MRBlog | Respecting Religion: The Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Impression

Andrew B. Irvine on art and the experience of others

This past April in Knoxville, Tennessee, Andrew Irvine was one of three speakers at a “Table of Abraham” dialogue dinner among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The dinner was organized by the Atlantic Institute, a non-profit organization inspired by the Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen. The evening’s theme, “Art and Faith: Freedom of Expression vs. Respect for Religion,” seemed prompted — at least in part — by the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris on January 7, 2015. What follows is an expanded and edited version of his remarks.

1. Art and Faith

I suppose the first thing that might be said on behalf of the Christian tradition regarding tonight’s theme is that art — and particularly representational visual art — has on the whole been considered a valuable support to faith. This is not to say that the status of such art has not been controversial at various times throughout Christianity’s history. The first great outbreak of the controversy was over the use of icons in worship. Iconoclasts (or “breakers of images”) fought by word and deed with iconodules (“servants of images”), also known as iconophiles. The iconoclasts contended that the use of icons of Christ, Mary, and saintly predecessors in the faith constituted worship of creatures, if not also of the created matter of which the icons were made. If this charge was correct, then iconophilia was plainly idolatry. Of course, the iconodules vehemently denied it. The fight carried on for over a century, from 726 until 843.

Although easily overemphasized, the rapid expansion of Islam during that same time, especially under the Ummayad Caliph, Yazid II, may have been a factor stirring the controversy. Archeological evidence, such as the eighth century remains of the Church of St. Stephen at Umm al-Rasas near Madaba, Jordan, and the testimony of the Melkite Christian, Arabic-speaking theologian Theodore Abu Qurrah (ca 777–ca 830) indicate that the Islamic prohibition of images resonated strongly with iconoclast Christians on the fringe of the Byzantine empire.

Nevertheless, the seventh and last of the recognized Ecumenical Councils, held at Nicea near Constantinople in 787, was largely taken up with establishing the orthodoxy of the reverence of icons. The decree of the Council declares that iconoclasts “have failed to distinguish between holy and profane, styling the images of our Lord and of his Saints by the same name as the statues of diabolical idols.” The Council defends icons on the basis that they show forth “the incarnation of the Word of God . . . as real and not merely apparent.” Since by the incarnation the material world has been honored by God, the “honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents.”

The theologian most influential in regard to the Council was John of Damascus, who about half a century before the Ecumenical Council had written three “Treatises on the Divine Images.” “I do not venerate creation instead of the creator,” John had said, “but I venerate the Creator, created for my sake, who came down to his creation without being lowered or weakened, that he might glorify my nature and bring about communion with the divine nature … . I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked.”

Byzantine panel icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria (mid-13th century), Hilandar monastery, Mount Athos.
Byzantine panel icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria (mid-13th century), Hilandar monastery, Mount Athos.

With respect to the topic of freedom of expression, we should note that the central value at stake in the Iconoclastic Controversy had less to do with expression than with devotion. Regardless of the extent of Muslim influence the Controversy dramatized a persistent tension in Christian thought between insistence on the unrepresentability of God who transcends creation and — on account of God’s incarnation in Jesus as Christ — the representability of God. Does the pretension to know by way of mortal, fleshly senses a God essentially immaterial and immortal violate the order instituted in God’s act of creation?

This issue might be more easily grasped from a fairly practical interest in devotional practice. In short, does reverence of images necessarily draw the devotee away from God, or can reverence of images be a medium through which the devotee indeed does worship God? From this point of view, the iconodule position might be restated: in the first instance, icons are valued not for their representational accuracy, let alone their expressiveness, but for their devotional intensity. They are, that is to say, symbols; symbols that when approached in an appropriate way may enable a worshipper to intensify awareness of eternity and experience a transformative presence of God even despite the problems of divine unrepresentability and unknowability.

2. Art as Expression

So why do we (and by “we”I mean we early twenty-first century folk in late capitalist liberal democratic societies — forgive me if I’ve unwittingly excluded you) tend to link the idea of art with the notion of expression, and with freedom of expression? What does it mean for us that we link these two? Not surprisingly, a major factor, affecting both art and religion, is the so-called secularization of the West. A nice encapsulation of that transformation, for our purposes, is provided by Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age. Taylor discusses how, in the West’s modernity, it is not that devotion is replaced by disbelief, but rather that both devotion and disbelief are reframed: where the bounds of ordinary experience could be transcended in various directions — particularly toward a God above and beyond the natural world — modern experience is set within the limits of what Taylor calls an “immanent frame.” This is something that distinguishes modern experience from what has come before it.

Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh, “Mountainous Landscape Behind Saint-Paul Asylum” (1889).

In visual art, for instance, devotion once directed to supernatural figures (not just via the hieratic imagery of late antique icons, but in Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque figuration also) is redirected within the immanent frame. Thus, for those who still “believe,”the object of devotion must be somehow evoked from within the natural world. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Romanticism thus places a remarkable premium on expression as a criterion of true art. Religion scholar James E. Miller suggests that Romanticism is typified by a faith that nature is “permeated by an order larger than any single unit but which each unit expressed in its own being.” If the units do not know this about themselves or (more telling for the artist regarding his audience) about one another, it is the work of the artist to give expression to that order.

It is not so hard to see how this Romanticism would eventually lead to high abstraction, in an effort to express the expressive power itself. But we got there via not-so-abstract expressionists, among whom the greatest likely is van Gogh, whose art influenced nature by transforming his audience’s insight. In the words of Robert Hughes, “van Gogh’s sense of an immanent power behind the natural world was so intense that, once one has seen his Saint-Rémy paintings, one has no choice but to see the real places in terms of them … .”

