Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Opacity and Idolatry

Idolatry is inevitable in an opaque world; true worship requires transparency.

Consider the veneration of icons by Orthodox Christians. If the icons are spiritually opaque – if they are only things in themselves, made by human hands with wood and paint, and seen in this way – then the lighting of candles before them, the prostrations, the kissing is all idolatry, for it is addressed to the work of our hands, to our own creation. But, if the icons are spiritually transparent – if, as is claimed, they are windows into heaven through which to glimpse our God who is beautiful in his saints, and are seen in this way – then all the acts of veneration are truly acts of worship to the One seen through the icons.

Anything that is opaque may become an idol. Some speak of Bible-olatry, and rightly so. The Bible, if studied as any other book and considered a thing and end in itself, becomes an idol. It is, in reality, a verbal icon, a textual window through which to see God and through which to draw his people into worship. It is either this, or it is an idol. The same may be said of Liturgy or prayer or fasting or works of service. The same may be said of our children or professions or possessions or pleasures. That which is venerated – in thought, word, or deed – in opacity, is an idol.

The danger is real; so, too, is its opposite. If the opaque is subject to idolatry at one end of the continuum, it is subject to contempt or disregard at the other. Nature, for example, is creation which has been rendered spiritually opaque by materialism. It is no longer a window through which to glimpse the everlasting power and divinity of the Creator (cf Rom 1:20), but a venue and means for indulging human passions. Once we studied a transparent creation to know God; now we utilize an opaque nature to please ourselves. Or, consider the homeless man. If he is opaque to us, he is a problem to be solved, a cause to be championed, a nuisance to be ignored. Only if he is transparent to us is he the least of the brothers of our Lord, through whom we may glimpse and minister to the Lord, himself. If opaque, my job is just a job; if transparent, it is a ministry. If opaque, my wife is just my spouse, there to help me. If transparent, she is my sister in Christ for whom I will sacrifice my very life, as Christ gave his life for the church. If opaque, everything is just as it seems and I am free to worship it idolatrously or equally free to disregard it contemptuously. But, if transparent, everything is sacramental, allowing us to glimpse through it the God who is everywhere present and filling all things, to whom alone belongs glory and honor, worship and praise.

And then, there is the matter of ourselves: opaque or transparent? We were – all of us – created to be living icons of God, made in the image of God, transparent so that God’s glory might be witnessed in and through us. Christians are doubly so – transparent by nature and by vocation. When we turn from that nature and vocation, when we turn to embrace an opaque world, we lose our transparency and become opaque ourselves. The struggle – the ascesis – of the Christian life is the struggle to become transparent and to retain that transparency, to be nothing in ourselves, to say with Saint Paul, “it is no longer I who lives, but Christ in me.”

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