Iconography, Iconoclasm, and the Theology of Personhood
Ancient Faith Radio · October 27, 2009
Audio length: 50:25
On a new Ancient Faith Presents, Fr. Anthony Michaels, priest at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, speaks at the Fall Diocesan Meeting of the Antiochian Diocese of Toledo. The lecture is titled "Iconography, Iconoclasm, and the Theology of Personhood."
Today on Ancient Faith Presents, we have a lecture given by Father Anthony Michaels, priest at St. John Chrysostom Antiochian Orthodox Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The lecture is titled “Iconography, Iconoclasm, and the Theology of Personhood,” and was delivered at the Fall Diocesan Meeting of the Antiochian Dioceses of Toledo, under the pastoral care of Bishop Mark. Our thanks to Father Patrick Kinder for providing the recording. Here is Father Anthony.
Father Anthony: Now my topic is “Iconography and the effect of Iconoclasm in the Modern World.” So I’m going to talk more on the effects of what the lack of good iconography and proper veneration for the icons and for each other has resulted in the modern iconoclasm. And I call modern iconoclasm, “icono-crasstic,” not only iconoclastic, because it’s a kind of making of crassness in the world that we live in today.
Because as my professor, Father Hopko said: “It’s either deification or nullification. There’s nothing in between.” And the idea of the icons or the presence and reality of the icons move us to the self transcendence which is our normal nature. Also another one of my professors of blessed memory, Father John Meyendorff said that “human nature is open-ended and there’s no such thing as a closed or autonomous or independent humanity.” Humanity is only defined in reference to and inclusion with or in confluence with divinity. “I am who I am because I am who I am,”—Exodus 3:14, I believe.
So this is the essence of, I think, my talk. First thing you need to know is human nature. It is not the nature that we have currently in our Western modern understanding of human nature as an independent thing, as somehow: “I am whole and complete in myself, and I only lack supernatural grace.” That is not the Orthodox view.
The Orthodox view is: “I am now abnormal. In my fallen humanity, I am not my full self. There’s a sense of sub-humanity in my humanity.” But the important thing is grace, in the Orthodox Church, is not something created by God and given to us in a medium from God, to make us something we weren’t ordinarily.
Grace is that constituent part in us that makes us who we are. In fact, St. Irenaeus went so far as to say: “Man is body, soul, and wholly spirit.” That’s going too far. But the sense is that without the breath of the Holy Spirit in us, we don’t have that sensitivity as to who God is, and therefore we don’t have a self-identity. If we don’t have a divine sensitivity, we don’t have a true self-identity. There’s no such thing as that. So that’s my first point I want to make about iconography.
If you look at an icon, and as Father was saying earlier: “It’s a fluid, personal thing.” That’s why it seems to move when you look at it. It’s not fixed. There isn’t a sense of stasis or stationary humanity, but it’s in the process of—almost like a caterpillar before it becomes a butterfly. This is humanity in a dynamic orientation towards God, whose the only thing that can make it truly itself. Now maybe I’m commenting on it too much, but that is very important to keep in mind. The icon is built on a naturalness defined by Orthodoxy, which includes grace and the energy of the Holy Spirit.
That is why the icon is two-dimensional and not three-dimensional. Three-dimensional has to do with that carnal aspect of man after the fall. Two dimensional has to do with that which we will become in that transcendent glorification of ourselves when Christ comes again but already in that process through and of the Church. So in my view, icons cannot be separated from the spiritual life of the Church; in fact they become instrumental in that spiritual life.
If there are the Holy Sacraments through which the Holy Spirit really comes to us in His person, so there are the icons, so there is fasting, and so there is prayer. So that we can move from penitence to purification to perfection. That is the human person, and that is the humanity of Jesus Christ too—the true humanity before the fall of Adam. And that’s why sometimes it’s hard for us to understand, I believe.
So let’s go through it. If you read in the Psalms, you sense this sense. I think the Psalms are the icon of Christ in a verbal form. In Psalm 16, we read: “God is always with me. He is at my right hand. I shall never be moved. My heart is glad, my soul also rejoicing, and my body dwells secure.” There’s this sense then, when we look at the icon we look at body and soul and person. And we look at Christ we look at the person of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ but also the Son of God.
