Monday, 1 February 2016

The Breaking of Images

There is an enduring tendency in many of the world's religions, known as iconoclasm (literally 'the breaking of images'). Iconoclasm is the desire to eliminate all human creations that are judged to be idolatrous; including all images, organisations or rituals seen as standing in the way of the purity of religious truth.

The beginnings of the Quaker movement were strongly influenced by the Puritan culture of 17th century England, which was fiercely iconoclastic in the most literal way possible. Mary Penington (who was married to Isaac Penington) wrote approvingly of her first husband William Springett, a colonel in Cromwell's army, that:

"In every employment he expressed great zeal against superstition; encouraging and requiring his soldiers to break down all idolatrous statues and pictures, and crosses; going into steeple-houses, and taking away the priest's surplices, and distributing them to poor women. When he was upon the service of searching popish houses, whatever crucifixes, beads, and such like trumpery he found, if they were ever so rich, he destroyed them without ever reserving one of them for its beauty or costly workmanship; nor ever saved any other thing for his own use."
(On Quakers, Medicine and Property: The Autobiography of Mary Penington, 1624-1682)

She even has one startling anecdote which describes him visiting the house of a close friend and fellow Parliamentarian, where he found religious paintings hanging on the walls:

"But my dear husband thought it a very inconsistent, unequal thing, to destroy those things in popish houses, and leave them in the houses of their opponents. He therefore, with his sword, put them all out of the frames, and putting them thereon, carried them into the parlour; and the woman of the house being there, he said, "What a shame it is that your husband should be such a persecutor of the Papists and yet spare such things as these in his own house! But (said he) I have acted impartial judgment, by destroying them here." (ibid)

The religious revolution of George Fox and the early Quakers went even further than the Puritans. The first Quakers comprehensively rejected all contemporary church institutions, rituals, creeds and buildings, as well as art and music. This was all in the service of a direct, unmediated personal encounter with the 'Inward Christ'.

All religious images, structures, creeds and rituals have a tendency to become empty forms over time. The history of religion is littered with practices that began by pointing toward the mystery of spiritual encounter and ended up becoming tokens of group identity to be defended, imposed and fought over. Throughout history, the dynamic of renewal within religious traditions has involved the destruction of images that have become obstacles to spiritual insight, in order to open up the possibility of renewed contact with the spiritual reality that they have obscured. 

But we live by images. As soon as we destroy one set of images we are impelled to seek replacements. Spiritual renewal occurs when new, living images are found (or rediscovered) to replace those that have been outworn. This is what early Friends achieved, through the marvellously imagistic new religious language of 'the Seed', 'the Guide', 'the Inward Christ', 'the Inward Teacher' etc. They were also soon busy creating a new form of church organisation, and a unique Quaker culture, with its own ritualised forms of language and behaviour.

Iconoclasm privileges the word over the image. In its least constructive forms, it tends to focus on 'correct' belief; whether conceived as conformity to official orthodoxy, or as rational consistency. Some of the 'modernising' tendencies in our current Quaker culture also embody this iconoclastic principle, which represents the rationalising impulse applied to religion.

Iconoclasm aims to replace the profusion of traditional religious images, stories, local devotions and festivals, with a single, uniform and minimalist version of belief reduced to 'the fundamentals'. For fundamentalist religion this might be adherence to a literalistic creed. In liberal traditions such as British Quakerism this minimal, rational residue of religion, stripped of all its imagery, history and particularity is reduced to a list of 'values'. This exclusive emphasis on rational purity of belief can create an arid wasteland of the soul, with nothing to nourish the imagination or move the heart. 

Both secular and religious fundamentalist versions of iconoclasm share a too-exclusive emphasis on our 'head needs' for certainty, consistency and clarity, while ignoring our heart and soul needs for a measure of ambiguity and mystery; for images that touch the heart and fire the imagination. We need living, soulful images far more than rationally consistent 'beliefs'.

How can we find, or rediscover, the living images that can renew our capacity for spiritual awakening and encounter?


  1. Thanks for this Craig. For me, this is where the importance of shared story comes in. Stories can contain all sorts of allusions with which to communicate with each other, without you having to 'believe' in them.

    1. Thanks Mark. Yes, our stories (and especially our shared stories) are crucial resources, and again the issue of 'belief' is not really relevant.
      In Friendship,

  2. Dreams come to mind, whose imagery can seem, shocking, disturbing or blasphemous but whose purpose can be to bring us further into wholeness.

    1. Indeed, and dreams were certainly taken a lot more seriously by early Friends than they generally seem to be today. John Woolman describes some very powerful dreams in his Journal, which he relates as truthful (although not literal) Divine messages.

  3. "We live by images."

    It is true that many people on this earth today "live by images." However, there is another way as many early Quakers (not all by any means) and many contemporary Quakers, among others, testify. There is a way that does not replace one set of outward creeds, institutions, etc. with another. We are neither Fundamentalist or Liberal as you characterize them.

    There were many founding Quakers who were not in agreement with other founding Quakers who established a new form of church organisation, and a unique Quaker culture, with its own ritualized forms of language and behavior. They testified (documented by Quaker William Rogers "The Christian Quaker ..." in 1860) to being led out of identity with any and all outwardly established forms. Their use of phrases and terms like "Living in the Light" and "Living in the Life itself" is, in essence, different from establishing a new image or form, the very words themselves negates established forms in and for direct and unmediated and unformed experience itself. They exhorted against the ritualization or institutionalization of their words. It is important to note: These early founding Quakers who were led out of identity in and with outward established and ritualized forms, and the instrumentalities that support them, did not suggest that those other founding Quakers refrain from turning back again to ritualized forms etc. if that was where their conscience led them. They merely sought the freedom to live their own conscience. The essence of the disunity between the two was that the establishment side sought to impose conformity to their conscience through institutional fiat or outwardly authoritative decree.

    Many of us today share the experience of being led out of ritual, iconography, imagery, similitudes, a life of and in images etc. We, however, are not iconoclasts in the sense that we find it necessary to go about smashing the idols or icons of others. We acknowledge the reality (or even the "integrity" as a contemporary Friend has suggested) of ritualized way of existence. History has shown that to fight that reality is to fight Truth itself.

    Many Quakers in the past and many today do not "live by images." Our conscious (mind) and our conscience (heart) are anchored or established in and informed by the direct and unritualized, uninstitutionalized, experience of inherent self-existence (Presence, God, etc.) itself in itself. We are in the living Gospel or Story in every aspect and moment of our lives. Our conscience (mind) is anchored in and our conscience (heart) is informed by living the Gospel or Good Story every moment of our lives on this earth so that outward ritual and images and institutions just do not carry the same value (because our conscious and conscience are not established in or by them) as they do for those whose conscious in anchored in and whose conscience is informed by outward form.

    As with some of the founding Quakers, ours is to share a different way and to leave it to the conscience of others whether that different way is sufficient or suitable.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)