It's pretty common for inquirers into Orthodoxy to be troubled by icon veneration, it seems like idolatry to us. I heard some statements about the practice that provided color, like, "Some people kiss photographs of loved ones; they don't love the photograph, but their affection applies to the person in the picture."
The second commandment says that making and bowing before images is wrong. It is a clear condemnation of practices observed in the cultures around ancient Israel. What made Orthodox icon veneration different from idolatry? What does the second commandment mean?
The explanation that I got was that icon veneration is different from idol worship because in idol worship, the actual idol is being worshipped, while with icon veneration, the icon is just a focus, and that honor passes to the prototype through the icon. That's not true, though: this distinction between honoring an object and worshipping a god, this distinction is also made in many pagan religions. It's not like people were commonly trying to confound an image with its prototype. If the second commandment were limited to making this distinction, it would be near-irrelevant. What could the second commandment mean?
In Chemosh is a god not an idol I write about this in more detail. This quote is relevant:
In Bible times, worshippers of Ba'al Hadad would make sacrifices in front of bull statues. No one ever thought that Ba'al Hadad was actually a bull; he obviously looks like a human being. However, everyone knew that Ba'al Hadad was powerful, and so are bulls, so by sacrificing to a bull statue, one might hope to manipulate Ba'al Hadad to access his power for one's own purposes.
St John of Damascus wrote a famous defense of icon veneration, but he was mostly writing to address iconoclasts, people who thought we should make no images at all. (The second commandment obviously doesn't mean that we should have no images, because the priestly code has many instructions about making images.) He makes several arguments, but the one I find notable is that he says that honor ought to be paid to icons, not worship, so worshipping an icon would be wrong, but honoring an icon of Jesus would bring worship to Jesus himself. St John emphasizes that worship does not belong to icons, only honor.
I thought that this explanation was interesting because the difference between sin and piety would be a matter of degree, honor an icon, but don't worship it. However, it sounded to me just like what one would say to justify icon worship if one thought icons shouldn't be worshipped, but one wanted to worship them anyway. Orthodox Christians light candles for icons, they wave incense before them, they bow before icons, and heathens treat idols in this same way. There isn't much that non-Christians do before idols that Orthodox Christians don't do before icons. The difference between sin and piety would have to be one of subtle internal spiritual orientation. I wouldn't expect myself to have this right orientation consistently enough for icon veneration to be safe. Does the second commandment speak to having a certain internal spiritual orientation? How is it possible to violate the second commandment? What does the second commandment mean, anyway?
I would wake up in the middle of the night, startled and sweating, and I would lie back down and try to sleep and I couldn't. I had bad dreams about the seventh ecumenical council, the one that affirmed icon veneration. In my dream, the bishops at the Seventh Ecumenical Council conspired to teach icon veneration, even though it's wrong. When I woke up, I didn't know if I should trust myself or the bishops. All of my reason told me that icon veneration is idolatry in disguise, but I also didn't want to trust my intuition. The bishops had studied theology, practiced intense spiritual disciplines, and had the support of the laity. Would you sooner listen to them or to me? On the other hand, Chico Marx said, "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?" I felt insubordinate not trusting these wise people, affirmed by the church, with the weight of scholarship and diligent spiritual practice behind them. Yet, I myself couldn't believe that icon veneration is what God wants.
I was comparing two stories about how icon veneration got to be accepted by the church. In the first story, icon veneration was always accepted by the church, just never mentioned in the Bible because it was so normal. However, this practice was uniformly supported by the tradition going back to the apostles; Luke, the gospel writer, painted icons also. The iconoclastic controversy was more about cultural responses to Islam than about any theological development. Icon veneration felt funny to me, but that was just because the Protestant Reformation left a strange aftertaste. I could trust that icon veneration is correct; it was accepted by the entire identifiable church at the end of the eighth century. If I could trust God to speak to me about little things, I could trust God to be clear to the whole church about something important.
The other story was that icon veneration is idolatry. It was alien to the apostles. Icon veneration was idolatry repackaged, brought into Christianity by converts keeping old practices, or Christians adopting non-Christian practices to be more accessible to outsiders. Culture can shift to make many wrong things seem acceptable, and Christian culture isn't exempt from this. Eventually, the whole church endorsed a wrong practice because the church is made out of human beings who are frail and prone to err.
If I believed the first story, I would have become Orthodox. It's internally consistent, but not the story I would expect if God were to intend icon veneration. It's suspicious that there's no mention of icon veneration being encouraged in the New Testament, there's minimal mention of the practice before the first Nicene council. Icon veneration seems so similar to idolatry, but the distinction between the two is not made clear in the scripture or in the writing of the early church fathers. If God really did intend icon veneration, I would expect him to assure me of this through scripture and consistent witness of leaders in the church, not just because a lot of people venerated icons for a long time. But if the second story were true, what would imply about the church, myself, and God?
I started to look into Orthodoxy because I had given up on scripturalism and was looking for something more decisive. Scripture alone led to divergent interpretations, and I wanted a sound way to know what God wants that isn't just someone's opinion—opinions are cheap. I wasn't happy with just listening to my own opinion, either; if I can't rest with another person's opinions, I can't rest with my own. I didn't think that scripture was bad or wrong, it's just that using scripture alone led to inconsistent readings of the Bible about important things. On the other hand, traditionalism, in Orthodoxy, and in Catholicism, too, led to enforcement of wrong practices. I would like to hold a compromise position, but a person who believes the tradition except for when he doesn't isn't halfway in the middle of the two approaches, he's a well-read scripturalist.
