The Reality of Spiritual Symbols

In my last post, I discussed the nature of the sacraments and how referring to them as “mere” symbols is insufficient and in many ways misleading about other manifestations of God’s grace. Today, I want to go a little further with that thought.

In one of Peter Leithart’s essays on grace he talks about this very thing, and to illustrate it he uses the example of a young man who is interested in having a relationship with a young woman. (what follows is my memory of Leithart’s example; as I don’t have it in front of me, my apologies for any inaccuracies or misrepresentation)

If a young man was interested in pursuing a relationship with a young woman, it would be necessary for him to show her his interest. And he would do this by using any number of symbolic gestures; things like buying her flowers, writing her letters, speaking to her often and in the specific ways that suitors do. Someone who was trying to focus on the supremacy of the “spiritual” or the intangible might argue that these actions are “mere” symbols of the actual affection and relationship that the young man is trying to establish. But this is not a sufficient explanation, for if the young man were instead to perform none of these “symbolic” actions, he would have a very difficult time convincing his young lady that he was truly interested in her at all. In fact, one could argue that these “symbols” actually make up a very significant and very real part of the relationship.

It is in the same way that these ordinances of the faith are not “mere” symbols. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, marriage, corporate worship, and so on, each of these things, while they are definitely representative of spiritual truths, also make up a significant aspect of our relationship with Jesus Christ. And they do so to the extent that if a person who claimed to be a believer and lover of Christ did not partake in these actions, they would have a difficult time convincing anyone that they truly loved Him at all.  [Edit: You should read the comment by Jonathan below]

Comments?

2 thoughts on “The Reality of Spiritual Symbols”

  1. One could look at it this way: Considered each by itself, just about any one of the individual symbolic actions that I employ to express my love for my wife could be considered “merely” a symbol. But…if I were to stop engaging in all of these symbolic actions, then my wife could quite justifiably retort that I do not love her, or at least I am making it very hard for her to tell that I love her. That last response assumes that love is not a relational term, that I could in theory love her entirely “in my heart” and surely we don’t want to be saddled with denying that love is relational.

    So speculate: Why don’t we get it that symbols are not mere window dressing, but rather a substantive part of our relationship to God? Is it because we have inherited a liturgy that emphasizes a “personal/spiritual relationship with Jesus”? Don’t get me wrong–that’s a pretty swell thing, but when it means something internal to the point that people talk about worshiping God but disliking organized religion, something is amiss. Or, maybe the problem results from not practicing enough liturgical symbolism. I am not going all Greek Orthodox here, just suggesting that in a sense the symbols that God has ordained are a significant way that God loves and shows His love to His people. Yet, we tend to scorn frequent practice of them, and thus do not have a good grasp of this reality of symbols. (?) (If I told my wife only quarterly that I loved her, do you think that she would believe me?)

    Cheerio,
    Jonathan

  2. One could look at it this way: Considered each by itself, just about any one of the individual symbolic actions that I employ to express my love for my wife could be considered “merely” a symbol. But…if I were to stop engaging in all of these symbolic actions, then my wife could quite justifiably retort that I do not love her, or at least I am making it very hard for her to tell that I love her. That last response assumes that love is not a relational term, that I could in theory love her entirely “in my heart” and surely we don’t want to be saddled with denying that love is relational.

    So speculate: Why don’t we get it that symbols are not mere window dressing, but rather a substantive part of our relationship to God? Is it because we have inherited a liturgy that emphasizes a “personal/spiritual relationship with Jesus”? Don’t get me wrong–that’s a pretty swell thing, but when it means something internal to the point that people talk about worshiping God but disliking organized religion, something is amiss. Or, maybe the problem results from not practicing enough liturgical symbolism. I am not going all Greek Orthodox here, just suggesting that in a sense the symbols that God has ordained are a significant way that God loves and shows His love to His people. Yet, we tend to scorn frequent practice of them, and thus do not have a good grasp of this reality of symbols. (?) (If I told my wife only quarterly that I loved her, do you think that she would believe me?)

    Cheerio,
    Jonathan

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