Symbols and Tests


In our adult forum last Sunday, we discussed symbols. After looking at a few frequently used Christian symbols, we turned to those we carry with us personally whether we carry them in our pockets, on our lapels or bodices, or in our minds. Our conversation was mostly light and uncritical, except when we talked about the cross and the fish, both of which retain their earlier meanings for many people of faith but, under the banner of Christendom, developed belligerent meanings and uses that put people who are not Christian on guard.

One further tendency of the symbolic also raised warning flags. From amulet to sacrament, the use of symbols always threatens to supplant the realities those symbols were meant to represent and reinforce. The outward expression of an inward truth, over time, tends to take over that truth itself and replace it. For example, a sacrifice that once expressed a contrite heart and heartfelt resolve to change one’s attitudes and behavior devolves into a ritualized quick fix for guilt substituted for genuine contrition. Then, the sacrifice actually works to prevent change, sustaining the old behavior by salving any regret it may have caused. Just perform the ritual properly, and all is well even though nothing has changed inwardly or outwardly. In that case, the sacrifice has become an enabler of the sin. The same can happen in personal life. At first, flowers represent a husband’s way of saying he is truly sorry for an inconsiderate act and the hurt it caused. Over time, however, the flowers can become an increasingly impotent and irritating attempt to appease his wife without really feeling sorry at all or intending to change anything. Then, the symbolic flowers become hateful in the wife’s eyes as an insulting substitute for the love and caring they once represented.

A symbol represents something greater than itself – a bigger truth, a commitment, a relationship, a life-guiding hope no symbol can hold but can only suggest. My wedding ring is not my marriage and cannot hold my love for my wife, my trust in her love for me, our shared hope that the love God has given us will endure and grow, and our mutual commitment to living that hope. The ring can only remind me of the greater truths it represents symbolically. Without those truths, I would have just band of gold with no value beyond the amount of money for which I could sell it. Worse, I might be left with a bitter symbol of lost love and failed hope.

Symbols are not the only things that can supplant the realities they were intended to support. Measurements can play the same destructive trick on us, especially those measurements designed to give us some partial idea of how well we are doing at something. Failure starts when we begin to accommodate a complex task involving development in human beings to some partial and invariably flawed measurement of progress. Then the measurement corrupts the process it was meant to support and enhance. The test becomes the thing. Rather than using the test to help guide and further the education of children, schools tailor the educational process to enhance scores on the test. The more the test comes to matter, the more it will corrupt the process of learning and the process of teaching.

But, you object, a test is not a symbol but serves a different purpose. That’s partly true, but what the test and the symbol have in common is their perverse ability to take over the realities they were meant to support. I do not contend that this analogy proves anything, but I make it to encourage critical thinking about (1) what education is and (2) what testing really shows. Does the religious symbol or symbolic act (sacrament, perhaps) support and enhance faith in God, or do we put our faith in the symbol and worship it? Which is truly sacred to us? Likewise, is testing done for the purpose of educating children, or is schooling done for the purpose of passing the test? Is the child the central reality, or is it the test? Which exists for the sake of the other? Which is sacred to us?