I was reading an article by Theo Hobson recently that played with Rowan Williams’ understanding of Jesus as “a sign-maker of a disturbingly revolutionary kind.” I love provocative thoughts like that! It set my mind in motion.
Be forewarned that my reflection on this article sets free my love of obtuse abstraction. But be comforted, if you choose to read through, that it ends in a conversation with my daughter.
Williams’ assertion means that Jesus’ most radical teachings are not embedded primarily in the cognitive content of his teachings or commands, but in his significant, symbolic actions and in his imaginative parables about actors doing significant, symbolic things.
In philosophy, this emphasis on the essential role played by signs and symbols in human life is called ‘semiotics.’
Whether it was his touching of lepers, eating with tax collectors, inviting ex-prostitutes to be disciples, engaging in a public theological exchange with an ostracized Samaritan woman, flipping money changers’ tables, working signs and wonders, telling stories that subverted contemporary cultural and religious standards of right conduct, or forgiving his murderers while dying naked on a cursèd Tree, Jesus re-invested the world with new portals of meaning through which God’s original design could be perceived aright.
Theo argues that, for Williams, morality in Christianity is not principally about a few non-negotiable rules, but rather about the way human beings enact, embody, signify, and so imitate their Designer, God, especially as God has been revealed in Christ.
Humanity, in the Bible, is understood to be at the epicenter of God’s relationship with all creation, and human beings are called to transact, as ‘priests of nature,’ between Creator and cosmos, mediating God’s form to creation and creation’s form to God (cf Phil 2:5-10). This ‘transaction,’ which is the soul of all true re-formation, is effected by means of signs, as signs are able to mediate meaning, and offer a bridge of communion between God and creation, between man and man, and between man and creation.
This very abstract idea leads me to think of a very concrete example: marriage. Marriage, in the Christian conception, was designed by God to place at the heart of creation a living sign of the fiery structure of divine life: inter-personal, self-giving, life-creating, unbreakable love. Those who choose to accept this vocation accept the vocation to ‘be joined’ in order to signify this Godlike ‘structure.’
In my marriage all of my actions, if they are to effect, sustain and deepen our marital communion, must transact meanings that signify the ‘rumor of Infinite love’ I vowed with my bride on 10/14/95, rendering that rumor visible. In other words, we must mean what we do and do what we mean.
If a man brings his wife a rose when she’s feeling stressed, pauses to kiss her every day before he leaves for work, makes love to her with impassioned reverence and openness to the gift of new life, writes a poem in praise of her beauty, or remains faithfully by her side in illness, he communicates to her and to all, by means of rightly-ordered signs, that his vowed love for her is ever-fresh and newly alive with Godlikeness. He truly becomes, with his wife, a sign revealing God.
The same is true in the case of contra-signs. If a married man ‘transacts in nuptial signs’ with another woman, signs reserved to the exclusive character of marital love (e.g. sexual intimacy), he subverts the right-order of the semiotics that effect and sustain the marital bond, and so simultaneously subverts the divinely ordered significance of marriage as the ordering center of creation. In doing this, the adulterer eschews his priestly vocation to mediate communion between creation and Creator, and mars the wonderfully complex beauty of love’s semiotic matrix.
Such a man becomes, against his wife, a liar resigned to concealing God.
For Williams, the core wrongness of casual sex lies in the fact that such sex, driven by the whims of sexual impulse, invites us into semiotic anarchism. Casual sex hints at huge meanings that we don’t mean. Sex, outside of the marital sacramental sign, is not safely “meaningless,” but rather is meaning-shaking. Divinely designed sex, on the other hand, which is defined by its unitive and procreative significance, is perhaps the loudest communicative tool available to us. Sex by design is redeemed sex, a veritable doxology.
This is, of course, not an original thought. It permeates the entire Christian tradition. It’s the ground of our understanding of sacrament, which is itself grounded in the Incarnation of God, Jesus Christ. It’s also the foundation of Catholic social teaching, which unveils the socially inscribed, divinely designed semiotics of justice and charity. So deeply inscribed in social life is the divine signature of justice and charity, the Gospel asserts that attending to the hungry is not just the semiotic imitation of a ‘feeding God,’ but is itself the very feeding of God. How terrifyingly real and demanding our transacting with God in our neighbor is, especially when we consider further that this same God chose to become Food and Drink in the supremely effective and most blessed of all signs, the holy Eucharist. And those who eat of this heavenly Banquet become an earthly sign of the divine-human community of our Triune God.
How important this is to reflect on for Christians who are called to glorify the Lord with their bodies, bodies which constantly, even if unwittingly, communicate, or render mute, the divinely wrought meaning of all things.
Let Me Hear Your Body Talk
A final and illustrative story that came to mind as I wrote.
About five years ago, when we lived in Florida, I remember one time when I was working on the computer at home. My daughter was persistently trying to get my attention to tell me about some important trifle. After several insistent repetitions of “Dad!” I cried out in exasperation, even as I continued to stare at the screen, “Stop saying that! I’m listening!”
She retorted, “But your face isn’t!”
My prophetic daughter exposed my technologically justified, semiotic lying.
I turned the screen off.