An Excursis: Images, Graven and Other

A figure in my garden

It started with the Buddha.

Our neighbors in Silver Spring had inherited him with their house, sitting in his quiet, centered way among the ground-covering ivy.  They decided they didn’t want his companionship and, recalling my appreciative remarks upon first seeing him, asked me if I’d like to adopt their surplus piece of statuary.  I readily accepted their offer.

My gladness at acquiring the figure went beyond the fact that my gardening already had an oriental flavor.  In addition, the tranquil figure of the Buddha in meditation had positive spiritual meaning for me.  Not that I am, or ever was, a Buddhist.  But over the years I’d had some meaningful encounters with the Buddha.

One of my favorite places on earth is the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.  So much beauty in so tiny an area– a beauty, moreover, that weds the bountiful creativity of living nature with the artistry of the human hand and eye.  Miniature trees trained in the bonsai way, delicately set by small pools of water, creating the illusion of immense space, as if we –standing on the path– are perched upon some high hilltop taking in a distant vista, composed with perfection, of towering wind-shaped trees standing by a mountain lake.  Within the compass of a few square feet, the garden can deceive the eye into a sense that it is being granted a panoramic vision of the natural cosmos.

By one of the higher paths of the garden sits a great cast-metal Buddha, its eyes blank as if peering inward, its hands posed in ritual gestures bespeaking inner harmony.  I have chanced upon this Buddha on a few occasions when my mind and inner heart were especially open, and have felt that I received from this more-than-human-sized figure some intimations of larger truths about human spiritual possibilities.

And once, more than twenty years ago, I visited the Garden carrying my first-born son, Aaron, still less than two, in a pack on my back.   As we approached the Buddha, Aaron’s face lit up and his little legs bounced on the pack frame as he pointed excitedly to the Buddha.  “Byduh!” he cried out.  “Byduh!”  Which astonished me, as I had no idea that he could have learned the name of the Buddha even enough to have distorted it in that fashion.   But then, following the line of vision his little index finger was indicating, I saw that he was calling my attention to the Buddha’s outstretched hand.  In that hand, upon a filament running almost invisibly from the statue’s thumb to its little pinkie finger, was a spider building its web.  A “byduh.”

When I figured out what it was that evoked all of Aaron’s excitement, I laughed delightedly, noting how –to both boy and spider– the figure of the Buddha was merely a physical thing on which more interesting dramas of life could be enacted.

So when my neighbors offered me their Buddha –smaller than the one in Golden Gate, Indian in style rather than Japanese, made of concrete instead of bronze, but still a Buddha– the current of valued memories like these carried me swiftly to my affirmative decision.

By the time we moved out, subsequently, to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the Buddha statue had become part of our world, if not of our family, and so of course we took him with us.  Our new place was a chalet-style house approached by a curving driveway coming down off the top of a ridge, and on the uphill side of the driveway, just across from the house, the rising slope had been shaped into a kind of amphitheater with trees and flowers growing where the play-goers’ seats would have been.  Except that it was these plantings that were the show while we, standing below, where the stage would have been, were the ones to do the watching, as the composition of the garden evolved with the seasons.  It was in this amphitheater that the Buddha was to find his new home.

I place the Buddha under a crabapple tree at the bottom level of the amphitheater, which was elevated about two feet above driveway level.  Under a tree– a fitting place for Buddha to sit in his meditative silence, in emulation of the legendary sitting of the historical Gautama under the Bo tree.  Over the next few years, in that shady location, amid the lilies of the valley and the Virginia bluebells, our concrete Buddha came to sport a growth of moss, like a green blanket, covering his crossed legs.   Buddha and the garden seemed thus to meld in a lovely harmony.