I wanted a good understanding of revelation. I posed this in terms of knowing doctrine. Revelation isn't just about logic and information, it's about function. I don't care if proper doctrine can be deduced from scripture alone because scripture hasn't been consistently understood. I'm more concerned with how well people actually know God than I am about a theory of revelation, of how they ought to go about knowing God. I think it was helpful for me to think in terms of doctrine about important, concrete things, like who should be baptized, how should church government be structured, and whether icons should be venerated.
I didn't care so much about these issues of doctrine, though, as I did about the world and myself. I didn't learn until I was 17 that a fifth of the world's population is malnourished. Poor people aren't just a few people in my neighborhood who need some canned goods, no, most human beings live in a state of physical hardship and suffering that I had never been close to being forced into. Also, I believed that to not know Jesus is to spend eternity in torment, and, because most humans aren't Christians, pain forever was what they would face, barring an intervention. On campus, I was seeing evangelism take no effect; I could count on one hand the number of conversions I saw in the college fellowship I was in for over five years.
I had to look to find a church where poverty and justice were spoken about regularly from the pulpit, and even then, it's rare for me to hear a Christian teacher speak with penitence for the role that Christians have played in injustice. Christians ought to teach with urgency and fear and hope about suffering and damnation that are imminent for most people, providing concrete advice on how to respond radically to crisis. I didn't just want a good understanding of revelation, I wanted to see what God was up to and know what he wanted me to do to help.
Advocates of religious pluralism often make reference to the story of the blind men and the elephant. One might feel the side of the elephant and say that an elephant is like a wall. Another might feel its tail and say that it's like a rope. Another might feel its ear and say it's floppy. They're all right, they're just talking about different aspects of the elephant. This is a critically incomplete analogy, because elephants can't talk. Is God silent, only allowing us to know him by groping for him in the dark?
There are different kinds of disagreements. There are differences of perspective or emphasis or phrasing, and then there are flat contradictions: icons ought to be venerated or they ought not, the church should be led by bishops or the Pope or a number of elders or by a congregational vote, babies ought or ought not be baptized.
Idolatry is a sin because people use idols to manipulate and misrepresent God. I started seeing other things that Christians do as idolatrous. People make up rules and say that God commands them—this is idolatrous. People cause harm to people and say that this is good because God wills it—this is idolatrous. People bargain with God, or they try to pray with a special technique, or they butter-up God with compliments that they don't mean, hoping to get what they want—this is idolatry. People say that scripture provides sufficient knowledge for salvation, but God didn't say that, the Bible didn't say that about itself, even; this is idolatry. When people give tradition the weight of divine revelation, this is idolatry, too.
The second commandment forbids making and bowing before graven images, and the Orthodox and the Catholics and anyone else who uses art as a proxy for God are guilty of this. We should be surprised if it weren't the case that many Christians are idolaters, if the church is anything like the ancient Israelite culture that it is supposed to be a continuation of. To judge by the Old Testament, the people of God live in cycles of idolatry, judgment, repentance, and deliverance. Why should God's people today be any less frail?
I don't think the Orthodox and the Catholics are the worst idolaters. Bowing in front of an image is a violation of the second commandment, but it doesn't seem to harm any human beings directly. When a sick person is told that she will get better if she has faith, she might falsely blame herself if she gets sicker. People with psychiatric conditions are told that God doesn't want them to take pills. Charlatans extort money from people who can't afford to give it, telling their marks that God will pay them back a hundredfold. It makes me angry when people give bad advice and false consolation, and support what they say with a "thus sayeth the Lord".
I like Orthodoxy. I like paintings. I like the icons of Jesus and the saints and the angels, they inspire me. I like the stories told in Orthodoxy. I've found ancient Christian spiritual practices to be helpful to me. My objection to Orthodoxy, and to Catholicism, is not to people bowing before marble or wood and paint, but it is to the establishment of the church as a proxy for Christ. The church is an image of Christ, but it isn't him. The church is imperfect, it makes mistakes, it is fallible—I'm convinced of this, and so I did not become Orthodox or Catholic.
After I first learned about the extent of injustice in the world, and the church's insufficient response, I stopped calling myself a Christian—I called myself a Jesus-follower or something, instead. I felt like I knew better than the rest of the church, that I could see injustice and care about it in ways that the rest of the church couldn't, which is such an adolescent attitude to have. Fortunately, that phase only lasted for about a week.
Revelation doesn't work. Protestants can't come to agreement on basic, important things, and the Orthodox and Catholics have converged on bad conclusions. I could privilege my point of view, and say that I have the insight to see through a mistake made by the ancient church, or that I have the insight to get good-enough doctrine for myself from the Bible. I decided that it would be immature for me to think that I have some sense of spirituality that most people don't have. When I stopped assuming that I'm special, I didn't think I could do much better at figuring out God than most of the people that I disagree with.
God is supposed to be all-powerful. The Bible could have been a little more specific on important things. The history of Christian theology made me despair over whether I could figure out God in a meaningful way, myself. In evangelicalism, finding out God's will for one's life, listening for the Holy Spirit's direction, praying for guidance, these things are normal. Yet, if I couldn't trust God to be clear to the whole church about something important, like icon veneration, how could I trust God to speak to me about little things?
I wasn't just looking for something to cross-stitch and hang on my wall. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I was horrified by global injustice, and that people around me were satisfied with the meaning they found in living comfortable lives. What did God want me to do about war and hunger and disease? What did God want me to do about helping people know him? I had thought that God had been leading me, inspiring me, giving me understanding, but maybe that voice was just my own little idol.