Wednesday, April 10, 2019

III. On the Unreliability and Reliability of Incarnate Beauty

So far in this series of posts, I've taken some shots at Iconoclasm and especially at the form of "soft" or "accidental" Iconoclasm which exists within American evangelicalism (which has its roots deep in the intentional Iconoclasm of the Puritans) as I've experienced it.

But the incidents of Iconoclasm within the first millennium--notably of course the two great Iconoclast persecutions, which have contributed more martyrs and confessors to the Church calendar than any of the persecutions under pagan emperors--surely show that this is a perennial concern, something which we cannot take for granted. Like every heresy, after all, Iconoclasm seems to be concerned mainly with the preservation of God's honor, a motivation that no person of faith should despise.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has in fact acknowledged this in the feast, commemorated on the first Sunday of Lent, of the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" which celebrates the return of the icons in 843. As part of this celebration, every Orthodox parish in the world reads the decrees affirming the place of beauty in Christian worship:

As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught,... as the Church has received... as the teachers have dogmatized,... as the Universe has agreed,... as Grace has shown forth,... as Truth has revealed,... as falsehood has been dissolved,... as Wisdom has presented,... as Christ Awarded,... thus we declare,... thus we assert,... thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration. 
This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.
Note that the emphasis placed here is not merely on aesthetic beauty itself (though no one would argue that there is not present in Eastern Orthodox worship a high standard of aesthetic beauty), but on beauty as a means to two things: faith (confession in and worship of Christ as God and Lord) and love (the physical embodiment of the Communion of the Saints). Inasmuch as one Patristic view of the Church is as a "communion of faith and love," icons affirm both.

All of this is by way of saying that classical "traditioned" Christianity has always acknowledged that some uneasiness exists about the use of beauty, with objections ranging from "this could have been sold, and the money given to the poor" (need I remind anyone who said those words first?) to genuine concern about graven images. By the same token, the Holy Trinity has seemed too much like Polytheism for some, while the idea of the Incarnation of the uncontainable God has proven difficult for philosophers and theologians right up to the Protestant Reformation. The Church acknowledges this uneasiness and both addresses it and re-orients herself through celebration.

According to the Tradition, icons (taken in the broadest sense to include crosses, vestments, architecture, etc.) are an extension, an implication, and a necessary consequence of the Incarnation. Thus, uneasiness about beauty (and it really is just about beauty--few Evangelicals today would object to spending money on a larger auditorium which would seat more people; it always seems to be the money that could be spent beautifying the Church, not the money spent enlarging it, which ought to have been given to the poor) may be understood as a larger and quite reasonable uneasiness about human nature and the things which it produces.

Concerning this uneasiness, the Patristic tradition is not silent. One of the first and most important stops for anyone trying to articulate a "language of beauty" must surely be The Life of Moses by St Gregory of Nyssa. In this work, St Gregory introduces a multi-level reading of the life of the prophet Moses that views it at the literal/historical, typological, and allegorical levels. One of the important images that St Gregory sees in the life of Moses (as a type of the ascent of the soul towards God) is the concept of the "garments of skin," something typified both in the clothes God gave Adam and Eve to wear when they were expelled from Paradise, as well in the shoes which Moses must remove so that he can come into the presence of God:
The light instructs us in what we must do when we stand within the rays of that true light. Feet that have sandals are unable to ascend to that lofty height where the light of truth is seen. Rather the dead and earthly skin coverings which clothed our nature at the beginning when we were discovered to be naked on account of our disobedience to the divine will, should be taken off the feet of the soul.
Moses and the Burning Bush; fresco, St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas, TX
These garments of skin are not bad or evil, in fact at some point they may even be necessary for our survival. Moses' shoes do take him a long way up the Mountain, after all. But in the end they are those things which we must lay aside in order to truly encounter God. They are the pharmakon, the things (including both technology and "thought constructions" such as metaphors) which extend our ability to act in the world, even to have power over it, but which also ultimately set greater limitations upon ourselves. For example: writing, and much later the Internet, have extended the human ability to process and disseminate information in a dramatic way, but they have come at the cost of a reduced capacity for memory in most people. It is worth remembering in a similar vein that the prohibitions against idolatry in the Old Testament are always prohibitions, not simply against making an image, a work of art, but against making an image of the invisible God after our own understanding. Thus the prophet Isaiah prefaces his tirade against idolatry with the question "To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?"

