A Brief View of the Orthodox Use of Symbols

Lent IconRecently I’ve been reading a fascinating book called “The Art of the Icon,” by Paul Evdokimov, which presents a theology of beauty from an Orthodox Christian perspective. As a relatively recent convert to the Orthodox Church (nearly 5 years, i.e., just long enough for one to realize how much he doesn’t know) I am always interested to hear a succinct, articulate explanation of the Church’s use of symbols since it’s use of such is wide and varied.

One learns very quickly on his entrance into Orthodoxy that the Orthodox use of “symbol” and popular culture’s use of “symbol” are two completely different things. The Orthodox still use the word in the classic sense, that is as something that contains the essence of what it portrays as opposed to merely serving as a sign of something else with no inherent or essential connection to that which it stands for (such as a mathematical symbol).

Paul Evdokimov uses the ancient etymology of the term to help draw out its meaning for those of us who still struggle to understand it all. He notes that in Greek both symbol (symbolos) and the devil (diabolos) have the same root word – bolos, which means “throwing.” Dia-bolos means to “throw apart” while sym-bolos means to “throw together.” Thus, “a symbol is a bridge which links two shores: the visible and the invisible, the earthly and the heavenly, the empiric and the ideal. The symbol makes it possible for the two to interpenetrate each other” (p.86).

I think one can say without error that without the symbol the interpenetration of the heavenly and the earthly simply does not happen. This is also what separates the so-called high-church view of the sacraments from the low-church view. For the former (Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans) the sacraments are an actual ‘happening’ of a spiritual-physical event; the baptismal waters and the chrism oil carry the very presence of the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist elements carry the very body and blood of Christ, the icons carry the very essence of the person(s) they portray, etc. For the latter (Protestant sects and others) all these things are mere signs of something else, signs which can be regarded or disregarded without effectual significance.

It would be fun to get into a lengthy discussion about the theological ramifications of holding one or the other views, but seeing as how my time is limited at the moment perhaps the comment section will ferret this out over time. Thanks for reading!

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12 thoughts on “A Brief View of the Orthodox Use of Symbols

  1. Serendipitously, I have just been reading up on Evdokimov today for the first time, having been introduced by Bruce Foltz’s The Noetics of Nature. How does his elucidation of icons compare with that of Florensky or Lossky/Ouspensky (not that I can claim to have read either of these in full)?

  2. Hey Corvus. I’m also in the middle of reading Lossky/Ouspensky’s work, “The Meaning of Icons.” An incredible book! Being halfway through both of them at the moment I can’t say that I’ve found anything that conflicts and both are very well done. It would be tough to choose one over the other.

  3. Regarding: “It would be fun to get into a lengthy discussion about the theological ramifications of holding one or the other views, … perhaps the comment section will ferret this out over time.”

    Naturally, both views may be true and simultaneously held. Someone who is aware of or comprehends those symbols which hold living essence would not deny the existence of those symbols with assigned meanings, just as a person who could count to ten would not deny the existence of numbers less than ten. To such a person, their view is wide and so includes both categories of symbols, and as those categories are well apart, their view would include the categories or stages between them.

    But someone who could only fathom and appreciate symbols as having assigned meanings would deny that symbols may hold innate and living essence, for their view is the narrower one.

    The wider view includes the narrower view, but not visa versa. So it is not about holding one view or the other, but about the extent of one’s view, its width, acuteness and depth.

    Eric, you commented on the church’s and other’s views of symbols, but what is the extent of your view? Do symbols merely hold assigned meanings, or something more?

  4. I believe they hold “assigned meaning” but do so through indirect communication (at least those used in the Church). They are to be vehicles for contemplation and, as Paul Evdokimov said, a bridge between the physical and spiritual. This can only happen through a sensitivity to such things, of course. Not just anyone is going to cry a river over seeing an icon, for example. But someone whose spiritual sensitivity is tuned in enough the transcendence provided by such symbols are enough to bring one to his knees (both literally and metaphorically speaking).

  5. Yes Eric, I think that too.
    And I think symbols are more than that as well.
    I see them as alive; not all of them, of course, just those that are, for there are many sorts of symbols.
    I didn’t used to agree with the idea that the Eucharist actually becomes the blood and body of Christ, and thought it was only a symbolic representation in the usual sense that the term symbolic representation is used, but I understand it better now, can see that it does do that, in sense that is not the first one imagined.
    I very much admire symbolism, including parables and allegory, and dynamic symbols too, of course, I mean ritual and ceremony.
    I have a saying: A picture says a thousand words, a symbol even more.
    By the way, it may be fruitful to have a contemplation on sympathetic resonance and how it might relate to symbols. If you do, and if its fruitful, let us know about any insights gained.

