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Faith and the Visual

Jacques Ellul’s provocative book, The Humiliation of the Word is not likely to get too warm of a reception in the contemporary theological climate. Mainly because Ellul’s argument is a full-bore assault on the theological attraction to the visual. The specifics of Ellul’s argument is too complex for me to exposit just yet. Here, however is a quote from the book that raises some questions:

Jesus declares us happy if we did not know him according to the flesh, during his lifetime, in his reality, because he requires of us the absolute leap: the risk of faith that is the only guarantee that we love him. We are blessed if we did not see him resurrected, if we did not place our hands in the scars of his wounds, if the Resurrection remains outside that reality for us. This is so because he asks us to enter the folly of this Resurrection that can be only received by faith; it ceases to be folly if it can be verified. And we are always trying to rationalize it (by saying that the Resurrection is the Church, or the poor, etc.) in order to stop the scandal — that is, we always try to come back to sight. (p. 244)

While this is just one quote, Elull’s book as a whole raises some interesting questions about how we understand the theological significance of the visual. If we walk by faith and not by sight, how are we to understand the theological significance of the visual medium in our faith? What might this mean for the ever-popular quest for theologies of art today?


  1. slaveofone wrote:

    Personally, I think this quote displays a grotesque distortion of the socio-religious world-view, praxis, and belief system of ancient Judaism, Christianity, and Christ, and it is, itself, the very thing it seeks to substantiate: a blind leap of belief without basis whatsoever in evidence, history, or reason.

    Firstly, the entire message of the apostles that was delivered to the world was one of sight—visual witness. Their entire message was predicated upon it. To deny this essential part of faith is to destroy the foundation of faith itself.

    Secondly, from an “orthodox” theological angle (I know the term is arbitrary, but roll me with me here), seeking a faith entirely divorced from the knowledge of Christ “according to the flesh, during his lifetime, in his reality” is to commit a heresy akin to Docetism—negating Christ’s humanity for the sake of his divinity (this can also occur when the scriptures are treated as “the word of God” but not also as the word of man). One is doing nothing more than sticking the sword in Christ’s side and denying him three times if one is going to destroy his flesh and then create a faith that says “I don’t know you” to the historical reality of the man. “Orthodox” Christian faith requires a foundation in a man of flesh to the same extent that it does a heavenly god.

    Thirdly, based on your brief comments and quotes, I think the concept of “walking by faith and not by sight” is being hijacked by Elull to serve an arbitrary and alien purpose. The dichotomy represented by this saying is not the concept originating from Modern notions such as Kierkegaarde’s in which “faith” is really another word for blind or non-rational belief. On the contrary, faith in ancient Judaism, Christianity, and as represented by Christ himself necessitated reason and evidence or “the visual.” Thus, for instance, when asked about who he was and what he was doing, Yeshua pointed to his acts of power in space-time from which to judge and validate himself and his message. When Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac, he was told to do so only AFTER God had miraculously given him a child beyond the years of child-bearing as he had said, swept him away from the dangers of foreign enemies with abundance and prosperity as he had said, annihilated an entire region of the earth before his very eyes as he had said, etc. So Abraham’s faith was not by any means a blind leap—he had every reason to believe that if he sacrificed his son, this would in no way destroy the promise God made to him off offspring through Isaac. So, also, one can hardly read through the Prophets without hearing time and again how once YHWH does something and the people see that he has done as he said, THEN they will know he is God. Deuteronomy places the word of God itself on trial and claims that anything which is said in the name of God which is not evidenced in space and time should be rejected as not coming from God. The “sight” that one is “not walking according to” is not a non-rationalized, non-visual, non-historical kind of faith. Rather, the folly of faith is that it asks us to give up the things our eyes are normally set upon such as judgments based on outward appearances instead of knowing someone’s heart. One can hardly say, using that example, that judging according to the heart instead of according to the eye means not looking at people or not using your eyes to comprehend what a person is doing and why they are doing it. Elull’s “faith” versus “sight” is a false dichotomy.

    There is a reason that knowledge and understanding are referred to in English by words that recall the visual–because the visual is the primary communicator of knowledge and understanding. A Dadist painting that means something entirely different than anything visually represented by it can communicate nothing to us. If art is meant to contain and express any kind of information whatsoever, then it will operate according to the visual. Likewise, the only faith that will have meaning to us or to anyone else will be a faith that is visual and based upon the visual.

