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Symbols of Faith

Symbols of Faith

by Rev. Lee Johnson on March 12, 2019

A few years ago – go ahead and think it, “lol” – okay many years ago, Professor Young-Ho Chun introduced my second-year seminary class to the readings and thinking of German-American theologian Paul Tillich, in particular Dynamics of Faith.  I would not pretend to understand everything Tillich writes. I leave that to Dr. Chun.

Dynamics of Faith is one of those books that has journeyed with me throughout my ministry, making every moving cut. Today, I no longer need a bunch of books in my office to make me look like I know something.  People already know.  Remember, I have little need to pretend.

I reached for Dynamics of Faith last week when preparing a sermon on Matthew 16 and Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah. If God, as Tillich says, or so I remembered, is the fundamental symbol of our ultimate concern, what’s that make Jesus? I never got to the answer. I’ll ask Dr. Chun, whom I deeply respect, next time I see him.

I stopped reading on page 43, “characteristics of a symbol,” characteristic number six to be exact. It was there Tillich struck a nerve left uncovered and untreated at the recent United Methodist General Conference in StL.

Right there on top of page 43 for all the world to read Tillich writes “a symbol cannot be produced intentionally.” Instead, Tillich holds a symbol grows out of our unconscious being and takes on meaning when it is accepted by the collective unconscious of the group in which it appears.

Should you be confused, try “friending” Dr. Chun on Facebook.  Or, move on to characteristic number 6 at the bottom of page 43: “a symbol dies when it ceases to produce the response in the group where it originally found expression.” That’s when I stopped reading and remembered the much-loved United Methodist symbol of a cross and flame.

Which, when it comes to meaning and symbols, appears to be on Tillichian life support.

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