Living With and Through Symbols

When Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s first Jewish senator, was sworn in last month, he clutched a Hebrew Bible as he took the oath of office. This particular bible once belonged to Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, who had led Atlanta’s Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, the city’s oldest synagogue and where Ossoff celebrated his bar mitzvah. Rabbi Rothschild happened to be a close ally of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the congregation became a center for the advocacy of racial justice in what was then a city steeped in racial division. The synagogue was bombed in 1958 by white supremacists, prompting Rabbi Rothschild to form his alliance and friendship with Dr. King.

Senator Ossoff saw the bible as a symbol of the strong relationship between the African-American and Jewish communities in Atlanta, as well as the power generated when different groups come together to advocate for justice.

In paying tribute to famed cable TV interviewer, Larry King, who recently died, Washington Post writer Hank Stuever referred to the vintage microphone, which adorned King’s desk on the set of his program, as a “symbol of listening.” For decades, King hovered over the microphone, which pointed to, perhaps even encouraged, a spirit of curiosity and openness to learning from his guests which King exemplified throughout the years.

These days seem to be crammed with symbols, be they symbols which mean much to us, telling the story of our lives and work, or symbols which repel us, instilling fear and worry about the future. The Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner spoke of symbols as those things which make present and real that which they represent. Human beings seem naturally predisposed to symbols, whether they express and contain our deepest hopes and longings, or play to our fears. Whether they build up or destroy, symbols open up to us a deeper understanding of the human spirit, indeed of God.

Many high school students in Episcopal schools have read Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, and may recall the great theologian’s treatment of symbols in relationship to faith. Tillich wrote that symbols point beyond ourselves to something larger, and unlock “dimensions and elements of our soul which correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality.” Unlike signs, which might instruct us, symbols go deeper, forging links between the tangible and the unseen.

A good school is well aware of the power of symbols, those which uplift and unite us and those which demean and, consequently, divide us. Like King’s microphone, symbols in Episcopal schools “acknowledge the need to ask and answer the great mysteries of life.” Many consultants and observers will offer characteristics of good schools—their programs, their planning—and to those I would add the presence of symbols, which invite us into education at its most stirring, transformative level.