Excerpts from “Stanton Lecture 8: The Surprise of the Imagined” by John Milbank.
So how can everything be at once entirely interrelated, and yet in integral, reserved excess of relationship? Once more we need the model of participation as paradox which is the same paradox as the paradox of the gift. A substance is related as giving though sharing a capacity to be separately imitated only by retaining that which it shares in order to remain a ‘personal’ giver. Inversely, a substance receives another substance in relation only by imitative sharing which reserves as mystery the very thing which it proffers as ‘the rite of the mystery’, so to speak.
…In this way culture is provisional resurrection: every artifact is a tombstone which remembers the past, projects the future and aspires after eternity and for this reason, as the ancient Egyptians realised, every city is first a temple because it is a graveyard. Nor are all monuments equal: Heidegger’s jug really does command a greater intrinsic presence than the fairy-liquid bottle, not just because of the array of forces at its command, but because of the greater intrinsic coherence of the forces making for beauty, which ensure that not even the efforts of a Warhol can match the survival through the millennia of one particular finely-crafted pot, supremely embodying the eidos of ‘potness’. …And as to imagination: here again we have a reversible hierarchy—physical reality is more real as more substantive; but imagined reality is more real as more aspiring upwards to a spiritual condition.
…And through the same gesture monotheism is perfected rather than qualified, because one ‘resolves’ in a mystery the aporia whereby the Creation as the divinely imagined ‘other’ to God is and yet is not outside God, who is omnipresent. The doctrine of the Trinity allows one to hold to both sides of the aporia with equal force: the art of Creation as externalised imagination possesses integrity outside God, and on this account it eventually returns to God; but equally, God is in himself the internalised art of the Creation (in its entire extent which is unknown to us) and the return of this inner Filial imagination to its Paternal fontal source by its ceaseless organic renewal of spousal Spiritual inspiration, through whose equally maternal ‘excess’ over its own imaginings it is generated in the first place.
…Humans, in order to freely love God, and so in a sense to be free in relation to God and even free of God, as Eckhart might say, must give back to God more than he has given us. This is only possible because God himself becomes more than God by repairing the third metaphysical indigency whereby God lacks his own lack—God lacks the worship of God, as Pierre Bérulle put it. But Christ as the divine-humanity is impossibly more than God and renders back to God more than God has given. In this way to the divine imagination is impossibly added also the human imagination of the divine. Of course under the conditions of sin this ontological atonement took the form of a suffering one—a passage through disaster perfectly endured and so integrated into the gift that is impossibly more than even the greatest imaginable gift.
…Yet in the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ we are offered a further mystery that in some sense indicates a resolution of the everyday one. What holds together here is the divine-human substance as identical with the being, or better, the reality of God. So in participatory consequence, all of nature is transubstantiated, and thereby restored to its original integrity. In a sense the transformation and inherence at the Mass is no more mysterious than any other transformation or inherence, and if it is imagined by us as taking place, then that is because it is real, and because all reality is most fundamentally imagined. Ordinarily, holding together and transformation occur through the mediated interaction of substance and relation, but we can now see that these things make no sense outside the divine presence to all things achieved through participation in the divine imaginative, creative act.
This quadruple summation of completed monotheism as divine and humanly imagined Creation, Trinity, Incarnation and Transubstantiation, consummates the vision and claim of these lectures. This is the view that, in order fully to perform the philosophic act of saving the appearances of the ordinary, we must invoke the seemingly strange and exotic teachings of theology, and the strangest of all, which are the teachings of Christian theology.
Several people have asked me questions about what this post means, so here is a summary in advance with more direct language. God doesn’t need death to create, but He subverts death to achieve all of His original intentions anyway. The Bible teaches a human fall outside the start of time and of our cosmos as we know it. All death (of any kind) is a result of this atemporal human fall (which is also manifested within history as you can consider in this post).
In other words, God has always had incarnation in the form of the Son as an eternal plan and purpose, and humans are actually created outside of time as we now know it. Our showing up within this current corrupt reduction of time and space is a result of our collective decision outside of time to try a shortcut that resulted in this corrupted first creation that we now know but which is still being made (in Christ) into the new creation that will be fully revealed at Christ’s second coming.
The image in Revelation 13:8 of a Lamb slain from he foundation of the cosmos has come to mean a lot to me, as this captures the idea that Jesus Christ has been suffering with His creation since the start of time.
“One major challenge to any ancient metaphysical conception of the world is the modern doctrine of evolution.” Torstein Theodor Tollefsen raises this critical point at the end of “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” (his contribution to Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen). While Tollefsen immediately acknowledges that “Maximus probably held the view that the world was made recently and that all species were made by God in the beginning,” Tollefsen goes on to explain how modern evolutionary science can fit seamlessly within the metaphysical system that Maximus provides. As far as I can tell, what Tollefsen proposes lines up to a remarkable degree with the position outlined in “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” by Charles Andrew Gottshall (posted to the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on May 1, 2017).
