“A theology based on images can recognize the fundamental mystery that enshrouds the Godhead, the mystery that God is”

Icons, images – of Christ, the Mother of God and the saints – came to be used widely in Christianity, not just as pictures on panels or walls (frescoes), but on sacred vessels, garments, banners and even more intimate objects such as boxes and rings. They are objects of devotion, rather than works of art (though many of them are works of art of superlative quality); they are there to accompany our prayer, to mediate to us the presence of those to whom we pray; they are not there for aesthetic contemplation (though many of them are worthy of that). Unlike symbols, they work more directly through likeness; it is through likeness that they recall the people whom they depict, though the concept of likeness appropriate to icons has evolved to fulfil the purpose of mediating a prayerful presence, rather than a photographic likeness. Their justification is manifold – and unlike other aspects of Christian worship and practice explicit, as a result of the century-long iconoclast controversy from the eighth to the ninth century in the Byzantine Empire.

There is the justification I have already referred to, asserted most clearly by St John Damascene, that images or icons are fundamental to the kind of understanding available to human beings who are twofold in nature, both bodily and spiritual. Both icons and sacraments make sense only to beings with this twofold nature, for they are concerned with holding together the two realms that converge in the human. The most fundamental justification, however, is the Incarnation itself: if God appeared in a human form, then it must be possible to depict him in a human form.

A corollary of that is what I have already referred to as ‘Christian materialism’: matter is God’s creation; it is not to be despised; it is precious; it is capable of disclosing to us the creative power of the God who created it. It is only because we are material beings that we can participate in God in the Eucharist, a privilege denied to purely spiritual beings such as angels. On that basis, John Damascene even argued that we could be regarded as higher beings than the angels, since we are capable of participating in God more richly than they are. . . .

The importance of John Damascene’s emphasis on the image becomes clear when we consider the alternatives: either a conceptual theology that is concerned with rational constructs – God as the central part of some philosophical understanding of the universe – or an agnosticism in which we lose any confidence in understanding at all. In contrast, a theology based on images can recognize the fundamental mystery that enshrouds the Godhead, the mystery that God is; it can embrace a fundamental apophaticism, and yet have some way of gesturing towards this ultimate mystery. It is as if the recognition of the place of images enables us to recognize, too, the fundamental place of apophaticism – denial of concepts – in our understanding of God, for images are playful and partial; they engage us, they do not give us ideas over which we have some kind of rational control. The great living Greek philosopher and theologian, Christos Yannaras, once put it like this: “The apophatic attitude leads Christian theology to use the language of poetry and images for the interpretation of dogmas much more than the language of conventional logic and schematic concepts.”

Fr Andrew Louth

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4 Responses to “A theology based on images can recognize the fundamental mystery that enshrouds the Godhead, the mystery that God is”

  1. Logan(mercifullayman) says:

    I’m using the Nyssen’s Life of Moses as a companion to a study of Exodus to try and amplify a more Eastern view on the text within a Western Sunday School. In the copy I have, Meyendorff has an interesting introduction that I think couples with this. In the view of Nyssen, the discovery of God always starts with images and yet as Moses ascends, images disappear and it is in the darkness that he is left to find God face to face, and as he famously remarks on Moses’ begging to see God even after the text tells us he’s seen Him face to face, all that one can really surmise by seeing his back, is that whatever that means, it was darkness that covered the divine moment. In a way, all images have to point us beyond all things…they point us into the deepest parts of our intuition and understanding, and from their, we access the transcendent and even there, it is the speculative realization that even this swirling boundary line of thought, is merely the line by which we will see things darkly until all is revealed.

    We don’t view images to carry us to the Light, but view them to access the deep recesses of the divine life itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • robertowenkelly says:

      Logan, do you think Gregory would say there’s actually an end point at which “all is revealed”? Or does perpetual progress mean that, actually, there is no final point of definitive revelation?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Logan(mercifullayman) says:

        No. For desire, true desire, is illimitable as it is the Absolute itself, so the perfection is the progress that one finds in following Him solely. He says towards the end of the Life of Moses that all one can find is that perfection is essentially following God’s back and to surmise you will never truly know the Absolute, just as Moses saw him face to face, and yet only could see his back in his final theophany. But what you know and understand, you have gleaned upon the way, and the very progress is your perfection. Following God, in his majesty and kenosis with you….that is the definitive revelation for you as distinct from the Creator. Where He is in you, and yet not you.

        Now, when you read other texts, you get your circular telos of the final revelatory process, your “all in all” language. But as he is writing for a spiritual guide, it’s reinforcing the act of deification in becoming like God, and yet never God, and that, in its essence, is perfection.


        • robertowenkelly says:

          “…the very progress is your perfection.” Now there’s a game changer for the popular western view. Thank you!


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