What kind of a place is the Red Temple depicted in Scottish artist Alan Davie’s Entrance for a Red Temple, No. 1 (1960)? Is it a spiritual haven or point of pilgrimage as the title suggests? If so, to what religion does it pertain? If one leans in to the canvas, one can identify two religious symbols seemingly floating in the archway of the temple. The first, located above the other, is the Egyptian ankh, which is the hieroglyphic that reads ‘life’. The second resembles the Wheel of Life, which is a common symbol in Buddhist art. The painting, then, seems to depict a polytheistic site of worship. The work was created at a point in time when Davie was fascinated by Zen Buddhism and the writings of Carl Jung. Jung contended that there exists in the human condition a collective unconsciousness that expresses itself in the forms of symbols and myths, which are common to every culture of every age. The Christian faith, also, has a series of marks and symbols that hold deep meaning for a believer. Among the most prominent of Christian symbols is the cross. This essay will explore the true meaning of the cross in the Christian faith, beyond its prolific exposure in mass- produced commodities. It will then connect the meaning of the cross to the wider concern of the collective unconsciousness of humankind, and the mysterious commonality observed in almost every religion to utilise symbolism as a method of conveying ideas of life and its purpose.
The cross is a symbol that has been widely commodified, and can be found not only on churches, but on necklaces, earrings, and as a motif or pattern on clothing. In many ways, the true meaning of the cross has been erased from the fabric of 21st century Western culture. In actuality, the cross is a crucifix, the site of a torturous method of execution that was considered the worst form of the death penalty in the first century world. Unbeknownst to many is that wearing the cross as a fashion statement is equivalent today to wearing an electric chair. The cross is not quaint or elegant—it is brutal, violent, bloody. How did this marker of execution become the most universally recognised representative for the Christian faith? For Christians, the answer lies in the acts that occurred on the cross.
In the account of the Gospels, Jesus is flogged, mocked, forced to drag a heavy, splintered crucifix over his raw wounded body up to Golgotha, the place of the skull, and suffered a slow, suffocating and excruciating death on the Cross. (John 19) In every way, the Cross does not represent a dainty, elegant accessory—far from it. Rather, it is a reminder of Christ’s bloody suffering.
When Christians wear the symbol of the cross, it is important to know what they are subscribing to. They are not signing up for a Westernised, well-to- do religion that promises ‘everything is going to be okay’ if one simply prays. Rather, they are professing Matthew 16:24-25: Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Hanging a cross around one’s neck in many ways is symbolically analogous for putting one’s head through the loop of a noose. In some nations where it is illegal to profess Christianity, this may literally be the case. Whether metaphorically or literally, however, Christ makes the bold assertion that in order to be a follower of him, one must ‘lose his life.’ This means that every single aspect of one’s life must be given over to his purposes—one must be willing to sacrifice everything to live how God says one should as recorded in the Scriptures. Following Christ doesn’t just stop at wearing a cross-shaped pendant. Though the weight of a golden accessory is much less than an oversized wooden crucifix, taking up the cross involves taking on the weight of the sacrifices, persecutions and hardships that comes with the life of a Christian, just as Christ sacrificed himself for mankind and suffered the worst forms of trial.
This grim declaration doesn’t stop at ‘sacrifice everything and lose your life,’ however. The second clause to Christ’s promise is even more important than the first—that those who lose their life for his sake will find it. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reverses the logic of the idea that one has to earn God’s acceptance and love through obeying the Law of the Jewish religion and performing good deeds. Contrary to the general assumption of the time—and even of society today, which glorifies busyness and hard work to achieve riches and status —in God’s equation, ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (Matthew 20:16) Those who are considered lowly in society and rely on Jesus for their redemption are raised up and glorified. Those who have attained a high position in society and rely on their own abilities to maintain this status are brought low. The key, however, is that everything is lost for the sake of Jesus. Christians are not called to give up everything for nothing. The Bible contends that those who work for Jesus’ Kingdom and obey his commands should not concern themselves with the material gains of earth, but that treasures and rewards are being stored for them in heaven. (Matthew 6 provides a good account of this.)
Likewise, those who have much and yet are totally committed to Jesus are not necessarily brutally stripped of their earnings simply because they are wealthy. The Bible holds no reservations over the fact that God is a Father who wishes to bless his children. The true cost for following Jesus, then, does not strictly pertain to the realms of materialism and comfort (though it may include these), but is the forfeit of the subtle arrogance of self-sufficiency and autonomy over a life that, as humans, we know little about in comparison to God, who knows all things. However, the gain from this sacrifice is much greater—life in God’s Kingdom is an eternal one with the One who loves each of his children individually, uniquely and passionately. In this way, the symbol of the most notorious form of execution becomes a symbol of hope, resurrection, love and eternal life.
As observed in Alan Davie’s painting Entrance for a Red Temple No. 1, the Egyptian ankh and Buddhist Wheel of Life are also religious symbols that represent life. Every religion is a worldview that seeks to find answers to life’s most crucial and essential questions: where does life come from? What is the purpose for life? What happens after life? Religion explores the possibilities of these meanings through symbolism. In ‘The Concept of the Collective Unconscious,’ psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung identifies an ‘aspect of the unconscious mind which manifests inherited, universal themes which run through all human life.’63 These themes exhibit themselves in common ‘archetypes’ such as a wise elder, water, or the Tree of Life, to name a few, all of which can be found in most of the world’s major religions and their texts. This essay is not attempting to argue that Christianity is essentially synonymous with every other religion that explores the meaning of life through common representations of certain themes. However, while it does not adopt a polytheistic or Universalist perspective, it does stress the need for acknowledgement, respect and exchange of dialogue with the different developments of faith. This is because spirituality is an instinct and intuition common to all humans, and occurs out of what Jung defines as the collective unconsciousness.
Alan Davie was on to something in his painting Entrance for a Red Temple No. 1. By putting the concepts Jung developed about the collective unconsciousness into pictorial form, the Scottish artist created a space of dialogue by juxtaposing the symbols of the Egyptian and Buddhist faiths. Jung stated that the collective unconsciousness manifests itself in the form of symbols and mythology, and is a characteristic of all humankind. This is why every major religion has a distinct mark that serves as a map or representation of its beliefs. Interfaith dialogue and the collaboration of different religions is essential, therefore, because the close integration of symbolism in every religion points to a common denominator present in every human being. We are of the same fibre, we share the same questions, anxieties and desires for a purposeful life, and we entrust these thoughts to certain world views— whether Christian, Zen-Buddhist or atheist—to bring us closer to the Truth. Just as the ankh and Wheel of Life come together in Davie’s painting to create a beautiful image, so must we of differing faiths come together to create a beautiful world.