Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Seeing is Believing: Much Ado about Something

Written by: on September 12, 2014

Clint Baldwin coffee photo

(“Home – Morning Coffee While Reading Ionesco’s Rhinoceros:  A Study in Brown & ‘Texturality.'”)

The above is an image and its title that I posted earlier this week on my Instagram and Facebook accounts.  I really liked all of the varied shades of brown, textures, and lines involved.  But, what I really want you to note is the term “Texturality” that I thought I might have made up, but apparently it’s been used a little in other places — I didn’t find a lot on it immediately.  Anyhow, the term ‘texturality’ for me suggests an important combinatory aspect between text and materiality/image that is vital for Morgan’s work we’ll be reflecting on here.

David Morgan’s The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice

I like this book. It has substance. It goes deep, scans broadly and offers insight and surprise along the way. It doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator of understanding. You’ve got to work a bit to glean its insights.

So, let’s do a bit of gleaning work and see if we might come away with a little something.

Jacques Derrida has a famous phrase, “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” This means there is nothing outside the text or there is nothing other than text. For Derrida, this phrase describes that there is no reified, objective position from which all other aspects of life might be finally, once-and-for-all, “appropriately” critiqued. We are in the middle/muddle of things; we navigate in the mi(d)st.

Related to our current text we might offer that, “there is nothing that is not image.” Everything we encounter is a particular symbolic construction of understanding developed from a specific viewpoint. “Text” itself is a particular form of “image” (the opposite could be suggested too, but that’s a reflection for a different time). There is a short phrase that tongue-in-cheek metaphysically suggests this perspective to certain extent, “what you see is what you get.” Of course, in another sense, we always get far more than what we see as seeing is always limited and awaits further “in-sight.”

The idea of double-meaning contained in “in-sight” leads well into considering a conceptual overlap between two terms that we have in English that I very much appreciate: “I see” and “I understand.” These two terms strongly showcase the link between our external senses and our internal processing. In a sense, we could write “viewing-thinking” as a single term. Of course, we typically mean optical functionality when we talk about “seeing” as one of the senses. I am thinking of it as this as well, but I am also thinking of it more broadly and inclusively as understanding obtained with the senses overall. For instance, those blind in their eyes are said to be able to “see” with their fingers, bats “see” with echolocation, Morgan writes of Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu chanting as a powerful “icon” (referencing the visual through hearing),[1] etc.

The above thoughts are some pieces that interest me and correspond to Morgan’s discussion of gaze, seeing, and belief.[2] I appreciated that Morgan notes his being less interested in the debate about differences of word and image and more interested in the ‘slippage’ between them where they find affinity.[3] He writes about the gaze as a term representing contextually interconnected connotations that allow an understanding to form – for good and for bad. From this gaze, beliefs are formed. Morgan discusses the words tenet and creed in relation to belief and delineates that these terms come from the Latin tenere (to hold) and credo (I believe).[4] In relation to this text, I am reminded how we think of belief at times related to the idea of sight with references to the “inner eye,” the “third-eye,” or the “eye of the soul.” This moves toward Morgan’s orientations of the visuality of belief. However, overall, Morgan is less focused on the theory of belief and more on the doing of belief – more focused on orthopraxy than orthodoxy (without fully bifurcating them).[5] Everything is undergone in a context or, for Morgan, a medium. In fact, we navigate life in multiple media. The use of medium and media showcase a quick connect to visuality.

Of course, Morgan’s book is not just on gaze, but on “sacred gaze.” He defines such gaze as a look which opens understanding of the intangible through the visioning of an image. I find this a reasonable definition with the allowance of a caveat arising from attention to Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, that for those ‘with eyes to see’ (to use an apropos phrase) the whole world is sacred.

I find it interesting that the Scriptures state in John, “in the beginning was the Word” and also God showcased in Genesis as saying, “let us make humanity in our image.” This is an example of textual/visual slippage that Morgan suggested can be found to be present. We are created in the Image of a Word and let know about this imaging through words. That should confound a few people for awhile.

As well, we should take into account the Scripture related to Thomas the disciple in John 20:24-29:

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[c]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”z

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

This passage has too often been used to focus on Thomas’s supposed lack of faith. However, I think it can better be showcased as an affirmation of Jesus’s love for Thomas and as an added affirmation for those who in the future would not have the aid of visuality in the same manner. This need not be taken as disparaging commentary toward seeking being able to see, but instead as added affirmation of those journeying through difficult territory of visual absence. That is, there is no negativity in the passage, but instead only goodwill to all involved.

Reading through Morgan’s text also reminded me of Jacques Derrida’s reflections of the eye and visuality in his The Gift of Death. In this text, in his chapter, “Tout Autre Est Tout Autre,” Derrida discusses – out of Matthew 6 — the eye being primarily not the window to the soul, but more so the window from the soul. “The organ of sight begins by being a source of light. The eye is a lamp. It doesn’t receive light, it gives it.”[6] I think this is a powerful reminder for us as Christ-followers living in the world. If we are to be about redeeming the time and seeking to be God’s people of reconciliation, then we will need our internal compass in the mi(d)st of all of the contextual complexity surrounding us to offer/project visions of hope.