 

A companion for Buddha

Seeing Buddha in the garden gave me pleasure as the years went by.  Each autumn, the wind would sweep swirls of oak leaves around the amphitheater, to congregate behind the Buddha once the winds wound down.  In big snow-storms, sometimes he’d sit there buried up to his chin, with a snowy cap on his head;  and sometimes he’d disappear altogether.  Sometimes in the spring, some little plant would take root in the bits of debris left sitting in his folded hands.  And in all seasons, he provided a pleasing focus for the eye, a human artifact in visual conversation with the ground plants and the taller trees.

I started to think of what other figure I might add to the garden that would give me similar delight, both aesthetic and spiritual.  So many spaces in our garden called out for something to pull them visually together.  And I was taken with this new genre of cultivating, amidst the gardens, images of the human spirit.

And there was something else that was pushing me toward the idea of finding a friend for Buddha.

People advertise their beliefs in a variety of ways.  Some put bumper-stickers on their cars.  Some have crucifixes on their walls.  And among the visitors to our house in the mountains on the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley, there were those who imagined that some, like us, place a Buddha in their garden.  “Oh, so you’re a –what is it?– Buddhist.”

I hadn’t intended the Buddha as a message to the rest of the world, but I came to understand that inevitably it had that effect.  And as a message, it evidently was easily misinterpreted.  To me the Buddha was an expression of a spiritual value, but it was not the equivalent of a crucifix on the wall of a Catholic home.  Buddha represented for me one of the beautiful images of human spirituality, but the path he embodied was not, for me, the path.  A valued piece of the world, but not my worldview.

The various great cultures of humankind have all sought to discover the real, the true, the sacred, the holy– all, in my view, with some measure of success.  An elephant being groped by the blind men, as the Sufi image captures it, seems to me an apt way of visualizing how the various religious traditions stand in relation to the transcendent truth toward which the diverse religious traditions strive.

Well, perhaps not entirely apt: the emphasis in that image is upon the blindness of the seekers, and on the way their various attempts to comprehend the nature of that enormous ultimate reality fall thoroughly short of conceiving of its elephanthood.  “It’s like a rope,” says the one holding the tail.  “No, like a pillar,” says the one in contact with the leg.  But one could as justly emphasize the beauty as the inadequacy of the various depictions.  Here is Buddha showing one of the ways that a human being can become a more whole, more holy being.  And here….

Yes, if my garden statuary inescapably would be giving a message to my friends and neighbors, perhaps I could find a way to convey some of that sense of the beauty of human spiritual diversity, that sense that there are indeed many mansions in the house of the holy.  So, if a solitary statue of the Buddha led people to jump to the conclusion that he represented my religious affiliation, perhaps I could usefully complicate the picture by finding a fitting companion for the Buddha.

So I wondered, what other figure was there who would, like Buddha, give me pleasure to see standing in my garden and who –together with Buddha– would stretch across the cultural horizon in a manner suggesting the idea of the larger elephant, or the celebration of spiritual diversity, that were at the core of my own religious perspective?

In part my choices were circumscribed, of course, by the marketplace in garden statuary.  In my area, at least, the choices were rather limited.  Other than gnomes and birds and such, in the realm of figures with specifically religious or spiritual meanings, the choices were confined to several Christian options.  If I’d wanted a replica of the statue of Buddha I already had, I’d not have known where to turn.

Despite the limited choices, I was content.  For one thing, to the extent that my interest in the statue was in what I would communicate with it to my neighbors, the iconography of Christianity was certainly what was called for.  The Shenandoah Valley is most emphatically a part of Christendom, and if perchance I happened upon a figure from some other non-Christian tradition, the line suggested by the two points of Buddha and the newcomer would not serve to stretch the minds of the viewers.  An infidel is an infidel, and the compounded alienness would not convey any notion of the many mansions important to me.  But if I included a figure that gave acknowledgement to Christianity, while at the same time showing my appreciation of the Buddha, such a combination would better imply the larger space I intended, a space in which it is possible to appreciate the viewer’s religious world without being contained by it.

