Authority and Idolatry

Authority and Idolatry

Recently I’ve been challenged to think about the role images play in the Christian church. I notice a lot of Orthodox and Catholic polemicists against Protestants in particular discuss the importance of the seven ecumenical church councils. By this they really are placing emphasis on the last, the second council of Nicea which validates the use of images in church.

Imagery came up again in reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain” which details his travels through the Middle East in the footsteps of John Moschos back in the 6th century. Whilst travelling through the Syria of the mid 90’s he comments on John of Damascus, known for defending the use of images whilst living under Islamic rule. I’ve haven’t read the ‘Fount of Wisdom’ but John’s (the latter of the two mentioned) peculiar and unique situation made him and his views something I’ve been curious about. The only quotation I’ve found of his on images, without access to any writings directly reads the following..

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honour is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

St. John of Damascus

I think the comparison of the cross is potent namely because many Protestants have no issue with displaying a cross in church, or even wearing one. In fact I know of few aside from the Puritans et al who’d have an issue with this. Particularly because in the example given the worship is directed towards God alone. The contention however lingers on the term ‘venerate’ namely because it is a word rarely used in the everyman’s English language and is synonymous with worship. For John to say he venerates instead of worships images is akin to stating that he lingers in the bath instead of soaking. It is largely a linguistic phrasing without a substantive difference to the everyman.

Despite disputing of the term veneration, to be honest if we are referring to images of God alone the harm that can be done in any confusion is minimised. What is questionable however is in John’s example of the cross. Detractors of Protestantism accuse us of worshiping the Bible but in the case of Orthodoxy or Catholicism in a literal sense this is much closer to the truth. In the venerations of objects of worth; crosses, gospels, bread, wine and even the images and appendages of the departed there are actions involved. Bowing, kissing, prayer these are all ultimately directed to God we are told. Yet at the same time I have detractors of Protestantism say it is too cerebral, too internal and does not inhabit the body. This is why an Eastern or Latin Christian might stand a particular way or face a particular direction in prayer and I would confess that their is some truth to the criticism of Protestantism in this case. Yet by this reasoning if we enact worship with our bodies their is a disconnect when we say that our exhibition of this behaviour to created objects is not in fact worship because of some interior difference.

Whatever you or your church believes on this the interesting thing to me is the emphasis placed on it. The theology at work behind the second council of Nicea seems to be largely about the nature of the incarnation and the redemption of the physical world through the work of God. This is absolutely important and Protestants do uphold this. The linking of the issue however to the veneration of specific objects and images is an issue that, depending on your view of the Eastern or Latin Church is linked to a persons salvation pushes this beyond the immediate theological dispute into something more. More in that it ceases to be about the immediate flashpoint issue of idolatry and instead about authority.

The issue of authority becomes central because it is not enough that a Protestant hold to a particular view of the incarnation and God’s work in the world. It is the idea that truth is ultimately vested in an institution. I mention this more so after listening to an episode on ‘Non-Mainstream Christianity’ (Part 2c) from the podcast ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy’ in which Eastern Orthodox Fr. Stephen Damick, having detailed several cults highlights the trouble of adhering to an institution other than the Orthodox church. That discerning for yourself the truth is the same process by which a heretic might by lead to set up their own church. That even though you might have good intentions, others might exploit this same ‘mechanic’ for their own gain. Such is the history of Protestantism.

In this light the claims of a historical council are less important to the everyman than the point of adhering to the council itself. Truths pertaining to right, wrong and salvation slip into the guise of an institution. Dostoevsky in the Brother Karamazov touches on the friction of this in his short story ‘the Grand Inquisitor’. The story itself  reflects the actual life of Christ and echoes the plight of the Old Testament prophets over and against the idolatry of an unbelieving Israel. The thread through all of this is that truth can transcend an apparent authority.

