Symbol or reality?

Today, in The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins by Tia M. Kolbaba, I read:

Another difference between symbols and signs lies in their users’ perception. Fairly frequently, people who use a symbol believe that it does not merely point to its referent but actually embodies, participates in or even constitutes the referent in some physical way. This is one of the reasons why it is often essential that a symbol not change. If a symbol is the symbol of its referent, then it canot be replaced by a synonym or a definition. Bread and wine, properly consecrated with the correct words (more symbols), by the right person (another symbol), are essential to the Eucharist in symbolic traditions. Crackers and grape juice prayed over by a lay minister will not do.

Several problems arise regarding this connection. First, it takes many forms in many different cultures, and there is seldom a precise, philosophical account of what the connection is. It may be as complex as that which links icons to saints in the mind of a theologian or as simple as putting pins in an image of someone. Quite often, believers will assert that the symbol is its referent. But the verb to be is notoriously difficult, and nowhere more so than here. If the bread of the Eucharist is Christ’s body, how then can the priest standing over it be Christ at the same time? For the scholarly, definition-oriented observer, such statements are incomprehensible.

Hans-Joachim Schulz, writing about a Byzantine liturgical commentary, expresses his discomfort: “As a matter of fact, the author of our commentary rather frequently identifies liturgical symbols, which are conceives as a kind of image, with that which they designate, but without determining more specifically the connection between the two.” Schulz wants a precise definition of the relation between the symbol and its referent. But such precise definitions are the first step in reducing the symbol to a sign. While Schulz is comfortable with symbols as discussed here, including the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, he is definitely not comfortable with some sorts of Byzantine symbolic representation.

I understand the theoretical distinction between what a priest was doing when he baptized someone (religion) and what he was doing when he sprinkled the fields with holy water (magic), but I cannot see any medieval historical reality to which the theoretical distinction responds.

Other scholars have portrayed beliefs in real connections between symbolic action and events in the physical world as ‘magic’. They distinguish, then, between religion, which is somehow purely spiritual, and magic, which “offers the prospect of supernatural control over man’s earthly environment.” …

In the middle ages, the gray area [between “religion” and “magic”] encompasses so much religious action that the distinction becomes arbitrary… So, for example, [Keith] Thomas writes: “Nearly every primitive religion is regarded by its adherents as as a medium for obtaining supernatural power. This does not prevent it from functioning as a system of explanations, a source of moral injunctions, a symbol of social order, or a route to immortality; but it does mean that it also offers the prospect of a supernatural means of control over mans earthly environment.” The analytical distinction which Thomas makes between “a source of moral injunctions, a symbol of social order, or a route to immortality,” and “a supernatural means of control” has no corresponding distinction in many religions.

In other words, I understand the theoretical distinction between what a priest was doing when he baptized someone (religion) and what he was doing when he sprinkled the fields with holy water (magic), but I cannot see any medieval historical reality to which the theoretical distinction responds…

Alexander Kazhdan makes a similar statement about Byzantium: “In Byzantine ritual it is often difficult to distinguish ceremonial solemnity from an attempt to dispel, by religious or magic means, the evil forces surrounding mankind.”

The artificial distinction between religion and magic seems to amount in the end to a belief that magic is an attempt to do something real, while religion is expected to do nothing real. Orthodox Christians would reject this notion, along with the modern notion that only a symbol means not real. When we call the Eucharist a symbol, we mean that it is a very real participation in the present, living, deified body and blood that is Christ’s.

I’m reminded of the Æcerbot, or Field Remedy, a very practical prayer quoted in full in Karen Jolly’s excellent Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. The Anglo-Saxon Christians of 10th-century Engliand, like their Byzantine contemporaries, did not fret about their use of liturgical symbols looking like magic – indeed, this prayer is in the tradition of pre-Christian elf-charms, though now robustly infused with faith in the Trinity, the cross, and the saints. And their understanding of symbols, while not defined, is familiar to any Orthodox reader.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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  1. Orthodox Christians definitely use constant sacraments and sacramentals (if you will) which “offer the prospect of supernatural control over man’s earthly environment.” It’s just that in our case, unlike in magic, that supernatural control comes not from a priest, or a spirit, or a lower deity in the style of paganism, but from God Himself. Only He has such control, and He may exercise it as He wills, with or without our sprinkling of holy water, sign of the cross, or anything else taught, blessed, and established by God Himself. Thus we do not in servile fear scramble to throw ritual between ourselves and evil, we look to Christ the Author and Finisher of our faith to take care of problems for us.

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    • Furthermore, in acts such as holy water sprinkling or crossing oneself, we not only implore God’s help, we celebrate and display the victory He has already won for us through the baptism, fasting, death and resurrection of Christ, as well as His ascension and second, glorious coming again.

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