It is tempting to divide all human comprehension into two modalities= the symbolic versus the literal. The Jungians do this, and recently Karin Armstrong has developed a version of it [she uses the terms deployed by Ernst Cassirer, ‘mythos’ and ‘logos’, referring to the storied and the logical].
Symbolic= there is more than meets the eye.
Literal= There is only what meets the eye.
For anyone who has found out from experience, or simply intuits, that there is more to reality than what the senses convey and intellect builds from the senses, the attempt to make the ‘symbolic’ the only alternative to literalism in all its forms – the soul-less decadence and heart-less injustice inherent to capitalism; positivism in science; materialism and secularism as cultural world-views – is over simple, and even dangerous.
Whilst “there is more than is dreamt of in your philosophy Horatio”, this more needs a differentiating discernment. ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’ is truer to the multiplicity of realities not confined within nor reduceable to the everyday world apparent to our ordinary perceptual and cognitive functioning. That functioning allows us to cross the street and fill in tax forms, but it misses much that is really ‘there’..
I= Symbolic versus Literal
The dictionary’s account of the literal likens it to an ‘exterior layer’ covering over other kinds and levels of reality not fully evident on the ‘surface’ of things. If this surface is all we take in, and seize hold of, in our dealings with the ‘real world’, then our very manner of exercising our eyes and using our hands renders us blind [asleep] and clumsy [cack-handed].
Surface= an outward or external veneer; outside boundaries; superficial, shallow, a mere appearance– implying a need to look beneath the surface, so that deeper things can be brought out, or oppositely, a need to go beyond the surface to expand horizons and exceed cramped vistas.
The fundementalists in science are no different to the fundamentalists in religion. Each is the mirror of the other= both are literalising a bigger reality of ‘being’ that only partly shows itself. It may be below, beyond, all around, within, the surface and thus not graspable by an exclusively surface perspective. This view-point is narrow, rigid, keen to define and pin down everything it surveys; this is not a dispassionate acceptance of ‘reality as it is’, but a very subjectively driven seeking for control, to allay fear of the unknown and offer the ego the spurious esteem of conquest over it.
Remaining glued only to that which is ‘explicit’ misses the ‘implicate order’, as one physicist calls it, that undergirds and overarches everything that can be formulated.
That which can be formulated rests in and points to that which cannot be formulated; the latter is always tacitly present in the former. This applies as much to mathematics as to the laws of matter. It is even more evident in our experience of nature and in human affairs.
But, when the surface can be fully unpicked and measured without loss of meaning, then such a surface is literal, it has no metaphorical quality, it is confined to itself and therefore its workings do not transcend itself. It ticks over, within its own boundary. Such is the ‘machine.’ Science was never designed to be able to investigate anything other than the mechanical aspect of things.
Bewitched by this idol, modern bourgeois culture seeks to make everything in human life run like a machine, regular, normal, and predictable. This is ‘playing the game.’
When the surface becomes ‘symbolic’ then what is really there in form, colour, texture, tone, weight, length and breadth — sight and sound and touch — starts to metaphorically point to something more intangible. The tangible becomes a sign, even a manifestation. The shapes and hues in a Symbolist painting are an intimation of some other realm, level of reality, kind of fullness of existence, which they imply. The physical is not just physical. The physical becomes a signifier of the more-than-physical.
Symbol= something standing for or calling up something else, especially a concrete object which stands for an immaterial object or idea; an image which embodies an interrelated web of meanings; a dream image which embodies an unconscious complex; the practice of investing things with a symbolic meaning; one versed in the interpretation of symbols; to express, suggest, or evoke, ideas that are complex in meaning; artists who reject naturalism and create art by means of symbols; to admit a thing by implication rather than by express statement; to indicate more than the words plainly say.
Thus, the symbolic achieves two things not otherwise attainable= [a] it not only shows there is something more than surface appearances, shallow appearances, external appearances, [b] but it also shows this something more is necessarily and powerfully involved with the surface, and changes its very character. It is vitally important to ‘see’ that there is something more, which is what the ‘inner eye’ does, yet it is equally important to see, in the same act of envisioning, that the something more, by dwelling within the concrete, changes it. The concrete becomes mysterious-concrete, not ‘just’ concrete.
Thus could the Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition regard the creation as ‘a sea of symbols.’
II= Symbolic versus Eikonic
Nevertheless, there is a limitation in the aesthetic approach to the image which is only overcome in a religious approach to the image. As the symbol is more than the sensory and intellectual literalism it challenges, so the eikon is more than any symbolic imagination.
There is a divine Light, and a divine Love, ‘shining out’ from the Mystery of God in all images which are eikonic. This is not happening, yet, though it might be promised, or insinuated, in all images which are symbolic. The eikon is transparent. The symbol is suggestive yet opaque. It is not transparent. In this sense, the symbol is an invitation to ‘go farther’ along a religious path, not remain in the aesthetic in and of itself, to discover through more direct experience, more immediate encounter, that which the symbol only elusively indicates. In the eikon, the mysteriousness is met, face to face, and it radiates outward, both declaring God’s Mystery is uniquely incomparable to and transcends all things, yet this very Transcendence comes to and indwells all things, making the forms and images beacons of Light and fountains of Life.
It is precisely the capacity to evoke yet not be able to penetrate more fully into mysteries which renders symbols so very ambiguous. They are provocative, drawing us to them, yet they are also finally not satisfying unless we find a way to contact and partake of what they are ‘standing in for.’
This means symbols are like menus in relation to actual food. They ask us to descend deeper, to rise higher, to look around more widely, to look within more attentively, in order to actually move toward what they point at. If we do not undergo that travelling which transforms our being, if we simply stay at the level of aesthetic enjoyment of symbols, then they are akin to the oyster that does not give up its pearl.