Yet when confronted with an unbelieving world we cannot escape the question that Pilate confronted Christ himself with “What is truth?”. The serpent similarly challenged Eve with the question “Did God really say…?”. The serpent is worse of the two because he did not deny God but gave grounds for Eve to live outside her creators will. The temptation exists to desire that God had taken away such freedom from Adam and Eve. Just as the Church in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor took the freedom from humanity.

Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them
bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had
together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever
ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? … True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them–so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men!

– Excerpt from The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky  

The Grand Inquisitor gives his reason for acting and believing such in that he is acting in the service of the serpent. Did God then, being himself and not the serpent, give Adam and Eve the ‘burden of freedom’ to act as they would? Aldous Huxley in Brave New World touches on this idea in his own way when he details an exchange between the ‘Savage’ and Mustapha Mond.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

– Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I guess it is too Protestant of me to say that the ability to ‘claim them all’ that the Savage describes is an intrinsic part of a inherited Christian worldview and in their own way gifts of God.

In closing, I can’t help but be reminded, when thinking of idolatry and authority but be reminded of Daniel chapter 3. Daniel and his peers knew that God was able to save but would not crave to the pressures of this authority that made such demands of them. When I think about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace I think of Tyndale who, like Daniel and his friends, went to the flames willingly but unlike them won a martyrs crown. In both instances it is faith in God alone that is the bulwark against authority whether temporal or spiritual. We know that God is able to rescue, but even if he should not we can say to the world “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”.

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The problem with finding ourselves

The problem with finding ourselves

Choice is a value we prize highly as a society in the West. Our media promotes narratives replete with individuals who choose their own path and our popular music often focuses on people defining themselves as individuals outside the crowd. Coming of age in our society has no ceremony, instead it’s a process of figuring out who we are or choosing what kind of person we’re going to be. The idea of young people finishing education and going out to ‘find themselves’ has become normative to us. None of this is inherently bad in and of itself, but it is a recent thing and it does have its problems.

The process of finding ourselves is also a decidedly secular idea, it assumes that we aren’t really anything unless we choose it. This is increasingly being applied to the most basic parts of our identity including our gender, a more recent belief that empties the idea of our biological sex containing any inherent values in and of itself outside of the anatomical.

Its interesting too that forms of Christianity that emerged more recently, modern Evangelicalism for example, prioritise and praise road to Damascus style conversion experiences over inherited forms of faith. If your testimony isn’t suitably dramatic theres the chance that people might question the sincerity of your faith in the first place. In this we see a distinction from ‘mainline’ or traditionally ecclesial church movements and these opt-in conversion orientated churches that descended from non-conformist or holiness movement backgrounds. The same bears out on attitudes towards infant or believers baptism, paedo or credo baptism. I say this as an advocate of credo baptism. Its also why we see an embrace of increasingly unorthodox Christian movements and theologies being promoted by both Christians and Atheists alike. This fits in with our contemporary society, and theres a market for it. As a culture we prioritise the selfs choice and are less trusting of the answers of previous generations dressing them up in the language of oppression. We do this as they threaten to place limits on our self-determination, our choice.

Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.

Spoken by the Satan after his fall from heaven in John Milton’s Paradise Lost – Book II

Choice can be a genuinely good thing, the setting of many dystopian novels is that in which the protagonist becomes aware of the choices he’s been disallowed by the State, of the world outside what the State decides is appropriate and desires to experience it always at great personal cost. The idea of these novels isn’t to leave us depressed but to encourage us to see that choice is a valuable and necessary part of human experience. For a more practical example, the isolationist community of the Amish practice something we know as Rumspringa which encourages their youth to go into the world and live in it for a time. This is to help them decide whether or not they truly want to become a part of the community. The choosing and conscious acceptance of tradition can bring a new understanding to that individuals participation and relationship to the community they find themselves participating in. Something which wasn’t arguably present before the choice was made.

