March 27, 2016

The Modern Iconoclasts

On the Wikimedia Commons site today, there is a beautiful picture of the Church of the Cross and Resurrection at the monastery of St. Anthony in Egypt. I place it here for your consideration:

As I looked at it, I pondered the actions of ISIS and the Taliban in destroying sacred images of any variety, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the Temple of Bel in Palmyra. In both cases, destruction was suspected not only because ISIS wishes to show strength, but because ISIS, like other fundamental Muslim movements, believes that any religious symbol is problematic as it may lead to idol worship.

Being ADHD and INTP, I cannot help but think of other instances of iconoclasm. For instance, the Iconoclasm of the 8th and 9th centuries in the Eastern Church. However, I have in mind also the iconoclasm of our modern era.

Before I get into that, I want to have a brief discussion of symbols and the symbolic. This is a somewhat difficult proposition. The field of semiotics is implicated heavily in any such discussion. Pursuant to Wikipedia: "Semiotics (also called semiotic studies; not to be confused with the Saussurean tradition called semiology which is a part of semiotics) is the study of meaning-making, the study of sign processes and meaningful communication." For those who want to delve deeper, there is a more extensive discussion here.

In essence, what I propose for this post is to use the idea of a symbol as pointing to something beyond itself. We infuse symbols with meaning, which then come to "represent" those meanings. In this post, I am thinking of symbol on a cultural level, whereby groups of people assign meanings to objects, art, or other symbols. I should also note that symbols are complex - any given thing may represent different ideas to different people, and in fact, clashes over the symbolic run deep beneath many political and personal disagreements.

Christianity, especially Catholicism and Orthodoxy, are "symbolic" faiths. Among most Christian churches the symbol par excellence is, of course, the cross and crucifix. But there are many others - the Eucharist, Icons, Churches, the Pelican, the Fish, and so forth. However, Christians also view their works as an outward symbol of an inner faith. In the Epistle of James, from the New Testament, the author mandates works to be associated with Faith, saying:
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. James 2: 14-26 RSVCE.
So, as it has long been mandated that Christians do good works, Christians have long been involved and public and private charity, which continues to the present. Examples include hospitals, nursing homes, food banks, clothing banks, and hospice centers. In addition, due to the importance of educating the young, part of Christians' works have involved operating schools, catechesis, Bible studies, and so on. David Bentley Hart, in his book "Atheist Delusions" gives the following examples:

Returning to the present time, we can see what can only be described as a concerted effort to force the visible symbols of Christianity out of the public eye. One may think first here of the various lawsuits aimed at removing the Cross, Crucifix, and 10 Commandments from any public lands. However, there are many other examples, such as the government's passage and implementation of the PPACA (a/k.a "Obamacare") which contained an exception to its insurance requirements only for religioua entities which ran their own mutual aid system (rather than buying insurance). In addition, in order to obtain an exception from covering birth control under the PPACA, an entity would have to share these characteristics:
(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization under the Internal Revenue Code”
This would exclude the majority of Catholic charities who serve any comers, as well as hospitals, schools, and other Christian institutions.

Christians are often at a loss as to why secularists (and here I use the term to refer to those who want to secularize the public square) want to push coverage of contraception on groups like Little Sisters of the Poor, or Christian companies like Hobby Lobby. As is often repeated in atheist vs. Christians groups online, by Christians (as an example): "If you don't believe in God, why are you so worried about crosses on public land?" There are many other, related, arguments. Secularists just as often state that, while they have no problem with Christians and internal belief, it should not be permitted in the public square.

What secularists do understand is that these works and symbols have meaning to Christians. However, secularists often (though not all and every one) have a completely different set of meanings attached to Christian symbols, such as the cross. To secularists, Christianity represents a backward and patriarchal system, which is, at its core, deeply anti-modern. To secularists, especially of a progressive bent, therefore, the manifestations of  faith in works is a visible sign of the anti-modern, regressive, anti-progress and so on. This is why it really does not matter that Christians do good with any given institution, to these militant secularists. Rather, they seek to eradicate the icons (loosely speaking) of the Christian faith as used in public, in order to remove the symbols' power to influence, in order to forward progressive ideals, such as (enforced) (in)tolerance, radical equality, and so on.

Therefore, Christians should not be at all surprised that secularists oppose even the operation of religious schools or charities, especially if they receive public funds. To them, this is the feeding of a symbol or symbols which should no longer exist in the public square.

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