Thursday, December 9, 2010

On Icons and Tradition.

So we ran into this painting of Jesus which apart from scaring us a bit, raises what I think a few questions worthwhile considering.

To the Orthodox the painting would obviously not qualify as an icon. But precisely why not? As one commenter aptly wrote, "'Decorative Jesus' can look like anything you want; it's only when you have to kiss an image that it gets personal." Very well. So it is suggested we look to Tradition to guide us, just as in theology, toward that which is believed to be true, right and faithful. (as an aside, would it not be harder to judge an image (icon) to be orthodox than it would doctrine?). Another commenter mentioned (I am paraphrasing) that individual opinion thus doesn't play a role in the church, that the church is a collective of sorts. Is that an accurate way to describe the issue? Do our opinions not count? Are our persons absorbed into a collective?

Icons and in particular icons of Christ are not new to controversy. What is it that an Icon of Christ depicts - does it depict Christ 's humanity, or Christ's divinity? We can't describe His divinity (which by definition is uncontainable and indescribable), nor His humanity apart from His divinity - the two natures are inseparable, Christian theology is quite clear about that. Also, why is it that the Orthodox church decided that as far as depicting Christ, symbolism (such as a lamb) is not acceptable? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear, the meaning and justification for icons is closely related to theology.

So, back to the present painting purporting to depict Christ. Besides not being to our particular taste, what's wrong with it?


s-p said...

Apo, these are good questions. Does "Tradition" have the authority to force aesthetical taste on individuals? Personally it took me a while to get used to Byzantine icons which I always thought were just "badly painted cartoonish religious art". I actually think some of it is amazingly beautiful now. I'm not crazy about the "Catholic Holy Card" Russian iconography, some of it looks almost like this painting to me, but I venerate them anyway. In one sense I'd say there's nothing "wrong" with this painting any more than Hook's "Laughing Jesus" or any other kitzchy religious art. From what I've seen in some Orthodox Churches, Tradition doesn't protect us from bad taste. Heck, even Elder Ephraim's St. Anthony's monastery has kitzchy ceramic lawn animals all over the grounds. You'd think a "holy elder" would have infallible landscaping design sensibility. :) Anyway, I suppose a priest COULD put this "icon" on the stand in the church, but it would be "the church" that would either accept it or reject it as a "worthy" expression of the faith for use in the corporate setting. At that level I suppose Tradition wouldn't necessarily say it is evil or "wrong", just not what we choose to put forth as expressive of our piety in public.

Anonymous said...

Tradition is giving our ancestors a vote, it doesn't mean we don't have one. It means we assume their right first and only when wisdom insists do we "correct" them.

I've always been curious as to the idea of local councils. The fact of their existence (and the fact of the Russian acceptance of certain "Romanticized" images or 4 part harmony) insists that Orthodoxy is organic.

I think any other way of looking at it is to idolize/idealize something in and abstract and false way. Sure, I'd love to be among the reactionary hyper-Orthodox. After all, part of the reason I became Orthodox is that I believed they were right about things that others were wrong about and I'd rather not see those things change.

But the real reason I became Orthodox was because WHO they were (and who Christ is) not WHAT they believed. After all there was a time when Arians or the Iconoclasts, etc were "winning" and if I would have lived then, what would I have done? Would I have said "there is no Church"? Of course not.

Of course, if my priest put this icon out, I would most definitely protest. I would probably not enter the building until someone had done an exorcism.

Peter said...

This is in interesting post. First, I like what both commentators had to say. This quote expresses my feelings as well:

"After all, part of the reason I became Orthodox is that I believed they were right about things that others were wrong about and I'd rather not see those things change".

I would rephrase the following though:

"...the real reason I became Orthodox was because WHO they were (and who Christ is) not WHAT they believed".

I feel that what we believe is what we are, the two are inseperable. The Church is what it prays (believes).

So much in our lives undergoes change on an almost daily basis. One of the strengths of the Orthodox Church is its lack of change; it is, in its essence, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

I too, do not like some of the modern style Russian "holy card" icons. We do not have a developing theology like the Roman church and others. That fact should also manifest itself in the outward forms of our faith, including icons.

I have not researched the history of iconography in the Church, though I am certain there must be a theological underpinning to why the forms have been "fixed", so to speak.

I am reminded of the well-known expression, attributed to Justice Stewart when determining what is obscene during a pornography case before the U.S. Supreme Court: "I am not sure...but know it when I see it".

I know this is not an Orthodox icon.

Anonymous said...

I am slowly learning to allow what *is* to tell me something about what *should*be* instead of the other way around.

