I love opinionated non-PC people. This blog is to vent my opinions on life, the universe and everything. Which is 42 which in gematria is "My Heart" (LBY) according to Rabbi Abulafia. The Divine Heart is the centre of everything.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ethical Iconology, Levinas and Pope Francis: A Hebrew Catholic Perspective




Pope Francis recently spoke against Catholic theologies and interpretations that are based on a rigid and legalistic idealism. He called for a healthy Christian realism and stated this is the true Catholic approach that is in accord with the mind of Christ and the Church.[1] Unfortunately today and through the centuries a parasitical virus has infected the body of the Church affecting its theologies, spiritualities and pastoral policies. This virus also flows outside the Church into society itself. In the light of the horrors of rigid state idealism, that manifested in the opening of the abyss in the Shoah and the Gulags of the 20th Century, the Church has been examining its conscience. 

Emmanuel Levinas saw that the Shoah’s source may be in the Western Greek philosophy’s focus on ontology as first philosophy.[2]  Emil Fackenheim saw the Shoah as “the rupture that ruptures philosophy”.[3] Levinas proposed a new first philosophy based on goodness or ethics. This is a return to a Biblical and Hebrew focus found in the first chapter of Genesis. Here we see the iconic face to face encounters of “the face upon the deep”, “the face upon the waters”, “the face upon the rakia” and the “face upon the earth” all in the context of the Divine speaking of a verbal icon “and it was good”. This verbal icon that becomes a literary icon in Holy Scripture alludes to the Universe as God’s icon as taught by the early Greek theologians[4]. Byzantine and Russian iconology is also understood as an ontological focused iconology.[5] Levinas is proposing a new ethical focused iconology of face to face encounter with the other.

In a sense this is a phenomenological ethical first philosophy which begins with the real life experience and contemplation of the ‘other’ that leads to the ontological contemplation and encounter of ‘being’. This first philosophy is iconic goodness that we encounter in creation and others that allows us to transcend to the Divine “Other” who is also “Goodness” and hidden “Being”. This allows us to move away from a philosophical and theological obsession with our own self or being to alterity (altruistic service to the other). Levinas in a sense is saying to us “Get over yourself, it’s not all about you”. The Western understanding of love is often an obsession with self and an inordinate desire for reciprocity rather than a service of total self-sacrificing giving to the other with no thought of reward. Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is also an expression of this renewed Biblical ethicism. This should not be confused with legalistic moralism found in much modern day Catholicism. Pope Francis said in the same homily mentioned above: “Jesus asks us to go beyond the laws and love God and neighbour, stressing that whoever is angry with their brother will be liable to judgement.”[6] 

The concept of the dark night of the soul found in Carmelite and Catholic and Jewish spirituality allows us to enter into this service of the other without receiving any reward (reciprocity). The icons of the Black Madonna allude to this hidden state of the soul in which the soul is hidden in the darkness of Our Lady’s mystical womb and the dark cloud of St Joseph’s hiddeness. Our Lady’s mystical womb is in itself an icon of the divine Womb which is the ‘ousia’ (essence of the Godhood) and Joseph’s cloud an icon of the hiddenness of God the Father who is Ayn Sof. The Persons (partzufim) of the Godhood are not focused on their own personhood but on service or love to the other Divine Persons. We know this because we can contemplate and experience it through the Holy Family of Nazareth on earth which is the living and human ethical icon of the Triune Family in Heaven. 

North identifies Greek Ethical Doctrine with the mythological Goddess or spirit called Sophrosyne.[7] Sophrosyne is identified with Sophia by Socrates.[8] Snow tells us that it was from Sophia that the Greek concept of Sophrosyne developed. He perceives Sophrosyne as the gathering or bringing together (syne) of Sophia (wisdom) into one individual. [9] Thus it would seem that even in Greek philosophy there is some justification for Levinas’ concept of ethics as first philosophy. This could also enrich the Russian orthodox concept of the Sophia being embodied in the Church and the Virgin Mary.[10] Thus Our Lady of Wisdom is a Hebrew and Biblical version of Sophrosyne alluding to the created Lady Wisdom of the wisdom books of the First Testament Scriptures. She is also the Shekhinah of the Rabbinic Jewish tradition followed by Levinas.[11] She is the perfect and immaculate ethical icon of love in action. She is the ethical icon of the practical and loving Christian realism desired by Pope Francis. Thus the Magnificat is a literary ethical icon that proclaims the Immaculate One as the humble handmaid of the Lord. 