In summary, Maximus sees the fall of humanity as having two aspects. These can also be expressed as “two senses of hamartia” (the Greek term typically translated sin). They are not two falls of humanity but just our human fall seen from two perspectives: 1) humanity’s relation to God outside of time wherein we collectively made a free and culpable choice to become what God intended for us via the wrong pathway and 2) humanity’s suffering within time under the bondage of corruption alongside of the entire cosmos that we are meant to tend and bless.
In its first aspect, our fall is an atemporal event that takes place within the “eternal now” of God’s presence and in which humankind “reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.” (Although Tollefsen does not specify this directly, it seems clear that Adam in this sense for Maximus is understood as God’s vision of humanity seen collectively as a whole—as the perfect body of Christ to use Paul’s language.) In Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” (Note in this blog post that Maximus actually makes this strange claim “on three separate occasions.”) Tollefsen explains that this “first ‘failure’ of Adam …was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil.” According to Tollefsen: “Maximus does not …commit himself to any definite speculation on the state of innocence. …The first [sense of hamartia] was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this first is to be understood temporally.”
In its second aspect, our human fall “was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption.” This consequence of our fall is “innocent” in that we and the entire cosmos (with no rational will of its own and therefore no choice in the matter) suffer a contingent consequence that we could not have fully foreseen. Tollefsen says that this aspect of “humankind’s fall from perfection …is probably understood in a temporal sense” in that after “a period of existence in paradise” we experienced the fall “with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.” Summarizing Maximus, Tollefsen further explains: “Corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.”
Critical to the full metaphysical framework that Maximus presents is that “the plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and [it] shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages.” In God’s final purposes, “particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity.” In conclusion, Tollefsen claims: “The transformation from incorruption to corruption [of the entire cosmos] may be interpreted within this picture. [It describes] a purpose that is not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”
When taken together (and summarized in my own layman’s terms), we get a vision of creation as being initiated within God’s timeless presence with the central and guiding principle of creation from before creation’s start being the incarnation of the Logos as human. Christology, in this case, expresses a unity between God and creation—with humanity being the principal link within the created order. Humanity, however, grasping at a false path toward our ultimate end as the focal point of God’s image within creation, recasts our entire experience of the process of creation itself within a contingent corruption of the entire cosmos (expressed within our current cosmic time). For now, we are no longer fully able to see God’s creative work underway except in so far as we can see it through Jesus Christ, and all that we see is subject to the delusions and blindnesses imposed by ourselves and many others within our current contingent time. This human fall does not prevent God’s creative acts and intentions from taking place, but our falleness introduces the temporary experience of suffering and death into the entire creative process as it unfolds within time. From start to finish (even before humanity arrives within the fallen temporal sequence), creation within cosmic time is marred by corruption (but not prevented or destroyed). Within this context, the incarnation, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ become the revelation and restoration of our true and eternal condition as well as remaining the telos of creation as it always was. This telos is enacted within history as the incarnation of Jesus Christ but reveals a truth that cannot be fully seen or known until history is finished and transformed.
Biological evolution, in this scheme, is just the creative work of God unfolding as this ongoing work is experienced within the fallen confines of our current cosmic time. The entire natural history of our cosmos combines together the achievement of God’s eternal ends with the contingent experience of corruption, suffering and death. In this, the whole of creation becomes a kind of prolonged and painful labor and delivery. Ultimately, the claim here is that all the eons of biological evolution participate in the crucifixion and death of Christ as well as in Christ’s transfiguration, resurrection and glorification (rendering all the suffering of humanity and the cosmos contingent yet fruitful in the end). In this way, the final telos of all creation is “not achieved throughout the natural history of the world, but is reached in the eternal kingdom of God.”
Passages from Tollefsen relating to what God intends and is creating according to Maximus:
How does God know beings? They are known, Maximus states, as his own acts of will. Maximus says that in the logoi, beings are circumscribed essentially and genetically (that is, as known and as willed) by their own logoi and by the logoi of beings that surround them.
…God knows particulars. He not only knows them; he loves them. …The logoi, as conceived by God, are contemplated by God according to the essential relationships they were intended to found. …Natural relationships are for …the actualization of a movement of love, which is what God has made possible within this system of being. According to Maximus’s interpretation, when beings are conceived within such an order, this is meant to guarantee a certain integrity of being and to make possible a certain providential and soteriological dynamics of movement.
The plurality and diversity that characterizes the world is willed by God, and is as such shall not disappear in the consummation of the ages. Particular beings are meant to be preserved as themselves in their particularity. However, in the present age this particularity has turned into a source of self-enhancement on the part of particular beings. This self-enhancement is sinful, since it involves an encroachment upon the integrity of both one’s own being and the being of others. In this way suffering, pain, corruptibility, and death rule the natural world. The divine remedy, however, is not the reduction of particularity, plurality, and diversity to an essential, ontological unity. Rather, it is the reduction of self-enhancement to the detriment of other beings to a unity in love that is made ontologically possible because God has transcendentally (in his logoi) knit the bonds of being that make it possible.