I was also content with my choices because they included a figure that pleased me as much as the Buddha had.  Not the figure of holy Mary, mother of God, blessed among women.  Though she seemed a loving figure, in my own mind she seemed too fully bound, in her meanings, to Catholicism.  Maybe my judgment on this was askew, but I just did not see her as sending out spiritual vibrations –the way the Buddha does– that transcended any particular set of religious dogmas.  But with another figure it was different.  I mean St. Francis of Assisi.

St. Francis seemed a figure more connected with a certain spirit of relationship –with humanity, with nature and its creatures, with values deeper than material wealth– than with any rigidly defined system of beliefs.

I’ve always liked him.  What idealistic youth wouldn’t like the fellow who’d step out of his rich clothes right there in the church to let his father know that he was not going to be owned and beholden to what he didn’t believe in?  What lover of the natural world doesn’t find appealing the Francis on whom the birds would perch.

So, with spring beginning to come across the valley, I had identified the companion I wanted for the Buddha.  My birthday comes in April, and so in accordance with the ways of my wife’s family I conveyed to my sister-in-law, Tanya, the specifications of what would make a much-appreciated birthday gift for me, and I was soon in possession of a new St. Francis, complete with happy pigeon.

My old statue continued to sit in its shady spot, while the new fellow –still white and unweathered– was given a spot over to the left and somewhat higher up where he could bask in the afternoon sun.  With stones gathered from the woods, I constructed a flat outcropping from the hillside and embedded some other rocks in a fan shape around it, creating something of a grotto effect.

When I was done, I called out my wife, April, and together we looked over the garden scene in its various dimensions, and declared it good.

 

The Matter of Idolatry

As the months wore on, Francis settled in a bit, losing a shade or two of his preternatural whiteness.  I became very fond of the two as a pair –thinking of them as a pair even though they did not seem to interact together, nor were they even facing each other.  And in time, as is my wont, I became playful with their names.  I started calling the two “Frank and Bud.”  (An equally playful friend said it sounded like a hot dog and a beer.)

Perhaps such playfulness would be faulted as irreverence, or even sacrilege.  I would not put such transgressions –if transgressions they are– past me.  I like my holy figures –even my Gods– with an element of levity mixed in.  That points up what, for me, is a problem in the tradition of the West:  our Gods take themselves so seriously.  I can’t think of one place in the Bible –in Testaments Old or New– where either God the Father or His Son says something that’s intended to be funny, or ever even laughs at the humor of another.

The kind of God I’d like to worship as the Creator of the Universe would find at least some occasion to declare “Let there be lightness.”  And I’d feel a bit closer to a Savior who honors and embodies a sense of humor, which seems to me in our daily life so important a part of our salvation.

But the laughing God is more readily to be found in the East, it seems.  So even if I felt reasonably secure that neither Frank nor Bud in person would mind my playfulness, I was somewhat careful about which of my neighbors in Christendom heard the nicknames with which I’d dubbed these august figures, these heavy concrete objects.

The fact is, of course, with many of these neighbors I was on the wrong side of the line in having religious statuary at all.  Though it may have been my intention, in bringing St. Francis into my garden, to reach out to connect with Christian spirituality, the variety of Christianity that predominates in my part of Virginia, on the fringes of the Bible Belt, takes very seriously, in a way that the Catholicism of the Franciscans does not, the second commandment of the ten God handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai:  “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”

Indeed, the same avoidance of “graven images” characterizes the religious tradition of my own ancestors, as I had occasion to contemplate when I began thinking of a possible third figure to join Frank and Bud.  The grandson of four Russian Jews who emigrated to America near the beginning of the twentieth century, I decided that, though the specific beliefs and observances of my ancestors were not central to my own religious and spiritual life, I wished that I could find some icon –as wonderful as the statues of Buddha and St. Francis– that would be emblematic of my organically-felt connection with that ancient tradition.

But there is none.

