The Great Iconoclast
By John Crowder
In 1952 when Joy Davidman Gresham – future wife of author C.S. Lewis asked him to autograph her copy of his work, The Great Divorce, he wrote, “There are three images in my mind which I must continually forsake and replace by better ones: the false image of God, the false image of my neighbours, and the false image of myself.”
This would be the central motif of a chapter to the book Lewis would never complete on iconoclasm. An iconoclast is one who attacks idols, venerated religious symbols, beliefs or institutions.
Lewis called God the Great Iconoclast.
God will not be confined to our limited, static perceptions of Him. He is too fluid, sublime and living to be contained within the shabby framework of our finite capacities of understanding. He does not dwell in manmade temples, theological constructs or ideologies.
Writers Jerry Root and Jennifer Trafton highlight this recurring theme of Lewis’ work – that God is iconoclastic — continually breaking our images or idols, “An image of God (or of another person, or oneself) formed after reading a book, hearing a lecture or sermon, or having a conversation with a friend may temporarily give greater clarity of thought. But if it is held too tightly, it becomes an idol that must be broken in order to allow a better image to take its place.”
It is impossible to see Him as He is when our minds are muddled with our own distorted ideas about Him. But man’s thoughts are silenced in the awe of His tangible majesty and splendor. He’s bigger than our mental roadblocks, and opinions are irretrievably altered by His real presence. We learn to let go. We transcend the limitations of human understanding, which give way like a wet tissue under the enormous weight of Mr. Reality Himself. Shall we then say that intellectual pursuit is a vanity? A futile practice of articulating the cloud of unknowing? By no means. Our lives are continually transformed by metanoia – the changing and renewal of our minds – in which this divine iconoclasm is so vital. Every breaking of mental strongholds makes way for a resurrection of fresh revelation. Yet the very aim of theological instruction should not be to construct new tabernacles, but to have our hearts engaged by the presence of God.
Ultimately all our concepts and theology must stop at the door of faith … of trust. We will never have all the answers, but can rest assured that the Answer has us.
The late Brennan Manning also articulated this principle of iconoclasm so clearly:
In my own life, honoring the First Commandment, “I am Yahweh your God: you shall have no gods except me,” has meant repudiating the god of fear and wrath handed on to me by preachers, teachers and church authorities in my youth, repudiating the strange god who sees all non-Christians as good-for-nothings, who consigns all heathens to hell, who has given any one denomination a bonded franchise for salvation, who rubs his hands together with malicious glee and sends a Catholic to hell because he ate a hot dog on Friday, April 27, 1949. It has meant repudiating the strange god who flinches at gracing certain other churches with his presence; who despises a beleaguered couple who practice birth control; who forbids a divorcee the Eucharist; who ordains that some of his creatures (whether for race or creed or some other reason) shall be denied equal opportunity for employment and housing; who tells married Catholic priests that they are excommunicated and mature women that in America they can be vice president of the country but in the church they must sit down, submit and shut up.
This same spiritual process of repudiating unreal images of God can be found in the writings of the Hebrew prophets and in the work of spiritual formation that Jesus undertook with His first disciples. Because they had fashioned their own image of the Messiah, they resisted the mission of the real Messiah, asking Him impatiently when He would triumphantly reveal His power to Israel. They looked for an unreal messiah of their own making and found a real one of God’s making — but only after they were dispossessed of all their illusions and expectations. Expectations are our subtle attempts to control God and manipulate mystery. We can get so wrapped up in them that when Jesus breaks into our lives in new and surprising ways, we neither recognize Him nor hear His message.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis says that in God’s mercy He destroys the walls of the temples we build in order to give us a greater revelation of Himself. The same is true of all our conceptualizations of Him, even those borne through divine encounter itself. He is far more real than the loftiest experience. Augustine said, “The supreme excellence of the divinity exceeds the capacity of our customary speech. For God is more truly contemplated than spoken of, and exists more truly than He is contemplated.”
James Torrance puts it this way, “More important than our experience of Christ is the Christ of our experience.” In your highest modes of enjoying Him, He is still more real than the experience itself. Language is insufficient to communicate His incommunicable nature. Yet God is breathed through human lips. Oh the joys of articulating the Mystery!
Our images of God must give way to God Himself. And surely our own insecurities, sin consciousness and low estimations of ourselves must likewise be shattered by the reality of our true identity in Him – as holy, spotless perfect children of light in whom no darkness dwells thanks to the finished work of Christ. The Adamic nature – the very lie existence of sinfulness has been eradicated completely and decisively at the cross. Furthermore, our vision of humanity must also be radically shifted.
Perhaps a key to abundantly loving our neighbor is to drop the false projections: the familiarity that breeds contempt – the thousand shallow categorizations and snap judgments by which we classify our fellow man (so often hurling our own self-loathing onto them) – having locked them into static, caricature images and dulling ourselves to the very mystique of the divine spark latent within all humanity. Our journey is to continually wake up to the inherent glory of God resident within our children, our spouse, our neighbors and friends.