And that was the big thing that St. John of Damascus emphasized; if we cannot depict Christ, we cannot have Him with us. If He is not with us, He does not save us. His humanity is a vehicle for His Person and for the means by which divinity is communicated to us. By putting our humanity on Him, in His Person, he sort of glues together both natures. Although they remain distinct, in and of themselves, they’re united in His Person.
Therefore, the Holy Fathers talk about the communication of idioms, or in a sense divinity penetrates, perforates, that human nature through the person of Christ, and therefore divinizes it or deifies it. And that deified nature, then comes to us too, especially through the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. But it comes to us also in the veneration of those icons, for that person is depicted there.
And this is also something that is very important, if you look at the iconoclastic theology, they always say that if you depict Jesus, then you’re depicting merely His humanity so you’re a Nestorian. And if you depict Him, then you’re confusing His humanity and His divinity. Hence the divinity swallows up the humanity and you’re a Monophysite. And besides that how can humanity be circumscribed by divinity? Then you’re absurd. But that is because if you forget this personality, it’s the person then.
I think that’s the core of Orthodox understanding of everything. Person contains nature. Nature doesn’t exist outside of the expression it gets through a person. And in fact humanity is not segmented into individuals. Every single person contains the whole of humanity, and that’s why, in a sense, we participate in the corruption and death of Adam. Well these are important things to remember as we go.
St. John of Damascus also said that “Christ is represented by symbols in the Old Testament.” He concentrated on the book of Exodus where we have chapters 35 through 40 and we concentrate on every minutia of the temple, the blueprint that God gave us, and we have the Ark of the Covenant, and we have the cherubim and all of these things. I think sometimes people misunderstand the Old Testament when they read the commandments, God said make no graven image. Don’t make an idol. But He, Himself, was preparing images and symbols as prefigurations for when Christ would be really there for us.
You should not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above or that is in the Earth beneath or that is in the water under the Earth. You shall not bow down and serve them for I, the Lord, am a jealous God.
“I want you to see me not them. This image has to be of me.” Because I think if you’re reading 2 Corinthians 4:4, Christ is the likeness of the Father. The only person that He would allow to be His image is His Son, and that’s why even then you weren’t to have any graven images. Because any image outside of that perfect image is in a sense graven. This is because God is preparing for us then the true image, His Son, who is the image of the invisible God—Colossians 1:15. “Just as we have born the image of the man of dust, we shall bear the image of the Man of Heaven,”—1 Corinthians 15:49. God did not want us to be distracted by false images, knowing that the imagination of fallen, sinful man is an “image factory” of bad images and impressions. If we don’t have someone, The Someone, to look at, we’re going to make up images of our own. There’s no such thing as a neutrality. You either have phantasia or you have reality.
I mean, we live in an iconoclastic culture, which I’ll get to later, but we have all kinds of fantastic images that don’t give us transcendence but descendence. I think this one sociologist called defining deviance: down. But if you define deviance down, that’s because you don’t have anything to look up to or anyone to look up to. If we don’t believe in God, you’ll believe in anything. Either you become everything in Christ or nothing without Christ.
If you really think about all these wonderful things, God did not want us to be distracted. And it says in Genesis 5:6, “Every imagination of the thoughts of man’s hearts is evil continually.” This propensity towards seeing sensuality as being that which will offer us satisfaction and happiness is the flip side of iconography. Iconography is the spiritualization or the realization of true man. Without that, we have the sensualization or the reduction of man to something less than he can be.
I find it very interesting in modern life, people define themselves with aspects of what they like. They define themselves sexually or they define themselves professionally. It’s only some aspect of man, but not the whole and complete man. And I think that’s what destroys politics. You have interest groups that are trying to find meaning where there is no meaning, and they’re giving themselves this kind of existential meaning by saying: “I’m homosexual. I’m heterosexual. I’m a professional. I’m a blue collar. I’m an immigrant. I’m a nativist,” or whatever or however you want to define it. These things are all attempts to get by the essential fact that you are nothing until you’re with Christ.
