Jan 19 2016


bookbread Canterbury


Both of Rod Dreher’s books The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) deal with, in his words: “my disordered relationship with family and place,” or, as he tells a new friend upon his arrival to their rural Louisiana community:

“Yea, it’s like the family and place thing cast a spell over all of us,” I said. “It’s helpful for me to see them as good people who are just as captive to that false image as I was…. The real religion of our parish is ancestor worship.” [1]

Things like having a family, maintaining sacredness of a local place, even being a secular fan who has a favorite sports team are all means to various ends. Now folks can argue which ends should be prioritized over others like: the Platonic good, self-examined life, or the Christian holy, sanctified life, or the secular American Dream of a house and healthcare insurance, or the quaint life of liberation from illusions. But whatever the end is, it cannot be achieved by substituting the means toward that end for that end. In other words, winning the game isn’t the same as receiving the trophy.

Mistaking means for ends is like mixing up the difference between icons and idols. Whenever means to ends are mistaken for the ends themselves, those means corrupt the progress and corrode access to the particular ends sought. Dreher quotes from Dante translator Andrew Frisardi, who explains the distinction between icons and idols:

[Frisardi writes:] An icon is an image for contemplating a reality that transcends the specific image; the image leads the mind, through the senses, to direct communion with the unintelligibles. An idol is an image to which we are attached for the sake of the image per se. Obviously one and the same object can be an idol or an icon—our approach to it is what makes the difference.

Then Dreher adds:

This insight had clarified earlier to me the nature of my disordered relationship with family and place. Now it expanded my understanding of my basic condition. It wasn’t simply that I saw a family, place, and religion as idols—that is, as ends in themselves—but that my distorted vision prevented me from seeing them as they really were: as icons, damaged, though they may be, through which the light of God shone. They were not ends, but imperfect means to the perfect end: God. [2]

This distinction between idols and icons may sound a bit too abstract to the ears of the non-religious. Another way to think of it is:

The map is not the territory it marks. [3]

Whether secular or religious, mistaking the map for the land it represents is quite common in twenty-first century America. This is why it’s easier to cheer for a football match from afar than to play the game on a field.


But the act of mistaking the map for the territory it marks is not limited to contemporary Christian contexts. In his Autobiography the Jewish thinker Salomon Maimon (1753–1800) explained how many Jewish traditions, particularly Kabbalah—originally just a word for “tradition”—were just as susceptible to corruption.

As Maimon puts it:

Originally the Cabbalah was nothing but psychology, physics, morals, politics, and such sciences, represented by means of symbols and hieroglyphs in fables and allegories, the occult meaning of which was disclosed only to those who were competent to understand it. By and by, however, perhaps as the result of many revolutions, this occult meaning was lost, and the signs were taken for the things signified. But as it was easy to perceive that these signs necessarily had meant something, it was left to the imagination to invent an occult meaning which had long been lost. The remotest analogies between signs and things were seized, till at last the Cabbalah degenerated into an art of madness according to method, or a systematic science resting on conceits. [4]

I wonder about the significance of Maimon pointing out that the result of the corruption of Kabballah in eighteenth century rural Poland occurred, in his view, “as the result of many revolutions”—not just a single, drastic change, not an isolated pogrom—implying it takes more than a single catastrophe for a community to forget its sacred stories [5] and thereafter begin mistaking idols for icons and means for ends.


  • An icon is like a map, and idolatry is like mistaking the map for the territory it marks.
  • No doubt folks, whether religious or otherwise, sometimes need maps and icons.
  • Whether one believes they are lost or not, maps offer possibilities—they let us go to new places and become more familiar with places we already know.
  • I know some folks who use maps, some who know the way without a map, some content with being lost, and some content with never knowing they were lost.
  • “Possibility is the deconstruction of contentment.” ––Elizabeth Anscombe [6]
  • Dreher mentions damaged icons—but a damaged treasure map is much more mysterious than one in mint condition.
  • It is a very different experience reading or using a map when one has already visited a territory and reading/using a map when one has never before visited a particular place.
  • A map never contains 100% information.

(To be continued….)



[1] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 172, 200.

[2] Ibid, 175–76.

[3] Bateson, Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc. 2005. p.  21; Capra, Fritijof. The Tao of Physics. Boston: Shambhala. Third Edition. 1991. p. 28; Korzybski, Alfred. “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics”, paper presented before the American Mathematical Society at the New Orleans, Louisiana, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, December 28, 1931. Reprinted in Science and Sanity. 1933. pp. 747–61.

[4] Maimon, Solomon. Autobiography. Translated from the German, with Additions and Notes, by J. Clark Murray. Boston: Cupples & Hurd. 1888. p. 94.

[5] As Dreher puts it:

When a community loses its memory, its member no longer know one another,” writes the agrarian essayist Wendell Berry. “How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they now whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now.” (The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 208)

[6] Anscombe, G.E.M. “You Can have Sex without Children: Christianity and the New Offer.” From Renewal of Religious Structures: Proceedings of the Canadian Centenary Theological Congress. Toronto. 1968. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford UP. 1982. p. 82.