Yet, expressionism in art is not all sunflowers and starry nights, as van Gogh knew. Besides the Dutch artist’s foreboding portraiture, consider the Norwegian Edvard Munch’s expressionist icons, most famous among them, The Scream. Munch was alert to the horrific powers religion can set loose beneath the surface of polite society (Hughes characterizes his father as a “ranting religious bigot”) and he sought to give those expression in his work. In this respect, it may be that the kinds of images of Jews, Christians, and Muslims published in Charlie Hebdo might be understood not just as insults but as icons of a certain kind, too. Of course, this begs the question what devotion, if any, such purposefully ugly art intends for us? This observation leads me on to the consideration of freedom of expression and (or versus) respect for religion.

Munch, The Scream.
Munch, The Scream.

3. Freedom of Expression and Respect for Religion

“Religion” as a neutral and generic term that covers a wide variety of religions is another term reflective of our inhabitation of an immanent frame. Imagine, by way of contrast, if we were to consider the theme “Freedom of Expression vs. Respect for God.” I suppose that might give rise to rather different reflections. But if it is respect for religion we are to consider, then I claim that religion deserves only so much respect as it earns by its effects in the lives of devotees. This was a standard of evaluation attributed to Jesus by the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, in his staged attack on perceived Pharisaic “legalism.” Whether that was a fair fight (certainly it has not been in the centuries since) the fire Matthew fans comes from a principle that, handled carefully and well, can purify religious devotion of sado-masochistic excess, thereby allowing a freer because more disciplined faith.

That is one of the ironies of freedom. Paul in the New Testament dwells on it when he urges his churches to be, like him, slaves of Christ. Freedom is not merely a matter of freedom from external restraint for Paul. It is also a matter of inner transformation toward finer self-control, under the divinizing influence of the true self, “Christ in me.” Truly to be free is to be able to exercise self-control effortlessly, joyfully, lovingly in community with others.

The same irony applies to freedom of expression in art, I think. I expect most of us have had some exposure to “art” apparently undisciplined by devotion to anything much other than the artist’s reactionary and poorly imagined selfhood. Then there is art that achieves a freedom of expression that unselfishly demands our admiration and directs us to devote ourselves to comparable disciplines of truth and beauty and goodness. My guess is that Charlie Hebdo occupies a space somewhere between these two extremes. On the one hand it might be appropriate just to laugh off its iconoclastic mockery. On the other hand, even if Charlie Hebdo’s ugly cartoon images (directed at Jews, Christians, and Muslims) don’t rise near to the level of finest freedom of expression, it could be that they are meant to represent to us what in our religions we would politely prefer to leave unrepresented. Art has at least a semi-autonomous role vis-à-vis religion. And although in this respect religion is only as respectable as good taste may judge, at least initially it may take fighting bad taste with bad taste to provoke us into making clear why that is, and then to test whether our prevailing notions of good taste have not become polite means of cruelty to those they disqualify.

The question I wish to press, then, is not so much how to classify controversial images of the recent past as to ask how we should act on our own account in response to mocking versions of our own and each other’s religious symbols? If we are, as at least the Christians among us claim to be, devotees of a God who exchanges transcendence for immanence, and gives expression to the ugliest, the most brutal and most shameful, the most silenced parts of human experience, how shall we recognize and respond devotedly to God who, presumably, is there to be found in the seeming distortions of satire? It seems almost perverse to cry sacrilege. Self-examination might be more to the point. For as appreciators of art, we can be reactionary, too. We can respond out of a narrowness of imagination that makes us blind to another’s vision — of us, of our world, of our religion — and thus incapable of having our own vision enhanced thereby. Perhaps what we need, in the circumstances, is a greater freedom of impression.

Charlie Hebdo Should Be Veiled!
Charlie Hebdo Should Be Veiled!

Freedom of impression: a wider susceptibility to, a finer sensitivity for, the experience of others. The rationale for cultivating such freedom rests on our basic mutuality as human persons. I can’t know if I have expressed myself well if I don’t attend for and to others’ responses. This psychological fact about communication has a Christian theological parallel. In “immanent” terms, Jesus is not Christ because as pre-existent Word “he came down from heaven.” On the contrary, Jesus would not have been Christ had none “taken him up,” receiving his word as a divine word, and had he not been sensitive in turn to their words of response. If not for that serendipitous mutual impress, the life of Jesus of Nazareth surely would have been strikingly different, and quite possibly unknown to us.

Then if, as the apostle Paul had it, God was in Christ reconciling the world, this means that the title of “Christ” speaks to a quality of human relations generated in the saying and hearing of a divine word, not a mere ejaculation of said word. In such human relations, to return to the political aspect of our considerations, fullest freedom of expression would involve not only self-discipline in saying but also disciplined sensitivity in listening. In this light, or so it seems to me, the truly Christian advocates of freedom of expression would not rest content with a state of so-called liberal toleration. On some other occasion I would praise knowledgeable indifference as a potential virtue of a liberal polity. But considering what is at stake in inter-religious (mis)understanding, such a state too often fosters indifferent ignorance — and that among those it includes. Then among some, perhaps especially those who, being insufficiently indifferent, the state ignores or excludes, ignorance fuels enmity. Enmity that — we are witnesses to this — can erupt in spectacular evils.

Truly Christian advocates of freedom of expression would also, I imagine, desire freedom of impression, striving to cultivate relationships wherein we can be no longer slaves to antagonistic constraints and compulsions but together find freedom for mutual transformation. If I’m not mistaken, that also means that these become truer Christians as they open to receive the impress of Jewish and Muslim neighbors.