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”.

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.

Interaction, imposition, individualism and technology

Interaction, imposition, individualism and technology

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Maybe your not like me on this but I am convinced that the advent of the internet has ruined my attention span. Nuance is lacking, understanding is sometimes superficial and longform, thoughtful engagement with ideas and literature sound meaningful and important in principle yet in the busy nature of everyday life I struggle to keep my focus.

Perhaps this is my brain finally adjusting to life outside of education. Its been nearly a decade now, and without that regular encouragement to pick up a book and read it, I instead find myself trawling through the internet with a driftnet that lets only the most glaringly obvious and eye-catching content to engage my interests. The contrast is emphasised when I take any holiday, the book that was taking me months to finish is done in days. The longer the time away the more I find my focus returning. The effect lasts a little while after returning but is never permanent as superficiality inevitably takes root again.

Devices and imagery

The primary culprit of this I think is how we use the internet, or more generally our screen time. Through it we have become increasing distanced from the physical world around us. A mouse click, a tap or swipe on a glassy screen is totally disconnected from its corresponding action. These ‘gestures’ have become ubiquitous and universal means of interaction with the digital world that in many cases bare no relation to the action itself. Some newer devices incorporate haptic feedback (generally vibrations) in response to certain actions, but even this is poor. Instead we rely on our eyes and occasionally ears to provide feedback for actions having taken place. We have taught ourselves to lean increasingly on the visual, and with the advent of the internet I have been taught to be ‘instant gratification’ impatient.

We have not devalued the power of ideas consciously, we are just drawn to distraction and have invited interruption into our daily lives through features like device notifications, email and instant messages. An image is more compelling than an essay, a text is something we inherently evaluate as we read it, it requires thought but an image is different. An image is less open to interpretation, it is more grounded and ‘real’ perhaps even authoritarian . The best screen adaptation of a popular tale fails to measure up to our imagination of the events it depicts. The depiction on screen (or on stage) is also subject to editorial bias or the injection of the editors own beliefs, revisions and interpretations. Such actions are always inherently subversive and arguably an act of violence against the viewers own accepted understanding of the text in question. The use of image imposes on our imagination and our thoughts accordingly. I wonder then in this sense if something like the Jewish and Islamic proscriptions against images of living things carries something liberating in stopping the imposition of how others see the world on the mind of an individual. In an image saturated age, increasingly imagery and visual media is doing our thinking for us and crowding out our capacity for independent thought as a result.

‘You shall have no other gods before me. ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 

Exodus 20:3-4, NIV

 

The absence of icons in Islam has not merely a negative but a positive role. By excluding all anthropomorphic images, at least within the religious realm, Islamic art aids man to be entirely himself. Instead of projecting his soul outside himself, he can remain in his ontological centre where he is both the viceregent (khalîfa) and slave (‘abd) of God. Islamic art as a whole aims at creating an ambience which helps man to realise his primordial dignity; it therefore avoids everything that could be an ‘idol’, even in a relative and provisional manner. Nothing must stand between man and the invisible presence of God. Thus Islamic art creates a void; it eliminates in fact all the turmoil and passionate suggestions of the world, and in their stead creates an order that expresses equilibrium, serenity and peace.

Titus Burckhardt, Mirror of the intellect: essays on traditional science & sacred art

This imposition of imagery then, and our hobbled means of interacting with the world through the tapping and swiping of glass screens leaves us poorer. Disconnected from the world around us, and more importantly ourselves. We have less space internally and the imposition of imagery upon our mind leaves us less capable of original thought. Therefore engaging with longform content, nuance and difficult subjects has over time become an exercise in swimming against the currents of our own minds shaped by the imposing mediums that we find ourselves surrounded by.

We are creating and encouraging a culture of distraction where we are increasingly disconnected from the people and events around us, and increasingly unable to engage in long-form thinking. People now feel anxious when their brains are unstimulated.

We are losing some very important things by doing this. We threaten the key ingredients behind creativity and insight by filling up all our ‘gap’ time with stimulation. And we inhibit real human connection when we prioritize our phones over the people right in front of us.

Joe Kraus, We are creating a culture of distraction

Loss of public space

Another side of our current age is the atomisation of our culture. We are all individuals now. Years ago we talked about ‘Web 2.0’ or the advent of personalisation in the services we consume. Today this means that our Google results, our Facebook feeds, our Twitter timelines and our Amazon recommendations are all bespoke and tailored to us. This attempt at making content more relevant to the user has the added side effect of relegating us to the virtual ghettos of ideological peers. The internet is less today a public forum, more an echo chamber. The shade and cast may vary, but the world increasing looks just like us when viewed through the lenses of the web. It is only far reaching events like the recent Brexit referendum that expose hidden faultlines between us and our peers that when emerging shock us into anger, hurt and ‘unfriending’. Its times like this when we realise that internet has made us decidedly less tolerant than the extent to which we profess it in society today.

I imagine the impact of the internet in this way on our minds has also got shared roots in, or is directly influencing, this discussion of ‘Safe Spaces’ taking place, mostly in the US but in the UK too. Our need to be protected from those we perceive to be dangerous is partly down to our professed inability to have our personal narratives challenged. We feel entitled to have the world conform around us and our struggles. A result of this is the compiling of a hierarchy in which certain characteristics and identities are prioritised over others. The phrase ‘speaking as a (insert qualifier here)’ has only become more popular in the public sphere as this use of what has been known as ‘identity politics’ has become an exercise in claiming authority or creating space for these characteristics and identities to be heard. Those voices being heard isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, its that the merit of whatever is said is only of worth precisely because of who said it rather than the merit of the words themselves. Its a perverse form of tokenism that actually advocates for the segregation of people groups along criteria both real and imagined.