Hence symbols, according to many mystical traditions, necessarily keep secret the mysteries which they only hint at allusively. For persons who do not grow in enlightenment, the hidden treasure of meaning buried in symbols remains beyond reach. It is partly disclosed but the more significant part remains obscure. This ambiguity is intriguing, yet it really requires the beholder to go farther in ‘spiritual matters.’ Only farther down the spiritual path will the dazzling symbols, in art, in literature, in Sacred Texts [the Bible], in Sacred Spaces [the Temple], in the natural world, in our nightly dreams, open up fully. When we get to the food, we see the menu very differently. Before we get to the food, the menu can become a block, an idol, an illusory siren-song that leads us down false roads where we remain forever famished even as the unrealised possibility of the symbol goes on tickling – really torturing – our fancy. This is why symbolic images are not only helpful in expanding human existence, but can become deceptive, and misleading.
According to Jewish Tradition, the ‘sage’ is someone who can read symbols in a manner those reacting aesthetically to their beauty cannot. Yet by their very character as metaphorical, symbols are a door opening, to let everyone in. They suffer from none of the limitations of ordinary rational discourse, and they do not argue one belief against another belief. They present something real, even if it is only sensed= half apprehended and half not apprehended. We ‘see’ it for ourselves, without guidance or interference by experts trying to impose their writ on what we think. Symbols are like a funny joke which catches us out, causing us to laugh at the truth it declares, whether we approve or not, agree or not. Once you see what the symbol shows, you cannot un-see it. Your world is enlarged, like it or not.
Thus symbols can metaphorically depict very different levels and kinds of reality. A striking dream can portray a person’s unconscious psychological neuroses, acquired from early childhood damage, or it might portray charismatic ‘extra-human’ talents or abilities latent in the collective psyche in the form of legends concerning gods and goddesses, and culture heroes; similarly, a Buddhist mandala might portray the entire cosmos ‘gross, subtle, and pure’ as a series of qualitatively differentiated yet harmoniously inter-woven spatial realms. Symbols can also resolve thorny problems, not only pertaining to our subjective psychology but also pertaining to our objective thinking, by coming up with unexpected resolutions of conflicts or puzzlements that seemed insoluble within their own terms of reference. This is part of the symbol-formation crucial to human creativity.
Dreams are interesting in that, as Black Elk points out, they can be, on some occasions, symbolic, and on other occasions, eikonic. Visionary dreams are markedly different to imaginative dreams. The levels or kinds of realities evoked are often not clearly demarcated in symbols, and thus it is easy to confuse psychological, psychic, natural, cosmic, levels with each other, as well as confusing them with the spiritual. In an important sense, until the Light enters us, revolutionizing our consciousness, we do not know from experience what is spiritual, and what is not spiritual.
The sheer multiplicity, diversity, prolixity, of symbols is helpful= their luxuriant richness conveys to us that things are not as they seem to the ‘mind-forged manacles.’ They augment ‘facticity’ by ‘possibility.’
But there are limitations that symbols impose, despite how arresting they can be. When we do go farther in spirituality, and engage in practices like meditation, contemplation, and prayer, and take on the yoke of disciplines like fasting and vigils, a different, ultimate showing of Mystery becomes available. A fantasy is not a symbol, as Jung tried to teach Freud [to no avail]; similarly, a symbol is not a vision, as Assagioli, and many others, tried to teach Jung [to no avail]. The wish-fulfillment phantasies of Freud are not the symbols of the imagination of Jung; but visionary alterations of consciousness are beyond imaginative symbolization.
The distinction between symbol and eikon, the sacred art of Eastern Christianity and in a different sense of Zen Buddhism, is vital. Both symbol and eikon seek ‘to make the invisible visible’, yet they do this in very different ways, and this difference matters, because it indicates a different relationship to the Mystery.
The eikon is the product of going up and down the ladder between heaven and earth [of Jacob’s dream]. Going up= apophatic. Going down= cataphatic.
The symbolic imagination makes neither this ascent nor can it therefore make this descent. Symbols need interpretation, and permit multiple interpretations, given the richness of the meaning they disclose and conceal at once. The eikonic vision is transparent and therefore is not open to any interpretation= it is a place of meeting God, face to face, in the Light and Life of Love.
Symbols are, in the ultimate, ‘mental’ in the Platonic sense of ‘ideas’= designs and metamorphoses of beautiful and living meaning. They lack the Love in which God beholds all he has made. Thus, until we meet God mystically, in the genuine ex-stasis of God’s Love arousing the soul’s love, for God and for all he has made, we do not know the Light of Love shaping and designing, indwelling, blessing, everything. The Mystery is Love, and this is why the Mystery explodes out as Light, and the Life that the Light bestows on everything from Love. Paul Evdokimov [‘The Art Of The Ikon, a theology of beauty’, 1990]= “the world only exists in that it is loved” [p 23]. Evdokimov makes the key point about the difference between symbol and eikon [p 23]= “contemplation which is religious and not aesthetic shows itself to be in love with every creature.”. And [p 24]= “true beauty is not found [in the creation] but in the epiphany of the Transcendent. This epiphany transforms [the creation] into a cosmic place of its radiance, a ‘burning bush’.” Thus [p 25]= “beauty in the world is a divine reality, a transcendental quality of being.”
The apophatic — ‘negative’ — imageless unknowing= the Mystery of God beyond everything, physical and mental.
The cataphatic — ‘positive’ — eikonic image of visionary knowing= The Love revealed by the God in everything, physical and mental.
The coming forth of God is Mysterious and Light, Mysterious and Love, Mysterious and Life.
St Gregory Palamas= “whoever contemplates the divine light, contemplates the mystery in God.”
Evdokimov points out that the Epiphany of God’s coming forth, which transforms nature and the world into ‘a place of its radiance’, is perceived by the ‘whole human being’, body as well as soul, soul as well as nous. Evdokimov quotes from St Gregory Palamas [p 26]= “The body also has an experience of divine things.” And St Maximus [p 26]= “the powers of the soul expand through the senses.” The religious experience of the shining forth of the Transcendent ‘spiritualises’ the body and the senses. “Our natural faculties are not sufficient to allow us to perceive the spiritual. [But] the senses are spiritualised and become like the object they are sensing” [p 28]. St Gregory Palamas= “Those who are worthy receive [divine] grace and perceive through the senses as well as through the mind what is above all sense and intellect.”
St Gregory Palamas= “He who participates in the Light becomes himself light.” It is through the Light that we see everything, including ourselves, as ‘luminous.’
