Making Signs

In Rowan Williams' essay "The Nature of a Sacrament" he suggests that humans make sense of the world by making signs. We create things and re-create things. We renew and transform things. And through this sign-making we come to understand ourselves and our world. This is how we "make meaning."

Importantly, much of this sign-making is embodied and incarnational in nature as we organize and transform the material "stuff" of the world. Williams writes:
[B]eing human, being bodily, and being a user of 'signs' are inseparable. We reflect on ourselves and 'answer' our individual and social past by doing things and making things, re-ordering what the past and present world has given us into a new statement of meaning, self-interpretation and world-interpretation.
In the Christian imagination Jesus was the preeminent sign-maker:
Jesus of Nazareth...It is clear that the tradition of his deeds and words is heavily influenced by the sense that he was a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind.
In Jesus's life and actions--in the way he used the "stuff" of material existence, including his physical body--he created signs, signs that directed our attention to God, the one he called "Father." More, Jesus was--in his material existence--a sign and sacrament:
Jesus, baptized, tempted, forgiving and healing, offering himself as a means of a new covenant, is himself 'sacrament': it is his identity that is set before us as a sign...the life of Jesus is a sign of God, showing how a human biography formed by God looks.
The nature of sacrament, then, is about sign-making--organizing, transforming and renewing material existence in a way that points toward God. What is most important here isn't a focus on holy, sacramental objects than engaging in sacramental action:
[T]he primary concern should be for sacramental actions rather than an attempt to focus on 'sacralized' objects.
Sacramental action is a form of sign-making that organizes and re-organizes the material world in a way that brings renewal, refreshment and transformation. The sign-making is "Christian" insofar as it seeks to remember and replicate the sign-making of Jesus of Nazareth, shaping and re-shaping material existence in the manner in which he shaped and re-shaped material existence.

And by material existence I mean bread, wine, oil and water. Light, movement, and color. Smells and sound. Standing, kneeling, and dancing. Singing, praying, and preaching. Gathering, listening, and sending. Washing, embracing, touching. Making, re-making, and repairing. Celebrating, commemorating, remembering. Serving, caring, and nursing. Protesting and resisting.

These are material signs and sacramental actions--ways we shape and re-shape our world and bodies--that help us "make sense" as we refresh and renew material existence, over and over, to the glory of God.

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24 thoughts on “Making Signs”

  1. Here you write: "In the Christian imagination Jesus was the preeminent sign-maker."

    A commentor in the previous post said, "God reveals himself most fully [through Jesus}.

    Question: Where does this "preeminence" and "most fully" come from? Why is it so necessary in the rhetoric. Is it just me, or does the parochial nature of such thinking not jump out boldly?

    The superiority complex is common to all religions, nations and tribes, of course, but need it be? I wonder if Jesus had it or if it was just the theology spinners that followed.

  2. I think these exclusive claims stem from common goals, shared by all religious and meta-ethical systems. I think that the implicit goal, even of this conversation with you, is to arrive at consensus. Consensus implies some kind of unitive notion of truth. Based on your comments and blog (which is really interesting, btw), I think that your pre-eminent truth notion is probably something like this, "We live in a world of warring 'gods' (in the demythologized sense that Max Weber used the term). The best we can hope to do is recognize that these warring 'gods' are really human projections onto the world, and maybe in doing this, we can keep the factions that they form from killing, marginalizing and oppressing each other." In essence, this is a story that some people (and I suspect, at least in some kind of form, you are one of those people) believe to be true enough. Fair warning though: if you agree that you think this, or something like it is true, then I would suggest that this is the pre-eminent story that you are trying to use to wrap around all of the other stories and make sense of them. If that is the case, I think you are doing the same sort of thing as everyone else. Of course, some of these wrap-around stories are better than others (and I'm happy to see from your blog that you already acknowledge this). One interesting question then becomes: which of these stories is the best? Insofar as you think you have even a tentative answer to that question, you have the same sort of 'superiority complex.' If you are willing to admit that, then welcome back to the world the rest of us live in. Glad you are here :)

  3. This links up nicely with some reflections on the sign-character of miracles. Contrary to later developments, I think the signs and wonders of Jesus are primarily significant as signs, not because of their 'supernatural' character. This doesn't exclude later emphases on the supernatural; part of their sign character is that they point to a God who acts in history, and is sovereign over history. But the more interesting parts of their sign character are different. The curing of the blind points to the curing of our moral and spiritual blindness. Casting out the Legion points to Christ's victory over the Legions of Rome. It is primarily in this sense that signs and wonders are significant.

  4. Nah, the "You Too" argument fallacy does not work here. I am sure you are aware of it.
    Does there have to be a best -- my question. I think all would agree that there does not have to be a best in ALL all things.
    "Jesus as the best revelation", "the best story", "the best salvation", "the best religion" and such is odd thinking. No "you too" fallacies escape that, I think.

  5. So you are accusing me of a false equivalence, right? In what way is this not equivalent?

    And if you want to say that there isn't a best, I'm fine with that. Better is good enough. You think your story is better, right? And by 'better' here, I mainly mean more true, a closer approximation to reality.