…The inﬁnite divine Mind who eternally contemplates his own knowledge of beings has contemplated them in their logoi in all the possible ways of development these possible beings might enfold.
…While it will not accord with the methods of science to search for final causes, a metaphysical doctrine of the world as made by God cannot dispense with the concept of final causality.
…Even if the natural development of life is replete with struggle, suffering, and death, the Christian metaphysics of Maximus reckons with a ﬁnal consummation in which all suffering and corruptibility are overcome. A cosmos made by God according to his goodness, will, and purpose must be conceived as directed, in the divine Mind, toward some goal.
Passages from Tollefsen relating to what we experience in this life given our fallen condition according to Maximus:
Maximus expects a universal transformation of the cosmos. Also, salvation does not just concern the remission of sin, since only rational creatures can sin. In Ad Thalassium 42, Maximus interprets the Greek term hamartia, which is usually translated “sin,” in its literal sense as a failure or as missing the mark, like when one shoots with a bow. The first “failure” of Adam, he says, was culpable, since he fell of his own choice from good into evil. This is what we would designate as sin in the usual sense of the term. The second failure, however, following upon the first, was the innocent transformation of human nature from incorruption into corruption. According to Maximus, corruption, comprising all kinds of physical weakness and death, is not natural. It is not in accordance with the proper nature of a being, which rather is the divine purpose of its logos. Thus while human salvation involves healing from sin and gaining incorruptibility, animals, if they should be conceived as participating in the divine scheme of salvation, only need healing from corruptibility.
…Maximus does not, as far as I can see, commit himself to any deﬁnite speculation on the state of innocence. He …distinguished between two senses of hamartia. The ﬁrst one was culpable and indicates a fall from innocence, but the text does not say that this ﬁrst is to be understood temporally. However, in Ad Thalassium 1, he mentions in passing humankind’s fall from perfection. This is probably understood in a temporal sense: there was ﬁrst a period of existence in paradise; then came the fall with its consequences for the whole of creation, when human beings were transformed from incorruption to corruption.
…What Maximus actually says does not have to be interpreted in the sense that one has to reckon with some kind of historical paradise in the past. If we look at the divisions of being in Ambiguum 41, one of the divisions is between paradise and oikoumené, as if these were somehow present in the cosmic building and not as if one came before the other in time. Further, in Ambiguum 42, Maximus states that our nature fell unnaturally into wickedness “at the instant it was created.” These Maximian descriptions need not be anything other than a metaphysical sketch of the structures or powers and possibilities of the world and of culture. When humankind originated within the fabric of nature, it reached for its humanity as made in the image of God, situated in the tension between paradise and oikoumené, but failed to achieve it in the proper way.
Note that, while working to grasp Tollefsen’s summary of Maximus on these points, it can be helpful to have this additional map in hand:
In Ambiguum 41, Maximus presents his system in a nutshell. He draws a perspicuous and, I would say, beautiful picture of the cosmos as it comes forth from God in its procession (that is, creation) and converts to God in the ﬁnal restoration. He describes ﬁve basic divisions in accordance with which the cosmos is arranged: (1) the division between uncreated and created nature, (2) the division of created nature into intelligible and sensible being, (3) the division of sensible being into heaven and earth, (4) the division of earth into paradise and oikoumené, and (5) the division of oikoumené into male and female. By oikoumené he probably means the inhabited world [as Andrew Louth translates it in Maximus the Confessor, Early Church Fathers (London: Routledge, 1996), 157].
Maximus walks the ancient path first tread by Irenaeus: Christ reveals the truth of creation. The truth he sees in the historical Incarnation is that everything, all of creation, the entire world, is that Word’s Incarnation. Maximus never qualifies his conviction that the Logos’s self-distribution as the logoi is an Incarnation of this Word. We might expect such qualification since he seems intent upon nestling them into the same category. In his famous and curt explanation of Gregory Nazianzen’s remark that “The Logos becomes thick,” Maximus proffers three instances where this is so: the Word’s historical Incarnation as Jesus Christ, his ineffable self-encryption as the logoi of all creatures, and his consent to be “embodied and expressed” in language.
Jordan Wood (“Creation is Incarnation: the Metaphysical Peculiarity of the Logi in Maximus the Confessor” from the 2017 issue of Modern Theology)
This passage comes after a description of the noetic pursuit of transcendent truth by all of the Greek philosophers, upward and away from the earth. This central theme of noetic ascent is summarized (with appreciation) from the Presocratics through Aristotle, before Foltz turns to incarnation:
Into this trajectory of restless, almost obsessive, transcendence comes the peaceful image (eikon) of the Nativity, a different face of being. That God has really entered into creation—not appeared by proxy like some ephemeral projection, but come into being within the earthly—is visually rendered in the iconographic tradition of the Christian East through subterranean imagery. The Eternal Logos enters substantially into creation kenotically, innocently, as a little child, represented by Mary tending to her child while inscribed deep within the Earth, in a cave, a birthplace written into the essential materiality of the Earth: Incarnation or embodiment itself is taking place within the earth, the principle of all embodiment. Home and inhabitation and immanence on the one hand, and divinity and transcendence and longing on the other, are no longer in incommensurable ends of meaning, metaphysical oil and water, but are held in a serene balance.
