Already in the Bible, the spontaneous metaphors generated by engagement with God in religious experience are reflectively refined into conceptual symbols. Abstracted from their original context in the address to God of prayer and praise, sacred symbols stand in their own integrity as windows on the transcendent. But they continue to have a living connection with liturgy (though this becomes even more pronounced in the case of myth—reference the long debate on the priority of myth or cult). The Johannine symbols of spirit, light and love stand out here. In the Johannine literature—the Fourth Gospel and the three Epistles of John—God is described in the symbols of spirit, light and love. Three great primary affirmations are made in the symbolic mode: 'God is spirit' (John 4.24), 'God is light' (1 John 1.5), 'God is love' (1 John 4.8, 16). Though these statements seem to have an almost metaphysical status, as apparently abstract and ethereal assertions about the nature of ultimate reality, in their biblical context they are fundamentally practical, down-to-earth symbols, inextricably connected with right Christian worship and ethical behaviour.
1 Spirit 'God is spirit' is found embedded in a doubly polemical setting reflecting the rivalry between the Jews and the Samaritans as to where Yahweh was rightly to be worshipped, and between Jews and Christians about the location of worship now that the Temple had been destroyed and the Christians driven out of the synagogues. God requires a new worship of the heart rather than the outward forms—'in spiritual reality'. Location is irrelevant, for Jesus has already spoken of the new spiritual temple of his crucified and risen body (John 2.19-22). The Church will offer worship to God through Jesus Christ 'at all times and in all places', as the liturgy puts it. 'The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth' (John 4.23f.).
John defines God as pneuma. The Logos, being one with God ('the Word was with God and the Word was God'; John 1.1), also has the nature of pneuma. The Johannine symbols of God—spirit, light, love—are also Christological symbols. What is said of God is also said, directly or by implication, of Jesus Christ. 'What God was, the Word was' (John 1.1 NEB). Unless this is allowed to have its full force, the shock, scandal and miracle of the Incarnation is lost: 'And the Word became sarx (flesh)' (John 1.14). We have just been told that believers have been born 'not of the will of the flesh' (John 1.13) and shortly we shall hear that they are born of water (baptism) and the Spirit, 'for what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit' (John 3.5-6). 'Being the vehicle of life, pneuma is the medium of rebirth' (Dodd, 1953, p.224). In John, flesh and spirit are opposed. They are set over against each other, in an antithesis which comes to focus and tension in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
There is no implication in John 4 that spiritual worship can dispense with the symbolic and the sacramental, or that it can be so ethereal as to rise above the embodied nature of our humanity, like some 'out of the body' experience. In John the symbols, expressed as physical forms (flesh, blood, word, vine), enable the mutual indwelling of Christ and the believer (John 6.56; 8.31; 15.4). As Hoskyns wrote in his great commentary on The Fourth Gospel:
The contrast between false and true worship does not, therefore, lie in a distinction between that worship which is directed towards some visible and material object and that which is abstracted from all contact with the visible world; nor does it lie in a distinction between sacrificial or outward and non-sacrificial or inward worship. False worship is worship directed towards a visible object regarded as in itself complete and final [i.e. idolatry]. True worship is directed towards the flesh and blood of Jesus.
Hoskyns' emphasis resonates with our reiterated insistence throughout this book on the bodily location of the truth of God. Images derive from the senses. Metaphor is the brain function of superimposing two images whose meanings have a hidden connection. Symbols elaborate images to become sacramental of what they symbolise. Narrative is a creative, idealised and stereotyped relation of the paths and journeys on which individuals and communities find themselves. Myth is the numinous symbolic narrative of spatiotemporal happenings and the realities that permanently ground them. This embodied identity of the figurative modes of discourse coheres well with a religion that was provocatively described by William Temple as the most materialistic of all religions. Temple may well have been reading Chesterton's Father Brown stories, for in one of the earliest (published in 1911) the unprepossessing priest lays it down in a typically outrageous Chestertonian paradox that 'there is one mark of all genuine religions: materialism' (Chesterton, 1950, p.121). Christianity is a religion that begins by rehearsing the reality and goodness of physical creation and goes on to recount God's salvific revelation in history, before telling of an incarnation of God's Word in a specific human life and the community that arose from this which is held in existence through sacraments that employ water, bread and wine.
As well as the continuum that Hoskyns postulated in his Cambridge sermons and elaborated in his posthumous work with Noel Davey—Crucifixion-Resurrection—there is also the continuum that we might associate with William Temple, which forms the biblical presupposition of the former: creation-incarnation is the basis for crucifixion-resurrection (see Hoskyns and Davey, 1981).