St Gregory elsewhere extended this metaphor of the "garments of skin" to techne, a word at once encompassing both technology and art (Christ is referred to in the New Testament as a tekton, a word often translated "carpenter," though the broader sense seems to have been "skilled artisan"). One argument which could be therefore made against the arts--and first and foremost the liturgical arts--is that they are a "garment of skin," a finite and therefore unreliable way of coming to know a God who is Infinite. Since they are made by human beings, this line of thinking goes, they can never bridge the unutterable gap between the human and divine. Their place is as amusement, or at best on the periphery of our religious experience.

Here, something pernicious seems to have poisoned the well in regards to the visual arts. Most modern "accidental iconoclasts" are more than willing to acknowledge the role music plays in worship, but balk at the employment of at least traditional visual arts--though one should note that the Puritans were at least more consistent on this point, destroying both musical instruments and sheet music (and driving all of England's best organists into exile) during the years of Cromwell's rule.

To answer this question we could look some of the ways we see the "garments of skin" transfigured and redeemed in Scripture and elsewhere in the Tradition--first and foremost, Noah's ark. Ultimately of course there is the whole paschal mystery of Christ, the transfiguration (foreshadowed by his literal transfiguration, the whole content of which was the Passion and the Resurrection) not only of human nature, but of all created things.

The Transfiguration of Christ
It is only in this understanding of the purpose, and destiny (one might say the final cause) of the created order that St Paul speaks of "bringing all things in heaven and on earth together in Christ." St Gregory of Nyssa, within the same breath of speaking of the garments of skin, sees in the burning bush a foreshadowing of the transfiguration of the garments of death into garments of light:
The fact that the fire which enlightened the soul of the prophet was lit from the thorny bush will not be without value in our examination. Because if truth is God and truth is light, and the Gospel affirms these splendid and holy names apply to God who made himself manifest to us in the flesh, such direction in virtue directs us to the knowledge that a light has descended, even upon human nature. For fear that one suppose that the brilliance did not emanate from a material substance, this light did not come forth from a star but rather from a bush of the earth and it excelled all the heavenly stars in its brilliance. From this we discover also the mystery of the Virgin. The radiance of divinity through whose birth shone from her into the life of men did not consume the burning bush, just as the flower of her virginity did not fade by giving birth.
The essential grammar of our "language of beauty" is, as I have said, that image of the Virgin and Child, for the Mystery of the Virgin is the Mystery of the Incarnation, of the God-become-man. The difference between this--the flesh of the Virgin which becomes the flesh of God, and becomes the flesh of Christ in the chalice--and the "garments of skin" which we must discard to know God is really a twofold difference: it is a difference in who makes the image, and in what and who is the center.

The first difference is really an epistemological question: are there any metaphors or analogies by which we can know God, and if not, but what can He be known? As far as this question goes, classical Christianity entirely insists that God is only known reliably by his Word, who is a person, and who reveals both the written Scriptures and the whole of creation as a epiphany of God by means of his paschal mystery, of which and of whom we are not merely the audience, but actual participants through Baptism, the Eucharist, and the whole Mystery of the Church. God is therefore an image (eikon) maker, and the most ultimately reliable "eikon of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15) is is Son, Jesus Christ. Much more could be said of this; in a way it is the only thing that classical Christianity ever tries or needs to say. If I do not spend more on this point, it is only because it has been said so much better and so much more elegantly many other places, and what is more, one can only begin to understand it in terms of a living context. Christ is not a subject, he is a person.

The second difference is an artistic question of how--if Christ is the icon of the Father, and therefore the only reliable means by which we can know and commune with the God who is Beauty--all of the other arts (particularly those which are non-liturgical or not specifically religious) can be arranged so as to be transfigured by the Light of Tabor. This question of arrangement will be the focus of the next post in this series.


Currently reading: Great Lent, by Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: St Francis of Assisi, by G.K. Chesterton

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