The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible by Bruce Foltz.
Here are a few of the many hymns from last night with the start of Lazarus Saturday. Toward the end, several of them break into the voice of Lazarus himself or of Hell itself.
Calling Lazarus from the tomb, immediately Thou hast raised him; but Hell below lamented bitterly, and groaning, trembled at Thy power, O Savior.
Calling Lazarus by name, Thou hast broken in pieces the bars of Hell and shaken the power of the enemy; and before Thy Cruciﬁxion, Thou hast made the enemy tremble because of Thee, O only Savior.
O Master, Thou hast come as God to Lazarus, bound captive by Hell, and Thou hast loosed him from his fetters, for all things submit to Thy command, O Mighty Lord.
The palaces of Hell were shaken, when in its depths Lazarus began once more to breathe, straightway restored to life by the sound of Thy voice.
As man, Thou hast shed tears for Lazarus; as God, Thou hast raised him up. Thou hast asked, O Loving Lord: Where is he buried, dead these four days; thus conﬁrming our faith in Thine Incarnation. [Because, Jesus would have to ask “where” only as a human.]
Wishing in Thy love to reveal the meaning of Thy Passion and Thy Cross, Thou hast broken open the belly of Hell that never can be satisﬁed, and as God Thou hast raised up a man four days dead.
Joining dust to spirit, O Word, by Thy word in the beginning, Thou hast breathed into the clay a living soul. And now, by Thy word, Thou hast raised up Thy friend from corruption and from the depths of the earth.
“Thou hast called me from the lowest depths of Hell, O Savior,” cried Lazarus to Thee when Thou hast set him free from Hell; “and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”
“Thou knowest all things, yet hast asked where I was buried. As man by nature, Thou hast wept for me, O Savior, and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”
“Thou hast clothed me in a body of clay, O Savior, and breathed life into me, and I beheld Thy light; and Tho hast raised me from the dead by thy command.”
“Thou hast broken open the all-devouring belly of Hell and snatched me out, O Savior, by Thy power; and Thou hast raised me from the dead by Thy command.”
“I implore thee, Lazarus,” said Hell, “Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.”
Let Bethany sing with us in praise of the miracle, for there the Creator wept for Lazarus in accordance with the law of nature and the ﬂesh. Then, making Martha’s tears to cease and changing Mary’s grief to joy, Christ raised him from the dead.
Shaking the gates and iron bars, Thou hast made Hell tremble at Thy voice. Hell and Death were filled with fear, O Savior, seeing Lazarus their prisoner brought to life by Thy word and rising from the tomb.
J.R.R.Tolkien in his notes on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.”
Finrod, however, sees now that, as things were, no created thing or being in Arda, or in all Eä, was powerful enough to counteract or heal Evil: that is to subdue Melkor (in his present person, reduced though that was) and the Evil that he had dissipated and sent out from himself into the very structure of the world.
Only Eru himself could do this. Therefore, since it was unthinkable that Eru would abandon the world to the ultimate triumph and domination of Melkor (which could mean its ruin and reduction to chaos), Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes have to be both ‘outside’ and inside and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.
Since Finrod had already guessed that the redemptive function was originally, specially assigned to Men, he probably proceeded to the expectation that ‘the coming of Eru’, if it took place, would be specially and primarily concerned with Men: that is to an imaginative guess or vision that Eru would come incarnated in human form. This, however, does not appear in the Athrabeth.
We are here dealing with Elvish thought at an early period, when the Eldar were still fully ‘physical’ in bodily form. Much later when the process (already glimpsed by Finrod) called ‘waning’ or ‘fading’ had become more effective, their views of the End of Arda, so far as it affected themselves, must have been modified. But there are few records of any contacts of Elvish and Human thought in such latter days. They eventually became housed, if it can be called that, not in actual visible and tangible hröar, but only in the memory of the fëa of its bodily form and its desire for it and therefore not dependent for mere existence upon the material of Arda.* But they appear to have held, and indeed still to hold, that this desire for the hröa shows that their later (and present) condition is not natural to them, and they remain in estel that Eru will heal it. ‘Not natural’, whether it is due wholly, as they earlier thought, to the weakening of the hröa (derived from the debility introduced by Melkor into the substance of Arda upon which it must feed), or partly to the inevitable working of a dominant fëa upon a material hröa through many ages. (In the latter case ‘natural’ can refer only to an ideal state, in which unmarred matter could for ever endure the indwelling of a perfectly adapted fëa. It cannot refer to the actual design of Eru, since the Themes of the Children were introduced after the arising of the discords of Melkor. The ‘waning’ of the Elvish hröar must therefore be part of the History of Arda as envisaged by Eru, and the mode in which the Elves were to make way for the Dominion of Men. The Elves find their supersession by Men a mystery, and a cause of grief; for they say that Men, at least so largely governed as they are by the evil of Melkor, have less and less love for Arda in itself, and are largely. busy in destroying it in the attempt to dominate it. They still believe that Eru’s healing of all the griefs of Arda will come now by or through Men; but the Elves’ part in the healing or redemption will be chiefly in the restoration of the love of Arda, to which their memory of the Past and understanding of what might have been will contribute. Arda they say will be destroyed by wicked Men (or the wickedness in Men); but healed through the goodness in Men. The wickedness, the domineering lovelessness, the Elves will offset. By the holiness of good men—their direct attachment to Eru, before and above all Eru’s works—the Elves may be delivered from the last of their griefs: sadness; the sadness that must come even from the unselfish love of anything less than Eru.