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  2. Roger Flyer wrote:

    Now this is some good talkin’.

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  3. Jon Coutts wrote:

    Yet how often do we Christians settle for something we can settle our eyes on as the locus of our communion—when it is the ascended Lord, the returning Lord, who is the locus of our unity and the focus of our faith? How often do we focus our faith on something we can hold and manage in the here and now at the expense of that faith which is called for—as we groan with creation for the return of the Lord Jesus and the consummation of the Kingdom? I think this quote from Ellul raises a decent point, false dichotomies notwithstanding.

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 5:27 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I must admit, this is one of the most substantive blog comments I’ve seen in a while. Thanks for spending the time to explain your position, slaveofone.

    My two cents on the “faith and not by sight” question. Our “sight” (more like taste) of the Lord in the Eucharist is a “sight” on the other side of faith. It is one thing to criticize the dependence of Thomas on his senses, because he must see the Lord to know he is alive. The kind of “seeing” (or tasting) that takes place in the Eucharist is completely different and is itself a profound gesture of faith. This is an issue of whether Christ came to abolish sight or to fulfill it.

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Slaveofone, I think you make some great points. But I want to wrestle with Elull’s point rather than just dismiss him. So, if you’re interested in commenting further, what does walking by faith rather than sight really mean? Because after all the biblical idiom must have some sort of content.

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  6. X-Cathedra wrote:

    Let me jump on the bandwagon and also commend Slaveofone for his/her comment. The dichotomy is indeed false and one I find far too often in modern theology and exegesis.

    Pax Christi,

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    Just a question for Halden and others reading this: since we are attempting a fairly close exegetical study here, what other passages refer to “sight?” Is there any other material with which to work? Does anyone know of any patristic commentary on this verse?

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 7:21 pm | Permalink
  8. Anne Green wrote:

    In regards to the implications of Ellul’s ideas for a theology of art: Art is always artifice, always a representation, and as such not “sight” in the sense that Ellul seems to be using it. An icon of Christ is not the witness of Christ himself. Thus I don’t see how Ellul’s ideas would have a major impact, unless we took them to such an extreme that all concrete flesh and tangible materials were somehow evil or to be shunned, which seems like a distortion of what Ellul is saying.

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Permalink
  9. Geoff wrote:

    Romans 8 and 2Corinthians 5 might be good places to look for New Testament usages of the concept of sight and faith. In the letter to the Romans sight is put against hope.

    Also, 1 Peter 1 has some comment on faith and sight.

    Friday, January 9, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  10. Dave Belcher wrote:

    It is not at all insignificant, I would suggest, that the fourth gospel calls Jesus “logos,” the Word (or perhaps “message”) enfleshed, tabernacling among us. It is rather odd to me that we should so focus on seeing a “Word,” at least in the sense of the fixing of an object by the intentioning aim of the ego. While I have no problem with this in a certain sense — Jesus indeed came to us and as a flesh and blood person, one whom in flesh is circumscribable in a certain sense — perhaps the nature of a Word to be heard should give us pause here.

    Perhaps it is true that a dichotomy between Jesus as Word and something like “ocularcentrism” (this is Derrida’s term I believe) would indeed be false…it is nevertheless the case, however, that the “Word” that is present to the community of believers is one which must be heard in its proclamation or speech (its preaching).

    Jean-Luc Marion has a really good article where he comments on the text on Jesus walking with the disciples to Emmaus, and focuses in on the phrase (his own translation): “they recognized him in the breaking of the bread; and he became invisible to them.” There is a kind of slippage that takes place here with Jesus the Word and the subject’s gaze, an apophasis, if you will. It is also worth noting Michel de Certeau’s very helpful comments about the rise of a kind of vision-centric view that arose with the Catholic Counter-Reformation (e.g., the institution of the “adoration of the host,” etc), in the second chapter of his Mystic Fable. But, ultimately, our need to secure the Word as a visible object of the subject’s intentioning aim is the West’s obsession and imprisonment in phenomenological description (this is actually akin to what Marion describes as the nature of the “gaze” fixed on an “idol” — Nate Kerr also has a helpful article on this topic in the Belief and Metaphysics volume). In other words, I would politely demur from slaveofone’s admittedly thorough commentary. Peace.

    Friday, January 9, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  11. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Also, I find it to be simply a prima facie wrong description of Kierkegaard’s quite complex understanding of faith when it is said to be merely “blind or non-rational belief.”

