Sunday, April 9, 2017

Communio Sanctorum: Icons, the People of God, and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies

Georges Florovsky, a Russian Orthodox priest of the highest caliber, makes the point to emphasize that the Church is, first and foremost, the people of God. The priest/presbyter/elder is the one who stands as celebrant, who conducts at the front of the church, but he is not the church. This is the clericalism that is the hall-mark of Clericalism, that apostate Christianity that comes in many flavors. I've gone over this, so I won't beat a dead-horse.

This leads me to the Mondzain's critique of the underlying premises of the iconoclasm debate in 9th century Byzantium. Fundamentally, both factions strove for dominance of the image, with the iconoclasts wanting to break the unity of church and state with the latter with authority over the former, and the iconodulists maintaining a caesaropapist state where the church maintains authority over the emperor. Both sides accused each other of being idolators, and this is what unites them on a shared premise, namely that control of the image is to gain power, tout court. The modern world may be post-Christian, but is not post-ecclesiastic. The media has become the new church-court, and we live in a caesaropapism of CNN and the State. The media is not so much a fourth-estate in this, but functions as the soul of the state.

Now regardless if this is exactly true is not relevant, the iconoclasts could've won in the East and the effects would be the same, because the war on idolatry would still continue. This war is the attempt to crackdown on the inherent multi-valence of the enfleshed image, it can produce additional meanings, even to the point that it becomes its own sole reference point that people bow before (an idol).

Now Mondzain's POV is interesting at this general point, but misses, I think, a completely different angle on all of this. She utilizes, primarily, the work of Nikephoros, patriarch of Constantinople, who went to war against the iconoclasts, but digging into philosophical mechanisms to make his point. Mondzain attributes to him, and Iconodulia more generally, the brilliant recognition that getting a handle on the language of 'economy' is the only way to victory. Economy in this is basically a certain set of practicals, the reality, as determining the means to reach the end.

Now, I think it's certainly debateable whether the economy shared this same function in a concerted Orthodoxy that sought world-wide domination (she seems to be hyperventilating when she writes like this). She cites Origen, Basil, and John Chrysostom as examples of the economy. I won't dispute these, but I don't think that's the whole picture either. Clearly, Gregory Nazianzus and Athanasius were uncomfortable with Basil's economic silence in pronouncing the Holy Spirit as con-substantial with Father and Son, though they defended their friend and comrade. I think this raises the question of an alternative stream within and besides the "iconocrats".

But to cast this in proper terms, Mondzain's focus on Nikephoros ignores that in the East it was the ecclesiastics that constantly lost. Nikephoros represents the well-heeled of the Imperial bureaucracy, and many of these ended up in the power-circuits of the ordained hierarchy. But it was mobs of peasants that resisted the Iconoclast emperors attempt to destroy all icons. Symeon the New Theologian successfully challenged a bishop over the monopoly of the Spirit. Gregory Palamas banished philosophy from functioning as the in-out of God's presence. Orthodoxy was marked not with an ecclesiastic-court controlling the hordes of the faithful. Clearly if one examines Russian Orthodox history, it was not the rule of Moscow that determined the lives of the faithful, despite claims to the contrary.

Here, I think Mondzain really wants to tell a story of Latin, namely Roman, Christianity in Greek garbs. Yes, these battles took place, but they did not end in the way she suggests. I have severe doubts that Nikephoros represents an actual victory taking place in the East. The modern day intransigence by the monks of Mt. Athos to the widely corrupt, globalist, and Masonic Greek Orthodox church stands as a counter example.

This gets at the role of the icon, which Mondzain seems to believe functions within an economy that justifies its existence as the claim on lever of power. The Icon is the full-frontal gaze of the Church, it is the totalitarian eye that tells you that Holy-Mother Church is watching. Beware! But, what if this completely misses the point. What if the icon does not communicate the power of an ecclesiastic bureaucracy, but functions to join those in the Heavenlies with Christ to those who still are in the flesh. Mondzain misses the fact that in the East, it is not a clear-cut hierarchical decisions of who is declared a saint. Instead, many communities declare their members saints and iconographize them. It is not a top-down process, at least not always. Perhaps it's true that the bureaucrats of an Imperial church might try to clamp-down and call this process idolatry to gain control, but it certainly did not work, and less so as these empires were constantly bleeding before the Arab and the Turk.

What if, contrary to Mondzain's account, the Communion of the Saints, the ones spoken of by the author of Hebrews as that "great crowd of witnesses", in fact judged and supported Christians before any powers, including ecclesiastical ones. The icon is communion with those who remain, potentially, a judge before present actions. The gaze of the prosopon, the face of the saint, is a tunnel into a deeper reality that lay outside the bounds of necessity. It can't be controlled because the reign of the Spirit, the Wind who blows where He will, remains open to, potentially, any. Maximus was a layman who defied pope, patriarch, and emperor, and is thus recognized as Confessor. His iconographic gaze empowers and judges, not from the vantage of the ecclesiastical court, at least not necessarily, but from the vantage of the layman confronted with corruption, abuse, or plain sin.

Florovsky also, following a stream of Orthodox tradition, stated that the traditions of Christ's churches remain among the common faithful, in their prayers and worship, and defy collapse into any hierarchy. The Body of Christ was not the ordained, the professional Christians, but the whole. The bureaucrats of Constantinople sneered, even from their ordained offices, but were failures to gain for themselves or for the Emperor the governance of the masses. Armies of angry monks could topple Imperial or Patriarchal edicts if they contradicted the Apostolic deposit.

None of this is to argue, one way or another, whether the creation of icons, or their subsequent devotional use, is in line with the Scripture. Nor is this to miss Mondzain's real point, namely the potency of images and the fact that Clericalism has passed onto the post-Christian West the same structures of control. Per Schmitt, all secular concepts of politics and law were originally theological.

What to do? Mondzain's bankrupt and substanceless Humanism will get us nowhere. Christ remains the only Power over this. How so? Because, in Pauline form, the economy of the mystery is nothing less than Christ crucified. This is the apocalyptic rupture point that, even though constantly threatened to be transmuted into something else, puts the whole diabolic providence of This Age into question. Christ crucified stands as the fecund Word that is in the process, even as we speak, of flipping the world upside down, God's weakness overpowering the power of darkness etc. This is the Spirit who goes where He wills, passing and hovering over the depths to transform them, making Christ manifest in the most unlikely ways. A Theology of the Cross reveals a power that works contrariwise of all Babel projects, which include Mondzain's description of iconocrats and ecclesiastical structures that seek to control all meaning.

When Luther contrasted the Roman theology of glory, he predated, by hundreds of years, these later critiques. Now, certainly, the children of the Reformation returned to a non-cruciform providentialism, one which posits something other than the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world as the economy, the management, which Christians are tasked with. But this remains the radical difference between the Gospel and everything else. When St. Paul said he knew nothing but Christ crucified among the Corinthian church, he meant it. This was the regulating event, the heart of Human history, which the Church, through its many churches, had the task of heralding and celebrating in the Lord's Supper. Nothing more and nothing less. Scripture reveals this, as even Christ Himself teaches, as the heart of the eternal will of God.

The Communion of the Saints, those who share in this mystery of Christ, stands as an ever-present, unquenchable, alternative, something yet to be, but promised through the unbreakable Word of God.

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