By: Rachel Himes
Since the first century, Christianity has been characterized by the paradox resultant of the need to express and convey knowledge of an unknowable God—the necessity of representing the unrepresentable. This theme has led to, at one extreme, periods of destructive iconoclasm, but also to an extensive and rich use of symbolism in rituals, texts and objects, for Christian symbolism is not limited to the visual, but is present in all dimensions of the faith. Indeed, for Christians, particularly those of the period spanning from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages, there was nothing—not the Divine Liturgy, not the Sacraments, not icons, texts or even architecture—that was not at some level, or entirely, symbolic. The heavy weight of symbolism meant that layers of meaning were embedded in every image and action, necessarily so, for “we see through a glass darkly…and know only in part.” (1 Cor 13:12) Because by this world our eyes are veiled, symbols are necessary to gain knowledge, albeit partial and inadequate knowledge, of God.
But how are symbols to be used when the divine—whether as God the Father, the divine aspect of Christ, or the Holy Spirit—is as St. John of Damascus puts it: “uncircumscribed and unable to be represented?” For theologians such as John of Damascus and Patriarch Timothy I, both of whom authored apologia for Christian symbolism, the divine can and must be represented in understandable ways in order to bridge the gap between the human intellect and the incomprehensibility of God. Symbols, despite being partial and incomplete representations, are crucial to Christian religiosity and devotional practice, because they lend themselves to some understanding of what God is. At their most elevated, symbols are the doorway into the Christian faith, the path through which one may approach God, become one with Him, and thus be saved.
Because humans can only comprehend things of this world, and cannot comprehend God, God must be described through symbols originating with this world, so that humans may understand. Our “inability…to direct our thoughts to the contemplation of higher things makes it necessary that familiar everyday media be utilized to…construct understandable analogies.” Timothy I writes, we “cannot know and hear about Him as He is, but simply in the way that fits with [our] own nature, a way [we] are able to understand.” The emphasis is on the possibility of understanding God via terms couched in the world that He has made. Indeed, this argument could be furthered by saying that God made the world with the intention that the creations of the world might be aids through which humans could comprehend Him. The intellectual consideration of earthly concepts such as ‘fire’, ‘wind’, and ‘king’, from Timothy I’s apology, and “sun, light…burning rays…running fountain…. overflowing river” is the means by which we may contemplate God. The multiplicity and diverse nature of such symbols serves to illustrate the manifold dimensions and all-encompassing nature of God.
There is direct precedent for using the symbols of this world to explain divinity; it is the method God uses to describe Himself and His kingdom in the New Testament, through the parables and wisdom sayings of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is couched in earthly—even homely—terms: it is like the mustard seed, it is like the leaven, it is like the found sheep and the fine pearl. Literary metaphors such as these are simultaneously accessible and mysterious, readily apparent and requiring much contemplation. The point of such symbols is, however, not to make the nature of God easily comprehensible, but to engage the intellect and facilitate earnest contemplation of their meaning. Jesus spoke to the disciples and the people in parables, and often explained parables with yet more parables, layers of meaning indicating the futility of explaining God via symbol, yet also illustrating that symbols are the only means we have. The use of parables is not limited to the New Testament. Timothy I uses a parable about an apple to explain to Caliph Mahdi how God can be at once both Word and Spirit, using “bodily comparisons and similes” to convey the reality of God. Julian of Norwich and St. Symeon use parables in their writings, as do countless other theologians.
The language which both Timothy I and John of Damascus use to explain the function of symbols is also similar in that it is prospective, expectant of some greater future knowledge at a time when God will be fully revealed and our knowledge of Him will be complete. As John of Damascus puts it, “image shadows something that is yet to happen, something hidden in riddle and shadows.” For Timothy I, symbols are here to tide us over until “the darkness of mortality passes, and the fog of ignorance dissolves.” For “now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” (1 Cor 13:12) It will become possible to know the Lord fully, and symbols will no longer be necessary, when, as Jesus said, “the time comes when I shall no more speak unto you in proverbs, but I shall show you plainly of the Father.” (John 16:25) At that time the intellectual efforts of the human mind to contemplate the divine via symbol will be transcended by the knowledge of God.