    Friday, January 9, 2009 at 8:10 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    I don’t think we will find an answer that lies clearly on one side or the other. While perhaps slaveofone is somewhat unfair to Kierkegaard, I do think his idea of faith maybe problematic or at least anachronistic. I think it’s possible to agree with basically all of the points both Dave and slaveofone raise. However, Ellul’s remarks seem “heretical” in the classic sense of an unnecessary overemphasis of a certain theological trope at the expense of others, and as slaveofone mentioned, what we mean by “faith” is crucial here. Of course, it is a single paragraph. I look forward to more posts on the topic.

    Friday, January 9, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Permalink
  13. Neil wrote:

    I wonder – perhaps David Belcher has already said this with more erudition – if you collapse the “visual” into one sort of “sight.” Of course, if this collapse is easy – but not inevitable – Ellul’s insight might still be saved.

    I think that the “visual” can refer to “seeing,” but also “being seen.” This distinction, as I’m sure you know, has often been made in Rowan Williams’ work. (In an interview, when asked about feeling the presence of the Spirit, he responded, “The way I most often express it is that there comes a level of prayer where it is no longer a question of, ‘Are you seeing something?’ Rather, ‘Are you aware of being seen?’ If you like, sitting in the light and of just being and becoming aware of who you really are.”)

    Thus, in Lost Icons, in discussing icons, the Archbishop says:

    “The person looking at the icon is invited (instructed?) to let go of being an agent observing a motionless phenomenon: the idiom of the painting insists on its own activity, its ‘bearing down’ upon the beholder, shedding rather than receving light, gathering and directing its energy rather than spreading from an invisible point of covergence. And this finds its fullest expression in the iconographer’s depiction of the eyes of Christ or the saints (no saint is ever shown in profile). As the perspective ‘bears down’ upon the beholder’s eye, the eye of the iconic figure acts, searches, engages. The skill of looking at icons, the discipline of ‘reading’ them, is indeed the strange skill of letting yourself be seen, be read.”

    This “letting go” is not something that exclusively has to do with icons – Williams earlier spoke with similar words about Rilke’s famous response to the statue of Apollo – “You must change your life.”

    But we can imagine that this “letting go” is hardly automatic and that it is much more likely to occur in response to a voice rather than any “visual.” Thus, we can preserve something of Ellul’s (characteristically Reformed?) suspicion of images.

    Thank you. Sorry about length/possible stupidity.


    Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink
  14. hamandcheese wrote:

    Not sure slaveofone’s emphasis on visual witness in the apostolic message is correct. It seems experience of the Spirit was more key, a knowledge of Christ apart from his historical identity or any eyewitness accounts. Look at Paul’s feelings about Christ “according to the flesh”, He is either irrelevant to faith or worse. Paul further seems to think his followers need no other teacher than the Christ they know by the spirit. They don’t need to be filled in by the witnesses, they have the Spirit. I wonder what Ellul thinks about the resurrection body since that’s where this discussion is (always) going.

    Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Permalink
  15. Geoff wrote:

    Hamandcheese: I think when Paul talks about knowing Christ, “according to the flesh” he means the way that he knew Christ before his conversion. In other words, Christ known according to the flesh is just another crucified messianic hopeful. But I’ve been wrong before.

    I only say this because in the very same correspondence with the Corinthians Paul appeals to dominical utterance at least once, but likely twice and he also appeals to the agreement of his preaching with the gospel of the other apostles. So the “historical Jesus” is not irrelevant for Paul, nor are the witnesses useless.

    Monday, January 12, 2009 at 12:12 am | Permalink
  16. Mike Bull wrote:

    Isn’t the biblical pattern hearing Christ then seeing Him? In Revelation, John heard, then he saw.

    The priest hears and obeys. He obeys then he understands, he sees as a king. This life is priestly obedience. He will exalt us in due time. Then we will see. The order is bread, then wine.

    Ellul bases his point solely on the first half of the story. Our tools as priests are visual, physical. Bread, wine, water, oil, open doors, hospitality, soundwaves, paint, books, even binary data, hugs and holy kisses. These are the things that take men’s thoughts captive and make them obedient to Christ.

    Jesus, like a good party master, saves the best, the wine, till last. We will drink with Him as kings.

    Monday, January 12, 2009 at 3:11 am | Permalink
  17. joel hunter wrote:

    Good points, Dave Belcher.

    slaveofone, some truths are more effectively illuminated indirectly. Parable, irony; good-for-the-soul stuff. It seems to me that Ellul is on the same page as Jesus (see below).

