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”.

Advertisements

In our faith let us ‘show, don’t tell’

In our faith let us ‘show, don’t tell’

I am all too aware of my shortcomings as a writer here but once upon a time I took a cursory course in creative writing. I did little to nothing with it afterwards but one thing I came away from was with the idea of ‘show, don’t tell’. In writing this is the view that instead of merely explaining what is happening in a scene it is better to show the scene to the reader. In one letter the writer Anton Chekov wrote.

When describing nature, a writer should seize upon small details, arranging them so that the reader will see an image in his mind after he closes his eyes. For instance: you will capture the truth of a moonlit night if you’ll write that a gleam like starlight shone from the pieces of a broken bottle, and then the dark, plump shadow of a dog or wolf appeared. You will bring life to nature only if you don’t shrink from similes that liken its activities to those of humankind.

Anton Chekov, Letter to Alexander Chekhov, 1886

The incarnation itself can be considered a divine instance of showing over telling. Colossians describes Christ as “the visible image of the invisible God” and Paul elsewhere writes.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV

As people we exist in physical space, this seems obvious at first but in our increasingly literary and now digital age we often now forget this. We were created in a realm not just of thoughts and feelings but actions and senses. This is why it is significant that Jesus was born, lived, died and was resurrected in a physical way. Its this realisation, and an increasing disillusionment with certain interpretations of ‘word and spirit’ typified by groups like both the reformed and charismatic movements thats making me look at this in different ways.

In our contemporary western churches it is arguable that we have slipped into the practice of telling rather than showing people the Kingdom of God. Our contemporary emphasis on lecture style preaching is indicative of this. Our worship is increasingly self-referential and advocating what we should be doing in Church rather than reflecting or depicting the agency and character of God in our world. Our architecture is also increasing bland, historically these buildings worked to direct people to God through their aesthetics and structure, today they are often utilitarian and basic buildings with a simplistic and stunted externals. This isn’t due to any pragmatism or frugality but a shift in areas of emphasis from an embodied soul to a disembodied mind. A shift from a present reality to proposition, this is most obvious in the older church buildings being repurposed for contemporary style services. Stained glass and vaulted ceilings on one side and comic sans bulletin notices and projector imagery appealing to the sublime on the other.

In my readings of the Old Testament I’m struck by the Prophets consistent use of props and their own lives to communicate what was given to them. Theres an earthiness and realness to them that so often seems missing in contemporary Protestantism, even amongst the charismatics. The work of God isn’t just vocalised but spat into the ground and rubbed into the eyes of those who couldn’t see. Yet even in many churches the practices handed down to us, the bread and the wine, are tacked on rather than taking centre stage in our gatherings. A Church that shows rather than tells quickly becomes a way of life, an exercise in world building. Jesus taught us several clear ways to do this the most obvious to be sharing in his blood and body, baptism and prayer.

This is important because in the act of showing we are engaging to the whole of us, not just our minds. The process of developing the sacraments and prayer into regular habits from a purely pragmatic perspective enables us to link thoughts, prayers and memories to our actions bringing all of ourselves in unity to the work and worship of God in the world.

There is also an added strength in doing such things as a body of people, it reinforces our identity with one another as members of group united not just by creed but by practice. This isn’t true just in church gatherings but even in areas like Sporting teams and the rituals they acquire. Creeds and statements said in the midst of actions and activities no longer become a series of propositions but something that informs our thoughts and in turn our lives. It also means that whilst being linked to theology actions aren’t dependent on understanding and in this way does not discriminate against those unable to grasp some of the weightier theological issues at work in the life of the Church. Understanding is important, but Jesus didn’t ask us to necessarily understand him but to trust and follow him.

All of this reminds me that there have been times in Christian history where the process of changing the words said during a liturgy has resulted in the shedding of blood. At first I couldn’t understand why people would be willing to become martyrs over small word changes, but I know now these words aren’t just words. They were joined with actions and together said something more about these people, the church and what it did and how it perceived God. The other thing I realised is such things exist in stark contrast to much of contemporary christian music where the words sung are seldom considered by the congregant who is increasingly relegated to the position of audience.

In writing and thinking about this I realise that whether by design or accident many of the liturgical and sacramental services of the church that we abandoned in the 20th century actually do what I’m talking about well, at least on paper. That these are increasingly unpopular with Churchgoers also raises questions about the validity of what I’ve been writing here. Yet we also find ourselves increasingly unable to remember scripture, remember songs and in the public sphere beating a retreat or defined increasingly only by the times Christians and Unbelievers find sources of friction. What does a Christian look like? What does a Christian sound like? What does a Christian do? There is increasingly no consensus on these things. Some positives exist as a result but these are arguably outweighed by the negatives and I’d wager only contribute to the erosion of the Christian presence in the West. Ultimately showing over telling is a good thing, but showing the world together the Gospel of Jesus Christ is better.

Gregory of Nyssa, Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes 336,6
I got me slaves and slave-girls. For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling the being shaped by God? God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth,and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free,who is he that sets his own power above God’s?
Gregory of Nyssa, Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes 336,6