It is not that there are not wonderful figures –figuratively speaking– and wonderful stories on which the gravener of images might draw, so to speak, in creating an icon.  I think, for example, of Rabbi Hillel who was asked to distill the essence of the Torah –to state the heart of Judaism– while standing on one foot.  Hillel replied, “Whatever is hateful to thyself, do not do to your neighbor… The rest is commentary.”  A beautiful idea, uttered before Jesus preached his Golden Rule, that helps to show the ethical bond that connects the two strands in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The standing on one leg bit was, presumably, just a way of making sure he kept his discourse short, but it offers a striking visual image that could have been made into a visible reminder of a great story and of an important moral idea at the heart of Judaism.  “Could have been,” I say, because it’s an image I’ve never seen.  I’ve seen dozens of big-bellied Chinese figures of the “happy…,” and a number of depictions of St. Christopher carrying on his back someone who wasn’t heavy because he was his brother.  But I’ve never seen a statue –or any visible rendition– of Hillel standing on one leg.  It’s an icon that never was developed.

Make no graven images.  So, Judaism is a religion with a six-pointed star, just as my Protestant neighbors don’t mind putting crosses on their churches and sometimes even on the hills of their farms near their country roads.  But no statues.

Looking at the Buddha and the St. Francis in my garden –innocent, in my eyes, and benign– I wonder what’s the reason for this prohibition on graven images.  Why should the most sacred text of Western civilization, at one of the two most climactic moments in the whole Judeo-Christian narrative, depict the Almighty Creator of the Universe commanding His people not to make such figures?

At one level, it seems reasonable to imagine that in this prohibition on graven images, as in a number of the other prohibitions articulated in the early books of the Old Testament, the religion of the Hebrews was defining itself in contradistinction to the religions of their neighbors.  Just as the passage forbidding cooking a kid in its mother’s milk points to the ritual culinary practices of neighboring peoples, so also the proscription against graven images reflects the prevalence of idols among the other religions to which the Hebrews might be exposed.  “We are a people apart, a chosen people,” the subtext of the Hebrew Bible often runs, “and therefore our practices will stand in stark contrast with those of others.”

But that kind of explanation is at best quite incomplete.  That the antipathy toward “idols” is rooted in a different level from that against cooking a kid in its mother’s milk is suggested not only by its greater salience as one of the Ten Commandments but also by its greater persistence in the millennia since.  Though it is still the case that Orthodox Jews, extending the “mother’s milk” clause, will not eat a cheeseburger, Protestant Christians have no such compunction.  Yet Protestantism, as it broke away from Catholicism, resurrected the austerity of ancient Judaism in turning away from religious statuary.  And Islam, too, that other great offshoot from Judaic monotheism, has insisted upon avoidance of graven images.

Clearly, something fundamental is at work here.  And the Biblical text offers some clues as to what it might be.  Declaring himself a “jealous God,” the Lord explicates his commandment against graven images by saying, “Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.”  God, here, is evidently regarding the graven images as potential competitors.  The commandment against graven images is immediately preceded by the statement, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

  1. He’s jealous, as he says, and He wants no competition.  Maybe He’s apprehensive that the graven images would be those of the competing religions in the neighborhood.  Even if they’re not, perhaps He assumes that a graven image –and He forbids making likenesses of anything in heaven, earth or ocean– would inevitably tend to gain the status of an alternative deity.  No other gods before me– nor after me, either.

(The monotheistic God’s insistence upon excluding all competing claims is part and parcel of that unrelenting seriousness of His.)

But, if it’s just a matter of competition, why would the commandment be delineated with such a broad brush?  Why couldn’t the Lord have forbidden only graven images of any deity other than Himself, allowing for the creation of images that were to remind the followers of the Lord God, Yahweh, Creator of the Universe, and recent deliverer of the Hebrews from bondage in the land of Egypt?

Here I think we come to the crux of the matter.  This God does not want his followers to imagine that anything they can visualize can do justice to His mystery, His nature, His power.  He seems to want their minds to be turned away from anything so concrete as a visual image, a palpable representation, something you can hold and touch.  This is the same God who, in an earlier encounter with Moses, will not grant a view of His face but only a fleeting glimpse of his back parts; no one, He says, could survive a vision of His face.