    I don’t think the spirit of iconclasm motivates Ellul. But I’m open to correction. I think it’s very easy to be reductive with the visible and seeing. Scripture is more complex than our empiricist inclinations and certainly testifies that fallen sense experience is not neutral, but theory-laden (Rom 1:19-21).

    You could make the case that Ellul’s point about what the resurrection asks of us is simply an inference from the resurrection narrative itself. After all, the “official” apostles themselves heard about Jesus’ resurrection from the first witness, Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles, before they saw him. He asks no more from us than he asked of them: to receive the good news by faith.

    I would think the theological significance of the visual would have to engage John’s gospel and its theme of light and enlightenment. Exemplary perhaps, is the man born blind of John 9. He sees what those with sight cannot see. And Jesus concludes in v 39: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

    Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  18. GD wrote:

    While I agree that separating faith and sight into a strict dichotomy is unhelpful, I am also not convinced that is ultimately what Ellul is trying to do. But I’ll have to read the book before I make any claim about that. I am also going to be the contrarian :-P, and suggest that Slaveofone’s reading of Genesis is somewhat inaccurate.

    Genesis 12-22 is better viewed as a series of developing faith events, culminating in the ultimate faith event, i.e. the sacrifice of Isaac. Yes, the faith Abraham represents is not entirely blind (and neither is Kierkegaard’s), but neither is it obvious that “he had every reason to believe that if he sacrificed his son, this would in no way destroy the promise God made to him…”

    Given Abraham’s history of poor decisions made in unbelief throughout the biblical account, it seems highly unlikely that Abraham was even close to a place of certainty with regard to God’s promise.

    In fact, given the emphasis on heirs and descendents in ANE culture, the loss of one’s only biological son is tantamount to the loss of the entire promise. So, essentially what God asks Abraham to do is have faith in an event without precendent: Trust that God will somehow (as Paul describes) “resurrect” the promise contained in Isaac. But it’s more than that — God is asking Abraham to kill the promise (not to mention his son) HIMSELF. It’s one thing to trust God’s ways when God is the one taking the action. It’s another thing entirely when YOU are the one who has to lift the knife and kill your entire future and hope.

    So, I submit that no matter what had previously taken place, God’s request of Abraham here is not a simple case of Abraham thinking, ‘Oh, well, God’s been faithful so far, and God will still be faithful after I kill my son…’

    And I don’t think the description of faith presented in the rest of Scripture is anything like that either.

    If I can meander a bit with my thoughts here…

    The idea that we can accurately “see” what God is doing is a problem that exists, IMO, throughout Christianity: The notion that we can attribute certain events to God is fraught with confusion. Often it is apparently nothing more than our own interpretation of those events, and leads to us making God in our own image. To place our trust in such a God seems to be nothing more than self-worship.

    But who decides what events should be attributed to God? That is clearly something none of us can “see” – we typically rely on Scripture to help us discern God’s actions, and that is clearly not a visual guide.

    No one has seen God, but Christ makes God known. (John 1) And none of us, I’m guessing, have ever actually seen Christ. However, Jesus did say that the Spirit – HIS Spirit – is now seen in the Church, aka each of us! So, if we are looking anywhere to see what Jesus is like, we ought to be looking at people who claim to be Christians.

    If that is our visual guide, then it seems pretty clear that much of what has been called Christianity over the last 20 centuries should not bear the name. Either that, or the idea that faith is only meaningful when “based upon the visual” needs to be drastically re-thought.


    Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 12:26 pm | Permalink
  19. erin wrote:

    i wonder if the discussion of trusting in the seen should be directed at the desire for leadership instead of visual art. It seems that much of the desire for “leadership” in the evangelical church is a desire to “see” God’s plans embodied in a way that absolves the follower of a bit of responsibility to have faith in Christ himself at times?

    Tuesday, January 20, 2009 at 12:06 am | Permalink
  20. Michael Harris wrote:

    I think ya’ll need to actually read the entire book. Ellul is one for hyperbole, and to take one paragraph of his and base a critique on just that is ridiculous to anyone who knows much about Ellul. His full length books even need to be measured in tension with his other works. He can truly only be understood in light of his entire corpus. I highly recommend that the people on here just read the book.

    Saturday, January 24, 2009 at 5:27 am | Permalink

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