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Passionate Symbolism

A response to the film "The Passion of Christ"

In all the recent commentary, pro and con, over the degree of truth in the tale of Christ's crucifixion, I have yet to see the most important element brought up. That is, what does it mean? Is there a symbolic interpretation or not? And if we accept this as a literal story, regardless of the numerous historical inaccuracies it appears to contain, must we necessarily close our minds to this symbolic aspect?

All the arguments I've encountered focus on the degree of literal truth in the story. Even those that make the story out as a non-literal myth fail to provide the key to understanding the myth. The authors are content to describe the historical, factual weaknesses of a literal interpretation. But we are still left without understanding the importance of the image.

The central motif is of a man, Jesus Christ, nailed to a cross of wood, where he dies in agony. Later, he returns to life, leaving his tomb empty.

The cross is a symbol for the world of manifestation. It is one of the most universal symbols our species has. The ancients used it to indicate the harmonious interrelation of the four elements--earth, water, fire and air--which comprise the structure of the whole universe. The fifth, or quintessential, element is the space in which the other four exist. In Cartesian terms the cross is formed of a horizontal and a vertical member. The vertical symbolizes metaphysical factors such as time and thought, while the horizontal is comprised of objects and their images in the mind. Again, the whole manifested universe is epitomized in this scheme of the cross.

In Christian terms the horizontal and vertical are described as the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. One's "neighbors" spread out across the earth are the horizontal breadth, and the divine, which comes "down" from "above" and is to be looked "up" to, is the vertical component. Once again, the symbol of the cross is the balanced inclusion of everything in creation, since divine factors are created just as surely as is matter.

In the Christian context, Christ symbolizes the spirit of divinity, the Light. This is described in a number of ways, but the idea is essentially that he is an emissary of God, an injection of spirit into our world in order to "save" us from our mundane preoccupations. Interested non-Christians could recognize Christ as an image for truth, regardless of the source.

So here's the point of the crucifixion imagery: the spirit is ever new, ever fresh, ever relevant to the present moment. Our ideas, however, don't usually remain this flexible. Often we cling to them even when they aren't appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves. Since it is elusively difficult to rise above our "lowly" condition of fixed ideas and love the spirit in all its freedom, we inevitably associate it with the material world with which we are familiar. In the process we substitute our preformed ideas for the living dynamism of the spirit. When we identify the spirit with a static image of our material world, we in essence "fix" it to the world. When we do this, it is as if we've nailed it to the cross of materialism. We take the spirit literally, instead of spiritually, on its own terms. This "kills" it, making it a pathetic, dead thing.

From a scientific perspective, we know that light is present throughout the universe but only becomes visible when it interacts with material objects. The light becomes veiled in a sense by the objects it illuminates. As we observe objects we forget the light that has brought them to us.

Whenever we encounter the ubiquitous image of Christ nailed to the cross, we are being reminded how we deaden the living spirit whenever we focus on the outward form. Isn't it paradoxical that conceiving of the crucifixion as a literal event kills the spirit of the symbol in exactly the way the image symbolizes in the first place! Once again, we take a reminder of freedom and liberation in the spirit and make it a prison. We "bury it in a tomb" built of the most static material substance, symbolized by stone.

"Christ died to save sinners." This salvation means the image of death on the cross was to teach us to cease in our simplistic attitudes that kill the spirit and remember the light. It was not to teach us that by some magical process a divine being removed our responsibility for our own lethal ignorance. This is a complete reversal of the point, and the lethality of such ignorance may be seen far and wide in the "true believers" who continue to hate in the name of peace and love.

In modern terms, the significance of this image should remind us that what we take for our picture of the world is only an image created in our brains out of nervous agitation produced by the stimulation of our senses. By the very process of interpreting the world we transform this raw input into a fictionalized version based on a lifetime of inference and guesswork, thereby altering or in a sense "killing" the original. We are so mesmerized by this intriguing picture that we forget it is a flawed approximation and mistake it for reality. We insist on its truth, and are ready to fight to defend it. The struggle to overcome this inherent limitation of our organism is the scientific equivalent of the religious quest.

Luckily there's also a resurrection in this story. The light of the spirit is not killed; it cannot be killed. It always "comes back to life." If it was dependent on our limited understanding it would long ago have perished, but fortunately it is not. Time and again it pushes away the stone of our ignorance and emerges unseen from the tomb in which we've laid its remains. This signifies its return to its natural unencumbered state.

Since we cannot seem to stop killing the spirit by taking it as literal truth rather than as dynamic instruction and inspiration, (or as scientific "fact" instead of provisional hypothesis), we are left at least with the hopeful message that no matter how wrongly we treat our birthright of heavenly bliss, we can only kill it temporarily. It is ever reborn. All we have to do is cease demeaning the ineffable essence by nailing it to the cross of materialism, and it will blossom forth once again. Scientists and the faithful alike should be reminded of the need for humility in a world where our feeling of certainty expands in direct relation to our ignorance.

One obvious corollary should be mentioned, of the many lessons that could be drawn from this image. We ourselves are the cause of the death of the spirit through our fixations, not some other group of "infidels". Each of us makes this mistake all the time. We're built this way. We need to be constantly reminded that our fixed notions deaden the spirit and prevent its free circulation within us. That's why we've been given this symbol to ponder. To blame others for causing this universal situation is to once again miss the point, to once again gleefully drive a nail into the helping hand of our divine messenger of liberation.

Now, do we still want to take this story literally?

Scott Teitsworth