The Christian Scandal in Dialogue

A Return to Sacred Images

For centuries, three signs have encompassed the convergence of cultures around the Mediterranean. The cross, the star, and the crescent identify the intermingling of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic civilizations. In our day, a fourth dominant sign has emerged, at least in the West. It is the sign of secular nothingness. This “sign” stands for the abolition of the other three, assuming a sort of immunity from them as it asserts itself as intellectually and culturally superior. It maintains that it is not only the culture but the one and only rational culture, a culture of the cult of humankind. In our postmodern age it has come to permeate human life, so that one often must straddle a cultural fence in schizophrenia, assenting to faith while functioning in a secularized society severed or a least hostile to religious influence.

On September 12, 2006, in Regensburg, an Italianized German called secularism’s bluff. In his address, Pope Benedict XVI pinpoints secularism’s false objectivity as it holds reason hostage and presupposes its incompatibility with faith. Moreover, Benedict calls the bluff of those within the Church who seek something similar in relegating religion to morals rather than doctrines. This he names a process of “de-Hellenization” or the eradication of reason from faith. His point is that, if there is to be any cultural dialogue not only among the sons of Abraham but also across the divide to the secular world, Christianity, for its part, must remain steadfast to its Greek integration of faith and reason, manifested in its conviction that God’s own reason and word, his logos, became incarnate as the Son of God.

Benedict’s speech was met with a cacophony of reactions, especially with respect to his use of a Byzantine emperor to articulate his point. Rarely, however, was the questions asked, Why a Byzantine? Surely another supposed bigot from another unenlightened era could serve a similar purpose. However, I believe there is something deeper lying underneath this figure. Indeed, the use of a Byzantine in an essay on de-Hellenization is, well, quite appropriate. Merely setting foot in the Hagia Sophia one awes at the Byzantine achievement of integrating faith and reason in communicating the human with the divine. As pontiff of the West, Benedict, I believe, was pointing to this “second lung” of Christianity as one not to be forgotten. Our lingering image of Byzantium is the triumph of its iconography, and it is this aspect of Eastern Christianity upon which I wish to expound.

Amid a sort of iconoclasm in the West in the past half-century, Christianity, or at least Catholic Christianity, has compromised its authenticity in abandoning or at least hesitating from its tradition of sacred images. Yet intercultural dialogue depends upon genuine respect, and respect comes not from obscurity but clarity to one’s identity. Thus, as the religion of the Incarnation, embracing the mystery of the logos assuming flesh, Christianity must uphold and restore the prominence of sacred images if is to gain credibility with other religious cultures and avoid appearing as just another façade of creeping secularism. Christianity is and should be a scandal among the three religious signs, embodying not just a sign, but an image of the invisible God who became incarnate, the splendor of the Father in Christ, the true Imago Dei. In this article, I wish to identify iconoclasm as a particular aspect of the process of de-Hellenization within the Church and remedy it through a Byzantine approach. It is to make a case for the restoration of sacred images, i.e., icons, statues, mosaics, carvings, stained glass and paintings. My emphasis is a return to the creedal anticipation of the “resurrection of the body” as made manifest in our art, the mirror of our identity. Thus, we shall first examine the bizarre iconoclasm of our day, proceed to recall the theology of St. John of Damascus to free us from this quagmire, and thereby relate this to Benedict’s call for authentic dialogue.

The Confusion

About forty years ago, Loraine Casey walked into her small parish church in rural North Dakota to discover the high altar missing. It was simply gone. No warning, no reason, no discussion. For a woman who had prayed her whole life in front of the altar’s crucifix with its humble adornment of small statuettes, the absence of the church’s centerpiece, replaced by a bare sturdy table, was agonizing. The side altars were also missing, along with Mary and Joseph. The scapegoat for such an abomination became the faceless edicts of a distant “Vatican II,” which came to figure a sort of culprit in her mind.

From the Eternal City to this prairie outpost, the state of the liturgical reforms in the past half-century can only be described as utter confusion. The questions swirling around the removal of sacred images in the Catholic world, especially in the West, progressed from a dumbstruck “What happened?” to a more earnest “Why?” The answer concocted to both questions I call the “doctrine of distraction,” a pseudo-teaching that has become almost sacred itself. Its adherents maintain that sacred images are dangerous distractions from the Mass. They obscure the deeper spiritual meaning behind the Eucharist. Both little Johnny in the pew, as well as his father, get lost in the figures of saints and angels soaring above them, failing to concentrate on the ambo and the altar. A misinterpretation of the “noble simplicity” of Sacrosanctum Concilium became the license for a fresh coat of whitewash.

