It is interesting that both East and West admit the dependence of the Holy Spirit upon the Son on the level of historical mission. The differences arise only when the metahistorical or iconological approach to the divine mystery becomes predominant. The problem can be traced back to the fourth century: St Basil in his De Spiritu Sancto replaces the formula of the Alexandrian theologians “from the Father – through the Son – in the Spirit” with that of “The Father with the Son and with the Spirit” precisely because his argument is taken from the realm of worship and not from historical revelation. It is worth looking at the Filioque problem from the angle of the fate of the iconological approach to God – and to reality in general – in Western thought.

John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004). 179, fn. 30.

On Holy Family Sunday, having managed to exercise enough self-restraint to avoid posting half-formed thoughts and liturgical frustrations on my own blog, my resolve weakened and I went and made a rather wild if throwaway comment on Wei Hsien’s Torn Notebook. The trouble with making rash comments on somebody else’s blog is that you can’t immediately delete them (or if you can I haven’t worked out how) and Wei Hsien then proceeded to ask me to explain what I meant by my suggestion that the western Church had watered down our consciousness of the Incarnation.

It’s a fair enough question, just not all that easy to answer. To start with, I do not doubt that the western Church formally believes in the historic faith concerning the Incarnation. I deliberately used the word “consciousness,” but that is more difficult to pin down and is also dependent on subjective factors that vary from context to context – and some of the things that have made me aware of this are such that I do not want to mention them in public. However, such thoughts were going through my mind at the time because it was the feast of the Holy Family and I was conscious that it had originated in the late Medieval turn that emphasised historical detail, subjectivity, realistic art etc. It’s true the cult of the Holy Family came to prominence later in the industrial revolution, but its origins seem to lie with people like Jean Gerson (d. 1429) and Bernadine of Sienna (d. 1444) and in the attention that they paid to previously neglected Saint Joseph.  Gerson even referred to the Holy Family as the earthly trinity.

And I remembered the reactions of the Melkite sisters I had stayed with in Nazareth. When the Latin bishop (with whom they had good relations) suggested that they should paint icons of the Holy Family they reacted in horror and gave him a good telling off! From what I understood, given my limited French, their reactions were based on the understanding that icons of the Holy Family present an alternative, false Trinity. The whole point of the Incarnation is that there is no earthly father, and by presenting a familial image in which Saint Joseph functions as such, one is in effect undermining that very fact.

I mention this not knock the Holy Family but because it seems to point to a deeper dynamic than simply the legitimacy or otherwise of certain images. Rather it points to the extent to which another reality is able to break through into history. Zizioulas’ distinction between historical and metahistorical approaches is helpful here and I suspect that at least part of our problem in the West is the loss of the metahistorical or iconological approach. Yes, we believe in the reality of the Incarnation, of another world breaking into this world and into our history. But how do the stories that we tell, the images that we see, and the rituals that we celebrate help to imprint this on us as more than simply historical detail? How do we avoid the danger of turning revelation – and liturgy, and this is perhaps also relevant to my questions about the cult of the Blessed Sacrament – into a sort of positivism, something that we can measure and control, but which becomes simply a thing and ceases to break into our reality as both judgement and moment of grace?

However, as should be apparent, I am once more thinking aloud and my thoughts are half (or perhaps less than half) formed!