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Eyes to see and ears

23 January 2015

THE Abrahamic faiths rely on the ear, not the eye. The eye is attracted by the attractive, but the ear is more receptive to God's word. Adam and Eve were led astray, because the apple looked nice, and so provoked desire. What is not seen is aw(e)ful (in both senses) because it is mysterious, and provokes fear.

The invisible represents what is holy and terrible, sacred and profane. When we think of the outrage at the depiction of the prophet Muhammad, this is the deep background that we have forgotten.

The visual portrayal of any living being is forbidden, not only in Islam, but also in the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth."

The Old Testament prophets wage a relentless war against idolatrous images; Muhammad smashes the idols in his father's house in response to the call of God. Yet the ban is never quite as absolute as it appears, as images can also stir devotion. Occasional images have been found of the Prophet which, reportedly, moved those who saw them to tears.

Christians, too, struggled with the ban on images; but Christianity moderated the ban on idolatry in the light of the incarnation. The eucharistic preface for Christmas expresses the changed perspective that emerges from the coming of Christ: "in him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in the love of God we cannot see."

But that is not the end of the story. The Abrahamic faiths banish from the visual world the intimately unholy, as well as the holy. So women are veiled, kept indoors, shunned from public space. This reflects the danger that they bring to men - a danger as great as that of God himself, though from the profane end of the spectrum.

The ultra-orthodox Jewish paper The Announcer carried a picture from the Charlie Hebdo solidarity march. It was exactly what we saw here, except that three female participants, including Angela Merkel, had been inexpertly airbrushed out.

Given that some Christians still struggle with the visibility of women, we should perhaps not assume that these issues are over for us. The incarnation is the good news, but perhaps it can only be heard against the deep background of the ban on images.

It could be argued that our supposedly liberated society treats the human body, male and female, in a recklessly idolatrous way, which imprisons us in desire and excess. Idolatry remains the ultimate sin for all the Abrahamic faiths.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.

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