This is vision; this is not imagination.
Imagination should not take over from, and blot out, vision.
Only the eikonic image heals the dualism of ‘matter versus spirit’ that is key to the symbol.
The human face is a window for the mystery of the inner person. The body is an analogy of the soul. A body without soul is not a body. It is mere lumps of decomposing, shapeless and featureless, flesh.
III= The Need for the Symbol
It is worth considering the religious quest in the Symbolist art of the late nineteenth century. The Symbolist movement has to be set in the context of that time. Only by considering what it opposed can light be thrown on what it advocated.
WHAT THE SYMBOLIST MOVEMENT OPPOSED
Symbolism arose as a reaction against certain powerful trends in the West after the European Enlightenment, according to one commentator.
 it was a rejection of positivism and materialism as ways of knowing the world in its fullness;
 it was a rejection of Impressionism as an art which focuses too much on the objective world, ‘rendering it more subjective through the play of light’– but not challenging the dominance of ‘objectivity’ in people’s mentality;
 it was a rejection of bourgeois amorality, and vulgarity.
According to Jean Moreas, writing in 1886, Symbolism was against “plain meanings, and matter of fact description.” It was against the Naturalism [or Naïve Realism] which tries to reproduce in paint on the canvas the external look of things.
The most crucial difference between Impressionism and Symbolism lies in where the artist finds the origin of the work of art. The starting point of both Naturalism and Impressionism was the ‘real world’ of nature or contemporary human life; the starting point of Symbolism is the ‘inner eye’ of the artist. Thus Symbolism regards the artist as a ‘seer’ – not as an ‘accurate’ observer who can use paint to faithfully ‘represent’ what he has observed. Gauguin spoke of the artist “dreaming in front of nature.”
Where Naturalists and Naïve Realists sought to capture ‘optical reality in all its objective grittiness, and thus focused on the ordinary rather than the ideal’, Symbolists sought a more meaningful reality through the expanded seeing evident in dreams, the imagination, and the rumblings of the psychic unconscious.
WHAT THE SYMBOLIST MOVEMENT ADVOCATED
Symbolism began as a literary movement, and for some of the Symbolist painters, the source of the artist’s vision was found in mythology and literature. Nonetheless, the artist rarely merely ‘illustrated’ the myth or the poem. Instead, these materials were used in much the same way that the artist’s dream might be the inspiration for a painting. Symbolism is an art of the dream. Just as the dream does not represent something, but portrays meanings not being picked up that would alter how we see that something, so the Symbolist painting is not a representation but is an embodiment of a meaning that alters how we see reality.
Another commentator points out that Symbolism was a response to the modern belief in 3 profound ‘humiliations’ as Freud put it=
 a cosmological humiliation= science had demonstrated that the earth [and therefore humanity] is no longer the centre of the universe;
 a biological humiliation= the theory of evolution disrupted the belief that humanity was created in the image of God;
 a psychological humiliation= the unconscious underlay and often drove the conscious ego; therefore, the psychology of the human being was largely an unknown factor, such that the human being was not the master of his ship, but more often, a puppet being jerked by forces neither understood nor in his power to subdue.
The Symbolists proposed art as the means for healing these humiliations. Ancient myths, in particular, provided alternative beliefs to such ‘affronts’ to human dignity. Symbolists assumed that ancient myths were still alive in ‘primitive’ cultures. Turning to mythology was therefore a way to reconnect with the lost innocence of culture before the advent of bourgeois civilization and the age of rationalism.
As Moreas was clear what Symbolism rejected, so he was equally clear what it advocated= its aim was to “clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form.” Thus the Symbolist painters invariably imbue their subject-matter with esoteric meanings. Odilon Redon sums up Symbolist art= it seeks “to make the invisible world visible.” Symbolism regards art as a metaphorical language which transcribes some expanded sense of reality– be that reality psychological, psychic, natural, cosmic, spiritual.
IV= Symbol As The Fuller Being We Have Lost
Evdokimov deploys insight derived from Greek Hellenism to amplify what symbols are doing, and why they are so necessary to human life=
“the idea of the beautiful is interchangeable with the idea of being; this means beauty is the final stage of the progression toward being; it is identical with the ideal wholeness and integrity of being. In contrast ugliness is a lack of being, its perversion by being deprived of an essential element” [p 19].
“An artist reveals the restored fullness of being and makes it possible for us to contemplate its ideal aspects. In the words of Baudelaire, the artist allows us to see ‘another nature’, a buried and hidden truth [of being vis a vis its urge toward wholeness]. ..The artist brings his light into darkness, but he neither reproduces nor copies. He rather creates forms perceivable by the senses, and these forms become containers of an ideal content. ..Art aspires to present a vision of the fullness of being, of the world as it [will] be in its perfection. Art thus opens the way toward the Mystery of Being” [p 20].
The ‘ideal’ to which Evdokimov refers is what Black Elk calls ‘the spirit shapes of things as they should be, and as they really are.’
The artist’s task is “to restore life to what is marvellous in the world”, so that “all things are seen in their secret beauty” [p 21].
“An artist lends us his eyes so we can see a fragment in which the whole is nonetheless present, as the sun is reflected in a drop of dew. Like a living person, the world turns toward us, speaks to us, sings to us, shows us its secret colours, and fills us with an overwhelming joy; our solitude is thus broken. We commune with the beauty of a countryside, with a face or with poetry in the same way we commune with a friend. We feel a strange relation with a reality that seems to be our soul’s homeland, once lost but now found. Art ‘dephenomenalises’ present reality, and as a result the whole world opens up to mystery. It is at this point that aesthetic experience reaches its limit and stops” [p 21].
Only God is reality, the world is fragile and ephemeral, thus the symbol hints at something more it cannot deliver. It takes us beyond the literal, but it can imprison us in a hall of mirrors reflecting mirrors, an endless, tantalising, plethora of possibility that is never grounded in ultimate reality, and therefore opposes the literal yet in floating free in an indeterminate half-way realm, with no real anchor, cannot undo people’s clinging to the literal. The symbolic becomes mere decoration, ‘to cheer things up a bit’, unable to overcome the profounder deadening of life.