 

This has even begun to inform our Governments in the shape of the various efforts to combat ‘Hate Speech’ online. The problem with these efforts is that it erodes our ability to effectively engage with one another. We are creating new taboos and using our legislative infrastructure to discourage genuinely free speech. Worse in some instances we are outsourcing this policing to private corporations (who are increasingly taking up the mantle without needing to be prompted) who aren’t accountable like our politicians and allowing them to play perhaps a greater than warranted role in the shaping of our culture. A culture increasingly unable to handle ideas that diverge from its established mores.

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Finally the atomisation of our culture is reflected by the fact that many people today, the young in particular, are solitary creatures. We are more likely than any other generation to eat alone, live alone, think alone and perhaps not sleep alone but are decidedly ‘single’. I think the role of the family, the household, historically has created space for private thought and intimate familial culture. Traditionally Heidegger suggested that the private sphere of our lives is the place we can be ourselves, with the loss of this space are we more prone to predatory external influences? We still think in public, with friends, we live in flat shares with others but do any of these things we do accurately reflect or replace the intimacy of the family? Or are they really just the best alternative? We pride ourselves on our individualism but are deeply isolated and disconnected as a culture and less able to tackle the struggles of tough times alone. Increasingly people are looking to online communities to address this issue but this process arguably reinforces the vicious cycle of physical isolation we currently find ourselves in.

The impact on our faith

All of these things have an impact both on the public and private life and witness of the Church.

Public

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Publicly, and particularly within Protestant denominations we are increasingly finding ourselves being boiled down to Christianity of the lowest common denominator. We live in a free market age and should we dare sing songs, celebrate festivals or preach on themes which aren’t as uplifting (although perhaps more holistic in their content) people will simply go elsewhere. Its not necessarily that people disagree with the content, although many do and we see the continued fracturing of Protestantism as a result. Its just that for whatever reason they are offered ‘more’ elsewhere or in some cases simply don’t feel offered enough. Despite this it isn’t totally due to a lack of effort on the part of congregants. People, all of us, are less willing to hear differing perspectives than those in the past and we simply keep moving Church communities till we ‘fit in’.

These are complicated issues but underscored by the fact that we are just used to instant gratification and churches unwittingly are perhaps pandering to this in many instances in their preaching and worship in an effort to shore up numbers in an age of decline. Sadly many new churches that experience explosive growth are less down to their missionary capabilities but more due to their ability ‘to shuffle the deck’ of where the local Christians within a geographic area happen to be attending. This requires effort on both the part of Church leaders and their members to really address. I also think the sheer numbers of denominations in existence in the West has a lead to a sometimes predatory relationship between existing churches in regards to poaching attendees which is ultimately demeaning for the churches in question and their attendees. Its easily to convert someone to your brand of Christianity than to convert an unbeliever wholesale.

People increasingly fail to engage with big ideas any more, this doesn’t mean people are stupid, we are just increasingly shallow. The practical benefit of the Christian message no doubt will appeal more than what at first seems like abstract theology in the role of witness. How we say things is just as important as what we say.

Private

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I’ve heard repeatedly that the average Bible knowledge of a believer today is shockingly poor. I believe that and I’m trying to address it in myself. Yet we have come to see our faith increasingly through a lens of how it makes us feel as a measure of growth or success. I am reading the Psalms currently and in doing so I just comforted by how fully it embraces the whole spectrum of human emotions. The Bible is an incredibly human book in this sense. We neglect it at our peril, I’ll admit – sometimes I read the Bible and I don’t get a lot from it. I’ll read it anyway because this is part of who I am and I am in it for the long haul.

Faith should not be dependent on what mood we are in on any particular day. I’m going to church and I’m going to commit because Jesus set it up, I need to be more honest about how I’m doing with other believers, but more than that I need to be more willing to have them involved in my life. I also need to be more ok with when believers aren’t doing ok and allow them to have that. We should talk about trusting in Christ sometimes more than Faith. Trust is more concrete, absolute, and we should have that in Christ which in turn gives us the space to express a more healthy emotional range.

We need to start being more honest with ourselves and others, we need to be willing to be involved in the life of one another – its one thing to have ‘conversations’. Its really quite another to be accountable and involved with one another as the body we are called to be. I’ve mentioned this in other posts but discipleship is crucial, its something we talk about but don’t see explicitly practiced that often. Being involved in one another’s lives will do far more than sermonising someone from afar. Maybe we need more frequent, smaller gatherings.

In closing

Finally I think for all of us we need to start exerting a bit more self discipline. I’m projecting now, and most of this post has been that, but I know my self discipline is poor. We need to get used to older ideas of regular prayer and fasting. We need to expand these to account for prayer for an increasing in self discipline and practice such things by committing to regular timely prayer in common patterns. We need to fast in the old ways for the old reasons but extend that to incorporate our excessive consumption of contemporary technology. Ultimately this needs to be part of our common culture, not a rejection of such things, technology can make life better. Technology however can also cheapen life and our interactions with others.

People are also driven increasingly by immediacy, reaction and ego. We need to address these openly not just in instruction but also practice. Identify the things around us worthy of praise and correct what is otherwise deficient. We can’t continue ministry like the majority of people are Christians, most people are ignorant of the most basic tenants of the faith and we need to be able to speak of Christ’s new creation in a way that is understandable in the most laymen of terms but also steer clear of appealing to the lowest common denominator. We should reduce our expectation of revival quick wins and instead focus on a generational vision of holistically baptising and reforming our local communities from the ground up over the process of years, decades and even centuries into the future. Quick wins and revivals are flashes in the pan of history, here for a time and gone, the work of the Holy Spirt in the Church is ongoing forever.