An Octopus, an Icon



So, I have been reading this great book that my friend Lauren bought me [she knows me well & knew that I would love it]–it is called The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery.  Basically it is the author’s story of learning about–and coming to love–specific octopuses [not octopi–you don’t put a Latin ending onto a Greek word!] that she meets in the Boston aquarium.  And, more broadly, she uses the example of the octopus as a means to introduce us to other species, and the surprising things about them we don’t usually know or assume.  There is wonder and tenderness in her writing, which I am really enjoying.  Let me share a few quotes from the book, and then I want to relate it to some of the presentations I have been hearing at the Luther Academy this week from Paul Wallace and Sam Giere.  But first, the book:

“If a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand him.”  This is a quote from my favorite philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and it points to the reality that words always have a deep and complicated context that comes from both a collective & individual experience, which doesn’t make them instantly translatable.  [Sam pointed out today the limits of Google translation, which in some way points to that same truth.]  This means that we have to appreciate the differences of the octopus, and their unique context/experiences, and not just assume we can impose our own reality on them.

She talks about walking through the aquarium, and she says, “But to us, each tank is more like a station of the cross, a site for a series of devotions.  Here we are sanctified, baptized over and over by the beauty and strangeness of the ocean.”

Finally, “The commonest of sea creatures are miracles.”

She points out that octopuses play [which only intelligent animals do], and that they recognize people–and like some and don’t like others.  She finds that eels dream, and that apparently, anacondas will rest their head comfortably and relaxed in the lap of their keepers.  So much for that simplistic “reptile brain” we have heard so much about!

So, all this was in the back of my mind when Paul and Sam gave their lectures this morning.  Paul is a delightful human being and a physicist, and his presentations have been very interesting, especially insofar as they relate to creation–and the human/creation relationship.  [One of his best quotes was something like, “If you lined up all the creatures that have ever lived, humanity would be in there somewhere.”]  Anyway, one of the distinctions he made this morning–that also related to my presentations & Sam’s–was between an idol and an icon.  Basically, an idol acts like a mirror reflecting back the individual–it is “turned in on itself,” in a sinful sense, and reflects more the desires of the individual than anything else.  By contrast, an icon acts like a window, inviting an individual into the presence of [and relationship with] the divine, and we are transformed by the encounter.  It is less about me, and more about the other, about God, and about the relationship between us.

I love that idea, especially as it relates to my understanding of animals.  I think that, properly understood, animals can and should functions as icons for us–windows into the divine [and, incidentally, humans can function that way, too, although I think human sinfulness makes the window pretty smudged….].  We can and should see animals as subjects in their own right, and be open to what they can teach us about ourselves and about God.  And, in an analogous way, creation itself is an icon of the divine [Paul talked about this, too], just waiting to be seen, engaged, and loved.  What an irresistible invitation!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s