V= The Ladder of Ascent and Descent
Karin Armstrong, in ‘The Case For God’ , demonstrates the necessity for the Apophatic, or ‘negative’, approach to God.
“Like Moses at the top of the mountain, we embrace the darkness and experience no clarity, but we know that, once we have rinsed our minds of inadequate ideas that block our understanding, we are somehow in the place where God is” [p 126].
“Once we have left the idols of thought behind, we are no longer worshipping a simulacrum, a projection of our own ideas and desires. There are no longer any false [mental constructions] obstructing our access to the inexpressible truth and, like Moses, forgetful of self, we can remain silently in the presence of the unknown God” [p 127].
St Dionysus= “Renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, [Moses] belongs completely to him who is beyond everything. Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united to the completely unknown by an inactivity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.”
St Dionysus uses the term ‘unknowing’ for the peculiar state we must enter in order to ‘know beyond the mind by knowing nothing.’
The anonymous author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ [circa 1300 AD], who translated the works of St Dionysus into Latin, instructs= do not seek God within or without. “Nowhere is where I want you.. So, let go this ‘everywhere’ and ‘everything’ for this ‘nowhere’ and this ‘nothing.’ Never mind if you cannot fathom this nothing.. It is so worthwhile in itself that no thinking about it will do it justice.”
The Cloud of Unknowing stems directly from the writings of St Dionysus [circa 529 AD] and the Cappadocians [St Gregory of Nyssa, 331-395 AD; St Basil the Great, 330-379 AD; St Gregory Nazianzus, 329-390 AD]. But the differentiation of the Apophatic Way of Negation and the Cataphatic Way of Affirmation has roots in the writings of Philo of Alexandria [30 BC-45 AD], a Hellenized Jew, three hundred years earlier. It is evident in Buddhism [500 BC], and in a different, more existential sense, in Judaism [2000 BC].
Once ‘rinsed’, we come into the actual presence of God.
Then God can reach out to us, and disclose and convey to us what is of God.
God is unknown so as to be really known.
The negative is for the sake of the positive= the negative banishes what is not God, so that the positive can manifest what is of God.
We enter the divine darkness in order to be illumined by the Light from God, and not return to lesser lights, be they from spirits, natural luminosities, or our own varied potencies, of senses, intellect, imagination, psychic radar, and all the rest. Plotinus= “reasoning is in abeyance and all intellection and even.. the very self; ..this is the true end of the soul: to see the Supreme by the Supreme and not by the light of any other principle.. But how is this to be accomplished? Strip yourself of everything” [‘Enneads’, VI, 9, p 11; V, 3, p 17].
The real self-abandonment to God, with its ex-stasis of ‘going out of the self’ to enter into union with God, is not easy. It is a ‘dying.’ It is this dying to self, this self-transcending, that allows us to pass on God’s Love. For we find in all other people, creatures, and things, the Beloved we were to God the Lover of All.
Once we see ‘the true Light’ of God, then we see this Light in all that God has created. We see everything in the Light of Love, and we take responsibility for all things. Our seeing is warmly loving, as well as spiritually perceptive, not hotly emotional nor coldly rational.
But the Apophatic can be over-done, and then the Cataphatic made possible by ‘rinsing’ is missed..
No Apophatic= idolatry. The ‘god’ we invent out of unconscious factors in us, biological, psychological, social, cultural.
The Angry Old Man in the Sky, or The Cuddly Santa Claus who would not say boo to a goose, are equally fictitious. Or= the Supreme Being among all the other beings, just One Supreme Object in a universe of objects [more infinite than finiteness, more eternal than temporality], merely one Superior Ego in a world of egos [the big boss ruling over all the competing contenders]= all this is human invention.
Only Apophatic= God becomes too remote and alien, too abstract, or too indifferent to our fate.
Apophatic= the Reality of God that is beyond us, and is not ‘made’ by us, nor ‘depends’ on us.
The Mystery of God.
Cataphatic= the Reality transcending everything that ex-statically passes out of itself, or beyond itself, in order to relate to us, in order to be known by us as we are known by it= in relationship, in participation, in communion.
The Mysterious Reality of God is Love.
Apophatic-and-Cataphatic= God does not only want to love us. God wants to be known by us, because God wants to be loved by us. We cannot love what we cannot know. Knowing serves love, even as love encourages knowing. This is why the ancient Jews equated mystical knowing with sexual congress= it involves an ex-stasis, a going out of self, on the part of God and on the part of humanity; we are met and meet, we are entered and enter, in the ex-stasis of loving.
In and through Love, which arouses our loving, we are contacted by and enter in to contact with, the God beyond all human knowing. St Gregory of Nyssa says that it is God’s desire for us that rouses in the soul our desire for God= “the true satisfaction of her desire consists in constantly going on with her quest and never ceasing in her ascent, seeing that every fulfillment of her desire continually generates further desire for the Transcendent” [‘Commentary On The Song Of Songs’].
‘Unknowing’ does not mean, therefore, ‘never to know.’ Nor should it be conflated with a very valuable willingness to admit to limits to all human knowledge, nor is it the very helpful ‘negative capability’ of John Keats. The ‘cloud of unknowing’ is the darkness, the emptiness, the silence, the absence of all positives which allows the real positive ‘incoming’ of God to be experienced, intuited, felt, seen, ‘known.’
We enter a ‘negative’ so that we do not confuse our usual positive — human construction and human construal — for the active outreach of God. By dwelling in the negative, the positive that arises in its ‘vacant space’ is from God.
The Apophatic is an acid bath which makes possible the ‘true’ Cataphatic.
Perhaps the worst side-effect of the Apophatic cure is that, if exercised severely and in hostility to the Cataphatic, it becomes impossible to speak of God meaningfully to anyone anywhere at any time. ‘He who knows does not speak. He who does not know speaks.’ But why say even this, then? If ‘silence in the mysterious presence of God’ is all we can ever attain in mysticism, then why speak of it at all? Indeed, shouldn’t we drop any pointers to the moon, to gaze directly upon the moon itself?
We can under-do the Apophatic. Then we get= idolatry, rationalism, fundamentalism, psychologicism, all of which reduce the Mystery of God.
