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Good Words 1860
Symbolism in the Christian Economy


Christianity has its symbols as well as Judaism. Spiritual, reflective, subjective as the dispensation under which we live is commonly supposed to be, it is one, nevertheless, in which, as truly as in that older and less perfect dispensation which it supersedes, spiritual thought is clothed, and spiritual impressions are conveyed under sensuous forms. The difference, in this point of view, betwixt the Mosaic and the Christian economy, is not that the former had an elaborate ritual, a vast and complicated apparatus of symbols, ceremonies, artistic rites in which spiritual ideas were lodged in material forms, and that the latter is a purely mental or spiritual religion devoid of form, and appealing directly to the understanding and heart. But the real distinction is rather that the forms of Judaism were artificial, whilst those of Christianity are natural. In the former case, an elaborate machinery of symbolic rites was constructed, and authoritatively prescribed. In the latter, man is left, in the main, to the grand, universal, unarti-ficial symbols of nature and providence and human life; and in the only two symbolic rites that have been prescribed authoritatively, nothing more is done than merely to adopt and stamp with spiritual meaning and impressiveness two usages of our common life—the act of ablution and a family meal. For two things are to be considered—first, that man cannot do without symbols, or symbolic language of some sort; and secondly, that the peculiar genius and spirit of Christianity is this, that it elevates all nature and life, the whole outward daily experience of man, into a grand system of spiritual teaching, glorifying and spiritualising common sights and sounds, common actions and relations, making the whole world one glorious sacrament through which the spiritual mind holds communion with God. I shall make a few observations on each of these two points.

1. The first and general remark which I have made is, that man cannot do without symbols. In all intercourse, secular or spiritual, in all interchange of thought and feeling, whether in religion or in common life, we need not only ideas, but also forms—not only conceptions and feelings, but also a material mould in which to cast them—a sensible dress of symbols, figures, material shapes and images in which to clothe and embody them, and give to the ethereal and impalpable creations of mind a local habitation and a name. This necessity is rooted in our nature as deeply as the connexion between mind and body. Souls cannot see into each other. No communication between two spirits can take place save through the intervention, the go-between, of material organisation. Two pieces of wood, or stone, or iron may be brought into immediate contact, but two souls can never touch or be brought into any sort of apposition. A bridge must be built, a material telegraph must be set up between them. Each soul is shut up in its own castle, and a great gulf fixed between it and other souls, and only by hanging out signals, or constructing fleet messengers out of material forms and sounds, can these mysterious dwellers in their individual isolation convey thought and feeling to each other. Unless each Christian soul, therefore, is to receive all knowledge and impression by direct inspiration from God—in other words, if religious instruction is to be conveyed to us through human minds, spiritual teaching and discipline through the Church—the only way in which it can reach us is by outward forms and symbols, by picturing out, as is done in Baptism and the Lord's Supper, inward, invisible ideas by material emblems and analogies.

But what, then, becomes of language? Do not minds communicate with each other through verbal speech? Do not spoken words constitute a medium of thought of the greatest power, compass, and flexibility? Surely symbols, pictures, emblems, hieroglyphics, are not to be compared with articulate speech as a medium of mental experience?

To this it must be answered, for one thing, that, even on the supposition that teaching by language is essentially different from teaching by symbols, the latter is of far superior power and impressiveness as a vehicle of thought to the mere arbitrary sounds of spoken language. The language of symbols is in great part natural, instructive, rooted in the very nature of things; the language of words is in great part arbitrary and conventional. Betwixt the word "smile" or "tear," and the emotion of joy or sorrow, there is no necessary and natural connexion; but betwixt the feeling of joy and the form or symbolic expression on the countenance which we call a smile—betwixt the feeling of sorrow and the particular look of gloom, or the physical symbolic process of weeping, there is an original, real, and natural connexion. One word designates joy or sorrow in one nation, another in another, but bright or sad and gloomy looks, smiles and tears, are part of a universal language; they are symbols which correspond to the things all the world over, wherever there is a heart to grieve or gladden. Man is not born into the world with a vocabulary of words and names, and the power to utter them—that is the result of artificial training and experience — but man is born into the world with the power to understand and employ the language of signs. The little child discerns the intimations of thought and feeling in the mother's face, and by responsive signs, by the bright or beclouded face, by the clinging embrace or the cry of alarm, by the restless, ever-varying play of expression, motion, gesticulation, it indicates the possession of a most copious and inartificial exponent of mind.