There are some parishes in the US that bought their buildings from Episcopalians or others who used organs. They not only did not remove them, they use them.

Now they "shouldn't". And their bishops should enforce this. And if their bishops don't their synod should. And if the synod doesn't other local synods around the world should. But they don't, or at least they don't at the speed or with the import that I think they should.

Insert calendars, romanticized icons, bingo night, fashion shows, tithing (yes I think appeals for tithing are counter to tradition and in some cases outright sin), oh let's not forget having two, three, or more bishops in a single city.

But look in history and you can see that the Church fixes such anomalies slowly, organically and some certain ones might (in part) be found to be acceptable. We might not have a developing faith, but we have developing communities. And change happens.

More importantly variation happens and nothing is infallible (not in the sense some would like). Perhaps the most important thing we could argue about is the Nicene creed... is it "very God of very God" or "true God from true God" or some other combination of the variables. The Church has come to blows over an iota in the creed before.

Before we get all worked up over an icon (though again, I would not venerate it) the "messy" reality is something we need to reconcile ourselves to.

Apophatically Speaking said...


As far as the Church "forcing" taste, it could only be considered forceful if free consent (on our part) was somehow lacking. So to me it would seem not a case of force, but a pedagogical function of the Church to which we freely submit. So it is a case of coming to understand what the Body of Christ considers (and has considered over time) to be her reasons for existence. By means of holy art the Church relates and communicates her experience, faithfully passes on the Gospel message. She does so by means of words in Scripture, and by means of paint with Icons. But both can be rightly understood only from within the context of and relation with the Church.

It think you hit the nail on the head as far as art being (or not being) expressive of Orthodox piety. I had much trouble early on understanding what I thought to be an overly somber expression on the faces of most Saints and Christ Hinself. No smile, no grin, no joy. Surely the painters must have been missing something, I thought to myself. It was only later I came to understand the concept of apathea, passionlessness, through which the icons have taken on a whole new meaning and dimension for me.

Apophatically Speaking said...

Nothing Hypothetical,

I didn't mean this post to get us all worked up about icons, but simply to stimulate some thinking about some of the issues related to the Orthodox understanding of icons.

I get your point about the divergent practices out there "in reality", but how far shall we take this? Does it mean we just drop our standards, ignore altogether what the Church, the Fathers, Tradition, Scriptures teach? Surely you can't mean that. Perhaps a you are simply making a case for greater "economia"? Or perhaps to discriminate between what is essential and what is not?

To me it would seem that a continued "dialogue" with what Tradition teaches (including historical perspective of the same) is absolutely essential so that we provide (even just to ourselves) an informed context in which to understand why and what we believe that we do.

As far as the Who/What question come to understand that we can't or shouldn't separate the two: Christ is a Person who is the Truth. Which is another way of saying, or so it seems to me, that truth ultimately is not propositional but relational.

Apophatically Speaking said...


Very good thoughts. I do agree with you: I can't quite put my finger on it, but I know it when I see it. I have thought about this picture a bit more and I did notice that the traditional halo is missing. Usually Christ's halo will have the inscription "He Who Is". Without the inscription there is little else to identify him as Christ. Also the traditional red/blue garment is missing as well. Also, I have never seen Christ depicted in a light blue v-neck sweater, that's for sure!

Anonymous said...


No, I'm not making any cases for anything. I am not justifying any errors. I am reporting what I observe the Body does to heal its damaged members. Just because we can diagnose 'X' as wrong doesn't tell you how to fix it. Watching how, in history, the Church corrects such things is very instructive on the nature of salvation itself.

Apophatically Speaking said...


Would you elaborate as to what your take is on the nature of salvation vis-a-vis the manner of correction? Sounds interesting, I am just not so sure what you mean.

Anonymous said...

I would love to, but I'm a little short of time tonight after spending the day driving the length of California. Let me see if I can write something up tomorrow.

Apophatically Speaking said...

David, texting while driving is not yet illegal in California. So we can't take that as an excuse. :D

Anonymous said...

I have neglected my promise. So rather than let this moment pass (and probably pass unremembered) I should write at least something.

When I say, "what salvation looks like" I mean that salvation is a dynamic state. Theosis is a process not a destination.

Enough of the vague language. Here's something specific. When you go to your priest and confess a sin, there are circumstances where the sin is of a sort where, in the priest's judgment, you should act in accordance with your repentance (you have already repented by confessing, but this is a movement to reinforce that repentance habitually). There may be circumstances that are so grievous that estrangement from the community (a brief hiatus from communing for example) is therapeutic.

Is this not what Schism and even Anathemas are? Are not these collective therapies for those in discord with the community?