But we can over-do the Apophatic. Then we do not realize that its denial of any positive assertion of God is what makes possible the real revelation, disclosure, manifestation, of God vis a vis all he has created. This throws Light on God and throws Light on the creation, at one and the same moment, because its purpose is to make known the joining of God and creation effected by Love.
The Love from God is always concerned with other persons, creatures, things, held in its embrace, not just with the particular soul receiving the blessings of Love. If the soul is first a daughter to the Mystery of God, then she can become the partner, the wife, of the ex-stasis of Love, and by virtue of that, she ends up the mother of all that Love attends to and cares for, for she attends to it and cares for it as God does, forgetting herself.
From 1000 AD onwards in the Christian West, there arose a split between a theology without the first-hand experience of mysticism, and a mysticism that conveys no knowledge of God relating to humanity, and humanity relating to God, fellow humans, and everything else, substituting for this what Karin Armstrong illustrates in the case of Richard Rolle [1290-1348 AD]= a spirituality of ‘urgent longing’, ‘interior sweetness’, ‘infusion of comfort’ and ‘perfervid love’ [p 149]. Armstrong comments= “A flood of pleasurable and consoling emotion would be seen by more and more people as a sign of God’s favour” [p 151]. This anti-theological spiritually that distorts ‘the felt desire’ for God would eventually produce Jacob Boehme, and CG Jung, and arguably even the Aryan Myth of the Nazis= psychological processes in the human unconscious are taken as ‘the god within.’ No other divinity, with a different claim on humanity other than fulfilling and augmenting the individual self, is recognized..
‘Dry as dust theology’ versus ‘pulsating charismatic mysticism’= a false, and destructive, split.
Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274 AD] illustrates the point of transition where the Christian West starts to lose the true Apophatic spirit in favour of a reversion to the philosophical rationality of Greek Hellenism. To be fair to Aquinas, he still talks about the Unknown God. But this is probably more an imitation of St Dionysus rather than a genuine experience of entry into ‘the cloud of unknowing’; and thus instead of the Cataphatic light emanating from the Apophatic dark, Aquinas follows up his bow in the direction of the Apophatic with the famous ‘5 proofs for the existence of God’, a series of spurious arguments which presuppose the metaphysics of Greek Hellenism. It was easy for subsequent Western ‘theologians’ to drop the concession to the Apophatic, and proceed to exclusively deploy the very kind of ‘positive’ thinking and terminology that the Apophatic rinsing is designed to get rid of, and banish forever.
We go up to God, shedding all forms and images, and then God descends to us, illuminating all forms and images with the divine Light, Love, Life. We see these forms and images as God sees them. Only Love, passed to us from God and passed on by us to everything, opens up the visionary, eikonic seeing.
The eikon is a paradox= God is unknowable; God is knowable through the Light, Love, Life, that not only shines out from all beings, things, creatures, but opens up face to face, ‘hypostatic’, encounter between God and humanity. It is this friendly and personal I—Thou meeting with God that humanity then seeks to establish, and live by, with all humans, with all of nature, with all the world of matter, space, time.
The eikon is “a presence and its shining meeting place.. the mystery become image” [Evdokimov, p 174].
The eikon is the Silence that Speaks to us, telling us vitally significant things about the divine, the created, and our own calling as in-between.
Thus through the eikon God’s creation as the ‘Book of Light’ is opened and becomes intelligible.
Black Elk spoke of ‘the strangeness and beauty of the earth.’ He was seeing, and speaking, in eikonic vein.
VI= Dangers of the Symbol
Symbols of what is beyond human comprehending by sensory and intellectual means are needed to remind us that there are unseen realities. As Evdokimov says, the soul feels an inexplicable affinity with these ‘more than the ordinary’ realities, as if the soul and they always belonged together= they are the soul’s homeland. Symbols show the fuller being that the soul, and the world, have lost, and yearn to reclaim.
But, such symbols are invariably open to multiple interpretations because the mysteries pointed at remain elusively out of reach of the pointer. In symbols, Mystery is quiescent, it has not ‘shown its hand.’ We are moving out of the everyday toward it, but it is not moving out of the beyond toward us. The Light has not dawned. St Gregory Palamas says of the Light= “whoever participates in [it] …becomes light himself. He is united to the light, and with the light he sees what is hidden to those who do not have this grace” [p 233].
Symbols are the menu of food, they are not the food itself.
Only in the eikonic image is the food delivered, and therefore restless seeking ends.
Evdokimov [p 235]= “The ikon is a ..representation that invites us to transcend the symbol and to enter into communion with the person represented, and to participate in the indescribable.”
Consequently, an eikon is always looking at us, directly addressing us, engaging with us, person to person. The Light is not impersonal. The Light knows our name. We are persons to the Light.
Three dangers arise from the situation where people do not move beyond the menu, but allow the menu to keep them salivating lifelong without eating.
Because symbols leave the mysteries they imply open-ended and ill-defined in regard to their ontology, such that the mystery does not ‘speak for itself’ or ‘disclose from itself’, there is a tendency for the ‘more than’ to be equated with merely a new view, new perspective, new meaning. Indeed, the expanded reality invoked by symbols ceases to be felt as a fullness of being, in the world and in oneself, and becomes reduced to so many different ‘versions’ of seeing reality. The ‘more than’ the everyday has no ontological stability and weightiness, thus only varied ontologically flimsy ‘alternate visions’ comfort us in our prison house, without implying there is a reality more than vision, anchoring vision= a reality with the power to transform the prison house. It then follows that all ‘versions’ of reality are equally valid, and all are alternate dreams, indeed alternate ‘consoling fictions.’ The eye ceases to see a new reality; the only new reality is the eye free to roam through alternate visions. They do not envision anything new ontologically. Hence symbolic imagination actually, despite enjoying the flapping of its wings, goes nowhere, and changes nothing basically; the wings of symbolic imagination mask an ultimate despair about the life that has to go on being lived on the ground. This is why Jung died in hopelessness, uttering with his last breath that his work had been a ‘failure.’
