Monday, September 11, 2006

Sharp Pointed Feathers Falling from the Sun

"Symbols are sharp-pointed feathers shed by eagles in flight, charismatic as Uzbeks who befriend every ripple of the mighty wave. Bot to awaken a race of star buds in half-sukn crystals: dim your eye's labyrinthine cavity." - Daniel Libeskind, p. 29, Fishing From the Pavement.

So I was recently having an email conversation with a friend from church. Mentioned to him in the midst of my saying that narcissim is different from pride that, in a sense, the Romans and Moderns were idolators, and the Greeks were not. Of course, he begged to differ, which lead to the following (some of the content refers to the substance of previous emails to which the audience is not privy, but I hope you will get the point). Also, in a recent post, entitled "Well Shit, I Suddenly Have Less To Talk About", I made reference to my ballooning arrows becoming sharpened stones with a target. You should have seen the rambling and relatively directionless email that preceeded this one, making this one necessary ("Hey, I'm learning!):

"I want to clarify and/or narrow the point of what I meant in saying what I said about the Greeks. Was reading some N.T. Wright on the plane today, and he helped me to really focus in on the direction of my arrow here...

So, I was simply saying that "idols" of the Greeks are not fixed images, but, like the actions and works of Jesus, symbolic pointers to actual events mysteriously initiated by forces beyond those who crafted the "idols" or symbols, therefore pointing also not primarily to the actual events but to the gods or goddesses themselves. Take, for example, the statue of Athena at the Parthenon. Similar the the Isreali Temple's being built in commemoration for the Isreal's God did for Isreal and through which He plans to bless all the nations, the Parthenon and Athena's statue were built in commemoration of Athena's sweeping down and helping the Athenians be freed of the Persians in battle/war, in commeoration of an actual event through which the goddess actually moved in history. Each aspect of the statue is symbolic of an action or characteristic of Athena, to whom the Athenians owed their victory.

Compare that, for example, to a the typical Roman practice of building a Triumphal Arch to bring the 'good news' of victory in battle. First of all, it's, figuratively, an arch. The columns of the Parthenon, first and foremost, are listening to the evenets that arise upon the horizon, are recieving openly. The arch, figuratively, is, in imitation of the heavens, reaching across the whole, just as Rome conqured the whole of the known world (a precursor to the modern quest toward systematization). Secondly, like Trajan's Column for another example, the scenes depicted upon the artifact are not of any god or goddess and in commoration of any god or goddess, but are scenes of battle and the people (Romans and their enemies) fighting in it. I haven't studied these Triumphal Arches in detail, so I can't say for sure, but my guess is that the Roman god of war would still appear on the artifact, but not in the scene. Probably actually as a separate and detatched angelic little figure perched atop the whole artifact as if looking down upon the scene and watching passively; either that or as like a detached face fixed upon the side of the artifact, but again not as a central part of the scene, but off in the margins somewhere.

It is also here relevant that the scenes depicted in both the Parthenon and the Roman artifacts are sculpted in relief (well, the Greek scenes are done mostly in relief, but not entirely, as there is a play between the images being in relief in relation to stone of the templanum - the surface of the Pediment upon which the scene is depicted - and the images being free standing, casting a shadow upon the templanum, the shadows of which themselves are then also put into the play), but that the Roman reliefs are much deeper - meaning that the images stand out much more confidently as if they have more of an existence on their own apart from the other Realm from which they emerged. It is this difference in relation to the other Realm that becomes a key difference between a Greek's symbolism and a Roman's significance.

Many, but not all, of the Roman gods and goddesses may have been borrowed from the Greeks, but that did not come until a later stage of Roman history. The Greek worshipper of Apollo set himself into a very different relationship to the actual physical sun than did the Roman. It's that translation issue. Many of the Roman gods became renamed Greek ones, but they were subsumed into a previously existing Roman culture that told stories in a very different way. Characteristic is the story of Romulus and Remus, the story of the founding of Rome, complete with two supposedly real and actual dudes, a date, a she-wolf who succled them from toddlerhood and raised them, and the story of how they laid out the actual physical boundaries of the city of Rome. It is this story and various temples or shrines to Romulus and Remus that are the central characteristic, retold through each Roman city. When you go to Washinton D.C., upon which story-telling model is America built? The Greeks have the Illiad and the Odyssey, but those are stories about the formation of Greek culture through the story being told in a pre-existing substance and background scenery, while the Roman story is obviously not in that sense one of things coming into form (despite the immense foundations of Troy), but assumes to have knowledge as far back and/or down as the foundations (the Roman story of Romulus and Remus is the story of the founding of Rome), which are typically invisible until the wall/city has fallen.

