Sunday, July 22, 2012

beloved icons

Today, Penn State University removed the statue of the iconic football coach Joe Paterno, a man linked to the sexual-abuse scandal that sent former assistant football coach Gerald Sandusky to prison last month. Sandusky was convicted of 45 of 48 counts related to child molestation. Paterno retired and then died after being linked to a cover-up. It is hard to overstate Paterno's elevated status at the university and elsewhere. He was an astounding, revenue-producing winner and I can imagine many who might be deeply offended by the removal of the statue.

The situation made me wonder idly what it might be like if all the crucifixes adorning Christian churches were removed. They may mean different things to different people, but I think they probably mean quite a lot ... if for no other reason than that they are always there, like hubcaps on automobiles. Icons and reminders and inspirations ... now gone.

In March of 2001, the Taliban ordered the destruction of two enormous 6th century Buddha statues hewn into the cliffs at Bimayan, Afghanistan. The Taliban, with its strong adherence to a Muslim faith, declared the statues to be "idols." The Taliban's own adherence did not seem to strike them as a similar idolatry. The world whimpered and wailed at the loss of the statues. They were dynamited anyway.

Public iconoclasms don't interest me much. I may laugh at your totems or you may snicker at mine. I may tear down your statues or you may dynamite mine. The intellectual ardor of a Christopher Hitchens or some other callow iconoclast may be a lot of fun and perhaps in some sense apt. But what interests me is the fact that individuals might raise up their own icons and not ever stop to wonder what life might be like without them. What interests me is not the foolishness or collective wisdom of any given icon, it's the fact that people DO create icons in the first place. What were things like before I started icon-building?

Around my house, there are various pieces of Zen Buddhist iconography -- paintings, calligraphy, statues, incense burners, candles ... quite a laundry list after so many years. And I will admit that I have been deeply attached to and grateful for them over the years. Icons? You bet I loved my icons! You bet they seemed to support and encourage my efforts. You bet they supported whatever half-assed determination I could muster.

And around my mind, it's the same -- opinions and judgments and biases and love and hate and ... well, habits well-stored and well-dusted and ... important. Once upon a time I was hell-bent on having them. Later, I was hell-bent on up-ending their sway. And later still ... well, who knows?

If there is no willingness to reflect on the blessings and curses of icons anyone might erect, how could those icons ever reveal their meaning and their glory and their utter useful uselessness? Where is the time and place without icons? Without answering that intimate question, how in heaven's name can we expect to be set free from some very real and very touching confusions?

A buddy of mine once quipped about New Year's Eve resolutions, "Don't make 'em, don't break 'em."

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