Idols Old & New
S. M. Hutchens on the Second Commandment
When our Lord took Peter, James, and John, to a high mountain, there to be transfigured before them, appearing with Moses and Elijah in the shining garments of heaven, Peter, ever the impulsive disciple, suggested that three shelters be built in their honor. And so Peter, who appears so often in the Gospels as a kind of generic man who doesn’t understand the things of God, demonstrates in his action a fundamental and natural human trait: the desire to house the divine, to hold and domesticate, as it were, his god by at once honoring him and establishing him within something of his own making.
On the mount of transfiguration, Peter’s offer was refused by the voice of God, with the instruction that rather his Son should be heard and obeyed. It was the same command, now elaborated on with regard to the housing of the divine Son, that had been given on Mount Sinai years earlier:
It is not that God does not dwell with his people, or inhabit things that are made by man, for he occupied a temple, and was later incarnated in the womb of a human mother. Rather it is that the visitations of God are ordained by God himself, and are our own only in the cooperation of obedience—of which Peter, in his fit of pious enthusiasm (always to be mistrusted!) needed a sober reminder. Idolatry is not simply making our own gods, but principally in the presumptuous seizure of the prerogatives of God himself. We can only make a god by becoming a god ourselves, a god not as we were intended to be, but a monstrosity—which self-made gods always turn out to be. Very well, we say, and think of things that don’t tempt us. Kipling wrote, “The ‘eathen in ‘is darkness bows down to wood and stone.” But we don’t. We may be living in a post-Christian world, but even the post-Christians, with their crystals, mantras, and spirit guides, are as post-pagan as we are in this regard. The modern world by itself removes us two or three steps from the idols of wood and stone, and so we may safely regard such commands as useful signposts on the road to a higher conception of God to which all of us in this part of the world have attained—right?
The more serious-minded Christian will feel uncomfortable disposing of the commandment in this way, will assume that idols are a problem with him, and will start looking for them, frequently turning up graven images everywhere. Calvin said that the human heart was a veritable factory of idols. We sense this is true and will find them in everything that attracts our devotion, especially everything that we are tempted to love inordinately—our cars, our homes, our career ambitions, even our wives and children. All these we admit to being good in themselves, but are disquieted because we perceive them as drawing us from what we suspect is closer to the heart of God. At this point the sermon usually ends with an admonition to do better, we entertain a fleeting desire to become a monk or something, but settle for the resolution to spend less time polishing the car and more time in prayer. All this is good, but it does not strike the center, for it does not take proper account of either our real problem with idolatry nor the seriousness of the heathen, whose idol is not really analogous to ours. The heathen’s idol may not be something he loves at all, but it is precisely what the commandment describes it as being: a man-made thing recognized as sacred, and that he bows to and serves. It is to him the earthly portal to the numinous, to the unseen world he knows to be larger and stronger than the visible one, to the forces he cannot see or manage that see him and control his life—his birth, his death, his harvests, his wars, all that he is.
It is clear to the earnest idolator that he is not his own man and that he has no power in the world but that given by something greater than himself. In this sense his understanding is true, and he may be drawing near to the one true God. He has made the idol not necessarily because he likes it—beauty is less important than appropriateness of form—but in piety, and godly fear that the powers he serves may be held there and propitiated, that they may incarnate themselves at this meeting place he has made for them, and so show him their grace and favor. The idol represents a bargain with the spirit world, that at this place I will give it honor, and in exchange have a petitioner’s rights. Modern man is not as pious as his primitive counterpart. He has no idol but himself. This was the discovery of the Enlightenment, that, as Alexander Pope said, the proper study of mankind is man. So man has spent the last 500 or so years examining himself most intensely, and with increasing respect. It is himself that he honors, seeks to satisfy and propitiate. If there is any numinous world to approach, it is not outside himself, but within, self-defined, and it is there he seeks the solace of the universe as mediated through his own heart and mind. The outside world, which once contained the gods, is now simply a thing, a large field of objects in which he is the ultimate force.
