Friday, July 1, 2016

On icons vs. idols



Introduction

Icons, images, idols.  Do you know the difference?

Many today do not know the differences among these three words, and so they either avoid such things, or fall into idolatry.  Let me give a brief explanation of the history and meanings of these three words.


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WARNING: What you are about to read may alter the way you think in ways you cannot reverse and cannot ignore.  If you'd rather just not know, close the page now.  Proceed with caution.


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Images

There is a whole long discussion that can be had over how the human mind is a pattern recognition engine, and how this allows for symbols to be.  There is another whole long discussion about what symbols are in the first place.  But I will skip both of those and simply say that an image is fundamentally a composition of components such that they form a recognizable pattern.  An image is always an pattern evocative of some other pattern, whether assembled with intent (as in a building, or some such), or by "nature" (as in a human being, a tree, or whatever).

(NB: Since an image is a pattern evocative of some other pattern, the word may be freely applied to non-material things -- that is, thoughts and ideas.  As such, it becomes a synonym for "metaphor".  But it is the material sense with which we are primarily concerned here.)

The pattern being evoked is called the "prototype".  Images may vary with regards to the completeness or exactness of their reproduction, ranging from incredibly exact and thorough ("concrete") to only passing or esoteric similarity ("abstract").  This flexibility allows for imagery to be used to evoke multiple patterns simultaneously, particularly towards the abstract end of the spectrum.

Furthermore, images need not merely bring to mind patterns that have already been seen by that particular viewer, but may also be used to instruct the mind (to one degree or another) as to new patterns.

Also, images may be patterns of other images -- that is, patterns of patterns of patterns, such that the prototype may be several iterations removed from the image being viewed.  This does not diminish the reality of the prototypical presence, although it may obscure it to one degree or another.

Idols

Humanity has in its nature a certain inclination to worship -- that is, to ascribe worth.  We have various ways of showing this, most of which are gestures of submission: i.e. bowing down, by lifting hands, etc.  This is a collective memory of our communion with God, and an affirmation of the fact of our ultimate reliance on His power and care.  We do this in reaction to things we see, whether with our heart (spiritual apprehension), or our mind (imagination -- soul), or our eyes (physical sight).

Being made not only of spirit, or even of spirit and soul, but also of body, as one unified nature -- what each part does is mirrored and effective towards and in the others to one extent or another -- we use such gestures as living images showing forth the pattern of our inner disposition.  Or rather, this would be totally true if we had not fallen into disunity by sin, becoming capable of displaying patterns outwardly that do not mirror the inner prototype of the condition of our spirits -- that is, of lying.

We also, however, through this same fall into sin, became incredibly blind, especially in our spirit, and began to ascribe worth where none was found -- or rather, in excess of what was found -- since we could no longer see the True Worthy One .

The sight of God -- the only one worthy of ultimate worship (Greek, latreia) -- was and is a spiritual sight, seen in the faculties of the heart (not the fleshy bit of muscle, but an aspect of the spirit), and not in the mind or in the eye.  ("Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.")
But we lost our internal sight of the uncreated, and so began to make images that we thought accorded with the patterns of things we had seen.  Or that we wished to see.  
We began to make images of things created, to try to find in them the image of the uncreated, the sight of which we had lost, that we might see it again.

These images were false, but some had more easy remembrance of that Sight than others, and thus we began, in the darkness of our blindness, to forget their Creator and ascribe worth to the images per se instead.  Those images are called idols, from the Greek work eidolon, which derives from eidos: "to see" or "sight", and the worship offered to them is gross idolatry (eidolon + latreia).

The demons had a role in shaping this.  Desiring the worship of God for themselves, they showed us themselves as the Angels of Light that they once were (2 Cor. 11:14, 15), and we saw in this pattern (or cheap imitation of it) glimmers of the ancient Sight, and our darkened minds were quickly drawn to them.  We made images of them, and worshiped these images, worshiping in them the demons. (1 Cor. 10:19, 20)

At some point, of course, humans not being complete idiots, and having the witness of their conscience against them, the idolaters realized that giving worship to wood and stone and created things per se was not all that bright -- that the pattern was not it's prototype.  And so they began to offer their worship to the prototypes of their patterns -- what they imagined to be the True God.  There being many different patterns presented, however, they called them gods -- plural. (Gal. 4:8)

Now, it does us well to observe that the idea -- that the worship and honor given to an image passes through to its prototype -- is a valid one, considering that both are but patterns in our minds.

But the pagan worship was still directed to the wrong objects, since the prototypes themselves were created things, and demons.  This is not so much "gross" idolatry as "sophisticated" idolatry (my own distinction), because it is based on a correct principle, but directly wrongly.

The True God, being uncreated and completely separate from His Creation, was not able to be depicted at all, and so no image could bear worship to Him, as He had no prototype to pattern after, no form to be imaged.  "
And the LORD spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice."  On this basis He gave a prohibition to His chosen people:
Take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves; for ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the LORD spake unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire: lest ye corrupt yourselves, and make you a graven image, the similitude of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged fowl that flieth in the air, the likeness of any thing that creepeth on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the waters beneath the earth: and lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them, which the LORD thy God hath divided unto all nations under the whole heaven.
Yet not all images were forbidden to be formed by them.  He commanded that they put images of the seraphim in the tabernacle, and pomegranates on the robes of the priests, etc.  But they were not to offer worship to them, nor to consider them divine, lest they be idolaters.

Icons

Ikon is the Greek word for "image".  It means nothing more than that.  Just as anything in the created world can be imaged, anything can be depicted in an icon, because an icon is an image.  The two are synonyms.

