Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On iconography, feminism, and faithfulness to Tradition

I recently came across this article, by a non-Orthodox person styling herself as "a rebellious iconographer".

My response is as follows:

If one is going to claim "no female saintly presence" for an icon, she would do well to choose icons that actually have no female saintly presence.  The Pentecostal icon she uses as her first example (Fig. 1) has a HUGE female saintly presence: the Mother of God herself is front and center.

In iconography, that position is huge, which even she admits:

The Apostles are depicted seated in a semi-circle, with no individual among them taking the central seat of authority.

She is correct that none of the Apostles occupies the central seat of authority, but I beg to differ with the assertion that "no individual" takes that seat in this icon.  It is occupied by the Mother of God, a "female saintly presence" if there ever was one.

Fig. 1
That icon is so clearly structured! I, as an Orthodox Christian looking at that icon, see the Mother of God first and foremost; only then do I notice that those surrounding her are the Twelve.  The emphasis here is very much a feminine saintly presence.

She dismisses (or perhaps just misses) this by saying,

[When] Mary got elevated to Virgin Mother of God she lost her place as a woman saint or female apostle.

Maybe in her tradition that's true, but not in Eastern Orthodoxy.  For us, rather than losing her place as a woman saint, Mary is shown to be the pinnacle of what it means to be a woman saint.  (Actually, I could even leave off the gender and say just as accurately that she is the fulfillment of what it means to be a saint, period, but since we're talking about gender, I'll leave it on.)

She is the ultimate female saint!  And she's front and center.  So her whole thesis is turned on its head.

(As for "female apostle" -- as far as I know, she never was that to start with, so its hard to say she "lost her place" as one.  We do have plenty of other female apostles -- many of them sent by her, even! (e.g. St. Nino of Georgia) -- but she was not herself of that Order.

Besides, if she's going to argue from exclusion, she should argue that that same icon gives a vast quantity of men short shrift as well, considering that there were at least 120 people in that room, and at least 70 of them were men, none of whom are portrayed.  But I digress.)

In her article next to this part (i.e., where she dismisses Mary), there is what used to be another icon of Pentecost, now mangled by Photoshop (Fig. 2).

This one includes the Mother of God in neither its mangled nor original (Fig. 3) form.  However, one cannot use her absence in this one to say that women are excluded in Eastern Orthodox iconography, because in the same Tradition, and just as popular (if not more so), we have the icon discussed above.  Clearly this one (without her) has a different pedagogical purpose and focus.

Fig. 2 - Mangled
Fig. 3 - Original

The blank space at the bottom of the original holds a depiction of the Cosmos personified.  I won't go into a whole meditation on this aspect of the icon here, but suffice it to say she's completely missed the point of the whole icon, which had nothing to do with male OR female, or the composition of the Church, etc.  She's taken it apart and put it back together as something completely different.  To borrow a line from Irenaus, she's turned the mosaic of the King into a mosaic of a fox.

(It's like taking the original Star Wars trilogy and replacing The Empire Strikes Back with Cinderella, and Return of the Jedi with Pride and Prejudice.  It's not even the same story, if such a "trilogy" can be called a story at all!)

She asserts,

Iconographers have continually taken liberties with image content as church teaching changed and their emphasis modified.

In the Eastern tradition, nothing could be farther from the truth, not only because church teaching hasn't changed (it is still "the Faith once delivered to the saints"), but also because, understanding that "the icons portray and teach with color what the Scriptures and the Fathers teach with words", to "take liberties with image content" in the way she is describing would be tantamount to heresy.  It's like taking liberties with the content of Scripture.  Have some people done so?  Yes.  Did they keep the Tradition by doing so?  No; rather, they departed from it.

She then gives an interpretation of the empty center seat, correctly noting that it is the Teacher's seat, but then positing that the icon invites us to sit in it.

Insofar as the center seat is depicted as empty, I guarantee you it is not because it meant for us to plop ourselves down in it.  That seat is "empty" because the Christ who still sits in it is invisibly present, as opposed to visibly.  So it is not actually empty; it is occupied by an invisible presence.

This is in fact a great temptation to the unlearned and unstable: to see the "emptiness" of the Teacher's seat and then, abandoning all humility, to assume that it is left empty for oneself to take.

