Our Magnificent Symbols

     A tourist, in a land where she had never visited, commented on what went through her mind when she discovered she was lost.  She said it was frightening.  No one spoke English.  When she tried to communicate to others she was greeted with a shrug.  She was utterly alone as she walked the streets of the capital city.  Then she saw a building that was flying the American flag and she was overcome with a profound sense of relief.  She had found a touch of home.  When she entered the building, she was immediately met by employees of our American Consulate who provided her with an orientation.

     There can be no question that we cherish our symbols.  What would Thanksgiving be like without pumpkin pie, turkey and remembrances of early settlers breaking bread with Native Americans?  We know it is Christmas time, when wreaths are hung in our stores, when candles light windows of our neighbors and when manger scenes are found in many homes and churches.  Of course, Lent and the events of Holy Week all have symbols that have become dear to our faith.

     In computer language, symbols are like a thumb drive, that small storage device that allows us to take ten gigabits of information in a plug-in the size of a domino.  Symbols are a memory chip.  A picture of a stone rolled away from the entrance of a tomb on Easter Sunday, for example, can create within us a sense of mystery, a source of metaphysical speculation and hope for people who may wonder if life continues after our bodies are no longer useful.

     While our symbols are a highly cherished part of our lives, they can also become annoying barriers to new realities.  Every corporation that rolls out a new logo following a merger can lose market share when the new symbol is no longer recognized by consumers.  This issue was such a concern for executives that when at&t consummated its merger with Cingular Wireless the new logo became at&t.  Years ago, ESSO became EXXON.

     If the Christian Church decided to change its logo from an execution device to a globe with different colored hands joined in a circle representing community, who would understand?  The cross is more than a Roman execution device.  It is symbolic of what happened to Jesus, a death for crimes he never committed, a death that generated countless theories of atonement, dying for our sins and a supreme act of love, etc.

     Yet, a reality stands that without symbols that depict a more universal understanding of God’s nature people will continue to think that God arranged Jesus’ murder to save people from their sins.  This theology is extremely challenging for people to grasp.

     This lesson was driven home to a Sunday school teacher when a young teenager  said, “Let me see if I have this straight.  Are you telling me that God was showing His love for me by arranging to have His Son murdered and that somehow during that event Jesus took on all the sins of the world?  Why would God do that?  And the same goes with God impregnating Mary as though a normal birth might not accomplish the same purpose. What’s that about?”   The teacher was unprepared to provide satisfying answers for the young man’s questions.  She responded, “That is why what we believe is called faith.

     One does not have to consider these issues very long to grasp that when Christians insist on particular beliefs for everyone else in the world, there is little room for authentic community.  Christians can be very flexible on many issues surrounding the life and teachings of Jesus but with other beliefs often little compromise.  Among many Christians is the belief that there is only one way to salvation and that is by accepting highly specific beliefs that are portrayed by numerous symbols.

     A far more pressing aspect for many Christians that blocks open, authentic appreciation for the faith of others is that no Muslim will accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior when Muhammad (may peace be upon him) is his or her prophet.

     If Christians were to compromise on their central symbols, they would have to reconsider their understanding that salvation only comes through Christ Jesus, as undefined as that concept still is for countless believers.  Crossing this bridge is impossible given the current belief structures held by many Christians.

     Believers have made Jesus the symbol of their faith rather than his message.  Many Christians have placed personal salvation as their goal rather than, love your neighbor. Many followers of Jesus have placed The Holy Scriptures as a divine symbol where truth can be found while neglecting, “Love the Lord your God with all your body, soul, mind and strength.” Many of them have defined Faith as a collection of highly specific beliefs rather than trusting that God’s will remain attentive to everyone, a will that operates quite independently from what anyone thinks, believes or does.

     Symbols make us feel secure and comfortable.  They reinforce our belief that we are homeward-bound to God’s Kingdom which is yet another symbol.  For numerous believers God’s Kingdom appears as a place to which souls transition rather than a spiritual consciousness. Jesus actually taught that we can live in that dimension now.

     There is no material substance to peace, generosity, authentic friendship and empathetic support.  Was this not the heart and soul of Jesus’ message?  Was not the Good News to extend ourselves without counting the cost?  Jesus once said, “Salvation has come to this house” because a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, reversed the energy flow of his life from receiving to giving. Ironically, no other theology was necessary for Jesus to declare that salvation had come.  It may be time for us to re-evaluate and move beyond many of our cherished symbols so that the world’s people can embrace each other authentically and affirm together God’s universal, unconditional love toward all of us.