For example, if our eyes are well attuned then even those of primarily iconoclastic religious orientation can come to see a black stone as a sacred object which facilitates their greater beliefs – as with Muslims and the stone in the Ka’bah.[7] Some people would have a similar understanding of the Bible as a book. The idea is not to fool ourselves into creating idols out of inanimate objects, but instead to recognize that all exists as a representative channel to greater Reality.  How such things are understood and utilized is a further discussion.

Finally, thinking of the sacredness of all life, as I was reading Morgan’s text, I ran across notes I scrawled on a napkin sometime ago and apparently then left in the front of a small book by Philip Pullman called Lyra’s Oxford. Anyhow, in attempting to reconstitute the meaning of my scrawled notes in my mind, I noticed that I had taken the concept of the mirror written about by Jacques Lacan, the concept of the Other written about by Emmanuel Levinas and the concept of the heart/eyes as windows as written about by Jacques Derrida and made a quote weaving the ideas together.

Here it is, “The mirror of our soul lies through the window of the Other.”

As you read Morgan’s text and think about the potential of the sacralization of images, remember that it’s not just “we are what we see,” but also “we see what we are.”  What do you see? Who are you?


[1] David Morgan, The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, (Berkeley/Los Angeles, CA: Univ. Of California Press, 2005), 10.

[2] Ibid., 1-24.

[3] Ibid., 10.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Ibid., 6-11; 288.

[6] Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), 99.

[7] Morgan, 15,16.

About the Author

Clint Baldwin

5 responses to “Seeing is Believing: Much Ado about Something”

  1. Stefania Tarasut says:

    Clint, I just ordered Mircea’s book. I can’t wait to read through it.
    I love the way you ended your post. “we see what we are.” I have to think about this too… I think I’ll write down some of your thoughts and meditate on them on the flight to Africa.


  2. John Woodward says:

    Clint, you always challenge and enlighten me in your writing. I am not surprised that you can quote Pullman and Derrida in the same post! Well done! What you write resonates so much with what I am learning recently. There is a growing awareness of the fact that there is no such thing as being neutral to what our eyes experience, that we are in fact highly influenced by what we see. I appreciate especially how you capture the other side of the argument, that what we see is highly influenced by who we are. I am fascinated by our discussions in our cohort, as there seems to many who are being stretched by the whole concept of images in worship. In many of these discussions, what becomes clear is that the inability to perceive the value of images in worship is that “we are see what we are” (as you so well stated). That our place of perception (our tradition, culture, community, heartfelt beliefs) make it difficult to see what others see. I am being convicted that I do this more often then not, because in so many areas I lack the ability to see how others see, or, just as importantly, to see why I see the way I see. Your post has given me helpful way forward…by starting with who I am (or how my eyes tell me about who I am) rather than being quick to judge others for not seeing the same way. Thanks for your insights.

    • Clint Baldwin says:

      Thanks, John. 🙂
      I really appreciated reading this.
      I think you bring up a really important piece that often trips people up.
      No one should be ashamed of their “frame” of reference. No one should be ashamed of their context. The dilemma is not from where we hail, but our unwillingness (sometimes, literally, inability) to acknowledge the validity of the places others hail from too — their own frame of reference.
      Validity isn’t meant to imply “best,” only “real.” We so often end conversations before they’ve started by not leaving conceptual room for anyone else in the room besides ourselves.
      I am so thankful that you and so many of our colleagues are in total interest and genuineness willing to ask ourselves and others “why” and not simply dismiss.
      If there is one thing that I find inimical to the idea of global leadership it is “referential rigidity.” (I think I just made that up…I hope it communicates)

  3. Clint,

    Wow! There is so much here in your post. As always, it is a powerful piece. You always see things that I miss, since I am not the scholarly type.

    I love the concept of the “third eye.” It is that ability to “see as the mystics see” as you and Richard Rohr point out. It is a sacred gaze that takes in everything of creation. It is seeing with the eyes closed, the heart open. It is embracing paradox. It is dispensing of “either-or” thinking. And it is a long process of learning, of falling down and of getting up again.

    I also like that concept, “there is nothing that is not image.” We cannot think about anything without images. We could not communicate without images. We could not love without images. I, like you, wonder what the blind see. Do they see in images? If so, what do they see? Perhaps the blind are better off than the seeing since we are so distracted with the myriad of images that surround us these days. God help us to use the “third eye” more than the two in our heads. I wonder if then we would be more Christlike?

    • Clint Baldwin says:

      A straightforward, amen to your thoughts, Bill.
      Thank you for offering them.

      What do the blind see? I love that question. Throws everything topsy-turvy. Implies so much where we expect to find none.
      This takes it a step farther related to differing ability, but I have loved the life of Helen Keller. That’s something worth reading about.

      I fully agree…God help us to use our third-eye more.

Leave a Reply