A Caution to the Sacramentalists

(I feel embarrassed to be writing from my experiences; but I suppose I’m some sort of embodied, located person, so here goes…)

The other day I attended choral mattins at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The music and setting were greatly used by God to stir my heart to admiration of and desire for Him.   The ceiling of the place is fantastic, with amazing mosaics (I assume) that seemed almost Byzantine.  I’m not wholly an iconoclast (at the moment), so I appreciated the images of Christ’s life, as well as the Christ Pantocrator returning the congregation’s gaze from the far end of a succession of domes.  However, I don’t how to venerate and not worship an image (do you?), so I spent a good bit of the service with my eyes closed.

Afterward I took in the Courtauld Gallery, and the Manet, van Gogh and Gauguin paintings (so famous I recognized them) made me weak with Stendhal syndrome.  Foolishly homeopathic, I made my way to the British Museum.  How amazing, that place (pace the kid who, seeing the crowd around the Rosetta Stone, asked “What’s so good about that?”).  I was moved in a way I couldn’t quite understand by the Elgin marbles and Assyrian statuary.  The objects inspired awe, not just because they were ancient or meaningful, but also because they were tremendous pieces of art, of handicraft, of man’s creative mind and hands.  Could they be idols?  Could I, or perhaps, could Christianity, or Judaism, or God, condemn such pieces?

I’m curious as to how we assess idols today.  I suppose we don’t need to, for the most part, as we never encounter a physical object one openly worships as a god; and so we don’t find ourselves asking whether an item might go from piece of art to idol or from idol to piece of art.  Perhaps this can happen when an object is removed from its setting and worshipers.

More basically, however, it struck me that God’s Old Testament people were quite distinct in their remove from most imagery.

I also was curious as to how careful the sacramentalism is of many of my Evangelical-plus friends (that is, those who are or were Evangelicals, but supplement its supposedly sparse theology and worship with other parts of the Great Tradition).  We appreciate art and wish not to miss out on the blessings of any part of God’s creation.  What I want to know, however, is if we can distinguish (or, to be practical, simply if we distinguish) an icon from artwork.  Do you know what it is that makes this materially constituted bull a bad thing?

Perhaps I’m wondering if there’s a distinction to be made between being influenced by a theology of the sacraments and simply having the famed ‘sacramental worldview.’  I’m not sure it’s OK to have the latter uninformed by the former.  Who am I to be speaking on this point?, but it seems like the sacraments are about God’s irruption in the physical world in a very particular way, a way that in no way can yet be applied to all of materiality.  The special coming of the Spirit upon bread and wine, oil and the conjugal couple might not be an endorsement of all art.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Stephen  On January 26, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    Those are a lot of questions. I’ll try to answer a few.

    1. On the difference between an icon and an idol, I find Jean-Luc Marion to be helpful in the first section of this book: http://www.amazon.com/God-Without-Being-Hors-Texte-Postmodernism/dp/0226505413

    In short, an idol is that which draws us toward itself or back into ourselves, whereas an icon draws us out of ourselves toward God. Anything, hypothetically, could function as either, but obviously some things tend more toward one than toward the other.

    2. I think that that might clear up some of your confusion about the difference between veneration and worship. Someone who venerates something properly does not place their ultimate trust in it, but in God; icons are not omnipotent and all-loving and such, but God is.

    3. Some of your discomfort (and mine) with images, statues, &c. comes from the fact that we come from a culture that was especially influenced by a certain iconoclastic strand of the Reformed tradition. Very few other cultures (including ancient Israelites – consider the Ark of the Covenant and all the myriad gold, silver, bronze, and other statues, images, and implements used in their worship; even medieval Catholics never got as carried away as Leviticus and Ezekiel, among other texts, indicate that the ancient Israelites did) have ever removed images so far from worship. Of course, the invisibility of YHWH himself became important, but you can’t act as if the incarnate Son of God, Jesus, and then the arguments of John of Damascus never existed. Also, for a less image-based perspective, see Platonism.

    4. You’re on to something about the relationship of idolatry to social and cultural setting. I’m sure that you’ll recall something about shopping malls.

    5. A materially-constituted bull is not a bad thing. If people foolishly believe that it represents a divine being who can save them from famine, that is obviously a bad thing. If it serves to glorify the Creator, that is a good thing. Although the worship of El/Elohim (singular) was probably derived from the worship of a bull god (“toru El” of Ugaritic/Canaanite fame), it came to mean something much different; and it was eventually revealed that the true image of this God was Jesus of Nazareth.

    6. I agree that a “sacramental worldview” isn’t the same thing as the Sacraments of the church(es). I’m not sure why that distinction implies opposition. Isn’t all of creation a sacrament in a lesser sense – not that it can bestow immortality and incorruptibility, but in that it is a gift from God and a sign of the creating grace that precedes nature (as de Lubac read Aquinas)?

  • gestalttheology  On January 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm

    1 & 2 – I’m aware of Marion’s heuristic. I’m unsure of the practical possibility of venerating without worshiping. I’m especially dubious of this being done by Evangelicals untrained in the use of icons.

    3 – I certainly hope I don’t act as if Jesus never existed (and the arguments of the Damascene are always before me when I think about these things). I’m concerned about our eagerness to ‘see’ God in this life, at this time between Incarnation and Parousia. I’m thinking at the moment of 1 John 4 and the assertion there that no one has ever seen God (4:12). Now, John believes Jesus is God (5:20) and he is eager to speak of Jesus’ Incarnation as real and physical (1:1), but for some reason in his discussion of love, he points to our growth in God coming in neighbor love and not in veneration of icons or other forms of what we usually term ‘worship.’

    5 – Indeed, materiality is not bad. Not sure what’s so good about the bad thing from which good things come.

    6 – I’m not sure I’ve opposed the two.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: