Church & the Language of extremes: Icons

Clearly. Obviously. Of course. Definitely. Naturally. Absolutely. Exactly. Never. Always. False. Fake. Authentic. Leftist. Rightist. Far right. Far left.

As it is Lent, the theme is repentance, a change of mind, a turning away from a wrong. There’s been significant public discourse about secular polarity, virtue signalling, and extremism. I think it might be worth taking a look at where we do this exact same thing in the Church. The ‘language of extremes’, as I’ll call it, is a personal disease of egoism (I have it, too!), and causes alienation to many. This will be a multi-part series as well.

Clearly. Obviously. Of course. Definitely. Naturally. Absolutely. Exactly. Never. Always. False. Fake. Authentic. Leftist. Rightist. Far right. Far left.

These, among others, are the kinds of terms used in contemporary discourse as part of the rhetoric of discord. People present an idea, thought or expression, and claim how it is obviously good or clearly bad. Things are said in such a way as to make sure you understand what stance you are supposed to have because it is obvious, of course!

You might respond to this language with: Absolutely! Obviously I’m not Islamophobic. Naturally, nobody here is against abortion. Of course I have nothing against…

Some people refer to this as ‘virtue signalling’.  This is the concept of a person or a group publicly expressing opinions or characteristics that they view to be virtuous, of what they view to be what a good person would think or do. The signalling has an aim of influencing public discourse and action.

This phenomenon’s impact can be observed in various ways, it is heard in statements like “…of course I don’t think that, I’m not an Islamophobe/Homophobe/Racist/Anti-Semite/Leftist/Far-Rightist/Liberal/Conservative!” It can be demonstrated in changing one’s Facebook profile to match the trending issues, like a Pride Flag for LGBT-related issues, the Paris flag after the bombings and many more besides these. In saying such things or doing such things, one is participating in a public campaign of what is perceived to be the good thing to do, the right position to have. 

Although I would love to discuss the impact that has on us as Christians in the world, actually, I want to turn our attention to how this same secular phenomenon is happening inside our churches and parishes with spirituality, ritual and tradition, because I think we are harming one another. The problem with this, is that the signalling is trying to point at a dogma that may or may not exist about something.

To discuss this, I will bring up some sensitive topics, but the intention is not to be provocative. I want to use real problems to have a real discussion and point at real issues. I welcome your comments and dialogue and will do my best to reply to them.

I want to make it very clear that every example I am using is an example that I have done myself and/or many people are doing. I am issuing that warning because I have had conversations with many individuals about this, and I fear any individual thinking that I am taking my specific conversation with them, putting them on blast, and then responding to them publicly rather than privately. I am very sensitive about not doing anything like that.

All of these examples have come up at almost all the churches I have served at, and those are very many.  Again, I am often guilty of this thing myself. We’re all trying to repent; to stop our wrongs.

First Example:
Icons

Language of Extremes: ‘That is definitely not an icon. That is at best a painting.’ ’Those are cartoons, not icons.’ ’This, this is an icon!’ ‘Here is a real icon.’

What is it signalling: Real iconography is whatever the speaker believes it to be. That usually means hand-written, gold-leaf and traditional – but not always. It depends on who is speaking.

Discussion: I have said these exact words myself. What is the problem with this language? It is not just that it is often said with antagonism, sarcasm and disdain (all of which are questionable in terms of spiritual conduct), but that it suggests that an absolute about icons actually exists. It suggests that there is something extremely right or extremely wrong about one kind of art over another. To assess the claim, however, one has to ask many questions (and these are not exhaustive):

– Are there canons about icons in our church or not? Are being followed?
– If there are canons, where did they come from and under what circumstances were they formed? Are they binding or non-binding canons?
– Do I care about all canons in the same way that I care about these canons (if they exist)?
– We must look at history and ask, did icons always exist in the Church?
– Where did icons come from?
– Did the first iconographer (whether it was Saint Luke or not) have in mind that what he was ‘writing’, not ‘painting’?
– Did he know he was painting an icon and not a portrait?
– How did the icon move from his house to the parish?
– How did it go from a parish to all the parishes?
– If at the time instead of painting he had digital means to draw, would he have used them?
– Is the aspect of an icon being ‘hand-written’ only finding meaning in the materials used?
– Is the offering of nature a lesser offering than the offering of the intellect that also used nature to make something electronic? Why or why not?

Those are just a handful of meaningful questions to have a real discussion. I am not being even remotely sarcastic when I ask those questions, lest my tone be lost in writing that would not be seen when saying this aloud in person. The fact that those very questions can be discussed, rather than answered with extremes is because no clear (to my knowledge) dogma exists on any of these things. The point here, and I am not an iconography expert, is that there was a development and history of the use of art in churches, and each place was influenced by its own culture, and by its own artists, who developed traditions and meditations.

Some traditions lasted, others did not. So a tradition of iconography could have (and did) develop in different places. My point, however, is that they were all developments. So rather than calling something definitely or clearly something or another, perhaps it is better to simply acknowledge that everything has an origin, none are absolute (in this case), and that many things are a matter of taste. I know many people have been angered by my saying ‘matter of taste’, but really, is it not so? 

I prayed liturgy at a Ukrainian Orthodox Church that one of our parishes rents out, and they kindly permit us to use their sanctuary and altar for our liturgy. The church itself was built by the Ukrainians, it was not purchased from another tradition. The iconostasis had more or less traditional Ukrainian icons (as far as my understanding goes), but the bosom of the Father was a very white, western, Latter-Day Saints-ish Jesus of North American television. It was not Ukrainian. It was not ’traditional’ in the Eastern sense.  

Why am I bringing up this example? Because often in the signalling debates that occur around iconography, Copts are quick to talk about how everyone ‘loves this Western stuff which are not icons’, and ‘the Eastern churches, they would never [language of extreme] do something so hideous to their churches’. Imagine my surprise when I found that an Eastern church did exactly that (and later, I found, many have)!

But really, it is not about who does what. There’s a question of whether there is a definitive and absolute right and wrong. If there is not, present your case, but do not present it as dogma. Churches should be beautiful, I think (leads to question of what is beauty!). I think for such and such reason. I am not personally a fan of such and such style of art or iconography. I have a preference for such and such for such and such reasons. Then you can talk about the history, the development, the meanings etc.. If you approach it without definitiveness (when no definitiveness exists), you will have a much better dialogue.

I had a specific discussion about this once with a beloved iconographer of my home parish in Canada, and because, I believe, there was sincerity in dialogue (not debate!), I learned a lot from him in a very short conversation. When people approach another dogmatically, rather than dialogically (I hope that’s a word) you get a debate with antagonism, and both parties leave upset. It’s an exercise of ego and intellect.

In all this, I have not put my opinion on what is right or wrong with respect to this matter, because that is exactly the point: it would only be an opinion. It would not be a dogma, no matter who I am in the Church. There are ancient beautiful churches with no icons, and there are modern ones as well. Icons are a tool used by the Church and they can be beautiful, but let us not speak dogmatically where we cannot speak dogmatically.

Remember that the point of this is repentance, we should all reflect on the ways we speak and if it conforms to the two arms of speaking: in love and with Truth. We often presume we have the former, but we usually lack both.

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