THE CLOUD AS SYMBOL

Destruction or Dialogue

Jacqueline Taylor Basker

The power images continue to wield over the human psyche was forcefully reaffirmed by the recent controversy over the satirical cartoons of Muhammad published in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, on September 30, 2005. Critics of the cartoons claim they were designed to insult and humiliate the Muslim minority in Denmark. Depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban was considered blasphemous for Muslims who felt this implied all Muslims were terrorists. From their perspective, it would be analogous to showing Jesus leading a pogrom because Christians have killed Jews in the name of Christ. Meanwhile, defenders of the cartoons claim the right of free speech, freedom of the press, and artistic freedom. Hegel, one of the first great post-Enlightenment thinkers to address the question of art's significance for humanity, might have challenged this view of freedom in art. He believed that the role of the artistic Ideal is to convey the spiritual realm in external appearance; the Spirit is free and infinite when it rises to universality and crippled when its content contradicts the infinity of Spirit in freedom. Art is to bring harmony between the outer appearance and the inner truth; art's imagery is to unify expressions of truth.

An examination of art imagery in world religions—arguably an expression of Spirit in the Hegelian sense—reveals a great harmony between symbols used to express the most profound mystery of the nature of the divine. One of the most significant of these is the symbol of the cloud.

From a secular perspective, the cloud has served in recent years as an image of destruction. After the catastrophes wrought by Katrina and Rita in September of last year, the New York Times observed that the mushroom cloud, once the principal symbol of destruction, had been supplanted by the ominous apparition of the hurricane's storm cloud on the weather map. For months after 9/11, I observed Ground Zero's smoking plume from my window in lower Manhattan; clouds rising over the bombers' designated targets in Afghanistan and Iraq would soon follow. Although fearsome in these contemporary manifestations, the cloud image as archetype in human consciousness has a long history, particularly as a representation of the mysterious presence of the Divine. It is to be found in all the world's major religions as a symbol not of destruction, but of divine mystery and protection.

A cloud pillar led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert to the Promised Land; for the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Greeks, the cloud represented creation, fertility, divine power, and protection. In China and India, images of the Divine were accompanied by clouds. Both Jesus and Muhammad ascended to heaven in a cloud, and both the gospels and Islamic scriptures employ the image of the cloud as a theophany, an appearance of the divine. In much of the mystical writings of the world, the cloud expresses the aphophatic nature of the divine, the unknowable, that which will forever elude our human understanding. This profound insight, expressed through the cloud symbol across cultures, suggests the possibility of significant dialogue between world cultures in our troubled age.

Cloud imagery has served parallel symbolic functions in diverse cultures— both Western and non-Western—throughout history, recurring as a shared symbol in religious art and literature. Bernard McGinn notes in his study on Christian mysticism, The Foundations of Mysticism, that "the global ecumenical situation in which we now find ourselves has facilitated a new level of awareness and discussion of the richness of humanity's spiritual heritage." McGinn urges greater contemporary theological inquiry into the phenomenon of mysticism and its history within the Christian tradition. The study of the cloud image, as it appears in Christian art and literature, reveals a mystical symbol with shared global significance not yet fully explored either for its meaning in Christianity, or in other religions of the world—the kind of research McGinn advocates.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2006, Vol. 56,  No 1.