“Since the time of the Renaissance, the religious painting of the West has been one massive untruth.” So wrote Fr. Pavel Florensky in his Iconostasis, one of the most important works of 20th century Orthodox iconology. The heart of Western religious painting’s “untruth” was its naturalism, understood as the attempt to depict figures and scenes in as life-like a manner as possible. As Evan Freeman has shown, theological critique of Western naturalism was a staple of late 19th and early 20th century Orthodox reflections on the icon that elevated Eastern iconography in order to diminish Western religious art.
However, if we turn to the theological reflections on art offered by Florensky’s erstwhile disciple, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, we find an outlier to this dominant trend. For in the course of his lengthy 1930 essay Icons and Their Veneration, Bulgakov does not shy away from linking, linguistically and so also conceptually, artistic production as a whole with the idea of the icon, so as to ground his broader argument that the condition for the possibility of the theological icon lies in the fundamental iconicity of the cosmos, in the latter’s transparency to the ideal proto-images of being that reside in the mind of God and that grant actuality to the flesh of the world. Thus all art that succeeds in representing these ‘proto-images’ is iconic, though not every piece of religious art is a theological icon. Still, Bulgakov’s argument here places Western religious art and Eastern icons on a spectrum together, thereby relativizing the—nonetheless real—distinction between them.
The publication of David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved has provoked no small amount of controversy since its release. Though Hart’s argument for universal salvation encompasses diverse arenas of thought—theological anthropology, the moral meaning of creatio ex nihilo, the phenomenology of human volition—it is his treatment of the Scriptures that has provoked some of the most interesting pushback. When he was challenged a few weeks ago by one critic to consider whether the violent actions of YHWH in the Old Testament might not make us question our moral certainties about the immorality of eternal torments, Hart provided a reading of the Old Testament depiction of God which not only surprised but even scandalized many. Based on the conclusions of scholarship on the development of ancient Israelite religion, Hart concludes that YHWH is depicted in the Old Testament as exhibiting signs of moral development up to the period of Second Temple Judaism, when the marriage of Hellenistic philosophy and Judaism gives us a picture of God as Goodness Itself. And so the violent actions of the developing God in the Old Testament cannot be taken as totally determinative for a Christian understanding of God’s character, which finds its definitive revelation instead in Christ.
For this Hart was immediately accused of being a Marcionite, despite the fact that he explicitly rejected Marcion’s attempt to separate the God of Israel form the Father of Jesus Christ. What explains this severe reaction? Continue reading →
“There is no doubt that on this point we are faced with a profound evolution of dogma.” These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI, from a 2015 interview, on the sharp contrast between the teaching of the Council of Trent on the postmortem fate of the unbaptized and later Catholic teaching stemming from Vatican II. I was reminded of this comment when I read about Pope Francis’ 2018 change to the Catechism concerning the absolute inadmissibility of capital punishment—a move long anticipated in the theology of recent popes, especially Pope John Paul II. Speaking in February of this year to the 7th Global Congress Against the Death Penalty, Francis reiterated the point that the Catholic Church’s stance on the issue had “matured.” A profound evolution of dogma has indeed taken place in Catholicism on this question. But there are other reasons that this line from Benedict came to my mind, since there is a logical connection between Benedict’s admission and Francis’ emendation, precisely on the question of punishment and its purposes from a Christian viewpoint. In Pope Francis’ words, there is no ‘justice’ in a punishment that attacks the “inviolability and dignity of the person.” And this includes punishments both now and in the life to come.
Now, Francis’ teaching stems from Christian logic of God’s justice in Christ issuing in human mercy. But the correspondences between the 20th century shift on the possibility of salvation outside the Church and the movement towards a full proscription on the death penalty suggests that the same logic was propelling both: certain forms of punishment fundamentally violate the image of God in the human person. This Christian logic shone particularly brilliantly in 19th and 20th century Russian Orthodox thought, and its articulations there indicate subterranean points of connection between Eastern and Western theological development on the question of temporal and eternal punishment.