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    Idols and icons

    Theophanes the Greek, icon of the Transfiguration (1408). When Jesus was transfigured, Peter wanted to take the moment and hold onto it by building dwellings on the mountaintop. But Jesus, who knew the difference between idols and icons, said no. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

    Paula Kirby used to be a Christian but now she’s not. A couple of weeks ago she published an article entitled Atheism is the True Embrace of Reality in Ireland’s Hibernia Times. Here are her opening words:

    Until 2003 I was a devout Christian. And I mean devout. I believed absolutely, and my faith was central to my life at that time. Various clergy thought I had a calling to “the ministry”; one even suggested I might have a vocation to be a nun. Now I am an atheist: the kind of atheist who is predictably referred to by religious apologists as “outspoken” or “militant.”  So what happened? What happened was four little words: “How do I know?”

    Kirby’s answer is, she doesn’t know. Why doesn’t she know? Because, she says, every Christian is different. More to the point, every Christian’s concept of God is different. In fact, nearly every believer believes in a God that looks a lot like themselves. She writes of her former Christian acquaintances,

    Some of us, on the basis of our relationship with God, knew him to be loving, compassionate, generous, always reaching out to us, pitying our mistakes rather than condemning them. Others, on the basis of their relationship with God, knew him to be angry, jealous, punitive.

    Some of us knew that God had more important things to worry about than our sex lives; others knew that human sexual impurity was deeply offensive to him.

    Some of us knew that God wanted us to respond to other people’s shortcomings with tolerance and forbearance and humility; others knew that he wanted sin to be made an example of, to be held up and publicly rebuked.

    Some of us knew that God was offended by conspicuous consumption when so many people had nothing; others knew that God showered wealth along with other good things on those of whom he approved.

    Some of us knew that God saw all religions as different expressions of people’s yearning for him; others knew that traditional, orthodox Christianity was the only route to him.

    Her conclusion?

    Knowing what kind of god someone believes in tells us a great deal about that person — but nothing whatsoever about the truth or otherwise of the existence of any god at all.

    This is not careful reasoning. Suppose 100 people have 100 different opinions about something, say New York City; or about someone, say Paula Kirby. Does this suggest that New York may not exist? That Paula Kirby may not exist? Of course not. It only points out the commonplace that people see things through different eyes, and that we tend to see ourselves everywhere. Or, to put it in Christian language, We all have planks in our eyes.

    There is also the possibility, missed by Kirby, that the people who call God loving and compassionate were made so by an actual loving and compassionate God. And maybe the mean Christians would be even meaner without God. There is also the possibility that God is a bastard and that the mean ones are the ones who are really in touch with the divine. In either case Kirby’s conclusion seems unwarranted.

    But for Christians these are not the most salient points to be drawn from Kirby’s article. The truth is, atheists like Kirby do Christians a great service by reminding us that God cannot be contained by any list of attributes, no matter how well thought-out or even biblical that list may be. Atheists are exactly right to reject God as a concept. Contemporary atheism, in its insistence on cleansing the temple of idols, is a great gift to Christianity. We ignore it or demonize it or fear it at our peril.

    Mirrors and windows

    Theologian Jean-Luc Marion, in his book God without Being, draws a relevant distinction between idols and icons. An idol, for Marion, is that which consigns the divine to the measure of the human gaze. It is not mysterious or unknown or evasive. The idol “never deserves to be denounced as illusory since, by definition [that is, by the word’s etymology], it is seen. It even consists only in the fact that it can be seen, that one cannot but see it. The idol presents itself in order that representation, and hence knowledge, can seize hold of it.” Here, the term gaze refers not only to the physical eye but to the eye of the intellect; therefore idols can be conceptual as well as physical: “When a philosophical thought expresses a concept of what it then names ‘God,’ this concept functions exactly as an idol.” And for Marion the idol acts as a mirror that shows us only ourselves.

    So we must be very careful when we call God “good” or “compassionate.” Because we know what these words mean when they are used of human beings, but not when they are used of God.

