Earth Hour ’08 and the Power of Symbols

Posted on April 9, 2008


Thursday, March 29, 2008 was “Earth Hour,” a campaign that encourages individuals, organizations and businesses to turn off their lights for one full hour beginning at 8pm. This year, 24 global cities participated. Time Magazine published this article on Earth Hour and more information can be found at

Okay, so we’ve heard it all, and we know nothing. Is global warming a result of human-induced pollution or simply the natural ebb and flow of the earth’s cycle? Ought we modify our terminology from “global warming” to “climate change” like the Republican party in 2003 (see “Giving Us What We Want“), and does that bring clarity to the issue, or more confusion? And what about all the other environmental concerns that are tangential to the big one of warming.

In the Evangelical community there is no agreement. Many, mostly younger Christians take seriously Genesis 2:15, that ADAM (humanity) was placed in the Garden of Eden to “work it and take care of it,” which when interpreted into contemporary praxis means to minimize your footprint on the world so as to protect the Creation. Those on the Conservative Christian Right believe that the science is in question, and attending to this issue distracts from the real issues of Abortion and Gay-Rights. (I don’t see these two being reconciled any time soon).

Regardless, the Time article on “Earth Hour” had a snippet that highlighted a characteristic of humanity that is well worth extracting for comment and reflection that everyone ought to take into consideration:

Carter Roberts, head of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which sponsored Earth Hour, said the global event was designed to “make a statement about our commitment to solve the climate change problem and symbolize the commitment that people will make throughout the rest of the year.” … What was the point? As Roberts himself noted, the energy saved by turning off the lights for an hour “won’t make an enormous difference.” So, if it won’t cut carbon emissions, why bother then with Earth Hour, or Earth Day or Earth Live, last year’s daylong concert for the environment?

Because climate change is essentially a political problem, and the language of politics is symbolism. Just because an act is symbolic doesn’t mean it empty. (italics mine)

I contend that the power of symbols is an explanation of the dynamic and mysterious relationship between the tangible and the intangible; that which is feeling and emotion, and that which is concrete action. Symbols lie between the two, and link them together in a framework of meaning that gives inspiration and purpose to people. Humanity has, and will always be inextricably tied to symbols as a means of communication, and as a representation of something deep within the human soul, psyche, or spirit (whichever term you best like).

What is a symbol? It could be a figure-head, a person. It could be an action or activity. How about an icon, a brand, a logo, or even a habitual vice. A symbol could even be a job or career change, a new diet, and even a haircut. A symbol is anything that speaks to something deeper, that expresses the intangible, and is in many ways expresses reality with an accuracy that is absent outside of the symbol itself. And life is not only full of symbols, life is expressed and realized through symbols.

Why do you think we have weddings, funerals, ceremonies, salutes, parades, degrees, uniforms, celebrities, idioms, horoscopes, designer brands, and pets (yes, even pets can be symbolic of the kind of person we are). Each of these things are symbolic of something deep within the human spirit that is realized through the expression of the symbols themselves. The language of faith and politics, as the article pointed out, is all symbolic. The changing of a term (such as “global warming” to “climate change”), the building of a Temple, the fashioning of a whip and driving out Temple sellers (John 2:15), a Sabbath day, tassels (Numbers 15:37f), tefillin (phylacteries), a Torah scroll, bowing towards Mecca, wearing specific types of clothing, circumcision…they all mean something deeper than the symbol itself.

This perhaps explains why people who are depressed, or esteem themselves poorly usually don’t take care of themselves physically by dressing up, or putting on makeup. Maybe this explains even more so why people who have a “poor” kind of appearance are interpreted by others with questionable and/or deprecating evaluations (“You don’t looks so good. Are you okay?”) Maybe this is why we are so concerned for other’s living conditions in other parts of the world, and why we feel that they ought to have what we have in order for them to truly sense fulfillment in life (if they had what I had, physically, then they’ll feel fulfilled and joyful like I do). Perhaps this is why there is classism based on economics, and racism between cultures, and sexism between genders. Money is a symbol that is interpreted as power, or prestige. Race is a symbol that is interpreted as intelligence, ability, and the fundamental morals that are attributed to your race or color to which you belong. Gender is a symbol of sexual power, and hierarchy. And all of these have been used, manipulated, and misinterpreted for thousands of years for the oppression or elevation of particular identified groups of society.

If we want to make sense of the world, if we want to redeem the world, if we truly believe that we have a responsibility to the entire created order around us, then just like the WWF has capitalized on this symbol in creating a movement that may mean more to the WWF than to the world, we must learn how to appropriately leverage this kind of symbolism in our endeavors.

So is it the chicken, or the egg? Is it the tangible that influences the spirit, or is it the soul that influences our physicality? Ought we spend our efforts in simply realizing the right ethics in order to communicate with different symbols, or should we develop new symbols, and allow new interpretations to rise from there? While the answer could seem to be a clear “yes,” I’ll propose that one direction is more compelling and powerful than the other, and it is exemplified in Earth Hour, in history, and in the teachings of Jesus.

And that direction is to speak first to the symbols, with the symbols, and with the right symbols; make them real and powerful, and the spirit of the people will surely follow. Sociologically speaking, actions cause beliefs, not the other way around. Historically, you don’t convince people that Caesar is god and then build edifices as a result. You surround people, overwhelm them with symbolic actions (coins, temples, coronations), and that will move people to care (for better or worse) about substantiating the claim to divinity. According to Jesus, “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

My last observation, then, from a Biblical perspective is the power of obedience. The central prayer and declaration, in both Judaism and Christianity is the “Shema” (שמע), the words found in Deuteornomy 6:4f, (quoted by Jesus in Matthew 22:37f; Mark 12:28f.) The Hebrew word “hear” can also be understood as “obey.” And throughout the Scriptures, obedience is of the highest value. Many decry this as robotic, blind, unintelligent, or dictatorial. Isn’t God more interested in the heart? Are we not more concerned with the spirit? This is especially true in our neo-Gnostic Evangelical culture that has bifurcated the tangible from the intangible.

Obedience, however, in light of the power of symbols, and the hundreds of symbols that God commanded his people to exemplify, makes perfect sense, and is even more compellingly meaningful and real. If we were to take seriously the symbolic acts of faithful obedience (festivals, tassels, study, purity, etc.), then no doubt would our hearts follow. And in obeying, as an interpretative symbolic act, God accomplishes not only the mission of captivating the hearts of humanity, but saving the entire cosmos from destruction as well. Brilliant.

So whether it’s personal depression and a change of attire, a youth group on a missions trip, or an entire world shutting off their lights for an hour, it is the symbols, the actions or the elements, that cause meaning, purpose, direction, and healing in life. The fullness of our humanity will be realized, not if we wait around for our spirits to be moved, but if we engage with, and faithfully follow through with, and in, the symbols around us.