What cannot be controlled now, will be someday, for with science and technology all things are possible—at least, who can say they are not? God or the gods must fit themselves into the cracks between our expanding knowledge and control, for it is clear that wherever our knowledge and control has extended, no God has been found. This is the situation with the old agnostic scientism. In the week I write this, Carl Sagan died. He was a notable scientist who believed in the universe, but not in God. When he looked at the starry heavens, what he saw looking back at him was not their Maker, but the mind and eye of Carl Sagan. The mind and eye of Carl Sagan, he believed, were made by the universe. The question of how such things could arise apart from the actions of a Maker greater than the universe made no sense to him. The universe is all there is, and the universe devolves upon the man who stood before it not as Maker, but Interpreter. Nor did he understand that the power of interpreting is the same as the power of making, and that in taking upon himself this power, he was making himself God. A small but effective god, whose worship consisted in hearing and obeying the desires of his own heart.
In a sense, however, Dr. Sagan was a representative of an old school that will lose its grip on the world as its members, bored with a self-defined and self-controlled existence, begin to summon wild spirits that don’t answer to their science. It is not the primitives, but the avant-garde, who are beginning to rediscover the gods—the extraterrestrials, the spirit guides, the wise, unembodied voices, the reincarnations of ancient beings who bear ancient wisdom. The gods (whom the Christians call demons) are beginning to show themselves, to take their places in the natural world, in the universe in which there still isn’t a God—just invisible beings that we didn’t know about before. They are not yet frightening, nor do they show themselves yet as particularly powerful. Just knowledgeable and anxious to help. We are still in control of our own destinies, and the gods are here to aid us, not to cast us back into the worship of benighted pagans, but to supplement our knowledge with theirs to bring in a new age where the material power of science and technology is combined with truly spiritual knowledge and control. What could be less relevant to the new age than the rumblings of the grouchy, old, Hebrew sky-Father that we should not make idols and worship them? We just wish to fulfill our destinies as human beings.
What has happened to us here in the West, not just the scientists and new age mystics, but the common man as well, is that we have apostacized. It is not as though we were pagans who were, by the grace of God, more like ignorant children than adults confirmed in rebellion. We are in a different category—of those who have made the Faustian bargain, who have been offered chaste knowledge of God and turned away from him, of the sort who are warned in Scripture that from that turning away there shall be no return. The greatest sign of this is that the idol we have turned to, the idol of the Self, is the most like the one true God, for it is made in his image. The idolized self is the most plausible and deceptive of all idols.
As I have said, it is not simply the scientist or member of the elite class that has this problem, it infects the common man as well, and is most clearly seen in his growing impiety toward God and authority, his sense that his opinion is as good as anyone else’s, and that everyone should treat his tastes as his rights. This attitude was perhaps less harmful when it was part of his protection against upper classes that were in fact no better than his own, and whose designs on the average man were worthy of suspicion. But the common man has undergone his own Enlightenment in that he no longer fears or cares much about God, a God whom he once knew (in the days when his children died in larger numbers and harvests weren’t taken for granted) he was obliged to subject his opinions and desires to, and who both created and had the right to remove the rights he enjoyed among other men. Somewhere we have crossed the line between men who are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” and rights that are mine simply because I am me, the man upon whom the universe devolves, whose job, warm home, television set, and six-pack—or whose government support—are his right for no reason but that he exists and is who he is. A miserable little god he is—this belching Buddha before his televised diversions, this august receiver of bread and circuses before whom the smoke of votive cigarettes goes up forever—but a god, and his own idol, nonetheless. I cannot leave this subject without saying a word on the last great controversy in the Christian Church, a controversy I do not believe has ended, and will perhaps not end until the Lord returns. I must warn you that my view will be regarded by many strong Christians as unacceptable, but I will nevertheless lay it before you here as the best I can manage at present on a dispute that begins in the Second Commandment.
You have perhaps heard that there have been seven great ecumenical councils of Christian bishops. The first and second were in Nicaea and Constantinople, which decided upon the critical question of how we are to describe the relations between the persons of the Holy Trinity. From them came the Creed we recite before the communion service. The seventh and last was convened to decide whether it is right to venerate—to kiss, to bow and pray before—images, such as of Christ, the saints, and the holy angels. It might seem that, given what the Second Commandment says, the answer is simply no, we should not. We are not to make images of anything in heaven or in earth. And even if we understood that this is not to be taken as an absolute ban on depictions of such things in graphic or plastic art—the Old Testament temples, which were blessed by God, had images of plants and animals in them—it would seem very clear that images of Christ or of the saints are the very things we should avoid venerating, since this would detract from the proper veneration of the living beings they represent.
