by Chris Rayner
for the NW region day conference, Nov 2006

When I chose this topic for today's conference we had not been subjected to the controversial debate about the wearing of veils, crosses and other religious indications of faith.

Also, the hype regarding 'The Da Vinci Code' was only just beginning. All this has been left out of the talk and I shall be focusing on symbolism (and metaphor) in the Christian faith, how people outside the Church see Christianity through them, and I hope to initiate a discussion on whether there is a need for change. I have found it very difficult to distinguish between symbolism and metaphor and so shall speak on 'Christian symbol and metaphor: do they need changing?'

According to Webster's dictionary, 'a symbol is a sign or object accepted as recalling, typifying, or representing a thing, a quality or an idea'. We may use symbols or metaphor:

  • To help see something in a new light.
  • To suggest associations that may not have occurred to us.
  • To deepen our sense of its significance.

Both words and tangible, physical objects e.g. candles, can fulfil this role.

Symbolism is, of course, used over a wide range of human experience and features strongly in everyday conversation. It is therefore no surprise that it plays a crucial role in religious belief and practice where literal description and explanation are impossible. We shall look at a few examples later.

I am concerned that too many of the symbols and metaphors used in our doctrines, creeds and beliefs are largely incomprehensible, indeed repulsive and off-putting, to those who are not 'in the club' and also to many thinking Christians who wrestle with them and struggle to remain faithful. We now read a range of modern biblical translations but retain many of the symbols and figurative language derived from traditional Judaism, easily understood, appreciated and accepted by the people of Jesus' time but not to those of today. I feel that it is time to look at some of these more critically and replace them with other symbols or metaphors that 'speak' more meaningfully to existing and potential Christians in the 21st century.

The implications of doing this could be enormous and I look forward to hearing your views and comments. I find myself agreeing with these words of Gunther Weber in his book 'I believe, I doubt'.

What I find questionable are the language of doctrine, the traditional forms of thought and language which the Church tends to use to explain, to express and to describe its faith. Because they come from other periods of history, rather than disclosing the truths of faith and shedding light on it, for me and probably for many, many other people who want to believe, they conceal and distort it.

Related to this is the inappropriateness of some symbols in cultures where the symbol itself means nothing. I remember reading of the difficulty of 'shepherd and lamb' metaphor when translating the Bible into the local language of parts of Papua/New Guinea where the people had never seen a sheep and had no word for it. Apparently 'piglet of God' was far more meaningful! This leads me to consider some of the symbols which are an accepted part of our worship, liturgy, faith and doctrines, remembering that many of these exist to re-activate past events e.g. Passover rituals, the Eucharist, the Crucifixion and that according to another definition ('A New Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship', ed. J.G.Davies, 1986) a symbol is meant 'to stimulate the mind into productive activity of interpretive thought.' For this to happen symbol must be meaningful and able to be identified with, not true for many people any longer.

Reading the Bible reveals an amazing richness of symbolism and imagery, far too much to deal with now. The examples that spring to mind are:

  • Bread, wine, water, and their use in the Holy Communion and baptism
  • Blood and sacrifice
  • The continuing reference to God on his throne in heaven, up there!  (despite the efforts of the Bishop of Woolwich in the early 1960s).
  • The Virgin Mary.

And many, many more!

All these could stimulate lengthy discussion and perhaps will, but it's the symbols of sacrificial blood and the atonement scenarios, still in circulation, that I find really offensive. Much of this is derived from the rituals of Temple worship and animal sacrifice, including the poor scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, when sacrificial blood represented a life given in place of, or on behalf of the penitent This is transferred to Jesus, Lamb of God, who put away sin by the sacrifice of himself on the Cross (itself perhaps the Christian symbol). This is expressed in Hebrews 9 vv 13-14.

We have no time to enlarge upon atonement theories that originate with the early church but I am appalled by the continued emphasis on 'the blood' rather than the love of Jesus and the death rather than the resurrected Life of Christ. Even supposedly modern songs and choruses perpetuate this.

Examples

From 'Songs of Fellowship' 257 (1982)
It's your Blood that cleanses me.
It's your Blood that gives me life,
It's your Blood that took my place
In redeeming sacrifice;
Washes me whiter than the snow, than the snow
My Jesus, God's precious sacrifice.'
From 'Songs of Fellowship' 240 (1990)
In majesty he comes
The Lamb who once was slain:
Riding in majesty, faithful and true,
Eyes ablaze, crowns on His head,
He is the Word of God,
Coming again, King of kings
We shall rise
We shall meet Him in the air
When He comes again
From 'Songs of Fellowship' 636 (1987)
You purchased men with your precious blood

Yes, this is all symbol and metaphor - but what message does it convey?

Then what do you think about some of the language in the Liturgy? [Methodist Worship Book pp 123 and 201-2.]

How do we change some of Christian symbolism without re-writing scripture? To get rid of many Christian symbols would be to destroy much of our traditional faith and Church practice - perhaps too radical! However, there are surely some changes that could be made to re-focus our faith towards Life rather than gory death and to put an end to symbols and metaphors that perpetuate what is untrue or misleading.

Perhaps we should concentrate on changes of interpretation and give greater emphasis to symbols that have relevance now.

Perhaps we should refuse to sing some of the worst choruses. But how do we encourage people to think, to risk, to question?


Chris Rayner is a geologist and Methodist lay-preacher.