Desire. The Elves insisted that ‘desires’, especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie. They distinguished between desire of the fëa (perception that something right or necessary is not present, leading to desire or hope for it); wish, or personal wish (the feeling of the lack of something, the force of which primarily concerns oneself, and which may have little or no reference to the general fitness of things); illusion, the refusal to recognize that things are not as they should be, leading to the delusion that they are as one would desire them to be, when they are not so. (The last might now be called ‘wishful thinking’, legitimately; but this term, the Elves would say, is quite illegitimate when applied to the first. The last can be disproved by reference to facts. The first not so. Unless desirability is held to be always delusory, and the sole basis for the hope of amendment. But desires of the fëa may often be shown to be reasonable by arguments quite unconnected with personal wish. The fact that they accord with ‘desire’, or even with personal wish, does not invalidate them. Actually the Elves believed that the ‘lightening of the heart’ or the ‘stirring of joy’ (to which they often refer), which may accompany the hearing of a proposition or an argument, is not an indication of its falsity but of the recognition by the fëa that it is on the path of truth.)
“But do you know that the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other clearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things?”
“We are both Elves and Men, in Arda and of Arda; and such knowledge as Men have is derived from Arda (or so it would appear). Whence then comes this memory that ye have with you, even before ye begin to learn?”
“Ever more you amaze my thought, Andreth,” said Finrod. “For if your claim is true, then lo! a fëa [meaning something close to “soul”] which is here but a traveller is wedded indissolubly to a hröa [meaning something close to “body”] of Arda; to divide them is a grievous hurt, and yet each must fulfil its right nature without tyranny of the other. Then this must surely follow: the fëa when it departs must take with it the hröa. And what can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.”
“Therefore, I say that if this can be believed, then mighty indeed under Eru were Men made in their beginning; and dreadful beyond all other calamities was the change in their state.”
“They say,” answered Andreth: “they say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say also, or they feign, is a rumor that has come down through years uncounted, even from the days of our undoing.”
Surviving the recent death of my mother after her five-year battle with cancer, my father (an ordained Presbyterian minister who works as a college literature professor) asked me for some simple suggestions regarding how to make use of icons in his home where he lives with my four youngest siblings. Two of these siblings are twin girls still in high school, and two are grown children who stayed home to help with my mother and to support their younger twin sisters. Even more recently, after my father made this initial request, he told all of us about his own fight with a second round of malignant melanoma (a fight that just recently started up again with the removal of cancer-filled lymph nodes and that will now involve more testing and treatments to come). Although these notes are written with my father in mind, I’m posting my thoughts here because I want to include some images and also because I may want to revisit my thoughts on prayer with icons at some time in the future.
In his desire to start making some use of icons, my father is referencing a brief passage in a book that has meant a lot to him recently:
“Icons” have a millennia-long track record with the people of God and can be a powerful way of keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind. We might arrange them tastefully present in each of our living and work spaces, so that they are always present in our visual field. We can thoughtfully use them to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts and to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being. [Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart, page 113.]
This passage from Dallas Willard has several key words and concepts to understand and unpack. Here they are in six key phrases.
First, “a millennia-long track record with the people of God:” Before starting to use icons, it is good to start learning a little about the history and the theology of icons (and to keep this up indefinitely as you are able). Here is a simple timeline that will suggest some broad categories in which to search out more articles and books about the use of images by God’s people across many millennia:
God made humans in His own divine image (“icon”). Some Church fathers wrote that this is why humans were not supposed to make any images of God, because we ourselves are the image of God within God’s creation.
In the wilderness, God commanded Moses to build a tabernacle that was decorated with many images of living things, reflecting God’s heavenly throne room, the Garden of Eden, and all of creation. These included images of various kinds of angels as well as many plants and animals. God was not depicted because God was a spirit and was beyond or above (enthroned upon) His creation (not just one of the many wonderful things within His created world).
Each different Jewish temple built by Solomon, Ezra, and Herod followed this tabernacle pattern of ornate images—depicting living things from all parts of creation.