The icons guarantee Christ’s presence. It’s not just merely someone I think about, and I can entertain in my own meditation. He’s really, honestly, literally, palpably there, and you can’t get away from Him: “All things betrayest thee who betrayest me,”—The Hound of Heaven But you cannot, in an Orthodox Church, get away from Christ and the Saints. I think that is why some people are distracted because when you go there you have to be attracted and your soul isn’t ready, so therefore you want the service to end sooner. Because most of our lives are becoming comfortable in the distraction of all these other images and sensual icons that are pelting us from all directions. But when you see Jesus, He’s in your face, literally, and all the Saints as well.
So this is the real image doctrine. Wrong images lead to a wrong faith or no faith at all. Today we see images of modern man, and they flash before us with all that sensuality which is refined and lewd at the same time. They are also iconic trash, and this is a true iconoclasm. So you see how it is connected to real faith.
We were made to fit His image. “Let us make man in our image and after our likeness.” As a mold we are made ready for divinity to be poured into us, and when God breathed into us the Spirit of Life, he enlivened our souls making us living beings. Christ pours himself into a human form into our flesh that was already made for that. Many of the Fathers say the Incarnation would have happened whether we had sinned or not because we were made in that image, and God really did have to come to us in a sense.
So when you see the Resurrection Icon of Jesus holding Adam and Eve, you really have Him coming to His own, and, “Adam where are you? I have found you in Hades.” And this is really beautiful, it is that loving God who needs to hold us by the wrist or by the hand. We were made for Him. Each of us is stamped with an insignia of Christ, in a special way, so that all of us find our true self in Him. And this is why, as I said before, there is this fluid nature to Jesus’ icon.
Behold my servant shall prosper and shall be exalted and lifted up and shall be very high. And many were astonished at Him because His appearance was so marred beyond human semblance—His form beyond that of human men—so that He would startle many. (Isaiah 52:13-14)
He had no former comeliness that we should look at Him and no beauty that we should desire Him. In a sense if you look at Jesus on the Cross, He contains every face. And if you look at it in that sense, he was marred because he cannot be circumscribed by any one human personality since he contains all of them in Himself. And I think also a good icon gives this sense of containing all in Himself. As the theologians say: “He is the Logos, but we are the logoi. So that also is true.
Besides this, in the world we live in everyone looks to some kind of icon, and that’s my point I’m getting to now, which is the iconoclasm of modern life. T.S. Eliot, the great poet, said: “I prepare faces to meet the faces that I meet.” Modern Western Culture is filled with the preparation of, I would say, a presentation of self. And this presentation of self is usually done for utilitarian reason, to gain professional acceptability, to have somebody fall in love with you or whatever—one enchanted evening, across some crowded avenue, you’re going to be someone just for you.
Well, there is this sense of the presentation and preparation for this attraction, but it has nothing necessarily to do with your person. It has to do with you objectifying yourself so that you can be attractive. That is the dominance. In a sense you could say, in a paradoxical way, everything has to do with this image really. And if you think about it, when Adam saw Eve in the Garden of Eden that was a nice image for him. As Father Hopko said: “When God created man He said, ‘good’ but when he created woman he said ‘very good’.”
So in a sense, even the first poem: “He is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” was Adam seeing that visual presentation of himself, that inner self, the helper to him. And he identified that as an image of his own self. And I think that is a good idea for marriage too. That is the two becoming one flesh that the image or the presentation of both of them is the picture of each of them as one. And that is sign of love, so even there we have these images.
And I think that reason for iconography’s object, the subject, which makes it purely itself, so that we see it and not become spellbound or enamored by the objectification of the human body. It’s so we see that person. I was reading once, a long time ago, Father Seraphim Rose, who said that “it’s either iconography or pornography in the latter days.”
