We visited the exhibit “Monet to Matisse” at the San Diego Museum of Art in July. It contained examples of Les Nabis, a group of artists in the late 1880’s, which affirmed the idea that art was not only a visual or sensory phenomenon, but primarily an intangible experience aided by the artist’s creation. As one member, Maurice Denis, said, “Art is … a creation of our spirit, for which nature is only the occasion.” (See <https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Nabis>)
Admirers of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne, they wanted to revive the understanding of art as symbolic, representing what cannot be seen, spoken, or touched, as it has been since pre-history. Perhaps they felt the rising dominance of science interpreting reality as only that which can be measured, calculated, analyzed, and controlled, to the neglect of the spiritual to which the symbolic points. Nearly 150 years later this spiritual-to-material shift which troubled them is today’s dominant Western assumption that the Real is material possession and the symbolic representation of the non-material is relegated to optional pastime diversions. Unimportant and irrelevant things are called “immaterial”.
Shall we live without symbols?
Symbols are the only way we can address the intangible. We represent the Mysterious and Unknown with metaphors and pictures about experiences and feelings of “something more” beyond materiality. The symbolic addresses great questions such as
Who are we?
Why is there life?
Is there God?
What is happening when we are inspired by a scene, music, or a story?
What is that “something” we sense beyond the material?
What is that phenomenon we call “self-sacrificing Love”?
And there are more of these questions than all the material stuff we can analyze despite claims that we can explain it all or analyze it until we know everything. Every particle of the universe raises more questions.
Humanity has been exploring these Unknowns since beyond memory but lately has acted as if Reality is all about manipulating and controlling our material surroundings. Those who still think the great questions are important, though appreciative of science, do not believe it is the sole definer of reality. They point to the troubles of people treating each other and the planet like discarded candy wrappers as testimony of the misdirection. The arts still carry the symbolic for all to consider, although much that is produced strives too hard for “realism”, not trusting the audiences’ spiritual insight (imagination).
Where the Symbolic Should be Valued
Even bastions of the symbolic such as houses of faith, arts organizations, and educational institutions struggle to maintain a viable support base by appealing to our preoccupation with materialism. I have watched the churches in which I grew up apply the scientific method to their message assuring their constituency can possess a well-defined God, an opulent heaven, and ultimate “plan” for the “end times”, some even counting down the days. The materialist view tends to see the actual symbols as the things they were meant to represent, i.e.: “hell fire” as the real burning furnace where your enemies will be tortured forever (deep inside the earth? Or on another planet?). While bad-mouthing the revelations of real science as leftwing conspiracies, many preach a controllable, fully analyzed “spiritual realm” which can be taught in countless step-by-step seminars (and you’d better keep in step). “Saving the world for Christ” has been a calculation of numbers like global corporate expansion by many evangelistic leaders. Others apply scientific planning to sociopolitical moves for world-dominance through Christian Nationalism.
Remember What a Symbol Is
The symbolic points to that which is greater than us, the Unknown from which we come, and which cannot be controlled by us. It helps us remember that we are more than mere consumers, that we are members of a Whole far more glorious than we can invent.
The symbolic guides us in discovering our True Selves, rather than ignoring or denying them in order to fit in. It frees us to contemplate and act in more expansive ways, to increase Goodness and well-being by attending to needs that had been avoided or hidden.
The symbolic is the way we experience what cannot be explained in words or numbers, the motivation for our calculation, and exploration of materiality. It helps connect Spirit and Materiality to reveal the Greater Reality.
On Other Planets?
Efforts are mounting in science to seek life on other planets. We ask, “Is there life elsewhere?” when we can hardly acknowledge each other across our guarded social, cultural, racial, and political boundaries. Yes, there is life elsewhere; right next to you. Can you not marvel at the discovery of your Neighbor? It is possible that there would be great celebration for finding a microbe on another planet while dishonoring the fully formed human beings in the billions here on this planet, to say nothing of the mass of life in other forms around us. This disconnect is due in large part to neglect of the symbolic and that to which it points.
This is not an either-or argument between science and the symbolic. Science has increased my wonder and contemplation with its revelations of the Unknown and marvels of the material universe. I have no need to guard my soul from science as I was led to believe by my church background. And I know there are many scientists who are also philosophers and theologians pondering what they are observing.
So, I continue to devote my life work to making symbolic artifacts in word and visual. I view myself, everyone, and everything as symbols. This material reality is not of itself, as in Psalm 100, “… it is not we ourselves” who have made us. We are connected with more than we know, and that is a good thing, for we have amply demonstrated the mess we can make of things by acting like the exclusive resident gods. Nevertheless, it is we who are the thinking members of this Body, and we need to awaken each other out of complete absorption in small, superficial self-indulgence. Hence, the artists, poets, composers, storytellers, musicians, dancers, … must continue to be inspired by and to inspire with the symbols which point the way beyond,
indeed, to BE the symbols.
Jesus characterized engagement with the Whole as “Spirit and Truth” (John 4) which embraces all manner of ritual, gesture, language, material, place, time, … We are spirit and truth in our essence, and we are discovering our connection with the Whole of Spirit and Truth. We are each icons, symbols, of the Whole.
If we restrict our concept of the Whole to superficial levels, appetites, whims, competition for jobs, weekend binges, getting more money, cars, houses, clothes, make-up, technology, celebrity, knowledge, honor, … we symbolize crumbling, self-destructive civilization.
If we hold lightly to the superficial, honor materiality as the vehicle of Life, and seek communion with the Whole, we grow into symbols of all-encompassing Love and freedom that transcend the limits of the universe. This is what Jesus demonstrated.