Symbols, in their indeterminacy, encourage syncretism. All symbols tend to be regarded as varied expressions of the one and same mysterious reality beyond them. Hence different spiritual systems – whether these be different religions such as Buddhism and Judaism, or different spiritual practices such as alchemy, yoga, theosophy, hesychism – are treated as equivalent. All are just ‘pointings’ at the moon, and no pointing is the moon.
If the mysterious reality cannot be unveiled more ‘in person’, on its terms not our terms, but in its terms relating and relevant to our terms, but can only be indirectly evoked, then differences of ‘expression’ in images and words do not manifest differences in the reality itself in what it offers to different humans.
But, are Celtic and Greek myths really parallel, with the same universal [archetypal] themes? Yes and No. Certain themes recur, yet there is something very bizarre and oddly distinctive about Celtic myths making them basically different to Greek myths.
There is a much bigger problem.
Syncretism rules out not only the freedom of God to give Eros to one people [Hindus and Greeks], and give the Daemonic to a different people [Jews and Christians], but it also eliminates the possibility of differences in Eros as it moves from the Orient toward the Occident. Eros is more Mother-Child in the Far East but becomes more Man-Woman as it moves Westward= contrast the Sufi path with the Buddhist path. Such differences are not absolute, but a matter of emphasis, and remain fluid, with no tight boundaries. A Buddhist can experience what Rumi experienced in Eros, and vice versa.
But syncretism rules out by definition, and in advance, the vast difference of the way the Daemonic ‘reveals’ itself and the way Eros ‘shows’ itself. Symbolism, by definition, tends to ignore and miss the Daemonic, reducing all manifestations of mysteriousness to manifestations of Eros. Worse, this stance rules out that Eros can do something new, and when it does, none of the ancient symbols will be adequate to even hint at it.
‘The Incarnation of the Logos in Yeshua’ is by no means merely another symbol. This momentous event is a new dispensation of the Light toward humanity. It is not equivalent with symbols pointing to a static, timeless, transcendental, realm far away. The Incarnation of the divine in the human is a huge step, something radically unique, which is done by God for humans. Therefore, whatever images or words or stories are used to convey it cannot have the same gravitas as ancient symbols, words, stories, that point at earlier dispensations of the Light toward humanity. Buddhism has its own eikons of the Light at work in the ‘essence’ of all things, bestowing upon them their quintessential quality which is also their excellence, their virtue, but this is not the Incarnation of the divine in the human. It is the Logos holding the logoi, the Word holding the words, the One holding the many. The Incarnation is more radical and bizarre than that; in the ringing declaration of St Athanasius= ‘God became man so that man might become God, through communion in the overflowing and outpouring grace of God.’
But the third danger of symbols never ontologically anchored is the most serious, more serious than relativism of seeing, and syncretism. This danger is evident in Symbolist art, and all its offshoots. Rejecting materialism, the Symbolists believed that nature and the human world had no inherent value other than its role in intimating the absolute. But if an object’s only value lies in its functional ability to disclose the absolute, then everything in the concrete world is little more than a hieroglyphic of some transcendent idea.
In short, symbols tend to encourage us to show interest only in some transcendent world, and its Platonic Ideas of beauty, goodness, rightness. This world of matter, space, and time, is devalued. Indeed, this world is easily devalued to the radical point where it becomes merely a dream, a fiction, an illusion. At best, mere signs of another reality, at worst delusion and folly.
As God is embodied in the humanity of Yeshua, so this prophetically foretells God’s coming embodiment in all flesh= humanity, nature, all creation. ‘God will be all in all.’ This universal Incarnation will be the Transfiguring of everyone and everything.
Thus, the eikon gains its most significant rationale from the Incarnation in Christ, for this anticipates the final Transfiguration of all persons, beings, creatures, things. This is the meaning of St Paul [Colossians, 1, 15] calling Christ ‘the visible image of the unseen God’, and ‘the firstborn of every creature.’ The divine-humanity is the eikonic prototype of what all humanity will become. St Paul also refers to this coming Transfiguration as ‘the glory that is to be revealed to us’ in Romans, 8, 18-23= “creation itself [subjected to futility and groaning in travail] will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” He includes ‘our bodies’ in redemption.
The eikonic vision of the whole ontology of the creation Transfigured means it is the true image; the idol is a false image; the symbol is an incomplete, and potentially misleading, image.
Such Transfiguration rules out relativism in viewpoints, syncretism, and the devaluing of matter. Most of all, it combats the despair lurking under all three dangers.
But each of us must make our own journey from symbol to the negative imageless unknowing and then moving to the positive visionary knowing.
It is vision which will render imagination ‘sanctified and sacred’, by opening up its symbols to the Light that fashioned their secrets. Much of the very richness of symbols can be wasted, like unpicked fruit rotting on the branch, until the Light illumines their meaning in the economia of the Transfigured Creation.
Thus, the approach to the creating and reading of symbols post-eikon is very different to that pre-eikon.
Without eikonic awareness, even sacred symbols, especially sacred symbols, remain un-illumined, and therefore are easily misread, sentimentalised, intellectualised, ignored.
The First Temple of Solomon portrayed the implicate design of human nature set within the implicate design of the creation, and the divine both at the centre of this totality and circumscribing it, like the arms of a parent holding a child.
But how many people entering any such sacred space can sense, feel, intuit, such richness of meaning? They don’t ‘get the message.’ If they did, their soul and body would vibrate to the big dance of energies wherein they were standing.
Wisdom, 7, 17-21= “I learned both what is secret and what is manifest.”
VII= The Limitation of the Eikon
The beauty of God manifested through the forms and images of the creation is in anticipation of ‘the new heaven and new earth’, the Transfigured creation, which will come at the End.
Therefore the eikon is paradoxical in terms of time. The Light radiating out from it is both a recovery of the Paradisiacal Beginning and a foretaste and prevision of the Transfigured End. It is what was, and what will be. It shows the Primal Light which humanity could actually see, so that God was a presence at the core of the fabric of the world, and was in that fabric as its subtext, its implicate foundation, its guiding inbuilt hands.