Because in that sensual depiction of the body, in and of itself, it’s the objectification of that, and it makes it a thing rather than a person, and therefore something to be controlled, manipulated, discarded or forgotten or indifferent too. But when you see the person in the Bibles and in our whole life, we are faced with either loving them or having to repent because we don’t, because we cannot leave them as objects.
And I think that is a good thing to think about today. The objectification of human persons leads to an ignoring of them and to a lack of love. The purpose is so that we see the person through love, and that’s a good icon. What did St. John Climacus say? The last step in his ladder was love. St. Maximus the Confessor said: “The purpose of ascetic life is so that we can love people without discrimination.”
All of that effort, all of that fasting, all of that prayer can be like that blessed Elder who went down in the city of Alexandria and saw that “lady of the evening” walking across the street, and the other monks turned to him and said: “Abba Father, look at her.” He said: “Yes. Didn’t God make a beautiful creation?” Because he saw as God had created her, not as they were objectifying her. And that’s a beautiful thing because all human beings are icons of Jesus Christ. And this is something we must remember.
I remember reading a story about the president of McCall’s magazine. He wanted people to send in pictures of the person they thought was the most beautiful person they ever met. And if you look at those magazines, and you can’t help but looking at those kind of anti-icons as you go through. Even I go shopping every now and then. You wouldn’t believe what I buy. Sometimes they even ask me: “Father, are you sure this is all you want?” When you go through there, you see those anti-icons there of these women that really are created to look that way. You go past them, and you can’t help but have some memory of that.
So he was looking for the most beautiful picture to put on that cover, and this young man sent a picture of his grandmother—without her false teeth in, disheveled in the morning, in her bathrobe, sitting on the table, looking very old. And he said:
This is the most beautiful woman in the world, because whenever I come home from school and my Mommy is not home, I go and stay with her until my Mom gets home. And she’s just like my Mom anyway. She is the most beautiful person in the world because she loves me, and I don’t know how many people will love me as I grow up.
He said, “We cannot use this picture. She truly is the most beautiful person in the world, and it has to remain a mystery and something private between her and him.” And that is what the icon should lead us to. That is what the ascetical life should lead us to. So in a way, we have to look with x-ray eyes, through the icon, not at it. We have to look that way with the whole Church, because Orthodoxy believes that the Kingdom of God is not a “pie in the sky” when you die.
I thought that would be a kind of nice alliteration, and it’s on the tape. It isn’t that. It is not that. Because the Kingdom of God is present through the Holy Spirit in the Church. That’s the whole point. Eschatology is realized. It’s experienced now. It’s not something we’re waiting for in the future. There isn’t necessarily a separation between God there and us here, a Church militant and a Church triumphant. Those are categories we can use, kind of, to explain things, but that isn’t the real reality.
We must struggle with words to accept the fact that even the revelation in theology is too big for us. And that the Kingdom of God is present, and because it is present the only way we can see it is in and through material forms. So as Professor Schmemann said: “The whole Church is one Sacrament of the Kingdom of God and not just the Sacraments themselves.”
So every material media or covering contains a spiritual power or real presence. In a sense, when you are in your full vestments, with the phelonion and omophorion, you are that shepherd of Christ, the objective presence of Jesus Christ to the whole community, to the whole diocese, to each and every one of us. “Where the Bishop is, there is the Church gathered around him” in St. Ignatius’ formula. But the thing about this is the presence of this is that in and through the clergy, Jesus Christ still reigns. He is invisibly present with us.
There’s a big difference between a representative of Christ and being a reflection of Christ. This Orthodoxy is a reflection of a present Christ, not a replacement of a Christ who’s triumphant, albeit but not necessarily here with us. That is an icon too—not a laminated one, an animated one. You probably didn’t know you were an animated icon. So we could even say then that the Divine Liturgy is an icon of the Kingdom of God altogether.
So everything we do is demanding of an experience, not an explanation. And this is the point I wanted to talk about—the difference between the West and the East as far as corporeal representations and then the icon. In the East, the emphasis was always on an experience. You provided theology, words, and doctrines to frame an experience that you had to have. As Bishop Kallistos Ware said: “God is not so much known as he is encountered” (in The Orthodox Way—by the way, that is a very good book to read).