Jewish synagogues (as they developed during the exile and throughout different parts of the world in the Jewish diaspora) were also filled with images of living things as well as many of the great Old Testament saints and prophets.
From the earliest years, Christians adorned their churches and their graves with images of Jesus Christ, his mother, the martyrs, and other great Christians heroes (saints). Many early Christian churches (even house churches and churches in hiding, such as in the catacombs) looked like Jewish synagogues with ornate images. These early Christians also told stories of Greek-style portraits that were painted by Luke (the Greek doctor and author of two New Testament books) as well as of other early images that appeared miraculously, depicting Jesus Christ. As generation after generation of Christians wanted to write their own icons, many sacred patterns and expectations were developed and carefully handed down from one icon writer to the next, so that the key features of each icon would be protected and preserved in ways that would communicate clearly, again and again, across different times and places.
With the rise of Islam, there was a strong pressure to clean up the embarrassing variety of images and strange relics (bones and clothing of saints, etc.) that now filled and cluttered Christian churches and monastic communities. These sacred Christian things were considered very grubby, foolish, superstitious, and idolatrous by the sophisticated, elegant, rational, and tidy Muslims who strictly forbid the use of any images of God and who decorated their mosques with only the most beautiful and sophisticated geometric designs (showing the transcendent beauty of God in ornate yet orderly ways).
Some Christian emperors and clergy began to teach that the ancient Christian use of images and relics was barbaric and a corruption of the pure Christian faith. These were the iconoclasts who often cleaned up churches by force, pulling down icons to put them in storage, paint them over, or even destroy them.
In the Seventh Ecumenical Council, all the leadership of the churches around the Mediterranean world gathered and agreed that the icons (which were so beloved by the people of God) were not only permitted but were required by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Because of Christ’s incarnation, Christians should make images of His human person which, in its fullness, reveals God the Father to us. It was taught that icons of Christ and of Christ in His saints were an essential weapon against idolatry.
One of the great defenders of these decisions by the Seventh Ecumenical Council was Saint John of Damascus who suffered and saw great wonders in his battle against a second great wave of iconoclasts that came a while after the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
Finally, these holy images have helped people in their prayers (as powerful means of God’s grace) to come very close into the life of the Kingdom of God. So very many close and intimate experiences of God and of His saints (as well as so many astounding miracles) are associated with so many specific images. Many icons have their own special days of remembrance and veneration. To this day, some images also stream myrrh as a powerful testimony to God’s gracious and compassionate presence with us in our suffering. (Myrrh is one of the key ingredients used in the olive oil that anointed the dead body of Jesus Christ as His body was lovingly prepared for burial once all the hopes of His followers had been destroyed by his death.)
To recap, here are the key ideas in this history of how God’s people have used images in worship:
Images depict our worship as taking place within all of God’s creation (as we are made to lead, protect, and support all things in the constant and never-ending praise of our wonderful and loving Creator).
Humans are made in God’s image.
Images of Jesus should be made because He is the fully human incarnation of God the Son (or Logos) who took the specific human flesh of the virgin Mary (who is then literally the Mother of God).
Icons of Jesus Christ (as well as icons of Christ within His saints) are actually a necessary protection against false worship and idolatry (that is from developing abstract and disembodied “ideas” of Jesus Christ within our own minds, hearts, and imaginations).
Icons help to keep us focused on the historical and embodied Jesus Christ who:
actually was born, lived, and died among us,
rose from the dead to reign with His glorified body from the throne of God in heaven,
and ministers to us through the material stuff of creation within all of the sacraments of His Church.
Second, “keeping entire stories and teachings effortlessly before the mind:” This is true. Icons can convey complexity and whole story lines (multiple periods of time) as simply and simultaneously present with us in a transcendent current moment (a prayer that brings us close to God’s time which links together past, present, and future). However, it is also true that learning to read icons is as involved and intricate as learning to read any written text. In fact, all Orthodox Christian icons are properly said to be “written” and not “drawn” or “painted.” There are many resources for learning to read icons in general as well as in particular. It is always worthwhile to invest in some education regarding any particular icon that you are using or considering for use. A few key ideas to keep in mind are:
Icons are intentionally two-dimensional and somewhat abstract (with a variety of perspectives and instances in time incorporated into one image). Much has been made regarding reverse perspective (also called inverse perspective, inverted perspective, divergent perspective, or Byzantine perspective) within Christian iconography. This is supposed to make the viewer part of the image or to make it seem as if the person in the image is actually viewing the person outside of the image. However, this technique probably has more to do with ancient drawing techniques and understandings of reality than it does with any intentional attempt by Christian iconographers to include the viewer in the image or to make the image into a two-way window. That being said, there are certainly more recent Christian iconographers who purposefully make use of this ancient reverse perspective to help the icons achieve an “other worldly” sense and to invite those making prayerful use of the icon to stand in another realm with Christ and His saints. This can be a blessing and means of grace.