But the matter is not that simple. If our Lord was truly a human being, which we believe he was, since he was God in human flesh, this means that he can be depicted. To deny the possibility of his depiction is an error, since it would be the denial of his existence as a true man. And not only this, there is a sense in which our Lord must be depicted. Worshipping him involves at least the involvement of an impression of him that we have in our minds, and impressions, being symbolic themselves, can be symbolized. The question becomes, how is it possible to worship God, through Christ, or to give proper veneration to the saints, without an image? St. Theodore of Studium, a great hero of the Eastern Church, even declares that “Christ is not Christ unless he be graven.” So we are torn, it would seem, between two mutually exclusive absolutes, the Second Commandment, which has not been revoked, and at the very least says we are not to make images of God, and the belief that God cannot be worshipped apart from human images of some kind. (I wish to put the matter in the starkest terms possible, for the nature of the problem must be made plain.) The issue was settled by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, also held at Nicaea, by the declaration that
That is it in short—the council declares that the honor (and, of course, it should only be the right kind of honor, for only God in Christ is worthy of worship) given to the image passes over to what the image depicts. The reason I cannot disagree with this is because I find it inevitable. I do not think that any Protestant who believes that the Bible is or even simply contains the Word of God can deny this out of hand, for we believe that God presents himself for our worship and obedience in the scriptural words, which, like the icons of the Orthodox East, are earthly symbols through which heavenly realities are apprehended. We may not kiss the Book, but we do venerate its words and treat them as truly sacramental, regarding those who deny or corrupt them as servants of evil. Who will say that the letters that symbolize the name “Jesus Christ” at which every knee shall bow are substantially different from a depiction of Christ? In the end, I cannot, and must believe at the very least that it is possible for the honor paid an image to pass to its prototype.
The problem that plagues the churches is this, that no symbol is found without interpretive authority, and no act of veneration takes place in a vacuum. If I see another person bow before an image of a bearded man and kiss it, have I seen an act of idolatry, or of proper respect for Christ or a saint? Should I respect the image, or want to see it broken and scattered to the wind? I may have my own opinions upon what the act is, but ultimately such judgments are not mine to make. They are the responsibility of the Church. And there is the problem, at least for people like me. Which church? The iconoclastic controversy in the eighth century prepared the way for the schisms that have racked the Church for the last thousand years, for it made the authority problem that always accompanies the image problem acute.
The great question that divides Christians is whose symbols, and this includes whose sacraments, are right and true—who has the right to decide what is a true image and when, which is the same as asking who is to say what a passage of Scripture means? The honor accorded to whose images passes over to the prototype? Ultimately this is the question of whose church is the True Church, for the Church is the repository and arbiter of symbolic truth, that is, symbols through which the truth is delivered to the faithful, whether they be words that are to be interpreted or sacraments that are to be consecrated or icons that are to be blessed. Since I do not believe that any one of the churches is without remainder the True Church, I do not believe the unitary authority of the Church expresses itself exclusively through any one of them, for all have erred. From our standpoint the authority is scattered and more difficult to see than it would be if the Church knew itself as a single mind and voice. This does not mean the authority is not present, for God is present with his people, and leads them into all truth, in this as in other things. But because of our stubbornness and the hardness of our hearts, we have been hard to lead, and don’t see as well as we should in this matter of symbols.
Surely God will show himself to his people in his own ways and times, which are many. But from our side, I see much confusion on one hand, and, on the other, unwarranted confidence that we have God by the short hairs and that the symbols we honor and control are his invariably occupied dwelling place on earth. Having faith in God in his Church means, until the churches are joined, having faith in the truth in every Spirit-blessed and occupied church—which is known, as the Christian is known, by its fruits and its signs—and yet greater faith in the greater Church that is in, with, and under the churches as they presently exist. This belief, which persists in spite of my acknowledgement of the greatness of the churches of Rome and the East, is what makes me what is called a “Protestant,” and is the one essential point of disagreement between the churches upon which all the others turn.
At the center of the matter of images is Christ himself, the man who is God, and whom it is right to worship, the one whom St. Paul called the “image (or ikon, or idol, if you will) of the invisible God.” Devout Jews and Muslims find our religion blasphemous because they take the Second Commandment seriously. God is God, and he cannot be comprehended, much less worshipped, in anything that comes from man, even if it is of surpassing excellence. We must say, however, that the prohibition of the worship of images of our own making brings us to the possibility of the worship of the image that was made not by us, but by God—begotten, as the Creed says, of God before all worlds. It is that making that we celebrate in the Christmas season—provided the Christ we worship is the Christ of the Church, and not of our own making. •
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Idols Old & New” first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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