Besides the icons represent them and the whole Church, the hopefulness of human life, that I can overcome my pedestrian circumstances. I can overcome my temporality and enter into it, that I am meant for this self-expression. How many of you, because we live in a fallen world, and we are truncated by time, space, and our own personal history, cannot express the completeness of who we are. If we choose one thing, we can’t choose that thing. If we choose one thing, we can’t choose the everything that we know we’d like to express. It was always a great sense to me that in eternity you have plenty of time for this real self expression in communion with Jesus Christ, in communion with the Holy Trinity.
So it gives you hope. It takes away, I would say, the sting of despondency, by saying if I do this I can’t do anything else. It takes away the sense of impending doom because I’m getting older, and I’m losing that carnal strength that was part of me. I love it when it says in the Psalms: “The good contain Zion in their hearts.” And this, to me, is such a great thing to have holy Orthodoxy. And when you look at those icons, you have a trajectory that isn’t horizontal but vertical. You have an opportunity that maybe the fallenness of our lives haven’t given us. And so, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace; good will to men.” Peace in your hearts—I love that. That sense of completeness can only come through Christ.
So the victory of Orthodoxy meant that religious faith could be expressed, not only, in propositions, in books, or in personal experience, but through man’s power over matter through his artistic expression by gestures and bodily attitudes before holy images. Because man is not saved by his intelligence. He’s saved with his intelligence, with his soul, with his body, with his dreams, even with the tug of repentance that’s always on him.
As the Glorious Sisoes of the Desert said when asked, “Father what are you doing?” He said “I haven’t even begun to repent.” Because the more they repented the closer they were to God, and the more they reflected that glory in their face, that likeness of Christ. Now St. Seraphim, he could only see the good in people. Christ is risen, my brother. I think that this kind of behavior comes through and character is molded by the hope that everything the Church gives us.
And so we must glory in the fact that icons are not three-dimensional, that they are fluid, that they do seem elongated, that they have an alertness and sobriety, a nepsis that will not allow us to go down for a descent but will make us for a transcendent, upward journey which leads to the Kingdom of God, beginning here and maintaining itself there. Religious consciousness involves the whole man, taking in all of the functions of man. And let me just read this from Father Meyendorff:
The debates of the 8th and 9th centuries have shown that in the light of the Incarnation, art could not retain a neutral function—that it could not and even must express the faith. And thus, through style and symbolic compositions and elaborate artistic programs, covering the walls of the Byzantine Churches through the permanent system which presided in the compositions of the iconostasis, icons became an expression and source of divine knowledge, because they were an experience of a Divine Person.
Commenter #1: This aspect from our earlier presentation when we were looking at two icons of the Annunciation, an Eastern and a Western Tradition, the one thing I was hoping somebody would comment on, but maybe we understand in general the principle that the icon as we write them, where’s the vanishing point? In Western art, you go to school for art and you’re doing landscapes or still lifes or whatever, you draw your horizon line, your horizontal line, the vanishing point is at the horizon. So all your art, all your line work, converges out to the horizon. The icon, the vanishing point is in the viewer. And when people look at icons and they’re not familiar with the style, if you look at the perspective, everything moves toward the person viewing. So as your closing that first section, keeping that in mind, that this is a proclamation that God is with us. God is moving to us, not only our upward ascent, but His dynamic movement into the one who’s praying and reverencing.
Father Anthony: Thank you. I said this too. I said our bodies presently are like prisoners in orange jumpsuits. Our perfect selves in body and beauty are fashioned only or held by the outside, but it’s the inner man that’s being formed to maturity every day. As it says in Ephesians 2 and 4. The Holy Spirit is kind of an interior decorator. Christ is a general contractor. And the Father is the owner. Everything is for the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
Commenter #2: Could you say that over again?
