Seeing is not Believing

Imagine a large group attending a traditional bull fight in Spain, replete with the attendant pageantry. You would all witness the same actions, and the same events. But, interpretations of the events and their ultimate meaning would likely differ widely, and thus, what what one “sees” would diverge strongly as well. A possible smattering of interpretations might include

  • Some would find the event barbaric, shameful, and cruel–a terrible relic of some pre-modern past.
  • Some, a la Hemingway, would see an exhilarating, if not slightly problematic, affirmation of masculinity
  • Some would not go any deeper than pure entertainment–they would see a spectacle and be glad they had that chance.
  • Some would see a noble re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ, and his traveling the Via Dolorosa, the path of sorrow.

This last suggestion no doubt strikes many moderns, Christians included, as absurd. And yet, the Catholic faithful called the passing of the bull through the cape the “Veronica Pass,” after the story of a young woman named Veronica (translation–“true image”–think veracity, verdict, and ‘icon’) who offered Christ her veil to wipe his face as he carried the cross. Some say that Christ accepted the offer, and an image of His face remained imprinted on the veil, the “icon made without hands.”

Some might accuse Christians here of very conveniently glomming on to something pagan like a bullfight, to make sure that Christians 1) could still have fun, 2) or still have a dark side, 3) or to appease a paganism that they could not expunge. A variety of pre-Christian cultures made extensive use of bulls and bull imagery, as did other pagan European cultures the church encountered as it grew throughout Europe. Certainly in general Christianity incorporated and transformed certain pagan customs from different cultures. But all in all, the practice likely has most of its roots in a vision of the prophet Ezekiel. In chapter 1 of his prophesy, within a larger vision of a wheel of fire, Ezekiel sees something else:

there was as it were the likeness of four living creatures. This was their appearance, and the likeness of man upon them. Each had four faces, and each had four wings. . . . This was the likeness of their faces: the face of a man, the face of a lion on the right side of the foursome, the face of an ox on the left, and the face of an eagle

Ezekiel 1:5-6, 10

Traditionally, according to St. Gregory the Great (late 6th century AD) and other commentators* from the early church

  • Matthew and his gospel is identified with the man, for he begins with a geneology
  • Mark is the lion, the “voice crying in the wilderness” (Mk. 1:1)
  • Luke is the ox, who begins with a sacrifice (Lk. 1:8)
  • John is the eagle, “who stretched towards the very substance of God” (St. Gregory, Jn. 1:1)–it is John who is regarded as the Theologian par excellence, hence his association with what is high above.

Ezekiel also mentions the essential unity of the four creatures as well, just as the four evangelists have an essential harmony, which leant early commentators to ultimately see each creature as a partial image of Christ.

Along with other cultures we also today associate the bull with virility and the source of life. This association naturally leads one to the idea of a supreme sacrifice, the outpouring of the fullness of life. In the Old Testament, the sacrifice of a bull was the highest sacrifice one could offer, the fullest outward expression of devotion (Ps. 51:19, etc.). In this light, linking the bullfight with Christ’s death makes much more sense, but nothing in what we physically saw would lead us to that conclusion. We would need the proper interpretive framework to “see” this in what we saw.

Historically speaking, the way we see now has very little to do with how most people have seen in the past. The difference probably boils down to the idea of symbols. One author writes,

The simplest way of defining this difference [between the old world and the modern] is to recall the changed meaning and function of the word “symbol.” For us the symbol is an in am image that invests physical reality with poetic meaning. For medieval man, the physical world as we understand it has no reality except as a symbol. But even the term “symbol” is misleading. For us the symbol is the creation of poetic fancy; for medieval man what we would call symbol is the only objectively valid definition of reality. We find it necessary to suppress the symbolic instinct if we seek to understand the world as it is rather than as it seems. Medieval man conceived the symbolic instinct as the only reliable guide to to such an understanding. Maximus the Confessor . . . actually defines what he calls “symbolic vision” as the ability to apprehend within the objects of sense perception the invisible reality of the intelligible that lays beyond them.

But still some might object that realm of symbol has far too much subjectivity to rely on these associations and intuitions. After all, bull imagery has a variety of pagan associations. One need only think of Assyria, one of the more cruel empires, and their winged bulls, or Egypt and their Apis bull.