The commandment against graven images, then, appears at its root to be an effort to prevent people from having illusions about their comprehending the force that governs the universe.  Do not believe that your minds can encompass the mystery of God.  Do not believe that anything you can picture would represent a likeness of the Lord.  Do not believe that anything you can create can possess any of the Almighty’s power.  And do not imagine that, by manipulating any kind of representation of the Holy, you can control the workings of the One whose providence controls you.

In the cosmos presented by the religions of the idol-worshippers, divine power was more diffuse, and its embodiments easier for human beings to grasp.  Monotheism, by contrast, consolidates all of the divine into one power wholly incommensurable with the human scale.  The prohibition against graven images seems part of the leverage employed to elevate people’s concept of the Divine.  Monotheism wants to blow people’s minds, and to do so it refuses to give them anything concrete to cling to.

 

Images Beyond the Graven

I have my own talk radio show here in the Shenandoah Valley, and I use it to explore with callers a great many of the basic questions of meaning and value that we face in our lives.  This being, religiously, a very conservative area –indeed, largely fundamentalist– many of these conversations readily move into specifically religious territory.

On one recent program I received a call that reminded me of the continuing force of the commandment against graven images; it was that call also that led me to the thought that idolatry can take more forms than the fundamentalists recognize.

During a previous call on that program, I had mentioned Buddha and Christ in the same sentence, using both as exemplars of the deep value of compassion.  Shortly thereafter I picked up the phone with my usual “You’re on the air,” and heard the familiar voice of a fundamentalist minister in the area who calls in to many of the shows.  His customary role in his calls is as the guardian of the established Truth of the Holy Scriptures.  In this instance, he challenged me:  “How can you liken the Living God to a mere graven image?”  (And he didn’t even know about my concrete buddy sitting cross-legged beneath my crabapple tree.)

I replied that Buddhists do not confuse the statues of the founder of their religion any more than Catholics think that the figure nailed to the crucifixes in their cathedrals is the son of God who was crucified near Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago.  Which prompted him to reprove the Catholics for having such figures in their churches, in clear violation, he said, of the second commandment.  And then he returned to complain that, in suggesting that Buddha might have something to offer, I was potentially endangering the souls of listeners, to substantiate which proposition he quoted the scriptural verse:  “I am the way, the truth, and the life:  no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

But that wasn’t really what he called to talk about, he continued.  And then he rejoined an issue that had been touched upon earlier in the program:  the question of how homosexuality should be regarded, and how society should treat homosexuals.  He quoted the relevant passages in Leviticus and pronounced the case closed on such questions of whether or not sexual preference should be understood as a moral (or, rather,  immoral) choice, and whether society should be punitive toward or accepting of those who vary from the pattern of heterosexual marriage.

It is frequently the case that conversations I have on my radio shows stay with me, providing me with a kind of text for continuing contemplation.  And so it was with that exchange with the fundamentalist minister.

Later that day, as I was out in the garden trimming away some dead creeping phlox from around Frank’s feet, looking at myself through that minister’s eyes brought me to ask myself, “Am I an idolator?”  I imagined he’d find the presence of the graven image answer enough, but I thought the heart of the issue not so quickly reached.

Did it not hinge on what meaning the figure had for me?  If “Don’t ‘bow down thyself’ before the image” was the heart of the matter, it seemed clear enough that I was indeed no idolator.  I attributed no divine powers to these pieces of statuary.  They were, rather, like visual messages to me, an illustration of something whose meanings come from the stories and histories I know.  A reminder of something worth bearing in mind.

As I firmed up the dirt under St. Francis’s feet, I felt impatient with that minister, who’d convict me without concern for the spirit of that law, simply on the basis of the letter.  And then I laughed a triumphant chuckle, realizing that as the attorney for the defense, I could establish that the letter of the law forbids us to make graven images, and I’d not participated in the “making” of either of my concrete friends.