In Primal Awareness, humanity saw that its own being and the being of everything were bathed in the same unifying Light of God. The oldest paintings [30,000 BC] on the walls of caves far underground, shrouded in velvet darkness, depicts animals. These animals are eikonic. They are not symbolic. They have the ‘spirit shape’ of the actual horse, the real spirit essence of the animal that is incarnate in the body and therefore allows the animal to run. These eikonic images of animals have life, movement, soul, and even look out, sometimes, in their own hypostatic manner.. Humans are barely portrayed, often only stick figures, indicating that the beholder is not self-consciously wrapped up in their own problems, and aspirations, thus unable to see the ‘splendour in the grass’ right in front of them. As with haiku poetry which is also eikonic, not symbolic, the gaze does not enumerate the outward but penetrates the outer, seeing the inner in the outer, and witnessing the Mystery of Love that ‘holds’ everything.
However, there is something that the Light of the eikon cannot illuminate, nor change.
The depth of hell into which humanity has fallen, in and through the heart, cannot be plumbed or fathomed by the Light of Love. It can only be searched out, taken on, battled, and undermined in its grounding, by the Fire of Love. Between the Light shining in things of the Beginning, and the Light joined with things of the End, there is a terrible and crippling hiatus. The Fall has to be Redeemed by Fire, or the loss of the Original Light in which humanity and everything bathed together, sharing its abundance, will remain lost, and the Final Light will not come. For, the Light at the End of time can only arrive through the Victory of the Fire in the Middle of time.
Only in a few eikons, and then by accident, does the black and red of the fighting and suffering passionateness of Fire enter. This has happened mainly with warrior eikons, though the face of John the Baptist on an eikon kept at St Catherine’s monastery near Mt Sinai exemplifies it no less. This is not surprising. John the Forerunner was warrior and prophet. Moreover, Greek eikons are usually more dynamic than immobile Russian eikons, and in this way, Fire is invoked. This is evident in the Greek eikon of Christ ‘dragging’ Adam and Eve, with great forcefulness, out of hell. Christ’s face is not contemplatively at peace, nor is it in contemplative stillness, rather, it is passionately concentrated, but it is the body that carries the energy of his passion combating the hellishness in which Adam and Eve have been stuck.
Light is not enough to redeem the Fall of humanity. But this means that Light, on its own, cannot deify the human venture. On this point Evdokimov is radically in error, as is that stance in Eastern Orthodox Christianity which sees ‘crucified love’ only as the Light stooping down to our unenlightened state, to bring us up from, and out of, its darkness. This is the Salvation that betters our condition, but the price of doing that is to leave the heart in hell. The Light is a warm Love, but only the Fire is a burning Love. It takes Holy Burning to undergo and defeat hellish burning.
Deification of humanity is not through the Light, it is through the Fire.
The deification supposedly accomplished by the Light can only raise human nature up to the Light= this has no depth. The deification actually accomplished by the Fire loses all Light, in order to search out, to fathom, the depth. The Fire of God combats the fire of hellishness, suffering it to overthrow it, convicted by it to undermine it.
This is why deification cannot happen through the contemplative quiet of the monastic life; it has to come through the active involvement of passionate struggling in the world.
The contrast is marked in Evdokimov’s inability to look down into the real hell. He reduces it to the Greek Hades or Jewish Sheol, merely the first rung of the deepest rungs of hell=
“Light makes every person alive, making him present; he is thus the one who sees and is seen by the other, the one who lives with and ‘toward’ the other, the one existing in the other. On the other hand, hell – the Greek Hades or the Jewish Sheol – designate a darkened place where solitude reduces a person to the extreme emptiness of demonic solipsism where no one’s look crosses another’s” [p 5]. But this is not what Hades is to the heart, and it ignores the tortured Furnace and the empty Abyss.
The Light’s remedy for ‘demonic solitude’ is the restoration of relationship. Not surprisingly, Evdokimov locates this medicine in the Temple “which is already a fragment of eternity.. It calls us to a radical turn around.. in human relations, to ‘the sacrament of the brother’, ..to.. compassion and tenderness toward all creatures” [p 149]. This healing is Eros, and ignores the Daemonic redemption. Healing human relations has been a major concern of twentieth century thought and practice, with Martin Buber pre-eminent, but many psycho-therapists [Object Relations= Fairbairn et al] and philosophers [Phenomenology= Merleau-Ponty et al] making important contributions. None of this plumbs the hell in the human heart.
Eastern Orthodox Christianity has rightly stressed human deification in Christ, but it has, mainly under the influence of the monks, articulated the wrong doctrine of deification. It is only through the heart — not through soul and body, soul and nous – that divinisation happens. This is why there must be hell. We endure hell for the sake of the real deification.
Why hell? That we are in hell, that anyone has to be subject to hell, is our desperate cry, and one among the long list of ‘blasphemous’ objections to God.
We cannot stand it, we complain..
But complaining does not change it. We bear it, even as we say we cannot bear it.
There is the most secret wisdom of all, the most hidden treasure, in hell, when we plumb its fathomless deeps and pass through it with the Messiah.
Hell exists for our deification. There is no other way that the radical love redeems the radical freedom in the Abyss.
The eikon shows the Transfigured being, nature, life, in humanity and in all creatures and things– but only if the unportrayable dark Fire wins in the Abyss. Then, only then, does the Light return to complete its work.
This is why St Paul told the Greeks [1 Corinthians, 15, 3] that the Cross of Christ is of “the first importance”= primary, fundamental, important before anything else. It was this Cross which many prominent Greco-Roman writers of the day mocked, jeered at, dismissed as ‘depraved and excessive superstition’, ‘a most mischievous superstition’, and many other fulminations against such a ‘cruel and ugly’ reality.
Hell is not punishment by the wrath of God which must be appeased. Hell is the existential condition of the human heart that fails to hit the mark of its calling, that betrays its own deepest fire of action ‘for a mess of potage.’ Yet this betrayal is played upon and amplified by ‘the evil one’ and becomes institutionalized, set in stone, ‘the only reasonable way to proceed.’
The Cross is the divine and human conjoint pathos necessary to undo the binding of humanity to an evil grounding for existing in the world.
St Gregory of Nyssa [‘Against Eunomius’, 5; PG, 44, 1289]= “The fire that is hidden and as it were smothered under the ashes of this world.. will blaze out and with its divinity burn up the husk of death.”