Another important aspect of icons is actually their frailty as human creations. Although they require practice to make and can be very beautiful in the eyes of anyone, they are not made primarily through technical skill or artistic genius. Icons are written primarily through prayer, and they often involve significant human errors or misunderstands while still carrying sanctity and truth as a line of devout connection to Christ or to those who displayed Christ with their whole life and person. In fact, the misunderstandings or errors in icons sometimes communicate meaning and truth of their own, or sometimes just reinforced the icon’s intent of helping to make otherworldly realities present to us.
In addition to reverse perspective and to errors, icons often contain events from different points in time within one compact image. It is as if a modern cartoonist combined multiple frames into one frame. Almost all icons that cover a story will have this feature. In most nativity icons, for example, the infant Jesus is typically reclining beside his mother in a stable cave while also being washed by midwives near the bottom of the image. Sometimes, the same angels are giving instructions all-at-once to Joseph, the shepherds, and the magi.
Third, “arrange them tastefully:” It is certainly critical to consult everyone living in the home and to be tasteful. There is no “wrong place” to have an icon with you in your life as you seek to pray without ceasing. However, if you grow more integrated into church worship with icons, there are some ways to consider arranging icons, over time, that might be given to you by the practices of our wise ancestors in the faith (rather than simply being a matter of taste).
An icon corner is normally near an eastern corner of a house so that you can face toward Jerusalem and toward the rising sun during your prayers (as all Christian churches have always done).
Icons are often located in a corner of a room to promote praying in your heart (not before men), to eliminate worldly distractions, and to allow prayer to be more concentrated or focused.
Often, in addition to the icon corner, a family will hang a small “portal icon” (usually of the Virgin and Christ Child) by the door, which is venerated by family and guests whenever going in or out of the house. If the portal icon or the icon corner is located so that it is visible when one first enters the house from the main entrance, an Orthodox Christian will traditionally venerate the icons before greeting the members of the house.
In addition to a main icon corner as a primarily focal point for family prayers (when said all together), there will typically be other places (within private bedrooms or places of study) with smaller icon corners for each individual member of the home.
Finally, icons are often paired or combined together in units that have a family connection. This is because the kingdom of God is truly centered on an actual human family. Every church altar space is lightly screened off from the congregation by three main icons arranged in the same way every time: Jesus Christ, his Mother, and his cousin John. In the Hebrew Bible, under several Davidic kings, the gebirah (“Great Lady”), normally the Mother of the King, held substantial power as an advocate with the king. We see this function throughout the Old Testament and also clearly at work in the wedding at Cana. It is good to have our vision of the heavenly throne room informed by these biblical images. Over time, it is healthy to have some simple reflections of such royal, familial, and traditional “church arrangements” within our homes. The Orthodox call the home the “little church.”
Fourth, “present in each of our living and work spaces and always present in our visual field:” This is a wonderful point. It is helpful (and a widespread practice) to have simple icons continually in view that are appropriate to each space where you live and work (including while at a computer or driving in a car). This is a support and reminder in our desire and our struggle to pray without ceasing—to have all that we do and think be an extension of our ceaseless prayers within the presence of God. In fact, God is always with us, and we are continually able to be present around His throne alongside the saints and angels who worship there without ceasing in the sunlight of His glorious presence.
Fifth, “to dispel destructive imagery and thoughts:” Not only do icons literal allow us to rest our gaze on the King and all the citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom, but the church has consistently experienced the fact that God uses these beloved images as powerful means of grace (in a sacramental kind of way or as “little mysteries of grace” as the Orthodox would say). This grace is tangible and powerful against evil. It is not our own work, but a gift of God as we stumble and struggle toward Him by means of every means of grace that God provides.
Sixth, “to see ourselves as before God in all levels of our being:” This phrase suggests that icons are a point of contact between different realms of reality that compose us and within which we exist. By “levels of our being,” I expect that Willard is referring to those that he writes about: the mind, will, body, social dimension, and soul. In The Abolition of Man, the entire point that C.S. Lewis makes is that modernity has made us into “men without chests.” At the core of our being is our heart (from the Hebrew or Semitic world) or our nous (a Greek word that is typically translated “mind” or “intellect” but that really indicates “our capacity to perceive reality directly without dependence on the physical senses” or we might say our “intuition”). This central area (or chest as C.S. Lewis calls it) rests between the rational thoughts of our brain and the desires, passions, or emotions of our stomach and other lower organs. Our ability to quietly perceive reality with a direct intuition (independent of both calculated thinking and of passionate emotions) should be our most basic capacity as humans and the capacity that we rely upon to give direction to our rational thoughts as well as to our emotions and bodily desires. However, instead, we typically live entirely within our brains or our bellies, and we have left our chests ignored, forgotten, and shut down. Icons can help us to recognize with (and in) our hearts that we are standing before God, at His throne, at all times. Icons can give us a place to rest quietly and patiently, listening for God in our chests. This is not achieved with our eyes or with our sharp mental analysis, but simply with a patient attention to God’s presence. All of God’s creation is made by Him to serve as a means of grace that can help to communicate His presence to us as humans. Icons of Christ and His saints are powerful means of extending this God-revealing quality of creation and of the incarnation into our homes and hearts.