How, then, did the word come to denote religious images?  And why does the Church use them in her worship, making their use even a point of doctrine?  Has the Church fallen into idolatry?  Or has paganism overcome the Church?  Is an icon an idol?

Since all icons are images, and all images are icons (in the mundane sense), then yes, it is possible for an icon to be an idol, since it is possible for an image to be an idol, and all icons are images.  (NB: Conversely, and importantly, it is possible for an icon not to be an idol as well, for the same reason.)  There are two aspects to this determination: subject and viewer.

If the prototype (the subject) is not the True God, and the viewer is offering to its prototype the worship (latreia) that is due to the True God alone, then yes, the icon is an idol, and the viewer an idolater.  (Even if the prototype is the True God, but the viewer is offering the worship to the icon itself per se, and not as passing through to the prototype, then this also is idolatry, although I would call it, to be more precise, iconolatry, since what is seen is not the point of differentiation in this case so much as what is worshiped.)

"Idol", as we have seen (pun intended), is derivative of "to see", and is a class of icon/image that is used in an attempt to "see" the deity, and offer worship to it through them, but failing because this was impossible, seeing as (again, pun intended) the deity could not be depicted, having no form or shape or similitude in created things.

But what if that changed?  What if God took on a form?  Could we rightly depict that form, and offer worship to Him through it?

Indeed!

And the Gospel, the Good News, tells us that He did exactly that: that God truly became Man and dwelt among us, and "we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."  The Gospel teaches that this was not a mere apparition, a false form, but a true unification of two natures -- God and Man -- into one Person, the Man Christ Jesus.

It can properly said that the one who sees Him sees the Father, because He has united the two natures in Himself.  (He is called the image of God -- the icon, that is, of God.)  He is True God of True God, and yet dwells among us as one of us.

Therefore, since He took upon Himself a form, and appeared to us in the flesh, while remaining true God, we may rightly offer worship to the Father through Him who is the icon of the Father.  And we may depict His form as well, and offer worship to Him through such depictions, and through Him to the Father.

Such images are called "icons" in the religious sense.

But what of those images that are not strictly of Him?  Why do we offer to them the same signs of submission (bowing, kissing, etc.) that we offer to Him through His own images?

Just as I said, above, that the worshiper may become an idolater by offering the worship to the image per se, rather than the prototype through it, so also he may become an idolater by offering the latreia -- that is, the ultimate worship, due to God alone -- to depicted subjects that are not Him.

That being said, however, the worshiper may yet offer a lesser worship -- that is, not the ultimate worship due to God alone, attributing true and ultimate worthiness, but rather only attributing worth commensurate to the degree to which the subject has been made holy by the True and Ultimate Worthy One working and dwelling in him, or her, or (in the case of events and objects) it.

This lesser worship is sharply differentiated in English by the term "veneration", from the Latin venerare, meaning, "to regard with reverence and respect".  That is, to honor.  In Greek, the word is doulia.

(NB: This distinction is relatively new in English, but it has been there in Greek all along.  In English, we still have an echo of the dual use of the word "worship" to cover both senses in the phrase "your worship", attributed as a title for certain dignitaries.  Additionally, prostrations, kissing, and other such submissive gestures may be used to convey both latreia and doulia, together or seperately, and were commonly used on all levels in ancient times, although not so much recently in Western culture.  When it comes to these, context is key.)

This lesser worship is offered only within the context of and with reference toward and from the Ultimate Worthy One, for it is He who makes anyone honorable, and it is He Who works in them both to will and to do of His good pleasure.  It is He in them -- for the Saint is the Image of Christ, as Christ is the Image of the Father -- to whom we offer worship at all, and "God is glorified in His saints". The Saint is the image of the Image, and the icon of a Saint is an image of an image of the Image of the Father.

That is why we do not venerate just any old image.  To be worthy of veneration, the image must depict one of those who are themselves sanctified by the All-Holy Spirit.  It is never the icon itself that is worthy of veneration, but the prototype of whom it is an image.

Nor are even these prototypes, in themselves, worthy (excepting our Lord Himself, of course), but only insofar as the Spirit has made them Holy with His Holiness, making them images of the Prototype, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thus we "praise God in His sanctuary" -- i.e. that place which is sanctified by His presence -- giving honor to whom honor is due.

Conclusion

In ancient times, the pagans argued (correctly) that the worship directed to the image is passed on to its prototype.  But their defense of themselves by this truth fell flat: the prototypes they worshiped were not the True God, but demons.
This same truth, however, not only protects the Christian veneration of icons from being idolatry, but forms one of the strongest witnesses of the truth and shape of the Incarnation: that God became fully Man and dwelt among us while remaining fully God, completely, inseperably (but unconfusedly) uniting the two in His own Person.

The Incarnation is the absolute cause of our ability to worship His Person via His image, directly, and not in types and shadows.  By doing so we confess without any qualification that what is depicted is His whole Person, although His flesh is the only visible portion, the only portion able to be depicted.  The eye of faith, seeing Him in the flesh, sees the whole Person, acknowledges and confesses the indivisible and unconfused union of the two natures, and thus offers worship to the whole Godhead, which dwells bodily in Him.  (Col. 2:9)

This dichotomy between pagan idolatry and Christian worship, ushered in by the Incarnation, is so vibrant that once one grasps it one cannot thereafter deny it and remain in the Truth.  For whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father (John 14:9); His Word is Truth.  And the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and rests in the Son, He also sends into our hearts crying, "Abba, Father!".

Thus, when we see the Son, whether face to face or in painted depiction, the Holy Spirit "shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" and we prostrate ourselves with believing Thomas, kiss Him, and cry, "My Lord and my God!", truly worshiping the Father in Spirit and in Truth, to Whom be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen!

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