Then, putting my lawyer’s tricks aside, I pondered further the minister’s fierce clinging to the letter of scripture.  In all my exchanges with him, his positions were articulated through the quoting of Biblical passages;  and these quotes were presented not, it seemed, because they articulated his point with especial eloquence, but because he seemed to take it as a given that if a line in the Bible said it, there could be no further dispute on the point.  And it was precisely that use of the letters and words from that book as conversation-stoppers that bugged me– not only with this minister, but with other fundamentalist Christians with whom I’d been having public conversation for lo these many years.

The “conversation-stopping” was a positive good to them for, as they saw it, the truth had now been established and doubt and uncertainty could be dispelled.  It’s a position expressed by a bumper-sticker, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”  But the stopping of conversation that was a solution from their point of view was a problem from mine, believing as I do in the value of continuing inquiry– a belief that I hold because I believe also that the Ultimate Truths are not within human power ever to possess wholly.

But the fundamentalists claim with utter certainty that they possess such truth.  Their scriptures are the “inerrant Word of God,” words that give a clear, accurate and adequate picture of God Almighty and our relationship to Him.

And then it struck me:  isn’t that way of holding sacred texts itself a kind of idolatry?

“An accurate picture” of God.  What does it mean to claim such a picture?  By what means can it be verified which, if any, of the images presented of the divine is accurate– except by the circular reasoning, encountered frequently in my discussions with “true believers,” that “I know the Bible is true because the Bible tells me so”?  In the name of the “incontrovertible truths” of their diverse sacred texts, Christians have launched Crusades, Muslims have put infidels to the sword, and just a few years ago Hindus razed a mosque in India and killed thousands of Mohammed’s followers.

When it comes to “images” of God, some are graven in matter like wood and stone while some are engraved as words of ink on paper.  Is there any reason why it is only the visual images with which the proscription against idolatry should be concerned?

 

Idols of Mind and Matter

It’s easy enough to imagine why it would be the visual, rather than the written, image that would arise first in the history of human idolatry.  In the beginning is the picture, the sensory, the material.

This priority characterizes the evolution of life:  creatures dealt in sensory images for eons before the kinds of images we call stories or, still more abstract, ideas came into the minds of living things; indeed, it would appear that life existed in the form of bodies very long before anything it would make sense to call a “mind” first arose among the creatures of the earth.

And in this, human ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  Our children begin with picture books, with words at first a thoroughly subordinate element, only gradually displacing the in-your-face visual image with the in-your-mind imagining.

We begin in the world of the senses, and we continue to say, “Seeing is believing.”  So it would be natural for the visual image to constitute the first temptation on the path of idolatry.  On the path toward the recognition of cosmic mystery, the capacity to believe without seeing is a step forward.  Part of the human challenge is to grasp patterns that are larger –and realities that are more abstract– than any physical “thing” can reveal.  And perhaps this is part of the reason that our religious traditions so often elevate the mental and spiritual above the sensual and material.

But that doesn’t mean that the images in our minds are ever so accurate or adequate that we are entitled to say about them, “that settles it.”

I return to my thoughts about why idolatry might be an important spiritual error.  If the true nature of the sacred realm far transcends our understanding, it’s best that we not mistake any image we can grasp for the reality itself.  If our true spiritual challenge is not to command the force that rules the universe but to discern it and to align ourselves with it, it’s best that we do not wield our images as if we knew for certain God was on our side and willing to follow us.

If such are the essential errors of idolatry, they would seem as much a danger for the one who clings to and wields an image made of words as for the one whose image is made of stone or wood.  Don’t we see that texts stop inquiry?

We need images.  What else can we work with?  The point is not that some genres of images are benign while others are damaging.  The question of idolatry lies in the way the images are held and used.