But besides this, it is to be further considered that language, uttered speech, in so far as it has any power to express mental ideas and feelings, is in itself symbolic. The words that describe our inward being, our souls and their workings, would have no meaning to us if it were not that they are names for outward pictures that have some mysterious resemblance or analogy to the things of mind. The word "spirit" is no more like a soul than a piece of money is like the goods you can buy with it; but the way in which it comes to stand for soul is, that the word spirit means literally "breath" or "air in motion;" and that in all languages, amongst all nations, the impalpable, viewless air, the wind that bloweth where it listeth, is the picture or symbol which men have fixed upon as likest to mind, and best fitted to convey a notion of what they meant when they would speak to each other of that mysterious something, the immaterial principle within each human breast. So, again, the word "righteousness,"

or rectitude, has in itself no more resemblance to, or natural power to designate, the inward quality of goodness, than any other collocation of letters or combination of sounds; but the word in this case stands for and summons up an idea of the thing, because men have ever perceived a mysterious analogy betwixt the inward condition of a man of integrity, betwixt the action of an honest, just man who will not swerve for any temptation from the path of duty, and a straight or right line, going right on from one definite point to another; and so an act such as this came gradually to be designated a "right" or straight act; and the quality in general, "righteousness"—i. e., Tightness or straightness. And so, not to dwell upon this any longer, the principle here to be remembered is, that as we cannot see thought or feeling, we can only try to find out pictures, symbols, or analogies for it; and, to meet this want, God has constructed this wondrous material world in which He has placed us replete with resemblances and types of the inner world of thought. All nature is to the soul a vocabulary of symbols, a ready-prepared repository of signs by which it may tell forth its inward consciousness to others. The world without is as the shadow of the world within; and when we want to describe to others what we are thinking and feeling, it is by borrowing images from the mirror of nature, and so speaking of inward light and darkness; of mental elation and depression; of a lofty and exalted, or a base and degraded nature; of inward purity or foulness; of struggles and conflicts, or rest and stillness of mind; of ardour and coldness of heart; of conscience soft or hard, acute or blunted; of inward health or disease, life or death,—in all which, as in innumerable other instances, we convey to others what is passing within the breast, by pointing, as it were, to things, objects, actions, processes in the world without, that serve as symbols, or pictures, or scenic representations of our inward thoughts.

2. Now, turning to the more specially religious bearing of this principle, what I have to remark, in the second place, is, that God ever has taught, and does teach and hold communication with man, as He does in the sacraments, by symbols. He who made our nature, and knows its needs, has in all dispensations of religion conveyed spiritual thought and impression to His creatures by outward signs and material shadows, types, semblances. Heavenly thought comes down to man on earthly wings. The ethereal essence of spirituality is contained and conveyed to us in the alabaster box of materialism, without which it would evaporate in the empty air. We cannot see heaven, but images and shadows of heavenly things everywhere surround us, earthly tabernacles made like unto the pattern shewed upon the mount. We cannot visit the world of glory, and gaze on its unearthly splendours; but heaven has a copy in every Christian home, Christ a representative in every church; and all around us, would we but open our eyes to see them, in our common toils and duties, our daily work and care, there are reflections, photographs, vivid symbols of eternal and heavenly truths. And the distinction betwixt Judaism and Christianity is, not that Judaism had an elaborate symbolic ritual and Christianity a simple one—for in Christianity the symbolic ritual is far the more elaborate, vast, comprehensive, minute,—but that, as I have said, the ritual of the old economy was an artificial contrivance, whilst in the new and more glorious economy, all the world, with its scenes and forms and objects, all human life, with its multifarious relations, its homes and families, its kings and subjects, its sorrows, joys, sicknesses, its sleep and waking, its festivities and fastings, its birth and bridal and death, constitute one grand ritual, one noble temple symbolism for Christian souls. The ritual of Judaism was an intricate, complex system of religious symbols and exercises mechanically constructed in order to bring down truth to babes. The idea of God was embodied in a temple or sacred structure erected for His peculiar residence; of His holiness, in an awful shrine fenced off from curious gaze and unhallowed step. The notion of a Divine order pervading human life was lodged in artificial regulations for food and dress, conventional distinctions between things clean and unclean, prescriptions and rules for all the varied relations and exigences of social existence. The conceptions of sin, guilt, penitence, of atonement, pardon, purity, were formally forced on the senses, and drilled into minds otherwise incapable of rising to them, by laws of ceremonial exclusion, priests, costly sacrifices, sprinklings, lustrations, by victims dying in scenic representation of the penal desert of sin, or yielding their life's blood to be offered up on the altar in mimic expression of the self-devotion of a penitent soul to God. Without these and such like artificial shows and scenic pictures as aids to thought, spiritual ideas to such a race would have been unattainable. And just as a feeble mind may be impressed by stage effect, by the exaggerations and forced sentiments of the mimic heroes and heroines of a play, whilst it is incapable of perceiving and being moved by the far more profound pathos, the truer and more tragic interest of real life, so a race of men of feeble spiritual intelligence might be taught and impressed by the stage effect of the Jewish ceremonial, who could not have comprehended the far deeper and truer symbolism of nature and Providence and the daily life of man.