  6. Got to run to work Dan. But I really appreciate the dialogue. One of my goals is to try to keep dialogue real -- whatever that means -- mainly, not to waste too much time fruitlessly.

    Before I try to dissect your argument (which will take me a great deal of time), could you first answer this (shortly, if possible):

    Do these concepts not seem odd to you:
    "Jesus as the best revelation", "the best story", "the best salvation", "the best religion"

    Thanx, mate. And thanx for visiting my blog to get a taste of my thoughts before dialoguing.
    sorry, off to work

  7. No problem. And if you want to carry on this conversation elsewhere, I'm more than happy to do that. I'm in the middle of a writing project on exactly this topic, so the timing is fortuitous :)

  8. @ Dan Heck,

    Yeah, discussing the logic may be hard. I will do a post on it shortly to offer a place to start part of the discussion if you wish -- unless you have a blog (Disqus doesn't mention it).

    But the OP states, "the preeminent sign-maker" so before continuing on my blog, I think my question above still is pertinent, so I will repeat it:

    Do these concepts not seem odd to you:
    "Jesus as the best revelation", "Jesus' story is the best story", "Jesus offers the best salvation", "Christianity is the best religion"

    Thanx, Dan

  9. Sounds good. No, I don't find statements like that odd. I also don't find these statements odd: "The Quran is the best revelation" or "The Buddah is the most Enlightened" or "Those who deploy modern scientific methods are the most enlightened" odd. I'm perfectly open to claims of that sort, regardless of who makes them. I don't think that the fact that competing claims of that sort exist is even prima facie evidence against them; instead, I think the universality of the concern shows that there is a universal longing in human cultures for something of this sort. I also don't have a problem with claims like these: "The heliocentric model of the solar system is the best model" or claims like "The geocentric model of the solar system is the best model." The existence of competing claims of this nature is not prima facie evidence against geocentrism or heliocentrism.

  10. I would say "Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of God, which we currently perceive as if looking in a mirror dimly." I would also say that Jesus exclusively offers us salvation, and we'd need to discuss the definition of "salvation;" so "best" would logically follow from that. But anything you want to use against "best" you can feel free to use a fortiori against the position I'd advocate, which is even more extreme :). I would not argue that Christianity is the best religion; it might be, for all I know, but I'm not convinced of this, and I don't think my other commitments entail this. This is not because I'm generally against religion. I like religion, and am a Christian who practices the religion of Christianity. But I think these questions are distinct and secondary.

  11. This is a great question. It goes to the heart of a lot of stuff out there that I find quasi-Christian. It goes to claims of ultimacy. It goes to worship. It goes to idolatry. It goes to what Christianity is really claiming.

    A friend once suggested that there might be a being as much greater than God, as God is than us. (And, no doubt, another being as much greater than THAT being, and so on!) In Christian thought, this would mean that "God" is really an idol, and worship of "God" is idolatry. In Christian thought, worship is only appropriate for that which is ultimate--not simply more powerful or more good, but ultimately so.

    If Jesus is simply one among other ways to God, then Jesus would be a helper (along all the other helpers)--but would not be worshiped. Trinitarian thought is all about figuring out how to explain our worship of Jesus--putting Jesus in a place where he is not a means to an end (one way to live a moral life), but the end of our moral life. That would be simply idolatry unless Jesus is also ultimate, not just more revelatory of God, but ultimately so.

    So if you are a nonChristian, i.e. someone who does not worship Jesus and does not recognize Jesus as ultimately revelatory of the One who is ultimate, then it must all look parochial. I suppose, if we want to call names, we can call all worship parochial, a superiority complex, etc. Of course, in doing so you sound like you are superior to those who think they have found the ultimate, and who worship. . . .

  12. Hey jih11a:

    (1) I don't think all early Christians "worshipped" Jesus, but that this was a later development. But this is a side conversation -- see James McGrath "The Only True God"

    (2) This is the important point: Your last sentence is mistaken. If I think all those who claim salvation superiority are wrong, I am not just like them, for I am claiming we are all the same. Sure, I may, like them, be claiming others are wrong. But very, very different from all of them, I am not claiming they are going to hell. Way different -- to make the same hides an ugly claim.

    (3) I may be wrong, but I am guessing that we are so far apart on critical issues that fruitful dialogue may be extremely difficult.

  13. Are you a "Universalist" like Richard Beck - the OP author? Please try to minimize the Christianese and the layers of theological caveats when possible. Or do you differ with Richard on important issues.