    Marion notes that evidences or proofs (for God’s reality) are not distinct from denials, for they both depend on the concept “God.” He writes, “Proof uses positively what conceptual atheism uses negatively. In both cases, human discourse determines God [pw’s italics]. The opposition of the determinations, the one demonstrating, the other denying, does not distinguish them so much as their common presupposition identifies them: that human [subjectivity] might, conceptually, reach God. The idol works universally, as much for negation as for proof. Only on the basis of a concept will ‘God’ be, equally, refuted or proved, hence also considered a conceptual idol, homogeneous with the conceptual terrain in general.” (What a wonderful final phrase — “homogeneous with the conceptual terrain”!)

    Whereas the idol acts as a mirror in which we really see only ourselves, the icon acts as a kind of window that reveals the divine. The gaze does not rest on the icon itself; it sees through it in a way that reveals the true character of the icon precisely by revealing the reality that lies within and beyond it. Idols and icons are not different classes of things but are two ways a given thing may function. At any given time or context the same physical artifact may function as an idol, as an icon, or as neither.

    The Bible serves as an excellent case study.

    Bible as idol and as icon

    To see an example of the Bible being used as an idol we need look no further than Grant County, Kentucky, where plans for Answers in Genesis‘s Ark Encounter park are progressing apace. Ken Ham, the president and CEO of the creationist organization, owns the same Bible as anyone else (give or take a translation or two). His insistence that the Bible be read as literally true and historically accurate (an insistence that is not itself biblical) means that his gaze stops on the words on the page. So if the Bible says that the world was created in 6 days, then 6 days it is. If the Bible says there was a first couple — Adam and Eve — then a first couple there must have been. If the Bible says that the whole Earth was covered in water, then covered in water it was. It’s all there on the surface, there’s no reason to look more broadly or more deeply.

    More importantly, Ham’s reading of scripture is thoroughly modern. Ham’s — and other creationists’ — equation of truth with factuality has no precedent before the modern scientific era. While it is true that earlier readers of scripture interpreted passages literally that we no longer do, they did not do so out of a principled rejection of clear counter-evidence. So when Ham approaches scripture he sees in it a reflection of his world. It is not just the shallow reading that makes Ham’s approach to the Bible idolatrous; it is its local and fading quality.

    The Bible may also be read iconically. Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk and priest, is a professor of New Testament at Emory University. Though Roman Catholic, Johnson differs from the teaching of his church on several points. One of them is the question of full communion for LGBT believers. He fully admits that, on this issue, the Bible is clear. Yet he flatly rejects the authority of scripture on this point. How can one do so openly and remain faithful? So long as the Bible is approached as an idol, it cannot be done. But if the Bible is understood iconically, one may come to see more than meets the eye.

    Johnson writes in a 2007 essay in Commonweal, “What I find most important of all is not the authority found in specific commands, which are fallible, conflicting, and often culturally conditioned, but rather the way Scripture creates the mind of Christ in its readers, authorizing them to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives.” Critics will say that Johnson is as guilty of idolatry as anyone else, that he is only seeing what he wants to see, that he is no closer to the truth of the matter than is Ken Ham. In fact, it may seem that he is doing a lot of work to avoid a direct reading of scripture. But he is not. He understands the command and rejects it.

    It may also be argued that his eyes are fixed on nothing but reflections of his own world. But they are not. Johnson’s reading is not only deeper than Ham’s; it is more universal. Forget the surface features — Johnson’s reading is iconic precisely because it is not new. There is ample precedent for his rejection of certain scriptural commands in the face of new realities, and much of it is ancient. Johnson emphasizes that, if the earliest Christians had taken an idolatrous approach to their own scriptures, the New Testament would never have been written. “We would not have the New Testament as Scripture if the first believers had not been willing to obey the living God disclosed in their own bodies more than the precedents provided by the writings — writings they also, by the way, considered holy and inspired by God.”

    While I disagree with Ham and agree with Johnson, please don’t be distracted by the issues of creationism and sexual orientation; this post is not about those things. I mention Ham’s and Johnson’s perspectives because they help clarify the difference in seeing the Bible as an idol and seeing it as an icon.