But this last is the true Christian symbolism— the large, free, and natural ritualism of our spiritual manhood. God has not now in any one land on earth a special fabric set apart for the scenic teaching of religious ideas by shrines, and altars, and mystic lamps, and lavers, and gorgeous vestments, and solemn postures and processions; but this is only because in all lands on earth, by the broad, natural, spontaneous actions and institutions of life, religious ideas are pictured in a nobler and universal symbolism. Every Christian home, for instance, is a temple in which, by the institution of family life, God is helping us to rise to spiritual thoughts and ideas, giving us types and pictures of Divine and heavenly things. Not by a local dwelling in a material temple does He teach us the relation and nearness of God to man; but in every earthly home, and by every earthly parent, does He typify His own fatherhood. Every wise and loving father is to his own home a type, a symbol of God. When Christ spoke of God as a Father, when He told His disciples, "I go to my Father and your Father;" when He declares, ''The Father loveth you;" when it is written, ''We have had fathers of our flesh, and we gave them reverence; shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of our spirits, and live?" or again, ''I will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty;" when in these and many other passages we find the one prominent representation of God's relation to man in the New Testament to be that of "a father," what notion of God is thus intended to be conveyed to our minds ? It is simply this, that in no abstract or general terms could the relation in which Cod stands to man be described; that we cannot rise to this high conception without a picture or symbol; but that no arbitrary or artificial symbol, no far-drawn shrine or mystic light gleaming from a holy of holies, can teach it half so well as that living portrait which every home contains. For here the ideas of God's oneness of nature with this soul within my breast, of my being as emanating from and supported by Him, of a profound and inalienable connexion of tenderest love, and interest, and guardian care on His part, and of mingled reverence, affection, trust, dependence, submission on mine,— here in every domestic circle all these ideas are grouped around the one universal relation of parent and child. That is the likest thing to God on earth—that the nobler than temple type or symbol by which He would help us to conceive of Him, to know Him, and in reverential affection to approach Him. So if we would have a visible, earthly symbol of that unfathomable tenderness, that protecting fondness, that self-devoted, self-sacrificing love which Christ bears to His own, then within every domestic circle where the light of love is burning, there is, as over the altar of the household, ever displayed to eye and contemplation, a picture, a living, breathing, acting representation of that love. For is it not written, ''Christ is the head of the Church, as the husband of the wife;" "A man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife;" "This is a great mystery; but I speak concerning Christ and his Church?" And again, of the everlasting union of the glorified with their Lord—"Come, and I will shew thee the Bride, the Lamb's wife;" "Let us be glad, and rejoice; for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife hath made herself ready?" And, to name no other example of this New Testament symbolism, all nature and life have been constructed by God so as to furnish manifold types and symbols of that great waking to immortality, that passage from death to life, that awaits every redeemed soul. The eye of Christian reverence may behold divinely - arranged pictures of Christian doctrine in "the seed that is not quickened in the earth until it die;" in the resurrection of nature, each returning spring from the winter grave; in the morning freshness with which, from the unconsciousness and stillness of night, the sleeper wakes with reinvigorated energies for the work of life. Therefore, if we have no elaborate temple services, no conventional altars, and priests, and pompous ceremonial, it is not because all outward sensible teaching, all visible embodiment of religion has been swept away, but it is rather because, in the light of Christian knowledge, we are permitted to see the whole world transformed into one grand temple, hung round with pictures of God and heavenly things; it is because ever as we sleep or wake, as we sit within our homes or go forth to the throng and thoroughfare of life, the temple scenes and the temple services are going on around us; we breathe its incense in the living air; its mystic lights fall on us from the noontide sun and from the stars of night; our common work is transformed into its worship, and our domestic and social life into its holy sacramental rites.


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