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

Mustapha Mond shrugged his shoulders. “You’re welcome,” he said.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chapter 17

In the Abrahamic faiths choice is not something that features so heavily. To be Jewish today is less of a religion in some instances and more akin to an ethnicity. This isn’t recent, even in the Bible the Jews are known as the children of Jacob,the grandchild of Abraham, later known as Israel. In Islam they are not so much bound by ethnicity but practice, at birth the first thing a child should hear is the whisper in their ear of the Islamic call to prayer by their father. A child of a Muslim parent in many places around the world is considered a Muslim whether the child later wants to be considered such or not. Christianity differs in the relationship of the individual to the church, the process and timing of baptism has differed over time and been a normative or selective act in various cultures throughout history depending on the standing of Christianity within that culture. Jesus himself not being baptised until he was in his 30’s and yet entire households later being baptised simultaneously once the Church had begun.

Choice isn’t something we see prized to the same degree outside of the West and it is argued by some that it is Christianity’s attitude towards the individual that is atleast partially responsible for this modern secularism. Historian Tom Holland writes..

The origins of much that seems most modern to us can in fact be traced back to the distant past. Neutrality between different religions, as it is practised in Europe today, can never itself be culturally neutral, for the simple reason that it depends on a philosophy that is ultimately Christian in character. That the world can be divided into church and state, and that these twin realms should exist distinct from each other: here are presumptions with which many Muslims, for instance, would disagree profoundly. Certainly, there is nothing in the Quran equivalent to the New Testament injunction to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Muhammad, unlike Jesus, had neither the slightest hesitation in formulating a fiscal policy nor in laying claim to political authority. For those who imagine that the western model of the multicultural state can emasculate Islam as readily as it has de-fanged Christianity, this should be a detail of more than merely theological or antiquarian interest.

Tom Holland, Uncomfortable Origins – Article in the New Statesman

What we see today then is not a ex-nihlo secularism from the void but an attempt at Christianity without Christ. In place of Christ we have placed our own self, idols not like the Philistines had of stone and wood but of flesh and bone. Increasingly its not ourselves properly but the idea of ourselves, idealised in the electronic age through the use of cameras, retouching and selective editing enabling people to choose the brand of themselves they present to the outside world in an effort to be more appealing. This desire for affection and appeal leads westerners to imitate those seen as more attractive than themselves in both the shapes they take and actions carried out. People increasingly delight in those less fortunate or successful then themselves in an effort to reaffirm their existing standing in the eyes of others. This primacy given to the self and choice can prove overwhelming. We find ourselves in a culture which is increasingly defined less by what is true than by what is popular at any given time. This makes us especially susceptible to populist political and social movements like we are presently seeing in both the UK and the US.

Too much choice can also feel as stifling as no choice at all. In a post-industrial, geographically mobile, unstable familial, individualistic and diverse sexual environment men in particular are showing signs of struggling. Whatever your views on masculinity healthy rolemodels are just something which are increasingly rarified. Those in existence have to compete with mass media, both the centralised and decentralised forms, in order to be heard. Some might say that this is affording us the opportunity to be more flexible in our understanding of men and women but this is in the context of a population that is increasingly medicated to handle social ills, unable to deal with diverging viewpoints and struggling at times to find a reason to keep going. If this is a social experiment, it is a costly one, if this is societal love of the self at the expense of the actual self then it is tragic.

Choice as a component of our decision making is something which is useful, their is a dignity to ascribing an individual agency over their own fate. Raising up our ‘authentic’ self as an idol, as the end goal to which everyone works, erodes the dignity of all our choices by depriving us of the means to discern if we are making sufficiently good or bad choices. This is why the Teacher of Ecclesiastes writes..

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

In trying to find ourselves we retreat into private narratives that preclude the devaluing of the beliefs, history, culture and values we once held in common. As people, as Christians, we are defined in context and relation to others, our neighbours and God himself. Wherever we are its important to recognise that choice is a component of our life and not our bedrock. We don’t exist in a vacuum but find ourselves in a much broader narrative, a narrative that shapes the world as God works through his Church. Just as it shapes the world we should likewise be willing to let it shape us.