Father Anthony: Well I said that our perfect bodies and beauty are being fashioned from the inside. And this is where the sacramental life of the Church, and especially the entrance from Baptism, because it’s not so much or primarily the removal of original sin, but it’s an entrance into the Kingdom of God. “Let the little ones come unto me for as such belong the Kingdom of God.” And I think that through the life of the Sacrament, especially through Baptism, Confession, and the Eucharist, the inner man is growing into that beauty, which is depicted on the icon. This is the person. And that’s why I think there’s a connection between the iconographer’s piety and the presentation of the icon in pictorial form. Because there is a synergia between the artist and the writing and the viewing.
Commenter #3: I think you brought up a very good point about passing magazines in the store. I think that a lot of people suffer tremendously about the physical and experiment in cosmetic surgeries and all kinds of procedures, an over-idealized sense of what they’re supposed to look like, that nobody naturally looks like and there’s this dissatisfaction that’s not needed in a person.
Father Anthony: No, and that really is the vein of what’s happened to secular culture. And that’s such a good point, and you really summarized the whole iconoclasm in the modern world. The thing that really happens to human beings, may I say this really carefully, without the icon is their descent into complete insecurity and the dishevelment of their souls and the diffusion of all their powers. And they become prey for someone to give them any kind of meaning, community, conviction, and greatness, because it’s been exhausted from them, because they don’t have someone to look at and someone to see.
There was a sociologist, a man named Thomas Cooley, who wrote a theory called The Looking Glass Self. And he said that we all fashion ourselves to the person that we think is the most important in our life, and we look to him or her and that’s the person we become. We fashion ourselves externally in our character in that way. I felt that was a perfect expression of iconography. If we have Christ in the icons in an icon corner, then we become like them almost by osmosis, almost by that mysterious participation or mystical presence before them. Otherwise, we take on whatever images are important to us. So when college kids go to college, and they bring with them their images, let’s hope they bring with them icons. Because they will put something up on that wall and on that door. And this is what you’re saying.
I would like to go through the traits of the secular worldview, just so that you know, that this is why without the real presence of God as a living, conscious, personal experience and something that you only think about, you end up in a world of secularism. May I go through it very quickly?
In the scholasticism, you had Thomas Aquinas and the great scholastics, putting together theological truths in philosophical categories. And it wasn’t so bad—philosophical categories. But what you do unwittingly is you sublimate theological experience into philosophical concepts, and you say this is acceptable and therefore this is theologically true. This revealed premise allows me to believe in God with my cerebral mind. Well that’s okay, so long as your mind contemplates that. But if you have the mind to be autonomous and to pull itself away and to be the criterion and standard and foundation of theological reflection, if that’s true, then the mind becomes the center. Man becomes the center. It’s man-centered not God delivered. It’s man-managed not God governed. And this is where it started.
And after that, man moves from this kind of philosophical conceptualization of God in the 12th and 13th centuries to more of that Renaissance, of a concentration on the humanitas itself, of human beings. And it’s beautiful. If you go to some of those churches, even then, there’s that Byzantine flavor in those churches in Venice. But it’s becoming humanistic, and it’s becoming exclusively that. Because the concentration is no longer on eternity but temporality. So we have that movement toward secularization that way.
And then after the Renaissance comes what? The Scientific Revolution, where the Earth is not the center of the universe. And that has implications for us also in our existential, experiential life. And then after that, we get to the Enlightenment where we have Deism. God is not so much not there, he’s just not involved. And God gives us natural laws that we can discover on our own. Just like the physical laws of Isaac Newton, we can discover natural laws and social order—John Locke. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. They are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Concepts become independent. God is not the Father. He’s the Creator. He gives us concepts to discover. Interesting.
So we have the Deism there. And we have the scientific worldview. It’s really the beginning of secularism. And after that comes the Romantic Revolution where feelings become more important than reason, because reason could not give us the full satisfaction we were looking for. Like the old song goes, I think by that group U2, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” which is an interesting thing to include in all of this academic presentation. But here we have this.
