The Transient And the Permanent: Symbols and Logos

The conversation and controversy about the new UUA logo has not quieted yet.  I received a very poignant message today from my dear friend, the Rev. Cynthia L.G. Kane, that has me thinking a lot about the difference between a symbol and a logo. Cyn is a Navy Chaplain and she writes,

I’m writing to you, dear friend & colleague, because you will listen & actually have a gift to perhaps be heard. I’m sick about this logo. It’s not a symbol & as one of the not-invited stakeholders, it’s not * my* symbol.

I spent a good portion of my 3 years at Arlington National Cemetery updating the Veteran’s Affairs “Emblems of Beliefs” with our then symbol. I spent hours pounding pavement, pressing flesh, & presenting our case. (That it only took nearly 3 years & no act of Congress is rather amazing.)

The c. 1985-2005 double ring chalice is the one that all UU veterans have as their headstone’s “emblem of belief”. The stone carvers told me of the challenges (& expenses) it took to get the ring spacing just right in their carving mold. Changing a letter head logo is an easy feat in comparison.

The irony (?), moot (?) point about this tale is no sooner did it get approved than the UUA came out with the IEC (improvised exploding chalice, we military type affectionately call it). [Cynthis is referring to the latest UUA logo. – PB]

Given that IEC has had a short life, I for one will await for the next administration who’ll likely want to put their stamp on our history – and in the meantime take comfort in that which is etched in stone.

I sympathize with my friend’s sense of  loyalty to the sacred nature of the flaming chalice symbol, but there is a difference between a symbol and a logo, which I hope will help her manage this moment with less hurt. First, let me talk about the UU problem with symbols.

I believe that Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable with symbols because we are the spiritual heirs of two Christian heresies (Unitarianism and Universalism) and therefore have an institutional ancestral memory of rejection/exclusion of/from Christianity’s forms and symbols. In this century, UUs are mostly comprised of come-outers from Christian religion, which means that there’s a lot of individual anxiety about symbols to add to our ancestral anxiety about symbols. Tough combo.

Our individual anxieties about symbols as individuals seems to me to be pastoral issue that I think our ministry needs to address more directly. UUs need to learn to deal in a more constructive and productive way with the strong emotions symbols evoke. Our ministry needs to actively encourage and facilitate this process.

While I would encourage us to move to a higher level of maturity in responding to symbols, I am much more sympathetic to the broad discomfort among UUs regarding logos. Logos and symbols are two different entities, but in this latest controversy they are being conflated. A logo is not a symbol: it is a particular iteration of a symbol or set of values that communicates an organization’s identity in one design element. In the Theodore Parker language of the “transient and the permanent,” the logo is the transient. The symbol is the permanent.

I’m glad that so many UUs have a visceral sense of dismay about the very need to “brand” ourselves. That means that our reverence muscle is strong. There is nothing wrong with that. But I will say, as I have said to many religious communities that have had the same visceral reaction against creating a logo and a brand for themselves, “Creating a logo is just a way of waving your hand in public to greet the general public. It in no way has to cheapen or commodify what you do in your actual community. The logo gives people an opportunity to connect with you. It doesn’t represent your community’s capitulation to consumer culture.”

So I would like to say to my friend Cynthia that I think it’s beautiful that our military Unitarian Universalists and any others who would like to, can claim the interlacing circle chalice symbol as an emblem of belief and etch it permanently on their headstones, wear it as jewelry, print it on their skin as a tattoo or use it in their churches on letterhead or orders of worship. I hope that particular iteration of the chalice symbol remains with us for a long time. However, a logo is meant for another purpose: it is a more ephemeral interpretation of a symbol (or design) that communicates an organization’s identity at a certain point in time.  Quite frankly, it should be updated now and then in order to read as fresh and relevant to its era. Whether or not the tulipvaginaphallusbomb logo feels fresh and relevant is a matter of personal opinion. But while I think it is deeply meaningful for the military to remind the UUA (and all of us) that we have preserved a particular interlacing circle chalice design on the tombstones as a religious symbol and emblem of Unitarian Universalist faith, I hope no one will feel that an updated logo is intended to negate or replace that design. We might think of the interlacing circles as the “classical” symbol and the more current logos as the “2014 UUA logo.” Two different things meant for different purposes.

I love that Chris Walton brought his wonderful blog, Philocrites, out of the retirement home for this latest post on the new logo. He talks about the beacon as another indigenous Unitarian Universalist symbol. Great contribution, Chris! Long live Philocrites!


2 Replies to “The Transient And the Permanent: Symbols and Logos”

  1. I am sad to hear that of the 50 “stakeholders” consulted on the design of the new logo, there was no room for a colleague who, in addition to her full-time ministry, spent three years lobbying our not-so-nimble government to “permit” the headstones of Unitarian Universalists fallen in the service of their country to carry the symbol of their faith. As she observes, this was barely accomplished when the UUA, in its wisdom, re-branded itself with another design–the “IEC, improvised exploding chalice.” (I so appreciate the mordant quality of military wit! They’re skilled at speaking truth to power.) Now the UUA has decided to once again “rebrand” itself. I will wager this: If you found a few people on the street who had never heard of Unitarian Universalism, never before seen either of these designs, (the double-ring chalice or the new thing) laid the two side-by-side (minus wording) and asked if they represented the same thing, I doubt many would say they do. They are too disparate and the amount of explanation so far being required to demonstrate this even to many insiders says to me the UUA over-reached.

    I am not a veteran, though I come from a line of them stretching from Afghanistan to the Revolutionary War. Every Veteran’s Day, I preach about how we may understand and honor the place of the military in our society and in Unitarian Universalism, especially through our Chaplains. To this day, I overhear comments following this service denigrating the military and questioning how anyone calling himself or herself a UU could be a service member, let alone an ordained Chaplain. This issue, of course, goes far beyond any sort of logo or design, but could we not, at least, have asked the opinion of some service members before, once again, undercutting the symbol of their faith?

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