However, if you are anything like me, you will find that while your sins do not merit this particularly SAVING action (and yes, Schism and such are potentially salvific if they bear the fruit of repentance and reconciliation) but your sins continue either habitually or occasionally.

What should a priest say to the man who every time he comes to confess (say, every month) always says that he told at least one lie against another? Should he say, "I cast you out?" Or is there a process of theosis in place? Are there "tolerances" for the "work in progress" that we all are before God.

I am told that the job of a monk is to fall down and get back up again (repeat). This is only true if monks fall down. Shall every non-pre-canonized monk, be cast from the Church?

No more should some ill informed and poorly catechized parish be shamed into submission because of their "innovation". They should be corrected, that's true, just like the Christian who has fallen again. But there is always SOMETHING wrong at EVERY parish. The "obvious and annoying" sins are, just as in the private life of a Christian, disruptive, but not necessarily as damning as the private and subtle errors.

The Bishop in their time must use wisdom to set such plans in motion. Perhaps even delaying them for some long time (necessary ground work in other areas to be laid before "making the obvious point" of which they are oblivious). And such time is what the Synod must tolerate (until it cannot), or the sisterhood of such local bodies around the world cannot.

Perhaps this helps. Perhaps it confuses matters. But it is what I have to offer.

Apophatically Speaking said...


Agreed and indeed makes much sense as it relates to icons - things are not always that clear cut and take time to "gel" - to clarify and to be shown to measure up to Tradition, to the regula fidei or skopos. Much like our own experience, methinks, and hence the importance of the continual need for repentance and our hearts set on the ascetic aspect of our calling. It also reminds us that we are persons in relation with Persons.

I like this quote from Fr. Florovski and I think it pertains to our discussion here:

"History of the Church is the mysterious process of the formation of redeemed humanity, which will be consummated and recapitulated, and not simply judged and abrogated in the last days... There is an accumulation of permanent Christian values in the history of the Church, in the process of existential assessment of the divine truth and life. Many things are just relative and indifferent, or neutral, even in the history of the Church. But there are also permanent structures, both in doctrine, ritual, and institution, which belong to the very esse of the Church, and constitute her perennial 'form'"

Martin said...

"the meaning and justification for icons is closely related to theology."

Really? I should very much like to know why it is not heralded throughout Christendom that the icons they adopted ALL have pagan roots. That being so, is it really far-fetched to believe that much Christian theology is simply pagan theology retold?

Apophatically Speaking said...


Clue me in, you obviously are in on something of which I am not aware. Pagan roots? Pagan theology? Please be specific, as it is, I have no clue what your are referring to.

s-p said...

I'm thinking Martin appears to be a troll.

Apophatically Speaking said...

Yes it appears so Steve.

Martin said...

No such luck. Sorry.

Halos (sun worship symbol), miters (goddess Cybele anyone?), incense, and even Eucharist (a practice beginning with Mithras, Adonis, Attis, Osiris) all have pagan origins.

Anyone care to comment on the Oblisk in St. Peter's square?

Maybe someone would like to explain why there are such strong similarities between the rituals of sun worship and Catholic rituals?

Did you know that worshipers of Baal did so while burning incense on an altar which has carved on one of its sides a circle with a cross in the center which was the divine symbol of the Canaanite storm god? It looks an awful lot like a Crucifix.

Virgin birth anyone? The virgin Isis was mother to Horus. Attis was born of the virgin Nama. The Aztecs and Mayans had a story of the god-man Quetzalcoatl who was born of a virgin. The Roman Quirrnus was born of a virgin. In Tibet, Indra was born of a virgin. Krishna was born of the virgin Devaki.

The list goes on and on.

So, once again, since Christianity has adopted so many pagan icons, rituals and ideas (Christmas? Easter?), how can anyone rationally believe that Christian theology is untainted by pagan theology?

s-p said...

It's not my blog, but there are tons of Christian apologetics that deal with all of these issues, the list goes on and on too. G.K. Chesterton does it well. Bottom line: one can see the similarities as influence or a sign of the universiality of the expectation of the reality of these things in all human existence since we are created in the image of God who brought the reality to fruition. You'll spend your time reading what you choose to read and then believe what you want to believe. I choose Orthodox Christianity. My reasons are well documented online if you are inclined to want to know why. You know where to find me and how to find my work.

Apophatically Speaking said...


Similarity does not equal pagan, as s-p indicates. Even if it would be possible to extract similarity altogether (assuming for a moment this would be desirable) you will be left without barely any thing. This is a false premise which falls squarely outside scripture, two millennia of tradition and apostolic teaching.

Martin said...

