We’re going to start today with the question of pornography and more specifically, in this first podcast, we’re going to look at what iconography in the Orthodox tradition can teach us about how to deal with the question of pornography which confronts us in the present day.
We can start by looking at the two words: Iconography and Pornography. Obviously, both refer to the creation and use of images, and therefore raise the question of why we create these images and how we interact with them. The icon, of course, is central to Orthodoxy. In fact, in vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we sing that the icon is “the safeguard of the Orthodox faith”. The icon is central to our faith and our worship — that is, our relationship with God. Why should this be?
The Greek word “Eikon” means a likeness or image. The wonder of the Creation and the incarnation means that we are able to portray the likeness of or image of God through and in his creation and using created materials. And this depiction is also a participation. In other words, our interaction with the icon can enable and deepen our relationship with God and with the saints who are portrayed in the icons and who stand in the immediate presence of God. St Paul writes in Romans 1 about the image and about how the image connects us to God… “What is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them. For since the creation of the world, His invisible things are clearly seen. They are perceived through created things, even his everlasting power and divinity.” (Rom 1:19-20).
God’s everlasting power and divinity are seen — even though they’re invisible — God’s everlasting power and divinity are seen through created things. This is what we’re talking about when we speak of “icon”: we’re talking about the relationship we can have with God through his creation and our participation in it.
So what about pornography? The word has the general meaning of obscene imagery. And if we look at the etymology, we’ll find that the Greek word “pornevo” in NT times means to act the harlot or to fornicate — that is it is clearly about sexuality that is outside the bounds of what is acceptable or committed to God and love. However, in ancient Greek, the same word “pornevo” meant to practise idolatry. So even the etymology of the word immediately confronts us with a direct link between inappropriate sexual acting out and idolatry.Idolatry is when we do not see through the veils of created things Click To Tweet
The natural next question to ask is “What makes the reverence of icons not idolatry but the use of pornography to be idolatry?”. Is there a difference in the way we approach the image that causes the outcome to be so very different? Both historically and even today, of course, the so-called “iconoclasts” or those who fight against the use of icons, don’t agree — they think any use of icons or any material image of the spiritual or divine is idolatry. So this is indeed a very important question. Why are icons not idolatry and pornography is?
Let’s go back to what St Paul says in Romans 1. He says that what is known of God is revealed in us. That God is seen — even though He is invisible, He’s seen in created things. St Paul is explaining in this whole passage that everything in creation is iconic. Everything that we can see is really calling us to something much deeper. Everything in creation transcends its material existence. Nothing is only what it seems to be on the surface. Everything points to deeper realities. So this is a statement about what God’s Creation is, but it is also a statement about the way we see what is presented to us. Idolatry, then, is when do not see through the veils of created things. Idolatry is when we see the created thing only in itself, and instead of seeing the power and glory of God in what is created, we invest the creation itself with power. This is what we see in much pagan religion. And in pornography we specifically see the flesh and we don’t see through the veil of the flesh to the deeper reality behind. So we do not see an image-bearer of God, but rather flesh for our own satisfaction.
And we can go further. We can see that this “Wrong way of seeing” is actually theft. We steal from God when we take his image and separate it from its physical manifestation: we steal the image of God. We also steal from the other person when we close our eyes to the person’s true ultimate significance and regard just the flesh, which we manipulate for our own purposes. And finally, this is also theft from ourselves as we steal from ourselves the relationship we are supposed to find with God through his creation.
So this is also all about relationship: we can go deeper into intimacy, or we can avoid intimacy. A relationship is developed or true relationship is excluded partly because of how we see. What is our perspective when we look at another? Our relationship with a person can go deep if we can see deeply; if we can see through the veils of the external or physical image. But our relationship with a person can’t go deep if we refuse to see the true reality beyond what’s immediately accessible to our physical senses. And the relationship is also developed or damaged according to what we give of ourselves: do we open the true and deep reality of ourselves in relationship or do we hide it, and keep it to ourselves.
If we’re using pornography, we’re not only refusing to see beyond the surface of the other but also refusing to reveal or even acknowledge the deeper reality within ourselves. When we do this, we freeze life, we objectify: that is, we make another person an object for our own use. We fight against the true dynamic nature of life as it is created by God. We refuse to allow another person to be real and to transcend their physical body. This is of course a dramatic breaking of the greatest commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. To objectify another is a total refusal to love God, neighbour and even self.
In summary, then, our refusing to see properly, to see beyond the physical material presented to us is a theft from God, from the other and from our own true selves. It’s an idolatry as we refuse to see God in his Creation. It’s a refusal to live, to love, to relate and a refusal to see or accept the image of God and his love.We know to treat icons with respect, but do we treat the image of God in every person with respect? Click To Tweet
So what should be our response to this? This is not just a question for those of us who are habitual or even occasional users of pornography. We are all suffering from a disease of which pornography use is a particular form. Some of us may have had the good fortune to meet someone who really does see the image of God in us and to know the difference that makes to the relationship. We need to know that every encounter with every person is with the person as the image of God and this applies no less to the image of the person whether it be a painting, a photograph or a video image. We know something about how to treat icons with respect, but do we know how to treat the image of God in every person with respect? From our experience in venerating icons, we should be able to learn to see every encounter with another person as an opportunity to see and venerate the image of God. Every person is an icon, and does show forth the image of God. And when we see an icon, we venerate it, no matter how damaged, old or broken it is.
So which do I really do in everyday life? Do I venerate or objectify? CS Lewis wrote the following:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
This is the opposite of idolatry and objectifying another. Can we learn to see a fuller reality and the ultimate significance of every person beyond what’s represented to our physical senses?
So I hope that in this we can see the beginning of a way, perhaps, of thinking about pornography and being able to critique it from an Orthodox perspective. A way to think about what we’re doing, and what others are doing — not so that we can rush in a legalistic or simplistic way to condemn, but so that we can understand more about ourselves, our neighbours and our society. What causes people to use pornography? The same thing that we all suffer from: a refusal, whether conscious or unconscious, whether deliberate or thoughtless — a refusal to see the image of God in creation and in one another. A simultaneous desire to make a connection and a fear or unwillingness to offer the requisite vulnerability or self-offering. Can we change ourselves, and in our own weakness and vulnerability call others to repentance?