While there is an ontological dimension to the concept of the icon in Byzantine Christian spirituality this is accessed through an ethical mode called ‘expression’. Komtov states that the icon “is an entity characterising the way of human existence as expression and as comprehension of the substance, or essence, through expression”. He refers to the icon as a living entity.[12] Thus when one contemplates an icon it is not a passive activity but an ethical and loving activity that leads to a kind of comprehension of the substance or essence of the other through the prism or paradigm of the ethical expression. This is a non-judgmental and empathetic comprehension of the other in their full dignity as a person (face). Mother Teresa of Calcutta saw this ethical icon in the faces of the poorest of the poor and she had no time for self as she lived for 50 years in the Dark Night of the Soul in which she could not perceive God in herself but only in the faces of the others.[13] While many thinkers have focused on the ontological dimension of iconology it is the ethical concept of expression that is primary to iconology. 

Illich speaks of an ethics of gaze and the tradition of ethical iconology in an “age of show”.[14] Levinas’ ethical iconology of intimate face to face encounter and the beholding of the other and his needs is very different to the rather utilitarian and superficial concept of “interface”. The utilitarian interface is a transitive verb that glances at the other in order to use the other. For me Nazi art propaganda of the Third Reich has this kind of showy “interface” feel to it as does that of Stalinist communist art propaganda. What may be worse is the rather bland and mediocre art of modern day Christians or the empty ritualism and aestheticism of the so-called rad-trad (radical traditionalist) Catholics.  It is a false iconology of the whitened sepulchre that hides the deadening uniformity, blandness, opressiveness and brutality of totalitarian institutions where the person becomes merely a number in a grey landscape or an object to be marshaled and used for the rigid Idealist objectives. Anyone who resists these totalities are demonised, slandered and ostracised. Pope Francis is fighting hard through his teaching to preserve the Catholic Church from becoming such a conformist and uniform totality by both those on the left (worldly rigid Idealist modernists) and those on the right (triumphalist rigid Idealist conservatives). I see Pope John Paul II and a great cloud of witnesses cheering Pope Francis on in the Celestial realm in his battle against the modern day worldly and powerful Sadducees of the left and the rigid, moralistic and legalistic Pharisees of the right.






[1]Pope Francis, “Pope: Those who say “this or nothing” are heretics not Catholics”
http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2016/06/09/pope_those_who_say_%E2%80%9Cthis_or_nothing%E2%80%9D_are_heretics_/1235939
[2] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity. (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press. 1969).
[3] Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World (New York: Schocken Books.1982),266.
[4] Lepakhin, Valerii. "Basic Types of Correlation between Text and Icon, between Verbal and Visual Icons." Literature and Theology 20, no. 1 (2006): 20.
[5] Komkov, Oleg. "The Vertical Form: Iconological Dimension in 20th Century Russian Religious Aesthetics and Literary Criticism." Literature and Theology 20, no. 1 (2006), 8.
[6]Pope Francis, “Pope: Those who say “this or nothing” are heretics not Catholics”
[7] Helen F North, From Myth to Icon: Reflections of Greek Ethical Doctrine in Literature and Art
Ancient Philosophy, 1984, Vol.4(2), pp.249-251
[8] Michael Nil, Morality and Self Interest in Protagoras Antiphon and Democritus. Vol. 43. (Brill, 1985), 44.
[9] Peter Snow, The Human Psyche: In Love, War and Enlightenment. (Boolarong Press, 2010), 86.
[10]  Sergei Bulgakov, Sophia: The Wisdom of God, (New York: Lindisfarne Press, 1993), 134-5.
[11] Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1990), 108.
[12] Oleg Komkov, “The Vertical Form: Iconological Dimension in 20th Century Russian Religious Aesthetics and Literary Criticism”, Literature & Theology, Vol. 20 #1 (UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 8-9.
[13] See Brian Kolodiejchuk, Mother Teresa: Come be my light. Doubleday Religion, 2007.
[14] Ivan Illich, "Guarding the Eye in the Age of Show." RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 28 (1995), 47.

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