In A Grief Observed, following the tragic passing of his wife Joy to cancer in 1960, C.S. Lewis was forced to face these idolatrous boxes of iconoclasm in the most painful of ways. His own temporal and changing perceptions of her had been radically incomplete. "All reality is iconoclastic," he wrote. "The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her.” Not only must we discover the True Self. But also our True Neighbor. And quite often we do so despite the fact that our neighbors may not know themselves. We see the same line of thought echoed in the late catholic mystic Thomas Merton, who wrote, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.”
Lewis says, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?"
Again, in his Letters to Malcolm (published posthumously), Lewis writes, "God must continually work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking, 'But I never knew before. I never dreamed …'"
Our friend Andre Rabe writes that Jesus comes “to make you an atheist in the god of your own making. He comes to bring your faith – your way of subjecting God to your own understanding – He comes to bring that to an end.”
It is only at this place where our ideas and our faith is completely devastated that we have an opportunity to meet the God who transcends all our ideas about God. This is why so many church fathers and mystics have said something similar to this: To experience God is to experience the complete and utter failure of your own intellect.
This does not mean that we abandon our intellectual pursuit of Him. The silence that best describes God is not a silence of emptiness, but rather the awe at the superabundance of what can be said about Him. It is in this place of encounter that our concepts are continually drawn by the infinite God to transcend its own limits.
Yet in all this, we live in a postmodern world and theological climate in which everything is up for grabs. There is clearly a propensity to make an idol of iconoclasm by exalting it as an end in itself.
Left in the void of unknowing – in the dark night of continual ambiguity about the nature of God – iconoclasm alone would be quite a depressing, forlorn prescription. Quite existential in fact. Can we know anything for certain? How can we know God? How do we know the unknown?
There is no rest in continual deconstruction. In fact, many relativistic philosophies determinedly make an idol of deconstructionism itself. A constant apophatic theology (telling us what God is not) must eventually make way for the positive affirmation of Who God is.
Of course Jesus was Himself a deconstructionist. He constantly challenged the prevailing religious paradigms of His day.
Remember when Jesus scandalously told the professional religious elite that none of them knew God?
No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).
No one knows the Father … this statement taken alone is quite daunting. But the greatest news on the planet is that Jesus in His humanity is the Knower. And Jesus in His divinity He is the Known God. The Known becomes the Knower. Jesus knows the Father for us – and as us – so we can know the Father through Him. And because of Him, one day we shall fully know, even as we are fully known (1 Cor. 13:12).
Jesus frustrates our own limited attempts at apprehending Him – but the tension acts only to serve the ultimate release of seeing Him more clearly.
We are saved through trusting Jesus, not by figuring Him out. Perfect theology is a Person. The Mystery has chosen to reveal Himself fully and completely in the person of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, scripture is a gift and a springboard for this revelation. There is interdependency. For how would we know the Christ of the scriptures except by the scriptures? And how would we understand the scriptures apart from knowing Him? But scriptures are no end in and of themselves, which is biblio-idolatry. They all point to Him. And while they are often confused by our own human subjectivity, the scriptures are a diverse yet divinely unified sacred fixed point by which God’s voice is heard – resounding with the ultimate text which is Christ Himself.
“Whatever study of Scripture that excludes the unveiling of Jesus Christ is a futile study,” says Mirror Bible translator Francois Du Toit. “The only way to engage in scripture without more division or confusion is to see in it Jesus Christ.”
Jesus as the self-revealed image of the invisible God is the solid declaration of all that God is. All our epistemology (knowing) of God is summed up in Him. But is this to truncate and limit God? No more than admitting His own self-imposed limitations by stepping into the very creation He breathed into existence … all in order to reveal Himself and draw His creatures into eternal communion.
God looks like Jesus. Existential ideologies that posit change to be the only constant (for all their presuppositions of evolving beyond the limitations of the human mind) amount to nothing more than another icon, image and ironically a box of rationality that says God cannot be revealed. In other words, iconoclasm left alone is the dark frustration of an unrevealed mystery.
Paul never says we will fully, intellectually grasp the Mystery. He says we have fellowship with the Mystery (Eph. 3:9). The Mystery is a Person with whom we forever interact. A Mystery whose very goal was to expose Himself – to be stripped bare and plainly published. In fact, the apostle Paul uses the word musterion more than any other New Testament writer, and almost exclusively in the sense that the Mystery has been revealed. Here in Ephesians 3:9, he wanted to “explain” or “make plain” and “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” Paul was entrusted with an “administration of this secret.” The Secret does not exclude. It is self-revealing. Easy enough for a child understand is this Gospel which is searched out as the glory of kings.
Truth is a Person. Truth is not changing, though our perceptions of Him surely are. Truth is not relative, but He is alive. Our theological foundation must be solid – but it is not cold, stoic, lifeless dogma. We have a living Foundation. In the world of theological complexity, we can rest in one thing for sure … that God is completely summed up in Jesus Christ.
Christ is the object of our contemplation. Our intersection between the seen and the unseen, the finite and the infinite. We will never exhaust the depths of discovering His beauty, and yet we have fully arrived into Him in whom we live, move and have our being.
“The Great Iconoclast” by Jerry Root and Jennifer Trafton, Christian History & Biography 2005
The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus, by Brennan Manning, 2004.
Icons of Beauty, Andre Rabe.
Francois Du Toit session from Cana New Wine Seminary summer 2014.