Amod writes, about the question of depiction of God:
Protestants have tended to follow the Jewish and Muslim lead [in categorically forbidding idols]. Catholics have been a bit more slack about it, but still accept the basic principle through fine distinctions, saying they don’t worship images, but merely venerate them; even for them, it’s understood that there’s a fine line they’re walking, something a little suspicious about depicting God that needs to be defended.The difference between “veneration” and “worship” which Amod points out is most technically spelled out in the scholastic Roman Catholic tradition, which I sometimes think never met a distinction it didn’t like. Here the distinction is between Latria, the worship one gives God alone, and Dulia, which one may give to the Saints. (True to form, the Church also distinguished a class Hyperdulia, appropriate only to the Blessed Virgin Mary). These terms predate the schism between Rome and Constantinople, but if the western church seems to have picked them up and ran with them, it may be because the Reformation put it on the defensive (Calvin, for instance, seems to have held that the terminology was more or less invented as a verbal dodge). Strictly speaking, one would say that one worships God, or venerates a saint, and does so with an image; St. Basil the Great had declared, “the honor of the image passes to the original,” and the Second Council of Nicea, in quoting him, expanded: “he who shows reverence to the image, shows reverence to the substance of Him depicted in it.” The distinctions reinforce Amod’s point that there is an understanding in Christianity that the depiction of God is problematic. In the East, incidentally, one almost never sees a depiction of the Father (those that exist are all, I think, very late -- post-Peter the Great, i.e., after "westernization" began to catch up w/ the Orthodox.)
Amod contrasts Judeo-Christian-Muslim reticence with India. In the Bhagavad Gita,
Arjuna asks to see Krishna’s true form – and Krishna agrees to show him. …Krishna’s divine form is infinite, extending in all the directions – but with infinite numbers of eyes seeing everything, infinite numbers of mouths swallowing the dead as they go to their fates, infinite crowns on his infinite heads. This divinity is physical, visible, even tangible.With all due caveats about too-easy parallelism, I'd say that the Orthodox/Catholic stance is in some ways not far from the Indian (at least as Amod presents it). I don't mean that Jesus is an avatar like Krsna -- there is an analogy there, but it is easily misconstrued -- though I would say that the Incarnation (& resurrection & ascension) in Christianity really does mean that it makes sense to speak of God's body, a trope which significantly gets extended to the Eucharist and to the Church. But also in the ascetic tradition, the hesychast monks claimed (though not without occasioning controversy) to see -- with bodily eye -- the Uncreated Light, a claim that in the 12th c. occasioned the writings of St. Gregory Palamas which spelled out a theological distinction between divine essence and energies (which I had occasion to refer to before; click there to find a number of explanatory links). There is a longstanding tradition of understanding the icon of the Transfiguration as depicting this light, God made visible. (Compare: "The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us...and we have seen His glory.")
What does this mean for thoughts of a God as structuring the universe, a First Explanation with metaphysical significance for the way we understand the rest of the world? YHWH precedes the physical world, stands in some sense outside it, describing himself only as “I am that I am.” Krishna, on the other hand, seems a much more physical God, a part of the world itself, a creator of standing in some sense equal with his creation.
He said to them, 'In truth tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.' Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:1-9)A tremendous amount could be (indeed, has been) said about this passage. Note, for instance, how it follows immediately upon the much-cited assurance that “some standing here” will see the kingdom of God come before they die; the implication of the text is that the next episode, the events on Mt. Tabor, are the fulfillment of this prophecy, which has here nothing to do with the “second coming.” Moreover, although this story might seem primarily an epiphany of Jesus himself, it is also understood, by virtue of the assumption of human nature in the Incarnation, as an epiphany about creation -- it is to the creation what epiphany is to God: a showing of what it really is (or ought to be, or will be). This is thus a curious counterpoint to the encounter Job has with the Lord in the whirlwind. There, too, theophany is a kind of cosmophany, but as Amod notes, the Old Testament contrast between God and world is quite marked, a transcendent God standing over against the created order. There is also an analogy here to the theophany Arjuna sees, but again it is not one-to-one. I almost want to say that the vision on Mt. Tabor is an intersection between the theophany of Job and that of the Bhagavad Gita. Whereas Arjuna sees what Krsna is, Peter, James, and John see what they are called to be. (The contrast and the synthesis are both a little too simple, but let it stand for now).
It will be objected that the Gospels themselves say nothing of this. There, only Peter says anything at all, and seems to be blurting out something when “he does not know what he is saying.” But I’d urge that this is one of many places where the Bible is in fact an “esoteric” text, and that one needs later “unpacking” of it in the tradition, including icons, commentary, spiritual exercises. (The text itself emphasizes, here as elsewhere, the fact that something important was shown the disciples, something not to be disclosed to others -- not yet. Indeed, I often suspect that whenever Jesus warns someone not to reveal something, this is supposed to alert us that there is something more going on -- a kind of “let the reader understand.” In any case, am in pretty close agreement with scholar Margaret Barker that the Transfiguration is a story meant to be understood in continuity and dialogue with Temple and Merkabah mysticism (as witness Moses and Elijah, the prophets associated with the Tabernacle and the Chariot). Barker’s work ranges between speculation and documentation and one does not need to buy into her every reconstruction, but in my opinion she builds a very strong case for the mystical background of Christianity (a case that seems stronger the more familiar one is with the liturgy, which is self-consciously an “ascent” into heavenly courts), and the parallels between this tradition and others -- for instance the Body of Light in Dzogchen, or (closer to hand) some Qabbalistic meditations -- are at least provocative and prima facie convincing enough to warrant a guess that they are looking to similar psycho-spiritual phenomena. Barker of course is not alone in seeing such roots, but she is more idiosyncratic in suggesting that these roots have a relevance today, without slipping into unwarranted or sloppy Newage syncretism. (Though not all syncretism is equally unwarranted, in my opinion.)
Such exercises, moreover, in their emphasis upon light, seem not to attend to what one can see (or represent), but to the principle by which one sees.