I favor aniconic spiritual work. While there are a few icons that have made their way into my ritual work, they are always subsumed into a ground that minimizes their presence. That reflects an aesthetic preference, but also affirms a conviction that the deeper strata of spiritual experience are fundamentally inhuman, operating at a rhythm and scale that only ever unevenly synchronizes with everyday human understanding.
The rigors of ritual work have much to do with this. They serve to extricate us from the profane and everyday rhythms of human life and place in better sympathy with other forms of existence. There is a meme I have seen which annoys me on this point. It features several frames, each panning out to an increasingly more cosmic picture, until finally you see Jesus standing over the universe saying “don’t masturbate.”
While I don’t mind the poke at dogmatic moralism, it misses a key dimension of spiritual strictures. They help remove you from human affairs so that you can better appreciate the cosmic underpinnings of creation. So, while some may begin with a simple “don’t masturbate,” at the other side of that practice is the cultivation of a state of being in which the individual displaces themselves from the human order of things into a spiritual order.
More than a few cultural mores seem to be about the effort to find a compromise between the human and inhuman, with the division into more or less sacred becoming a means of preserving a firm relationship between the spiritual and human within everyday life.
That said, cultural mores tend to collapse into human-scale habits of behavior. They cease to serve as means of modulating consciousness and become dogmatic. In other words, the prohibition on masturbation ceases to be about cultivating a state of mind in which Jesus’s potency may be experienced and becomes, instead, a simple rule imposed on the individual.
In a similar way, images of spirits make it easier to conceive spirits as beings much like humans, with distinct and relatively easily defined boundaries. It also places the spirit firmly within the human scale, reducing the inconsistencies of our experience (which indicate their falling outside our human schemes of coherence) to an ordered symbolic register in which real disparity can be more easily resolved into contrasts.
This reduction of scale does provide us with some help in understanding spirit, but that understanding comes at the cost of incoherencies that, contemplated, expand our capacity to understand and appreciate spiritual mysteries.
Thinking in this way helps illuminate what it means to talk about a ‘human scale’ of things. The human scale isn’t a fixed mode of being, but an interim moment of the spiritual work taken out of the context of the work and made into habit. It also transforms the spiritual from some fetishized set of acts performed by mysterious ritual experts and puts it in the human context, as an active coming to terms with the place of human beings in a world in which we are but a component.
The names, images, idols, shrines, and so on are all moments in this coming to terms, not fixed elements for all eternity. The same thing should be said of humanity, too. Humanity can become an idol, a fixed set of expectations that we must overcome.
As I was writing this, I thought I might have said something like this before. Turns out it was almost exactly a year ago. Looking back over some notes, I realize this time denotes the third anniversary of an important set of offerings. Hmm. I’ll have to think about that.