Finding Freedom Through Imagination
Monotheism has a conflictual relationship with imagining God and the divine.
The pagan cultures that predate them venerated religious images of their plurality of Gods. Judaism is clear in Exodus 20:
Do not have any other gods before Me. Do not represent [such] gods by any carved statue or picture of anything in the heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water below the land. Do not bow down to [such gods] or worship them. I am God your Lord, a God who demands exclusive worship.
Mohammed (peace be upon him) was compelled to differentiate himself from the Pagans of his era too. Removing the idols from the Ka’ba in Mecca established Islam as an iconoclastic tradition. Muslims are forbidden from depicting living beings in their sacred spaces. There are no images of God or Mohammad (PBUH) either.
This wasn’t as true of Christianity. From the very beginning, images of Jesus and Mary were important, especially as it gained converts from Greek and Roman culture quite comfortable with visual and representational art. Likely affected by Islam, the Christian Byzantine Iconoclasm had two spasms of destroying icons, the first between 726-787 and the second 814-842. Differences in icons was part of the schism between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches. The Protestant Reformation took it even further, eliminating all personal representations of God, Jesus and Mary. Two of the most extreme are the icon-less Lutheran and Calvinist churches. The European Enlightenment, guided by science and reason, also attacked and belittled fetishizing religious art.
Their concerns have merit. The act of praying using an icon as one’s focus can deceive the worshipper into believing the icon is the divine figure rather than a representation. Patriarchal Protestants also didn’t like Catholic women praying to images of Mary rather than Jesus, the proper intermediary with God.
The combination of these iconoclastic religious traditions and scientific materialism debunking any special spiritual power an icon might possess has profoundly undercut many people’s ability to use images to express their religious feelings, beliefs and faith. These iconoclasts pay a price by limiting their imaginations. This is especially true of individuals who are concrete thinkers and don’t find inspiration in intellectual creeds, doctrines, sermons and theologies.
Unitarian Universalists historically have had strong iconoclastic tendencies. Strains of Puritan iconoclastic influences have left their mark on us. The scientifically minded among us object to the magical thinking involved in praying to statues or portraits of divine figures. We’re quite cautious about putting sacred images on our walls. Like Muslims, we are more comfortable with abstract forms.
Well, it is time for us to consider confronting our fear of images. The veneration of images can be a transformational component of our spiritual lives. Our imagination can free us from limiting views and beliefs.
I know this may sound heretical but sacred images can help us gain access to our imaginations. Many people, including UUs, find having an altar in their homes with inspirational images or beads and stones to touch inspires them in a way that nourishes their spiritual lives. They remind us of meanings and values for our lives that lift us above the profane images our materialistic society uses to stimulate our greed, hatred and delusion.
This month take the blinders off and allow your imagination to roam. Let it roam where it finds nourishment in color and texture, in representations of the sacred and the holy. Allow sensory, aesthetic experience to free you from the limitations of language to communicate the nature and being of Ultimate Reality, of God, of the greatness of being itself.
Words are quite limited in their ability to express the fulness of what is beyond us. Wordless imagination can exceed their power and help us find freedom.