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Remarks on the Utility of Sacred Imagery

Essay By: Jan Gabriel
Religion and spirituality

This is a short essay I wrote for our class in Social Psychology where I try to discuss the psychological functions of religious icons and imagery. This is written within the context of Filipino religiosity and spirituality, but it can more or less apply to other contexts.

Submitted:Apr 28, 2012    Reads: 48    Comments: 3    Likes: 2   

Perhaps one of the most enduring elements of our country's religious culture is the special devotion to sacred icons and imagery, evident even in our own university's identity as an institution christened in the honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It is a continuing feature of the dominant Catholic practice which has always fascinated me; the dedication traditional Filipinos to the Santo NiƱos, the saints, the Virgin Marys, the scapulars and rosaries, etcetera, demonstrate certain basic human notions beyond the obvious religious connotations, which perhaps explains how such a tradition has endured with such vivacity. In this piece, I endeavour to make sense of this phenomenon of human consciousness, particularly in relation to the human instinct towards religious thinking, through its expression in sacred icons.

Preliminary notes

From my observations, these sacred icons (i.e. representations of revered characters of the faith) appear to serve functions that are actually less spiritual in essence and more corporeal in nature; functions which proceed towards a purpose that is recognizably more human than divine. They are functions which-if history is a valid marker for the accuracy of my statement-reach into the very core of human thought, and subsequently the core of much of the fundamental aspects of cultural and personal existence. These graven images, tools of basic religious utility, were created in part to fulfil specific wants and needs of the group in which it is venerated. As a tool of the established faith, it attempts to resolve certain psychological and sociological issues in-line with the theological reflections of that religion.

Note that I referred to the issues as "psychological" and "sociological" in character; here, I shall forego the typical considerations in discussing religious articles and tasks-that is, their utility in relation to the divine-because this is beyond the scope of the essay's concern. If anything, matters of the divine seems to me beyond any human endeavour, hence the term "divine". As far as the author of this piece is concerned, all manner of theological and spiritual debate is pure speculation. But the utility of these sacred images within the scope of social and behavioural phenomena, as opposed to metaphysical phenomena, can be discerned and the conclusions can go beyond mere speculation with the aid of empirical observation. This characteristic of being directly observable is useful in that we are able to make conclusions based on experiences within the capacity of human understanding-something which cannot be done with matters of the divine due to its very nature (at least as of the moment).

Observing within the contexts

Let us proceed. To enumerate, the functions of these religious articles can be categorized into two contexts: first, in the context of the communal level, referring to its functions related to the society; and second, in the context of the individual level, referring to its functions related to a person.

On the Communal Level

In matters concerning the community, the use of sacred icons contributes to the cohesiveness of the entire body of that group and influences, positively or otherwise, the relationship of members within that group and beyond. Of this we have many examples, with Catholics being more comfortable with fellow Catholics or with Catholics being uncomfortable-or even hostile in some cases-with members of a different Christian denomination, etcetera.

Focusing on the religious institution, the use of said items is both of ritual and political importance, serving as the both the centres of worship and also the symbols of the religious institution's influence in the area. This is especially true when the community in question is particularly devout, we can easily imagine the kind of persuasive power the clergy would possess; they do, after all, have a special bond with the sacred image, and this bond endows them with a certain "power".

But in due time-by force of familiarity and habit, perhaps-this initial influence originating primarily from the religious institution in that area becomes embedded into the "collective psyche" of the community, and the icon (or the entity which the icon depicts) takes on a more secular role: that of the mark or symbol representing the community. Honouring the icon then becomes less and less a matter of spirituality and more a matter of communal relations and the strengthening of territorial allegiance; it becomes, in a sense, a matter of pride. The honouring of that sacred image becomes one of the community's priorities by virtue of its connection with the society's history and culture, and these patriotic endeavours aid in bonding the community into a cohesive working entity.

On the Individual Level

Moving deeper now into the society and into its basic units-that is, the individual-we also find that religious icons serve a number of purposes. Typical religious aspects aside, we find that the icons are utilized by people at cascading interpersonal and intrapersonal degrees. Like its social functions, an individual may adopt the use of or the devotion to a sacred icon (even if only outwardly) in order to better blend into the group and improve associations, much like how one adopts a set of clothing appropriate to the norms of the area. This is one possibility to consider.

But unlike typical clothing-emphasizing "typical" since some vestments, an example being those worn by religious leaders and clergymen, share the same dignities attributed to other sacred articles and artefacts-these religious icons have an inherent "power in themselves; there is a sense of security one feels, regardless of whether such feelings are valid or not, when one is in possession of or in close proximity to such an item. (Objective, empirical validity is not even a consideration in these cases; all things seem valid within the confines of subjective reality.) The religious icon, on a personal level, fulfils to some extent the need for security and meaning, and this extends to the more sentimental areas of the human psyche.

This sentimentality is most profound in the essential purpose of the creation of these sacred images: the portrayal of the divine entity or being. It is through these graven images that we are able to connect, on a sensory level, to those magnificent beings represented by those images; it literally brings us closer, allowing us to find that sense of intimate union. It aids in the entire religious experience. When one contemplates for a moment, these religious articles when stripped of their religious vestiges seem no different from those other things we normally think little about: photos of friends and family, memorabilia from cherished moments in life, letters and empty gift boxes from dearly beloveds-they all assist in our experience of those memories and the relationship which we have those people or places which our little bits of nostalgia embody.

Final Thoughts

I believe that these observations can tell us something about how people perceive reality and their attempts towards controlling this reality. As human beings, we are naturally inclined to seek out the tangible; we seek them out and look for them feverishly and, if failing in that, we create them ourselves. We have a psychological inclination towards finding and feeling a connection with some higher power at work, and to find some kind of meaningful pattern in the grand scheme of things. The fundamentals of religious belief-concepts of the afterlife, the soul, gods and spirits, etcetera - even seem to come instinctively to us. Religious articles are simply just one of the many ways humans have attempted to draw themselves closer towards the divine. And it is of extreme importance that we seek to understand the mechanics of these human works, especially works as integral to humankind as religion. Perhaps through it, we can come to better understand humanity as a whole.


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