"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Politics of Iconoclasm and the Modernity of the Nation-State

A quarter-century ago now, Alasdair MacIntyre, widely recognized as the most influential moral philosopher of the last half-century, wrote that "no coherent political imagination is any longer possible for those condemned to inhabit, and to think and act in terms of the modernity of the twentieth-century nation-state." For that nation-state has been created by, and in the image of, the liberalism of the so-called Enlightenment and it has such monopolistic powers that it obviates all alternatives, leading to the "imaginative sterility of the modern state," which can only be resisted and outwitted through the creation of new local forms of community beyond the state's reach and imaginative power, a power that is such that it arouses in the hearts and minds of millions the willingness to kill themselves on its behalf, as MacIntyre puts it in a famous passage frequently quoted:
The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on its behalf… [I]it is like being asked to die for the telephone company ("Poetry as Political Philosophy: Notes on Burke and Yeats," published in 1988 and republished in 2006 in The Tasks of Philosophy: Volume 1: Selected Essays).
This is not, of course, some kind of "conservative" rant against "big government" or the "welfare state" or some kind of "liberal" rant against "militarism." MacIntyre argues that all politics is flawed today: "Modern systematic politics, whether liberal, conservative, radical, or socialist, simply has to be rejected from a standpoint that owes genuine allegiance to the tradition of the virtues; for modern politics itself expresses in its institutional forms a systematic rejection of that tradition" (After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory).

These thoughts of MacIntyre, who has done more to shape my own thinking about politics and philosophy than anyone (but whose political arguments are not without problems, as this very perceptive essay carefully shows), came back to me recently as I just finished reading a compelling and fascinating new book: James Noyes, The Politics of Iconoclasm: Religion, Violence and the Culture of Image-Breaking in Christianity and Islam (I.B. Tauris, 2013), 288pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
From sixteenth-century Geneva to urban developments in Mecca today, The Politics of Iconoclasm offers a bold and original history of image-breaking and of the culture of violence and its paradoxical roots in the desire for renewal. Examining these dynamics of nationhood, technology, destruction and memory, a historical journey is described in which the temple is razed and replaced by the machine.
This is a fascinating book whose central thesis is that any outbreak of iconoclasm--whether in Calvinist Geneva, Wahhabist Afghanistan, revolutionary France, Nazi Germany, or the Balkans in the 1990s--is always the prelude to political reconfigurations and the emergence of a new state or new state actors. The theological arguments about icons and iconoclasm are in fact secondary in this book: "a study of iconoclasm must examine such acts as political statements against authority as much as theological statements against the mediation of divine beauty" (12). He goes on to note that in many cases it is difficult if not impossible to isolate one single cause of, or reason for, iconoclasm, but that it is often motivated by a tangle of theo-political reasons. In, e.g., Geneva of the sixteenth century, "beginning with the attack on Geneva's St. Pierre Cathedral in 1535," it was then, and remains today among historians, difficult to know "whether Calvinist iconoclasm had primarily religious or political motives" (14).

This mention of the cathedral of St. Pierre brought back a powerful memory for me. I was in Geneva in 1992 as a freshman undergraduate attending a meeting of the World Council of Churches, and I wandered over one afternoon to the cathedral to see it. At that time, I had never heard of "iconoclasm" and knew nothing about it in its Byzantine expressions; my ignorance of Calvinism was only slightly less--though I had heard hoary tales about Calvinists in Scotland from my Glaswegian grandmother, who thought them rather insufferable and who used to suffer their taunts at being a "crypto-papist" for belonging to the Scottish Episcopal Church (which has rarely if ever been a hotbed of "high" church practices comparable to the so-called Anglo-Catholics). I had heard, too, of how the churches of the continental Reformation, particularly in Switzerland, were usually much more spartan inside than the relatively "high" Anglican church of my upbringing with its wonderful carved rood-screen, neo-Gothic structures, stained glass windows, and frescos and mosaics covering virtually every inch of wall space. Having come from such a sensually rich parish, nothing prepared me for the shock of the cathedral in Geneva: I found it an acutely cold and barren place for reasons I could scarcely articulate then. Indeed, I have never, before or since, been in such a frigid, vacuous building, though I have been in many Protestant churches of various traditions. The Geneva cathedral felt as though there remained in her cold, lapidary walls a palpable memory of the "iconographic violence" done to them and the rest of the building.There was indeed a very strong sense of an "absent presence" so to speak. I could not wait to leave the building, and could not then, nor certainly now, understand how anyone could find such a place a warm, inviting, or remotely compelling place to worship. I know that one can worship God in a forest, in Auschwitz or the Gulag, in jail, or in much more modest surroundings than, say, the Vatican basilica or Hagia Sophia or Westminster Abbey or Chartres, but why would one want to? If, to use the familiar line from Dostoevsky, "beauty will save the world," then the house of God should be as beautiful as possible.

But let me not lapse here into sermonizing. Let me instead commend this book that insightfully traces the complex relations between Church and state--or, better, between "religion" and "politics"--in various times and places. It is an important book and deserves a place in courses not only on iconoclasm, but also political theology, and art history. If time permits, I will say more about Noyes' book in the weeks ahead as I am preparing a public lecture on iconoclasm.

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