Being an Orthodox Christian means kissing a lot of icons.
Many Christians shun icons as some kind of “idol worship.” This is an old argument, going back to the eighth century when some Byzantine emperors decided to do away with images of Christ and the saints. Over about 150 years of debate, the church decided that to do away with icons was to deny the incarnation of Christ. As St. John Damascene wrote, to oppose icons is to be Manichaeans. Thus Jaroslav Pelikan said that the council that reinstated icons was, in a way, reaffirming the two natures of Christ. Matter could be venerated because Christ made matter good again. (Find a more “artistic” perspective on icons and a bit more history here.)
Despite the prevalence of “gnosticism lite” in the church – our delusion that all we are is disembodied souls – I think at some level most Christians who oppose icons sort of “get” the reason why we do it. I suspect only a handful of extremely cooky parents would criticize their kids for kissing a picture of Jesus they had just colored. Some even buy their kids this kitschy thing. Formally iconoclastic parents would say their kids are showing affection for Jesus “through” the material object. That is basically what we Orthodox believe about icons. Really, it is what we believe about all matter.
Thus we call icons “windows to heaven.” An icon is an image of the kind of life we long for in Christ’s kingdom. It is the marriage feast of the Bridegroom come to earth, at least a little bit. All things find their fulness in the source of their existence. Thus even inanimate objects are most themselves when they point away from themselves toward the divine and transcendent. (This does not make the thing pointing (the “sign”) expendable (i.e. something we don’t need); a STOP or ONE WAY sign does not refer to itself, and it is not expendable, either.)
The way I look at icons and the material world in general make it hard for me to be a very good capitalist. The material objects in our consumerist society point away from themselves as well, but not toward the kind of life we long to have. They point to a life that will, by definition, always escape us. Capitalism feeds of unfulfilled desires and eternally deferred hope. (It is a sick epectasis.) For me at least, the liberal market does not seem very much like the kingdom of God.
To be continued Thursday, May 3.
Question: Can a person be a Christian and a capitalist at the same time?