Is the use of icons for devotion acceptable for Christians?
I can clearly remember the the time I stood under the Sistine Chapel and looked up and the masterpiece of vibrant colors and elaborate storytellings done by the hand of Michelangelo. As I looked at the looked at the white-bearded man straining to reach the distracted looking youth in the center of the chapel I remember thinking, "Is this what God truly looks like?" For centuries humans have used visual cues to represent the deity. Honestly, what other way do humans have to represent but through avenues of experiences (be it visual, written, or sound)? When it comes to the topic of icons, humanities history of representing the unseen has be under scrutiny. Often times this is for good reason, for humanity has a standing history of being lured to worship idols of various shapes and sizes. Icons do have a place in worship and are acceptable for they are the means by which humanity communicates the unseen and the unknown; however when that devotion towards icons turns into idolatry, icons serve as a hinderance. As stated by iconoclasts themselves, "no painting or statue could ever be an image of Christ" (Pelikan, 109). When dealing with icons it must be recognized that they are filtered through a human interpretation, and therefore will not fully represent the divine. However, there is still great use in their ability to remind, storyteller, and provoke theological discussions.
As mentioned, humanity experiences the world through their senses. There is a beautiful process of the spirit working inside us guide how we feel and think, but nothing beats the process of experience. "When Christ said, 'Blessed are your eyes… and ears,' he gave his endorsement to the quest for beatitude through seeing, and therefore for the use of icons" (Pelikan, 121). Icons, when used appropriately and within reasons, are tools by which humanity tells the story of the divine. Michelangelo, through the visual means of the Sistine Chapel, told the story of man's sin, God providence, and the need for Jesus all through images; a story that could be read by both the literate and illiterate. This is the magnitude of images such as the cross. By simply showing the cross, one can communicate God's justice and God's mercy; God's love and God's wrath through one simple image. The danger comes when one worships the cross and not the man who hung on it. This is the danger in all icons, though. When you worship the image outside of the message the image is attempting to tell, you have misplaced your usage of icons. This is true for images of Mary, mother of Jesus, the cross, and saints. The usage of icons should be for the enhancement of worship, not simply running back towards idolatry (Pelikan, 94).
As I stood under the muscular men and winged babies of the Sistine Chapel I remember thinking that this was/is the Bible for someone. For those who were illiterate throughout history, or those of different faiths and backgrounds who stand under the history of the Christian movement without ever having read a Bible, are in the presence of God and his story with humanity. Images are powerful and can be extremely useful. True, this is most likely not what God looks like, feeding into St. Epiphanius skepticism of God being in the image of humankind (Jurgen, 75). However, this is what Michelangelo knows and imagines about God and it does not hurt us to put this in our arsenal of how we image our creator. The trick is moving past the limitation that images place on the limitless God. Sure, God can be manifested or imagines as a chiseled elderly man, wearing Greek robes, and sporting a flowing white beard. However, this is not the image of God that my friend Esau who lives in Swaziland, Africa holds. In fact, his image of God might scare many of us, but this is what Esau knows and understands about God, and I would never want to change that perspective. God can not be held down by the images humanity creates, but can use them to continually reveal himself to his creation. Icons help make God relatable and real for a people who live and die by what they can see, hear, taste, smell and touch. Like through Jesus, icons help humanity experience and join the story of God.