Back in June, over on the Book of Face, I remarked (on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart):
I’ve always loved that there is a Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, but no Solemnity of the Sacred Head. Jesus always led with his heart, not with cold, calculating self-interest. The whole work of redemption he did for us was, from a human perspective, “folly” as Paul calls it. It’s the sort of thing only a man crazy in love would do.
Which is what he was and remains.
This prompted a reader to write with an interesting scruple:
I can never quite put aside my awareness that at the time the Sacred Heart devotion developed, people literally considered the heart the center of personhood, much closer to what science now tells us about the brain. The heart is just a blood pump. I can’t get past that, even though we still speak metaphorically about “heart” vs. “head” in ways our science no longer literally supports.
In MIRACLES, C.S. Lewis makes a very interesting distinction that helps a lot with parsing the approach moderns should take to ancients.
When I think about London I usually see a mental picture of Euston Station. But when I think (as I do) that London has several million inhabitants, I do not mean that there are several million images of people contained in my image of Euston Station. Nor do I mean that several millions of real people live in the real Euston Station. In fact though I have the image while I am thinking about London, what I think or say is not about that image, and would be manifest nonsense if it were. It makes sense because it is not about my own mental pictures but about the real London, outside my imagination, of which no one can have an adequate mental picture at all. Or again, when we say that the Sun is ninety-odd million miles away, we understand perfectly clearly what we mean by this number; we can divide and multiply it by other numbers and we can work out how long it would take to travel that distance at any given speed. But this clear thinking is accompanied by imagining which is ludicrously false to what we know that the reality must be.
To think, then, is one thing, and to imagine is another. What we think or say can be, and usually is, quite different from what we imagine or picture; and what we mean may be true when the mental images that accompany it are entirely false. It is, indeed, doubtful whether anyone except an extreme visualist who is also a trained artist ever has mental images which are particularly like the things he
is thinking about.
In these examples the mental image is not only unlike the reality but is known to be unlike it, at least after a moment’s reflection. I know that London is not merely Euston Station. Let us now go on to a slightly different predicament. I once heard a lady tell her young daughter that you would die if you ate too many tablets of aspirin. ‘But why?’ asked the child, ‘it isn’t poisonous’. ‘How do you know it isn’t poisonous?’ said the mother. ‘Because’, said the child, ‘when you crush an aspirin tablet you don’t find horrid red things inside it’. Clearly, when this child thought of poison she had a mental picture of Horrid Red Things, just as I have a picture of Euston when I think of London. The difference is that whereas I know my image to be very unlike the real London, the child thought that poison was really red. To that extent she was mistaken. But this does not mean that everything she thought or said about poison was necessarily nonsensical. She knew perfectly well that a poison was something which killed you or made you ill if you swallowed it; and she knew, to some extent, which of the substances in her mother’s house were poisonous. If a visitor to that house had been warned by the child, ‘Don’t drink that. Mother says it is poison’, he would have been ill advised to neglect the warning on the ground that ‘This child has a primitive idea of poison as Horrid Red Things, which my adult scientific knowledge has long since refuted.’
Our mental images of real things can and often do have only the most tenuous relationship to what the real thing is, but that does not mean the real thing is not real. It just means that we have further to go in plumbing Reality. What the ancients understood is that there is a real locus in the human personality for moral choice and love. They called it (as we still call it) “the heart”. That they were wrong about physiology has no more bearing on whether they were right about the human person than Horrid Red Things have on the question of whether you should eat that cyanide when a little girl warns you not to.
Lots of language works this way. It’s why we still speak of sunrise despite the fact that the sun does not literally rise. It’s why we say of a courageous person that they have guts, even though the gut, like the cardiac organ, is not really the physiological location where a courageous (or any other kind) of decision is made.
All non-tangible things have to be spoken of using tangible images. Which means that when we speak of God, who is not available to our senses in any way, we have no language but the metaphorical to use. This is why Old Testament literature always finds itself falling back on doing with words what Israelite piety (for very good reasons) was forbidden to do with material means. Because it would be the destiny of that people to be turned from the likeness of God to the reality, Israel was absolutely forbidden by God to depict him with material images:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. (Exodus 20:4-5)
But, of course, when Israel spoke of God, it had to do so using a vast variety of images describing him as shepherd, warrior, bridegroom, sun, shield and elaborating his hands, feets, eyes, arms, clothing, and all the rest. Not till the Incarnation, when God himself pulled his great surprise and became an image in the person of Jesus, could material images be reclaimed by worshippers of the God of Israel and set to their proper purpose again.
Fun stuff to ponder!