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Images And Idols

Images And Idols October 17, 2021

Lawrence OP: Parable of the Sower / flickr

The incarnation has revealed the truth of God to us in a human form, a human form with a human image. That image is God’s image, and through it, we learn that we can use images to represent the divine nature so long as we understand the way such representations work. We can embrace God through cataphatic theology, we can imagine God, using our theological conventions to point to the divine truth. This is because of the economic activity of the Trinity centered around the incarnation. God has established the means for our theological engagement: God has united heaven with earth, the uncreated with the created, allowing the creatures to participate in the divine life, and with it, reveal what it is they have experienced to others. Nonetheless, we must always keep in mind that all positive theology, all theological images of God, no matter how well established they are, point to the absolute truth of God through conventional means. We must always seek after and embrace what such conventions represent, that is, the meaning implied by such conventions, if we want to be embraced by the absolute truth itself. What we must not do is get lost in the details of the conventions themselves. Images, if they are misunderstood and  abused, can become idols, which is why we must embrace apophatic theology, making sure we do not turn conventions into absolutes, turning the images we employ into idols. Salvation history started with the negation of the image so as to purify humanity from its misconceptions of the divinity, but once that purification had been made, then the incarnation could and did reestablish their use so long as we kept in mind their limitations. They must not be used to overcome the great mystery of the truth, but rather, they should work to awaken that mystery within, to allow us to experience a little of the kingdom of God in all its glory (the kingdom which, of course, includes not only God, but all the saints of God, which is why we can and should imagine them as well).

Jesus is our exemplar; he brings the presence of God to us. All that he said, all that he did in his earthly ministry revealed to us the truth of God. Jesus not only did so in a way which we could apprehend, but also in a way which preserved the transcendent mystery of God. He wanted us to open ourselves to the mystery. We should never try to trap what little of it we have received, acting like we have comprehended the fullness of the truth from the revelation we have been given, for if we do so, we will turn away from the great transcendent glory of God and find ourselves engaging in idolatry. As a way to remind us of this, Jesus often spoke through parables, parables which could be interpreted in a diverse number of ways, with each interpretation giving us a greater understanding and awareness of the truth itself.  Even when we are given an interpretation of a parable, we must be cautious; if we carefully examine the explanation, we will find it is itself filled with mystery, filled with riddles which cannot be simply solved.  We can see this, for example, with the parable of the sower of the seed:

“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Lk. 8:5-8 RSV).

Jesus told his disciples one of the ways we can interpret the parable. He said that  “The seed is the word of God” (Lk. 8:11b RSV). What, exactly, is  meant by this? What does he mean by the word of God? Are we, for example, to think he meant Scripture? Certainly that is one way we can interpret what Jesus meant. Scripture provides us a foundation by which we can come to know God, and so those who have been given Scripture, those who can read it, those who can engage it, can be said to be sown the seed of God in them. However, not everyone is literate. Not everyone has access to Scripture. Are they bereft of the seed? No. The seed is spread wide, and not all of those would have received it have been those who heard or knew of Scripture. This is why the seed could be said to be the word of God as it is found in natural revelation, and so, as Paul would suggest, all people have access to some truth about God and will be judged in accordance to the way they engage that truth. However, as Jesus is himself the Word of God, it could also be read as a statement concerning the way the incarnation took place in human history. Jesus is the expectation of the nations, and so the seed has been sown throughout human history, preparing all the nations for the incarnation. The parable, even with its explanation, leaves us with just enough insight to seek after and engage the transcendent truth for ourselves, to discern the way the seed has been planted not only throughout the world, but also in us; we must observe it at work in our lives and make sure we let it flourish. To do this, we are told we must possess  “an honest and good heart” (Lk. 8:15). The parable, therefore, can be given a practical interpretation, but even then, we are left with questions, for we must discern what exactly it means to have an “honest and good heart,” and when we do so, we will find a variety of answers. Thus, when Jesus gives us a representation of the kingdom of God, he gives an image (formed with words) which we must never use to reduce the kingdom of God, but rather, an image which we must use to further engage and apprehend the mystery of the kingdom for ourselves.

Images can be abused. We can use them to limit ourselves and our understanding of God. We must first accept the transcendent mystery of the absolute; an apophatic no must be given to all conventions, for in this fashion, we will make sure no conventions are confused as being absolutes. Once we do so, we can employ images, understanding their conventional value.  But, because they are open to and point to the absolute truth, the absolute can be encountered in and through them, even if it is not comprehended by them. Images, therefore, can participate in the truth which they represent. This is why we can experience the kingdom of God through holy icons. The kingdom of God comes to us, not only with the presence of God, but also the presence of those who are in the kingdom of God with God, that is the saints. This presence of the kingdom also explains why we can learn from images, coming to know truths of God in and through them This is why many who could not read texts were able to learn their faith in and through them; now, it seems, as more people are literate, they have lost their ability to read and understand images. It would be best if we could do both, for visual images can represent elements of the kingdom of God in a way words cannot. We should not, therefore, do away with images, but rather, we should find a way to include them in our life, so that we can experience the special presence of the kingdom of God in them which we cannot and will not experience through other means.

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