  6. Yes crossbow/Eric, we can indeed only relate to anything as far as we can understand it, (even for those who use/rely on symbols). As you point out from your own case, we can learn hidden depths if we are willing to persevere. I wish many would persevere with one another and answer questions put to them, in this way we could perhaps learn more from each other which could offer even more than we gain from symbols (with no disrespect to symbols and the union they help to cement between us and the object they symbolise).But, it is easier to want agreement reflected from anything than to have ourselves questioned by others. I think you’ll get my drift – my apologies if i’ve lost either of you on this one. Symbols have their place (and time), but the real thing is even better 🙂

  7. Dichasium, I have to disagree right from the start. We can relate to many things that we don’t understand cognitively. Our waking ego is only one facet of our total self, much of our ego is wrapped up in the unconscious. It’s like how a mother can relate to her child and vice versa in a very mysterious way that transcends cognition.

    I take it that much of what you posted here has to do with the recent discussion over on the other article. I have to tell you that I’m well familiar with Openobserver’s Monism. I’ve been in communication with such adherents and studied the philosophy for half my life, and I never did reveal that I spent years wrapped up in Zen Buddhism as a teenager and understood far more about the topic than Observerguy realized. I’ve heard all his stuff before yet he had never heard anything about Orthodoxy. When it was clear that he couldn’t care less and only came on the blog to proselytize I asked him the questions that I knew would chase him off. I am always perfectly ready to answer questions and didn’t dodge one of his, but he decided to stick to his script and lump all Christian thought and experience into his tiny narrative and not address mine (which you apparently experienced as well).

    Lastly, as this article attempted to express, symbols are a “real” thing and a true encounter with the divine as used by the Church. They are the real bridge between the temporal and the infinite.

  8. Eric, i like your reply, thanks. I am responding quickly as, at 2.40am GMT, i ought to be asleep. So, i think you have not understood my meaning re. symbolism because i understand (I believe), what you have said and my meaning takes account of it. Symbols are indeed a real encounter with the divine but not the real encounter we will have when we know more (hence my qualifying words about a time and a place).
    Regarding my other reference to Oo. That’s very interesting for me to discover your tactics. I did rather put the same issues to him as you did in more than one way (won’t bother to cover this now), but, i would never think to ‘chase’ someone off. Interesting yes, but i don’t use that tactic myself. i don’t want to put anyone off but leave it for them to give up on reason first. That’s why i always ask if people will put me right if i they can/will. If this offer is refused, i know where they are standing, but still would remain open, in case they later change their mind.
    BTW, i also delved into most things but never as deep as you on most of them as i realised i needed more. I read ‘I am that’ but knew there was something missing and contradictory for me, at least. I’m glad we’re togther on quite a bit – the rest remains to be seen – I’ll get round to the Orthodx sometime perhaps, but still question your attitude to ‘others’. Perhaps, we’ll see eye to eye on that too (one way or another), in due course. I know for one thing that your motivation, like mine, is good 🙂 Nightnight from me, at 1/4 to 3 am -tut tut – God is the priority!

  9. Well, I couldn’t be sure they would chase him away but if he wasn’t willing to answer them they would surely annoy him away. If you read back they were all legitimate questions and were logical straightshots from the things he was proposing. Such as if the IT (consciousness) is the only real thing yet all its imaginations and aspects are illusory, how can the IT not also be illusory?, and like questions.

    Anyway, I’m also a guy and probably have less of a BS threshold than the average kinder-hearted female. 🙂 but you’re right, I need to always question my attitude to others.

    Sleep tight.

  10. Yes Eric, i did not fail to see that they were logical and legitimate. Never-the-less, whilst irritating can eventually produce pearls, a direct blow can smmsh the whole lot! It’ll grow back again, but can cause a further delay, in my opinion, of course!
    Onto your other post re. perseverence – I am not prepared to do too much of another person’s work (based roughly on the principle that if you fish for a man you feed him for a day, if you teach him to fish, you feed him for life), so, I’m not prepared to seek out all my unanswered questions for you. Neither of us need it that much. Having said that, i must let you understand that I am fully aware of all your great efforts and know well that you have other priorites which must be seen too. So, for that reason, do not think I feel you have failed in any way in response to my hassling. In fact, to admit that you need to always question your attitude (& maybe even the Orhtodox church attitude – this, i do not yet know), towards others (as we all do), proves your goodwill yet again. BTW what, in presumably, common parlance, is BS?). I think this brings us all up to date on everything. Awaiting the next, maybe.

  11. Eric, two things: 1st -just a teeny weeny one- did you realise you’d posted this on your ‘symbols’ article and not the one related to Oo? I don’t need an answer.
    2nd – a biggy one in my opinion – You may well have made the connection, but i have not confirmed it with you – I went from agnostic (with a will to believe), to a Christian believer whilst corresponding on your website. If any credit is due, (and I believe it is), to you, I want you to know that I acknowledge it and am sincerely grateful to you. Ta mate, muchly! 🙂

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