THE BLOG
06/23/2010 01:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Icons: Symbols of Sobriety in a Culture of Chaos

When I converted from evangelical Christianity to the Orthodox Church in the early nineties, I not only learned to venerate and honor the saints, but also to honor matter itself. This was a new idea for me.

I hadn't been keen on venerating or honoring anyone or anything. The idea was that glory and worship belongs to God alone. Venerating saints, or kissing their images, would have been a betrayal of that principle, and a form of idolatry. But the fallacy breaks down quickly here, as any Orthodox convert for whom this has been an issue will tell you. In the first place, there is a difference between veneration and worship.

If we fail to make this distinction, then it seems rather odd for the writer of Proverbs, Paul, and others to admonish children to honor their mothers and fathers. Yet, I've never heard of anyone getting bent out of shape and decrying Mother's Day or Father's Day by claiming that honoring mom and dad is idolatrous. It's this kind of honor we are talking about, the kind that is also often given to prominent religious figures such as reformers like Calvin or Luther or historical figures like Wesley or Spurgeon or Finney. Contemporary evangelists such as Billy Graham, pastors of mega-churches, various respected writers, and Christian entertainers are often honored both privately and corporately without pause.

Yet, iconoclasm and the rejection of icons and the denial of the veneration of saints and of matter is a strong tendency in many religious traditions. Islam and a large number of Protestant communions are sometimes very zealous against using any kind of image in the context of liturgical or religious life. This is a serious mistake because it results in a harsh dichotomy between spiritual life and the material world, and leads to insobriety.

In religious life, insobriety is evident in popular movements that promote super-spiritual phenomena, born-again testimonies, and an extreme emphasis on charismatic gifts, appealing to the certainty of personal first-order experiences by themselves, which must be repeated to keep up the momentum, sometimes in new and questionable ways. Or, on the other hand, it is evident in intoxicating movements towards rationalism, scholasticism, and discursive information systems that appeal to the certainty of propositional truth claims, that then intensely trivialize the significance of an absolute claim for truth by dividing into tens of thousands of warring ideological and theological tribes.

Both extremes rest in intense subjectivity and abstraction, whether emotional or intellectual, and are cut off from the exterior world of the physical, the world of matter. Both foster self-generated certainties that are at the root of fundamentalist jihads, whether promulgated by certain fundamentalist Muslims or by demagogues such as Sarah Palin and cohorts, who sniff at intellectual nuance and at the poor, the sick, the prisoner and the hungry in the name of small-town values. The seriously dangerous doctrines of Calvinist Reconstructionists such as Gary North are rationales for the imposition of Old Testament law on society; adherents would stone to death homosexuals, women who have had abortions and rebellious children in the name of Jesus. All are examples of profound insobrieties that blow up into very distorted world-views.

Other movements, fads, fashions and popular cults prove the thesis as well: fascination with the occult, the undiscerning vacuity of the New Age with its own plethora of charismatic gurus and assorted con artists, obsession over the end of the world via the rapture or the Mayan calendar, veneration and obsession over the lives of celebrities, false meaning and surface identity found in conspiracy theories and alien abductions, an irrational emphasis on demonic possession, political ideology that shapes personal identity, obnoxious proselytism for atheism, and intense personal greed that places more value on money, status and career than on one's own children and family.

The most pervasive form of insobriety in American culture is consumerism. Focused on material security, one identifies with the assumption that things will make me happy, or that things will give life meaning, that to be entertained and to be rich and comfortable are valid personal goals. Yet, such an emphasis finally denigrates the very objects one seeks; ironically, consumerism denies and devalues the particular material substance over which it obsesses, and the obsession itself becomes a form of blind and empty worship.

The spectrum wherein this is the case is very broad, ranging from the devaluing of one's body and relationships with others through nearly ubiquitous pornography to the flippant abuse of illicit drugs to the cheapening of food by a clown's magical transformation of animals into "happy meals" and obliquely-shaped "nuggets". We ironically seek to have things for our own comfort, but we do not value the things we have. We do not honor the matter from which things are made. We throw possessions away almost as quickly as we acquire them. We value how they make us feel, or are supposed to make us feel, and when they do not meet our expectations, we go on to something else. We do not value things, and our intoxication with things ultimately leads to deforestation, toxic pollution and catastrophic oil spills -- results we detest because they threaten our insane, civilized way of life. This devolves inexorably into an actual worship of matter that is devoid of value, meaning or honor.

An icon is a sharp contrast to the pervasive Weltanschauung of consumerism here at the berth of the twenty-first century, and is a signpost that points to a way of sobriety where spirit, matter, emotion and intellect generate meaning and value. They do so because when one venerates an icon, she is not only showing reverence for the saint who is depicted there, one who has gone to great lengths to become like Christ. She is also honoring the material world itself, which has intrinsic value because it is made and redeemed by God, who uses matter for the salvation of the cosmos. As Saint John of Damascus writes:

" I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God."

And again, Saint John the Theologian writes in his epistle:

"Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world."

The integration of spirit and matter though iconography speaks to the hypostatic union of the "Word become flesh." Christ in his own person integrates and redeems the material world, eventually reuniting both spiritual and material realms and providing a vision of the totality of the human person who exists not in the spiritualized abstraction of subjectivity or in the materialist objectification of machinery, but in both spiritual and material realms at once. The elements of the material world -- the things we have and use, our bodies, and nature -- all have intrinsic value not only through creation (God calls all that he has created "good"), but in the incarnation, which is the foundation and substance of all authentic iconography.

I began to value matter for these reasons when I became Orthodox and learned to venerate icons such as the cross and the painted images of the saints. This reverence leads to truly honoring all life and to seeing the real value that exists in everything: the dignity of the poor and destitute, of the sick person who has no insurance or access to health care, of the homeless and dispossessed, of the prisoner, of the working poor, of the middle income family living month to month. I also see the equally tragic value of the truly affluent, who often live in a continuous climax of grasping, but who, like the rest of us, are never able to hold onto anything.

Although I haven't reached a pinnacle of purity of desire by any means, I have begun learning to appreciate the things I have before me and finally to recognize the intrinsic and inestimable value of all people and things, including the planet itself. This confers a serious responsibility. But it is a responsibility and ethos that I think embodies genuine sobriety. The use of icons is an affirmation of that relationship and responsibility to the world. The alternative is a distortion that implicitly denies the incarnation of Christ.