The following is an expanded version of the introductory remarks delivered at Image’s Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on July 27, 2009. The theme for both the workshop and Image’s twentieth anniversary year, now concluding, was “Fully Human: Art and the Religious Sense.”
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a bishop of the early church, didn’t have it easy. For one thing, he’d left the thriving, well-established Christian community in Asia Minor for what was, in essence, missionary territory. Lyons was hardly the back of the beyond—it was, in fact, a thriving commercial center in southern Gaul that did a lot of trade with the East, which was why Christianity could slip in so easily. But if the bourgeois cosmopolitanism of the city offered opportunities for the fledgling church, it also posed its own set of challenges.
Irenaeus found himself dividing his time between spreading the gospel, helping his community endure the waves of brutal persecution that came as the mood struck various Roman emperors, and responding to the competition—the exotic cults and religious fads that might be thought of as the Roman Empire’s equivalent of the New Age.
Things had been rather different back home. There the church already had a history. Born in the first half of the second century, Irenaeus had, as a young man, listened to the preaching of the renowned bishop of Smyrna, Saint Polycarp. Polycarp was already an old man by that time; he had been a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, who had known the Lord. (Polycarp was eventually burned at the stake—and it is possible that Irenaeus also died a martyr’s death.)
Imagine the young bishop struggling to build a church in the bustling city of Lyons, just after the latest persecution had taken several dozen members of his community. If ever a person had the right to feel embattled and pessimistic, consumed by a sense of futility and the darkness of human nature, it was Irenaeus.
But in his famous treatise Against the Heretics, written in the year 185, Irenaeus uttered these astonishing words: Gloria Dei vivens homo.
“The glory of God is man fully alive.” This sentence has haunted me ever since I heard it many years ago.
What does it mean? Irenaeus wrote those words in response to one of the other popular cults of the time, gnosticism. The gnostics held that the created order—matter itself—was evil, and that salvation could only come through a secret knowledge of how to escape into a purely spiritual realm. The gnostics tended to assert that Jesus was not fully incarnate as a human being but something more like a ghostly projection—like the hologram of Princess Leia in the first Star Wars movie.
Distant and alien as the gnostics may appear to modern sensibilities, their way of thinking has a familiar ring. They tended to split into two camps: those who became dissolute libertines—why not indulge this flesh from which we will eventually escape?—and hyper-moralistic ascetics who forbade marriage and sexual intercourse and ate only the blandest foods.
Here it is possible to feel Irenaeus as our contemporary, because there are plenty of gnostics left these days, whether of the hedonistic or moralistic sort. The modern cult of the supermodel manages to combine both strands into one: a highly sexualized body that is simultaneously anorexic.
This may sound odd, but I believe that the problem today isn’t that people don’t have a sufficient understanding of spirituality; it’s that we don’t understand our own humanity.
Perhaps that’s why Irenaeus’s belief that the glory of God is man fully alive sounds scandalous to our ears. Like the gnostics, most of us tend to be pretty harsh on the subject of the human condition, whether we are religious believers or not.
We inherit a tradition which says that we are made in the image and likeness of God, but we are not comfortable in our own skins. Or as Walker Percy used to put it, we don’t coincide with ourselves.
For most of us, the discomfort is not so much with the big sins of violence and betrayal. What tend to get us down are the quotidian frustrations of our own embodiedness, and therefore of contingency, limitation, dependence, need. We are creatures driven by desire but so easily disappointed, even when we get what we think we want.
Which is where the gnostic temptation enters in. If the human condition is lost and alienated, then the alternative is to seek refuge in one aspect of our natures, and so we strive to become either beasts or angels—alternatives that our culture provides us in abundance.
Popular culture thrives by creating the myth of invulnerability—to time, the effects of aging on the body, financial insecurity, you name it.
Its goal is to create an immortal beast.
Religious culture often seeks the same sort of invulnerability, but from the opposite angle, asking us to live in the spiritual abstractions of apologetics and moralism, creating an ideological ghetto, a fortress impervious to doubt and ambiguity.
Its goal is to create mortal angels.
In Christian circles, the gnostic tendency is remarkably persistent; the realm of spirit is always elsewhere, beyond the circumstances of the human condition. And so you hear believers speaking earnestly about why we should be wishing for “the world as it ought to be.”
