On Destroying “Graven Images”

I recently came across a series of photos of Islamic “workers,” if that is what they were, systematically destroying crosses, statues, or other signs on newly captured Christian churches and buildings in Iraq and Syria. The principle is, I suppose, that one is only allowed to see what the theology allows to be seen. My eyes are not to see reality unless that reality is already fashioned in the image of what I think is worthy to exist and be seen.

On coming down from the mountain, Moses saw the Israelites reveling before golden calves that they had just fashioned from their ladies’ jewelry. He was so annoyed and angered that he ordered the idols chipped down, ground into fine pieces, and tossed in the river. Then, he made the people drink of the water. No one chastised him for destroying priceless cultural artifacts, not controlling his temper, or polluting the water.

In Chapter 5 of John, we find the account of the crippled man who could not get to the pool when the waters stirred. Christ bypasses this need by curing him on the spot. He tells him to pick up his mat and go home. Unfortunately, this healing was on the Sabbath. The local authorities wanted to know why the man was breaking the Sabbath rest. At first, he did not know who cured him, but later Jesus Himself explained it to him. The man then told the Jewish authorities that it was Jesus. Hearing this, they began to persecute Him. Jesus next explains that He does this deed in the name of the Father. The authorities rightly understood this statement as a divine claim. Hence, they sought to destroy Him for making Himself God, that is, in their eyes, an idol.

These three accounts have something in common. Buildings ought not to exist if they display blasphemous insignia. Idols should be destroyed. Men who claim that they are gods should be eliminated. The continued existence of things depends on what we think they are. Some things ought not to be made; others ought not to be seen. As Plato knew, sight and sound have enormous effects on our souls both for good and for evil.

ISIS militants sledgehammer thousand-year-old artifacts in Northern Iraq
ISIS militants sledgehammer thousand-year-old artifacts in Northern Iraq

In many societies, moreover, we find laws designed to preserve the past. No one is allowed to destroy or even alter the exterior of famous historic buildings, be they churches, buildings, houses, or gardens. In order that we do not simply constrain ourselves to live in the current “now,” we need to see and hear of ways people live in different climes and places, in different times and eras.

Muslims have recently destroyed Buddhist, Assyrian, and Christian shrines and monuments. During World War II, art treasures were hidden or taken out of fighting range so that they would not be destroyed. Some suggest that we begin to bring European Christian art treasures to the New World before the Muslims have a chance to destroy them.

But, of course, what do we do with old churches and buildings that no one uses anymore? Bishops have been busy closing churches and schools rather than opening many new ones. Anyone who reads Samuel Johnson knows of the Reformation destruction of Catholic churches and shrines in Scotland and England. The number of public and private edifices that have been randomly spray-painted in recent decades is huge.

Some things need to be destroyed or rebuilt. Civilization does not consist only in preserving the past. A strong case can be made for the usefulness of “obsolescence.” Italian historic preservation laws are famous for preventing new roads or construction if some ancient ruin is found. American ecology laws are equally interfering when some species of toad or gnat is threatened by growth.

A society that destroys its own past probably destroys its future also. But are there “graven images” that, like the golden calves, ought to be destroyed? When we realize that Christ Himself was considered to be such an idol, we should recognize that we must think clearly on this topic.

It is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out. Christ’s death assured us that no created things were gods. Henceforth, men were free to be themselves, to see all things as they are. Man was free to make statues, images, and shrines to help him worship God. When human beings are not seen to be made in the image of God, they lose their meaning.

What lies behind the destruction of babies in the womb and the destruction of crosses and statues is their respective demystification. The final “graven image” is an unlimited will that sees nothing but itself as “god,” that is, as “man.” All else can be destroyed or permitted, as the case may be.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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