Thus Eastern Orthodox Christian Tradition says of the fallen world that it is ‘a still smouldering flame beneath a hard crust of ashes.’ Only the Cross can reignite the flame almost gone out. This is the Fire of Spirit which Christ came into the world ‘to kindle.’
1 John, 3, 8= “To this end was the Son of God manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil.” St Symeon the New Theologian comments [in ‘The Sin Of Adam’, p 48]=
“..for those [who are] called Christians, and do [the] works of the devil, what benefit is there from the fact that they are called Christians, when the manifestation of the Son of God has not destroyed in them [the] works of the devil?
If anyone will say that some of those who are like this [nevertheless] explain the Divine Scripture, theologize, preach Orthodox dogmas– let them know that it is not in this that the work of Christ consists. John the Theologian does not say, to this end was the Son of God manifested, that certain ones should theologize and orthodoxize [pride themselves on their orthodoxy].. The Son of God, the Word, did not become man in order only that men should believe in the Holy Trinity, glorify it, and theologize about it, but in order to destroy the works of the devil.”
This raises a question in regard to the Light so pre-eminent in the Sacred Temple.
Why do eikons not present hell in its real existential agony? By refusing to permit this, neither do they present the Fire that redeems hell from within its abysmal profundity. In eikons of the Crucifixion, the Abyss below the Cross is sketchily present, yet not delved in any fullness. The mystery of what happens ‘down there’, between Christ’s death and resurrection, has a veil drawn over it.
Is this playing up of the Light, and playing down of the Fire, a limitation inherent to the Sacred Temple? Does its very Sacredness exclude the extreme Holiness?
Or is there a rationale for it?
It could be that the Temple cannot do its job if it admits hell into its sacred precincts. Witness how the false hells – the endless threats of damnation — of the Western churches have driven out the real Light. It breaks through occasionally, but these spaces dominated by hellish terror of God do not enlighten those cowering in them.
Yet if the Temple excludes the real hells so heartbreaking in the very ground of the human condition, can the Temple do its job? Not if it is a Jewish—Messianic Temple.
This is a paradox, an antinomy, a contradiction.
What the Temple is most at home with is Beginning and End, First Sacred Garden and Final Holy City. That is its emphasis on the Light.
The Light unveils all things as they really are. It does not idealise nor romanticise. It is loving yet real= it unveils the corpse being eaten by maggots as it unveils the dew on the rose petals reflecting the early morning sun. Nothing is shunned, nothing is avoided, nothing is repulsive and repudiated, everything is accepted and ‘brought to light’ for what it is.
Hell is the absence of God.
The Temple is the place of the presence of God.
Thus in the Temple the absence of God is difficult to ‘include.’ Its ugliness, its despair, in a real sense has the power to invalidate, or negate, the transformational space of the Sacred.
Why is this?
However much Christ has, as the Redeemer, passed through and accomplished ‘the harrowing of hell’, as the West terms it, this is opening up a road where previously no road existed, but as yet, only the Redeemer has walked it, and it cannot be victorious unless all of humanity, not just a few, walk it according to the Messianic Example and by the propulsion of the Messianic Spirit. Christ crucified is the power and wisdom of God, but this power and wisdom remains secret until each one of us, and over the long haul of time, all of us, follow its Way, Truth, Life.
What the Temple finds unbearable to face is that Christ’s victory in hell remains provisional, since it is not won in the rest of humanity. Indeed, it might never be won, and therefore it might ultimately be defeated in the End. Christ’s victory is not unilateral, something done for us which lets us off the hook of following its lead, but is ‘theandric’, something that is dialogical which needs us to complete what it initiated. Christ’s deed is done with us, through our entering in to it and cooperating with it. Yet this leaves the journey and battle toward the real celebration suspended, in doubt, at risk, to the very end.
The Temple can hope in everyone joining in, but it cannot pre-empt human freedom. This is why the universal redemption cannot be a part of the Temple’s dogma. It cannot pre-empt what no one knows. Yet most Orthodox saints not merely hoped for, but had faith in universal redemption. Why?
This is faith not only in God, actively at work with wisdom and power in Christ’s redeeming deed, it is also faith in the human heart.
Indeed, oddly, it is faith in something God has planted, as seed and spark, in the very defeat of the human heart in hell.
Only on Holy Saturday of Passion Week does the Temple refer to this most ultimate, and terrible, of all the mysteries it has been vouchsafed.
The secret of Fire is proclaimed in the liturgical prayer– yet briefly, circumspectly, without any triumphalism which would be ‘premature’, and disrespect how awful it really is, still, in the hell of the heart.
The prayer announces that God’s wisdom and power is a ‘secret’ hidden in hell, once Christ has gone through hell. This secret is the factor the devil has not counted on, and which no amount of jeering at the futility of the Cross, and despairing over the gap between Christ’s redeeming action and the human response to it, can cancel out.
This points to a supreme irony.
Symbols not only point to various levels and kinds of reality. They also hide a buried intimation of mysteries belonging only to the future, once redemption is pervasive in all humanity.
In this sense, the Temple guards secrets of the victory of Christ not ‘for’ us all, but ‘in’ us all. These symbols cannot be unpacked until we all, each and every one of us, tests the harrowing of hell in our own existence, in our own plunging into and passing through hell.
When we are living this, then those few cryptic symbols in the Temple foreseeing victory for all, not for Christ alone, nor for a few around Christ, come alive for each and for all.
In our very heartbreak, these symbols of a future victory are not illumined by the Light, but they leap into vivid burning reality through the Fire.
The Apocalypse of John of Patmos is one of these future symbols that cannot be illumined by the Light in Christ, but can be brought to life when we are living what Christ lived, passing through what Christ passed through, losing what he lost, enduring what he endured, passionately risking our future to his passionate risk for the future. This is why Christ warns those who dare to call themselves Christian= “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be” [John, 12, 26].
In hell, only in hell, will the Fire unlock the secrets that the symbols of the future have kept hidden, the secrets that will help us go on, and go through, to the End.
These symbols of the future are the secrets of the poem of grief and fire our life becomes only in hell.