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Leaving a Trace: Sensibility, Memory, and Theoria in the Divine Ideas Tradition

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Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 1200 characters including spaces)

In recent decades, there has been a movement in philosophy of religion toward an understanding of iconity that understands icons as “windows to heaven.” In the work of writers such as Florensky, Ouspensky, and Jean-Luc Marion, an icon can illuminate the mind and soul via the overwhelming experience of the transcendent that accompanies the consideration of a truly iconic image. Evan Freeman has argued recently that the spiritualized 20th century understanding of icons came about paradoxically because of the rejection of developments in icon style: the return to pre-modern icon style accompanied a new emphasis on the spiritualized (pre-naturalist) appearance over and against the historically incarnational emphasis of Byzantine icons. That is, traditionally speaking, it is not first the overwhelming experience of the transcendent that conveys knowledge of goodness and love and justice to the contemplative, but memory.Following directly from the words of John of Damascus, icons invoke memory first of all. In speaking of the saints, he writes that images are “made for the remembrance of past events… in order that […] eternal memory maybe given to those who have struggled valiantly.” In a similar manner, Bonaventure looks upon creation as “vestiges” and “imprints” of God who has left this trace, and we contemplatives as following these footsteps, in “desire of the heavenly things straining ahead for what is still to come.” I contend that, while contemporary philosophical approaches to icons as “windows to heaven” have yielded very interesting studies of the phenomenality of revelation, in the wake of contemporary discourse on representation, it is incumbent also to examine how the material vestiges of God in creation, in their various degrees of iconicity, impact and are impacted by memory. That is, if icons are initially remembrances, laden with the possibilities of anamnesis, we must then ask, “what habits of collective memory do these things induce?” As a preliminary response to this question, this paper draws upon the divine ideas tradition and the mystical itineraries of Bonaventure and Nicholas of Cusa to demonstrate the role of spiritual pedagogy in forming an “incarnational” or “material” memory that has relevance both to our understanding of medieval practices of mystical contemplation and contemporary practices of Christian pedagogy.