Well, obviously, I want to shout down all other possible interpretations and bully everyone into submission.
No, really, what I'm trying to do is to articulate, or at least contribute to the articulation of, a theory of public civil space or civil discourse, a pluralistic universe of many symbolic worlds as it were, that is accessible to all, and depends on common sense, respect and good will rather than authoritative arbitration or enforcement.
Everyone is on his own recognizance. Everyone is responsible for himself. The thing everyone is responsible for himself to do is to negotiate the intersubjective realities of the pluralistic world in which we live, to adjudicate the public value of symbols that can potentially have a variety of meanings in different contexts but which often have widely recognizable senses and which in some cases have special or unique ties to specific symbolic worlds. It takes no divine or magical theory of symbols to recognize that if someone chooses, say, to give the n-word a special meaning of his own, and then makes and displays posters with the image of the President bearing the legend "Obama is a n----", he is committing an obscene incivility for which he and his work may, quite rightly, incur severe social censure.
Contrary to Holy Moly's suggestion, I'm not proposing a theory of church history as normative for everyone. My point was not that the historical outcome of the iconoclast controversy "decides" anything one way or the other in the sphere of civil discourse (i.e., for anyone other than the Catholic and Orthodox faithful). I'm simply saying that, at this remove from the controversy, it should be publicly accessible to anyone, without appealing to authority, that sacred images in general and the crucifix in particular have in fact come to occupy a central symbolic role for the Catholic world, and that to the extent that some Protestants today reject such symbols, that rejection represents one feature of their self-distinction from the symbolic world of Catholicism rather than a question or ambiguity regarding the symbolic function of the crucifix within the world of Catholicism.
Without prejudice to the ecclesiastical and theological issues dividing Christians, or to the unique claims of the Catholic Church in particular, we may say that Christ Himself belongs both to all Christians, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. In a similar way, we may say that Muhammad himself belongs to all Muslims, Sunni, Shia and so forth. Sunni Muslims today generally reject images of Muhammad; many Shiite Muslims do not. In a not entirely dissimilar way, Catholics embrace sacred images, including crucifixes; some Protestants do not.
Within those wings of the religions that accept them, such images exercise a valid symbolic function. Those wings that reject the images cannot reasonably claim, on grounds of civility, that the images profane their own conception of their religion's founder, because it should be readily acknowledged on all sides, in the sphere of civil discourse, that the founder is not uniquely or specially a symbol of their own particular iconoclast brand of the religion over against the non-iconoclast brand.
I say "it should be readily acknowledged on all sides." I am not setting up myself as the arbiter of anything. I am appealing to people of reason and good will to seek a common understanding. It is a common sense judgment, but one that should be easy to propose and grant without incurring charges of "bullying" or "selective populism." I am well aware that some will be unwilling to make such judgments in good will and will meet all appeals for common sense with charges of bullying and so forth. When and where this happens, the ideal of "civility" becomes a symbol without a shared meaning, and we are left with nothing but a naked political struggle for power -- which, of course, is how a lot of theorists see it, and like it. Is it unreasonable to hope and ask for more from reasonable people?
Ignoring the nay-sayers for the moment, we can go on to appeal to artists like Wojnarowicz -- and to museums like the Smithsonian, and to the public officials who represent us and who oversee the museums' funding -- to recognize, in the sphere of common sense and good will, the readily apparent sense in which the crucifix functions as a universally recognizable symbol of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. I'm not saying that gives it magical rights or places it in a symbolic lock box. I'm saying that reasonable people negotiating the intersubjective realities of our pluralistic world ought to recognize the strong, clear, (practically speaking, for all intents and purposes, in this day and age) inseparable connection between the crucifix and the symbolic world of Catholic Christianity; that in civility toward Catholics their sensibilities regarding this symbol should be a key consideration in how they use this symbol; and that, if they decline to do so and wantonly affront Catholic sensibilities by profaning the symbol, it is reasonable for Catholics to react to this affront with offense, and to avail themselves of such social means of redress as may be available to them.
(Whew. That's more jargon than I ever want to write in one go again.)
Edited by SDG, 05 January 2011 - 11:40 AM.