Sense and Sensuality - iconographers in the midst of the sexual and scientific revolution

The Ascetic, St John the Baptist, points to an essential element of Christian spiritual life but one which makes increasingly little sense against the insights of the scientific revolution with its sights firmly set on the here and now rather than the horizon of eternity.
Iconographers are artists, and artist have a strong aptitude for the sensual. We have a strong relation to the material world, its colours, shapes, forms, how it feels and smells, and this comes through our senses. Iconographers will talk about transfigured matter, about the transcendence of colour and the way God gets into the very world of matter.

Over the past 150 yrs the world of matter, of the senses, has radically changed. Think for a moment of the image. Before the advent of cheap printing most people's exposure to images was restricted to public areas such as churches and municipal buildings. Now a central facet of every home is the television, often present in every room, with a never ending flow of colourful, psychologically attuned, rapidly moving, hyper realistic images. Add to this the development of the advertising industry, the glossy adverts plastered across advertising hoardings to airline magazines, the cinema, the range of colour printed material, and now of course the internet bringing instant access to all the great works of art in every major art collection across the globe, and the radical change to what our visual sense is now exposed to is very clear.

This revolution in what our senses are exposed to is matched with an even expansive revolution about how we relate to the world of matter, the created world around us. The rapid expansion of scientific knowledge and the dominance of the scientific viewpoint is now taken as standard. From psychology to quantum physics our lives focus on the here and now, on what we can make of ourselves against a very temporal horizon. At one end we have the ecological movement with its concern to preserve the richness of the natural world while at the other we have the development of the most terrifying weapons of mass destruction which could literally wipe out every living thing on the planet. Whether it is the latest ground breaking medical breakthrough or genetically modified crops the focus is relentlessly on what we can achieve by our own efforts in the here and now, in this material world in which we exist. Never before has humanity had such power over its environment, from the ability to hold darkness constantly at bay at the flick of a switch to the making of human life in a laboratory.

And science has intruded into the most intimate areas of our lives, especially in the realm of sex. Science has come up with tools that control our fertility, and that enable us to abort unwanted lives quickly and at minimal risk to the mother. It has given people the power to choose exactly the make up of their family, from the number of children to the gender they prefer. It has also given people the chance to change their gender, not just cosmetically through surgery, but through medication that alters hormone level, and who knows, maybe in the not too distant future at the level of the genetic foundation blocks itself. Psychology has shifted our attitudes to sexual pleasure, having concluded that repression of the sexual urge is dangerous and injurious to our well-being, while encouraging people to explore their sexual feelings without fear or shame. Anthropology relativises social mores by comparisons across time and culture, and the application of Darwinian principles which suggest that the constraints placed on sexual expression are simply the constraints of necessity for more vulnerable societies to ensure their survival.

All of this cuts deep into the traditional patterns of morality of Christian communities, forcing radical and wide-ranging rethinks on areas which were once matters of the severest penalties and censures. Christian morality has shifted under the pressure, so for example, masturbation,  has gone from being a mortal sin to being something that is not to be taken too seriously in adolescent boys. More significantly, for 2000 yrs Christian saw suicide as a desperately wicked act which precluded even burial within consecrated ground. Taught at the highest levels consistently across the centuries and across denominational divisions, in the last century the insights of psychologists have forced a radical re-think with the conclusion that in almost all cases sin is the very last thing people are capable of when their mental state 'cracks' in that way.

This is much more than the debates about abortion and the pill, or gay marriage and gender identity in the priesthood. It is the whole-scale re-focus of human self-awareness away from the horizon of eternity and onto the very immediate 'here and now'. For those of us with the gift of a heightened sensuality this is particularly disturbing and challenging, as it exposes us not only to a very full on stimulation through our material faculties, but it blows apart much of the mental framework to re-negotiate our way through it.

As such it forces a deep fissure between modern life and the wisdom of Christian spirituality which has been shaped primarily in an ascetical way. Chastity, celibacy, self-control all only make sense against a very strong horizon of eternity. That they can have profoundly damaging and disturbing effects on the here and now of people's lives, such as we have witnessed some of the oppressive environments which were operated in children's homes and refuges for 'fallen women', makes the fissure even deeper. Christians, be they Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, have on a wide ranging level opted for the pill and contraception, divorce and remarriage, for gay relationships and living together before marriage. The horizon for living a moral life has shifted radically away from eternity to the nitty gritty of the here and now.

This is not that people are less moral, rather they define morality with a radically different set of criteria. Revelation in ancient books has no power to persuade when pitted against tomes of contemporary psychologists, or the amazing insights which the microscope or the telescope reveal about the world we can see, touch and feel. The Church struggles to maintain an authoritative voice as she appeals to the invisible things of eternity and to which she claims an exclusive insight, not least in the moral sphere. And the basis for the whole ascetic way, which has been the dominant spirituality since the rise of Christian monasticism in the Egyptian desert, now simply fails to convince, even to its adherents in monasteries and convents. Monasteries and convents struggle to make sense of their lives, even to themselves. Wrestling with the avalanche of scientific insights and seemingly uncontestable assertions, some cast of their habits and simpl seek to blend into the temporally obsessed world around them, while others flee into a fantasy land of complete denial where modernity is simply rejected wholesale, the old verities proclaimed with an almost shrill, and anti-intellectual, bravado. The Church is increasingly polarised between those who have adopted the world view around them and those who simply go into denial and condemnation.

I am not saying that there is an essential conflict between science and religion,but I am saying that science, with its focus on the temporal horizon and its sheer brilliance dominating all intellectual horizons, has left the ascetical way as incomprehensible even to most of those of us with faith in Christ. And that includes us iconographers, perhaps potentially more than most. Artists in general tend to be more avant garde and sensual, and the re-writing of the social context which gives almost no limits to the sensual makes us perhaps more vulnerable than most. Our eyes are perhaps more sensitive, more readily seduced by the power of images, colour and so forth, and without realising it our work reflects this.

Iconography is in essence an ascetical art, with an ascetical vision of the human person presented back into the world from his true place in eternity as a truly spiritual reality. When we loose our sense of that in our own lives, in our own thinking, in our own mental backdrop, then our work as iconographers will be hindered in a most profound way. Yet overcoming this is not something attained by simply living as though nothing has happened since the Middle Ages, as though we don't know what science has revealed to us is written into the material world. This would be wicked, as we would go back, for example, to condemning all suicides not in invincible ignorance but in wilful pride, which is about the farthest you can get from the love and goodness of God. Rather it pits us into the very heart of the struggle to hear God's voice, and to allow the revelation of eternity in the Face of Christ to continue to refashion our vision of ourselves and our world, but with the deeper understanding of what that world consists of.


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