But that is not the place of the one contemplating the icon, nor is her place "to stand outside looking in".  The icon's composition does not allow this.

Rather, if you are viewing the icon at all, the icon as originally written places you squarely in the circle of the Apostles, although at the bottom of it, farthest (compared to them) from the seat of the Teacher.

Your position at the event is to be seated on the part of the circle not depicted.   It's not absent because it doesn't exist; it's "absent" because that part of the circle extends through the window into our world, and the observer is seated on it.  So it's not absent at all.  It's just not on the other side of the window.

This openness of the circle already shows exactly what this author says we need to include: that the whole world is invited into the Kingdom, to sit with the Apostles and receive the Spirit.  It also shows, however, that there is order and hierarchy in the Kingdom. The Kingdom is no egalitarian miasma.

If even the seats at his right and left hands are not up for grabs, I think we would do well not to assume that the Teacher's own seat is available.  Did not He Himself teach us so?

When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; and he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, 'Give this man place'; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. 
But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, 'Friend, go up higher': then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. 
For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

As a side note: if this is true for you and me, how much more so would the saintly and humble women whom she has shoehorned into the seats of the Twelve be appalled that she has done so?  They would be the first to censure her!

She concludes with the question:

Why not expand past women saints and female apostles and include an international gathering of great thinkers who control our world[?]

The original icon does include such great thinkers, and the entire set of people who have controlled and continue to control the world, in the person of Cosmos.  The original icon has much to teach about the relationship of the Spirit, the Church, and the world leaders.  But she has blacked that teaching out entirely and discarded it.

The Eastern Church has no need to "rethink" the Tradition, nor our depiction of it in color.  This author says, rightly, "Icon paintings have their power in showing the potential for human harmony and divine energy all in one instant."  But that power is not theirs to shape as they will.  They must show the Truth of things.

If an iconographer paints simply whatever she feels like, or tries to shape a narrative outside of the Tradition, she is not an iconographer at all.  Or worse, perhaps she is a false iconographer, showing false visions and portraying lies!

Iconographers, just the same as Preachers and Prophets, ought to take careful heed that they do nothing without true vision, lest the Lord say of them also,

I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. ... Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them ... And I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.

How does one receive true vision, which one can then faithfully depict?  By entering the true Faith.  By receiving the Tradition (that is, the Spirit), and seeking always to enter ever more fully into it and remain faithful to it.  By not assuming that she can simply alter it to serve her own ideas (which are often, as in this case, nothing more than an expression of the zeitgeist), but rather by letting it alter her ideas, and flow through her as a fountain of living water.

If a woman wants more female saintly icons in the Byzantine tradition, I say to her: You are female; become a saint of the Byzantine tradition!  Then there will be more. :)

This is much easier said than done, of course.  But there's no time like the present to get started....


As a side note: there is another Byzantine icon of Pentecost that merges the two mentioned above (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
This is, I think, the "master" icon, and the other two are meditations on various aspects of it, with different lessons in mind.  Or perhaps this is the combination of the two threads into one contemplation later.  I don't know.  All I know is that either way, this kind of shifting of emphasis and content is perfectly permissible within the Tradition, because there is no alteration -- simply meditation on different aspects.

What this author proposes, however, is not a meditation on the Tradition in order to apply it to the needs of our times, but rather a complete alteration of -- or rather, departure from -- it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

On the gestational Right to Life and the Dependency Created by its Support at Law

A Facebook commenter asked me yesterday whether those of us who support "forcing a mother to give birth to an unwanted child" -- that is, protecting the unborn child's right to life -- would be around to adopt or support the child being born, or whether we would just let them fill up the streets and probably die of starvation anyway.

The answer is: Yes, we would!  Most pro-life advocates (not all, but most) are Judeo-Christian in their religious outlook.  Orphanages and foster care have long been the grateful privilege of the Christian Church, "to care for the least of these", even if their own parents don't want to (abortion) or can't (have to give up for adoption).

Originally, I had the following conclusion:
Unfortunately, however, orphanages are no longer legal in the United States.  That leaves a huge burden on the individual couples who might desire and have the resources to adopt.  Historically, the orphanages were the default place for "unwanted" or otherwise guardianless (for various tragic reasons, not just that nobody wanted them) children.  Of course, the goal was to adopt these out to worthy and desiring families as soon as possible, but if such was not possible, at least they were taken care of.