And after that we get to the ideology replacing theology in the 19th century where we have to believe in something. So if you even look at Marxism, that’s very interesting. It’s kind of a Heaven on Earth. It’s a “you can find paradise on your own if you get rid of oppression, and you can make a proletariat, paradise.” In fact, religion becomes the source of alienation, because it keeps the oppressors in power and legitimizes their life by saying: “Justice is waiting for you, but you can’t have any now.” Powerful, secular ideologies.
And now you get to the 20th century, where there’s no social utopianism, it’s only personal. Get on the internet. Find your own icons and have your own life, apart from everyone else. The atomization and isolation of human persons, where they are just an aggregate of dispirit desires, swarming all over and having no direction at all. And this is the case we have.
So let’s look at the traits of this secular life, secular meaning worldly. The first thing, and this is what all of the kids face and this is why it’s hard for them to have an understanding of Orthodoxy even and maybe iconography and that which is transcendent. There was a psychology, a Viktor Frankl, who was, kind of, of the psychoanalysis of the Freudian school, who said: “Man, he is governed by his search for meaning,” man’s will for meaning. He called it Logotherapy or “the word” therapy. And man must have meaning. But in the traits of the secularity, we understand what this means.
The first thing is, the secular world views all creation and all man has contingent. Everything changes. There’s a spontaneous generation to life. There’s not an intelligent design. There’s not a divine creation. There’s not a loving hand. There’s a spontaneous generation of life, so we might just well not been here. Life is created by chance. Man has no purpose because he may well not have existed. Absurdity is a rule. The forces and providence of life have no meaning. Man can be anything he wants, because he may not have been here. God is irrelevant to creation. It leaves man without the desire for any religious explanation. Contingent man is also autonomous man.
If we came from nothing and are going nowhere, then the only one we can rely on is me. If God is not a factor in creating man’s social universe, secular man believes he is free to determine his own destiny. He’s in uncharted waters that he must create for himself. He has infinite possible meanings. But any of these and the ultimate have no eternal, lasting, or controlling meaning.
They are simply, and the third point is, relative. There are no lasting morals that are absolute for everyone. They’re only mores or cultural customs that we can accept or discard whenever we want, depending on what is the dominant culture that we live in. And finally there is temporality, a kind of forced agnosticism, where the logic tells us this is all we have. We better eat, drink, and be merry and find whatever we can in the solace of a dark, cold, descending universe that’s spiraling out of control. That’s pretty spooky to say, but that is true.
So these are contingency, autonomy, relativity and temporality. This creates the conditions of the iconoclastic modern man. These are part of the curriculums of schools all over the country. They may not have defined them, particularly in that way, but this is the way they are being trained. And that’s why you wonder, “Why don’t the youth come to Church? Why don’t they do that?” I think in some sense, they want to believe, but they can’t believe. If you’ve had all of this throughout your school life, then it’s almost expunged—this sensitivity that I talked of in the beginning. Religious sensitivity and human expectancy is destroyed.
If it’s true that man is only man in relationship to God and can only find his meaning through the presence of real grace through the Holy Spirit, then if he’s autonomous, he’s relative. If he’s relative, then he’s contingent. If he’s contingent, he’s temporary. If he’s temporary, he’s in a true existential angst, as Søren Kierkegaard would say. Because there’s truly, as Jean-Paul Sartre said “no exit.” And that’s why I believe, they’ll pray to all these images these see. Because it’s innate in man to find God, and he must find a substitute for God if he has been expelled from his intellectual, moral, emotional, and spiritual universe.
And this is the problem of modern man. So when he sees the magazines, and when they get on the internet, and when people objectify human beings as objects of desire and not subjects of love, you are going to end up with a culture which is really going in such an opposite direction from that Godliness. In fact I would say, it’s not horizontal anymore, it’s still vertical but going in the wrong direction. It’s not Heavenward, but it’s Hades down. How do we stop this? It is by producing a good faith for people, by doing simple things. I even remember you, Sayidna, giving a talk about “Please have icon corners,” about reminding the people of the parish that their grandparents had these icons and why can’t we have icons for our children and for our families? And this is where we have to begin.
