• Michael Martin

The New Iconoclasts and the Sacrament of Forgetfulness


Tell me, Campano, do you ever laugh at the arrogance of mortals? I often do. I ridicule it in the hope that I may avoid it. Boys cannot understand the counsel of their elders, nor peasants the thoughts of the wise. However, with unbecoming arrogance, the earthly creature Man often presumes to fathom the reasons of divine nature, and to search into the purpose of its providence.”

~letter of Marsillio Ficino to Bishop Campano [1]

Iconoclasm, the prohibition and destruction of images, particularly holy images, is a feature not only of religious history, but of human nature as well. It seems to particularly afflict adherents of monotheism—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—but it is not unknown in other contexts. Whatever its cultural contexts, however, whether, for example, in Byzantine Constantinople of the first millennium or in Western Europe during the second, it is often accompanied by a virulent and hysterical (in the psychological sense) puritanism: a puritanism which invariably leads to violence. Sometimes this violence is directed at images themselves, as in the stripping of the altars during the inauguration of Protestant Reformation or the destruction of the thousand-years-old Bamiyan Buddha statues by the Taliban in 2001; and sometimes this violence spills over in its zeal and turns on men, women, and children. It is nothing other than a form of cultural schizophrenia or psychosis.

Wherever it has arisen, iconoclasm has been characterized by an obsession with erasing the past—sometimes the past of a group’s perceived enemies and sometimes, as in a variety of Oedipal rage, upon one’s own cultural past. In 16th century England, for instance, as the Reformation gained steam reformers endeavored to destroy their country’s own Catholic and pagan past in the prohibition of images, masses, feast days, saints days, and folk festivals (like May Day) and eventually even forbid the celebration of the Christmas holidays. Talk about party-poopers! As Eamon Duffy argues in his magisterial study of the period, “Iconoclasm was the central sacrament of the reform, and, as the programme of the leaders became more radical...they sought with greater urgency the celebration of that sacrament in every parish of the land.” [2]

I have long argued that the English Reformation, with its systematic destruction and removal of its Catholic and pagan past (though both were never entirely eradicated), is the model for how a political coterie, once its acquires enough power and influence, can completely transform a culture. In England, this was accomplished through a variety of threats, coercion, and propaganda and was amazingly successful—and this without either mass or social media. I can imagine Edward VI uttering, upon ascending the throne, “We’re going to build England back better.” If it could happen in early modern England, it can happen anywhere.

Part and parcel of this cultural metamorphosis (or perhaps “these cultural metamorphoses” is more accurate) has been what scholar John Bossy has called “the migration of the holy” from the church to the State. [3] The secular, that is, is the modern religious. But the success of the new order of society can “only grow if all hope of a restoration of the old [is] extirpated” along with its “monuments of superstition.” [4] Thus have all cultural revolutions proceeded ever since.

Our own Western cultures have been engaged in such a pogrom at least over the last generation, a development noticeably accelerated in recent years. Has not the destruction or removal of images—of, for example, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and even Flannery O’Connor (!!)—whatever one’s opinion on the figures in question, been precisely such an iconoclastic venture, a way to erase the past’s “monuments of superstition”? Is this not the sacrament of forgetfulness writ large? Are opponents of this new religious impulse not destroyed or “canceled” (how I loathe the term) for their heresy in much the same way their counterparts were burnt at the stake for religious heresy in bygone years or hanged, drawn, and quartered for political heresy? Seriously, is anything today different from the earlier religious reformations save in method?

Perhaps most telling—and most controversial—has been the iconoclasm around gender that has accompanied this wave of political and cultural iconoclasm. But here we transgress into the precincts of the more properly sacred. For gender is sacred. When God speaks to Sophia in Genesis, he proclaims it: “Let us make Man in our image…. male and female created he them.” To destroy this image is far more tragic than the destruction of a thousand churches (as Notre Dame was not all that long ago) or a thousand Buddhas: for this iconoclasm is an iconoclasm of ontology itself: a disfigurement and, ultimately, a negation of Being. My recent book Sophia in Exile touches on the sacredness of marriage in this light; and having discovered that the journal Mere Orthodoxy declined a review of my book because of it gives me a fair amount of pleasure for some reason.

This iconoclasm, like most, is essentially rooted in a kind of black magic, by which I mean the manipulation of reality through means of language—incantations, slogans, repetitions, neologisms, changes of definition—and a variety of technologies. As I write concerning the magician and polymath John Dee in my book Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England, technology and the manipulation of language are tools the magician uses to change (or try to change anyway) other people, whether singly or in groups. Now, in The Age of Technocracy, this ability to manipulate has multiplied many times over, especially now that it has joined forces with the State (or states). The Romanian scholar Ioan Couliano called this all long ago. In 1987 he asked, “Is the Western State, in our time, a true magician, or is it a sorcerer’s apprentice who sets in motion dark and uncontrollable forces?” [5] I would say that, aided (or subsumed) by BigTech, it is both. John Dee’s magic backfired on him, toying as he was (actually, they were toying with him) with beings of great mischief and malevolence. I imagine the same thing will eventually happen in our current social and political context, but not before many innocent people have been ruined, destroyed, or killed. As is already happening.

Finally, what iconoclasm is at its core is a puritanism, a kind of cultural OCD which demands that others accommodate its anxieties or be subject to punishment or violence; but it is even more, not so ironically, a form of idolatry. In French Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion’s description, the idol is the perversion of the icon: for in the idol what the viewer sees is not a window to transcendence and divinity, but the viewer’s own desires reflected back upon him, though invisibly: “With the idol, the invisible mirror admits no beyond, because the gaze cannot raise the sight of its aim. The invisible mirror thus masks, negatively, the shortcoming of the aim—literally the invisable.”[6]

And idols allow the demonic a space in which to operate—for nature (and supernature) abhors a vacuum. Of course, belief in God or the Devil, angels or demons, is not requisite for idolatry, for, as Ficino observed so long ago, “the mind, which from a long-standing desire and indulgence in physical things has become physical, so to speak, will believe the divine to be completely non-existent, or will regard it as physical.” [7]

Sophiology is preeminently an engagement with the Real. And, as such, it strives to find the icon amidst a world of idols and to be constantly aware of our own tendency to turn our icons into idols.


A cinematic masterpiece of biblical gendered typology

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. Meditations on the Soul: Selected Letters of Marsillio Ficino (Inner Traditions, 1996), 135.

2. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale, 1992), 480.

3. John Bossy, Christianity in the West, 1400-1700 (Oxford, 1987), 153-161.

4. Duffy, 569.

5. Ioan Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance (Chicago, 1987), 105.

6. Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being (Chicago, 1991), 13.

7. Meditations on the Soul, 84.

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