Reno Omokri and the Catholic Use of Images: A Response

By George Adimike

Reno Omokri is such a great guy that I admire his faithfulness, loyalty, and his principled engagement with issues, especially regarding the Nigerian project post- Jonathan. His consistency, intellect, courage and patriotism amidst virtue-deficit pseudo-intellectual and public commentators have won him our respect and love.

Even when I disagree with some of his positions, especially on religious matters, I retain my respect for him. Therefore, thinking that he would value this conversation, I dare offer the benefit of explanation and clarifications to him and his many followers through this public forum.

I hope that being an intellectual, an activist, and a minister of the Gospel reminds him that he is not infallible and needs to allow the Holy Spirit to enlighten him further.

In engaging with Reno Omokri on the propriety of the Christian use of images for devotion and worship, it deserves to be mentioned that any worship of an image amounts to idolatry. Conversely, its total rejection spells atheism since it rejects God who presented or allowed the divine to be appreciated through sacramental mediation.

Undoubtedly, both extremes are mistaken. Materiality is employed in the worship of God who dwells in unapproachable light and who is beyond the comprehension of our intellect. Out of God’s graciousness, He revealed in time the mystery hidden before all ages (cf. Col. 1:25-27) in Christ Jesus.

Thus, He who is the eternal and incarnate Word of God (cf. Jn 1:1,14) becomes the image of God (cf. Col. 1:15) so that the pure Spirit makes self available, accessible and proximate to the embodied humans. This underscores the sacramental economy and makes an encounter with God possible and easy through infra-spiritual realities.

In His self-revelation and self-disclosure, God uses sensible objects or means imbued with symbolic significance. Similarly, in man’s response to God in worship and devotion, he uses these vestiges of God, which though concealing more than revealing Him, are not without value.

In this fullness of time when true worshippers do so in spirit and truth (cf. Jn 4:23-24), one cannot deny that no worship of God can exclude human embodiment in its faculties of feeling, reasoning and operating. Instead, worship entails engaging the head, the heart and the hand, employing the intellective, the affective and the psychomotor or rather the operative dimensions of man.

Hence, man worships in spirit (spiritually) and in truth (corporeally, which means surrendering to God according to the truth of the human person: bodily, sensually, and sacramentally). This reality is so because God, who is Spirit, known corporeally in Christ, the image of the unseen God, created man bodily and spiritually, relationally and rationally as His image (cf. Gen. 1:27).

But since man is not purely spiritual – a spirit imprisoned in the body – as the Gnostics of Ancient Greece thought, the whole man, created as a substantial unity of body and spirit, rather than an aspect of him, worships. And God could not command man to worship contrary to his nature.

The Scripture is replete with examples of material elements being either commanded or permitted in the worship of God. Does it not fascinate you that the same God, who commanded His people not to make a graven image, also instructed them to make the Ark of Covenant with its specifications (cf. Ex. 25: 10-22)? The same God, who could have healed them without the mediation of materiality, later commanded them to mould a fiery serpent for their healing (cf. Numbers 21:4-9).

Christ gave it a Christological meaning and depth in the New Testament, by using it as an analogue of his redemptive ministry (cf. Jn 3:14-15).  Again the same God gave instructions and specifications about constructions of objects for divine worship (cf. Ex. 26:1-2; 31:1-7; 33:19-23, 2 Sam. 6:1-2; 1 Kings 7:25, 29; 8:6). If you are to pause on some actions of Jesus, why is it that he, who could heal with words, employed the material elements, namely saliva, mud and pool (cf. Mk 7:33; 8:22-25; Jn 9:6-7)? Similarly, we cannot ignore iconic elements’ value in some other biblical miracles. They include Elijah’s mantle (cf. 2 Kings 2:9-14), Peter’s shadow (cf. Acts 5:14-16), and Paul’s handkerchief (cf. Acts 19:11-12).

Evidently, the problem is biblical literalism and selective amnesia relative to the reading of the Scripture, and cafeteria mentality where people pick and choose passages that suit their tastes and dispositions. Is it not clear that reading the Scripture correctly (hermeneutics of faith and unity), one’s nescience, ignorance and confusion are cleared off?

As such, reason is valuable in appreciating what the Spirit is saying to the Churches (cf. Rev. 3:22). And to disallow logic and reason in human spiritual experience, as you proposed, is a recipe for fundamentalism, and delinking emotions makes the Christian religious experience a sterile formalism, ritualism or spiritualism.

Encountering the divine presence involves mediated immediacy because, arguably, there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses. All our worship is mediated by the senses, even if we are oblivious of that. Irrespective of the fact that the Pentecostal traditions emphasize the immediacy of divine presence without any mediation, our Christian experiences show that every worship appeals to the senses.

While the Catholics focus more on sight, the vision of God’s glory, appealing to what they see, images (icons), the Pentecostals focus more on what they hear, sound, praise, glossolalia (speaking in tongue), and preaching. The Pentecostals worship sensual-sacramentally through the mediation of the auditory sense, even while denying the value of mediation. Undeniably, in their regard, the presence of God and the doxology due to Him is mediated by audible signs.

Catholics and some mainline classical Christian churches do not see the images as ends in themselves (idols), but rather, a means to an end (icons). They do not pray to images but pray with images as some other Christians pray with music or songs, pray with the Bible, pray with nature, pray with the Word, pray with beads.

These instruments employed in and during prayer are not in themselves the recipients of our prayers, instead, they aid our human disposition to deepen our encounter. This means that in worship, image is to the eyes what song is to the ears, and both serve as modalities that lead the worshipper from corporeality to spirituality. Is it not surprising that some of those hurling idolatry charges against Catholics and others are those who even show greater love and devotion to their preferred icons, living or dead?

It often escapes our attention that music and images have sacramental qualities since they serve as media of divine encounter, which transforms lives and leads to union with God and communion among the faithful. Indeed, songs and images express the deep affective longing in human hearts for the divine.

These sacramental realities free up Christians in their search for meaning and God, they then become an audible, visible and tangible extrapolation of the inner desire and affectations towards God through which they submit their lives to Him.

These ways spiritual men live out their embodied existence correspond to the Incarnational context of Christianity and facilitate encounters and quicken the disposition that leads to a transformation of life. Hence, in the use of images and songs, the spiritual and ritual intersect and serve the religious purpose of man.

My brother Reno, you can see through these explanations that God forbade idolatry but not against employing the created realities in the search for and surrendering to the Creator. Icons become idols when they become the object of worship. However, in the case of Catholics, these images only possess iconic and sacramental qualities. And I can assure you that God is never offended when we use His created things to worship Him, on the contrary, they participate in glorifying the maker.