My comment was in reference to your statement "the meaning and justification for icons is closely related to theology." I was pointing out that all Christian iconography is borrowed from pagan iconography. This being the case, how is it that Christian theology is presumably so far removed from pagan theology when its icons (and other "divine" stories) are one and the same?

I am not trying to be a dick here. You said, "it is suggested we look to Tradition to guide us, just as in theology, toward that which is believed to be true, right and faithful." In that same vein, why do you think that "tradition" began 2,000 years ago when in fact (particularly regarding icons) it began many millennia before that? Why throw out those traditions?

I'd be willing to bet that a neutral observer would have a hard time of distinguishing "Traditional (Orthodox) Christian" rites from the rites practiced by Hittites, Persians, Canaanites, or any number of other "pagan" cultures.

"[people] believe what [they] want to believe." So, according to S-P, am I to presume that Baal is on equal footing with Christ, Krishna and Kukulcan and it's all simply a matter of personal preference? I could buy that.

If not, how can one possibly defend Orthodox Christianity as being "THE true faith"?

S-P's response seems to be the only logical answer.

Apophatically Speaking said...


There's a giant, huge leap required to jump from "borrowed" to "one and the same". This leap is so great as to be insurmountable: similarities and borrowed elements do not necessitate sameness. Likewise, with the advent of Christ 2000 years ago, the church was given birth with a new life and a new tradition, unlike and distinct from any other tradition before it.

You assertion of the indistingishability of Christian theology, icons and rites simply does bear out against the facts. You will have to support your argument if you wish me to take you seriously.

If you will take the time to read S-P's reasons for his choice, you may discover your presumption wholly without merit and your logic unsound.

Apophatically Speaking said...

Typos correction:

"You assertion of the indistingishability of Christian theology, icons and rites simply does bear out against the facts."

should read:

"Your assertion of the indistinguishability of Christian theology, icons, and rites simply does not bear out against the facts."

Martin said...

Would it make any difference to you even if I did demonstrate that they were one and the same? Would you alter anything about your current beliefs? Honestly please.

s-p said...

Hi Martin, As for me, no you cannot demonstrate that they are one and the same. I've probably read just about everything you've read and I wasn't convinced. After 58 years of concious pursuit of God, I AM convinced by the theology of the Orthodox Church. My belief does not MAKE anything "true", the fact that people believe falsehoods either sincerely or through deception, lack of research or holiness does not change "Truth", it just puts them in a position of needing mercy from the Truth... which, by the way, the Orthodox believe is extended to those who are sincere but in error.

Apophatically Speaking said...


Honestly, I don't see how my beliefs have any bearing on your ability to support your assertion and make your case - it would be a poor position indeed which would need me to prop it up. Nice try!

Martin said...

Ability is not in question. It is simply a matter of honesty. If one has a belief that cannot be swayed then not even the appearance of the gods themselves would make any difference.

A faith in that which, by definition, cannot be known is all good and well but failure to simply admit that the thing is unknowable is the error of all religions that claim to hold "true, right and faithful" doctrines.

It seems to me that the most forgiving, understanding and truly human people are those who allow for the validity of the core message of all faiths and simply respect that this person or that has eyes that are gazing toward heaven. Religious battles are never fought among those who seek to understand others and to find common ground between all faiths. Indeed, the journey of such a one is full of mystery and wonder as that which is common in each faith is revealed and that which is unique to each is comprehended. It is an amazing journey that I would wish on you and all.

I should be very interested to meet any Christian who will with satisfaction embrace his Buddhist (or Taoist or Wiccan or Hindu or Druidic) brother as an equal without impugning him as a "lost soul."

May the gods smile on you.


Apophatically Speaking said...

For one looking for peace you sure have a quick draw. Anyways, peace out. Thanks and I am glad you didn't turn out to be a troll.

Apophatically Speaking said...


A Christian walking in Christ's footsteps will see anyone not as an equal, but as one better than himself. It is indeed rare, alas.

Ingemar said...

I would not be surprised if half (or more) of Martin's claims are false. Big giveaway--the standard "Christianity came from Mithraism" claim.

Apophatically Speaking said...

Yes agreed. Still awaiting a defense of his position...

Drewster2000 said...

Hi A-S,

I realize this trail is pretty cold by now, but I thought I'd comment and see if there was any more interest in discussion.

I'm solidly a Christian, but Martin's comments stuck in my head since reading them a few days ago. He is wrong that sun worship, wikkan, Mithraism, Christianity, etc are all one and the same - and it all comes down to what you've decided you like best. I have no doubt of his error about that, but it does bring up a couple interesting points:

First, I can see why he might come to that conclusion. Christianity & Judaism give the true account of history and the reality of our world, but it is therefore no surprise that there would be many similar stories (as someone might have mentioned here). Though the truth about the world has endured, it's no surprise that other cultures have picked it up - or even just parts of it - and claimed it for their own heritage. So the "many similar stories" makes sense.