George Pattison gives a salutary reminder of the irreducibly material and 'carnal' basis of art—even, or should I say especially, sacred art: 'God, to put it at its boldest, is not revealed otherwise than in the modes of bodily vision, colour, space, light. The Christian God is the God whose self-expression is altogether and utterly compatible with the flesh' (Pattison, 1991, pp.146f.). This is merely a deduction from the incarnational, sacramental character of the Christian faith which brings us, as Hilary of Poitiers insisted, 'into fellowship with Christ's flesh' (Kelly, 1965, p.409). The 'Prayer of Humble Access' from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer puts the communicant's participation in Christ in powerfully physical language: 'so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body and our souls washed through his most precious Blood.' Teilhard de Chardin said, 'I worship a God who can be touched' (Habgood, in Brown and Loades, 1995, p.20).
2 Light 'God is light and in him is no darkness at all' in 1 John 1.5 complements the prologue of John's Gospel where the Word who was with God and was God is the source of the (eternal) divine life that, permeating all creation, is experienced as light. In the Gospel light belongs not in the sphere of pure contemplation (theoria) but of praxis. It has ethical import. God, life and knowledge of the truth are symbolised by light, and their opposites—evil, death and ignorance—by darkness. In the epistle the symbol of God as light 'in whom is no darkness at all' is the presupposition of an exhortation to 'walk in the light', renouncing one's sins, and so enjoy fellowship with the Father and the Son and with one another (1 John 1.5-10; on the symbolism of light in John and 1 John, see Koester, 1995, pp.123-54; Dodd, 1953, pp.201ff.).
As we have seen in connection with the symbol of Spirit, symbols of God in the Johannine literature are also symbols of Jesus Christ. 1 John defines God as light. In the Gospel the Logos is described as the creative source of life which became 'the light of all people' and as 'the true light, which enlightens everyone' (John 1.4, 9). The great dominical utterance 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life' (John 8.12) echoes the prologue and leads into the story of the healing of the man born blind. God is light; Christ is light—this is the implicit deity of Jesus Christ as conveyed by the Johannine books.
3 Love The twice stated 'God is love' of 1 John (4.8, 16) may not look like a symbol. Love has no essential visible form, unlike light. But here a word normally used to designate an action or an attitude is used as a definition, to sum up the very being and nature of God. Those who dwell in the symbol (love), dwell in what is symbolised (God). As throughout Johannine symbolism, 'the symbol is absorbed into the reality it signifies' bringing about an 'intrinsic unity of symbol and thing signified' (Dodd, 1953, p.140). But the symbol of God as love is introduced almost incidentally to reinforce an exhortation to love one another. One of the most stupendous utterances of all scripture is mentioned in passing. Once again the ethical import is primary: there is no fellowship or communion with God apart from loving fellowship with one's fellow Christians. 'God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them' (1 John 4.7-21).
In the Johannine writings the central symbols of God are also symbols of Jesus Christ. There is no explicit designation in either Gospel or Epistles of Jesus Christ as love. But there is ample implicit identification of Christ and love. The last verse of the prologue echoes the frequent Old Testament warning that no man can see God and live, when it says: 'No one has ever seen God.' But it brings out the new situation or dispensation created by the Incarnation in what follows: 'It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known' (John 1.18 NRSV). The loving fellowship between Father and Son is more than hinted at here. The first Epistle consciously echoes this and draws out the Christological significance when it says: 'No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us' (1 John 4.16). That is to say that God becomes visible in Jesus Christ, beloved Son of the Father, and God becomes visible too in the love that Christians show for each other. This points to the mutual indwelling, the coinherence of Father, Son and children of God: 'As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love' (John 15.9); 'so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them' (John 17.26).
At the core of biblical faith there are profound and powerful symbols that focus the essence of Christian belief and life. They gather up into a concentrated intensity the theological import of the revelation of Jesus Christ. 'Spirit', 'light' and 'love' can be predicated of God in the light of Jesus Christ and can be predicated of Jesus Christ as the Incarnation of God. 'Spirit' is the metaphysical nature of God. 'Light' is the moral nature of God. 'Love' is the personal nature of God. These must be at the heart of what Christianity affirms about God—its Theo-logy—and about Jesus Christ—its Christology. The Christian faith has a vested interest in the proper understanding of symbols. It could never tolerate the phrase 'an empty symbol' being applied to its dearest imagery.
The profundity, purity and power of these Johannine symbols, which permeate Christian spirituality, worship and theology, have a normative influence on the Christian understanding of imaginative truth. They inform the critical perception that Christians have of the symbolic world of the culture in which they live. They are a standing reminder of the true nature of symbolism and expose as superficial, fraudulent or obscene the manufactured symbols of commercialism which exploit particularly the humanity of women and the dignity of creation. It might seem that these do deserve the expression 'empty symbols': they are indeed hollow and unwholesome. But it would be a mistake to underestimate their power to shape our thinking, our worldview. There are evil symbols that bring moral decay and spiritual death. They must be combated on the symbolic plane—by the promotion of Christian symbols properly understood and critically expounded.
Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim Till all the world adores his sacred name.
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