, particularly religious symbols are polyvalent, expressing a variety of meanings. This multiplicity provides for richness in personal and corporate religious experience. This fact explains how common symbols, like communion, can stir controversy within congregations and between churches when certain meanings are emphasized over other possible meanings. Many of the recent ecumenical discussions with regard to baptism, Eucharist (communion), and ministry have emphasized expanding and incorporating the various traditional meanings clustered around these symbolic actions and coming to agreement on the range of possible meanings.
At the risk of exclusion, the following religious symbols may be said to be primary for Mennonites. (1) The person of Jesus -- a symbol of God revealing God's nature and relationship to humankind. (2) The Word of God -- a symbol of the incarnated Christ, the written biblical text revealing the activity of God in the world and the authoritative and creative power of preaching. (3) The Cross -- a symbol revealing the means of human salvation, a life of suffering, submission, and discipleship. (4) The community of faith, the church -- a symbol revealing the presence of Christ in the world, the reality of God's kingdom, the mission of evangelization, the locus of Christian fellowship, mutual accountability, and support. (5) Baptism -- a symbol revealing personal salvation, new spiritual life, a commitment to Christianity, fellow ship in the community, accountability, and discipleship. (6) Communion -- a symbol revealing the covenant of salvation between God and humanity, fellowship, reconciliation, gratitude, and the memorial of Christ's passion. (7) Congregational singing -- a symbol revealing congregational unity, personal submission to the community, public affirmation of faith, and spiritual vitality. (8) Bible study -- a symbol revealing the desire for faithfulness and moral living, congregational unity, democracy, fellowship, and belief in the authoritative power of God's word. (9) Prayer veiling -- a symbol (for some Mennonite women) representing humility, submission to Christ's headship, and separation from the world.
Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.
Gospel herald (17 November 1987): 806.
Langer, Susanne. Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1960.
May, Rollo. Symbolism in Religion and Literature. New York: George Braziller, 1960.
Nocent, Adrien. "Gestures, Symbols and Words in Present-day Western Liturgy," in Symbol and Art in Worship, ed. Luis Maldonado and David Power, Concilium Series, 132. New York: Seabury, 1980: 19-27.
"Religious Symbolism and Iconography." Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th ed. 1985.
Symbol: the Language of Liturgy. Federation of Dioceses Liturgy Conference Study Book, Washington, D. C., n.d.
Underhill, Evelyn. Worship. New York: Crossroad Books, 1937; reprinted 1982: 3-59.
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