Images and Statues in Secular Culture: Part 2

by Evangelization, Faith & Life, History of the Church

If you have not read part 1, please read that first for the appropriate context:

Thought, Word, and Spirit

The Catholic sees the world as more than merely natural. There is far more that is hidden from our view than we can see and measure. St. John Damascene puts it this way:

“God, who is good, and greater than any goodness, was not content with the contemplation of himself, but desired that there should be beings benefited by him, who might share in his goodness: therefore he created from nothing all things, visible and invisible, including man, a reality visible and invisible. And he created him envisaging him and creating him as a being capable of thought, enriched with the word, and orientated towards the spirit.”

Things are not merely things. They are ordered towards perfection in God. But unlike plants and animals, men and women are created with eternal, rational souls. As St. John says we are created with the capacity to think, we are enriched by His revealed Word in Scripture and Tradition, and we oriented towards the spiritual reality of Heaven by adoption in Baptism.

God’s Plan

God’s grand plan and His inclusion of our free choice is a mystery beyond our understanding. God’s ways are not our ways. We are made in His image and likeness. This means that we have self-knowledge, self-possession, and the ability to give of ourselves to one another.

We can know, we can choose, and we can think abstractly.

In contemplation of His plan, we must grow in wonder and awe of the Lord. We must marvel at His plan, both His perfect will which He ordains and His permissive will by which He allows things to happen. We wonder at the realities of evil and of suffering and the greater good that God always draws out. The wonders never cease.

As St. John Damascene says, “We must allow ourselves to be filled with wonder at all the works of Providence, to accept and praise them all, overcoming any temptation to identify in them aspects which to many may seem unjust or iniquitous, and admitting instead that the project of God goes beyond man’s capacity to know or to understand, while on the contrary only he may know our thoughts, our actions, and even our future.”

Images and Statues in Secular Culture

What does any of this have to do with statues and images? Everything!

We can think freely, listen to God, and let His grace draw us back to Him. And so can every other human person. In God’s will, there are things which He wills perfectly and things which He allows, knowing that He will draw a greater good from even evil.

Statues and images are erected in culture for many reasons. Some of them, like the Ten Commandments on the grounds of a courthouse are to remind us that there is a higher Law than human law. There are monuments erected in various cities and countries to mark momentous historical events and key figures.

As Catholics, we can approach these very pragmatically. We know that images can be dangerous, if we approach them with anything but admonishment or veneration. We will dive into this a bit more in the next section.

The danger, of course, is idolatry. We know that a statue of any human being, other than Jesus Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary or perhaps St. John the Baptist will be subject to the full picture of this person. In other words, no other person, even a saint, will be perfect “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).”

Case Study: New Orleans

The City of New Orleans is dear to my heart because of its rich history (and great food). There are statues and images all over the place. This is bound to happen with such a deep, rich culture. As a former French territory, there is a statue of St. Joan of Arc. As the site of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, there is a statue of Colonel Andrew Jackson (the former U.S. President). As a former city in the Confederacy, there are various Confederate Statues, including former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis. Then, of course, there are statues of Louis Armstrong, a Jazz street band, Jazz players, and a statue of the Houmas Indians in Congo Square, the birthplace of Jazz. Then, of course, there are various voodoo images and totems.

In this list, not all are equal in importance historically or culturally and all have their problems. St. Joan of Arc was not perfect and certainly is not seen as a hero by English Christians of her day. Andrew Jackson was a slave-owner and ended up burning down the White House because of a raucous party. Jefferson Davis was a traitor to his nation and a horrid racist. Louis Armstrong, on the other hand, is far less controversial; the only controversial thing I could find is that he had a penchant for marijuana.

Then, of course, there are the voodoo images and totems. These are entirely opposed to Catholicism and the one, true God. They are channel for demons and ought to be destroyed, regardless of their cultural connection to the city. This is because they are bad to the core. Voodoo has ravaged the Catholics of places like New Orleans and Haiti.

What to Do?

What then do we do with statues of St. Joan of Arc, Confederate soldiers, Jefferson Davis, or Andrew Jackson? What does God teach us to do? First and foremost, we see them for what they are and we learn from them. With Andrew Jackson, we can see the courage this man had to rally together the city and bravely defend it against the British, who would have sacked and burned the city.

With Jefferson Davis and the Confederates, we can see a man of principle who was willing to fight and die for what they believed in. But their cause was faulty from the start and founded upon things that we cannot condone, namely racism and slavery. Does this mean that those statues should be torn down? In my opinion, they should, but only after a democratic debate and referendum. And as people who need visuals, there should be monuments that explain the truth of the Civil War, not the revisionist history that we are now accustomed.

May Voodoo and all other false religions and superstitions pass away as all come to the knowledge and love of God in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church!

Finally, may the legacy of Louis Armstrong inspire countless more generations of young men and women to play Jazz with the passion and music genius that he did!

Admonishment or Veneration?

It comes down to this: is the image or statue an admonishment or cause for veneration? If it is an admonishment, let it stand. We need warnings or we will be doomed to repeat past sins. If it is a cause for veneration, let us venerate what is good, true, and beautiful in the event or person the image or statue is commemorating. But maybe, just maybe, statues and images in secular culture can have a bit of both. Perhaps our imperfect predecessors can model virtue and vice for us. It is up to us to use our God-given powers of intellect and will to discern these things and to allow God to continue to orient us towards him, even by use of secular things.

Ending with the words of St. John Damascene: “Do not, therefore, offend matter: it is not contemptible, because nothing that God has made is contemptible.” Find the good. Find what is true. Find what is beautiful. Let what is evil, untrue, and ugly serve as a reminder and as a warning. But do not forget. Do not do away with the past, lest the past becomes, in many ways, our future.

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