Baha'i News -- Symbols of faith

Symbols of faith


Local religious leaders share signs of their beliefs

PHIL ANDERSON/The Capital-Journal

The Rev. David Grimm of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka examined a Hindu wood-carving at the Interfaith of Topeka annual meeting, during which leaders from eight faith traditions shared stories of their religious symbols.

By Phil Anderson

The Capital-Journal

Religious symbols are woven into the fabric of cultures around the world, appearing atop houses of worship and emblazoned on coins, stamps and flags.

From Christian crosses to Jewish stars of David to the Islamic crescent moon and star, adherents of world religions frequently express their convictions through visible means.

The topic of religious symbols was the theme of the Interfaith of Topeka annual meeting last week at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka, 4775 S.W. 21st.

Representatives from eight religious traditions made presentations at the program, displaying and discussing symbols associated with their faith traditions, including Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Native American and Unitarian Universalism.

Christian Kramer, representing the Yuchi tribe of the Native American tradition, said the circle was his religion's primary symbol. The circle sometimes is conveyed through a medicine wheel or a teepee in Native American religious tradition.

"An Indian always works in circles," Kramer said. "The power of the world always works in circles. Everything tries to be round."

Besides the Earth being round, Kramer said many natural occurrences take the shape of a circle, including birds' nests. There also is a circle of life, which manifests itself through the changing seasons that come and go and come again.

Rabbi Lawrence P. Karol, of Temple Beth Sholom, showed a nine-branched menorah, used during the Hanukkah celebration, to illustrate one of Judaism's many symbols.

One candle is lit the first night by the Shamash, or helper candle. Each night of the eight-day Hanukkah celebration, an additional candle is lit. By the end of Hanukkah, all eight candles are lit, signifying the miracle of lights after the Temple in Jerusalem was recaptured and cleansed by the Jews.

In times past, rabbis discussed whether to have all eight candles lit the first night and decrease by one each night of the observance, or whether to start with one and increase to eight.

The tradition has been to start with one and increase to eight. The decision was made in part by rabbis who reasoned that "You should increase in matters of holiness rather than decrease," Karol said. "That's why we start with one and increase to eight."

The menorahs can take different forms, as well. Karol displayed one of his favorite ones, which was in the shape of a tree, emphasizing wisdom and life, rather than war.

"That's why this one is special," Karol said. "It says all of wisdom's paths are peace, and that's certainly something we can hope for, both for ourselves and our world."

In his presentation, Dr. Sanford Pomerantz, of the Buddhist tradition, utilized both a statue of Buddha and a small white cloth suspended in air near it to represent a floating cloud.

"Life is like a floating cloud that appears," he said. "Death is like a floating cloud that disappears."

He closed his presentation with a question: "There is one thing that is always pure and clear, not depending on life or death. What is that one clear thing? I'll leave you with that to answer."

Carol Christensen, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, polled a dozen local ministers to determine the sign of the Christian faith.

While the cross may be the best-known symbol of Christianity, she said, it isn't used by all denominations.

In those congregations where it is used, it may vary by denomination. Roman Catholic churches, she said, typically have a figure of Christ on the cross, while most Protestant congregations don't. However, even some newer Catholic churches are now displaying an empty cross.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doesn't display a cross, she said, "because we don't believe it completely represents for us all that the atonement of Jesus Christ involved and all that it made possible."

Latter-day Saints consider the more than 100 Mormon temples worldwide to be the primary symbol of their faith. Many individuals even display a picture of a temple in their homes.

"It represents to us all the blessings that Heavenly Father wants to give his children," she said. "In temples, a family can be bound together through eternity."

She added that the picture of a temple in homes serves as a reminder to everybody of "the blessings of living faithful lives." The picture also is a reminder for children "that this is where you need to be married," Christensen said.

Representing the Hindu tradition, Dr. Satya Murti showed an inlaid wood-carving of Krishna and Arjuna, taken from the holy book "The Bhagavad Gita."

He said Hindus emphasize doing their good deeds without regard for the possible outcome, including any kind of reward they may receive for their actions. "We detach the result from the action," Murti said.

Islam has no sacred symbols, save for the religions's holy book, the Quran, and adherents' unfailing devotion to God, said Dr. Ashraf Sufi.

However, for many years, Muslim nations have utilized the crescent moon and star on their flags as an expression of their faith.

The moon and star can be viewed as symbolic of the holy month of Ramadan, which begins and ends with the sighting of the new moon at a prescribed time each year.

Crescent moon and star symbols typically are placed on top of mosques and minarets worldwide.

The Rev. David Grimm, of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka, said his faith group often utilizes a flaming chalice to symbolize its beliefs.

However, Grimm noted, individual Unitarian Universalists don't necessarily subscribe to the same religious beliefs --- including the interpretation of symbols.

"We are all individuals who have our own idiosyncratic ways of looking at things," he said. "I see the flaming chalice as the spirit of God in the vessel of the human being, but I'm probably the only Unitarian who sees it that way."

Unitarians also use the web as a symbol, representing feminist theology, ecological concerns and Native American beliefs of the interconnectedness of all living things.

The final speaker was Duane Herrmann, speaking on behalf of the Baha'i communities of Topeka and Shawnee County.

He showed a model of a nine-sided Baha'i house of worship, adding the number nine had special significance to Baha'is.

The religion's founder, Baha'u'llah, decreed that governing bodies of nine people be established, so that no vote would ever end in a tie.

However, Herrmann noted, the best option is always unanimity in such matters.

Phil Anderson can be reached at (785) 295-1195 or

See SYMBOLS, page 4E

Symbols: 'There is one thing that is always pure and clear'

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