Cleaning up around Buddha, I see how these visual images are helpful to me.  Thousands of years ago, in the history of my people, the material figure was banned– to make room, I am speculating, for some profound mental images of the Divine to develop.  But now for me, the product of that culture countless generations later, it is not the body that threatens to overpower the mind, or the concrete to crowd out the abstract, but the other way around.

My challenge is continually to ground myself:  and so, I split my own wood, I bake bread and grow plants, and I place visual signals of spiritual states to visit me through that sensory route.

But whatever the kind of image that helps move us closer to the heart of the divine mystery, the mystery itself remains unsolved.  Can we live with that?  Not easily, apparently.  The urge to have something to “hold onto” is intense, and it can be satisfied as readily with texts as with statues.

 

The Image Revealed

Oh, the fundamentalist would say, the images (as you call them) in our texts have been revealed.  These words are divinely inspired.

Does the idea of revelation really settle the matter of what’s an idol and what’s not?  Not that I can see.  I can see no reason why a visual image could not be revealed as well as one that expresses itself through words.

My own experience with “revelation” –I thought somehow I was being shown something– led to my writing a book.*  This presumably revelation-based text occasions two thoughts pertinent to the question at hand.

First, although to me that book feels like a sacred text, to that minister it would doubtless be heresy.  Which would seem to require him to admit that even false images can be revealed (or at least be experienced as revealed by those who convey them).  Saying “Thus saith the Lord,” even in total sincerity, would then be no guarantee of accuracy.

Second, I come to a more roundabout recollection that raises in my mind serious questions about the accuracy of the image-in-words that Western civilization has regarded as divinely revealed.

Some years after my own book was published, I read an extraordinary book by the man who’d been my editor.  Seeing him previously as “my editor,” I’d not discerned fully how great were his own independent gifts.  But here he was –Jack Miles– the author of God:  A Biography, a work that looked closely and clearly at the narrative of the Jewish Bible –the ineffable made concrete by stories– to uncover the emerging portrait of God as a character.  His rendering of that portrait is so fair and text-based that the book got favorable reviews in traditional religious publications.

But it is difficult to imagine how anyone could believe the Being thus depicted to be the Creator and Ruler of the universe without being terrified.  Despite the mysterious fact that generations have read these texts and declared the God portrayed in them to be all-Good and all-wise, Miles’ responsible and patient delineation of this portrait reveals a frightening, far from admirable Being.

Is this image the self-revelation of Almighty God?  I can hardly claim to know for sure, but it seems to me far less likely that this is an accurate image of the Creator than that creatures who are flawed and injured, like us, are wont to produce images that reflect their own defects and wounds.

Human contamination seems inescapable in whatever images we hold before us.  Revelation or no, what is hewn in stone or written on paper will never be only a clear window onto the cosmic mystery of the sacred.  It will always be also, and perhaps largely, a mirror that reflects our own limitations and shortcomings.

To hold onto any image –stone or word– as inerrant and undistorted is to commit the sin of idolatry.  The Holy itself is way beyond us, not given to us to behold clearly, but only to seek in an ongoing and humble quest.

 

I think about these things as I work in my garden and behold how the spikes of foxglove have grown to the level of my St. Francis’s elongated face.  An enchanting flower, the foxglove, which folk wisdom recognized as both medicine and poison.  The two are the same thing –digitalis– depending, as usual, on how it’s taken.

It was used for centuries to treat a condition called dropsy, but it later turned out there was no such disease.  The swelling of the ankles, rather, was a symptom of a larger problem—a heart disease.  But the digitalis in the flower that was given to bring down the swelling of the ankles worked, because the chemical was in fact an excellent medicine for the heart.

“Well, Frank,” I say to the St. Francis with the spikes of digitalis waving in his face in the late spring breeze, “is the story of the foxglove in folk medicine a tale of human ignorance or knowledge?”  Both, I think to myself, as every human story inevitably is.  From the statue I expect no answer, and I get none.

* The Parable of the Tribes:  The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, the second edition of which was published by SUNY Press in 1995.

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