So, in the sense that you are saying, yes, the Greeks are obviously idolators. I think this is similar to the sense in which the Isreali poets declared as idolotrous the temples and practices of Baal. I think what I'm suggesting is that in our culture the issue of the image, of the "idol", has become much more complex than it was in Isreali culture where all the Jews were already heavily immersed first and foremost into their Jewish culture and the Word, and in which other cutlural forces were obviously exterior and supposedly secondary. To point out an idol, a prophet pretty much just had to point out such exteriority, and question why on earth the elect of God's covenant would go on committing themselves to something other. I mean, it's prety much just dumb ('eyes which do not see, ears which do not hear, mouths which do not speak'). In this sense, then, the Greeks were obviously idolaters, in that they were following after an image other than that of God and the symbols of Him that He has given in the context of the Covenant. In another sense, however, at the point in history in question (around 433 AD, when the Parthenon was built), that's, despite the passage from Romans 1 about there being no excuse, in a sense a mute point (a point relevant to our pluralistic context), as God had not revealed his covenant to the Greeks; and yet important relational differences to the "image" remain between the Greeks and Romans, differences that are very helpful to us in our current pluralistic time of utter confusion about our cultural identity and the language that we are actually speaking when we open our mouth.

It is this difference between a world of symbolism and a world of significance that I meant in referring to the world of difference between Plato and Descartes. Without the pre-existing Roman context coming to dominate our Western culture, Descartes dualism would have been a white baby in Kenya :) Instead, however, it was more like a natural progression (but still it was a dualism that was impossible without his 'ergo cogito sum'). It is also this detatchment of the visibly manifested image from the other realm (not present when the image is a symbol), characterized by the depth of the Roman relief sculpture, that gave grounds for Descartes' claim for "certain knowledge" of...anything at all.

I think maybe part of the importance of this discussion, in general for an audience wider than ourselves, is that it is impossible to understand God's covenant with us without our re-membering what on earth is a symbol (leaving the word "idolatry" out of the discussion entirely for a moment, mine or yours), and how to read one. Circumcision, for example, for many cultures before the Isreali covenant, was a means for opening the channels of fertility. That in itself speaks to the meaning of God's covenant in an enlightening way."

Any comments are welcome. Some of the issues about which this friend and I have been going back and forth (you can read about it in the emails below in some previous posts about modernism and postmodernism if you would like) are as follows. Certainty: I say that it is the persuit of a modern hope that requires the modern framework, starting primarily with Descartes and doubt. My friend says that our existence is the only thing about which we can be certain. I respond, not in an attacking manner, my friend is well aware (I think), with another quote from Libeskind, "To be certain of your own existence is the ultiamte arrogance". One issue on which we agree on the problem, but not the solution, is that of endless separating dualisms so common to our thinking. You can see the reference to this issue in the above email. He says "you have to live in the tension", be willing to "deal with the mystery of the union." I say that you have to go to the root, that an entire modern construct has to be broken down in order to, as N.T. Wright mentions in The Challenge of Jesus, reconstitute a world view in which things are in their primal state on a natural oneness again (which, also as Wright mentions in the same paragraph, is something that no one seems to have seriously attempted).

Another issue is the role of language. I say, based on my observations of his use of language, that its the formation of a world. I say that only based on my observations, that he (like most of us) seems to be operating in the mode more like the Romans, in which the role of our words is that of closed signification attempting to bridge an unnecesssary gap over to other closed signifiedes (is "signifiedes" a word :); and he has yet to respond really (other than by saying that idolatry is not about a closed and/or open system, but about our heart for God). Almost for the sake of another arguement (about the role of language), I have been trying to point out that our current (fundamentalist) notion of "absolute truth" is, ironically, a modern construct, a technology, that now has "eyes that do not see", and "ears that do not hear" (Psalm 115). In other words that it's an idol. Of course his response is that I am compromising a basic truth of my faith (Christianity) for my own crafted idol of postmodernism.

What do you think; and how might you think it is actually relevant to the above post about symbolism and significance? Also, how might you think that these issues are actually relevant to your life (particularly maybe your Christian life)? Is the reading of symbols a necessary skill in participating in God's covenant?

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