Pro-Life advocates should also fight for the legalization of orphanages, and (upon legalization) should petition and provide for their Churches to establish and oversee them in every city.

However, I did a little research, and I found out that there is such a thing as Residential Treatment Centers (see, e.g., which are the modern descendants of Orphanages.  So such things are possible, if somewhat difficult to run.

My new conclusion is as follows:

Pro-Life advocates should also, as a supporting matter, petition and provide for their Churches and Organizations to establish and oversee such centers in every city.

On Abortion, Rights, and Child Support

In debates about abortion, the phrase "it's my body" often pops up. If the debate is able to move past that (rare), the fallback is usually, "Why should we force a woman to have to have a parasite (essentially) feeding off of her body and making her do/feel weird things?"

Most counter-arguments focus on the whole "parasite" phrasing, but I grant it. A baby is exactly that, functionally, and an accidental one probably even carries with it (for the mother) all the negative and pejorative connotations of that word, especially if it is the product of rape.

Nevertheless, the point must be answered: why should the woman have to support this drain on her resources, potential killer (complications from pregnancy and birth can, on rare occasion, kill the mother), etc.?

My answer is this: because it is a Human Being, who enjoys, by virtue of that fact, a Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. These three are not equal, but hierarchical -- they are presented in that order for a reason.

And even most abortion rights advocates recognize this, although they may not realize it. Most abortion rights advocates are also against the use of the death penalty, in favor of life in prison, forcing the maintenance of that Life onto the taxpayer. They assert that even when the right to Liberty has been surrendered, the right to Life remains, and that said Life must be sustained, even if it means forcing others to do so. And so they recognize a hierarchy within the three rights, with Life as the fountainhead, paramount in its importance, even at the expense of others.

This same distinction is also recognized in their (usual) advocacy of a social safety net.

The objection being answered is legally founded on the mother's right to Liberty: to do with her body as she wills.  However, the Right to Life comes first, and the Baby's Right To Life therefore overrides any conflicting Rights that the Mother upon whom he or she is dependent may otherwise hold, including Liberty.  (I say nothing of the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness, because if that overrode the Right to Life, then children could be murdered by their parents outside the womb, too, and no one would blink an eye.  If the Right to Liberty can't trump the Right to Life, and it is greater than the Right to the Pursuit of Happiness, then how can the least overcome, either?)

To show this most clearly, let's examine the case of the father.  Women's rights advocates are vociferous in their calls for "deadbeat dads" to "man up", to be called to account, to pay for the physical and psychological support of their offspring.

Why?  Because they recognize that every child has a right to the Pursuit of Happiness, and if they child is not provided for by two parents he or she will suffer in the realization of that right.  (Not that it will be eliminated, but merely reduced!)

But this forced recognition of dependency infringes greatly upon the father's own Rights to Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- Liberty, because his body and time are no longer solely his own (he has to use them, for at least part of the time, to generate enough revenue to pay the required payments); the Pursuit of Happiness, because in diverting some amount of his resources involuntarily, he is, perforce, not able to use those resources in the pursuit of his own happiness, therefore, his Right to the Pursuit of Happiness is infringed to the extent such diversion is required.

So women's rights advocates (and any right-thinking person, really) do aver that it is good and right to recognize that the lesser rights of the child do in fact infringe upon the same rights of the father to a greater or lesser degree, and that such infringement does not grant any right to the father to cut off the fountainhead Right of the child (that is, to murder his own child in order to end the inconvenience).  They furthermore assert that such infringement should be authorized and enforced by the full force of the law.

This even though the dependency is realized only partially and distantly realized.   (That is, the Child's rights are merely reduced, and not eliminated, if the one on whom he or she is dependent does not recognize and provide for the dependency.)

How then, I ask, can they simultaneously assert that the greatest Right of the child (i.e. to Life) may be abrogated completely, simply because the one on whom it is dependent (in this case, the mother) does not desire to recognize and provide for the dependency, based on an assertion of her lesser Rights?  Do they not see that the same lesser Rights, when asserted by the provider in the other case had no standing or ability to overcome the provision against even the reduction, let alone elimination, of even the lesser Rights of the Child.

How can they say that the same assertion on the one had allows the full elimination of the greater Right, and on the other it doesn't even suffice to allow the mere reduction of the lesser Rights?