One of the things that artists do and do well is to stare at something -- whether of the natural world, of relationships, or of culture -- until it gives up meaning, that is, until they see something of its essence. In a proper sense, then, Christian artists value the world greatly as a window on the really real, on a spiritual reality, as a glimpse into the new heaven and new earth foretold in Revelation 21. In this way, it's possible to speak of life's subjects -- all the many objects of our study, our love, and our attention -- as icons, as windows into a greater reality. And if that's the case, you might argue that as Christians we should be and to some extent inevitably will be living iconically -- seeing greater reality beyond the shadowlands of this world.
Two things came together recently which made me think of this. First was a sermon which had as its text the two parables of proper valuation, if we can call them that. I'm speaking of the parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl contained in Matthew 13:44-46. The point of the sermon was that we don't usually believe that the kingdom of heaven is a great "deal," that more often we regret what we'll have to give up in getting there. Really, the argument goes, we should value that kingdom of heaven so much that we would gladly give up this life to have the kingdom of heaven now. Why do we do this? Why do we undervalue? Because we don't believe what a great deal this is. We think of heaven as some disembodied state where we float around singing all day when, in actuality, it's a very earthy, real place, where we are in recognizable bodies (only better). In fact, all that is familiar to us now will be found there in the new earth, only deeper, richer, and more profound and without the confounding curse of sin.
The other revelation came from reading the first third of N.T. Wright's excellent book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. In Part One of the book, Bishop Wright speaks of four "echoes of a voice" in the world that we all -- Christian and non Christian -- hear and respond to in various ways: the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty. All of these echoes are like signposts pointing outside themselves and, just maybe, to the Voice beyond. Aha! These echoes or desires are like icons. We look through and beyond them to sense and appreciate the greater reality beyond. For a nonbeliever, they are tantalizing hints of something Other; for the Christian, looking through these created things by the lens of scripture, they are absolutely enriching.
Some examples help. When I consider the longing for justice, I consider the imperfect and yet extraordinary South African Commission on Truth and Reconciliation which married justice and mercy. What will it really feel like when righteousness and peace "kiss"? (Ps. 85:10). When I consider the hunger for relationships, I think of marriage, a good marriage, where there is a intellectual, emotional, and sexual unity -- all of which points beyond itself to deeper and richer relationships in the world to come. We desire spirituality, and I think of the times I feel closest to God and imagine the deep joy of knowing Him face to face. And finally, when I stand on a mountain ridge on a crisp Fall day and watch the sun glint on a kaleidescope of color, I am moved in an inexplicable way, and so I imagine what it will be like to see deeply into the essence of these colors, to feel the depth and richness of the sky, the sun, and the towering trees. Well, we lack the words, don't we?
Living iconically. It's a strange word to us Protestants, but it's a good word, rightly understood. Going back to that sermon again, I think that by rightly valuing the things of this world -- that is, by seeing them as icons, as windows on the new heaven and earth -- I'll better realize what a great deal the kingdom of heaven really is. Who wouldn't want more and more of all the true, good, and beautiful of the here and now -- for a few trillion years, too? As Bishop Wright notes, we're talking about a deeper and richer kind of knowing here, more like the love of a person. And that's just it. What all these icons press as toward, all these echoes remind us of, is the One who made it all, the One to whom all thing inevitably point. We're not content to just wander through the house picking up and looking at the things the spouse who is out of town has left behind as reminders, as echoes of their presence. We want our love back, and we won't be content until we have them back. We won't be content until we have Him -- face to face -- in a new heaven and a new earth.