  14. I differ on important issues. While the caveats might seem minor to you, I'm not a universalist, or annihilationist, or eternal conscious tormenter. I think the Biblical text is ambiguous, and that this is a feature and not a flaw. I believe that these categories all fail to do honor to the text and the tradition, that we are not supposed to find our identities in systems, and that if there is a God, then God is a sovereign person who wouldn't be bound by our systems under any circumstances. So they are all kind of futile. However, I also believe that we have an obligation to hope for the salvation of all people. So people who really feel a need for these systems will sometimes classify me as a 'hopeful universalist'. That is probably the least inaccurate designation. I don't make these caveats because I want to be obscurantist. I hope that I clearly laid out my core objections to the entire schema. If it helps, another objection that I have to the entire schema is that I'm also convinced of partial preterism, meaning that I take most of these end-times prophecies to be at least partially fulfilled; if you've heard of the 'already and not yet' that is also a helpful way of getting at this. IE: I think that heaven and hell are already here, but not yet in their fullness. For example, I take the Mt. Olivet discourse that ends with the famous sheep and goats scene to be concerned, in the first instance, with the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70 AD. By extension, this can be applied to ultimate judgment, but I think it has to be seen through that lens. Sorry if this makes my position less boxable than you'd like. It happens to be the simplest way to summarize my convictions in the current common frameworks.

  15. Thanx, Dan. My comments were aimed at Universalist Christians. For non-universalist, the "obviousness" of my points would not be as obvious. :-)

    Instead, you and I most likely have biggers barriers to those type of conversations.

    That is the difficulty on chatting on Christian blogs (and others), I write a note in response to the OP and commentors jump in with different perspectives and things can get convoluted. As also above while trying to talk to jhl11a.

    Thank you for your careful explanation.

  16. Sure thing, and I'm always happy to talk :) I respect your position, and think that my theological positions can be translated into secular discourse. If you care to carry on the conversation on your blog, I think we have plenty of common ground. I am happy to restrict myself to shared standards and priors that I'm confident you could agree with.

  17. Just wanted to say thanks for sharing this. I get really annoyed with the arguments around how symbolic actions turn into something "more" (transubstantiation and all that jazz). I feel like that always leads to a kind of magical thinking. It's refreshing that Rowan focuses more on the action as a sign. Thanks for sharing!

  18. "The Universe is a vast representamen, a great symbol of God’s purpose, working outs its conclusions in living realities."

    Charles Sanders Peirce
    “The Seven Systems of Metaphysics,” in EP 2.193.

  19. This is way too late so I doubt you'll see it. But here's my answer, if you care:
    1. It's a matter of definition, isn't it? In the earliest clear evidence we have, Christians were all about worshipping Jesus. Intriguing but maddening to try to figure out when this started, and what that "Christianity" may have looked different. Even McGrath is pretty clear that the "later" development is pretty early and had pretty much dominated the available evidence. . . .
    2. I'm sorry, I think you need to read my last sentence again. First, neither of us mentioned hell--some people who think they have found the ultimate, like Richard, don't believe anybody is "going to hell." Most Christians, including Paul, and me, don't talk about hell at all. So you're putting words in my mouth. Second, I never said you were just like anyone. I do think you sound superior to those who think they have found, and follow, the ultimate. That doesn't make you like them. Maybe your rejection of the "ultimate being to be worshipped" category makes you better; maybe it makes you worse; maybe neither. My problem is that I don't see you providing any actual reasons that the "ultimate being to be worshipped" category is a bad one--I see in you a defensive frustration that others think they know the ultimate being to be worshipped, but I don't see you articulating why this is a bad thing. One possible reason this may be a bad thing is because it makes people believe others go to hell (but few people on this blog think that); one possible reason this may be a bad thing is because it can make people sound superior (but you sound more superior than anyone on this blog).
    3. No idea how far apart we are. But I think you have no idea where I am--except that I am a Christian, and think that means I do know an ultimate being to be worshipped. And you seem to have misunderstood even that much. So we might be closer (or farther apart?) than you guess.

  20. Yes, two weeks later I decided to swing by and check. Sorry if this is poor blogging etiquette. Not sure you thought it was the close of a conversation. (Obviously wasn't, if you replied!)

    If you think I'm wrong that you sound superior, I apologize for my rudeness in saying that you did. If you did intend to sound superior (to all those who believe they know ultimate truth/ worship/ God), then that doesn't bother me a bit. It's simply a datum to take into account as I try to understand your argument.

    So far you seem to be making these points:
    "1. People shouldn't believe in an ultimate truth/ worship/ God, because that only comes from a need to be superior to everyone else.
    2. I am superior to people who believe in an ultimate truth/ worship/ God.
    3. I am not committing the same fallacy that they are committing--you can't twist my words into making me sound like my own disbelief in an ultimate, is a belief in an ultimate.
    4. Besides, those kind of people believe in hell."

    I am willing to grant you #3--you are not committing the same "fallacy" they are committing. But I still haven't seen why you think it's a fallacy (#1a). Or why you think that those who believe differently, need to feel superior (#1b). Or why you are so sure of the superiority of your own position (#2). Or why you dragged in #4 at all.

    Again, if you think I've misunderstood any of these points, let me know which ones. My own argument has only two points:
    "1. Historically, with a few possible and unverifiable exceptions, Christianity is indeed about believing in an ultimate truth/ worship/ God.

    2. This claim is a significant claim to evaluate, rather than a claim to attribute to others' need to feel superior."

    I really don't care if you disagree with either of my two claims; I'll tell you why I think they are true, if you wish. I would like to know if you'd explain your own position a bit more.

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