But Martin's question remains: How is it that we know Christianity to be the true story? And I believe that God set it up such that we don't. He gives plenty of clues, and He's not shy of telling those willing to listen, but in the end it comes down to a matter of choice for each of us. The truth doesn't change of course, but we each have to decide to embrace the truth. God wants children who intentionally choose to be with Him, not people He tricked, not those He logically persuaded.

In the end, we can't prove the Christian case to Martin (and neither can he prove a case to us). God didn't intend it to work that way. We can only choose to recognize the Truth through the signs and signals God set up inside and outside of us from the beginning of the world.

I think of the scene from Indiana Jones (3?) where Indy goes into a room with several chalices - and finally picks the wooden chalice. If I may use that analogy, several supposed answers to life present themselves to us, but God refuses to grandstand the others.

"They have Moses and the prophets. If they won't listen to them, then they also won't listen if someone rises from the dead."


"This generation seeks for a sign, but none will be given, except the sign of Jonah."

Much more could be said, but these are my thoughts...if anyone is still listening. (grin)

Apophatically Speaking said...

Hi Drewster2000,

Some very good thoughts, thank you.

I agree wholeheartedly that we are given a choice, there is no compulsion but rather a free choice of the will as you point out.

The popularized misunderstanding of salvation as assent to propositional statements of truth (such as "Jesus is Lord," or "Jesus is risen from the dead") is contrary to how classic, ancient Christianity has understood the meaning of conversion and salvation. There are many deep problems with such a misunderstanding, one such is mistaking faith for fact. (It entails a re-definition of what is meant by knowledge, I will return to that in a moment.) It is tempting of course when science rules the day: faith somehow seems inadequate and unsure in contrast to "hard" science. But conversion, faith, salvation entail a change and renewal of heart. So even if we could provide scientific, empirical proofs for the existence of God (which is a fool's errand, how will one measure the Immeasurable?) it would radically miss the mark, nor would it make (more) people into believers: "This generation seeks for a sign, but none will be given, except the sign of Jonah." Right you are.

(as an aside - this is not to say that the Christian faith is contrary to scientific fact, or that Christians believe in a fairytale, that we have no adequate grounds for our faith. It is indeed compatible with science - however it is also beyond it. God reveals Himself in time, in history, and we point to the incarnation of Christ as such revelation in space and time.)

Coming back to the re-definition of knowledge, what is meant by "knowing". We must be keen to see that there's is a play of words going on - so when Martin asks as to how we know that Christianity is true, he is asking as to how we can empirically know, scientifically furnish proofs for the existence of God, Christian revelation, the Apostolic tradition, Scriptures etc. Such we cannot. But we know in faith, we believe in the veracity of the accounts of the Gospels, the witness of the Fathers, the councils etc. Our faith rests in the character and nature of God as it is presented through and by these sources. We believe God the Holy Spirit is personally present in such. We don't look for scientific proofs to come to such faith. Christian knowledge then is confessional in nature, it is knowledge and understanding based in faith. We would in vain try to furnish scientific proofs to somehow bring people to faith.

What do you think?

Drewster2000 said...


I totally agree with you.

I think the key here is knowledge vs. belief. Martin may ask how we "know" Christianity is true, but he (and the world) has it backwards. The world would to be shown and made to understand - and THEN they would believe.

God insists on the opposite approach. As one pastor put it, "First you believe and then you will receive understanding."

You talk about redefining the word "knowledge", but I submit that to put the onus on the person to take action - given that belief is the first step in the statement above - it is "belief that must be redefined.

As you say, it is not really about an assent to statements like "Jesus Christ is Lord" that constitute true belief. True belief is what people do when they vote with their feet.

If you truly believe that Jesus is Lord - and I cross paths with you - I will know without you selling me on the idea. I don't care what Martin says; I care how he lives his life.

Discussing ideas and theologies is an important part of our development in this life, but I'm more interested in how you treat the poor, how you spend your money, raise your children, work for a living, and everything else involved in pressing out an existence in this world. As S-P said, how you treat restaurant staff.

Those who truly believe in the Crucifixion and Resurrection are easily spotted. For these things shine through; we can see them voting with their feet as they follow the path of Christ into the grave and out onto the other side.

If these beliefs don't shine through in our lives, then Martin is right: it really makes no matter which story we believe, because our beliefs are not transforming us.

Thanks for engaging, drew