Now to list a couple things that Dallas Willard did not say:
Icons are indented to be aides in the prayer and worship of Jesus Christ (incarnate, resurrected, and enthroned in heaven). This can be done as private, family, or church prayers. If we don’t use icons this way (at least at some simple level privately), we run the risk of abstracting them and of failing to benefit from them as a means of God’s grace.
Also, icons are intended for veneration. They are a tangible focal point and a means of expressing our commitment and love to Jesus Christ. As it feels appropriate and comfortable, it is a blessing to express this love in simple acts of kissing, kneeling, and prostration. This becomes much more understandable and meaningful at home when it is learned slowly (and practiced regularly) within the context of church worship services. However, it is a blessing to learn simple acts of veneration and love within private prayer and devotion even when this is not part of the practice within your church worship.
All this being said, it is best to keep everything simple and small at the outset. Once you begin to make use of icons in prayer, the practice tends to grow naturally.
Regarding what icons to consider starting with, I can give more thoughts if that is wanted. However, the key is really that you find icons that are meaningful and beautiful to you. Do some research and look at a good variety of options on your own. Ideally, the person making the icon should have a deep and prayerful respect for the long history of writing icons under the authority of the church. Here are two great places to purchase icons:
[Note on Christ the Bridegroom Icon at the top of this post: During the first service on Palm Sunday evening, the priest carries an icon of Christ the Bridegroom to the front of the church, where it remains until Holy Thursday. The three days of Holy Week it is there are dedicated to Jesus Christ as the central figure in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). This parable is perfect for the week leading up to Easter, as its clear message is to be prepared for the coming of Christ. From the evening service: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find vigilant.” (Troparion of the Bridegroom Service) Given the eschatological undertones of the services, it might be expected for the Bridegroom icon to show Christ in Glory, or at His Second Coming. Yet the Icon shows Christ humiliated by Pontius Pilate’s soldiers (Matthew 27:27-31). In a cruel irony, the soldiers mockingly worshiped Jesus and through insults proclaimed Him rightly to be the King of the Jews. Crowned with thorns, cloaked in scarlet, bound and holding a reed, this is how Christ appears in the Bridegroom Icon. The crown is a symbol of Christian marriage in the Orthodox Church, and the ropes binding Christ’s hand are a near-universal symbol of marriage. The reed used as a mock-scepter is a symbol of humility, of a person that does all possible to bend in service to others.]
Saint Athanasius is remembered today. Excerpts from On the Incarnation:
The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men. For one who wanted to make a display, the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for Him Who came to heal and to teach, the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it (not vitiating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it).
…You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.
…The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension—above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.
…Thus is happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.
…In ancient times before the divine sojourn of the Savior took place, even to the saints death was terrible; all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Savior has raised his body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ trample on it as it were nothing and choose rather to die than deny their faith in Christ. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.
…There were thus two things which the Savior did for us by becoming Man. He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.
Alasdair John Milbank (born 23 October 1952) is a distinguished contemporary Anglican theologian. In a recent interview, he shared these thoughts about the church and incarnation:
The Church is at once very very spiritual and very very concrete. The Church continues that sense of the Incarnation, and I mean that quite literally, that the church is a communion of souls, it extends to another world, but it also is the material practices, it’s also physical churches, it’s also sacred sites, it’s also the continual sacralization of space, its also parish boundaries. I mean, I believe in all this fantastic stuff. I’m really bitterly opposed to this kind of disenchantment in the modern churches, including I think among most modern evangelicals. I mean recently in the Notthingham diocese they wanted to do a show about angels, and so the clergy – and this is a very evangelical diocese – sent around a circular saying, “Is there anyone around who still believes in angels enough to talk about this?” Now, in my view this is scandalous. They shouldn’t even be ordained if they can’t give a cogent account of the angelic and its place in the divine economy. I want everything put back again, in one sense. I believe in the lot. Pilgrimages, you know, everything. The importance of sacred sites, the traditions about the unseen, even about there being other creatures hidden within the dimensions of this world. These are things which I think we should take seriously that exist in many different traditions. And I think that one of the problems we have is that we have the wrong idea about monotheism, you know, that of course there are gods and angels and spirits, and what have you, in incredible plurality. The point about the divine unity is that it’s beyond all that. Monotheism is not denying the gods. The most radical monotheists have always seen that. There are many spiritual powers, and there may be some place between the good and the bad among them like the early Irish theologians acknowledged. Who knows? The point is that the supreme God is one who transcends any of that kind of thing, so for me, the Church is supremely concrete and supremely spiritual and I think that there is a sense in which, in a fallen world corporeality can lead us into despair, it’s a site of decay. And we can only not despair if corporeality is restored. So without the Incarnation and without the resurrection, we are not really going fully to value embodiment as glorious.