Today little has changed. In 2007 we are not only confused but strangely bipolar. In the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, for instance, the cathedral’s interior directs one’s gaze to a magnificent baldacchino below mosaics of the sacraments. At the opposite end of the same boulevard, the new altar of the renovated seminary chapel purposely directs attention away from the apse frescos toward a new organ where once the portal stood. More often than not, church renovations trump restorations and continue to cleanse sanctuaries of statuary, paintings, altarpieces, and stained glass. Alcoves stand bare. Crucifixes, pietas, monstrances, and stations of the cross are remnants left for auctions and eccentric art collectors. Even in the erection of new cathedrals, bare, chic designs neglect thought of color and image. Almost everyone knows of at least one old gothic church razed for the construction of a cube (to use a Weigelian image). An inescapable discontinuity emerges between, say, St. Patrick’s in New York and Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. Our architecture may be advanced, but do we advance our faith? We speak no longer of domus Dei but of a “gathering space.” The fear of the distraction from the Lord ’s Supper has ironically shifted our focus away from the heavenly banquet in the New Jerusalem to the guy sitting across from us. Do we worship in a house of God or a house of man for God?

Perhaps one could go further to ask, Is our age one of neo-iconoclasm? Some would contend that this is too severe. Regardless, contemporary Catholicism is at least iconophobic. It hesitates in fear of offending the doctrine of distraction. Although we have not gone to the extend of the imperial iconoclasts of the 6th century, smashing icons and torturing monks, the rejection of sacred images in past decades reeks of a similar elitism. Decisions to whitewash or minimize images, such as experienced by Mrs. Casey, are usually the incentive of a zealous pastor, an esteemed liturgist, or a forgotten committee, rarely the consensus of the parishioners. It is a top-down approach, the assurance that “we know better than you.” Oddly enough, Emperors Leo III and Constantine V took similar stances. The desecration of the apse mosaic of the Theotokos in the Hagia Sophia was, after all, an imperial decision. In the West, Charlemagne and the Libri Carolini adopted a similar, albeit less severe, position. Yet the notion of sacred images as the liber pauperum, the book of the poor, holds a significant degree of truth. Icons have always enjoyed the devotion of the masses over the learned. The icondules were irate monks, not court bureaucrats. So it is today that the cult of icons has caught our attention once again, as John Paul II notes this in his apostolic letter, Duodecimum saeculum (1987). Oddly enough, however, we do not know why they are good, why they should be loved, if they are to be venerated and not hidden in a closet. We need a reason for our faith tradition and its iconography. For this, let us turn to a Byzantine, St. John of Damascus, for a theology that, as Benedict asserts it should, inquires into the “rationality of faith” and provides an antidote to our iconophobia. Here I do not attempt to reinvent the wheel but rather point to the fact that the tire is flat, and St. John offers the method to patch the hole.

A Ressourcement to the Byzantine
In On the Divine Images, St. John of Damascus counters the ramped iconoclasm of his day. As a monk in Palestine, John encountered the abolition of icons in both the Empire and Islam. The iconoclastic controversy centered on a similar concern for distraction, only its focus was on the nature of worship. Let us recall the arguments of the iconoclasts. First, the prohibition of “graven images” in Ex. 20:4 is to be heeded. Likewise, Paul’s command to worship God in “spirit” (Phil. 3:3) points to God’s invisibility and incomprehensibility, whereby the spiritual is superior to matter. A true image, moreover, must have the same essence of Christ if it is to be venerated, which the icon certainly does not possess. Finally, icons tend toward the heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches, confusing and dividing Christ’s divinity and humanity in depicting one nature to the detriment of the other.

In contrast, John constructs his apologia for icons upon Dionysius the Areopagite’s notion of creation as a theophany as well as St. Basil’s distinction that “the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the hypostasis [or person] represented.” John develops these theologies to lay the framework for the Second Council of Nicea in 787, articulating both a distinction of types of worship as well as insisting that the Christian must venerate icons in light of the Incarnation.


In regard to the iconoclasts’ first point, John asserts that God’s command was against idols and not strictly images, such as the seraphim of the ark. Likewise, with the coming of Christ, “we have received from God the ability to discern what may be represented and what is uncircumscript.” John’s argument echoes that of Benedict, that through Christ, God’s logos, Christianity is a religion of faith and reason, and reason helps direct our faith. In response to the iconoclasts’ second objection, John is not trepid but rather boisterous of his joy in the Incarnation:

[N]ow when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God.

This leads us to John’s third counterargument, that there are “different degrees” of worship. One “bows down before” the icon – a proskynesis – that venerates the sacred image with the honor reserved for kings in Scripture, while absolute worship or latreía (adoratio) is reserved for God alone. Likewise, veneration of an image passes through to its “prototype,” that is Christ, the image of the Father. The icon is not a stationary block of painted wood; it is a window into heaven. The window, however, does not depict a human nature, but the person of Christ, the union of both his divine and human natures. The icon thus portrays not the nature but the hypostasis, the personhood of Christ as articulated at Chalcedon. All the more, in communicating the person of Christ, the icon is not only licit, but required. The Christian is compelled to worship the union through veneration of its image, for, as John quickly adds, “The man who refuses to give this image due…honor, is an upholder of the devil and his demon hosts…” Instead, the icon “brings us understanding” of the union and our salvation. It is indeed “necessary” for understanding the invisible, that we “are able to construct understandable analogies.” It is this understanding which leads to the reason behind our faith, which is to set us free in our worship of what we cannot see. Thus John exhorts us to, “Fear not; have no anxiety; discern between the different kinds of worship.” These words resonated at Nicea after his death.

