Abstracting God

I’ve been lagging much too much in my reading of the latest issue of Communio. Catching up a bit, I’m reading the first essay (embarrassing, I’m still on the first essay) dealing with the mystery of the Transfiguration by Jose’ Granados, assistant professor of theology and philosophy at The Catholic University of America. In section 3.1 of the lengthy essay, he makes an interesting point about the Old Testament prohibition against portraying God’s face:

In fact, the prohibition against making images can be read not only as a caution against materializing God, but also against excessively spiritualizing him. Let us recall what we said above about the human capacity to form images: it is based precisely on the separation between form and matter. If this capacity is absolutized, according to what we have called the pride of vision, the painting creates a split that isolates its object from the concrete world.

From this point of view the images of God are criticized in Scripture because they mistake the divine face for the abstraction of a painting. To paint a figure of the divinity means to make him alien to our reality and thus to transform him into a abstraction, a God of ideas who can neither hear nor see. God cannot be depicted because the image, when it is separated from the body, loses its truth and becomes a static abstraction: the idol of the concept. An image is not valid for representing the God of Israel, not because it connects him too much with the world, but precisely because it connects him too little.

Of course, Granados is not arguing for iconoclasm. He is pointing out the central reason for the Old Testament theology. Put too simply, in the Old Testament, the peole of Israel were not allowed to make an image of God, because God had not yet revealed his face. In the New Testament, God’s fufilling revelation to man, we have seen the face of God in the “Incarnation of the Logos.”


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