When I was younger, I remember being struck by a television show in which a vampire was confronted by a cross and, in contrast to what older productions had taught me to expect, did not fear it, but mocked its wielder.
Perhaps in the hands of the faithless, however superstitious, a cross is no more than intersecting lines. Centuries of perverse leaders and theological abortions taking up the sign of Christ should caution us against excessive reliance on the external appearance of faith.
Symbols only matter if you use them right, just as a book on my shelf only matters if I read it and the food in my fridge only matters if I eat it.
Oftentimes, we fall into the trap of thinking that paying deference to a symbol (the cross, a flag, etc.) has achieved something. And indeed, if that deference is genuine, that is, if it consists in a genuine acceptance of what the symbol means, it has achieved something: setting intent.
But there isn’t much point in setting intent without follow-through.
If we don’t align our inner state, understanding of the world, or behavior, with the symbol, it will lose its meaning over time.
Like sock-puppets, symbols can be hollowed out and filled in by the hand of some sinister agent. The parish priest of a Romanesque church can agree to greet congregants with a rainbow flag, just as a beloved flag or royal family can come to represent oligarchy and dystopia.
Political modernity was characterized by ideologies that believed in social automation: a free market that would automatically generate collective prosperity and public virtue, a historical dialectic that would automatically generate equitable worker-control of industry, etc.
The love of symbols often lapses into the same desire to believe in some process that might liberate us from the difficult, patient work of cultivating the change we want to see.
But it isn’t enough to hoist a flag, just as it isn’t enough to reduce regulations in the name of a “free market” or seize the means of production in the name of the working class.
It’s the morning after the revolution that matters.
A certain current of conservative optimism believes that an inflection point can be reached, at which the bulk of a population will identify threats to civilizational stability and react against them. The hope is that, at that point, so long as we can point them to the right symbols and institutions, they will set themselves and their countries right.
In reality, there’s little point in visiting a monastery where none of the monks have tasted beatitude, and a father who hasn’t kept faith over years of disciplining action can’t really hope to steer his son true.
We should learn to love hunger, the denial of those pleasures that make us weak, the panting desperation of the last set at the gym, the daily invocation of gratitude and forward action.
The symbols we use, the institutions we mean to champion, the historical and political processes we want to lead, will all remain hollow unless we—in our habits, in the content of our minds, in our flesh—are the locus of transformation, of restoration, of renewal of spiritual normalcy.