    Marion’s distinction is missed by atheists. But they can hardly be blamed for this; how can one understand how a window functions if one denies the existence of light? But from a Christian point of view it is good to know that the God-concept rejected by atheists — and represented by Kirby’s list of descriptions — is precisely what we also must reject. This does not mean we cannot encounter the divine; it only means that atheists, rightly understood, have been very busy lately cleansing the temple of idols. And, because these cleansers of the temple have missed them altogether, the icons remain.

    *Marion is one tough theologian to read and I’m certain I’m not doing justice to his understanding of idols and icons. Just so you know: I know.

    Comment Pages

    There are 3 Comments to "Idols and icons"

    • Brent White says:


      Wow! Thanks. What a helpful reminder! I’ve often said God is not a thing, but that means God is also not a concept (obviously). When I talk about “God” (scare quotes intentional), how often am I talking about the reality represented by the word, and how often am I talking about one thing among other things in the realm of the conceptual? See what I mean?

      Do we need to get rid of the word “God” entirely? Or does the fact that [ … ] was gracious enough to incarnate himself in Jesus change things for us? How does it change things for us?



    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I am pretty confused by Johnson’s position. He says, as you quote him, that New Testament authors were “authorized to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives.” This seems to be to be wrong in several respects. First, Jesus himself did not purport to “set aside” any of the earlier “written texts”; he said that not one stroke of the pen of the law would pass away until all was fulfilled. He said to the Pharisees that they were mistakenly claiming to follow Moses when, in fact, Moses had foretold of Jesus’ coming (“a Prophet like unto me”). It is true that Paul and the author of Hebrews stated that some of the Old Testament “rules” were no longer applicable, but this was only because they were “symbolic” and it was no longer necessary to rely on “symbols” when the “real thing” was before them. They had been “fulfilled” to that degree and in that sense, just as God all along intended–not “reinterpreted” as though they were somehow in error and now we know the truth.

      Second, it is inconsistent with scripture to suggest that the Spirit will lead us into truths which are contradictory to what the Bible itself says, and certainly what Jesus said. Jesus says of the Spirit: “He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears ….” John 16:13. He may reveal to us MORE; he will not reveal to us things which are ANTITHETICAL to what scripture says. I know of no scriptural basis whatsoever for Johnson to rely on for the proposition that the “Spirit” will lead us to see that some scriptures are “fallible,” and “conflicting.” Perhaps Johnson and others may see scriptures to be such–they should not lay those conclusions at the feet of the Spirit.

      Finally, I don’t see how Johnson can substantiate his views of what the Spirit does if he rejects the scripture which speaks of the Spirit in the first place. If I might use a picture, that strikes me as building a house on a foundation, then pulling out the foundation, and nonetheless expect the house to remain standing.


      • Paul Paul says:

        Hi Tom. Thanks for your note. I believe that Johnson’s point is that the scriptures had to be re-interpreted by the early Church. Fitting Jesus into the Messiah concept was not a straightforward business. Looking to the Hebrew Bible, then to Jesus, and Jesus’s Messiahship does not pop out in a self-evident kind of way. This is not to say that the re-interpretation is wrong or forced (but from many peoples’ point of view it is). It is simply to say that there are issues.

        One of them comes from Deuteronomy 21.22-23: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Now this has traditionally meant what it says, and so early Christians had a tough job of work convincing Jews that Jesus was not only not cursed, but was the Messiah. Early Christians had to reject outright direct commands such as this, commands that were part of their own scriptures.

        It may be clear to us that Jesus is Isaiah’s suffering servant, but that’s only because we’re not living in first-century Palestine. Such an interpretation was far from obvious in the first century, and even today there are lots of other possible interpretations, many of which make “more sense” in certain ways than the traditional Christian one.

        Also various OT passages — can’t recall them now — indicate that the Messiah will be a political figure, etc.

        In any case, that’s the kind of thing I think Johnson’s talking about.



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