One of the most significant things I’ve learned from my mentor, Len Sweet, is the power of symbols. The doctrinal program where I studied under him focuses on the philosophical discipline of semiotics. Semiotics is defined as the study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior.
Symbols, even more than words, are what drive meaning and influence in culture and society. We tend to not even notice this effect, which is partly why the symbols have such power. They have a way of bypassing the conscious mind and speak right to the subconscious. They influence us, without our noticing that we are being influenced.
Advertisers have grasped this reality much quicker than the rest of culture. “Just do it” might have tremendous marketing influence, but it is nothing compared to the Nike swoosh. Symbols communicate meaning and intention without us even being aware of their effect. We are affected, even though we can’t explain why. Somehow, we know more than we can say.
Len doesn’t just teach an awareness of this phenomena, but instead pushes his students to live intentionally into it. To utilize it. To tap into it. And not just in communication, but in everyday life. To discard things from our life that fail to inspire us in the right directions, and to choose to surround ourselves with symbols that inspire us and draw out our very best. To live intentionally into the symbols.
For example…in Len’s home, one of the most sacred places is his private library. It is filled with an almost overwhelming clutter of books and art and couches. It is an inviting hobbit hole of a study. And it is there that many of my favorite moments of discussion, ideation, and vision casting have taken place. But before you enter this place, you must pass through the doorway. And the door itself is a symbol.
It is a smaller door. I have to stoop to get through it. And this isn’t accidental. No, to enter into Len’s study, you have to bow. Especially me, at almost 6’4. This is intentional. As you enter in to this sanctuary of ideas, you humbly acknowledge that you are merely one mind amidst the sea of thought and tradition that has gone before you. That you are simply one man amongst many.
And that the subject you are there to wrestle with requires a necessary posture of modesty. Of reverence. This isn’t simply imagination and curiosity. It is mystery. And the practice of study is not merely an intellectual endeavor. The discussion of theology should be done with a level of fear and trembling.
But you don’t just stoop. There is a six inch step up into the library. And this is on purpose as well. You don’t just bow. You must rise up. To the high calling of contemplation. Of prayer. Of loving God not only with all of your heart, but all of your mind.
And both of these movements happen as one. Every time you go through this door, you are reminded of the sacredness of the vocation. To live a life worthy of the calling you have received. And it requires both more of you, and a great deal less of you. It takes all of your mind, and none of your self.
And as paradoxical as this sounds, it happens experientially as you participate with the symbol. You are forced to stoop, but simultaneously to step up. And as you do, part of you is changed, whether you realize it or not.
There is nothing in Len’s house that does not have a story connected to it. And his home is filled with all sorts of different items and curiosities. It is a brilliant assortment of icons that speak to who he is and who he wants to be.
As I visit this place, it reminds me of the power of symbols. To not take them lightly, but instead, to treasure them. Not for the item itself, but for the reality that it pushes me towards. To step into this greater calling with eager anticipation, and yet with a necessary reverence and humility that might otherwise get lost in the familiarity.
Because everything in this life is temporary. It is transitory. But the power of our possessions happens when, as symbols, they push us further into our own story and even more, when they remind us of the greater storyline that our lives play into.