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Seeing me, seeing you 28 December 2016

Posted by Dr Moose in Faith, Life, Ponderings, Theology.
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I do not tend to think of myself as vain. Indeed I’m sure some would say that I could do with spending a little more time caring for my appearance. Nevertheless there are very few occasions when I find the need for a mirror, the one, maybe twice a week, when I choose to tame the stubble (taking care not to diminish the long goatee bread), the other, more regularly, as something in my line of sight when I brushing my teeth. At present I have precious little hair to manage, and have not succumbed to any additional beauty products. The only other occasion I have to see my own face is in the current practice of taking a weekly selfie to record the return of my charitably-cropped locks.

The point about mirrors, though, is that without the introduction of magic, they mirrorprovide a reflection. In acronymic terms WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get (and yes, I’m old enough to remember word-processing software where you needed to toggle into Printer Preview mode to discern what your work would really look like. It’s a far cry from the current heights of technology, and was arguably better, forcing the user to concentrate on content first, and appearance later, but I digress…). The mirror is that in which we see ourselves. Every blemish, mole, freckle, scar and wrinkle, whether we like it or not. It will not reveal our desires, reassure us verbally of our superiority, nor give hints to the future (as tales old and new would have us believe). In the mirror we see ourselves.

In the mere span of 36 hours or so, since I wrote my last post, we have seen yet another famous individual shuffle off this mortal coil. Carrie Fisher, feisty Princess Leia of Star Wars fame, succumbed to the heart attack she suffered a few days ago and has become another person to whom we can only apply the past tense (although, given the technological magic which was able to return the long-deceased Peter Cushing to the screen in Rogue One: A Star Wars story, we might not have quite seen the last of her yet. The image lingers, like a memory, even if Carrie doesn’t quite live here anymore).

For a previous generation the heroes of the day, the stars of the silver screen and so forth were often referred to as Matinee Idols – figures who were looked up to, seen as worthy of emulation as role models or archetypes. An alternative term we might have some across instead would be that of the Icon, understood as an image to be gazed upon, venerated. Both terms have religious connotations, although I’d be most interested to know how much of the population knows it, or the meanings. The term idol, certainly within the Christian tradition is a perjorative term, a negative one. It is the image or statue of a god or being, drawing attention and worship due only to God. As the Second Commandment puts it “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Indeed as far as the Exodus 20:4-6 is concerned, there are severe consequences for those who do such things. Idolatry is no idle matter.

iconThen there’s the icon, the religious image so common in the Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity. A well-executed icon is a true thing of beauty and a fine work of art – even if sometimes challenging to the sense of perspective. In the early centuries of the Church there were highly-lively controversies over them, and arguments raged about whether they should be treated in the same negative manner as idols and graven images. The value of the icon, as understood by this tradition, isn’t just that it is a thing of beauty, but is rather more. Instead the icon is understood as being a way to see the divine. Properly regarded we gaze not on human artifice but upon God, drawn into his presence in awe and worship. The challenge to perspective is not just in a formal artistic sense, although that often applies as the literal focal point is not what we would expect, but also to our human expectations and practices. The mirror reflects, the icon pulls us in.

I suspect that in many contemporary celebrities hold the attention not so much because they draw us in, in a sense of worship (although undoubtedly that occurs) but because they reflect our desires and longings. In them we see how we ourselves would like to be. A friend of mine, currently transitioning from male to female, has commented how as the “secret girl” in her childhood Carrie Fisher was a role-model for independence and plain-speaking in the face of prejudice against both her gender, and later, against her publicly-acknowledged mental health issues. In her there was a refusal to accept both sexual objectivisation and social stigma. The celebrity as mirror becomes the inspiration to say “if they can do that, then so can I.” (And maybe, just like all mirrors it can function in reverse too, “if the incoming President doesn’t have to wear a hat, why should I?”, or far worse examples of negative conduct. “If they can get away with that [dubious act], then I can also.”)

Perhaps here too we have an approach to engage with a more theological question, or at least to recognise it. (I suppose I should therefore say, “Warning: Theology in Progress!” I should also add the caveat that this is an ongoing process of writing, not a formed, rounded and complete answer. I’m exploring as I write, from memory. References can be provided on request.) In mainstream Christian thought to be a Christian isn’t simply a matter of professing faith, but also understood as being somehow indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Following the example of the experience of the first believers at Pentecost, and in accordance with the promises of the risen and then ascended Jesus, is the belief that somehow the Spirit of God resides within each believer to empower and enable (not overpower and control) the Christian to behave in a manner similar to Christ, and in doing so give glory to God. Sometimes Christians, especially those of a particular protestant way of thinking, can find this belief difficult to square with the fact that there are many people, of other faiths or none, who live lives that clearly display a character that conforms to Christian norms and expectations: lives that might well constitute a demonstration of the love of God as understood by Christians. There’s no denying it. It’s downright disconcerting (and often annoying, and even confusing, especially of these exemplars practise a different faith or belief system. Then again, to be challenged about your beliefs and suppositions is a good and healthy thing).

There is, however, a second and equally orthodox stance, that humanity is made “in the image of God”. This isn’t to be understood as saying that the Divine possess two arms, two legs, a face etc., but that our human qualities of love, compassion, intellect etc are themselves qualities of God, our creator. Given that, perhaps we have a resolution, or at least an insight towards a possible way to square the circle. It comes back to where we started, with mirrors and icons, that which reflects and that which draws in. Perhaps the life that reflects the fullness of what we can be, that “made in the image of God” is that displayed in our celebrities and heroes at their best. The negative traits may still be present, even writ large, but they still encourage us at human level. Indeed they may still help us to perceive something beyond, even if they themselves don’t acknowledge it.

And the other side, the role of the icon?  Perhaps it’s more about opening the way, making the vision clearer? After all, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is not the same as possession but augmentation. Not a takeover, but an assistance. We are not compelled to do anything. The power-steering on my car doesn’t do the job for me, it merely makes it easier. I still need to turn the wheel. Those of us who remember, who’ve been driving decades rather than years, will remember the effort required before power-steering and power-brakes. It wasn’t impossible, just harder, and the technology isn’t an auto-pilot.

However, I also do not have an auto-pilot and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve lost the thread (or the plot!), so I’d better stop there. Hopefully at least some of that makes sense (and possibly demonstrates that my blogging is still very much something that happens rather than being planned. Then again, perhaps the best examples in life stem from being open to inspiration, however we define that, whether internal or external rather than the outworking of a clear plan…)

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