Iconic Perception

My “Christian Ethics” course this semester is following an innovative schedule where students gather on campus for five full days spread out over the course of the semester.  While having three weeks between classes may impact upon continuity and classroom dynamics, it does present the opportunity to have students engage with significant works in preparation for each class.  My students are currently in the midst of reading Norman Wirzba’s From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving the World.  Wirzba, who teaches at Duke, is one of the leading voices working at the intersection of theology and ecology.  While there is much to commend in the book, I was particularly taken by the following passage describing what Wirzba refers to as “iconic seeing”:

“Iconic perception teaches that love is the crucial and most authentic movement of seeing.  Why?  Because love, when it is true, resists and refuses the idolatrous impulse.  Love does not pretend to comprehend, nor does it mean to take the other as a possession or object of control.  Love begins with the acknowledgement of another’s integrity, and proceeds with a disposition of fidelity in the face of surprise, bewilderment, and unknowing.  To look with the power of love is to want to see another in all of the other’s uniqueness and particularity.  How often do we pause and stand amazed before the unique mystery that another is?  Love is the welcoming and hospitable gesture that makes oneself available to others, sets them free to be themselves, and nourishes them in the ways of life.  As the apostle Paul put it, love “does not insist on its own way,” but instead, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:5-8).  Iconic seeing never ends because the divine love that founds the world is inexhaustible in its variety and extent.  To try to match it with our speech or representation would take forever.

. . .

To recognize that our ways of seeing grow out of and perpetuate ways of being in the world is also to recognize that a transformation of vision goes hand in hand with a transformation of life.  To move from an idolatrous to an iconic way of seeing requires that we approach, apprehend, and engage the world around us in fundamentally different ways.  Put simply, we cannot learn to perceive the world as God’s creation if we do not at the same time also learn to live in ways that make that kind of perception possible.”1

  1. Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 71-73.

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