We have to compete, in our own small way, against this tremendous marketing of false icons in our little subcultures of our parishes, if I could call it that, creating an identity by being identified with God. The icons are a means to that. It focuses their vision on that truth, along with the Scriptures, along with the good pastors, and conferences like this, with doing things like this, enabling us to get up and use the education we’ve had to talk about spiritual subjects so that people will not be subjected to that materialism without the presence of that sacramental quality that it needs.
This is what I have had to say tonight about all of this. This culture needs Orthodoxy because it needs to refocus and reorient its vision Heavenward. If we become merely intellectual in our theology, we will lose the essence of that experience. Even if we can define everything perfectly, we can refine things well by having beautiful churches. What did Father Sergius Bulgakov say? “God does not force us into the Kingdom of God. He charms us there.” And the more beautiful it is, the more attractive it will be to the human soul. This is the work that our Bishop is pursuing. This is the work that we’re all trying to do in our parishes. I always read the Chronicles, “O Lord, I may not know what I am doing all the time, but my eyes are ever looking upward, towards you.” I say that in my personal prayer, so in case I fall apart you know why.
Commenter #4: It seems that within modern approaches to Christianity, or probably falling away, we’ve forgotten that our human experience is tactile and sensory. We want to bribe the senses, make it one of hearing—only the reading of the Scripture and the preaching of the Scripture, or maybe some things you see just by reading. But we forget that we need to involve all of the senses in our worship and in our experience to lead us upward.
Father Anthony: That’s well said. I believe that’s very true. I was born and raised in Orthodoxy. We didn’t always have a priest in Ironwood, but we always had the Church. And I remember my mother bringing me to the church no matter what, and she would even have me read the Typika service. When I was in the 8th grade I wanted to play football, which I did anyways, but she said: “No, you’re going to read it.” I said “Why Mom?” And she said: “Someday it’s going to become part of who you are. And because we don’t have priests you’ve got to do everything you can to live your faith.” So she would take me there, and we would read together, and then I would go home.
And I just loved Orthodoxy, because of the ambiance of Orthodoxy. Like you said, it involved everything. In fact, it demanded everything. And I think too, that when we’re baptized the Holy Spirit leads us providentially in ways that are unknown to us. He leads us, in exactly what you said, to take the whole man, all of the senses. This is very important. Really, I find that as a priest, and you go into a place where you don’t really know the people, and now you’re placed in there, if they haven’t had that maturation or care, they are really, almost, spiritually behind the grate. And you have to be patient and realize not everyone had that upbringing, not everyone had that real care. Orthodoxy demands not just an intellectual acceptance, but a real textured experience over time with all the icons, with all the sense.
I remember once, Father Schmemann, I was in line, and there was this lady visiting during Pascha, and I’ll never forget this. We were going down in the line for the final dismissal, after I don’t know how many hours—the hours went like minutes, and there she said: “You know, it’s been hard to pray, but it sure has been beautiful.” And he said: “Well, now’s not the time to pray. Now’s the time to celebrate,” or “This is the celebration.” Prayer becomes that celebration.
I’m glad you mentioned that. If there are any other questions I can answer that aren’t as long. I know I put in a lot of philosophers and poets and everything like that. I tried to place everything I could, to give as good a presentation as I could, in regards to that because really you’re stabbing at it with words. Orthodoxy is really not so akin to world only, like you said. It has to involve that whole person, and that’s why it’s demanding. It’s like the Army Rangers of the Christian world. It demands a commitment, a commitment with the Holy Trinity.
Let me just say one more thing, there is a poet whose name is Allen Tate. He’s a southern poet in the 1920s, and he discovered Eastern religion, and I think this is the best thing I ever read. “The difference between Eastern and Western religion is all how you experience the horse,” he said. In the West, you would define the horse as a quadruped, who is so high, and you would define him well. And you would present that definition to the person and say this is a horse. Memorize it. Learn it. In the East, you would have to go see Secretariat run in the Belmont, and then you would know what a horse is. And in a way this can kind of summarize the whole Orthodox experience which involves all of the senses. You cannot define a horse winning by 31 lengths, but you don’t forget it when it happens.