Another man known to exhort the faithful to “fear not” is the late John Paul II, who revisited the iconodule triumph in Duodecimum Saeculum, marking the anniversary of Nicea in 1987. He insists that for Catholics, “Church art must aim at speaking the language of the Incarnation and, with the elements of matter, express the One who ‘deigned to dwell in matter and bring about our salvation through matter’ according to Saint John Damascene’s beautiful expression.” The Polish pontiff further advances the theology of icons as a needed testament to human dignity in a secular age:

The rediscovery of the Christian icon will also help in raising the awareness of the urgency of reacting against the depersonalizing and at times degrading effects of the many images that condition our lives in advertisements and the media, for it is an image that turns towards us the look of Another invisible one and gives us access to the reality of the eschatological world.

This eschatological world is none other than the communion of saints partaking in the same adoration of Christ. Paragraph 135 of the U.S. bishops’ Built of Living Stones states: “Since the Eucharist unites the Body of Christ, including those who are not physically present, the use of images in the church reminds us that we are joined to all who have gone before us, as well as to those who now surround us.” Sacred images provide the context for the Eucharistic feast, calling to mind the presence of something eternal. The Church is not only here but beyond.

Bavaria and Beyond
Benedict concludes his Regensburg address with an invitation to a dialogue of cultures based on an integration of faith and reason. What do sacred images have to do with cultural dialogue? If we pay attention to Benedict’s use of a Byzantine and his warning against de-Hellenization, both inside and outside the Church, then the tradition of images becomes essential to the face of Christianity in any dialogue, especially with other religions.

We must ask the question, What have we inherited from Byzantium? Benedict’s answer is the marriage between faith and reason. In the West, he fears, this synthesis is being culturally submerged in a flood of secularism. Yet, if one were to point to an explicit borrowing of Byzantium, let us look none other than to the domes of the Hagia Sophia and St. Peter’s. Some architects postulate that Michelangelo adopted the Byzantine prototype for what became the largest dome of Christendom. Both ring out with the joy of the incarnation in mosaic iconography. Today, however, this intrinsic aspect of our religious identity has given way to an apologetic secularism within the Church in the form of iconophobia, a fear of displaying sacred images so as not to risk offending other religions. This is not a mere matter of ascetic tastes. Rather, confusion abounds in distancing ourselves from images, one that, at least according to Byzantines such as John, risks our understanding of faith, and thus the rationality of our faith. It furthermore threatens our very soteriology, a much greater risk. We loose sight of the creed, our fundamental belief in the resurrection of the body. We forget the goodness and reasonableness of creation. We forget that Christ came to redeem us in our entirety and that in his resurrection he makes creation anew. Art can convey this; bare concrete cannot.

At this point we come to the heart of the connection between an authentic Christianity and fruitful dialogue. What were those supposedly preposterous words of the Byzantine emperor again? “[N]ot acting reasonably [literally, without logos] is contrary to God’s nature.” As Benedict explicates, the emperor speaks of God’s logos, which means “both reason and word – a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication…” For the Christian, this is Christ. Our mission as Christians is to communicate this reason of God, and, in light of the Byzantine theology of John, we can justly see that the sacred image, literally, the eikon, serves this very purpose. We communicate the doctrine of the Incarnation and the redemption of creation through sacred images. Thus Benedict reminds us that “between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exist a real analogy.” This, moreover, extends to Christian worship, which he describes as “logic latreía – worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason.” To be in harmony with the Word is to recall His Incarnation. Thus, this harmony is found in our faith in sacred images, communicating the reality of God’s logos incarnate, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Here we are brought to what Benedict calls an “encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion,” and based on the Incarnation, Christianity’s faith is enlightened through images.

Thus we come to a fork in the road, a choice between submission and scandal. If the Church follows secularism’s push toward a de-Hellenization, to an exclusion of reason from the divine, toward an unintelligibility of her faith, she cannot meet other faiths in “genuine dialogue.” As Benedict notes, secularism is incompetent of such dialogue, for “[a] reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures.” Without images, we too are deaf to the divine and succumb to an empty, moralistic religion. We become a body without Christ. Unless we our authentic to our religion we cannot be authentic with other religions. We become hollow, like the cult of secularism, confused about who we are. Our sign, the cross, is to be more than a quaint plus sign; it is to be an intersection of faith and reason with the human and the divine. It is to be the scandal, in the words of St. Athanasius, that “God became man so that man might become God.”

Paul G. Monson is a graduate student in theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.