However ambiguous some of these association might be (is the Assyrian depiction meant to be somewhat demonic or angelic?), we have no doubt when we look at images of Bel/Baal and the bull horn attendant imagery, or even the golden calf.

Noting this ambiguity, the materialist will assert that this proves the arbitrary nature of language and our symbols, that nothing has any meaning in itself. But this position in fact makes a grand metaphysical claim about reality, that it is univocal, that if it speaks it must speak with one voice only. But our experience tells us this is false. Meaning has multiple layers.

Mircea Eliade continues,

It is therefore the image as such, as the whole bundle of meanings, that is true, and not any one of its meanings, nor one alone of its many frames of reference. To translate an image into a concrete terminology by restricting it to any one of these frames of reference is to do worse than multilate it–it is to annihilate, to annul it as an instrument of cognition.” — Eliade, Images and Symbols, 13

We can see that the New Testament is well aware of the tension inherent in symbols. Christ is the “Lion of Judah,” but Peter also compares a lion to Satan, a merciless prowler (1 Pet. 5:8). We shouldn’t say that Peter rejects one form of symbolism for another, however. Both are possible at the same time. Our experience of objects manifests a reality that does not belong strictly to the physical, observable world. The “real” world is full of grace, yet fallen, and our symbols naturally reflect this as well.

We can go further. As I mentioned above, I think the bull image has Christian roots, for I count the Old Testament as part of the Christian tradition. But suppose I throw this out and say that any associations with a bull/ox and Christ has purely pagan roots. Well, the very act of taking something fallen, baptizing it, “cleaning it up,” and re-presenting it to God anew–this has everything to do with our role as image-bearers of God and stewards of creation.** Through repentance, we hopefully do this with ourselves every day. This is, in part, what it means to grow the Kingdom of God.

Ultimately, however, one cannot “prove” any of this in a strictly rational way. I propose, however, that we can see the superiority of the symbolic way of thinking by examining what happens when we assume a more materialistic approach.

We can start with our very selves. I have participated in discussions where a strict materialist argued that all things beyond neurons, chemicals, synapses, etc. were simply fabrications of evolution. Whatever he could not measure he discarded. Yet, this meant that everything he valued, his friends, his choices, even food he liked, would ultimately mean nothing. Thankfully, he agreed that things like love, friendship, etc. were important, just not real. Without this thin anchor, actual existence in the world for him would not be possible. To believe that chemicals are “real” and friendship is not puts one quite near the wind, as they say.

We can scale up a bit to a family. If you think in a purely materialistic manner, one could easily argue that the concept of a family is only social convention. “Names” are certain phonetic sounds, “families” just a group of people whose DNA has more in common with each other than with other people. “Marriage” gets reduced to a convenient, or not so convenient, voluntary arrangement. Marriages only really work, however, when the people involved believe that what they cannot see or measure about their relationship has a greater reality than themselves as individuals. Participating in this greater intangible reality makes the lesser reality possible.

We can only live through symbols. Our experience of objects involves the manifestation of something other, a reality that transcends our world while including it at the same time.

But we must use caution with these symbols. We can take the corporate identity of a political party, for example. Political parties can serve good ends. They bring people together across geographical space. They help aggregate ideas and should, in theory at least, filter out extremism. They can give a sense of identity. But if one makes that identity supreme, it becomes a demon instead of an angel. The person loses agency to the party–whatever the party says, they think. Like rooting for a sports team, the key is the color of the laundry, not the particular ideology. Initially being a Republican/Democrat likely bestowed a sense of belonging and purpose. Now–you are food. You exist to vote and feed the machine. The same can happen with a family. The “higher reality” of the family can give one guidance and meaning beyond our own individual existence. But if we make family the highest reality, it too will eat us. This happens in gangs, organized crime, and so on–Michael Corleone’s Godfather tragedy.

The bull can and should scale up to Christ, but if we miss the mark, or stop too short, we end up with the devil.


*St. Bruno d’ Asti, St. Yves of Chartes, among others. Perhaps we might see further symbolism in that the three synoptic gospels have more similarity in their “earthiness,” but John’s gospel departs significantly in emphasis, thus his association with the heavenly eagle(?).

**This is why the obvious fact that the church refashioned certain pagan festivals and images for Christian use is not anything to apologize for, but something to celebrate. It is part of the triumph of the Church.