While I respect the intentions behind this sort of thinking, I find it misguided. There is some value in pointing out the disparity between what we are capable of being and what we actually are, but the danger of this mentality is that it leads us away from the essential truth of our embodied, contingent selves, toward some ethereal realm outside our present experience. Gnosticism has a way of sneaking in the back door.
But what if these conditions are, in the end, gifts—the very means by which we become fully alive? What if grace enters in and through these limitations? What if this is what Irenaeus was getting at? The religious sense, inherent in human nature, grows out of the awareness of our dependence; it is marked by an intuition that existence itself is a gift and that the proper response to it is wonder. Luigi Giussani once made the disconcerting claim that “the beggar is the protagonist of history,” an assertion that probably won’t be found in too many textbooks. But it has an oddly compelling logic and brings to mind the image of Saint Francis, wallowing in the dirt, ecstatic and free. There was a man who coincided with himself.
What we need is not the notion of a world that ought to be but the capacity to see the dimension of grace irradiating the world that is. It seems to me that if we are to be redeemed, it must be in and through the way we are.
A few years ago a holy priest from Italy was on a visit to the American southwest and had to pass through Las Vegas on his way to a retreat in the desert. When his hosts showed him, with no little trepidation, the bizarre panoply of greed, vanity, and fantasy upon which the city rests (a city that Saint Irenaeus would have recognized and understood), he had one simple response.
“My God,” he said, “these people are all thirty seconds away from salvation.”
I think he is right. Our humanity—the human heart—is constituted by certain elementary needs—for happiness, justice, beauty. The tired old Christian approach of moralistic condemnation of the wrong pathways to the satisfaction of these needs misses the point.
What we need to see is the inherent religious sense in human beings; we need to awaken the connection between desire and its home in God. Nor, except in the rarest of cases—and here I’m thinking of certain mystics—can that pathway to God be found except in and through “the things of this world.”
In order to refute the gnostics, Irenaeus had to prove that God himself chose to accept the limits and contingencies of a human life. The gnostics, rejecting embodiment, relegate God to a sphere beyond the created order, which only those with esoteric knowledge can discover. But for Irenaeus this is a fatal rejection of the world and our place in it. The words that follow his statement that the glory of God is man fully alive are: “and the life of man consists in beholding God.”
To demonstrate that our beholding of God is not like watching a hologram, Irenaeus goes back to Genesis. When Moses encounters God on the mountain top, Irenaeus notes, he is told to plant himself within a cleft in the rock. While Moses is rooted there, God will allow him to see his “back parts.” Using a richly metaphorical form of biblical interpretation, Irenaeus sees that cleft in the rock as symbolic of the human condition itself. Moses is granted only a partial view, but in the incarnation, Christ himself enters the cleft of the rock. “Through the wisdom of God,” Irenaeus writes, “man shall see him…in the depth of a rock, that is, in his coming as a man.”
The bishop of Lyons may not have considered the Bible a work of literature, but his method is profoundly literary. Which is why we might say that writers and artists are uniquely situated to help us achieve the perception of grace within contingency.
The film director Akira Kurosawa said that the “artist is the one who does not look away.” The artist maintains her gaze at human neediness and dependency, and through the honesty and beauty of the form she creates, enables us to connect that need with its true source and lasting fulfillment.
The artist works in an incarnational medium, profoundly aware of contingency and embodiedness. And yet art’s very greatness is the way that it can adumbrate the presence of grace in and through the messiness of our lives.
If this is not true, then the doctrine of the incarnation is meaningless.
This is another place where gnosticism creeps in. We don’t look at the incarnation rightly. We see it as the divine descending, perhaps condescending, to the human level—as if Jesus had to hold his nose while taking human form.
The church fathers, including Irenaeus, did not see it that way. According to the ancient and authoritative Athanasian Creed, Christ’s incarnation means that human and divine are “One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God….”
In short, to paraphrase the art historian Hans Rookmaaker, “Christ did not come to make us Christians; he came to make us human beings.”
The artist does not show us the world as it ought to be; she shows us the world as it is, here and now, and enables us to see that our redemption is always present, always available. It is not a message to be communicated but a presence and a mystery to be experienced—in the flesh. Art, as a fleshly medium, is one place where presence and mystery can be encountered and received.
We are all thirty seconds away from salvation.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.