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Asking the clergy: Are religious symbols overemphasized?

The Rev. Paul Johnson, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, Manhasset:

I don't think we place too much emphasis on religious symbols. They serve a vital unifying and inspiring function. When I entered my Unitarian Universalist faith nearly 40 years ago, we didn't have a common symbol uniting people coming from many religious traditions. Gradually, over the years, the flaming chalice representing human equality, the light of truth and the warmth of love has become a unifying symbol among us.

The Rev. Mark Lukens, Bethany Congregational Church, East Rockaway:

Religious symbols hold deep meaning for the faithful, pointing us to the central truths of our faiths. For Christians, the cross represents the emphasis of our faith on transformation through sacrificial love: God's for us and ours for one another. When the cross becomes a symbol of cultural dominance or a weapon to be used in the culture wars, its meaning is diminished and perverted. When a Supreme Court justice refers to the cross as "merely marking a place of the dead," for example, as Justice Antonin Scalia recently did, he is defending the placement of a symbol by historical significance or the "basis of law" as a way of protecting their placement in a public space, they are being degraded by the very people who claim to be protecting them. Religious symbols are important, and they belong in the context of religious communities, not as markers of cultural turf. If you want to appreciate the beauty of the symbols of any of Long Island's many faiths, your local house of worship is the place for that.


Rabbi David Whiman, North Shore Synagogue, Syosset:

Symbols are tricky things. There is a whole science that deals with symbols called semiotics, which holds that symbols do not mean anything. Symbols only symbolize. So the cross symbolizes Christianity. The Star of David symbolizes Judaism. The crescent symbolizes Islam, etc. These representations stand in for the things they symbolize. When they are decoded, symbols begin to mean something, but not everyone will decode a symbol in exactly the same way. That's why people will not agree on the meaning or the appropriateness of placing the Ten Commandments in a courtroom. Symbols can function as a kind of spiritual shorthand, but they also can prompt passionate disagreement on their meaning. So, symbols work best within a community - be it religious or otherwise. In the public arena, where there are so many different communities walking side by side, caution is in order. Our tendency is to ascribe only the meaning we make to a symbol and lose sight of the fact that others may be doing exactly the same thing - only differently.


The Rev. Patricia Anne Duffield, National Spiritualist Teacher, A Sanctuary of Infinite Spirit NSAC, Smithtown:

The religion of Spiritualism does not need outward symbols such as crosses, candles, portrayals of saints and prophets or others, to intercede for us, nor as objects of worship. They are not necessary, as we do not believe in vicarious atonement, but stress personal responsibility and the continuity of life. Our deeds and examples as we live our life, guided by consciousness of Christ attributes in each of us, are our truth and generates growth as we walk our paths. We believe in a personal connection to God and the universal order. We do have unfoldment, meditation, mediumship and healing development classes, and have regular church services every week, but do not hold buildings nor "things" as sacred. We respect all religions and their symbols, for there is a level of belief for each of us as we question, learn and grow. We see the sunflower as an emblem, for it turns to the sun as it grows, and we turn our faces to truth, the light of God. We see candles as a light to inner peace; stars represent the cosmic universal truths or natural law; angels, like spirits, guides and masters, are a connection to the invisible worlds that are with us always.

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